"The Isle of Shalorand sits far to the west of the Empire of Ammath. It has never been exploited by the Empire due to its distance. However the settlements in the nearby island chains have grown steadily and are now stable enough to act as a launching point for an exploration of Shalorand. The time has come for the Empire to claim it as its own. You are the the official expeditionary team. Explore the island and claim it for the Empire!"
This campaign is how I imagine a true 4th Edition D&D sandbox should be - abstracted rules that govern a general freedom of movement and choice. The initial inspiration came from how Gabe from Penny Arcade handled overland travel in his game, especially the abstracted exploration rules combined with the idea of WoW-style zones. The computer game inspiration made me think of another layer of rules abstraction that could be added to the campaign to give it direction. Wouldn't it be cool if once an area was "cleared" the PCs could choose some sort of structure or other marker to set down for some bonuses and story progression? They clear the goblin woods and depending on how they handled things they could set up a fort, trading post, church or some other structure. That structure would then have an effect in later parts of the game. It was from these premises that I established as much as I have below.
For this game, the home empire doesn't need a lot of detail. The most important thing about the empire are the factions within it that have a vested interest in the island and how it is developed. These factions consist of:
- The Stone Circle who want to have as much of the island's nature preserved as possible.
- The Imperial College who wants whatever arcane discoveries can be found.
- The Trade Guild who are all about profit.
- The Legion who want the island tamed and conquered.
- The Chapterhouse who want the patrons of the empire evangelized.
- The Tenebrous Cabal which has its own shadowy agenda.
Each of these factions play an important part in the metagame and later stages of the campaign.
The Island of Shalorand is shaped something like Vvardenfell in terms of "large island with a big volcano in the middle surrounded by varying terrain", but with less ash and wasteland. In play terms the island would be divided into various "zones" ala WoW that could be progressed in a circle around the central mountain until the scalable side was accessible. Some initial zones I imagined included the landing area of Stone Cove, a forest full of unfriendly elves, some lizardy swamps and steam gnome infested hills.
The secret of Shalorand is that for as much as it resembles an unexplored wilderness at first it is actually the eastern most outpost of a empire that once existed farther to the west. This empire was claimed and defeated by King Oberon of the Feywild who took what he wanted and left the rest to rot here on the Prime plane. The old empire had advanced to the point of gunpowder and a little steam so some of the ruins can get odd.
For example, the previously mentioned surly elves believe they have been forsaken by the gods but a prophesy holds that when the Thunder Cliffs sound again that they will be forgiven. The Thunder Cliffs contain an old defensive structure overlooking the ocean and is filled with cannons. Firing the cannons can make it possible to establish a Church or Trade outpost in their lands.
Another of the secrets is that what remained of the old empire escaped Oberon by retreating into the Shadowfell and effectively became Shadar-kai. The Tenebrous Cabal is their attempt to help the Empire of Ammath when King Oberon comes for them. Their requests will seem weird and often not the type of things heroes would normally do ("You mean you want us to leave the gate with monsters pouring out OPEN?"). But then the next phases of the campaign kick in, doing their bidding will be surprisingly helpful.