3 famous characters to jumpstart your D&D campaign

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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.

50 thoughts on “3 famous characters to jumpstart your D&D campaign”

  1. 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.

  2. 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?)

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

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

  7. 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!

  8. 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)?

  9. 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…

  10. 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..


  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

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