Here's a fun challenge. Write a one-page campaign setup in the same spirit of Holmes' setup for the Zenopus sample dungeon in the D&D blue book. This will probably make it into the adventure module I'm working on for Dungeonteller. No spoilers here, everyone feel free to read on. Would you be pumped to start an adventure after reading this?
Stormgate is a rather small, cramped seaport, the last foothold of a distant human empire that once tried and failed to conquer the interior of a hostile land that stretches hundreds of miles to the north and east of the city. Its glory days are a thousand years gone, the imperial troops withdrawn to guard more vital frontiers, its fortifications crumbling. The imperial flag still flies in over the city, if only to ensure that its citizens must add their taxes to the empress’s coffers. The oldest families still take pride in their imperial heritage, and an empty seat in the city hall is reserved for the imperial governor, should the empress ever remember to appoint one.
Faded though it may be, Stormgate still exports a steady stream of curious artifacts and precious gems and metals. During the conquest, the imperial legions plundered the hordes of dwarfs, elves, vampires, and dragons that occupied the neighboring lands. Not all of the plunder found its way over the sea to the empire. Forgotten hordes are said to remain in and beneath the city, hidden in catacombs, vaults, and secret store rooms. The footsoldiers of the empire joined odd local cults dedicated to the forces of Chaos, and built subterranean shrines to their new gods, a form of worship that continues, albeit secretly. The soldiers’ plunder attracted thieves, smugglers, and swindlers, who somehow never left, and became a permanent criminal underworld, literally, with tunnels and passages crisscrossing beneath the city streets connecting gamblers’ dens and thieves’ safehouses.
So rich was the collection of magical artifacts wrested from the empire’s inhuman enemies that a College of Magic was chartered to document and study it all, in the hopes of giving the legions’ warcasters new offensive spells for which its foes could offer no defense. Much was learned, and hints grew that somewhere Out There, a tract of primeval Chaos remained, that if found, could be used to tap unheard-of magical power. Some of the empire’s greatest heroes were sent on a quest to find the so-called Font of Power, and when it was found (in a place whose exact location is lost to history), they also found Lords of Chaos set on defending it.
The ensuing battle drove the legions back to the walls of Stormgate, where in a desperate last gambit, the city’s most powerful warriors and wizards gave their lives to stop the forces of Chaos, leaving a weakened, wounded city to oversee the gradual loss of its territories as the inhuman races slowly reclaimed their lands. Too much blood had been shed for too little gain, and the empire cut its losses, returning the legions across the sea and leaving the city to its fate. The College of Magic dwindled and lost its charter, and the imperial governorship was recalled, after being used for several centuries as a posting for imperial functionaries who had fallen into especial disfavor.
Most city folk say it’s only the usefulness of the city’s link to human-made goods and materials that keeps Stormgate from being swept into the sea. The dwarfs of the interior, once enemies of the empire, have set up shop in the city to make and sell their gadgets, and envoys from the elven lands are seen, making overtures of peace to the Knights Protector, an order of paladins who have taken up the city’s defense in the absence of imperial troops. The elves are concerned about the potential for Chaos to rise again in the land, and seem to be seeking allies among the stalwart paladins.