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!

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  1. You don't need to call the session - just throw in some time-wasting encounters and run out the clock! BTW it sounds as if you could easily have run the finale at 15th level.

    1. That always works, too! As for ending the campaign there, you're completely right. I don't think I needed to level them up to 20. Again, split-second poor decision.