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The Circus Is In Town
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. The heroes have done the impossible. Using words rather than weapons, they've united the Sea Kings of Iomandra against a common threat, and they did it without the legendary magical cutlass that has long been a symbol of unity among the feuding seafaring merchant-lords. The heroes made a play for the weapon earlier in the campaign, wresting it from the clutches of the pirate-warlord Vantajar, but it plunged into a sea of acid in the Elemental Chaos and was forever lost to them. Instead, they turned to an old, half-forgotten Sea King who once wielded the weapon, and he helped them lure his fellow Sea Kings to a summit at Krakenholt before passing away of old age. Left to their own devices, the heroes made a roleplaying pitch for a temporary truce and succeeded! Not bad for a tiefling, a deva-turned-eladrin (long story), a gnome, a goliath, a warforged, a pit fiend (another long story), and a human dimwit.

I 'm of two minds when it comes to the plethora of race options in the D&D game. On the one hand, I like that players have a diverse selection of races to choose from. On the other hand, it occasionally bothers me that "core" races such as humans, elves, dwarves, and halflings often get pushed to the sidelines in favor of the more oddball races, the end results of which are adventuring parties that look like circus freak shows.

Were they freaks in a circus, my Wednesday night player characters would have such colorful names as the Devil-Man, the World's Shortest Man, the Man of a Thousand Deaths, the World's Biggest Man, Mister Metallo, the Prince of Darkness, and the World's Dumbest Man (so named because Mat Smith plays his human character as an idiot savant). Interestingly, of the nonhumans, the only one who bothers to hide his true appearance when traveling abroad is the tiefling. The rest of them parade around like they own the world, which, come to think of it, they do.

Sometimes I feel like the D&D game needs a rule that says "Every adventuring party needs at least two humans and at least one elf, halfling, or dwarf," just so all D&D adventuring parties retain that Fellowship of the Ring feel. I would never endorse such a rule, although I can't help but wonder why I didn't set a cap on "uncommon races" at the start of my campaign. Maybe it's because I'm not sure that's a good idea. Again, I like that a player can build virtually any character he can imagine, but I can't help wondering how many race options a campaign (not to mention the game) really needs.

I've never imposed race restrictions on my players. It doesn't matter what they play, I tell myself. I can always modify the campaign to provide entertaining stories based on their choices. I think that's the real reason why I've never told my players what they can and can't play — because I'm willing to make whatever adjustments are needed to account for the players' choices. Sometimes an oddball choice makes me discover something about the campaign even I didn't know. When Andrew Finch expressed an interest in retiring his revenant character and playing a goliath, it gave me a chance to think about how goliaths fit into my world, which is something I hadn't considered before. Andrew asked me for a list of goliath tribes around which he could build a rich character background, which I happily provided and keep handy for that inevitable occasion when the party encounters one of them.

Iomandra is a draco-centric world where dragons and dragonborn rule supreme, and all other races are secondary or tertiary, so I've already upset the "natural order" evinced by the default human-centric D&D campaign. Oddly enough, there are no dragonborn in the party (although there used to be, until Trevor Kidd moved away and took his dragonborn paladin with him). That puts the party at a political disadvantage, particularly when dealing with the domineering Dragovar Empire. And yet, the fact that they were recently declared "princes of the empire" for saving the Emperor's life is so much sweeter because none of them is a dragonborn. And sometimes being a freak show works to their advantage, such as when they had to unite the Sea Kings of Iomandra, who are themselves a mixed bag of races.

Over the past four years, I can recall a number of instances where the racial composition of the party worked to its advantage or disadvantage, and I always enjoyed the situations and conflicts that arose, allowing me to reward (and occasionally punish) players for the choices they made. I've given Chris Youngs a ton of grief for playing a tiefling, mostly because tieflings in my world are viewed throughout Dragovar society as untrustworthy troublemakers and "bad luck." My campaign also uses warforged primarily as antagonists, so Nacime Khemis's warforged character is often suspect or, worse, feared. Since Chris Champagne's pit fiend joined the group, he's mostly been confined to the party's ship—he wouldn't dare walk the streets of Io'calioth without some kind of magical disguise. As inconvenient as that sounds, there are obvious advantages to having a pit fiend in the party, and it's my job to create situations that make Chris glad he's playing a pit fiend character. (Hang in there, Chris! It's coming, I promise!)

Most of us know what it's like to be the outsider. To be on the fringe. To be in the minority. Moreover, the outsider archetype crops up in films, TV, comics, and literature all the time. When you have a party of exotic characters running around, it seems natural that the theme of "outsiders in the world" would rear its head from time to time in the campaign. Is that something you're willing to deal with?

Lessons Learned

The D&D game has, over the years, expanded the number of race options available to players, and we all have our own thoughts about that. I'm grateful because the Iomandra campaign wouldn't exist if someone hadn't bothered to create the dragonborn, but I also dread the day when the party gnome dies and Curt asks me if it'll be okay to play a kenku, a minotaur, or some fool thing.

When I sit down to create my next D&D campaign, it behooves me to tell my players what the world is like, what races are integral to the story of the world, and what races I'm not building the world around. That will help guide their character-making decisions without stifling their creativity. If they want to play something exotic, at least they know up front that they're playing an outsider.

If your adventuring party looks like a walking, talking freak show, you have two ways to deal with it. You can play down the party's freakish nature and run the campaign as though the players' racial choices don't really matter in the grand scheme of things, or you can build stories and roleplaying opportunities around the freak show and make that part of the texture of your campaign. Both choices are fair ones, and you can have it both ways.

Even though I've embraced the Wednesday night freak show, there are adventures where the party's racial composition really doesn't matter. When my heroes are waging war on the high seas against Sea King Senestrago, their sometime nemesis, the party's racial diversity provides some tactically useful racial traits and that's about it. The same would be true if the characters were exploring some monster-ridden dungeon. A gang of trolls or a hungry otyugh isn't going to blink twice at a party composed of six different races. However, when my players are negotiating with the Ironstar Cartel or subjecting themselves to inspection by a passing Dragovar warship, they'll need to give serious thought about what to do with their less innocuous companions, and that becomes an added challenge.

I can imagine building a campaign where the stories I wanted to tell preclude the inclusion of bizarre races such as wilden and shardminds, and I might urge my players not to select these races, but would I forbid them? Probably not. It's their campaign, too, after all. It does beg the question of how much different my campaign would be with plantfolk and crystalfolk running around. The answer? Only as different as I want to make it.

Until the next encounter!

—Dungeon Master for Life,
Chris Perkins

Last Week's Polls

Hey DMs: How often do you use wet-erase battle maps when running your D&D games?
Always. 749 30.6%
More often than not. 666 27.2%
Occasionally. 560 22.9%
Never. 471 19.3%
Total 2446 100.0%

Hey DMs: How would you rate your wet-erase battle map fu?
My map fu could use more fu. 1279 53.4%
My map fu is weak. 529 22.1%
My map fu is second best. 417 17.4%
My map fu is best. 171 7.1%
Total 2396 100.0%

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #52A

 Hey DMs: In your current campaign, do you impose any restrictions on what races a player can choose to play?  

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #52B

 In your humble opinion, how many PC race options does the D&D game really need?  
5 or less
10 or less
15 or less
20 or less
No limit... the more, the merrier!
Hard to say. It depends on the campaign.

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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