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 party has reached the apex of a multi-session episode of the campaign, entitled “Secrets of Nythe-Saleme.” The adventure takes place on an island ruled by the pair of purple dragon sisters, Nythe and Saleme (hence the name of the island and the episode)—but there’s more to them than meets the eye. The sisters hold the answers to many secrets, including the whereabouts of the Dragovar emperor… whose disappearance is one of the biggest mysteries of the campaign.
Think of any serialized TV drama of the past decade that features a good-sized cast of characters. If you’re stuck, I’ll name a few off the top of my head: Lost. Battlestar Galactica. The Sopranos. Deadwood. True Blood. Mad Men. Now think of all the story characteristics those shows have in common with D&D campaigns you’ve created or imagined creating. I’d contend that the similarities are astonishing.
The truth is, if I hadn’t wormed my way into the gaming industry, I’d probably be most happy working as a TV producer. I tend to think of my D&D campaign as a dramatic TV series:
My campaign has an ensemble cast of characters….
It has episodic adventures, some of which are built around a larger mythology, while others have a more stand-alone feel….
The episodes link together to form the “guts” of my campaign narrative, while simultaneously allowing for individual character development and, when it happens, character death....
In fact, the only real difference I can ascertain between a D&D campaign and a serialized TV drama is that, unlike a TV show, a D&D campaign isn’t likely to be televised. (Having said that, I dare someone to prove me wrong. I will pay tribute and homage to anyone who actually manages to turn his or her D&D campaign into a TV series.)
One of the payoffs for thinking about your campaign as a TV series is that you’ll have an easier time remembering what’s important: the characters and their ongoing development. That’s why the players play in your campaign. It’s what makes designing adventures so much fun. It’s about the journey of the characters and the bad things and hilarious s**t that happen along the way.
Here are three tricks to help you get into the mindset of treating your campaign as a TV series:
Trick #1: Keep a running episode guide.
Fans write episode guides for their favorite series all the time. Why? Because it’s fun. The episode guide chronicles all of the events that have transpired thus far. As you begin assembling your campaign episode guide, treat each adventure or play session as a separate episode, give them a number and a name, and write a short summary (no more than one paragraph!) of what happened. It’s okay to leave out specific details of who-did-what-to-whom. It’s okay to end on a cliffhanger. And it’s perfectly okay to take a longer adventure and break it up into smaller episodes. (TV series do this all the time. It’s called “Episode, Part 1” and “Episode, Part 2.”)
Your episode guide can be any format, although wikis are ideal for this sort of thing. Because I run two separate campaigns in the same world, I keep separate wikis for my Monday night and Wednesday night games.
At the end of each one-paragraph episode write-up, include a “Notes” section where you can dump miscellaneous information worth keeping track of. I often use this space to mention important NPCs by name, recount weird occurrences and character actions that have little to do with the plot, and other wacky stuff.
Here’s a sample write-up from my Wednesday night episode guide, modified slightly to make it comprehensible to those unfamiliar with the details of the Iomandra campaign:
Episode 149: Caves of the Kraken Cult, Part 1
Campaign Date: 10 Lendys 1475
In the back of an underground warehouse, the heroes discover an illusory wall concealing a secret network of caves infested with aberrations. The heroes make their way to a cavern occupied by half-mad kraken cultists guarded by hungry chuuls. Deimos (played by Chris Youngs) insinuates himself among the cultists and lures them into an ambush. The party then confronts the chuuls and remaining members of the cult. After a pitched battle, the heroes decide to withdraw and recuperate.
On their way out, they run afoul into a gang of Horned Alliance thugs led by Suffer, a tiefling with a whale-sized attitude problem. The heroes flee back into the caves. There, they find another exit connected to the Stone Rose Brothel in the city’s dwarven district. Once back in the city, they take refuge at the Temple of Bahamut—and come face-to-face with the Horned Alliance’s second-in-command, Prismeus, who makes them an offer they can’t refuse.
Notes: Divin (played by Curt Gould) nearly dies after falling into a watery vortex at the bottom of a deep shaft. Divin calls to Melora for aid, and because he earlier placed some treasure on her altar, Melora answers his call, taking the form of a watery leviathan that lifts him up out of the vortex.
Trick #2: Think of your campaign in terms of seasons.
A season of a campaign might span any number of levels. My players have long-term commitments to my campaign, so I went with three seasons, each one spanning a tier (heroic, paragon, epic). If that works for you, steal the idea. If your game group is less stable, consider making your seasons shorter.
At the beginning of each season, I ask each player to give me a list of three things he or she would like to see happen during the season. These might be character-specific, or might be larger in scale. When my Wednesday group hit epic tier, I recalled that Rodney Thompson had a couple memorable things on his list: He wanted his character to transform from one race into another, and he wanted the heroes to participate in at least one full-scale naval battle. Stuff like this is very helpful, once you begin using Trick #3.
Trick #3: Imagine where your campaign is going, and concoct future episode ideas.
Once your episode guide is up-to-date, start writing 1-sentence descriptions for a bunch of episodes that haven’t happened yet. This is what I call campaign projection; it’s an opportunity to imagine what might happen in the weeks and months ahead, based on where the campaign’s heading and the likely outcomes and consequences of the characters’ actions up to this point. TV producers do something similar when they sit down to plot out upcoming seasons of their shows; they identify the stories they want to tell, and how best to develop their ensemble cast and “pay off” audience expectations. For your campaign, think of the ensemble cast as the characters in your game, with the players as your audience.
Here are some episode one-liners I wrote for the Wednesday game, many of which were inspired by the actions and ideas of my players:
The Red Shoals of Dkar
(Armos episode) The hunt for Fathomreaver leads the heroes to an elemental domain ruled by greedy pirates and bloodthirsty politics. (Aside: This idea was actually inspired by an article that Bruce Cordell wrote for Dungeon, so props to him!)
Master of the Maelstrom
(Deimos and Vargas episode) The heroes confront their nemesis, the pirate warlord Vantajar, on the high seas.
Impstinger Must Die
(Deimos episode) Sea King Impstinger is accused of launching a savage attack on a Dragovar settlement.
(Fleet episode) The characters are reunited with their warforged companion, but there’s something different about him.
(Rhasgar and Kael episode) The empire is thrown into upheaval when Bahamut’s worshipers lose all contact with their god.
The Sun Also Sets
(Xanthum episode) In preparation for war against the mind flayers, the heroes seek out powerful allies and a lost relic at a remote monastery dedicated to the sun god Pelor.
Constellation of Madness
A celestial event alters reality, allowing heroes from the Monday campaign to interact with heroes from the Wednesday campaign.
I’ve fleshed out the first three one-liners on this list in anticipation of actually running them as adventures; the rest are half-baked ideas that might or might not ever unfold. Some of these represent natural steps forward, or sudden twists in the major campaign arcs playing out this season; others are stand-alone adventure ideas that will hopefully inject some new villains and surprises into the campaign.
Some of your ideas for future episodes will get knocked off by better ideas. Others will die for reasons beyond your control; for example, a player (around whose character the idea was based) might drop out of the game. A few ideas might perish for logistical reasons. I really like the “Constellation of Madness” adventure idea; however, mixing and matching players from my two campaigns is a scheduling nightmare. Consequently, as cool as this idea sounds, it might not be as feasible as originally conceived. That said, I love the title and will definitely find a way to use that, if nothing else.
Don’t be afraid to include future episode one-liners in your published campaign wiki. It’s okay for the players to read them—desirable even. Here’s why: It’s fun to tease players with stuff that might happen, and just like teasers for a TV show, it excites them to think about the possibilities. It’s worth noting that the ideas you flag as character-specific episodes shouldn’t really focus on a single character; this should only serve to remind you that certain episodes help to advance specific character arcs. Show me a player who hates it when the spotlight shines on his character, and I’ll show you a tarrasque that can fly!
To summarize: Imagine your D&D campaign as a TV series, with the heroes as your ensemble cast and the players as your audience. As the producer of this series, it’s your job to imagine where the campaign is headed and what journey each character must make toward the inevitable finale. Sometimes your campaign will get cancelled prematurely, because it loses its audience; there’s really nothing you can do about it except start over (and maybe target a new audience).
Here are some things to keep in mind if you decide to approach your campaign as a serialized TV show:
Think of your campaign in terms of episodes and seasons.
Create a campaign episode guide.
Write one-liners for future episodes to help you imagine where the campaign’s headed.
Until the next encounter!
—Dungeon Master for Life,
Poll #3 Results
Where do you get most of the best story ideas for your campaign?
My own enormous brain: 25.1%
- The ether (in other words, “I’m not exactly sure”): 14.8%
- Published fiction: 13.8%
- Movies and TV shows: 10.1%
- Published adventures: 8.1%
- Porn sites (just kidding; don’t click this one, or we’ll both be in trouble!): 6.4%
- My players: 6.2%
- Video games: 5.5%
- My butt: 3.6%
- Gaming blogs and/or forums: 3.3%
- Published nonfiction: 1.6%
- Other DMs: 1.5%
- Non-gaming blogs and/or forums: 0.0%
The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #4
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.