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. The heroes convene aboard their ship, the Maelstrom, before embarking on their next epic quest. That’s when Melech, Bruce Cordell’s character, notices something strange in the night sky: three unfamiliar stars peering just above the southwestern horizon.
In the days that follow, more strange stars come into view, until the entire constellation of thirteen is visible. The starry array resembles a dragon’s eye, and the writings and ramblings of ancient mariners and astronomers speak of an evil constellation that appears only when summoned—a constellation with the power to warp the very fabric of reality. Some call it the Dragon’s Eye. Others call it the end of the world.
Believing that an evil eladrin warlock named Starlord Evendor has summoned the constellation for his own fell purposes, the heroes travel to the Dragovar capital. There, they confer with Lenkhor Krige, a dragonborn archmage who leads the Shan Qabal, a powerful sect within the arcane caste. Lenkhor is someone in whom the characters have placed their trust. Yet by the time they arrive, reality has been altered in such a way that the archmage is no longer around to help them. To further complicate matters, the heroes have no memory of ever meeting Lenkhor, which means my players must put all previous encounters with Lenkhor out of their minds.
Welcome to my weird world.
My campaign is like a snow globe. Sometimes it needs a good shake.
Buried in my original campaign notes is the following bit of lore: Long ago, the world of Iomandra was home to a multitude of powerful dragon-sorcerers. Their mastery of magic made them undisputed rulers of the world. One by one they died, and with them their great magic. Present-day dragons, more driven to acquire gold and property than arcane power, believe these ancient wyrms ascended to the heavens, becoming the stars in the night sky.
The above passage was the inspiration for an epic-level adventure called “Constellation of Madness,” in which a major campaign villain with ties to the Far Realm summons a constellation that has the power to alter reality. What really excited me about this idea was the prospect of temporarily swapping players in my Monday and Wednesday night groups, and the Dragon’s Eye constellation was the plot device I intended to use to make it happen. Unfortunately, my players’ schedules made the swapping exercise impractical; however, I refused to abandon the alternate reality idea entirely. After twenty-three levels of adventuring, my players understood all too well how the world worked—so what better way to turn things upside-down and change some of the fundamental truths of the campaign!
From the outset, my campaign was built around the three-tiered structure of 4th Edition. The heroes spent the entire heroic tier (levels 1–10) exploring one small island and learning bits and pieces about the “larger world.”
Paragon tier (levels 11–20) was all about leaving the island and exploring what the larger world had to offer. The heroes became embroiled in politics. They meddled in the affairs of others while chasing their own dreams. They got a ship and plied the Dragon Sea in search of new adventures. By the end of the paragon tier, they’d touched on every major campaign arc and understood the world pretty well.
Then came epic tier (levels 21–30), during which one expects all of the major campaign arcs to wrap up. However, epic tier is more than just “the end of plots.” It’s also the perfect time to challenge the players’ perceptions of the world, and turn the campaign on its head. Like the final season of a television series, anything can happen and nothing is sacred.
Keeping my players engaged for 20+ levels isn’t easy. Hell, sometimes it’s hard to keep myself engaged, let alone them! With the heroes halfway to 24th level, my players have grown accustomed to their characters and each other, and think they know all of my sly DM tricks. To keep things exciting, I must be willing to take some big-money risks and shock the players with unexpected twists.
You May Ask Yourself, Well, How Did I Get Here?
“Constellation of Madness” does just that—it throws the heroes into an alternate reality where certain things that used to be true no longer are. It creates weird situations in which the players become aware of something that their characters don’t know—and that, my friends, is the definition of roleplaying. Case in point: One of the major campaign villains is a dragonborn wizard named Hahrzan. Throughout the paragon tier, the heroes clashed with Hahrzan on several occasions, even killing him twice before realizing he had a secret cloning lab. But in this new reality, he’s leader of the Shan Qabal in place of Lenkhor Krige, and in this alternate reality, the characters and Hahrzan have never once fought each other.
My players hate Hahrzan, and they loathe the fact that he’s risen to a position of power in this new reality, but their characters have no justifiable reason to attack him. To my players, I describe their characters’ relationship to Hahrzan as “prickly and tense, but not hostile,” and as much as the players want to slay him, there’s really nothing for their characters to act on. Their only recourse is to accept this new reality… at least until their characters become aware that reality has been altered. How’s that for an epic roleplaying challenge?
“Constellation of Madness” is all about my players knowing more than their epic-level characters. As the players figure out why certain things are changing and others are staying the same, no doubt some event will occur that lets their characters realize their world around them has changed… paving the way for the inevitable (and hopefully satisfying) confrontation with Starlord Evendor.
A few words of warning: While epic tier allows you to shift a well-established campaign in unexpected directions, you must be careful not to turn the campaign into something unrecognizable or unfamiliar to your players. They’ve invested too much time in the world to watch it mutate into something bizarre and unrecognizable. Moreover, alternate reality storylines aren’t for everyone. Sure, it’s a great way to bring back dead villains, but not all players are capable of handling the metagame implications of an alternate reality storyline. No matter how hard they roleplay, their characters always seem to know as much as the players do! Even my Monday night players—expert roleplayers all—can accept only so much metagame torture before their heads leap off their shoulders and fly screaming about the room.
The jury’s still out on whether “Constellation of Madness” will go down as a high point of the Iomandra campaign or sink like a stone to the bottom of the Dragon Sea—I’ll keep you posted. In any event, here’s what the experience has taught me about epic-level play:
By the time they reach the epic tier, players think they know where your campaign is heading. Show them how wrong they are.
Next week’s column discusses the repercussions of last week’s poll results. The votes are in, and things don’t look good for Xanthum the gnome bard! To my credit, I rarely kill characters on a whim, but you’d be surprised how much I enjoy torturing them. As you’ll find out next week, it’s for the greater good.
By the way, I’ll be a guest at Comicpalooza in Houston at the end of the month. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to sit at my gaming table, maybe you can find out: I’ll be running a few playtests at the show. Hope to see you there!
Until the next encounter!
—Dungeon Master for Life,
Poll 05/05/2011 Results:
Hey DM: Do you like drawing your own maps?
Yes, but my mapmaking skills aren’t great: 41.0%
- Very much, and I’m pretty darned good at it, too: 23.0%
- Sometimes. It depends on the type of map: 20.1%
- No. I’d rather someone drew them for me: 15.9%
The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll 05/12/2011
1. If you could have one of the following D&D magic items in real life, which would you choose?
2. If you and your gaming group were stranded on a desert island with dice, rulebooks, and one classic adventure collection, which of the following collections would you want to have?
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.