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Behind Every Good DM, Part 2
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.

MONDAY NIGHT. Against the wishes of his adventuring companions, Peter Schaefer's changeling character, Metis (in mind flayer form), took the party's ship—a recently commandeered illithid nautilus—into the Far Realm for the second time. This enabled the ship to skirt vast distances of ocean in the natural world. However, his earlier attempt to navigate the Far Realm nearly ended in disaster, and no one expected this latest foray to go any better.

Knowing how unpredictable Peter can be at times, I had anticipated the possibility that Metis might take the ship back into the Far Realm and even planned an encounter should the ship become stranded there. However, I wasn't prepared for the success with which Metis piloted the ship or his intended destination. Peter had decided, on his own, that the time had come to take the fight to the campaign's main villain, Starlord Evendor, and attack Evendor's observatory deep in the heart of enemy waters.

Navigating the ship through the Far Realm was handled as a skill challenge. However, when I asked Peter where exactly he wanted the ship to appear in the natural world, his intentions became horrifically clear. He aimed to crash the ship into Starlord Evendor's observatory—and on this particular occasion, his aim was dead on. The ship materialized in the air above the observatory and plunged nose-down through the domed rooftop, embedding itself within the tower's metal superstructure. Everyone aboard the ship took massive amounts of damage, some more than others, and several friendly NPCs aboard the vessel perished instantly. The impact also set off every alarm in the tower.

W elcome to Part 2 of this article! If you haven't read Part 1, start there before pressing on.

Two weeks ago, I shared with you my outline for this particular "episode" of the campaign, which is nothing like what's described above. Suffice to say, Peter pretty much torpedoed my best-laid plans when his character abducted the campaign and took the party to an altogether unexpected place. I suddenly found myself flipping to the end of my campaign binder, where I'd placed my notes on Starlord Evendor's tower observatory and its occupants. I hadn't planned for the heroes to reach this encounter location until they were at least three levels higher, but when things like this happen, you just gotta roll with it.

I don't get scared when players take control of the campaign. There's a little bit of role reversal that happens because now I'm the one who's reacting to events, and I can't simply throw my hands into the air and shouting, "I didn't plan for this!" DMing is all about improvisation, and the show must go on. What do I do in situations like this? I use what I know and what I have, and I make up the rest. Although my plans for the session were jettisoned within the first twenty minutes, I found the experience exhilarating because the players were well and truly freaked out, and there was some wonderful inter-party conflict as a consequence of Metis's bold actions.

The point of this article, which I mentioned last week as well, is that you can learn a lot about DMing by listening to what your players have observed watching you "do your thing." Recently I sent an email to my players, asking them the following question:

Based on your experience as a player in my campaign, what's one helpful bit of advice or lesson you'd like to share with the DMs of the world who are reading this article?

Here's what some of the players from my Monday night game wrote:

Character: Baharoosh (dragonborn rogue)

We always have choices as to where the adventurers will go next, and those are meaningful in that things will continue to develop while we're gone. If we choose to deal with Plot A first, when we come back, Plots B and C will have developed in our absence. It gives the world a feeling of great depth and makes every story arc choice feel more impactful. Sometime we can CREATE a big problem for ourselves just by letting a little one go unattended for a long while.

Bruce R. Cordell
Character: Melech (tiefling warlock)

Chris is a master of creating colorful and easily distinguishable NPCs. His tool for accomplishing this is manner (friendly, suspicious, forgetful, etc.), speed of speaking, and accent. The more you, as a DM, can emulate any of these traits to differentiate your NPCs, the more your players will appreciate your game, because the creatures they meet while playing will seem to almost have in independent life of their own.

Matt Sernett
Character: Bartho (human fighter)

The plot is everywhere. You can't escape it. But it's not a monolithic freight train bearing you on whether you like it or not; it's a tangled web from which everyone dangles. I never feel railroaded; instead, we're often overwhelmed by options. Every NPC seems to have a story, so much so that I sometimes want to tell another player not to talk to an NPC. It's fantastic, and it's a way of running a game that I took to heart when designing the Neverwinter Campaign Setting.

Nick DiPetrillo
Characters: Yuriel (genasi swordmage), Theralyn (elf ranger)

The most important lesson is a simple one: be open. Take a chance on a player from outside your usual circles. If someone wants to launch themselves out of a catapult toward the enemy ship, let him! When the story starts to spin off in a direction you never anticipated, set your notes aside and go along for the ride. If you can't find rules to support what a player wants to do, then you create rules. You should even be open to your own oddball ideas. Why not have a session where players take on the role of their characters' henchmen or have a flashback story arc that returns the group to their first-level selves? If you shut yourself off from the possibilities, you can still tell a great story, but legends are born when the whole group collaborates and pushes each other to go a little crazy.

Lessons Learned

In a heroic fantasy movie, the actions, dialogue, and fates of the heroes are scripted. Not so in a D&D campaign. Good D&D players don't pass up opportunities to take ownership of the campaign and make choices that affect its outcome, and I never get annoyed when that happens. Good D&D players also don't cry "Foul!" when things don't go their characters' way. I can deal with a lot of negative player behavior, but I can't stand whiners.

Yeah, okay, I sometimes feel guilty throwing high-level challenges at low-level characters when the players have no say in the matter (and there are valid reasons for doing so). However, when one or more players make a conscious decision to invite disaster, I have no qualms letting them stumble into harm's way and seeing the wreckage pile up. That's where all the best campaign stories come from!

In my campaign, it's absolutely possible for characters to hurl themselves at enemies of much higher level. I try to make levels in my game semi-transparent so that the players have a general sense of which foes are within their abilities to defeat, but I don't sweat when a character picks a fight with an enemy much stronger than him. I won't adjust the encounter difficulty to match the party level, either. Players are allowed to bite off more than their characters can chew. Great risk begets great reward . . . and a higher probability of getting killed. The same thing happens in World of Warcraft when you decide to take your level 70 character into a realm populated by level 80 monsters; sure, you might survive, but it's a scary, dangerous place to be.

In the case of the Monday night group, the adventurers (fortunately) have the element of surprise, but (unfortunately) they're facing multiple encounters' worth of enemies at once, all higher level than them. I look forward to seeing how they fare under the circumstances and where the campaign goes should they prevail or perish.

Until the next encounter!

—Dungeon Master for Life,
Chris Perkins

Previous Poll Results

Hey DMs: Imagine you have an open spot at your gaming table. What sort of player would you most want to fill that empty chair?
Wil Wheaton. 394 22.9%
An experienced D&D player who's more about the roleplaying than the rules. 378 22.0%
An experienced, easy-going player who also likes to DM occasionally. 321 18.7%
Anyone will do, as long as they're not a total jerk. 277 16.1%
A novice player who's completely new to roleplaying games. 127 7.4%
A player who's new to D&D but familiar with RPGs in general. 92 5.4%
An experienced DM who enjoys being a player as well. 87 5.1%
An experienced D&D player who really knows the rules and enjoys min-maxing. 22 1.3%
The family dog. 19 1.1%
Total 1717 100.0%

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #42

 Which of the following celebrities would make the best D&D player?  
Robert DeNiro
Betty White
Quentin Tarantino
Kim Kardashian
Gene Simmons
Lady Gaga
Seth MacFarlane
Kristen Stewart
Nathan Fillion
Emma Watson

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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