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. The heroes have arrived at Krakenholt, an island fortress where the feuding Sea Kings (the world's most powerful seafaring merchant lords) convene on rare occasion to discuss matters of great import. Summoning the Sea Kings to Krakenholt is no simple matter, so the party turns to a retired Sea King named Draeken Malios for help. This living legend, thought to have perished when his ship sank in the Battle of the Roiling Cauldron, climbs to the top of the fortress and rings thirteen chimes in a specific sequence, in essence "playing his song." The song echoes in the minds of Sea Kings around the world, who travel to Krakenholt with great haste.
Having rescued Malios from the Elemental Chaos, the heroes hope he can persuade his fellow Sea Kings to put aside their differences and unite against a common threat. The vaunted Sea Kings arrive one by one aboard their flagships over the course of many days. When the time finally comes to address them, the heroes are stunned to learn Malios has passed away in his sleep. Now, unexpectedly, they must confront the Sea Kings alone.
My early D&D campaigns (the ones I ran before I showed up on TSR's doorstep pining for work) were largely inspired by published adventures. My players had straightforward quests and could always tell who the bad guys were. The only major complications in terms of story were the monsters and traps that stood in their way, and the most important choice the players had to make was whether to turn left, turn right, press forward, or rest for the night. Killing the bad guy was not optional; it was expected. That's the D&D experience distilled to its very core, and for some players and DMs, that's about as much narrative complexity as they need and/or desire. The DM reveals the monster, the heroes kill it and take its stuff, and the campaign (such as it is) moves on. Back then, my players didn't need to worry about taking notes, because they were always riding toward the next town in peril and never had cause to look back.
My campaigns have become a lot more complicated over the years. All those years of playing the game, reading books, and watching TV and movies have motivated me to deliver complex narratives with multiple campaign arcs and myriad NPCs. While there are still plenty of monsters and villains to fight, the heroes' world is a lot less black and white. Sometimes the PCs don't know who the real enemy is, and sometimes their adversary isn't something they can kill (at least, not without severe consequences). My campaign worlds feel a lot more real, which can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on your point of view. For better or worse, the characters' actions and decisions impact the world around them and have real consequences, and every game session is an opportunity to add a host of new complications.
As a DM, there are two ways in which I add complications to my game: I "hard-code" them into the adventure from the very start (i.e., prearranged complications), or I insert them in response to certain character actions and decisions (i.e., unexpected complications). I find the former easier to create and the latter potentially more exciting—if for no other reason than they're often as surprising to ME as they are to my players! Allow me to cite a few examples from my Wednesday night game.
When I'm planning a future encounter, I try to imagine in my head the likely outcome (all things being equal). One question I like to ask myself is: If things happen as I expect them to, how could things get worse? The goal isn't to make players feel miserable. Quite the contrary: my goal is to excite them by throwing a curve that takes the campaign somewhere they might not expect it to go.
Example #1: The heroes make enemies of a tiefling guild of assassins called the Horned Alliance.
Planned Complication: A tiefling character in the party discovers that his grandmother is the evil leader of the guild.
At some point in the middle of the paragon tier, as the conflict between the heroes and the Horned Alliance began to peak, it occurred to me that when the time finally came for the party to face the guild's leader, it would be cool to introduce a villain whom they might not want to kill—at least, not right away. It's hard to justify hurling chaos bolts at your grandmother while she's reminiscing fondly about your childhood, sharing big campaign secrets, and proposing to bury the hatchet. (Suffice to say, Evil Grandmother eventually got what was coming to her.)
Example #2: The heroes' quest to buy magical armaments for their ship leads them to an exiled dragonborn wizard hiding in the raft-city of Anchordown.
Planned Complication: The wizard-in-exile is suspected of selling weapons to enemies of the Dragovar Empire, so imperial spies have her workshop under surveillance.
The heroes might have their eyes on some new ballistas and catapults, but if they end up buying weapons from the wizard, they will quickly find themselves under investigation. With great Perception checks, they glimpse Dragovar spies lurking in the shadows, watching their every move.
Example #3: The heroes agree to help an old dragonborn paladin of Bahamut complete one final quest before he retires.
Planned Complication: The paladin's true mission could result in the heroes being branded traitors of the Dragovar Empire.
Here we have a well-meaning NPC who's clearly misguided. Brazius and his superiors believe that the Knights of Ardyn want to overthrow the government when, in fact, they seek to rid the empire of corruption. Unfortunately, Brazius believes the propaganda that brands the Knights as traitors, and although he claims to be an emissary sent by the Temple of Bahamut to treat with representatives of the order, Brazius intends to lure them into a trap and have them all arrested. When the heroes discover Brazius's true mission, they warn the Knights of Ardyn and aid their escape. The party's dragonborn paladin, Rhasgar (Trevor Kidd), owns up to the deed, at which point he and his companions are denounced as traitors of the empire, and Brazius returns to the Dragovar capital in disgrace. How's that for complicated? It took nearly half a year of actual game time, but the heroes finally got back on the empire's good side when they rescued the Emperor, at which point all was forgiven.
The unexpected complication occurs when an opportunity suddenly arises to turn the party's situation from good to bad, or from bad to worse, or at the very least make them think twice about the direction they're headed or the decisions they've made.
Example #1: When the party's ship sinks to the bottom of the sea, one of the characters uses a ritual to summon an aspect of Dispater to help get the ship back.
Unexpected Complication: Dispater releases a powerful archmage from the Nine Hells, who raises the ship from the ocean's depths as a hell-wrought vessel with flaming sails. In exchange, Dispater requires that the character take a succubus concubine.
When the party's ship blew to smithereens, it never occurred to me that the ship's tiefling captain (played by Chris Youngs) would turn to the Nine Hells for help reversing this latest misfortune. My instinct was to reward Deimos for his cleverness by giving him everything he wanted and more. Yeah, okay, Deimos had to swear an oath to protect his succubus concubine from harm. Eventually, she was killed by her own hand, which broke the contract and got Deimos off the hook, but her actions aboard the ship spurred a lot of conflict within the group, leading several players to wonder whether the party was slowly becoming evil. She also complicated matters when she backstabbed an emissary of Vecna with whom the heroes had forged an unlikely alliance, throwing that alliance into peril.
Example #2: The heroes travel to the Elemental Chaos to retrieve a magical cutlass with the power to unite the feuding Sea Kings of Iomandra against a common threat.
Unexpected Complication: After the pirate warlord wielding the cutlass falls in battle, his henchman hurls the weapon overboard into a sea of acid.
When characters undertake a quest to retrieve a magical artifact, it's usually safe to assume that the adventure is built in a way that makes success the likely outcome. I prefer not to set any expectations, and I don't assume that every quest the characters gain is something they can complete. I think one of the qualities of a good DM is the ability to set aside personal expectations and let the player characters steer the narrative. It just so happened that when Vantajar, the one-eyed dragonborn pirate warlord, fell in battle, his lieutenant was next in the initiative count. Knowing the battle was lost and seeing the cutlass lying at his feet, he picked it up to keep any of the nearby player characters from doing the same. It didn't occur to me to toss the weapon overboard until that very moment, and I would never have predicted that event occurring. The reaction from the players was similar to what I'd expect had the lieutenant performed a coup de grace on a fallen PC . . . times a hundred. Here endeth your quest, not with a bang but a fizzle. How will the heroes unite the Sea Kings without the magical MacGuffin? Suddenly, the campaign just got a lot more complicated and fun.
Example #3: A tiefling character with the Prince of Hell epic destiny dies.
Unexpected Complication: Asmodeus tells the dead character his work isn't done and returns him to the natural world as a pit fiend with orders to resurrect the dead tiefling empire of Bael Turath.
You can play a pit fiend in 4th Edition? Good heavens, yes, but it's probably the sort of option best left for epic tier, and it would be nice if the player somehow earned it. No, you won't find pit fiend character options in any product we've published to date. The idea to bring back Kosh (played by Chris Champagne) as a pit fiend wasn't something I planned. It only occurred to me after Kosh died, and then only because there's a strong infernal theme weaving and wending its way through the campaign. Most of Kosh's statistics didn't need to change, but I gave him an epic-level fiery aura power, an epic-level tail sting power, and a natural fly speed. But let's forget about the mechanics, shall we, and consider what having a pit fiend in the party actually means storywise. I've made all of the characters' lives more complicated. How will good-aligned NPCs react to the party? Will Kosh feel obliged to fulfill his new quest, and will the other characters aid him or not? And, finally, what happens when worshipers of Asmodeus start showing up on the party's doorstep looking for face time with the pit fiend?
For many players, mine included, the D&D game is an escape from the real world. It's a chance to be a total badass and do amazing things without having to worry about real-life consequences. But if you're like me, you want the campaign world to feel like a living, breathing place, and so there's a fine balance to be struck: To make the world feel real, you need the characters' decisions and actions to affect change, and as the world changes, new challenges arise. If the party wizard uses a fireball to kill a troll and several innocent villagers are killed in the fiery blast, as the DM it's my job to imagine the likely consequences of that event and find ways to stir the pot. Perhaps the wizard's actions will reach the ears of the king, who will demand that the wizard redeem himself, or perhaps one of those killed in the blast has a relative with powerful friends.
I can't tell you which complications will best serve your home campaign, since every campaign has its own characters with their own stories to tell. However, I can share with you some of my favorites:
||The evil wizard whom the heroes are hired to kill turns out to be pregnant.
||The artifact the heroes seek proves to be a myth or a clever forgery.
||The heroes discover that one of their horses might actually be a polymorphed person.
||A monster befriends the heroes instead of attacking them, then eats all of their rations.
||A lich’s phylactery turns out to be something the heroes are reluctant to destroy.
||One of the heroes’ childhood friends or relatives has fallen in with a bad crowd.
||The heroes present evidence that the queen is corrupt, but the king refuses to believe it.
||A character raised from the dead inherits a family curse or is haunted by a family ghost.
||A brigand whom the heroes are sent to capture alive dies while in their custody.
||An NPC claims ownership of a magic item seen in the heroes’ possession.
||The heroes plunder a tomb and are cursed by the tomb’s spirit to kill the one who hired them.
||Someone the heroes trust is arrested on charges of conspiracy and treason.
||The heroes must free vampire spawn from their evil master’s control without killing them.
||When heroes start asking too many questions, they are mistaken for enemy spies.
||A group of adventurers or doppelgangers has taken to impersonating the heroes.
||The enemy the heroes face is a creature that they have little hope of defeating in combat.
||The heroes must acquire something from someone without being detected.
||The heroes offend someone with connections to a powerful guild of rogues and assassins.
||A hero must honor an ancient pact or blood oath sworn by his or her ancestors.
||An intelligent magic item confronts the heroes with some unusual needs or demands.
Until the next encounter!
—Dungeon Master for Life,
Previous Poll Results
Here's a preview of an upcoming column: As a DM, what do you normally do when one of your players is absent for a session?
|I contrive some story reason for the absent player's character to temporarily leave the party.
|The absent player's character 'fades away' until the player returns.
|I ask someone else to play the absent player's character.
|I play the absent player's character as a background NPC with little, if anything, to do.
|I play the absent player's character as an active NPC or quasi-PC.
|None of the above.
|I provide a simplified 'companion' version of the missing player's character (using the awesome Companion Characters rules in DMG2).
|I have the absent player's character stroll into the nearest tavern, get drunk, and pass out.
|I kill off the absent player's character. That'll teach the player for skippin' out on my game!
The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #47
Hey DMs: Would you consider giving an epic-level magic item or some other item of comparable value to a character of 10th level or lower?
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.