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. This week’s session kicks off with a quick recap of the previous week’s game: The heroes assaulted the Black Candle, a stronghold of Vecna worshipers hidden in a demiplane that can only be accessed via a secret ritual. Fortunately Xanthum (Curt Gould’s gnome bard) had mastered the ritual.
Unfortunately, the Vecnites—themselves masters of secret lore—were more than prepared for the party’s arrival. The heroes quickly found themselves surrounded and fighting for their lives against evil wizards, assassins, cultists, shadow demons, and undead creatures that like to feast on healing surges. To make matters worse, the heroes had an unexpected run-in with an exarch of the Maimed Lord, who banished Xanthum the gnome bard to the Nine Hells.
In a recent poll, y’all voted to decide which character in my Wednesday night campaign should die next. The votes were tallied, and Xanthum the gnome bard “won” by a landslide. Perhaps it was fate, but even before we knew the final results of the poll, events of the campaign had already conspired against Xanthum. Curt Gould was forced to wait a whole week to find out whether Xanthum would return from the Nine Hells in one piece. His anxiety only grew once the poll results were tallied.
Fortunately for Curt, I’m not the sort of DM who kills characters solely based on poll results; honestly, my players are quite capable of killing off their characters, and sometimes each other, without my help. That said, I have been known to torture my players’ characters from time to time.
Just ask Rodney Thompson.
Many levels ago, the Wednesday night heroes faced a similar situation where they attacked an elemental weapons foundry and found themselves overwhelmed. The characters were knocked out (except for Andrew Finch’s character, who fled), branded as enemies of the Dragovar empire (and by “branded” I mean literally scarred with scorching-hot brands that marked them as criminals), and handed over to a ship full of privateers (and by “privateers” I mean pirates). Prior to the ship’s departure, Rodney’s character Vargas had one of his eyes gouged out and replaced with a magical one; the bad guys planned to use Vargas as a “mule” to deliver this magic item to a one-eyed pirate warlord locked away in an island prison.
In the course of the journey, with a little help from Andrew’s character, the heroes managed to commandeer the ship and avoid incarceration. Yet the pain and mutilation inflicted upon Vargas would be the beginning of a new arc for that character, one that would carry Vargas through many levels and even tiers of play. Rodney seized upon the opportunity, transforming Vargas into an avenger dedicated to wiping out those who maimed him. The eye not only gave Rodney a new magic item to play with, but also a new enemy to look forward to: the aforementioned pirate warlord, who was recently released from prison and—not surprisingly—wanted his magic eye back.
A little pain goes a long way…
… which brings us back to poor Xanthum. After making Curt wait a whole week to learn the ultimate fate of his character, I took him aside at the start of the session and told him that upon arriving in the Nine Hells, Xanthum was taken prisoner by a covey of night hags, whereupon he became their favorite “plaything.” After six years of torture and abuse (this being a PG-rated blog, I’ll spare you the horrific details), Xanthum was returned to his companions at roughly the moment he was spirited away. Curt was stunned, to say the least, but his horror turned to elation—I’d just given him a campaign’s worth of roleplaying material to work with. Xanthum, the “cheery sing-along gnome bard,” would never be the same!
Alas, Xanthum died later in the session. Fortunately, he was carrying a potion of life, which another character poured down his throat in the nick of time. In what can only be described as a cruel twist of irony, we managed to make good on the poll results while also keeping Xanthum in the game.
It’s also worth noting that one of the Vecnite assassins had a quiver stuffed with seven crossbow bolts of slaying—one bolt for each character in the party. (The Vecnites had plenty of time to study the heroes’ weaknesses and craft these menacing magic items, so this didn’t seem beyond the realm of reason.) Here are the stats I created for these busted items, in case you’re curious:
Missile of Slaying
Level 30 Rare
Inscribed in Supernal script upon the razor-sharp tip of this crimson-fletched arrow or crossbow bolt is the name of the creature it aims to kill.
Wondrous Item 125,000 gp
Property: Inscribed upon this missile is the name of a specific individual. If the missile hits the creature whose name is inscribed upon it, that creature drops to 0 hit points. If the creature doesn’t die when reduced to 0 hit points, the creature must make a saving throw; if the save fails, the creature dies. Whether it hits or misses its intended target, the missile’s magic is spent once the missile is shot.
Over the course of the evening, the assassin managed to fire off six of the seven bolts before he was slain. Thanks to a couple missed attacks, some successful saving throws, and another potion of life, no one died (at least not for long). Ironically, the only bolt that wasn’t shot was the one with Xanthum’s name on it.
Pain and death are part of the human condition, and until we experience them in some form or another, we cannot truly understand or appreciate what it means to be human. I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count the number of books, comics, movies, and television series that use death and near-death experiences as catalysts for character development. In all forms of storytelling, pain and death fuel character development, and D&D is all about character development. Without it, pain and death are largely meaningless. When I hear DMs complain about the pointlessness of death in their D&D campaigns due to the preponderance of Raise Dead rituals and other “cheats,” I wonder if maybe they’re missing an important opportunity.
On the other hand, I’m also told that 4th Edition characters are hard to kill. I can accept that. It’s particularly true if all they face week-in, week-out are encounters comparable to their level. For me, I like to give my player characters the full range, from easy to harrowing. While I don’t believe it’s the DM’s job to kill characters, I do get a morbid kick out of watching my players scour their character sheets in sweaty desperation, looking for that one half-forgotten power or magic item to save their bacon. I often plan sessions in which the characters might (depending on their choices and actions) find themselves fighting more than one encounter’s worth of opponents at once. I run a deadly game of D&D, and yet, more often than not, the heroes prevail. Desperation begets imagination, and when it comes to staying alive, my players can be very imaginative.
Never underestimate the death-defying desperation of player characters.
Pain and death can trigger great character development.
Those of you who follow the Penny Arcade podcasts know what I’m saying is true. The death of Aeofel (Wil Wheaton’s character) at the end of the third series spawned an entire adventure built around his triumphant return. Ye gods, if you want to see character development at its finest, check out the PAX 2010 Celebrity Game podcast!
When a character dies, it’s either a momentous event or a momentary inconvenience depending on the campaign. My goal as DM is to remind players that even in a world with Raise Dead rituals, pain and death can still serve as fodder for good character development. Scars, nightmares, the thirst for vengeance, the undying enmity of the Raven Queen—these are the types of things that can haunt characters for a long time and make them more fun and interesting to play. So, before you puncture the hearts of your player characters with arrows of slaying, try to remember that the goal isn’t necessarily to kill them off, but rather to give them more reasons to live.
Until the next encounter!
—Dungeon Master for Life,
Poll 05/12/2011 Results:
1. If you could have one of the following D&D magic items in real life, which would you choose?
Ring of invisibility: 43.2%
- Heward’s handy haversack: 15.2%
- Staff of the magi: 13.7%
- Boots of striding and springing: 7.2%
- Girdle of masculinity/femininity: 6.9%
- Gauntlets of ogre power: 6.3%
- Wand of wonder: 3.8%
- Ebony fly: 3.7%
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?
T1-4 The Temple of Elemental Evil: 40.8%
- GDQ1-7 Queen of the Spiders: 21.9%
- B1-9 In Search of Adventure: 15.0%
- S1-4 Realms of Horror: 8.4%
- I3-5 Desert of Desolation: 7.4%
- A1-4 Scourge of the Slave Lords: 6.6%
The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll 05/19/2011
1. What’s the next D&D product Wizards should produce?
2. Hey DMs: On which day of the week are you most likely to prepare for your campaign?