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. Chris Youngs’ tiefling character, Deimos, came close to realizing his dream of becoming a Sea King (a powerful sea merchant) when tragedy struck. He had assembled a fleet of loyal ships, and spent a staggering amount of party gold to “trick out” his flagship, the Morrow (named after his surrogate father, Captain Denarion Morrow). However, as happens in my campaign, the winds of fate blew ill one game session and the Morrow was blown to smithereens. The details aren’t relevant; what’s important is that I could hear Deimos’s dreams of world domination shatter like a dropped mirror, and Chris was not a happy camper.
The explosion that obliterated the Morrow also killed Deimos and all but one of the other player characters, but their deaths were but a temporary inconvenience. Once he was raised from the dead, Deimos (a.k.a. Sea King Impstinger) was far more concerned about his precious ship lying in pieces at the bottom of the Dragon Sea than all of the actual party quests combined. What followed was a largely improvised game session during which Deimos, his companions in tow, approached various NPCs in the hopes of finding some way to “undo” the ship’s destruction.
Deimos eventually corralled the other heroes into helping him obtain a time-travel talisman, but that endeavor ended badly. The details aren’t relevant; suffice to say, the talisman slipped through their proverbial fingers. What’s more important is that Deimos was thwarted, desperate, and broken.
Okay, not quite broken—Chris had one card left in his hand. As one should expect from a wrathful tiefling, Deimos turned to the Nine Hells for aid. Without consulting his adventuring companions, he used a ritual to summon an aspect of Dispater and entered into a binding contract with the archdevil, whereby Dispater would help Deimos raise his ship in exchange for Deimos taking an infernal consort and protecting her with his life. Once the agreement was signed, Dispater released the soul of a long-dead tiefling archwizard of Bael Turath named Samantia Carnago, who used her formidable magic to raise the Morrow from the depths.
As the ship broke the water’s surface, it became clear that the vessel had been transformed into an infernal aspect of its former self—iron rails lined with everburning torches, sails of black smoke, a flag of burning fire, and the stench of brimstone throughout. It became a constant reminder of the contract that Deimos had brokered. Her work done, Samantia returned to the Nine Hells, leaving the other characters to ponder what Deimos had gotten them into.
In the end, Deimos’s ship was returned to him… but not in the way the players imagined. Chris changed the name of the ship from the Morrow to the Sorrow, and Deimos set about hiring a new crew to replace those he’d lost. Several sessions later, having left his ship briefly to complete an important quest, Deimos returned to find a tiefling woman curled up in his iron-wrought captain’s bed. She sat up, smiled, and introduced herself as Tyranny, his infernal consort. As Chris pondered this latest development, the other players squirmed in their chairs.
The DM giveth, and the DM taketh away… and vice versa.
Every campaign needs moments when the heroes feel like they’re on top of the world—times when things seem to be going their way. These are the moments when their carefully laid plans go off without a hitch, when the battle is made easier because they have the advantage. As a counterpoint, the campaign also needs those deep, dark nadirs when the players are convinced you hate them for some unspeakable reason. These are the moments when nothing seems to go right, when every step forward pulls them two steps back, and where they feel the loss of something important to them.
I like it when my players feel mighty and powerful, and I like it when they feel helpless and at their wits’ end. Without these high points and low points, the campaign would lose its drama. No one wants to see a movie where the good guy always wins or always loses. We want to see our heroes win the race, but only after knocking down some hurdles—or lose the race, but only after saving that cat in the tree.
I know many DMs who are terrified to give their players ships, strongholds, and other “gifts” for fear that the campaign will run off the rails and explode like a train carrying rocket fuel. I know other DMs who give their players a veritable Death Star, only to then stand back and watch helplessly as the heroes blow their campaigns to dust. I don’t have any problem giving my players really cool toys to play with, because ultimately I know that everything in my campaign can be used to tell a story, and the social contract I have with my players allows me the flexibility to do nasty things to fuel “good drama.” When the Morrow explodes, Deimos loses more than his ship; he also loses his moral compass. He eventually wins back the ship, which is the most important thing in the world to him—but ask the other players and they’ll tell you: He never found his moral compass. That realization, coupled with the presence of the infernal consort, sets the stage for even more drama in future sessions.
Ultimately, my job as the DM is to propel the story forward and make my players happy. I can be brutal and savage to the characters, as long as my players know that the winds of fate will eventually blow in their favor. It’s part of the social contract that you “sign” with players at the start of your campaign, the same social contract that says everyone at the table will respect one another. If the social contract you have is anything like mine, your players will accept a certain amount of torment and abuse in exchange for the promise of happiness, however fleeting.
There’s a certain amount of improvisational skill required to pull off great drama in a game session. Case in point, when the Morrow blew up, I had no idea that Chris Youngs would have his character make a deal with the devil. I was just as surprised as everyone else around the table. It took a fair amount of improvisational skill to devise the terms of the contract on the spot. An expert DM embraces those wonderful moments when the actions of the player characters propel the story forward, and anytime I can introduce a new NPC for the heroes to interact with, I jump on it (even if she’s an vile succubus passing herself off as a seductive tiefling).
I won’t lie to you: Narrative improvisation comes with experience. However, when I’m stuck and nothing springs to mind, I turn to TV’s storytelling masters and ask myself, “What would Joss Whedon do?” “What would Alan Ball do?” or “What would Ronald D. Moore do?” You’d be surprised how well that works.
Good storytellers understand what makes good drama: joy and sorrow. You can’t have drama without laughter and tears, just like you can’t have a great hotdog without mustard and meat. (Okay, that’s a terrible analogy, but all you mustard-haters and tofu-lovers out there can keep your arguments to yourself!)
Before you blow up the heroes’ stronghold and start layering on the drama, stop and consider the social contract of your campaign—the unspoken agreement you have with your players whereby you promise to be entertaining and fair, and they promise to respect your campaign and each other’s right to enjoy the experience. Some players have enough drama in their normal lives; all they want is to kill monsters and take their stuff. That’s okay if it’s part of the agreed-upon social contract. Campaigns without social contracts are doomed, and if your game group feels dysfunctional, chances are your contract is not being respected or acknowledged by everyone around the table.
In the end, a campaign can’t rise to its dramatic heights or descend to its dramatic depths without a sturdy social contract between the DM and the players. Some players (particularly those who can’t recognize specific dramatic tropes) don’t like it when their characters are punished for their decisions and actions. They get upset when their characters are thrown in jail for murdering innocent bystanders, and they start throwing dice around when you take away their magic items. Maybe they don’t appreciate the intricately layered drama unfolding before their eyes and aren’t patient enough to wait for good stuff to happen. In that case, it never hurts to tell the players that all is not lost, and assure them that their characters’ actions are the rudders and sails that determine the course of the campaign. On the other hand, if your social contract permits you to drag your players through heaven and hell with impunity, go for it! Just don’t leave them in either place for too long.
Time for a quick gut-check:
Are you happy with the social contract you have with your players?
When was the last time the players in your campaign felt powerless and defeated? When was the last time they felt like they were in control?
Until the next encounter!
—Dungeon Master for Life,
Poll 06/16/2011 Results:
Which winning minion is your favorite?
Blood of Torog: 38.6%
- Clobbermob nilbog: 33.9%
- Clockwork wasp drone: 27.4%
The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll 06/23/2011
In your humble opinion, which is the best D&D guide every published for Dungeon Masters?
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.