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The Covenant of the Arcs
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. The heroes are sailing westward, hoping to rendezvous with the Knights of Ardyn, a group dedicated to wiping out corruption in the Dragovar Empire. It seems the knights have captured a mind flayer ship called a nautilus, and they need the heroes' help to operate it. The knights have decided that the empire needs their help to overcome a threat to the west: a Far Realm incursion brought about by an eladrin warlock named Starlord Evendor, who plans to free evil, godlike entities trapped in the stars, transport them to Iomandra, and provide them with living receptacles as bodies. The mad warlock has help from a powerful starspawn called Allabar and, oh, about fifty thousand mind flayers. To top it all off, the mind flayers have been launching raids on imperial settlements, capturing citizens and transforming them into degenerate foulspawn. Clearly, the heroes and the Knights of Ardyn have their work cut out for them, and their best hope is to find and slay Allabar, which will unleash a psychic shock wave that kills every mind flayer on the planet. The captured nautilus will enable the knights and the heroes to slip behind enemy lines and reach their quarry undetected.

En route to the rendezvous, the heroes' ship is attacked not by mind flayers but by three marauding vessels flying the flag of Sea King Senestrago. The heroes have been a thorn in Senestrago's side for many levels, and the Dragovar Empire is too distracted by the mind flayer threat to deal with the fact that Senestrago is openly attacking those he perceives as his enemies, including other Sea Kings.

As a further complication, the heroes have aboard their vessel an emissary of Vecna. This helpful lich, who wears the face of a noblewoman and travels with a changeling manservant (played by Peter Schaefer), hails from Vhalt, a secret kingdom that lies beyond a towering wall of deadly fog to the east called the Black Curtain. The heroes are among the few living souls who know of Vhalt's existence, and they suspect that Vhalt might be responsible for the kidnapping of the Dragovar Emperor—an act that has caused great instability within the empire, particularly in light of the mind flayer threat to the west.

I hinted at this week's topic in last week's article, which was about managing a campaign that's "gone off the rails." The smartest thing I ever did as DM was to build my current campaign on a foundation made up of three story arcs that together form an interlocking narrative—a kind of triptych, if you will. I used a similar three-arc structure in my previous 3rd Edition campaign, and it worked out so well that I kept the idea when plotting out the "big stories" in my 4th Edition world of Iomandra.

A campaign arc is a big story. Its impact is measured from the beginning of the campaign to the end, unlike the hundreds of other stories in the campaign that might end after one game session or after a few levels. Case in point: The Monday night group's enmity with the Horned Alliance thieves' guild was a story that fueled many great moments in the paragon tier, but it wasn't big enough and didn't last long enough to be a campaign arc. However, many smaller stories are actually branches of a campaign arc, and good ones often can link two or more campaign arcs together. The Horned Alliance was made up of tiefling rogues who hated the Dragovar Empire, for it had not only destroyed the tiefling kingdom of Bael Turath but enslaved its people for generations. The thieves' guild offered sanctuary to a group of "kraken cultists" who were staging terrorist attacks against the empire by deploying Far Realm mines to blow up Dragovar ships. Where did they get these mines, you ask? From the mind flayers, of course—which ties directly to one of my three campaign arcs.

The three campaign arcs of the Iomandra campaign are as follows:

  • War erupts in the west when a star pact warlock triggers a Far Realm incursion that threatens the Dragovar Empire and the entire world.
  • A secret kingdom to the east, long thought destroyed, is resurrected by Vecna and kidnaps the Emperor in an attempt to destabilize the Dragovar Empire—for reasons unknown.
  • As cracks begin to form in the Dragovar Empire, evil political forces conspire to seize power, and bickering Sea Kings (the merchant lords of Iomandra) become increasingly hostile toward one another.

Basically, I have a war story (the war against the Far Realm threat to the west), an intrigue story (the secret kingdom to the east), and a political story (boiling feuds and unbridled power-mongering in the wake of the emperor's disappearance).

I chose these three stories because I wanted to center my campaign around an empire in decline (a nod to ancient Rome, I suppose), and how does one go about showing an empire in decline? Well, a war going badly is good for starters. War is dramatic, and this is the second campaign in a row where I've used war as a pervasive theme, but I don't think you need a war to make a campaign interesting. Eberron is set in the aftermath of war, and it's the fear of another war that provides most of the tension. I also love, love, love intrigue—situations when the line between "friend" and "enemy" is indistinct, and players don't always know whom to trust. The "secret kingdom" campaign arc was the last one to fall into place, and honestly I had no clue what the secret kingdom was or what its ultimate goals were. (I trusted that the answers would come to me later.) The Black Curtain began as a source of rumors, a mysterious barrier that seafarers avoided. At the end of the heroic tier, the heroes found a journal containing the first hint of something on the other side of the Black Curtain, and it wasn't until mid-paragon tier when the characters had their first encounter with someone from the "other side." That's a roundabout way of saying that not all three arcs need to be fully fleshed out from the get-go, nor must they vie for equal attention. It's OK if one arc is "hazier" or less dominant than the others.

It's also OK, by the way, to have adventures and encounters that have nothing to do with your three campaign arcs. Tying every game session to an arc is like fighting troglodytes week after week: The whole campaign starts to reek. It's been my experience that the player characters become more invested (perhaps entwined is a better word) in the campaign arcs as they become more powerful and influential. During the heroic tier, I was running a lot more stand-alone episodes than I am in the epic tier. Were I to compare it to, say, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, it would be the difference between seasons 1–3 and seasons 4–7. The first three seasons of DS9 were mostly stand-alone stories, with occasional forays into the major series arcs. By the time we got into the later seasons, there were fewer one-off episodes and more attention given to the major arcs—the war against the Dominion, the protection and restoration of Bajor, and the religious awakening of Benjamin Sisko. I think that's natural. Most campaign arcs can only be resolved by high-level characters.

Unless, of course, your campaign is short. It's probably worth noting that if I had I decided to end my campaign at level 10 instead of level 30, I probably wouldn't have needed three campaign arcs. There might be some correlation between the number of tiers in the campaign and the number of campaign arcs it needs. I've never run a campaign that climaxed at the end of the heroic tier, but I think one campaign arc would probably suffice. Having two or three seems unnecessary and would likely leave the campaign and the players unfulfilled.

Lessons Learned

The benefits of having multiple campaign arcs in a long-running or multitier campaign are many. First and foremost, it's like having slightly overlapping safety nets; no matter what the players do, their choices have a pretty good chance of landing them smack-dab in the middle of one of your campaign arcs eventually. The arcs are so encompassing and pervasive as to be nigh unavoidable, and if your players are clearly turned off by one arc, they have two others to choose from. Having multiple arcs gives players opportunities to decide which threat they care about the most, and I promise you, each player will have his or her own opinion on the matter, based on which arc ties in most closely with that player's character. Having three arcs also makes your campaign feel less like a "one-trick pony." Finally, there's the benefit of allowing you, the campaign's primary storyteller, to entangle plot threads and create opportunities or occasions when two or more arcs intersect.

I take immense pleasure in watching my players react as their characters reach those cool points where two or more big stories come together, or those points when they're forced to make a tough choice about which battle to fight. In my campaign, my players are constantly confronted by the reality that they can't always deal with everything. In that respect, having multiple campaign arcs provides verisimilitude, insofar as the players must face the consequences of choosing their battles.

Will the Monday night group resolve all three arcs by the time they reach level 30? I'm not sure. I doubt it. However, as the campaign rockets toward the finish line, I find myself spending a lot of waking hours pondering this very question. In my life, I've only ended a campaign five, maybe six, times. I'm not an expert in campaign resolution. After setting three big arcs in motion and watching them play out over 25 levels, I'm worried about these last five levels and how each arc will resolve itself. Ultimately, I think, everything ties back to the idea of players making choices: If they decide to travel west and overcome the Far Realm threat, they will have accomplished something truly epic and brought peace and stability to the world. That does leave behind some unfinished business, however; but maybe it's OK for some campaign arcs to continue on past the life span of the game. Years from now, while railing against some new campaign threat I've concocted, my players will reflect back on "the Iomandra years" and imagine what what might have happened if their characters had made the other choice, and that by itself is pretty cool.

Still, the perfectionist in me wants to tie off every single plot thread and bring every arc to a fitting end. It still bugs the hell out of me that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine ended without Bajor joining the Federation. That was the reason why Benjamin Sisko was sent to Deep Space Nine in the first place! Still, that Dominion War arc was pretty amazing.

Until the next encounter!

—Dungeon Master for Life,
Chris Perkins

Previous Poll Results

Hey, DMs: Have you ever had a player maliciously derail your campaign?
Yes. 1006 52.0%
No. 648 33.5%
I dunno. Maybe. 279 14.4%
Total 1933 100.0%

How do you deal with a player who tries to derail your campaign?
I ignore the bad behavior and try not to reward it. 378 21.7%
I laugh at the player and shout, 'Nice try, you damn dirty ape, but my campaign cannot be derailed by the likes of you!' 334 19.2%
I politely urge the player not to ruin the game for everyone else. 313 18.0%
I don't mince words: I tell the player to stop being a jerk and knock it off. 231 13.3%
I sic the other players on the offender. Peer pressure -- can't beat it. 193 11.1%
I put on a brave face and cry myself to sleep at night. 137 7.9%
I kill off or savagely maim the player's character. 115 6.6%
I banish the player to the Abyss (kick the player out of the group). Problem solved. 34 2.0%
I pack up my dice and leave. 6 0.3%
Total 1741 100.0%

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #33A

 Hey DMs: How many campaign arcs do you like to set up in a long-running campaign?  

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #33B

 What's the hardest thing about campaign arcs?  
Coming up with good ones.
Foreshadowing them early in the campaign.
Keeping them interesting throughout the campaign.
Weaving them together.
Finding ways to make them relevant to the players.
Building actual adventures around them.
Wrapping them up.
None of the above.

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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