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3 famous characters to jumpstart your D&D campaign

Written by Expy - Published on July 30, 2007

They’re famous because they’re real

I was looking for a new concept for a D&D campaign this morning. I haven’t played D&D in 4 months because I’ve been away from home and I’m getting really pumped up to plan a ridiculously good campaign. After weighing all my options I decided to base my next campaign on historical events. And I found that there were more game ideas than I could handle in the history books.

Straight from the history books – 3 great characters

I’m going to delve into each one of these in more detail very soon. In the meantime if you research these guys you’ll find out that they are so incredible that they push the limits of what’s plausible even for the fantastic world of D&D. By combining elements of one or more of these historical figures into your campaign you could run an unforgettable game.

  • Alexander The Great
    • The guy conquered almost all of the known world. Back in the day traveling across the know world took a lifetime. Needless to say: he ruled. Litterally and figuratively. What makes his story interesting for a fantastic setting is the presence of the war elephant. It was used by Tolkien so I’m not the first one to think the elephants are cool. Anyhow… An interested twist is that some historians claim that he never used elephants in his conquests. In a D&D campaigns rumors would abound about this army general using monstrous beasts in his conquests but nobody would know if it is true. Another fact worthy of attention is that Alex integrated foreigners in his armies. This is priceless for a DM – a great excuse to integrate different fighting styles and tactics for the enemies of the characters.
  • Caligula
    • He was a crazy Roman emperor. He’s the ultimate uber-villain. Here’s Cal’s resume in one sentence: he revived the treason trials of his predecessor, Tiberius, opened a brothel in the palace, raped whomever he wished, reported on the woman’s performance to her husband, committed incest, killed for greed, and thought he should be treated as a god. I can already picture PCs taking part in a guerilla operation against this tyrant and only bumping into roman soldiers who are good guys and are only doing their jobs. Somebody has to get rid of the messed up ruler but nobody who works for him is really evil. Sounds like fun to me. The Romans had an impressive mental illness trend in their rulers. You could choose any of the 5 worst Roman emperors and you would have a good foundation for an love-to-hate-him villain.
  • The Red Baron
    • This dude’s story is so unbelievable that it inspired movies, video games, and books. Manfred von Richthofen was an impressive man and the times he lived in are a great setting for a D&D campaign – minus the guns, I’m not a big fans of guns in D&D. So let’s switch the guns for bows or magic projectiles or whatever. The planes can become any flying creature. I could go on for hours about Manny’s story but I have to be brief here. What you need to know is this:
      • The Army counted kills. How cool is that? I thought that only happened in video games. He scored eighty kills in his career and that doesn’t include downed enemies when there was no witness.
      • The Army awarded a beer mug for a soldier’s first kill and a trophy for the 9th downed plane.
      • Flying a plane back then was heroic in itself. There has to be an inherent danger in just flying in the Dungeons & Dragons setting.
      • They had 2-men planes (1 pilot / 1 gunner) or 1-man planes with more maneuverability but less offensive options.
      • There was a lot of propaganda going on. The pilots were spinned into superstars. This is a great tool for starting rumors.
      • The Red Baron got his nickname because he painted his plane red. In a fantastic medieval setting, I’d say the riders / kinghts / flying commandos get to choose their mount’s armor style and color. This is fun for the players if they ever get a mount of their own.
      • Manny got shot in the head but didn’t die. If that happened in a movie I wouldn’t believe it! But life is stranger than fiction and a DM can build good stories around a flying knight who won’t die from a head wound.
      • During World War I there was mud everywhere. Soldiers were stuck in muddy trenches for months. Always mentioning how dirty and muddy everything is can be a great mood-setter for the campaign. Mud implies rain and rain provides a gloomy atmostphere.

Other historical references

Any ideas? There has to be dozens of good historical events to base a D&D campaign on. Let me know if you think of something.

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50 Responses to “3 famous characters to jumpstart your D&D campaign”
  1. Pé0 says:

    I vote for the red baron one. I want to paint my flying war poney in blue.

  2. Yax says:

    For those of you who who haven’t guessed PeO is one of my regular players. He will probably never get a blue flying war pony. I have my limits.

  3. Pé0 says:

    Then I’ll just have to spend some of my hard earned xp to create it.

  4. Gryphon says:

    How does Darius sound?

    Darius the Great…much more successful a general than Alexander

    How about anyone out of Homer…though I suppose that is almost MYTH

    Lots of stuff in Celtic Mythology to use, Old English folk tales are full of fun stories

    Almost real is easier to get a handle on in DnD terms

    Brak the Barbarian
    Ffahrd and the Gray Mouser
    Indianna Jones

  5. Yax says:

    Great suggestions. I like the Indiana Jones one – it’s already a semi-fantastic setting and definitely action packed.

    I need to read more books. I don’t even know who Darius is. The Internet will let me know.

  6. Yax says:

    What about a conquistador, south american kind of setting?

  7. Pé0 says:

    that would be nice. Mut have a lot of survival to get through this one

  8. Gryphon says:

    Darius the great…er one of the greatest ever General/Beaurocrat
    My turkish friend would be cross if I did not understand this great Persian.

    Ah I know the best way to describe reference him.

    It was his army that is responsible for the marathon. It was his guys who were attacking the Greeks.

  9. Yax says:

    Not even Darius and his goons could convince me to run 26 miles right now. I need coffee first.

  10. Phil Smith says:

    Nobody mentioned Hannibal? I’m surprised! Rome’s most famous bugbear! You mention war elephants, but it takes a certain breed of nutter to take a load of them through the Alps and lead an attack on Rome from the north…

  11. Yax says:

    How do you even climb a mountain with an elephant? Crazy war generals make such a great foundation for a campaign.

  12. Phil Smith says:

    I just looked him up. It was only three dozen elephants, but, yeah, the fact that he was able to get any of them at all into Italy was pretty damn amazing. But in answer to your question, he must have stayed below the snowline.

  13. Bionicjoe says:

    Hannibal didn’t stay below the snow line.

    Hannibal got through the tight mountain passages by sending trailblazing parties ahead. When they came to a pass too narrow for the elephants they would build great fires in the narrow pass. Then when rock was very hot they would toss piles of snow on the rock to crack it. It was a surprisingly quick method, and no Roman expected elephants coming out of the mountain passes.

  14. Yax says:

    I am impressed by Bionic Joe for 2 reasons.
    1- He knows this stuff. I always appreciate a tad of history knowledge.
    2- He is bionic. It’s good to see I’m reaching my target cyborg audience.

  15. Ghuanafein says:

    How about :

    *Nero – He was a perverse cross dressing exhibitionist who had an incestuous relationship with his mother and married his stepsister. He murdered members of his own family in fits of jealous rage. His cruelty, violence and grotesque appetite for self-indulgence brought the Roman empire to the brink of financial and political ruin and he viciously persecuted the Christians. He may not have fiddled while Rome burned but actually set it aflame himself out of greed for land.

    *King John – He murdered his nephew, inspired the legend of Robin Hood & caused the creation of Magna Carta. Throughout his 17 year reign the man who would be forever known as Bad King John betrayed those closest to him, persecuted the innocent and was the first King of England to be accused of murder by his own hands.

    *Stalin – In southern Russia at the turn of the last century Stalin excelled as a bank robber, agitator and sometime assassin. Forever in and out of jail the violence and paranoia which would mark him out in later years were already visible. After his brutal rise to power he embarked on his ruthless enforced collectivisation programs and deliberate use of starvation, murder and labour camps to enforce his power and control over the population.

    *Idi Amin


    *Torquemada – Torquemada tortured & burned thousands of innocent Spaniards & expelled Spains Jewish population. “The Hammer of the Heretics” “The Black Legend” Thomas De Torquemada was head of the Spanish inquisition and was renowned for his cruelty. As well as the atrocities of the inquisition his hatred and persecution of Spains Jews has been described as a mini-holocaust.

    *Pol Pot – Responsible for the Killing Fields and Year Zero, Pol Pot waged a gruesome war on his own population. As ruler of Cambodia, Pol Pot was responsible for killing nearly 2 Million people that’s a quarter (some sources even say a third) of the countries population. In his 4 year reign, Pol Pot tortured and starved the Cambodians to death. Men women children and babies were often brutally clubbed to death with hammers and buried alive.

    *Saddam Hussein

    *Maximilien Robespierre – Maximilien Robespierre was a leader of the French revolution and it was his arguments that caused the revolutionary government to murder the king without a trial. In addition, Robespierre was one of the main driving forces behind the reign of terror, a 10 month post-revolutionary period in which mass executions were carried out. The Terror took the lives of between 18,500 to 40,000 people, with 1,900 being killed in the last month. Among people who were condemned by the revolutionary tribunals, about 8 percent were aristocrats, 6 percent clergy, 14 percent middle class, and 70 percent were workers or peasants accused of hoarding, evading the draft, desertion, rebellion, and other purported crimes.

    *Vlad the Impaler

  16. Ian Winterbottom says:

    I am very inspired by the idea of Sharpe, though he isn’t “real” he is definitely the Professional Soldier par excellence. How about a Jekyll/Hyde Schizoid character, or a set of Twins giving the same effect? You never know which one you are running into!
    King John was a spectacularly bad King, so bad that he virtually laid the foundations of English Democracy, even the rough and ready nobles of his time had had enough! He began his reign as the lord of a virtual Empire, England, Ireland, the Continent etc., but by his death had lost them almost all!
    Other English Royalty might include Henry VIII, his daughter Queen Elizabeth I, with her masses of plotting secret agents under Walsingham; the religious strife of the 15/1600s offers a fascinating background!

  17. Al says:

    Cardinal Richelieu.

  18. Ghuanafein says:

    If you want to take a few pages from the world of Hollywood, you could have a villain like Hannibal Lecter (Silence of the Lambs), Jason Voorhees (Friday the 13th), Captain Hook (Peter Pan), Norman Bates (Psycho), Agent Smith (The Matrix), Chucky (Child’s Play), Commodus (Gladiator), Leatherface (Texas Chainsaw Massacre), et al. Or, you could take a page from real life monsters: Charles Manson, Ed Gein, Ted Bundy, Jeffery Dahmer, The Zodiac Killer, David Berkowitz (A.K.A. the “Son of Sam”), Albert Fish, John Wayne Gacy, The Beltway Snipers, and the countless other serial killers/mass murderers/spree killers from history. If you want background info on any of them, let me know.

  19. Ryan Reid says:

    Not to sound uber-religious, but the Christian Bible has a lot of great source material. The old testament is filled with crazy blood thirsty, money hungry kings, epic battles, sorcery, witch craft necromancy, a vengeful god, and a whole slew of great concepts and ideas. Plus, most of your group may not be too familiar with the stories so you can keep them interested and pass it off as your own. ;)

    I borrowed a story about a woman called the Witch of Endor who long and short of it is a necromancer. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Witch_of_Endor

    Just a few ideas for you that might fit your games.

  20. Michelle says:

    how about Elsabeth Bathory, the Blood Countess. and i dont think i saw Gehngis Kahn or any of the early popes which i think were nearly as bad as the roman emperors.

  21. raben-aas says:

    This may be off-topic as it concerns a STAR WARS D6 chronicle I played, but the Red Baron thing worked GREAT there:

    I used a Dark Jedi who had a knack for flying named “Alaxii, the Black Baron” whose TIE fighter was a “tweaked” variant, something like the TIE Advanced of Darth Vader in SW IV, but, well, black and different.

    In every kind of epic space battle (of which there were many) you could always see the tension rising when I described the moment they would spot an advancing TIE of an unknown configuration …

  22. Michelle says:

    how about Boudica the warrior queen from scotland or Che Guevara from cuba

  23. Michelle says:

    to answer Yax’s question about a south american historical figure, theres always King Pacal who was king of the Mayans and the only King found with a complete burial mask of jade(?) not sure if thats the right stone

  24. Ian Winterbottom says:

    Minor moan, Boudicca wasn’t from Scotland, but East Anglia, a lot lower down! Though the Germans of WWI apparently did call the Scots “The mad women from Hell!” because of the kilt and ‘cos they were so ferocious! Boudicca however came within an ace of getting rid of the Romans, as a woman, then and there, that took some doing – she’d be a formidable character all right. Che too, the charismatic Rebel leader? The early Popes were indeed evil too in spots. Selling Indulgences, “God’s Forgiveness”, for instance! How about Rameses the Great, one of the greatest of the Pharaohs, or some of later Rome and Byzantium’s Generals, Belisarius for one, or their adversaries – Attila the Hun, say, or Alaric the Goth? The Generals tended to get betrayed or executed, as their successes mounted, for fear they would get ambitious; could make a good side-plot if the PCs are working for him? Also the leader of some powerful personal Guard, such as the Janissaries or the Praetorian Guard, was often a power behind the scenes in History? On the opposite side to the South American question, how about some adventuring rogue doing a Pizarro or Cortes, with perhaps the PCs trying to STOP him toppling the Empire?

  25. Russell says:

    Examples from US history:

    How about George Washington. Ulysses S. Grant. George Custer. Robert E. Lee. Nathan Bedford Forrest (good as an evil opponent). Davey Crockett and Nathanial Greene wouldn have made good rangers. Douglas MacArthur. Rommel. The Swamp Fox of American Revolution fame. Teddy Roosevelt was a calvalry officer before he was President.

    There’s more but I will stop there.

    The Old Testament is a good example Ryan Reid. Yoou stole my thunder. :)

    Vlad the Impaler = Dracula doesn’t her?

    The South American thing was done in 1st edition. I know you youngesters probably don’t remember that old stuff. Not to say it can’t be redone.

    Oh as for women, has anyone mentioned Joan of Arc?

  26. Ian Winterbottom says:

    Not being a youngster (and how!) I remember 1st Edition, in fact still playing it! Maztica was what you mean, IIRC? Don’t remember any Conquistadores in it though? I keep toying with the idea of Inca/Aztec ELVES, With a PCs lost father as Quetzalcoatl? (Another character for a jump-start!)Shapechanging Jaguar warriors, anyone? On Americans, Jim Bowie as a fighter? Jesse James, Billy the Kid or other deranged murderer, and the PCs must stop his reign of Terror? Spartacus the gladiator leading a revolt? William Tell as a Ranger? Joan of Arc, very inspirational – as a Paladin? There is a Lady Knight in Elizabethan literature, name of Britomart? How about Titania, the Faerie Queen herself? And Puck, the eternal mischief-maker? (Shakespeare had some lovely plots if you file off the serial numbers, just change the names to protect the innocent!)

  27. Michelle says:

    ive been reading the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series a whole frigging lot, and lemmie tell you, theres enough in the 3 volumes to get your imagination going….

    Lemuelle Gullivar
    Captain Nemo
    Fanny Hill
    Natty Bummpo
    Captain Clegg
    Mina Murray and Allan Quartermain

    and for the baddies:

    Fu Manchu
    James Moriarity
    Dr. Sachs
    James Bond (yes as a bad guy)
    along with Cthulus from Yuggoth
    and the Big Brother-style of government from 1984

    Alan Moore kicks ass :)

  28. Matt says:

    What about Mao Zedong? I think he’d make an interesting antagonist.

  29. David says:

    One thing that I’m surprised no one has mentioned is the Battle of Thermopylae and the 300 Spartans. There was even a movie about it not very long ago. While the movie makes it seem like the Spartans did all of the work and in real life there were other Greek forces that helped the idea is still the same.

    A small group of skilled combatants against nearly the rest of the known world? HELLO!

  30. Dagfinnr says:

    How about Chinggus Khan (incorrectly referred to as Genghis Khan)? He created the largest empire known to man, four times the size of Caesar’s Roman empire and twice the size of Alexander’s empire? He could be either a good or bad guy, and he was many times smarter, in terms of strategy, organization, tactics, warfare in general, and ruling in general, than essentially anybody previously mentioned. Or you could do one of his Mughal descendants. Finally, you could try having the PC’s toppling an empire built on rather unfair trade, such as the British empire and its main source of income, the East India Trading Company. There are a lot of lesser known but better suited historical figures to use too, such as, say, any of the Japanese warmongers, such as certain generals, shoguns, and/or samurai. Mongol or Japanese based villains or good guys are probably best, for they have huge amounts of culture, lore, and insane fighting abilities just waiting to be tapped by an imaginative DM. As an example of the Mongols’ fighting abilities, 20,000 Mongols were ambushed by 30,000 Egyptians, but some Mongols were still able to cut through a horde of Egyptian soldiers. Look up the battle of Ain Jalut for more info.

  31. AlphaDean says:

    No one spole about Grigori Rasputin…The Mad Monk, has been argued that Rasputin helped to discredit the tsarist government, leading to the fall of the Romanov dynasty, in 1917. Contemporary opinions saw Rasputin variously as a saintly mystic, visionary, healer and prophet and, on the other side of the coin, as a debauched religious charlatan. Historians may find both to be true, but there is much uncertainty, for accounts of his life have often been based on dubious memoirs, hearsay, and legend.

    Just imagine a campaign based on this mystic who seems virtually unkillable, who’s influence continues to until threatens kingdoms an royalty in general.

  32. Dorian Borso says:

    This Red Baron aint a bad idea.
    One could easily create a war of massive proportions, while the characters are using dragons or wyverns for their mounts or a flying contraption propelled by magic (eberron… mmm).

    You could add some additional rule to account for the third dimension, cloud coverage, influence of heavy winds and rain or other weather phenomena (I can already see two wizards battling it out on ther chromatic/metallic dragon steeds in the eye of a huricane…).

    Would make up for a great campaign setting, especially if the DM of the game would prepare lots of NPC’s for flying squadrons making the battles epic and memorable. Especially when one of their comrades would have fallen (their commander for example) making it a superb roleplaying experience on its own and also allow the DM to roleplay a bit more as well.

    I’d take this as a little challenge and make up a small campaign setting for this one with a rule set for flying steeds and contraptions and of course a mockup for the different weather models.

    Will come back in a few days with a link to an early revision.

  33. Preacher14 says:

    How about Simo Hiya? I’m not sure if you could really work something like this into your campaign, he was just a regular guy in Finland in 1938-ish. When Russia began to invade, he grapped his hunting rifle and all of his white snow suit stuff and climbed a tree in the forest near his house, by the time the war was over his kill count was 704! They sent anti snipers, and task forces to take him out but he killed them all. They even tried to carpet bomb the area, but the small amount of shrapnel that got him didnt even get through his suit.

    Also, what about Audie Murphy? He’s pretty Barbarian-esque, excluding being 5’5 110 pounds. He encountered a machine gun crew in Germany who pretended to surrender, then shot his best friend. Murphy hulked out and killed all of them. Then he picked up the machine gun and took out two more machine guns nests and a bunch of snipers. Sounds like a barb to me.

  34. Igor Geric says:

    What about Jack Sparrow (Pirates of the Caribbean)? I know he’s not historical, but neither is Conan, so… :P
    I’m planning to run a piratey/swashbuckling campaign on the Sword Coast and I plan to have one of the main NPCs based on him. Maybe even make him a her.

  35. Kamahl says:

    Perhaps as a good guy, King Leonidas of Sparta. Defended Thermopylae against how many thousand Persians with only 300 Spartans, and some two hundred Acadians.

  36. Mike E. says:

    If you want to run a really horrific campaign that could possibly scare your players, then base a campaign off of Elizabeth Bathory. Her history and crimes are so twisted that even reading the, it is hard to believe them. She came from a twisted family, and as she got older she fell into black magic and started taking young girls and slaughtering them and bathing in their blood, believing it to make her younger.. Orgies on bodies, rape, torture, etc..


  37. sarah x says:

    king john AND richard the lion heart wuld b gr8

  38. GroovyTaxi says:

    There are lots of famous pirates you can inspire yourself from. Just think of the captains renowned for their cruelty and you’ll have a good start for a villain. Do I need to mention any names like Black Beard, Barbarossa (no, he’s not only that guy in Pirates of the Carribean)…

    Mary Read is impressive too. She had to dress as a man since she was a teenager so her mother could receive the money that had to be given to ”the oldest son”. When she decided to travel the seas with a crew of merchants, she was captured by pirates. Thinking she was a man, the pirates let her join their crew and she proved her valor later on. She’s just like a pirate version of Mulan (Disney references, arise!). Women that dress and act as men to gain certain rights can be awesome, and they don’t have to be ugly!

    Finally, who thought about artists? Some had a very interesting and weird life, and Van Gogh was a good example : he cut his own ear to prove his love to a woman. Take those weird personnality twists and use them to make a weird character, good or, why not, evil! An evil artist? You’d be surprised to know what Adolf Hitler did before he became the ruler of Germany…

  39. Sh1r0k4m1 says:

    Has nobody thought of The Picture of Dorian Grey

    It’s not history, but an unaging, nearly unkillable villain sounds interesting to me.

  40. Iaqn Winterbottom says:

    Dorian Grey, with his picture, is one of the Baddies in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Another character is Mina Harker, the Bride of Dracula, and Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde. If we are mining Literature, how about Conan Doyle’s “Lost World” hero, Professor Challenger, hero of several of Doyle’s VSF romances? Or Edgar Rice Burroughs’ immortal John Carter of Barsoom (Mars)?

  41. Riviera says:

    how about shakespeare himself? he was “the great bard”, wasn’t he?

  42. Ian winterbottom says:

    Mention of Shakespeare has me thinking; as well as a playwright and poet he was an actor/producer, pretty notorious profession in those days, full of Mountebanks and Charlatans, even outright criminals. Many of his acquaintances would have been on the fringe of the law if not outside it. Other actors such as Christopher Marlowe were occasionally professional spies employed by Walsingham, spymaster to Good Queen Bess, in the days of Religious strife and international intrigue, France and Spain were often at England’s throat. Marlowe was murdered, possibly to silence him? What if your Players – meaning actors – are secretly conmen or spies, who better than a Bard to charm the multitude while secretly watching or robbing them? And that Thief-Acrobat could come into his own?
    Also think about Smugglers, Russell Thorndyke’s Doctor Syn series is about a country parson with a secret identity as the Scarecrow, leader of the smuggling gangs of Romney Marsh, and with a hidden past as a Pirate Captain!

  43. hobozeke says:

    Just a little note to check out simo hayha, he is one of the less known but equally amazing historical figures.

  44. dirk says:

    I just finished watching a Military Channel special over Tokugawa Ieyasu. Military mind, right on the edge of when gunpowder was being used for military use in Japan, began the Shogunate that bore his name for the next 250 years until Japan sought to be a modern nation. From fiction, Torunaga from James Clavell’s Shogun… I’ll probably adapt Tokugawa to be a major character in my next campaign. Powerful warlords, double betrayal, uniting nations, civil war… pretty awesome story.

  45. Philip Hogan says:

    Vlad Tepes – or Vlad the Impaler. He was the model for Count Dracula – but also a real life badass – he killed 40,000 turks in one battle – then staked the prisoners. He made pyramids of the heads of slaughtered enemies. He was a hero for defending the country from Turks – but so bloody he was vilified by writers at the time – (partly propaganda). Could be a morally ambiguous leader – fighting off a horde using the most harsh tactics and inspiring terror in the enemies.

  46. Buckster says:

    What about Voldemort?

  47. nikolas says:

    im actually in the middle of a campaign in the american style “old west” im actually bringing them into the civil war atm with choices of joining either army, changing history ( saving lincoln, or making the south win war) and am incorporating stonewall jackson and Robert E lee. having some fun with that one. i know you dislike guns but improvised explosives and such sure are fun. im also going to do a campaign in camelot but having issues putting it all together.

  48. Larick says:

    I know this thread is waaaaay old, but in the interests of those who may come across it yet…..
    What about some badass historical or legendary women of note?
    Eleanor of Aquitaine(unsure what class she would be), Jehanne D’arc ( Cleric, Bard, or Paladin?), Boudicea (fighter), Cleopatra (social rogue or sorcerer?)

  49. Gerd says:

    I have to add that some of the information here is problematic. The newer reception of Caligula paints a different image. It’s sad that you just choose to set a link to ancienthistory.about.com and did not bother to really research the sources. Because the list of the five worst roman emporers is wrong. I mean, come on, Nero was not even in Rome when it started burning and still some sites are telling this fairytale.

    That being said, I’d choose George W. Bush as uber-villain. A decadent, not very bright but very evil war-monger who looks like an ape. A lot of potential there.


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