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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.

WEDNESDAY NIGHT. In a previous session, the heroes captured the apprentice of their nemesis, Starlord Evendor, and agreed to trade her for several prisoners in the clutches of mind flayers. The prisoner exchange was going swimmingly until the illithids' sudden but inevitable betrayal, and although the heroes ultimately kicked ass, there were three "uh-oh" moments when things went from bad to worse.

The first "uh-oh" moment happened when reinforcements arrived in the form of a beholder named King Zorrb. The beholder arrived via Far Realm portal, cried out "Kneel before Zorrb!" and began shooting eye rays at everyone. The second "uh-oh" moment quickly followed when the beholder disintegrated Chris Youngs' character, Deimos. The third and final "uh-oh" moment occurred near the end of the fight, when Mat Smith's character, Garrot, grabbed King Zorrb by the eyestalks and catapulted himself through the Far Realm portal, dragging the beholder with him.

As they say in Hollywood, what an exit!

A nd that's the story of how Garrot, the dimwitted human fighter, was devoured by the Far Realm.

Most players would think twice about hurling their characters into the Far Realm, even if it meant saving another party member's life. But Mat doesn't play a smart character, and sometimes he has Garrot do things that don't make a lot of sense except, of course, to Garrot. Not surprisingly, Garrot has died and been raised from the dead many times over the course of the campaign, but this time there's nothing to raise. His body's lost.

Over the past four years, Garrot never really evolved much at all. In fact, while I pride myself on creating interesting "growth opportunities" for characters, I was pretty much at a loss when it came to thinking up good Garrot-centric episodes and adventures. Mat played him so dumb that no NPC could communicate intelligently with him, and Garrot had no attachments—even his companions didn't pay him much attention outside of combat. Garrot didn't even have a last name (or if he did, it never came up in play). He was like a coat rack with no hooks; there wasn't much to hang a story on. I also got the impression that after nearly four years of playing the same character, Mat was willing to throw Garrot on a limb just to see if it broke. Put another way, I don't think Mat would be surprised or horribly depressed if Garrot never returned.

I, on the other hand, am unwilling to let Garrot go.

Maybe it's because I feel like I've failed the character somehow. More likely it's because Mat's decision to hurl Garrot into the maddening void should be lauded and rewarded. If Garrot is well and truly dead, then the lesson to be learned from his actions is "Don't hurl your character into the Far Realm." However, I think it's more fun to tell players, "You never know what'll happen when you hurl your character into the Far Realm." Or put another way, "If you're willing to take a risk with your character, you might be pleasantly surprised by the outcome."

When it comes to building encounters, I have no qualms about layering on adversity, to the point where the players feel overwhelmed. I love having enemy reinforcements arrive just when things are starting to look up. I'm also happy to give players lengths of rope with which to hang proverbial nooses around their own characters' necks. However, before you accuse me of being cruel, note that my intentions are good: The goal, as I've said before, isn't to annihilate the party. No, the goal is to reward the players for taking risks.

I tend to think of characters as "chandelier bait," which is to say that if I hang a chandelier from the ceiling, I expect that at some point during the encounter a character will either (a) swing from it or (b) drop it on someone. The chandelier baits players into taking risks and making decisions they wouldn't otherwise consider. In Garrot's case, King Zorrb's Far Realm portal was the chandelier. It's also a plot device that can be used to catapult the campaign forward.

Speaking of catapults, there's something about Garrot that I almost forgot to mention—a seemingly inconsequential bit of character development instigated by Mat many years ago, back when the heroes were looking to buy a magical catapult for their ship. Mat decided that Garrot was fascinated by catapults. He even went so far as to procure a miniature catapult that Garrot would carry around with him and play with while his companions were doing "boring stuff" like obtaining quests and forging alliances. This utterly marvelous bit of nonsense became a running character gag. At some point, I expected the gag to pay off with Garrot firing himself out of a catapult or something equally ludicrous.

After debating whether or not to bring Garrot back, I finally decided to create a campaign "episode" set in the Far Realm. The adventure begins with Garrot plunging into Tyrak'n Bay and finding himself on the island of Kheth, where the campaign began. The island and its inhabitants are constructs of the Far Realm, familiar to Garrot but distorted by the plane's malign interpretation of his memories and his rather dimwitted view of the world. More importantly, all of Garrot's adventuring companions are there, including old characters who've been dead for many levels. The other players get to bring back some of their old characters to help Garrot escape from this nightmarish realm using the villain's giant catapult—because in his childlike mind, that's how Garrot would escape the Far Realm. Not only that, the players get to fight Starlord Evendor for the first time in the campaign, or rather, an effigy of him created by the Far Realm, and learn some of his dark secrets.

Lessons Learned

As a DM, if I'm going to create moments of seemingly insurmountable adversity, I also need to create moments of opportunity and be prepared for when my players attempt crazy-ass stunts. Although I'm well known for my elaborate schemes and plot twists, some of the most memorable and decisive moments of the campaign happened because of something the players did. I think it behooves every DM to remember that the players have a stake in determining how the campaign unfolds, and the best campaigns are inspired and propelled by the characters' actions and decisions.

So, to summarize:

  • It's the DM's job to create situations that encourage players to take risks.
  • It's the DM's job to let players know that with great risk comes great reward.

Until the next encounter!

—Dungeon Master for Life,
Chris Perkins

Here's Chris Perkins' "top 20" list of North American non-sequel horror films made in the past 20 years. Which one has the best D&D plot or inspires the coolest D&D adventure?
Pitch Black (2000) 293 21.6%
The Mist (2007) 206 15.2%
Zombieland (2009) 186 13.7%
28 Days Later (2002) 158 11.6%
The Silence of the Lambs (1991) 92 6.8%
The Frighteners (1996) 72 5.3%
Dawn of the Dead (2004) 66 4.9%
The Blair Witch Project (1999) 63 4.6%
The Ring (2002) 46 3.4%
Drag Me To Hell (2009) 42 3.1%
Jeepers Creepers (2001) 26 1.9%
The Crazies (2010) 26 1.9%
Ginger Snaps (2000) 22 1.6%
Trick 'r Treat (2009) 12 0.9%
Paranormal Activity (2007) 11 0.8%
The Grudge (2004) 11 0.8%
Hostel (2005) 9 0.7%
Scream (1996) 8 0.6%
Copycat (1995) 5 0.4%
Rob Zombie's Halloween (2007) 4 0.3%
Total 1358 100.0%

Which of the following classic adventures inspires the best D&D movie?
I6 Ravenloft 439 32.5%
T1-4 The Temple of Elemental Evil 257 19.1%
S1 Tomb of Horrors 238 17.6%
Nothing on this list. (P.S. Perkins, you suck at polls.) 137 10.2%
G1-2-3 Against the Giants 125 9.3%
U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh 56 4.2%
N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God 41 3.0%
WG5 Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure 29 2.1%
I2 Tomb of the Lizard King 19 1.4%
UK1 Beyond the Crystal Cave 8 0.6%
Total 1349 100.0%

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #38

 Imagine there's an encounter in your home campaign that features a room with a chandelier hanging from the ceiling. What's the chance that a PC will either swing from it or drop it on someone?  
About 25%
About 50%
About 75%

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #38B

 Which of the following statements best describes you as a player  
I tend to play characters dumber and/or more reckless than me.
I tend to play characters who are about as smart and/or wise as I am.
I tend to play characters who are smarter and/or wiser than me.

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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