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Leap Year
The Dungeon Master Experience
By 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 game has been cancelled for the fifth week in a row. Despite having eight players, I haven’t been able to pull enough players together for various reasons mostly having to do with summer vacations and conventions. Not surprisingly, my players are anxious for things to settle down and for the weekly game to resume, but so much time has passed that they can barely remember where we left off. Under normal circumstances, I would kick off our next session with a recap similar to what many serialized television shows do, but not this time.

I have taken a cue from Battlestar Galactica (the reimagined TV series, not the 1970s original) and advanced the timeline of my Monday night campaign by one year. It’s a risky move so close to the end of the campaign, but as a DM, I’m always looking for ways to excite my players. I originally planned to surprise them by announcing the timeline advancement at the start of a game session but changed my mind when I realized that they would need time to reflect on what their characters had done during the intervening months. Instead, I sent them the following email (rollover the red links for explanatory text):

I'm advancing the in-world timeline. When last we left the heroes, they'd captured Starlord Evendor and left it to Ardyn, the leader of the Knights of Ardyn, to determine Evendor’s fate. The next game session will pick things up approximately one year later. In the intervening months, your characters have been lying low and doing non-adventure-related things. As a homework assignment, I'd like each of you to send me what you imagine your character has done in the intervening time. Here are some major world developments of which your characters are aware:

1. Ardyn ordered Starlord Evendor's execution, considering him too great a threat to be kept alive.

2. The death of Starlord Evendor and the attack on the Dragovar warship by the Knights of Ardyn basically ended any hope of reconciliation between the knights and the empire. The Dragovar Empire is more convinced than ever that the Knights of Ardyn are terrorists who must be destroyed. Ardyn’s island lair has been abandoned, and the knights have gone into hiding. Several of them have been hunted down and exterminated, but Ardyn is still alive. Her whereabouts are unknown, and she isn't reachable via Sending rituals.

3. The coronation of Hlastro is imminent. His mother will serve as Imperial Regent until his coronation, although the Dragovar Empire’s martial caste has not formally recognized her title or ended its declaration of martial law in light of the Vhaltese threat (see below). If he lives long enough to be crowned, Hlastro will be the youngest Emperor in the history of the Dragovar Empire. (He'll be 15 years old.)

4. The Narakhty and Irizaxes noble houses are currently united through marriage and gaining support and influence throughout the Dragovar Empire. They openly oppose Hlastro’s impending coronation. Menes Narakhty is being positioned as a more adequate candidate for the imperial throne, and rumors abound that his mother, Kaphira Narakhty, is actively plotting against the legitimate imperial heir. House Narakhty has powerful friends in the nobility, the Temple of Tiamat, and in the military.

5. The Myrthon Regency no longer poses a threat to the empire. The Dragovar navy patrols Myrthon waters, and the military has rounded up and executed hundreds of high-ranking Myrthon officials convicted of conspiracy and treason. Tsarana Faijhan, the daughter of the late Myrthon regent Tsar Dakor, has been installed as a puppet regent (mostly to appease the Myrthon citizenry), and her dragonborn advisors are secretly affiliated with the Knights of Ardyn. If the Dragovar authorities discover this fact, it's likely that Faijhan and her advisors will be arrested and and/or executed.

6. The evil General Kamal didn't make many friends when he declared martial law and tried to install himself as Emperor. Kamal was recently stripped of his rank and ousted by his military rivals, with the full support of the Dragovar clergy and concerned nobility. He is under house arrest, and his mental state has deteriorated markedly. The highest-ranking member of the martial caste is currently General Rhutha. Although she's popular within her caste, her support among the other castes isn't great. Rhutha is under pressure to deal with the threat posed by Vhalt, and some believe she's reluctant to take orders from an Emperor as young as Hlastro. It's unknown whether she supports Menes Narakhty or not.

7. The new leader of the Vost Miraj is a dragonborn named Khoda, who reports directly to Rhutha. Khoda recently uncovered a conspiracy to assassinate General Rhutha and personally interrogated several captured conspirators with suspected ties to Vhalt before condemning them to death or life in prison. A warrant has been issued for the arrest and capture of Sea King Valkroi, who is allegedly involved in the conspiracy to assassinate Rhutha. The Vost Miraj has much less free reign than it did under its prior leadership.

8. The Magocracy of Vhalt has "invaded" Arkhosia. Dozens of Vhaltese flying citadels have taken up positions over the islands of Bael Nerath, and Vhalt has signed a mutual defense treaty with Bael Nerath and supports the humans’ declaration of independence. Having just crushed the Myrthon secession, the Dragovar Empire has no intention of allowing Bael Nerath to break away. The imperial navy has reinforced its blockade around the islands, but the ships cannot stop the Vhaltese citadels from coming and going, so the blockade is ineffective.

9. According to rumors coming out of Bael Nerath, some of the Vhaltese citadels are populated by eladrin, elves, and wilden. Groups of these fey creatures have been seen meeting with Bael Nerathi leaders and officials.

10. The dragonborn wizard Hahrzan and the remnants of his evil sect have gone underground. Meanwhile, the Shan Qabal has been officially dissolved and its members disavowed by the arcane caste in order to appease the other castes that hold the Shan Qabal responsible for the terrorist attack on Io’calioth. Former members of the Shan Qabal not associated with Hahrzan have formed a secret society that still reports to Lenkhor Krige, and they still refer to their order as the Shan Qabal.

Time is one of the most overlooked and ignored elements of a D&D campaign. Some DMs are fastidious when it comes to tracking it, but most of us aren’t. For the sake of our own sanity, we’re willing to put matters of time aside. We don’t care if the party wizard achieves 30th level before his 30th birthday, and we’re okay with an entire campaign transpiring within a year of game time, despite what history books teach us about medieval life, the Middle Ages, and how long it really takes for important events to transpire. In most D&D campaigns, character age is irrelevant; the chance that the party’s dwarf paladin or elf ranger will die of old age is virtually nil. A pity, really.

Once in a while, I get it in my noggin to tinker with time. Playing with time is risky, but it can also be fun and rewarding. I experienced the benefits firsthand when I allowed the Monday night group to travel back in time, and now I’m using time as a narrative device in a different way.

When the producers of Battlestar Galactica advanced their show’s timeline by one year, they knew they were taking a creative risk, but the potential rewards were irresistible. The show’s writers were excited by the drama that might unfold as a result of this narrative leap forward, and the decision allowed the show’s primary and secondary characters to explore new relationships and grow in interesting ways. We (the audience) were thrown for a loop at first, but if nothing else, the one-year leap gave us the chance to see Admiral Adama with a mustache, Lee Adama with a potbelly, Kara Thrace with long hair, and Saul Tigh with one eye. These aren’t the same high-ranking, gun-toting, Cylon-hating combat junkies we’ve seen week after week. We get to see how time transforms them.

By advancing the timeline in the Monday night game, I’m inviting my players to develop their characters and contribute to the overall narrative of the campaign — much like a team of writers on a serialized television show. How many times in the campaign do their characters get to enjoy an extended break and exist more or less as normal people? Will my players seize this opportunity to transform their characters and set up future adventure possibilities? I certainly hope so, or this leap forward will be for naught.

Lessons Learned

There are several advantages to advancing my campaign’s timeline:

  • I can show longer-term consequences of the heroes’ actions

  • I can reinforce which story arcs are most important going forward

  • I can give characters extra room to evolve and become part of the world

  • I can let my players tell some of the story

Moving forward in time shows the players that their characters’ actions have consequences. Nearly all of the NPCs mentioned in the email are individuals with whom the PCs have interacted in the past, and in many cases, the changes that have transpired are direct results of the party’s actions. For example, the heroes thwarted a conspiracy to assassinate the imperial heir, Hlastro. As a consequence, Hlastro is on track to become Emperor, and the Vost Miraj (the imperial secret service) has new leadership. One could argue that it would have been implausible to show so many consequences of the party’s actions without advancing the timeline. When concocting these narrative developments, I try to strike a balance between positives and negatives. To some extent, I want the players to feel like their characters’ decisions have changed the world for the better, but there also needs to be a few things left to “fix.” I also like to dream up consequences that are logical yet unexpected; for example, the heroes were responsible for several changes in leadership within the Dragovar Empire, one of which resulted in a warrant being issued for the arrest of Sea King Valkroi, whom the heroes consider an ally.

The leap forward also lets me encapsulate the most important story arcs of the campaign, which is important as the campaign spirals toward its conclusion. Buried within this email are hints at the various threats the PCs should be concerned about. Some major campaign villains no longer pose an imminent threat, while others clearly have parts to play in the drama yet to unfold. I can also plant seeds for future adventures. For example, the ninth item on my list includes a passing reference to wilden; until now, the only wilden to appear in my campaign is Shawn Blakeney’s wilden shaman, Kettenbar, who’s spent a sizable chunk of the campaign trying to get back to his home in the Feywild. Perhaps Shawn will seize this opportunity for Kettenbar to reunite with his people; the fact that they’re associated with worshipers of an evil god adds an element of mystery and drama.

My players have a golden opportunity to reinvest themselves in the campaign world and imagine ways in which their characters might have evolved in the intervening span of time. After months of bloodshed and running around, the characters are given ample time to accomplish things they wouldn’t be able to do in a more compressed or urgent timeframe. They also have a chance to strike off things on their “to do” lists and get into all sorts of player-instigated mischief.

I want my players to have a say in how the campaign unfolds, and if I’m lucky, their ideas and thoughts about what their characters do during a year of “down time” will add new layers of drama to the campaign and inspire future adventures as we resume our breakneck sprint toward the big finish. The next step for me as the DM is to see what ideas they come up with, answer any questions they might have, and figure out what to do with all of this great stuff. I not saying it’s easy, but then good storytelling never is.

Until the next encounter!

—Dungeon Master for Life,
Chris Perkins

Previous Poll Results

How many gnomes can you take in a fistfight?
Let's say five or six . . . fewer if they have badgers 409 31.3%
I'm a (gnome) lover, not a fighter 266 20.4%
At least a couple, assuming they don't gain combat advantage 250 19.1%
At least a dozen, or as many as fifty if most of them are elderly 176 13.5%
More than a half dozen, provided there's no hitting below the belt 120 9.2%
One gnome is more than a match for me 86 6.6%
Total 1307 100.0%

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #80

 Hey DMs: How often do you enforce "down time" in your campaigns, during which the characters are not actively adventuring?  
All the time. It helps stretch out the campaign’s timeframe.
Frequently. Breaks in the action provide a nice change of pace.
Rarely. The characters barely have time to spend their loot!
Never. The characters are always on one quest or another.
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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