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Epic Fail
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. A legendary cutlass has fallen into the hands of the dragonborn warlord Vantajar, one of the campaign’s major villains. He’s a level 30 solo brute with an elemental warship, a crew of epic pirates, and a half dozen storm giant mercenaries riding thundercloud chariots.

Seeking the cutlass for themselves, the adventurers board Vantajar’s vessel and engage their hated foe head-on, despite the fact that they’re only 24th level and are outnumbered 7 to 1. As the storm giants hurl lightning bolts at the party spellcasters, Vantajar brings his cutlass down on Kael, the party cleric, dropping him dangerously close to his negative bloodied value.

With their own ship too far away to render assistance, the heroes are in dire straits. Failure is not an option — it’s inevitable.

Never underestimate the resourcefulness of good players. When things look grim, when the cold eyes of death seem fixed on their characters, they somehow find a way to turn certain defeat into victory. One of the players might figure out a way to regain a spent power or healing surge. Another might whip out that half-forgotten magic item or plot detail that can tip the scales in the party’s favor. Many times have I stacked the odds against my players and watched them frantically search their character sheets and campaign notes for something—anything—to turn the tide.

And even when nothing presents itself, there’s always a chance that their luck could change, that their cold dice might suddenly turn red hot. Hell, I’ve seen player characters call out to the gods, throwing themselves at my mercy, and on rare occasion I’ve allowed the gods to toss them a bone, particularly if they’ve earned it.

Not this time.

The Wednesday night characters have thrown caution to the wind and acted rashly, and they’re doomed to break like waves upon the rocks. At least, that’s what I’m expecting will happen. Even as I write this column, the battle is still playing out. However, it’s safe to say that I’ve stacked the deck against them. How could I not? Throughout the entire campaign, Vantajar has been touted as a supreme badass, a legendary renegade who surfaces like a giant shark in the nightmares of child and Sea King alike.

What makes good drama? In a word: failure.

You can’t have drama if the heroes never fail. We all know the story of the good guy who faces the bad guy before he’s ready and gets his ass kicked. What usually happens next is that the good guy deals with the consequences of his failure, learns a valuable lesson, gathers his wits and self-confidence, and delivers the villain’s comeuppance. The story’s an oldie but a goodie.

The first article in this series (Surprise! Epic Goblins!) talked about using lower-level challenges to make player characters feel powerful. It should come as no surprise that higher-level challenges have their place in the game as well. I use them all the time, not to be cruel but to reinforce the notion that some challenges aren’t balanced for the heroes’ level. It forces the players to switch gears, try different tactics, and rely on more than their swords and spells. It also makes the campaign world a scary place, even to epic-level characters.

It’s my job as the DM to make sure that the heroes’ failure doesn’t spell the end of the campaign. If the Wednesday group prevails against all odds, I’ll have to work harder the next time they come face-to-face with a major campaign villain. If Vantajar defeats them, the campaign isn’t over, for I’ve concocted a logical reason why he’d want to keep his enemies alive.

Here’s a behind-the-curtain glimpse of what I’m thinking, to give you an idea of the thought process that went into planning the likely outcome of the heroes’ failure: Vantajar desires to use the legendary cutlass to unite the Sea Kings—the merchant lords of Iomandra—under his banner. Once the old feuds are cast aside, he will command a navy greater than that of the Dragovar Empire, and he plans to use it to himself become Emperor. However, he needs to present the cutlass before the Eye of the Kraken (an artifact hidden in the island fortress of Krakenholt) and be judged worthy of its power. Only then will the Sea Kings kneel before him. Chris Youngs’ tiefling character, Deimos, is better known as Sea King Impstinger, and the supremely arrogant Vantajar wants to see his enemy broken and forced into servitude like all the other Sea Kings. To kill Deimos and his companions now would deny Vantajar an even greater victory, not to mention the ships under Sea King Impstinger’s command.

In the event of their defeat, the characters will be knocked unconscious, deprived of their gear, and hauled to Krakenholt. En route, a generous helping of torture will deprive them of their healing surges and any ability to take short or extended rests. Without their precious magic items and their encounter and daily powers, the heroes will be hard-pressed to threaten Vantajar directly, and yet I can imagine all sorts of reversals. They might convince a disloyal crew member to return a useful magic item (such as a sending stone). Maybe they’ll ride out the journey and take their revenge as Vantajar presents the cutlass to the Eye of the Kraken. If all else fails, perhaps fate will intervene on their behalf: Maybe Vantajar is attacked en route by a Sea King determined to stop his ascendency, and the resulting battle affords the heroes a chance to reclaim their gear and win their freedom, or maybe the Eye of the Kraken will judge the evil warlord to be unworthy of the cutlass, denying him his destiny. Villains become much more interesting when things don’t go their way. They are, after all, dark reflections of the heroes.

Lessons Learned

Sometimes a DM has to be cruel to be kind. Sometimes, for the sake of suspense and good drama, you have to drive the heroes into the dirt so that they can pick themselves back up, sharpen their game (and their blades), and stage a storybook comeback, becoming even more powerful than when they faced defeat. Here are some helpful tips to guide you:

  • Be transparent: Give your players hints that they might be in over their heads.

  • It’s okay to set the characters up for failure. Just don’t be surprised if they succeed.

  • If you expect the characters to fail and they fail, know where to take the story from there.

Many players don’t like it when their heroes fail, die, or both—especially when it happens during an “unfair” encounter. My players understand that I’m not on a quest to annihilate their characters or make them feel like useless tools, and so should yours. In classic and modern fiction, heroes rise, fall, and rise again. The unfair encounter is something you can use occasionally (emphasis on occasionally) to rouse your players and propel your campaign in interesting new directions.

If your players are unaccustomed to being trounced and you’re worried that they might turn against you, you could do worse than sow the seeds of their eventual comeback. Tell the players how much you’re looking forward to seeing how they remedy their characters’ latest misfortune, and plant a few hints as to how they might succeed next time. Maybe the villain’s subordinates are badly treated and could be turned against him. Maybe the heroes can discover a weakness to exploit. Maybe the villain lets down his guard or makes a classic blunder of overconfidence. But I’m getting ahead of myself!

Just as the best heroes have faults, so too do the best villains. We’ll tackle this subject in next week’s column, and I’ll pull a few examples not only from the Iomandra campaign but also from the adventure I have in store for Acquisitions Incorporated at this year’s live D&D game at PAX 2011! Stay tuned.

Until the next encounter!

—Dungeon Master for Life,
Chris Perkins

Poll 08/11/2011 Results:

1. What are your player characters most likely to do when confronted by one or more intelligent enemies of comparable power level?

  • Slaughter them: 59.1%
  • Beat on them and force their surrender: 14.6%
  • Bargain or negotiate terms with them, in lieu of combat: 10.6%
  • Deceive them to gain some item or advantage: 6.4%
  • Threaten them into backing off, in lieu of combat: 4.2%
  • Attempt to befriend them. (’Tis better to love thy enemy!): 2.8%
  • None of the above: 1.4%
  • Flee: 0.8%

2. What are your player characters most likely to do when faced with certain death at the hands of intelligent enemies?

  • Fight to the bitter end: 44.3%
  • Flee: 26.1%
  • Deceive the enemy to facilitate victory or escape: 17.6%
  • Surrender (and hope to escape captivity): 6.8%
  • Bribe the enemy: 2.7%
  • None of the above: 2.7%

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll 08/18/2011

1. How would your players describe you as a Dungeon Master?

How would your players describe you as a Dungeon Master?
"A total pushover."
"In charge yet easygoing."
"Tough but fair."
"A soulless monster."
"Depends on the day."

2. What type of combat encounters do you find the hardest to create?

What type of combat encounters do you find the hardest to create?
Fun easy encounters.
Fun level-appropriate encounters.
Fun killer encounters.
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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