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All Talk
The Dungeon Master Experience
Chris Perkins

This regular column is for Dungeon Masters who like to build worlds and campaigns as much as I do. Here I share my experiences as a DM through the lens of Iomandra, my Dungeons & Dragons campaign world. Even though the campaign uses the 4th Edition rules, the topics covered here often transcend editions. Hopefully this series of articles will give you inspiration, ideas, and awesome new ways to menace your players in your home campaigns.

If you’re interested in learning more about the world of Iomandra, check out the wiki.

MONDAY NIGHT. In the previous session, the heroes fought a death knight armed with a soul-draining sword. Two of them fell prey to the weapon.

Once the death knight was destroyed, the surviving heroes sought to free their companion’s souls from the hungry blade. They turned to one of their dubious NPC allies—Osterneth, a lich with connections to the god Vecna—and she assured them the souls could be freed by bathing the sword in the blood of a virtuous god. Fortunately for them, she happened to have the blood of a slain lawful good deity in her workshop.

Unfortunately, things did not go as planned: The blood completely destroyed the sword and the souls along with it. The lich apologized profusely and tried to make amends. She offered to instead implant an artificial heart in one of the fallen heroes: Nick DiPetrillo’s character, the swordmage Yuriel, but the heart was designed to pump necrotic sludge through the veins of its beneficiary. Implanting it would effectively transform Yuriel into an undead creature.

The heroes considered and rejected Osterneth’s offer—but they did bring the lich and their dead friends back to Yuriel’s ship, the Maelstrom, and consoled Yuriel’s distraught widow. They also conferred with a more trustworthy NPC ally, a dragonborn priestess, and asked her to petition Bahamut for advice on how to save the souls of their dead friends. A Commune ritual bore no fruit—the priestess concluded that their souls were well and truly lost.

Meanwhile, left to her own devices, the lich gently persuaded Yuriel’s widow that “undead Yuriel” was better than no Yuriel at all; and so, the lich obtained permission to implant the necrotic heart in Yuriel’s corpse. Nick returned the following week with a new version of his character built using the new vampire class from Player’s Option: Heroes of Shadow as a chassis.

The heroes, not fond of the “new” Yuriel, were troubled by the audacity of the lich, Osterneth. They were also distressed to learn that Yuriel needed the “life’s breath” of living creatures to “survive” in his undead state. Yuriel’s widow, a genasi named Pearl, diffused a tense confrontation between the lich, Yuriel, and his former companions by offering her own life’s breath to sustain her undead husband.

Then, as the Maelstrom made port on the island of Severasa, a group of dwarves in league with the Ironstar Cartel approached them for assistance. Frost giants had seized an important mine that the dwarves needed to finish building an iron ship—a prototype vessel that they hoped would earn them a lucrative shipbuilding contract with the Dragovar Empire. To save her own “skin” and redeem herself in the eyes of the heroes, Osterneth used her apparent omniscience to ascertain that a rival consortium, the Winterleaf Coster, was employing the frost giants to delay the completion of the iron ship long enough to swoop in and steal the contract from under the Ironstar Cartel’s nose.

Convinced that the lich was speaking the truth, the heroes confronted the Winterleaf Coster and threatened to expose their plot if they didn’t withdraw the frost giants from the mine immediately. They were very persuasive.

My Monday night group is a very different animal from my Wednesday night group. If the Wednesday players don’t get to kill something every session, they think I’m punishing them. The Monday group, on the other hand, is more willing to entertain the notion of a “diceless” session. They also have more tolerance for entertaining NPCs of conspicuously evil bent.

Osterneth the lich was ripped from the pages of Open Grave: Secrets of the Undead, although I made a few tweaks to her history to accommodate my campaign. As the thousand-year-old ex-wife of the archwizard-turned-god Vecna, Osterneth is a tremendous source of information—and the Monday night group is naturally hesitant to make an enemy of her. I’d like to say her heart’s in the right place, but in truth, she’s a lich with bones of bronze, and the desiccated black heart hovering inside her hollow ribcage actually belongs to her ex. Her connection to the God of Secrets gives her access to information the heroes need to complete their quests, and she’s courteous enough to conceal her true form behind the illusion of a beautiful and charming Vhaltese noblewoman.

But, to the point: The events described above played out over two game sessions, during which time the players made zero attack rolls. It was a roleplayer’s bonanza, and the hardest part for me was keeping all of the player characters involved. Even those who don’t typically take center stage during roleplaying encounters were on the hook.

Case in point: Jeff Alvarez’s character, the sword-wielding elf ranger Kithvolar, is the “silent killer” of the group. Whenever I noticed that Kithvolar had dropped out of the spotlight for too long, Osterneth would exchange playful banter with him, or a member of the Maelstrom crew would try to split a bottle of rum with him and offer an unsolicited opinion about recent events. When the heroes were threatening agents of the Winterleaf Coster, I tried to establish a relationship between Kithvolar and the villainous Talia Winterleaf, the elf daughter of the Coster’s founder. It’s fun to watch a character known for his brutal savagery confront an enemy he can’t kill—at least not without foiling the party’s plans and earning the enmity of a politically powerful organization.

Although everyone seemed to be having fun, I always feel like I should apologize to my players when we have a session that’s “all talk.” At the end of the session, I told them, “Next week you’ll get to kill something, I promise!” The players gave me dismissive gestures, and Peter Schaefer (who currently plays Metis, Osterneth’s treacherous changeling manservant) exclaimed, “Are you kidding, these are my favorite sessions!”

More than once during these sessions, I was certain a fight would break out, but the players never went there. Things probably would’ve played out differently on Wednesday night. I guess that’s why the players in the Wednesday group often joke that the Monday players “sit around the table drinking tea” while they’re busy cracking skulls and fart jokes.

Lessons Learned

There’s no shortage of D&D players in Renton, WA, so back when I was building my two game groups, I tried to put “birds of a feather” together. The Monday group thinks the Wednesday group is comprised of uncouth savages, while the Wednesday group thinks the Monday players get all their XP from story awards rather than combat challenges. These perceptions are mostly false—the two groups are more alike than not—but running two different groups of players has taught me that despite their subtle differences in play styles, I can get away with combat-free sessions provided all of the players are pulled into the roleplaying fray.

I also believe that the players—not the DM—get to decide when the talking stops and the fighting begins. I’m never disappointed when a player shouts, “Enough talk! Time to die!” because that invariably leads to two of the sweetest words in the D&D lexicon: Roll initiative.

Any DM can survive the dreaded “all talk” session, but it’ll be most fun for all concerned if you hold fast to the following suggestions:
  • Pull all of the players into the roleplaying fray (kicking and screaming if necessary).

  • Let the players decide when the talking’s over.

As a quick footnote, I would like to give props to Calvin K. of Lincoln NE for his “Magnificent Minion!” entry, which came in at the tail end of the contest: the wacky wall of flesh. Each wall minion comes with one random graft: an eye that projects a psychic bolt, a mouth that roars, an arm that delivers a real punch, or a tentacle that slides you around. It doesn’t get much weirder than that, folks!

Next week we’ll discuss the cinematic art of bringing back dead heroes and villains and the wonderful havoc that can ensue if you time it just right.

Until the next encounter!

—Dungeon Master for Life,
Chris Perkins

Poll 06/23/2011 Results:

In your humble opinion, which is the best D&D guide every published for Dungeon Masters?

  • D&D 4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide, by James Wyatt: 47.5%
  • AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide, by Gary Gygax: 18.0%
  • D&D 3rd/3.5 Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide, by Monte Cook: 14.6%
  • Dungeon Master’s Kit, by James Wyatt and Richard Baker: 11.6%
  • AD&D 2nd Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide, by David Cook, Steve Winter, and Jon Pickens: 8.3%

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll 06/30/2011

Which of the following classic AD&D dungeons is the easiest to talk your way through?

Which of the following classic AD&D dungeons is the easiest to talk your way through?
The Slave Lords' dungeon (A4 In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords)
Lost Tamoachan (C1 The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan)
The troglodyte caverns and kuo-toa shrine (D1-2 Descent into the Depths of the Earth)
A toss-up between Nosnra’s steading, Grugnur’s glacial rift, and Snurre’s hall (G1-2-3 Against the Giants)
The Tomb of Amun-Re (I3 Pharaoh)
The Demonweb (Q1 Queen of the Demonweb Pits)
The Tomb of Horrors (S1 Tomb of Horrors)
White Plume Mountain (S2 White Plume Mountain)
The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth (S4 The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth)
The dungeons below the Temple of Elemental Evil (T1-4 The Temple of Elemental Evil)
The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun (WG4 The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun)
The dungeon below Maure Castle (WG5 Mordenkainen’s Fantastic Adventure)

Christopher Perkins
Christopher Perkins joined Wizards of the Coast in 1997 as the editor of Dungeon magazine. Today, he’s the senior producer for the Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game and leads the team of designers, developers, and editors who produce D&D RPG products. On Monday and Wednesday nights, he runs a D&D campaign for two different groups of players set in his homegrown world of Iomandra.
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