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 adventurers are 22nd level, and crewing a ship heading west across the Dragon Sea.
The Maelstrom is a swift vessel powered by an elemental ring of water (an idea pilfered from the Eberron campaign setting). One of the adventurers, a genasi swordmage, was recently relieved as captain of the Maelstrom so that he could lead a special ops mission for his mentor and benefactor, Sea King Valkroi. (You might recall that the same thing happened to Captain Picard in the ST:TNG episode, Chain of Command.)
Three days ago, the Maelstrom survived a run-in with three enemy ships sent by a rival Sea King. Having weathered that storm, the Maelstrom has resumed its westward trek toward the party’s ultimate objective.
En route, the adventurers catch sight of a lone vessel heading in the opposite direction. Corpses are lashed to the other ship’s hull, and its sails are stained crimson with blood. The adventurers confronted a ship like this once long before, during the heroic tier, when goblins raided their island home. Clearly this blood-sailed vessel belongs to the Kingdom of Sanghor, a savage island nation of goblins far to the west.
That’s right. Goblins. At 22nd level, no less.
Our heroes would’ve been inclined to leave goblin ship alone but for two reasons. First, the party’s ranger spots a cage being dragged alongside the goblin ship at sea level. Within the cage, he sees a prisoner struggling to stay above water. Second, the ship is openly plying the trade lanes and is clearly a threat to passing tradeships. The noble heroes decide to storm the ship and rescue the caged prisoner.
What ensues is a rollicking shipboard battle against an enemy the heroes never expected to fight at their level.
Reasons for the Encounter
This goblin ship encounter was meant to provide context for the larger campaign world. I created the side trek to remind my players (and their characters) that there’s far more going on in the world of Iomandra than “the quest at hand.” The goblin ship’s ability to slip past Dragovar patrols tells the heroes something meaningful about the world—that the Dragovar navy has lost control of the Dragon Sea. The war to the west (against a former imperial regency fallen under horrors from the Far Realm) has taken its toll on the imperial fleet, and the goblins of Sanghor are seizing advantage of the situation.
But there was one more reason for the encounter. This one-night diversion was also crafted to remind the heroes how powerful they have become. The hobgoblin captain (Mulk, a level 8 soldier) was literally a pushover—he got thrown off his ship by a magical whirlwind in the first round of combat. The goblin mage (Zazz, a level 7 controller) was snuffed out before he could monologue. The bugbear shocktroopers were swept aside like dust bunnies.
One might expect players to get bored fighting weak enemies and scores of minions—and yet this became one of the campaign’s most memorable encounters. Like many DMs, I enjoy watching my players squirm and wrestle with conundrums, but giving the heroes an (occasional) overwhelming advantage presents a refreshing change of pace, particularly when they don’t see it coming from a mile away.
All that being said, I still had some surprises in store for them. They say good things come in threes, so here we go:
Surprise #1: Boom Goes the Dynamite! The goblins filled their cargo hold with kegs of alchemical “black powder,” rigged to blow up the ship if things went horribly awry. After Captain Mulk got the heave-ho, the goblins decided the time was nigh. And they would’ve succeeded too—if it hadn’t been for the party’s pesky halfling rogue, Oleander. After the goblin demolition squad inadvertently set off three powder kegs and filled the lower decks with blinding smoke (a trick I used to foreshadow the imminent destruction of the ship), Oleander jumped into the smoke-filled hold; once there, he used his formidable Bluff skill to impersonate Captain Mulk, telling the demolition squad to forgo the black powder and get their flea-bitten hides on deck (whereupon they were promptly killed).
Surprise #2: Advantage, Goblins! I decided not to make attack rolls for the goblins because there were so many of them. Basically, the goblins had no effective attacks. In place of an attack roll, a goblin could deal 15 damage automatically to one enemy it had combat advantage against. This made the tactical combat more interesting and forced the heroes to stay mobile, and it also felt right for goblins.
Surprise #3: Minions are the BOMB! Given the goblins’ propensity for alchemical experimentation, it seemed perfectly reasonable that Captain Mulk would have a squad of “exploding goblins” tricked out with bandoliers of alchemical fire flasks. Any damage dealt to a tricked-out goblin minion would cause it to explode in a close burst 1 centered on itself, dealing 15 fire damage to all creatures in the burst . . . including other rigged goblins. Clearly the best tactic was to take out the goblins from afar—but a tall order on the confined and crowded deck of a ship!
By the end of the session, the heroes had not only dispatched the goblins but also rescued the caged prisoner who, it turns out, was first mate of another ship that the goblins had attacked and plundered. Naturally, he presented the heroes with a quest—to transport his ship’s stolen cargo safely back to the raft-town of Anchordown—and thereby earn the favor of another Sea King.
One can only speculate what might happen to the heroes in the course of completing this seemingly straightforward side quest….
In any case, here’s what I learned from the goblins encounter:
Never underestimate the appeal of kicking ass. Players need to feel powerful once in a while, particularly at high levels.
If you want your campaign world to feel like a living, breathing place, let the players encounter things below their level.
Even low-level monsters can surprise the heroes with clever tactics and a never-say-die attitude (just consider the history of asymmetrical warfare). Don’t be afraid to use them, particularly as minions, and don’t be afraid to mess with their stats.
Until the next encounter!
—Dungeon Master for Life,
The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #1
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.