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Boo Hoo
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. The heroes find a nautilus (a mind flayer ship) beached on the island of Sha'hadam. The ship's elder brain and crew are dead, killed by a mysterious psychic wave. The DM has just handed the PCs the means to an end—a ship with which they can infiltrate the mind flayer empire and reach their evil nemesis, Starlord Evendor. Peter Schaefer, who plays a changeling named Metis, discovers that he can operate the shipboard systems if he assumes the form of a mind flayer and sticks his tentacles into the pilot's control station, but he still needs the elder brain to provide the vessel's motive force. Imagine my surprise when the players hit upon the idea of asking Imazhia, their NPC companion (and a cleric of Bahamut), to cast an Animate Dead ritual on the elder brain!

The heroes are about to learn a painful lesson: Necromantic rituals and undead elder brains aren't to be trifled with.

O nce they realized they needed the elder brain to power the ship, the Monday night players (to their credit) weighed the ramifications of raising it from the dead versus reanimating it. Ultimately they decided that the undead version would be easier to control, and under normal circumstances, they'd be right. But you can't throw "undead elder brain" at the DM (at least, not THIS one) and expect it to end well. Suffice to say, the elder brain was shocked back to "life" by Imazhia's ritual and immediately lashed out at the party. That's more or less how the last game session ended.

Next Monday is Halloween, and the game is off because several of my players have other commitments. On the one hand it makes me sad, but on the other hand I have another week to think about how I'm going to further torment my players. In the spirit of Samhain, this week I fearlessly don my Scary DM hat, so take the following "advice" with several grains of salt.

Here's my "top 5 list" of ways to torture players, with specific examples from the Monday night campaign:

Torture Tip #1: Give the players what they want then take it away.

It's the oldest, nastiest DM trick in the book, and positively Gygaxian in its fiendish wickedness.

Early on in paragon tier, my players learned of the Morkoth, a ship moored at the docks in Io'galaroth that was "up for grabs." Its captain had been killed and its crew disbanded, leaving the ship ripe for the taking. After ridding the city of evil kraken-worshiping cultists, the heroes persuaded the city's magistrate to give them the Morkoth for keeps. However, by this time they had made an enemy of an unscrupulous ship captain named Lydia Taralan, who not only commanded a ship of her own but also a 30-foot-long iron shark golem. After Taralan chased them out of Io'galaroth, the heroes decided not to wage a ship-to-ship battle but instead used phantom steeds to bring the fight to Taralan on the deck of her own ship. Meanwhile, Taralan's iron shark golem laid waste to the undefended Morkoth, and it sank into the briny depths.

Free ships are great, but players appreciate helpful NPCs even more, particularly likeable ones who push obstacles out of the party's way, give them free stuff, or provide wise counsel. Imazhia, the cleric of Bahamut, is one such NPC. She receives portentous dreams that warn the PCs of impending danger, she cuts through the bureaucracy of the Dragovar Empire like a knife through a pumpkin, and she provides free healing without complaint. I'm just dying to kill her off, but I'm waiting for the perfect moment . . . the moment when her loss will be shocking and deeply felt. Or maybe I'll just have her arrested by a political rival on suspicion of treason. Either way, the players won't be able to lean on her anymore.

My players also grew to like Lady Thariel von Zarkyn, a noblewoman who secretly belonged to a cult of Vecna. Thariel had conflicting loyalties and ultimately decided to use the secrets in her possession to help the PCs, so when her superiors told her to dispose of them, she took her own life instead. (Insert creepy DM cackle here.)

Torture Tip #2: Reward the players' accomplishments with logical negative consequences.

For every action, there's an equal and opposite reaction. Okay, so the PCs just slaughtered the dragon and took its stuff. What are the odds that the dragon's mother finds out what happened and puts a contract out on them? Pretty good, I think. And what about that evil merchant they killed? Surely the criminals to whom he owed large sums of money will want their pound of flesh. Learn a lesson from Greek mythology: For every head the heroes cut off, two more grow in its place.

In my campaign, the heroes recently befriended the Knights of Ardyn, a "friendly" terrorist organization committed to stamping out corruption in the Dragovar Empire. In doing so, they've come to the attention of the Vost Miraj, the empire's equivalent of MI:6. The organization, which itself is riddled with corruption, already has an assassin in the party's ranks (played by one of the players, no less), and his buddies are moving in for the kill. This is what happens when you make friends with people who have enemies!

Torture Tip #3: Have that light at the end of the tunnel suddenly go out.

In my mind, that "light at the end of the tunnel" is actually a demented will-o'-wisp, baiting the players as it leads the characters toward their doom. As the DM, you have the power to make them feel like no matter what they do, they're no closer to reaching their ultimate goal or destination. When dismay sets in, but before the players become thoroughly discouraged and despondent, you shine rays of hope straight into their eyes to dazzle them before plunging them back into darkness.

The Monday group desperately wants to end the mind flayer threat and live happily ever after, but every time they achieve a victory, Starlord Evendor, their evil nemesis, uses the reality-altering power of an elder constellation to affect horrendous changes, in one instance depriving the players of their elemental warship and in another resurrecting an old enemy to confound them and slow their progress.

Torture Tip #4: Kill player characters offscreen, and throw their body parts to the other players like scraps of meat to wild dogs.

No, I'm not being metaphorical here. That's what I did to Melech, Bruce Cordell's tiefling warlock, when Bruce missed a session. In my campaign, player-less PCs become glorified NPCs and fuel for storytelling and suspense.

When players are absent in my game, their characters typically "fade into the background" or, if possible, run errands while the other characters tackle the problem at hand. By DM fiat, a guild of slavers managed to corner Melech while the other PCs were "adventuring," and at the end of the session they delivered his severed head to the party in a bloody bag. True, Melech was raised the very next session, but the shock value was worth it. Head rolls across the floor AND . . . cut to black. See you next week!

If you really want to take this idea to the next level, take a dead character and bring him or her back as an undead horror. That's what happened to Nick DiPetrillo's genasi swordmage, Yuriel, who had his soul devoured by a death knight's sword. A helpful lich named Osterneth offered to put an artificial heart in Yuriel's corpse and pump necrotic sludge through his dead veins, and though the other players objected, Yuriel's wife and first mate (a watersoul genasi NPC named Pearl) was determined to have her darling husband back, and so . . . say hello to Yuriel the vampire! Undead Yuriel didn't "survive" for many sessions. After dying heroically in battle, he had his heart ripped out (more or less) by a blue dragon sea captain, and Jeremy Crawford's character destroyed the heart with a magic missile to make sure it couldn't be used again.

Torture Tip #5: Thrust the PCs into situations they aren't equipped to handle.

If I want my players to squirm, I'll put them in a room where their swords and spells avail them not. It might be a room full of politicians discussing the future of the Dragovar Empire, or the hold of a ship containing a sentient Far Realm mine that they must disarm or outsmart before it blows them and their ship to bits.

I'm reminded of a particular "character moment" involving Jeff Alvarez, who plays a highly optimized fighting machine named Kithvolar. The elf ranger does outrageous amounts of damage in combat and can practically solo your average encounter, but Jeff and Kithvolar are out of their element in noncombat situations. So imagine Jeff's surprise when Kithvolar "awakens" from his nightly reverie with blood on his swords and no memory of how it got there, followed by the discovery that he's murdering people in his "sleep" because the mind flayers put something in his brain. He can't stab the thing in his brain with a sword, at least not without killing himself, so what should he do? That, my friends, is torture.

Lessons Learned

I'm sure every DM who reads this article can empathize with my primal need to torment my players, and I'm fairly certain I'm not the only DM in the D&D multiverse whose campaign has a sadomasochistic undercurrent. Nothing wrong with giving the campaign an occasional jolt. My players relish the adversity that they and their characters are forced to overcome week after week. The scars they earn along the way will pay off at the end of the campaign, when the surviving PCs gaze at the smoldering ashes of their enemies and realize they've been through hell and withstood the horrors of death, loss, and mutilation. As long as everyone knows it's all in good fun, there's no love lost.

And on that note, here's another parting tip I'd like to share, a surefire way to torment your players: Think twice before you throw them a bone. Let the player characters be the instruments of their own demise. My players don't need much help from me to kill off their characters; they're perfectly capable of making ill-informed decisions and rolling a natural 1 on that final death save. When things go from bad to worse, some players expect the DM to jump in and contrive some clever escape for the character(s) in need, or fudge some die rolls in the party's favor. Scary DM says, "Mercy is for the weak!" Stun them by letting that third consecutive critical hit stand. Terrify them by letting the vicious death knight make that coup de grace attack and finish off the party leader lying unconscious at his feet. My players don't remember the time I cut them slack; they remember the horror of that moment when the death knight killed their beloved warlord while her companions wallowed in their own blood and pooped themselves.

Until the next encounter!

—Dungeon Master for Life,
Chris Perkins

Previous Poll Results

Do you like it when we includes NPCs in our monster books, as was done in Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale?
Yes 1228 72.8%
No 142 8.4%
Don't really care 316 18.7%
Total 1686 100.0%

Hey DMs: How often to you "borrow" NPCs, in whole or in part, from other campaign settings?
Always 157 8.7%
Sometimes 914 50.8%
Once in a blue moon (i.e., rarely) 547 30.4%
Never 180 10.0%
Total 1798 100.0%

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #37A

 Here's Chris Perkins' "top 20" list of North American non-sequel horror films made in the past 20 years. Which one has the best D&D plot or inspires the coolest D&D adventure?  
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Copycat (1995)
Scream (1996)
The Frighteners (1996)
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Ginger Snaps (2000)
Pitch Black (2000)
Jeepers Creepers (2001)
28 Days Later (2002)
The Ring (2002)
Dawn of the Dead (2004)
The Grudge (2004)
Hostel (2005)
Paranormal Activity (2007)
Rob Zombie's Halloween (2007)
The Mist (2007)
Drag Me To Hell (2009)
Trick 'r Treat (2009)
Zombieland (2009)
The Crazies (2010)

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #37B

 Which of the following classic adventures inspires the best D&D movie?  
G1-2-3 Against the Giants
I2 Tomb of the Lizard King
I6 Ravenloft
N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God
S1 Tomb of Horrors
T1-4 The Temple of Elemental Evil
U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh
UK1 Beyond the Crystal Cave
WG5 Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure
Nothing on this list. (P.S. Perkins, you suck at polls.)

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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