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. It's 6:15 PM. The players are gathering around the table, having just returned from picking up dinner. As is customary with the group, one of the players has bought my dinner and delivers it with an expression that I take to mean, "Here's your dinner, Mister DM Sir. Please be kind tonight." I smile, say thank you, and begin casting a ritual that has served me well for years, and which I now share with you.
This ritual is neither arcane nor divine. In fact, it's something I learned from watching episodic television. Many of the things that define my DMing style come from watching lots of serialized TV. Shows such as Lost and Battlestar Galactica immediately spring to mind, and you'll see me referring to them from time to time in this column.
The ritual in question is called Campaign Recap, and it always begins with the same three words:
PREVIOUSLY IN IOMANDRA
You've seen this before: Previously on Lost. Previously on Battlestar Galactica. Any television show that carries the baggage of a complex mythology and features an ensemble cast needs this ritual to remind the audience how far their story’s come. In this instance, the audience is my gaming group, and as much as I like to think that every one of my game sessions is unforgettable, that simply isn't true.
The Campaign Recap ritual begins thus: At the top of a sheet of lined paper, I write today's date and the name of tonight's adventure (which I oftentimes refer to as an episode) followed by a short list of bullet points. Each bullet point recounts, in the past tense, something that occurred in a previous session (not necessarily the last session) that might be significant to tonight's game. The bullet points are carefully thought out, and I try to limit them to a handful. Sometimes in my haste to jot down these notes, I get the order mixed up, so after writing down the bullet points I number them in the order in which I intend to recount them.
At this moment, the player characters are in the middle of an adventure entitled "Death Incarnate," having found themselves in the city of Io'drothtor searching for the lair of a dracolich named Icristus. Icristus used to be the dragon overlord of the massive island upon which Io'drothtor is built. (In the backstory of the campaign, Icristus was slain by a steel dragon named Krethmidion and his brood.) But enough history; let’s get back to the ritual at hand.
At the end of last week's session, the heroes fought their way into the dracolich's lair; the session ended with Icristus rising from a pool of lightning-charged water to confront the interlopers. As the players devour their dinners and begin speculating on the outcome of tonight's session, here’s what I write down:
“Death Incarnate” (1/19/11)
Previously in Iomandra . . .
- Alagon had the names of five blasphemous undead creatures burned into the fingers of his trigger hand by an emissary of the Raven Queen. In order to fulfill his epic destiny and take his place by the RQ's side, Alagon must track down and eliminate all five targets, one of which is a dracolich named Icristus.
- The heroes learned that Icristus was brought back from the dead years ago by an arcane sect called the Kalak Shun: outcast dragonborn wizards who practice necromancy. They also discovered that Icristus can control and command the otherwise benign ghosts that haunt the streets of Io'drothtor, effectively using them as spies.
- The heroes confronted a high-ranking member of the Kalak Shun in his tower. After slaying the necromancer and interrogating his apprentice, the heroes activated a magical portal called the Throat of Tharzuul, which led to Icristus's secret redoubt below the city.
- The heroes arrived at a subterranean elemental node serving as Icristus's lair, only to discover that the dracolich was not alone! Attending him were 4 Kalak Shun advisors mounted on dracoliches that were once Huge steel dragons—the slaughtered brood of Icristus's hated rival, Krethmidion.
As soon as I speak the words "Previously in Iomandra," a hush falls over the gaming table. The off-topic conversations end abruptly, and the players become all ears. This happens every time, without fail.
After speaking the words, I begin stringing together my bullet points into a rough narrative. The whole recap usually takes about a minute. I don't worry about adding detail because I trust that the players' memories will begin filling in the gaps automatically. The recap simply sparks their memories and puts the players in the right frame of mind to start the session.
Some DMs rely on their players to provide the recap. Having tried it as a DM and experienced it as a player, I think that’s a mistake. Left to their own devices, players will often focus on the wrong details, or get the facts wrong, or phrase the recap in a way that doesn't reinforce the atmosphere you're trying to evoke. The recap is the DM's best tool to get the session started on the right foot, and to immerse players in the moment.
The recap focuses only on the details that are pertinent to the story at hand. Most of the bullet points in the example above tie to a specific player character: Alagon, a revenant ranger played by Andrew Finch. The Wednesday group has eight players, each with their own character arc, but it's Alagon that's really driving this particular session. The recap gives the players a sense of what they can expect out of tonight's game: a big fat fight against five dracoliches. For Alagon to achieve his epic destiny, Icristus must be destroyed. Simple as that.
While this particular session focuses on combat and one character's arc, the adventure as a whole is a tangled weave of many different plots, including a story revolving around the party’s deva warpriest discovering secrets from a past life, the search for a missing party member, and the theft of a mystical set of tomes that chronicle the rise and fall of a kingdom wiped from history by Vecna. These are no less important to the players than Alagon's quest to prove himself to the Raven Queen, and next week's recap will probably include bullet points reminding the players where things left off with these other facets of the campaign.
One of the cool side benefits of this approach? If and when you decide to chronicle the events of your campaign, say, in a wiki, you need only refer to your binder or notebook filled with page after page of bullet points touching on the highlights. I've come to rely on my own recaps for just this reason.
Recaps kick off 99% of my gaming sessions. However, I can think of plenty of good reasons not to use recaps. The #1 reason is to intentionally jar or disorient your players. I remember one session that began with the words “Roll initiative!” It worked well because the players weren’t expecting the sudden springboard into combat. We had ended the previous session at the beginning of a climactic encounter, the players had the whole week to discuss tactics, and I could sense they were jazzed to start rolling dice. The recap wasn’t necessary, and frankly I wanted to keep things moving at a breakneck pace.
Like all good rituals, mastery comes with repetition. If the Campaign Recap is something you’d like to experiment with, keep in mind the following:
Begin each session jotting down bullet points about "what's gone before."
The Campaign Recap sets the tone for the session. Present the Campaign Recap yourself, and keep it short. Don’t worry about covering all the bases. Hit the highlights, and let the players' memories fill in the gaps.
Until the next encounter!
—Dungeon Master for Life,
The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #1 Results
Keeping players engaged in the campaign: 18.8%
- Running a D&D campaign like a television series: 16.1%
- Integrating skill challenges into encounters: 15.8%
- Creating in-depth stories and quests: 15.3%
- Creating memorable NPC antagonists and allies: 11.7%
- Creating cool, evocative adventure locations: 11.0%
- Preparing for a game session: 8.6%
- Plundering specific ideas from the Iomandra campaign: 2.6%
The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #2
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.