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Special Guest Star
The Dungeon Master Experience
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. Paragon tier. The search for a lost artifact leads the heroes to a sunken citadel, within which they find an extradimensional vault. The vault holds many treasures and surprises, including its mysterious architect—an astral giant driven mad by the passing centuries. Attending him are two angels: an angel of Erathis named Mercion the Icereaver, and an angel of Moradin named Kharandar the Firehearted.

Rather than play all three NPCs myself, I invited two special guest stars (former colleagues visiting from out of town) to play the angels, namely Steven “Stan!” Brown and Owen K.C. Stephens.

In keeping with my tradition of treating the campaign as a television series, I’m pleased whenever I can get a “special guest star” to show up for a session or two, even though my gaming group is already quite large. It’s a clever bit of stunt casting that can surprise and delight your players. I think it’s refreshing to bring new faces into the group, and it gives the campaign a different energy as well as someone other than me for the regular players to interact with. It’s also a good way to give friends who can’t commit to joining the “regular cast” an opportunity to contribute to the campaign, if only fleetingly.

I started using “special guest stars” in my long running 3rd Edition campaign when I found myself in the enviable position of having more people interested in my game than seats at the table. I would include special guest stars whenever a player absence meant I had a spare chair, and they appeared often and with great success. (I use them less frequently now only because I’m so busy that I often don’t remember what an awesome idea it would be to bring in a special guest star until I’m setting up for the game and cursing my shortsightedness… but by then, of course, it’s usually too late.)

It does take some DM preparation to make sure everyone enjoys the “special guest star” experience. To prepare for the session with Stan and Owen, I typed up three paragraphs of background information for them to sink their teeth into... just enough for them to understand their characters’ goals and motivations. If they weren’t playing angels who’d spent the past several centuries trapped in an extradimensional vault, I might’ve also given them a brief summary of the campaign world, but in this case it actually served the characters of the angels better if their players knew very little about the “outside world.”

Here’s what Stan and Owen were told about Mercion and Kharandar:

Hundreds of years ago, Erathis (the god of civilization and invention) inspired the servants of Moradin (the god of creation and the forge) to build an extradimensional vault, within which was hidden the treasures of bygone empires. The vault’s architect was an astral giant named Runor Everlast. After his work was complete, Runor decided to remain in the vault as its eternal guardian. Moradin and Erathis each appointed an angel to protect Runor and keep him company: Mercion the Icereaver, and Kharandar the Firehearted. Unfortunately for the angels, the astral giant has since lost his grip on reality.

Many years ago, a small band of githyanki infiltrated the vault by some means Runor could not ascertain. Fearing that the vault had a flaw in its design, Runor set about making “repairs.” Despite his endless toiling, Runor still believes the vault’s security has been compromised. Although the githyanki invaders were dispatched, the astral giant is prone to hallucinations and sees githyanki in his mind from time to time.

Mercion and Kharandar are obliged to protect Runor at all costs, even if the giant puts himself in harm’s way. However, if Runor is slain, the angels are released from service and harbor no ill will toward Runor’s slayers, and might even be persuaded to help them. Both are eager to return to the Astral Sea, but first they must find a way to escape from the vault. Runor occasionally speaks of a secret means of escape but always stops short of revealing the details.

Ultimately, the only things I felt Stan and Owen needed were (1) a reason to oppose the heroes, and (2) a reason to help the heroes. Realistically, they only have three hours to make these characters their own, and more detail wouldn’t have added much to the fun of playing these offbeat roles. I also don’t feel it’s my place to tell them how to play their characters unless they ask for advice; experienced roleplayers will find something to latch onto. In this case, Stan and Owen gravitated toward the elemental nature of each angel: Mercion the Icereaver sounded cold and calculating, while Kharandar the Firehearted sounded loud and temperamental. I didn’t tell Stan or Owen to play their characters that way; they made the call.

However, Stan and Owen were allowed to ask me questions to fill holes in their player knowledge. For example, at one point the heroes asked the angels for more information about the githyanki raiders; I then stepped into the discussion and revealed some crucial information, but only as much as I felt the angels would be comfortable sharing with the party based on how tight-lipped Stan and Owen were playing them.

In addition to the three paragraphs of background information, I gave Stan and Owen unique stat blocks for each angel, mostly because I enjoy designing 4th Edition monsters so much. I could’ve easily given them stats for any of the existing varieties of angels, but I wanted the angels to fill different combat roles, and I wanted to make sure they had a decent selection of combat options. Had these angels been designed for less experienced players, I probably would’ve cut the triggered action powers to make them a bit simpler. Anyway, feel free to plunder these for your home games:

Mercion, Angel of Erathis
Level 21 Elite Soldier
Medium immortal humanoid (angel)
XP 6,400
HP 392; Bloodied 196 Initiative +16
AC 37, Fortitude 33, Reflex 32, Will 34 Perception +19
Speed 6, fly 9
Immune fear; Resist 15 cold, 15 radiant
Saving Throws +2; Action Points 1; Healing Surges 3
Aura Negation AuraAura 1
Creatures in the aura lose their resistance to cold.
Angelic Presence
Attacks against Mercion take a –2 penalty until the angel is bloodied.
Standard Actions
Melee Icy Longsword (cold, weapon)At-Will
Attack: Melee 1 (one creature); +26 vs. AC
Hit: 2d8 + 14 cold damage, and the target is immobilized (save ends).
Melee Double AttackAt-Will
Effect: Mercion uses icy longsword twice.
Move Actions
Freezing Teleport (cold, teleportation)Recharge56
Effect: Mercion teleports 5 squares. Any enemy adjacent to Mercion after he teleports takes 15 cold damage and is immobilized (save ends).
Triggered Actions
Bitter Rebuke (cold)At-Will
Trigger: An enemy damages Mercion.
Effect (Immediate Reaction): The triggering enemy takes 15 cold damage.
Skills Diplomacy +22, Insight +10, Intimidate +22, Religion +18
Str 22 (+16)
Dex 20 (+15)
Wis 18 (+14)
Con 20 (+15)
Int 16 (+13)
Cha 25 (+17)
Alignment unaligned
Languages Common, Supernal
Equipment longsword

Kharandar, Angel of Moradin
Level 21 Elite Brute
Medium immortal humanoid (angel)
XP 6,400
HP 490; Bloodied 245 Initiative +14
AC 33, Fortitude 33, Reflex 30, Will 32 Perception +19
Speed 6, fly 9
Immune fear; Resist 15 fire, 15 radiant
Saving Throws +2; Action Points 1; Healing Surges 3
Aura Negation AuraAura 1
Creatures in the aura lose their resistance to fire.
Angelic Presence
Attacks against Kharandar take a –2 penalty until the angel is bloodied.
Standard Actions
Melee Flaming Longsword (fire, weapon)At-Will
Attack: Melee 1 (one creature); +26 vs. AC
Hit: 4d8 + 18 fire damage.
Miss: Half damage.
Melee Double AttackAt-Will
Effect:: Kharandar uses flaming longsword twice.
Close Burst Vortex of Fire (fire, zone)Recharge6
Attack: Close burst 1 (creatures in the burst); +24 vs. Fortitude
Hit: 4d10 + 17 fire damage.
Miss: Half damage.
Effect: This power creates a zone of fire that lasts until the start of Kharandar’s next turn. The zone remains centered on Kharandar and moves with him. Any creature that starts its turn in the zone takes 15 fire damage.
Triggered Actions
Fiery Rebuke (fire)At-Will
Trigger: An enemy damages Kharandar.
Effect (Immediate Reaction): The triggering enemy takes 15 fire damage.
Skills Diplomacy +21, Dungeoneering +18, Intimidate +21, Religion +18
Str 22 (+16)
Dex 19 (+14)
Wis 19 (+14)
Con 25 (+17)
Int 16 (+13)
Cha 23 (+16)
Alignment unaligned
Languages Dwarven, Supernal
Equipment longsword

Lessons Learned

Although they aren’t part of the regular cast, “special guest stars” hold a special place in my heart, and I never use them as frequently as I’d like. Still, whenever they show up, my players take special interest in the session’s events, thinking that maybe something big is afoot. Also, the new arrivals usually put my players on their best behavior. To their credit my players always try to make the special guest stars as comfortable as possible, even if they’re playing villains.

My players understand the reason behind including special guest stars, and that’s to make the campaign experience more surprising and fun for everyone involved. (That reminds me of a related story concerning David Noonan, who joined my 3rd Edition campaign as a “regular player” for a few sessions before his character royally screwed the party. Dave and I were the only ones who knew he wasn’t, in fact, making a long-term commitment to the campaign, and his character’s sudden betrayal left many lasting scars. You can’t really pull that trick more than once before players start to look at each other suspiciously.)

There’s no formula for knowing when to include a special guest star. My rule is: whenever conceivable, but not so often that it becomes the norm. Unlike a TV show, it doesn’t cost any extra money to bring in extra talent, and it often makes my job easier as a DM because the players aren’t just reacting to me all evening. (That said, remember that too much of a good thing can be poisonous.) All you need is someone willing to play for a session or two, and an NPC, party companion or other character for them to take over and make their own.

A couple things to keep in mind about special guest stars in your campaign:

  • A good special guest star is like the tiny umbrella in a piña colada—a fun little element to surprise and delight… or to give your campaign a bit of a stir.

  • If you want your special guest stars to have a good time, provide only the essential information they need to play their roles effectively, then give them the same freedom you give your regular cast of players to play their characters as they will.

Until the next encounter!

—Dungeon Master for Life,
Chris Perkins

Poll 05/19/2011 Results:

1. What’s the next D&D product Wizards should produce?

  • Ravenlance: The Vampire Dragonriders Campaign Setting: 18.5%
  • Linoleum Dungeon Tiles: Turn Your Kitchen into a Monster Lair!: 13.7%
  • Adventurer’s Vault 3: Vecna’s Appendix and Other Useless Artifacts: 11.8%
  • Rules Confoundium: Adding Complexity to Your D&D Game: 11.5%
  • Book of Smack: A Roleplayer’s Guide to Kick-Ass Putdowns: 10.9%
  • Flumphenomicon: 8.4%
  • Marital Power: Options for Wedded Characters: 8.1%
  • D&D Super-Duper Basic Game: Experienced DM Included: 5.2%
  • Complete Jester: The Book of Hilarious Hijinks: 4.9%
  • Elminster’s Fantastic Festhalls: 3.8%
  • Deck of Many Blings: Deck of Shiny Objects with No Magical Powers Whatsoever: 3.3%

2. Hey DMs: On which day of the week are you most likely to prepare for your campaign?

  • Friday: 21.1%
  • Saturday: 20.6%
  • Thursday: 16.4%
  • Sunday: 14.7%
  • Wednesday: 10.0%
  • Monday: 8.6%
  • Tuesday: 8.6%

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll 05/26/2011

As a DM, how do you roll?

How do you roll?
I roll my dice in the open, for all my players to see.
I roll behind my DM screen, for the sheer mystery.
I hide my rolls most of the time, except for once in a while.
I roll my dice so rarely, it makes my players smile.

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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