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Sudden Death
The Dungeon Master Experience
By 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. The heroes' ship is destroyed in an explosion and sinks to the bottom of the ocean. Its tiefling captain, Deimos (played by Chris Youngs), cuts a deal with Dispater, an archduke of the Nine Hells, to raise the party's ship from the ocean's depths. The cost? His immortal soul. A contract is drafted, and in exchange, Deimos must also take a succubus concubine named Tyranny.

Dispater releases the soul of Samantia Carnago, a powerful archmage trapped in the Nine Hells. Samantia not only raises the Morrow but also transforms it into an infernal warship with a flag made of fire and sails made of smoke. The revamped ship is dubbed the Sorrow. The rest of the party isn't altogether comfortable with this latest development, but they go along for the ride. When the gnome bard, Xanthum (played by Curt Gould), winds up trapped in the Nine Hells later on, he uses his time there to hatch a plot not only to free himself but also to free Deimos from his infernal pact. Using information and secrets he gained from a dead pit fiend named Kosh (played by Chris Champagne), Xanthum climbs the infernal ladder, gains the title of duke, rejoins the party, and tries to kill Tyranny aboard the Sorrow. This interference breaks one of the conditions of Dispater's contract—that no agent of the Nine Hells will threaten the Sorrow or its crew as long as Deimos draws breath. Deimos's soul is saved, but Xanthum is cast out of the party for his hellish affiliations. Fortunately, one of the items he leaves behind is an hourglass talisman—a magical pendant that allows one to briefly travel back in time.

A common enemy forces a temporary alliance between the heroes and a group of agents of Vecna, led by a lich named Osterneth who also happens to be Vecna's ex-wife. Within Osterneth's rib cage floats a black, shriveled heart, and when the alliance goes south, Deimos's succubus concubine stabs Osterneth in the heart with a dagger. Osterneth kills the succubus, and the party's warforged, Fleet (played by Nacime Khemis), knocks Osterneth off the ship before she can cause any further harm. Later, the heroes learn that is Osterneth is actually a phylactery of sorts, and that the black heart trapped in her rib cage belongs to Vecna, not to her. By piercing it, Tyranny imbued that dagger with the power to not only inflict terrible damage to the god of undeath but to prevent him from reforming when slain in the natural world.

Months later, after destroying two Vecnite sanctuaries and killing one of Vecna's exarchs, the heroes incur the Whispered One's wrath. Vecna launches a full-scale attack on the party's ship and their secret base on the island of Irindol—where the campaign began. After defending their ship, the heroes retreat to their base, only to find it overrun. Moreover, the Vecnites are in the midst of building a necroforge on the party's turf. This monstrous device captures spirits of the dead and implants them in the bodies of newly built warforged constructs under Vecna's command. As the party launches an assault on their own base, Vecna appears to put them in their place (as it were). The battle takes a promising turn when Vargas (played by Rodney Thompson) stabs Vecna with Tyranny's dagger, dealing damage equal to the god's bloodied value (790 hit points!) and trapping him in mortal form. Now, at last, the god of undeath can be killed—a task easier said than done.

Vecna's priests are quick to heal their ailing god, and though the characters put up a great fight, they find themselves running out of resources and hit points, with more of Vecna's allies on the way. Divin, the party's cleric (also played by Curt Gould), receives some unexpected help from his god, Melora, who sends her colossal sharktopus exarch to take a bite out of the party's coastal stronghold, devouring nearly a dozen of Vecna's 30th-level warforged troops. Divin is also saved from certain death by an exarch of Ioun, who takes the form of a tiny fish encased in the glass eye of an eladrin seer named Starra. The fish gets Divin back on his feet and back in the game, but it's still not enough.

Divin and Vargas are both slain by Vecna's evil warforged defenders. Fleet finds himself in hand-to-hand combat with the one-eyed god himself, but while Vecna is keeping the party's warforged busy, the evil god's underlings are overloading their half-built necroforge and preparing to send out a necrotic shock wave that will kill every living creature on the island. All seems lost.

A warforged scout assassin takes down Deimos, but thanks to his epic destiny, the tiefling sorcerer transforms into a huge spectral dragon and flees to a safe corner of the stronghold. Once there, Deimos pulls out the hourglass talisman taken from Xanthum. It's the perfect escape hatch, an ideal if convenient way to undo everything that has transpired. It's the last, best hope of avoiding a sudden end to the campaign. However, Deimos has no intention of pushing the "reset button." Killing Vecna once and for all is simply too tempting. . .

S ometimes the end comes before you expect it. I'm reminded of Monte Cook's Ptolus campaign, which, like mine, featured two different groups playing on two different nights. In that sweeping campaign, I was the one player fortunate enough to be in both groups. My characters were elf twins named Serai and Sercian, and occasionally they'd playfully switch parties without the other players knowing it. The Monday group was a thoughtful, cautious bunch that triumphed over adversity, and that particular campaign ended in victory. The Wednesday group was more reckless and daring, and that campaign ended in failure, not to mention the brutal deaths of the PCs—everyone except Sercian, that is, who fled to the manor of his twin brother and continued to make appearances in the Monday night game. The Wednesday night group died in a fight so unremarkable that I can't even recall who the enemies were — certainly no one important to the outcome of the campaign. Even Monte was surprised by the Wednesday night campaign's sudden end, and it was a far less satisfying conclusion than the one I experienced as part of his triumphant Monday night group.

My Iomandra campaign has a few things in common with Monte's Ptolus campaign. I have a cautious Monday night group and a somewhat more reckless Wednesday night group, and the Wednesday bunch recently came to a violent end. However, that's where the similarity ends, for unlike the Wednesday night Ptolus game those many years ago, this conclusion proved extremely satisfying. Why? Because the player characters had given their all against a supreme foe, had the perfect escape, and chose to sacrifice themselves instead to ensure the villain's destruction and the safety of the entire world.

At a certain point in the evening, it dawned on Chris, Nacime, Rodney, and Curt that their characters were losing the climactic battle against Vecna and his followers. And yet, Vecna was trapped in mortal form, and it seemed unlikely that they'd get another chance to rid the world of him once and for all. I could see the grim determination in their eyes . . . the dawning realization of what had to be done.

Rather than use the hourglass talisman to alter what has transpired, Chris's character uses it to go back in time just far enough to put all his affairs in order. He notifies the other captains in the party's fleet (yes, at epic level, they have their own fleet of ships) that they must carry on without him. Deimos even contacts his uncle, who raised the orphaned tiefling, and thanks him. He then makes plans with Nevin, a halfling rogue-turned-submarine captain (one of Rodney's "retired" characters) to transport a massive, iron-plated torpedo into the party's stronghold on Irindol using a teleportation circle. The bomb, built by dwarf artificers and "liberated" by the party during a previous adventure, has the power to obliterate the stronghold and everyone in it. Nevin's been hauling the damned thing around for the entire epic tier . . . and now, at long last, the final chess piece is about to be moved into play.

To borrow a quote from Aliens: "Nuke them from orbit. It's the only way to be sure."

After Deimos says his goodbyes and makes final preparations, the hourglass talisman "flings" him back into the battle with Vecna and his forces. The necroforge is on the verge of releasing its terrible shock wave when Nevin's giant bomb materializes atop the stronghold's teleportation circle, right on schedule, ticking madly down to its final second. Deimos and Fleet are obliterated along with their fallen companions, Vecna, the necroforge, and a sizable corner of the island.

I could see wicked gleams of satisfaction and enthusiasm in the players' eyes as their characters went up in smoke. The last thing Fleet saw before his warforged body was torn asunder was the shock and horror burning in Vecna's soulless eye before the dark god was consumed utterly in the blast. And thus the Wednesday night Iomandra campaign ended, not with a whimper but a bang. Last week I spoke of explosions and what they bring to my campaign. Well, sometimes they bring my campaign to an end.

Lessons Learned

Last week, after the destruction of the Wednesday night party, I saw the new James Bond movie, Skyfall, which has a splendidly poignant and satisfying denouement that makes you think they could end the whole series right then and there, and it would be a fitting capstone on James Bond's 50-year legacy in film. I felt much the same way at the end of last Wednesday's game session. Later, upon reflection, this feeling of satisfaction was mixed with relief. Had things unfolded differently and the party survived, I'm not sure I could've planned a more suspenseful final encounter to end the campaign. I mean, how do you top a showdown with Vecna, where the consequence of failure is the end of all life on the party's home island?

My players take comfort in the knowledge that Vecna's destruction will have far-reaching consequences for the world of Iomandra, including the dissolution of the Black Curtain—a barrier of necromantic mist that has been slowly engulfing the islands of the Dragovar Empire while concealing the secret kingdom of Vhalt beyond. Ever since his name was first whispered in the heart of the heroic tier, Vecna has loomed like a shadow over the entire campaign. He is undeniably the single greatest threat to the world, and my players know that you can't destroy a god and walk away unscathed. As Rodney Thompson told me afterward, it's the first time he's ever been in a campaign in which the characters triumphed by blowing themselves up.

What's especially fascinating to me is that the decision to throw Vecna at the party was a spontaneous one; it just so happened that the second-to-last game session was on Halloween night, and I wanted to scare the crap out of my players. I couldn't think of a better way than to have the god of undeath show up and wag his bony finger at the party for thwarting his evil plans time and again. Little did I know that I was setting the stage for the campaign's end the following week. But then, you can't have a memorable campaign without taking risks. Sometimes those risks pay off, and sometimes not. A DM can't always predict what the player characters will do from one moment to the next, and that alone makes every risk worth taking.

I would be lying if I said the conclusion was perfect. As it happens, one of my players (Andrew Finch) was regrettably absent for the last session, and his character has an incomplete story arc. Ravok, the goliath battlemind, was dead set on returning to his tribe before the business with Vecna got in the way. (To his credit, Andrew took the news of the campaign's sudden end very well.) There are also a few other dangling plot threads that weren't tied off properly. For these and other reasons, I am thinking about doing something I've never done before: running a campaign "epilogue." It wouldn't be a normal game session by any stretch—more of an excuse to bring the players together one last time, gobble up some pizza, tidy up a few odds and ends, and answer their lingering questions about the campaign. The trick is how to pull it off.

As it happens, one of the deceased characters is a champion of the Raven Queen, a driving force throughout the campaign. The god of death (as opposed to the recently slain god of undeath) has appeared on occasion to guide Rodney's character, Vargas, toward his ultimate destiny—the destruction of Vecna and his necromantic warforged. My plan is to have the Raven Queen gather the souls of the slain party members before allowing them to "pass on." They'll watch as she toys with Vecna's mortal soul before destroying it utterly, and hopefully that sweet moment will provide the characters with the same sense of closure that their players received the week before. Moreover, the Raven Queen might allow a certain character to complete one piece of unfinished business before reclaiming his soul. At least that way, every player gets to experience a fitting end to the campaign.

Until the next encounter!

—Dungeon Master for Life,
Chris Perkins

Previous Poll Results

As a DM, which of the following magic items do you find the most annoying?
Ebony flies (fly fast, fly often) 86 10.8%
Exodus knives (cut to: instant getaway) 131 16.4%
Sending stones (the D&D equivalent of Twitter accounts) 77 9.7%
Skeleton keys (why bother having locks?) 117 14.7%
Stones of __________ (Yay, free reroll! Good thing I got a whole bag of 'em!) 70 8.8%
Horns of summons (they blow, all right) 31 3.9%
Rings of feather falling (farewell to pit traps) 47 5.9%
None of the above 204 25.6%
Other (leave a comment) 34 4.3%
Total 797 100.0%

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #90A

  Hey DMs: Would you ever give your player characters a magic item that lets them travel back in time?  
No way! Knowing my players, they’d find a way to destroy the campaign.
Perhaps, provided there are strict limits on how far back they can travel and for how long.
Absolutely! What’s the worst they could do?
I don’t know, frankly.

  In your opinion, which of the following D&D villains would be the most fun campaign-ending threat?  
Vecna, God of Undeath
A demon prince, such as Orcus or Demogorgon
Asmodeus, Archduke of the Nine Hells
Lolth, Demon Queen of Spiders
Acererak the Demilich
Kyuss, the Worm God
Tiamat/Takhisis, the Evil Queen of Dragons
An evil archmage or lich
An ancient dragon or dracolich
Some aberrant horror from the Far Realm
An evil band of adventurers
A former player character gone bad
A mad gnome with a ukulele
None of the above

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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