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. I was sad when Trevor Kidd, one of my players, told me he was leaving Wizards of the Coast—he was moving to Iowa to be closer to his wife, attending med school. Trevor’s character, a dragonborn paladin named Rhasgar Vormund, had an amazing story arc tied closely to the events of the campaign, and I had big plans for him. Now all of my plans were suddenly dashed… which forced me to come up with a new, better plan that would allow Rhasgar to exit gracefully as well as propel the campaign and the other characters forward.
Here’s everything you need to know about Rhasgar to understand the point of this article: He was born into the noble caste of Dragovar society, but his family was disgraced by powerful rivals (House Irizaxes and House Narakhty). Rhasgar ended up adopted by the Temple of Bahamut, while his younger brother Naxagoras ended up on the streets. Rhasgar became a dutiful servant of Bahamut and a sworn defender of the faith, eventually joining forces with the party in order to help the Dragovar Empire find its missing Emperor (as well as protect it from various looming threats). Once in a while, he crossed paths with Naxagoras, who had fallen in with a bad crowd and sworn a vow to Tiamat to avenge their family’s disgrace. On multiple occasions, Naxagoras’s thirst for revenge placed him and his brother in direct conflict with the two noble families responsible for their father’s death and mother’s suicide. Meanwhile, Rhasgar tried everything he could to persuade Naxagoras to abandon his oath to Tiamat.
Over the course of several levels, Rhasgar obtained a solid lead concerning the Emperor’s whereabouts, but other quests (and his brother’s antics) continually got in the way. Then a window of opportunity suddenly opened, and Rhasgar persuaded his companions to accompany him to the island of Nythe-Saleme, where the wreckage of the Emperor’s flagship had been sighted….
To the other players in the group, Trevor’s character was the “friendly face” of the Dragovar Empire—an honorable dragonborn through and through. He reminded them that the empire wasn’t as corrupt as the DM sometimes made it out to be. Trevor’s departure not only meant the group was shrinking (from 8 to 7 players) but also that the party was losing its moral compass. And I was losing not only a great roleplayer but also a character whose ties to the Dragovar Empire fueled a lot of great storytelling.
When a player leaves the group on good terms, my DM skills are put to their greatest test, for it’s my job to make sure the departing player’s final session is an amazing, emotional experience for the whole group. In a long-running campaign such as mine, every player deserves an appropriately spectacular send-off—to deny a glorious finale would’ve been negligent and disappointing, and a good DM never leaves the players feeling disappointed.
In January, I co-hosted a DM seminar at D&D Experience in Fort Wayne, IN. One of the seminar attendees shared an anecdote from his campaign in which he had one player leave the group and another player join in the same session. In his final session, the departing player sacrificed his character to save the life of the new player’s character. This simple act of heroism created a bond between the new character and the remaining party members, all of whom were touched by their comrade’s noble sacrifice. I practically wept at the ingenuity of it, even though the outcome had been somewhat orchestrated by the DM and departing player.
I wanted something equally impactful. Due to forces beyond my control, I had only one game session to wrap up Rhasgar’s story and plan a graceful exit. The day before the game, I made a list of all of Rhasgar’s unresolved plot hooks and quests:
Find the Emperor and return him safely to the throne.
Deal with House Irizaxes and House Narakhty.
Reconcile with Naxagoras.
All three of these quests were originally meant to carry Rhasgar through the epic tier, and I had spaced them out accordingly. I ended up discarding my original plans and instead focused on how I was going to tie up Rhasgar’s story in 4 hours of game time. Shortly before the game, in a moment of subdued panic, I made a list of events that would happen during this farewell session:
The heroes find and rescue the Emperor and his entourage, who are trapped in stasis on the island of Nythe-Saleme.
The heroes escort the Emperor back to the capital, and he rewards them. They are named “princes of the empire” and given parcels of land. They witness firsthand the impact of the Emperor’s sudden, glorious return.
Upon hearing of the wrongs inflicted upon Rhasgar’s family, the Emperor awards Rhasgar the estates of his rivals and tasks him with bringing the Irizaxes and Narakhty leaders to justice. Rhasgar and Naxagoras confront their hated enemies, one of whom wields their father’s sword. Retrieving the stolen sword is the symbolic gesture that finally unites the two brothers. Naxagoras’s bloodlust is satisfied, and Rhasgar gains a powerful friend in the Emperor.
Originally the Emperor wasn’t on the island. However, I now decided to make him a prisoner of the island’s overlords—a pair of wizards named Nythe and Saleme who used magic to disguise themselves as purple dragons. The sisters’ political agenda is pure contrivance and beyond the scope of this article—what’s important is that they live inside a flying citadel that, in the course of the evening, rose out of a volcanic caldera, flew across the open water, and plunged into the sea, nearly wiping out the entire party. (A mass fly spell cast by Rodney Thompson’s character saved the day.)
At 9 PM, three hours into the game, I realized there wasn’t enough time to run separate combat encounters with House Irizaxes and House Narakhty, so I decided on a whim that Kaphira Narakhty would execute her entire household and take her own life instead of allowing an enemy to spill her blood. Moreover, rather than allow her family’s fortune to fall into Rhasgar’s hands, she would use it to hire assassins to avenge her death. (Instead of posthumously hiring them, I suppose that makes it prehumously; in any case, how’s that for setting up a future encounter?) That left Tyzaro Irizaxes. I don’t usually let NPCs steal the limelight, but I did allow Rhasgar’s brother to score the final blow against the evil dragonborn noble and reclaim his father’s sword. As for Rhasgar, he decided to spare the life of Tyzaro’s daughter, Taishan, and even allowed her to retain a small portion of her father’s estate—one final noble act brilliantly improvised by Trevor in the moment.
Sometimes when a player leaves, the campaign stalls. The onus falls on the DM to make the most of it—to reassure the remaining players that the campaign will go on… and that it’s still full of surprises!
As much as I’ll miss Trevor, his departure has already propelled the Wednesday game forward. What will happen now that the Emperor has returned, I wonder? Will Kaphira Narakhty make good on her threat to avenge her family’s destruction? How will the other players fare without their faithful moral compass? I see dark times ahead, but only time will tell.
Here’s what Trevor’s sudden departure taught me:
Nothing’s more important to a campaign than the stories of the player characters.
Improvisation is the key to survival—both for the DM and for the campaign.
Next week I’ll talk about maps, which I love, and share a few DM mapping tricks. The Best Villain Ever! contest was well received, so expect another in the not-too-distant future as well.
Until the next encounter!
—Dungeon Master for Life,
Poll 04/21/2011 Results:
Of the three villains presented, which one is your favorite?
Dragen Blackstone, Warlock Knight of Vaasa: 36.3%
- Havok the Betrayer, Gold Dragon: 32.4%
- The Porter Who Might Be King: 31.3%
The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll 04/28/2011
Just because I gave Trevor’s character an uplifting sendoff doesn’t mean I’m averse to killing off characters. Which character from my Wednesday night game should die in some spectacular fashion?
Alagon, the revenant ranger who’s pledged to serve the Raven Queen, played by Andrew Finch.
Deimos (a.k.a. Sea King Impstinger), the increasingly evil tiefling sorcerer, played by Chris Youngs.
Fleet, the renegade warforged warden hunted by cultists of Vecna, played by Nacime Khemis.
Garrot, the dumb-as-a-stump and somewhat uncoordinated human fighter, played by Mat Smith.
Kael, the deva invoker who has flashbacks of past lives, played by Chris Champagne.
Vargas, the scarred eladrin avenger of the Raven Queen, played by Rodney Thompson.
Xanthum, the cheery sing-along gnome bard and undersea archaeologist, played by Curt Gould.
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.