My Take on Matthew Colville’s 5E Action Oriented Monsters

Soaring into a manifest zone on their airship, the Misty Tide, the party erupts into a pocket of the Elemental Plane of Fire high above a sea of bubbling lava. Surrounding them are hissing fire newts mounted upon burning birds, prepared to hijack the airship and release the fire elementals powering it. The airship’s captain screams, “Hold out! We’ll escape ‘ere in a minute, I’ll get us through!” In response, the fiery raiders attack, lead by a striking fire newt warlock. The combat begins, and she thrusts her molten scimitar into the broiling air. The blade soars between each party member, scorching them with ease before reforming in her hands. Later in the combat, she deftly descends atop her burning bird below the airship, narrowly avoiding a blast of eldritch energy. In the struggle’s final moments, she dismounts from her tiny phoenix in a whirl, leaping thirty feet to gouge one of the party members with her scimitar and deal tremendous damage. Ultimately, she fails; the rest of her fire newts die, and the party escapes the manifest zone — victorious.

Balancing encounters in Dungeons and Dragons fifth edition can be tricky. Sometimes, the party steamrolls our encounters. Other times, the monsters overwhelm the party thanks to lucky die rolls on our part. In rare cases, we throw encounters that are far too difficult at our party and they decide to stand and fight; most of the time, they die. 

Every so often, we balance them just right with the core rules, resulting in a masterpiece. Of course, many of these encounters are comprised of awesome abilities used by our players’ characters: monks leap across the battlefield using Step on the Wind. Warlocks fling foes into a horrific planescape with Hurl Through Hell. Sorcerers annihilate enemies and protect allies with Metamagic.

What do our creatures do that is awesome, that can make the players cheer with frightful glee? Red dragons breathe fiery infernos, purple worms swallow foes, and beholders barrage enemies with eye rays, yes, but what about other creatures with less options and abilities?

Enter Matthew Colville’s action oriented monsters. The concept is simple yet powerful. Introduced by the primary DM of MCDM himself, action oriented monsters have actions, bonus actions, and reactions just like the characters battling our monsters, in addition to a special type of action called the villain action.

Most of the time, these foes are bosses or solo monsters like bulettes, tarrasques, or remorhazes. When we design them, we delve deeper into the role of game designer, looking at the monsters we use and creating interesting actions for them to take in combat. Ideally, this will make our encounters more engaging and dramatic. Their primary function is to present a sizable challenge to our player characters.

We must be careful, though. Action oriented monsters should not be deployed casually. As our campaign progresses, we must ensure not every encounter is extremely difficult or strenuous for our party. These types of monsters are a great tool for us, but we must remember to utilize regular foes too. If every encounter is graced by an action oriented monster’s presence, encountering such a powerful foe will become less special.

I’ve tested action oriented monsters multiple times since watching Matthew’s video on the subject, from a brutal marilith of Yeenoghu to a maniacal spider-riding goblin, and they’ve worked wonders. They challenge the player characters. They change the flow of combat. They make battle more dramatic.

They tremendously help our encounters, especially if we have trouble balancing them using the basic D&D 5E ruleset.

Let’s build an action oriented monster one step at a time.

The Enraged Grizzly Bear

Let’s say our low-level adventuring party is traveling to a new town, tracking a goblin scouting party, or searching for a mystical beehive in a deep forest. Suddenly, out of the brush charges a massive grizzly bear, frothing at the mouth! It’s initiative — but what can our enraged grizzly bear do? We need to create a set of actions, bonus actions, reactions, and villain actions based on the traits of the bear. Before we do, let’s lay out its hit points and armor class.

Using the brown bear in the Monster Manual as an example, let’s give the enraged grizzly bear double the standard 34 hit points, giving us 68. In addition, let’s add two to the armor class of 11, bringing it to 13. As Matthew says in the video, it’s more important that we up the hit points instead of the armor class; it’s more fun to hit a creature with more hit points than to simply miss. I completely agree with this in most cases, especially here. We’re most likely running this bear against a low-level party; if they never hit it, they’ll become downtrodden. Let them hit the bear, but let it have a mountain of hit points.


All creatures in D&D have specific actions only they can use; most of them are multi attacks, breath attacks, or spells. Very few monsters have actual actions that allow them to move around the battlefield. We should give our action oriented monster at least an attack action and a movement action, both special to the creature. Do note, as Matt says in his video, we won’t be giving spells to these monsters. They require too much time to perfect for combat situations. Instead, we’ll make actions that can act like spells for monsters who’d use them.

Let’s think about what a grizzly bear can do. In D&D, bears are vicious animals that can bite and claw enemies. In addition, they can climb. This pairing gives our bear a solid attack action and a disengage that can be used with its bonus actions. Two will suffice because we’ll have plenty of other actions to pull from later.
  • Multiattack: The enraged grizzly bear makes two attacks: one with its bite and one with its claws.
    • Bite: Weapon Attack: +5 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 8 (1d8 + 4) piercing damage.
    • Claws: Melee Weapon Attack: +5 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 11 (2d6 + 4) slashing damage.
  • Climb: The enraged grizzly bear climbs up to 15 feet up a tree within 15 feet of itself without drawing attacks of opportunity.

Bonus Actions

Monsters rarely have bonus actions in D&D 5E, despite them being one of the greatest parts of this edition’s combat system. When we design bonus actions, we should think about pairing them with our actions. It doesn’t take a ton of work on our part, and it will result in more engaging encounters for our players. We simply need to look over our action oriented monster’s actions and pair a bonus action with each of them. If we’re feeling especially ready-to-design, more bonus actions can always be added!

What pairs well with the bear’s actions? Perhaps if it hits with both of its attacks, it can make another claw attack as a bonus action. This allows the bear to tear apart a melee attacker. How about a climb action? Let’s say the bear climbs up a tree and can leap from it to squash a target, dealing massive damage. Both of these can be used in conjunction with the bear’s regular actions!
  • Vicious Claw: The enraged grizzly bear makes one additional claw attack if both its bite and claw attack hit.
  • Bear Slam: The enraged grizzly bear leaps onto a target within 15 feet of it, dealing 2d4 + 4 bludgeoning damage and knocking it prone. If the target succeeds a DC 14 Strength check, they talk half damage and are not knocked prone. The enraged grizzly bear must be at least 15 feet off the ground to use this ability.


Reactions are even more rare in D&D 5E for monsters. Luckily for us, they’re rather easy to design. We simply need to create an if-then scenario and we have a reaction. Ideally, we’ll want two reactions for every action oriented monster we create. Any more than that becomes quite cumbersome for us to manage. If we have two, we’ll have the choice of which to use every round of combat — an aspect that makes it more interesting for both us and the players.

Our bear is very susceptible to ranged attacks despite being somewhat manageable in combat. Let’s give it something to counter a purely ranged strategy. Maybe the bear can swat missiles out of the air? In addition, if someone makes an attack of opportunity against it, let’s allow it to kickback and return an attack against the opportunist! Both of these reactions give our players room to strategize during the combat. Do they attack the bear as it rushes by? Do they hold their fire until the end of the round?
  • Swat: If the enraged grizzly bear is hit by a ranged attack, it can use its reaction to add 2 to its armor class until the beginning of its next turn.
  • Kickback: If the enraged grizzly bear is targeted by an attack of opportunity, it can use its reaction to make one claw attack against the attacker.

Villain Actions

Now we’re in the new part of monster design: villain actions. The concept of villain actions is simple: villains actions occur on different rounds of combat at different points in time — usually at the end of another creature’s turn (like legendary actions). Take note that during any given round, only one villain action should occur. If more than one takes place, it becomes too much for us and our players to track.

We have complete creative freedom over villain actions. We must think about our creature, our combat, and what cool things can happen during it. Villain actions happen sequentially (round 1, round 2,...round x), so we need to take into account the villain actions from rounds past and how long the combat will last. As Matthew mentions in the video, many combats tend to last three rounds in D&D 5E, so three villain actions should suffice. While that’s a good baseline, we should look at our group and mold this rule to fit us. Usually, I like battles to last five rounds, but maybe villain actions aren’t necessary every turn. Therefore, I place them during round one, round three, and round five. If your group is different, that’s fine, just take it into account! And of course, remember we might need to adjust this mid-combat. If a confrontation we thought would take five rounds only takes three, move the villain actions around.

Okay, here’s where our fun truly begins. What super-flavorful actions can we add to our villain, the enraged grizzly bear? Perhaps, during the first round of the battle, it lets out a great roar, potentially paralyzing enemies. This allows the bear to tear into any nearby characters. After that first round, there might be a few characters sniping our bear from range. Let it rush them. During round three, generally the final round in D&D 5E combat, the bear should commit a truly awesome act. But what? Think about it as we lay out its first two villain actions.
  1. Mighty Roar: The enraged grizzly bear lets out a mighty roar, paralyzing all creatures within 30 feet until the beginning of the next round if they fail a DC 14 Wisdom saving throw.
  2. Rush: The enraged grizzly bear charges a target within 60 feet and makes a bite and claw attack against it with advantage.
  3. Lasting Maul: The enraged grizzly bear makes a bite attack on one creature within five feet with advantage. If the attack hits, it’s a critical hit and tears off a body part - roll a d4 (1-hand, 2-arm, 3-foot, 4-leg).
Okay, we might think the last villain action is a tad crazy, but this is D&D after all. Overall, the enraged grizzly bear might be completely overpowered! We’d have to test it in combat. Give it a go — we should all try this out and see if it works at our table. Flip to a random page of the Monster Manual and turn that creature into an action oriented monster: a goblin or a mindflayer — a behir or a lich. Anything can be turned into an action oriented monster, we just need to think creatively!

Quick 5E Action Oriented Monster Examples

I’ll take my own advice and flip through my Monster Manual. Here are six quick action oriented monsters I made for us:

  1. A mimic that can burrow, swallow adventurers whole, and spit its adhesive substance
  2. A barbazu (bearded devil) who can blink, impale foes on its spear, and grow its spiky beard up to ten feet long
  3. An abominable yeti that can petrify its foes in ice permanently, burrow in snow, and create an avalanche
  4. A ghost who can form a fog cloud, possess multiple enemies at once, and pull a creature into the Ethereal Plane
  5. A myconid sovereign that can create a storm of hallucination spores, grow to an immense size, and consume other myconids to gain health and damage
  6. A nothic that can see the future and avoid attacks, leap from hero to hero in flurry, and use Rotting Gaze on a group of creatures in a cone
If we want more ideas, browsing is sure to suffice. In fact, there’s a massive thread containing a plethora of action oriented monsters created by Dungeon Masters like us. Here it is:

When to Use Action Oriented Monsters

As we discussed earlier, we don’t always need action oriented monsters in our encounters. Sometimes, a battle against a group of goblins and wargs will suffice. Here is a summary of when we might want to utilize this concept:
  1. During boss battles
  2. During encounters against solo creatures like bulettes, liches, tarrasques, and even dragons
  3. When we want to challenge our player characters
  4. When we are having trouble balancing encounters against large amounts of players
In addition, we can take the strategies we learned with action oriented monsters and apply them elsewhere. Feel free to simply add bonus actions and reactions to monsters, forgoing villain actions. Doing so adds flair to our encounters without making them too challenging; villain actions are a piece of the action economy puzzle that truly level the playing field.

In Summary

Action oriented monsters can be a huge help to Dungeon Masters looking to enhance their combat encounters. Remember:
  1. Action oriented monsters make our combat more dynamic, interactive, and interesting.
  2. Actions are necessary for every monster. Usually, they are the basic abilities the creature has, including special movement, attacks, and breath weapons.
  3. Bonus actions should complement our monster’s primary actions. If we’re feeling creative, add extra — but always have enough to be used in conjunction with an action.
  4. Reactions are rare and require triggers. We must think about what our player characters will do in combat, and create interesting reactions to their actions. Try to create at least two to vary up the monster’s possible reactions every round.
  5. Villain actions are a creation of Matthew Colville that give our monsters unique abilities depending on how far into the battle we are. During round one, our enraged grizzly bear uses mighty roar — and so on and so forth.
  6. Don’t go overboard with action oriented monsters. We must sprinkle them throughout our worlds, ensuring they are unique.
Thanks for reading. Huge props to Matthew Colville for his video on action oriented monsters. I hope my expanded take here helps everyone build better combats.

Quick note: I've been regularly posting on my YouTube channel for awhile now. If any of you prefer listening to content, I'm reading my articles and posting them there, in addition to discussing how to prepare a D&D session and a few other choice topics. Check it out!

May your monsters be mighty, creators, farewell!

Eager for more RJD20? Begin here, subscribe to the RJD20 newsletter, and explore RJD20 videos on YouTube.

Check out Villain Backgrounds Volume I, a supplement that crafts compelling villains.

Please send inquiries to

How to Build a Simple Settlement for D&D

Mounted atop their elf-raised pegasi, an adventuring party flies above the walls of Merlint. Accustomed to flying guests, the dragonborn guards atop the battlements wave them down using dancing lights and friendly fireballs. They descend to the city proper, greeted by soaring towers, docked airships, and a quiet city night. Understanding of Asudem’s tricky politics, a group of outsiders rallies to meet with the desert town’s council. They know of a threat to the town that digs beneath its walls and aims to destroy it from within. In the depths below an esteemed port city, dungeoneers navigate sewers overrun with vermin: otyughs, massive rats, and fire beetles. They’re trying to find a discrete way into a lord’s palace, but what to do? Perhaps they can find where the cleanest water runs…

Cities, villages, and towns all fit under the broad term of settlement. They are seen as pockets of safety, locations where the party can rest, resupply, and find a new quest. There are hundreds of them scattered across the various D&D setting books, internet postings, and movies in the world, but what if we want to create our own? We are world-builders, after all.

If we are ready to build a settlement for our D&D campaign or world, we need to start small; we must build a simple settlement. It is easy to get lost in our world and design an enormous city filled with colorful characters, evocative locations, and compelling plots — that is a fact. However, I’ve found that, unless our campaign is set in an urban environment, our group will not be spending too long in a settlement. Thus, we only need a few simple aspects of it fleshed out for it to be a worthwhile location to visit in our world. 

At the least, we need three things:
  1. One reason it exists
  2. Two interesting factions
  3. Three points of interest
That’s it! If we define these three points, we will have a simple but interesting settlement for our group to explore. Let us complete each point, one at a time.

One Reason It Exists

Why does our settlement exist? Remember, we are thinking in the context of our world. Did it pop up as a stop between two great trading cities? Does it serve as a barrier between the wild orc tribes of the great forest and the simple farming communities of the great plain? Is it a melting pot of various cultures, a central location where diverse groups of people coalesce? Once we key aspect, the rest of the settlement will grow from there. Without it, our settlement is lost — directionless.

Let us say our settlement serves as a shield against the vast unknown. On one side — domesticated landscape, covered in gently rolling hills and tilled earth. On the other — terrifying, untamed wilderness, rife with outcasts from the civilized world, predatory beasts, and tribes of roaming gnolls. Armed with this knowledge, we can easily create the rest of the settlement and answer any questions our player characters might have. For example, a player might ask us, “Who lives here?” We could say the settlement is populated with warriors who defend civilization from gnolls, priests who detest Yeenoghu, miners and explorers ready to leap into the wilderness and domesticate it, and traders looking to profit off these defenders and thrill-seekers. So long as we have the settlement’s reason for being, questions like this are trivial.

Now that we have one reason the settlement exists, and we are able to answer basic questions about it, let’s populate it.

Two Interesting Factions

The reason our settlement exists will serve as the backdrop in the campaign or lore we are creating, and the characters and factions will be the driving forces. Remember, characters, both player and not, are the beating heart of all great D&D stories. Thus, our settlement will need to have at least two factions that operate in it. From them, we can draw a few characters.

Let us revisit our settlement from above, a settlement that serves as a shield against the vast unknown. What two factions could exist in such a place? Before we begin, let us ask what interests our players. If they are invested in the wilderness, perhaps a ranger society is based there. If they are all spell-casters, maybe a cabal of wizards conducts research in a towering academy there. If our players despise the local ruler, there just might be one of her supporting organizations stationed in our settlement. Really, we must let our minds run. What would make sense and be interesting in this settlement?

A paladin order named the Sating Swords bases all of its operations from this settlement. Their primary goal is to protect it from ravaging gnolls in the nearby area. Their secondary goal is killing the Fang of Yeenoghu who appears to be uniting the various gnoll tribes in a large horde. The Sating Swords’ propaganda fills the streets: posters asking volunteers to join their order and fight the gnolls and recruiters sitting on every corner. Everyone knows they are out to do good, but some people are growing tired of their ceaseless plea for assistance.

These opinions are growing thanks to the second interesting faction in our settlement, the Cult of the Fang. In their blind pursuit of the gnolls in the neighboring wilderness, the Sating Swords have been negligent in the poorer areas of this settlement. And there, the Cult of the Fang is growing. “The paladins take your coin, your food, your sons & daughters, but the Cult can give them back. They can sate your newfound hunger. All it takes is a sacrifice of someone you hate.” People in the slums are disappearing and the paladins are ignoring it, focused on the foreign threat, ignoring domestic turmoil.

Faction-Related NPCs

Before we move on, let us create two non-player characters — one for each faction. Ideally, our party will interact with them while in the settlement.

First up, we have a representative of the Sating Swords. Her name is Eyra Moonwright. She is a human paladin dedicated to smiting the gnolls from the nearby countryside. Although she once lived in the settlement’s slums, she quickly forgot them when she became a paladin and rose through the ranks of the Sating Swords. She is single minded but dedicated; if she were to be reminded of her origins, perhaps the Cult of the Fang could be challenged.

Up next is a member of the Cult of the Fang. His name is Pip Riverchain. He is a halfling street urchin who joined the Cult of the Fang to make some quick coin, but quickly fell into its evil but engaging religion. He preys on anyone who looks weak, lost, or furious with the world around them. He is able to push people to do terrible things, promising them exactly what they want while knowing they most likely will not get it. At any time, he can summon two Abyssal gnolls to his side.

We now have two factions in our frontier settlement: the Sating Swords and the Cult of the Fang. They oppose each other and can create an interesting encounter or two while our group is inside the settlement. We also have two non-player characters who the party might meet. But where might they meet them?

Three Points of Interest

We have a reason our settlement exists, and two factions and characters the party might meet; now it is time to build three points of interest our group can explore. We must ask ourselves, where would our group want to go in a place like this? And then, would that location exist in a place like this? Our group may want to visit a royal palace, but it probably does not exist in our settlement.

Points of interest should be dissimilar. We should try not to create duplicates, unless it is necessary or we think it will enhance the experience. For example, building three temples as our three points of interest would usually be a horrible idea, but if the party is on a religious journey or made up of clerics, it might be a fantastic thought. Note, this rule disappears when we need to make shops. Usually, there is not an “all-in-one” shop in our settlements, so if we plan on the party visiting merchants, we need to do some extra work. Thus, shops do not count against our three points of interest. In fact, shops will be their own article in the future. We will discuss them briefly later on in this segment.

Let us continue with our example of a settlement on the edge of civilization. What cool points of interest could be there? We could relate these points of interest back to our factions, create entirely unique locations, or mix the two angles together.
  1. The Spire of Justice rises into the sky from the settlement’s center, serving as a headquarters for the Sating Blade.
  2. The Thieves’ Corridor hides in the eastern corner of the settlement, surrounded by low-roofed houses and tiny huts for the homeless.
  3. Melora’s Tree sits a short distance from the settlement’s southern gate, reminding folks that not all wilderness is dark and terrifying.
Those are our three points of interest. Each of them could be visited by our party with a little bait & hook from us. As stated before, adventurers usually stop in settlements to stock up and head out — maybe find a new quest. If we prod them a little bit, they could find a new quest in one of these areas while restocking on important items like food, drink, potions, and adventuring gear.

Maybe Melora’s Tree is between the front-gate and the general goods store, and the Spire of Justice is next door to the magic shop. Once our group is near the point of interest, lure them in. Melora’s Tree bestows druids nearby with a strange inner light. What’s up with that? Three gnolls are being dragged into the Spire of Justice by fully-armored knights. Oh, interesting! These points of interest make our settlement feel alive and unique, not just another stop en route to the lair of the big bad villain or the Macguffin deep below the ground.

We now have three points of interesting our party can visit inside our settlement: the Spire of Justice, the Thieves’ Corridor, and Melora’s Tree. Each of them can provide a side-quest opportunity for our group or just add flavor to our world.

On Shops

Shops in D&D are interesting. Some groups prefer to treat them as online stores, simply buying items from the Player’s Handbook or Dungeon Master’s Guide without interacting with the shop owner who runs the place. Other groups thoroughly enjoy speaking with the owner, bargaining with them, and establishing a relationship that might last the entire campaign. We will learn about shops at a later date, but we must understand one thing: what our group prefers. Do they enjoy talking to the smith about her latest creations? Do they despise bartering with the potion brewery about the price of healing potions? Find out what they enjoy, and stick with it. As a side note to this side note, this might be different with magic shops, since magic items do not typically have values. This means the players will need to speak in-character to ascertain the price of a magic item, whether it is in coins, services, or other magic items!

Extra Knowledge

Congratulations! We have built a simple settlement for our D&D campaign or world. However, if we would like to expand on it some more, here are a few elements we can add:
  1. Create a leader of the settlement
  2. Establish the most important person in the settlement
  3. Sketch out a map of the settlement
  4. Decide which deity or deities the people of the settlement worship
  5. Flesh out the settlement’s primary enemy
  6. Find out what laws the settlement follows
  7. Decide whether or not magic is allowed inside the settlement
  8. Create a brief 100-year history of the settlement
  9. Decide what the last major conflict in or near the settlement was
  10. Create ten secrets hidden within the settlement
Again, there is no requirement to establish any of these extra elements. We can do so if we feel it will assist us during the game or we simply want to flesh out our world.

In Summary

When we build settlements, unless we expect the party to stay there awhile (and listen), they should be simple. If we do not limit ourselves, they can rapidly grow into vast cities and sprawling metropolises. Building a simple settlement is a great first step; if we have time to expand it later, we can do so. However, we must remember most adventurers use settlements as a slingshot to the next. Since that is the case, we should create our settlements using these three steps:
  1. Create one reason the settlement exists. This reason answers a plethora of questions about our settlement.
  2. Create two interesting factions who operate in the settlement. They become the actors within the settlement, fountains from which we draw characters.
  3. Create three points of interest within the settlement. They make our world feel alive and give our groups places to explore.
I hope you enjoyed this article! I tried out a few new things this week, let me know if you thought they were an improvement. In addition, I’ve been active on my YouTube channel, spewing all sorts of D&D stuff onto it. I mostly read my articles for those who don’t like to read, but there are other goodies on there such as session preparation ramblings.

Next week, we’ll be talking about Matt Colville’s action-oriented monsters. It’s a provocative concept and something I’m excited to write about.

Farewell, creators, and happy world-building!

Eager for more RJD20? Begin here, subscribe to the RJD20 newsletter, and explore RJD20 videos on YouTube.

Check out Villain Backgrounds Volume I, a supplement that crafts compelling villains.

Please send inquiries to

The Dead Isles of Altarin

My first “campaign” was over. The Savage Front campaign, in my eyes, had been a failure caused by me, the Dungeon Master. Under ten sessions long, one total party kill, and a few failed plots was enough for me to end the story and start a new campaign. Did I quit? Yes. Looking back, I could have handled it much better and saved the Savage Front without beginning something new. Alas, that’s not what happened; instead, me and my friends began a new campaign called the Dead Isles of Altarin. This time, I decided against doing mountains of preparation beforehand and instead started with a simple idea: an archipelago ruled over by a trio of three liches called the Dread Admirals. Under them, common folk lived and thrived but a revolution was slowly brewing against the undead. As the party entered the world, they’d have to take a side and decide the fate of the Dead Isles of Altarin. This campaign, I was going to prepare little, improvise a lot, and go with the flow of the story. Well, how did it turn out?

The Early Plots

Everything started great. The party members were all mercenaries hired to recover barrels of a rare insect substance called vemian honey. They sailed to the remote island where the vemians lived, happy to make some coin to start their career. Once there, they encountered a few of the islands horrors, including the insects and a screaming dryad, but successfully grabbed a few dozen barrels with minimal deaths. This substance, they discovered, was flammable; in their great intelligence, they decided to ignite the vemian hive and leave nothing behind.

They returned to the city of Olfen’s Port alongside their friend, Captain Turel, and made their coin. However, they quickly discovered a new plot: the Ratskin Gang. That gang’s feud with Captain Cormicus (a former human adventurer vying for something mysterious), the city, and the party constituted the early levels of the campaign. It was all good fun; the stakes, in comparison to the rest of the campaign, were low and everyone’s characters were evolving. They made a few friends, formed a few enemies, and began to learn about the Dread Admirals, Captain Cormicus, and a few other plots across Altarin.

Everything ended when they were requested to race against Captain Cormicus for a set of items used to create a powerful artifact: the Deadren Dominus, a gauntlet capable of destroying phylacteries and storing souls. These items were scattered across Altarin, the first being held by orcs in the depths of a volcano. Their new benefactor wanted it to kill the Dread Admirals — supposedly that was its main purpose — and he wanted to keep it out of the hands of Captain Cormicus. Why? Their patron told the party he was evil and despicable; he even worked with the wererats! They listened and began their quest. From city to volcano they went, slaughtering orcs and encountering Captain Cormicus in the volcano. They temporarily allied and then betrayed him to steal one of the artifact’s pieces, leaving him to die in an erupting volcano. He didn't.

A Macguffin to Die For

The Macguffin was the main story now: the Deadren Dominus needed to be found for the Dread Admirals to die, for the party’s main goal to be completed. But where were the rest of the pieces? This entire section of the campaign was a treasure hunt. Piece after piece, they learned where they were hidden or scattered: the dungeon of a mad mage who experimented on jungle flora and fauna; the belly of a volcano where orcs laired; the belongings of a powerful wizard. Each piece required a small adventure to obtain and took the group from the depths of the ocean to the heights of a tropical forest. Eventually, they found each piece, making plenty of villains and allies along the way. This was the first campaign that I found a good, recurring villain: Captain Cormicus. He was first introduced during the early sessions. Soon after, he arrived again, battling the group atop a plummeting airship. Little did I know, by the end of this first arc, he would become the party’s ally, for he wanted the same thing as them: the death of the liches.

After the pieces were assembled, the group knew they needed to combine them into the artifact capable of destroying the phylactery. The individual who knew the information was the creator of the artifact, a fire giant named Tetricus Achaius. They learned of his location from Captain Cormicus. The fire giant was far to the north on a massive glacier — imprisoned by frost giants. This lead the party to teleport across the world, ending up in the correct place. It was a nice change of scenery, the icy landscapes laden with massive chunks of stone and snow. They spent a few sessions there and did recover the fire giant who was in a peculiar form; he existed only as a head trapped in a huge glass jar. After saving him, they completed a few more tasks around the glacier, including angering an ancient white dragon and slaying a vampire. Quickly after, they returned to Altarin and went into the Shadowfell, the source of the artifact’s power. To reunite the pieces, they had to use the same forge used to create it. Barely, they were able to. With the Deadren Dominus in hand, they were ready to proceed. But they were stopped…

A Trip Below 

The Dread Admirals discovered their hidden base run by Captain Cormicus and sent a legion of orcs and a red dragon, Vadoricus, to dispatch them. This was a disappointment to me. I failed with the red dragon. He was meant to be a huge threat, maybe even a recurring villain, but the party easily dispatched of him. I played him stupidly, I played him wrong. To this day, I haven’t used another “true” dragon as a combatant in any of my campaigns. I’m ready to — and the time is approaching. I won’t make the same mistake.

The party understood they needed allies against the Dread Admirals, which lead them to a lead in the city. It ended up hurting them and helping them; a death knights of the Admirals was hunting them, but they were taken into the Underdark by illithids. Alas, the illithids wanted to see the Dread Admirals overthrown too and wanted to help. But first, they needed assistance with the drow in the Underdark who were using this time to summon a powerful demon onto the mortal world. This entire portion of the campaign was driven by one of the PC’s backstories and it was great. It involved delving into the depths of the world, which is always great, and fighting a few frightening demons. In the end, they fought off the summoning of a demon prince, Karvish, and even killed him in the Infinite Abyss. By the end of this arc, they were 15th level, they had new allies in the Underdark, and were prepared to return to the surface and fight the Dread Admirals.

Just as they resurfaced, they learned the entire army of the Dread Admirals was attacking a massive wizard’s tower, the home of some of the party’s allies. Tens of airships, thousands of undead, and all three Admirals were unleashing their might upon this place of resistance...I thought the party would jump at the opportunity for a big battle scene in the sky — that didn’t happen. The session after they emerged from the Underdark was the last session of the campaign. Why? Well...

The Tragic End

The end was rushed. The party made the choice to head straight for the Dread Admirals’ citadel, to try and destroy the Amalgamated Phylactery to end the entire conflict and campaign. They were dead set on doing this; they knew there were liches there, surprises surely there, and a battle of epic scale occurring around Azudon’s Reach. That didn’t stop them. In my infinite wisdom, I panicked. I knew this would be their end and maybe the end of the campaign. I didn’t want that...many months of build up to just end with their demise. In retrospect, I should’ve been. So, instead of letting them fly into the Dread Admirals’ lair at fifteenth level, the divine interfered: the goddess Lagaria appeared and granted each of them divine strength for their bravery and dedication to destroying these beings of darkness. She leveled them all to twentieth level. After all these years and after a plethora of thought exercises, I’ve definitely come to understand that was a mistake in more ways than one. Improvising under pressure is a sure skill to have, and right then, I didn’t have it. I sure do now! Regardless, back to the mistakes.

First, I could have had that happen after they’d died to the Dread Admirals, if it were to happen at all. I didn’t have to give them this huge thing, essentially a super buffed inspiration, because they wanted to end it all. But I did. Second, I had none of this prepped, but we were only thirty minutes into the session. What do I do then? Call it there? Tell them no? Come up with an excuse, a plausible one? Yes! That’s what I should have done, but I didn’t. I let them proceed — and proceed they did. As a consequence, entering the citadel was way too easy: they snuck through, past meager undead guards; however, the excuse was there: they were all at Azudon’s Reach. Once past the undead guards, they made their way through the citadel, eventually finding the personal lair of the Dread Admirals. Between them and the lair, though, was Vadoricus, the red dragon they’d easily dispatched earlier on in the campaign. He’d been zombified, reconstructed by the liches, and he was here to protect their phylactery. A bloody fight ensued, but with the immense strength of the maximum power party, the zombie Vadoricus fell quickly.

And that was it: they arrived in the phylactery’s location. There was an interesting puzzle I’d prepared that they enjoyed — a cypher to do with one of the admirals. As soon as they began to solve it, one of the teleported in, ready to fight. Split, some of the party solved the puzzle and others fought the lich. Eventually, the way open was clear and White Crow charged the phylactery, Deadren Dominus equipped. With the artifact of great strength, the Macguffin of the campaign, he destroyed the Amalgamated Phylactery of the Dread Admirals. The resounding blast knocked all the party down, slew the liches, and disintegrated White Crow. Immediately after the death of the Dread Admirals, the campaign faded to black and each of the PCs gave an epilogue of their characters, while I gave a brief epilogue of the Revived Isles of Altarin. Gwenavine became an archdruid and built a stronghold of druidic magic in the Ahgorg Thicket; Red Tusk returned home to teach young the ways of the mammoth; Primedordus dedicated the rest of his life to retelling the tales of Altarin’s heroes; and White Crow was revealed to be alive, saved by the rod of resurrection he’d handed off earlier. Alas, he kept his resurrection a secret to all…

That was it; the time had come for a new campaign that took place far to the north in the frozen expanses of Iskryn. This campaign, strangely, is still ongoing, albeit incredibly slowly. More on that in the next introspective.

In Summary

The Dead Isles of Altarin was far better than the Savage Front, most definitely. I learned a lot from the first campaign and came into campaign two improved and ready to learn again. I succeeded. I failed. I laughed. I cried. It was a great campaign, worthy of being my second. My friends and me enjoyed hours of entertainment playing the Dead Isles of Altarin — the true Campaign 1 — and we were ready to pursue the next adventure by the end of it.

The biggest lesson I learned from this campaign was not to make any grand, rash decisions just because you are panicking. Take a second, breathe, think about repercussions, and don’t do what I did (in most situations). And if you’re ever unsure, call the session there! If you’re not comfortable with improvising in super tense situations, a skill I’m far better at now, just stop the session, don’t stop the campaign.

Until next time, farewell!

Eager for more RJD20? Begin here, subscribe to the RJD20 newsletter, and explore RJD20 videos on YouTube.

Check out Villain Backgrounds Volume I, a supplement that crafts compelling villains.

Please send inquiries to