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. To raise his sunken ship from the ocean depths, Deimos (played by Chris Youngs) forges an infernal pact with the archdevil Dispater. As per the contract, Deimos vows to take a consort—a succubus named Tyranny—and guard her with his life. A few months of game time later, the heroes are entertaining the undead ex-wife of the lich-god Vecna aboard Deimos's infernal flagship when, out of the blue, Tyranny stabs their guest with a dagger. The dagger pierces Osterneth's black shriveled heart but doesn't kill her. Enraged, Osterneth kills the succubus—as well as any hope of an alliance with the heroes. In the ensuing battle, Osterneth is shoved overboard by the party's warforged, and the heroes make good their escape.
Dispater doesn't want to quibble over the terms of Deimos's infernal contract. Instead, he convinces Deimos that Tyranny's sacrifice was a clear act of redemption, and that he's willing to release her soul from eternal torment if Deimos so wishes. Convinced that Tyranny was acting in the best interest of his ship and crew, Deimos asks for her soul's release from the Nine Hells. However, instead of returning her in the flesh, Dispater binds her spirit to Deimos's ship. Now she's aware of everything that happens aboard the vessel and can exert control over those aboard as she sees fit.
Fortunately for the heroes, the news ain't all bad. Yes, their souped-up warship is possessed by an evil succubus, but Tyranny also returns with good news. The shriveled heart contained in Osterneth's ribcage was not hers but rather her ex-husband's, and piercing it imbued Tyranny's dagger with the power to slay Vecna.
true genius, in my opinion, is someone who can come up with an entirely original idea—something no one has concocted before. Most creative spirits, myself included, are not geniuses. As anyone who's played 1st Edition knows, geniuses have a minimum Intelligence score of 17. I'm lucky if I can roll 11 or higher on 3d6. At best, we're demigeniuses (demigenii?), which has no place on the D&D Intelligence scale and isn't even a real word. I just made it up.
In D&D terms, a demigenius is to a genius what a demilich is to a lich: a failed, lesser form of the latter. A demilich is not much more than a floating skull, but its soul-imprisoning power more than compensates for its lack of body and spellcasting ability. Similarly, a demigenius is a failed, lesser form of genius, but still awesome in its own way. And while a demigenius isn't good at coming up with a 100% original idea, he or she is quite capable of taking two or more existing ideas or things and mashing them together to create something fresh.
Demigenius storytellers can take two ideas and rub them together to get fire. Some storytellers are so good at it that the results achieve a semblance of originality. For example, a demigenius screenwriter can take the conflict between spirituality and technology, combine it with samurai swordfighting in a science fantasy milieu, and create Star Wars. He can also combine the 1930s pulp hero archetype, an obscure biblical myth, and the ungodly Third Reich to create Raiders of the Lost Ark. Similarly, a demigenius Dungeon Master can wow even the most experienced players by answering the age-old question: What do you get when you cross a succubus with a warship?
There are no new ideas; there are only new ways of making them felt.
—Audre Lorde, Caribbean-American writer and activist
A lot of high-concept films combine two or more simple ideas to create something unique. Combine vampires and Valley Girls, and you get Buffy the Vampire Slayer (both the 1992 film and the 1997–2003 television series). Take a cold Minnesota winter and add a pregnant sheriff investigating a crime spree, and you get Fargo (1996). Take a soft-spoken stunt driver and throw in a pair of two-bit California mobsters, and you get Drive (2011). One can also find strange yet wonderful combinations in other creative forms, including model kit-bashing (from Roddenberry's first U.S.S. Enterprise to Lucasfilm's first X-wing) and even the culinary arts (from the New York-style cheesecake dripping with Oregon-fresh blackberry sauce to the majestic Reese's peanut butter cup).
Combining two or more things to create something new isn't a guaranteed formula for success, but it's hard to judge success without first attempting the experiment. Battleships versus aliens. Cowboys versus aliens. Monsters versus aliens. The demigenius's first and only law of creativity: Try all sorts of crazy combinations. Eventually, something will stick.
To take a specific example from my Wednesday night game, I wanted to create some undead librarians to haunt a library I'd just dedicated to my buddy Vecna, the god of secrets and necromancy. (During the writing of this article, Rodney Thompson, Stan!, and I mused about the difficulties inherent in creating a "Buddy Vecna" statue, given that the Maimed Lord can't wink with only one eye and has a stump where his thumb's-up hand should be. Monumentally pointless conversations are alarmingly common in our "pit" at Wizards, and if you have no idea what "Buddy Vecna" refers to, combine writer/actor/director Kevin Smith with religious dogma, consult the Internet Movie Database, and the answer will present itself.)
So, anyway, I don't have any undead librarian miniatures, but I was fishing through my big blue coffin of miniatures and found a caller in darkness. Talk about two things that go well together! All those plastic screaming faces made me think of despondent librarians telling chatty students to shut the hell up, and I promptly set about creating a stat block that would turn my caller in darkness mini into the arcane assembly—a mad fusion of wizard-librarian spirits dedicated to protecting their library of secrets from unwanted interlopers. I also ripped off some solo monster tech from the beholder in Monster Vault.
Here's the stat block for the arcane assembly, which you're free to pillage for home game use. The stat block is undeveloped, so don't expect it to creep into our digital tools anytime soon, and don't blame me if your players punch your lights out for unduly punishing their characters.
Okay, fellow demigeniuses, when was the last time you took two not-so-original ideas or things and combined them to create something wonderful? Inquiring minds want to know, so leave a comment.
Until the next encounter!
—Dungeon Master for Life,
Previous Poll Results
The adventure begins with a stranger approaching the heroes in a tavern. Which approach would you choose?
|City street maps
|Dunno / not sure
The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #66
What's cooler than a Buddy Vecna statue?
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.