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 party's campaign against Starlord Evendor has reached a threshold. The time has come to forge alliances with powerful forces, from the Knights of Ardyn to the evil god of secrets, to put down the threat of the Far Realm. The players can sense the inevitability of the impending conflict, which will quite literally determine the fate of the world. The gravity is inescapable. Now comes the hard part.
irst off, if you're a player in my Monday night game, STOP READING NOW! This article contains plot spoilers for an upcoming episode of the Iomandra campaign and is for Dungeon Masters only.
The title of this week's article is particularly apt because the Monday night group has reached a "point of no return." We're halfway through epic tier, the end is nigh, and the heroes know what must be done. There are plenty of big fights headed their way, they basically know what they're up against, and the biggest mystery outstanding is who will survive to the campaign's glorious end.
The title is also a play-on-words. I'm not really talking about black holes or the gravitational pull of my campaign's plot but rather responding to a query by BalogTheFierce, who was curious about how I go about designing encounters. I'll endeavor to address the topic without regurgitating information you've seen in the Dungeon Master's Guide and other sources that tackle the topic at great length. Instead, I'll shed some light on a Very Important Episode of the campaign that's about to unfold.
First, let me dispel any illusions: I don't write complete, publishable adventures for my home campaign because I haven't the time and I rather like "running with scissors" and the improvisational challenge of working without a script. The adventures I tend to write (and I've written a lot of them over the years) are for the benefit of others and often focus on specific locations, such as a sprawling dungeon complex or an evil lich-king's fortress, and feature room-by-room explorations of these locations. Location-based adventures are great because they're easy for DMs to run (because each room or area contains its own encounter) and difficult to create on the fly (because of the amount of room detail and map work required). A DM can take a large, fully detailed adventure location such as the Temple of Elemental Evil and make that the foundation for an entire campaign, with the added benefit of not needing to spend a lot of time planning game sessions in advance. If the party ended the previous session in area 47, you can probably kick off the next session with the heroes entering area 48. No big deal.
But my campaigns tend to be more EVENT driven than ENCOUNTER driven, so the way I prepare for a game session requires a different approach. It's a bit weird that I think of my own campaign as a series of events and plot them out the way a TV series producer plans a show's seasonal arc, and yet I'm not a big fan of published event-based adventures written by other people. I think it's because an event-based adventure has a certain pace and sequence that doesn't suit every DM's style, whereas a location-based adventure is less about what-happens-when and more about what-happens-where, taking a lot of the DM's pacing and sequential concerns out of the picture.
The Episode Summary
A typical "episode" of my campaign is a series of events arranged in the order I expect them to unfold. It all starts with me remembering the events of previous sessions and fixating on something as the focus of the upcoming session. The focus might be a player character, an important NPC, a location, a big event, or some combination thereof. In next Monday's session, the focus is the secret island fortress of Ardynrise, which has been alluded to since the start of the campaign and which the PCs are finally going to visit for the first time. However, before the PCs reach Ardynrise and learn its secrets, I have some unfinished business from the previous session to tie up.
So, here's how an evening's worth of D&D comes together in Chris Perkins's home campaign:
Step 1: Word!
I open a Word document and type a short summary of important events from previous sessions, which I convert into a "Previously in Iomandra" paragraph to kick off the session. Doing this exercise puts me in the right frame of mind to look at the unfolding tapestry of my campaign, tie up loose ends, and pick up important threads.
Step 2: Dramatis Personae
Every game session is an opportunity for character development. Underneath the "Previously" section of my Word document I spell out the dramatis personae, or cast of characters (a "call sheet," if you will). Typing this list of PCs and NPCs gets me thinking about which heroes to shine the session spotlight on and how many different NPCs will likely come into play over the course of the evening. Sometimes the list of NPCs is quite short, but more often (particularly at higher levels) that's not the case.
Step 3: A Watched Plot
By the time I've finished Steps 1 and 2, I have a pretty good handle on where to take the campaign. In this case, I've decided to play up the Knights of Ardyn, a group of benevolent "terrorists" dedicated to stamping out corruption in the Dragovar Empire. They've been a behind-the-scenes force of good from the outset, and two of the characters have direct ties to them, yet we've never met Ardyn (the silver dragon leader of the group) or visited her secret island. That's about to change.
The characters know that the Myrthon Regency, a vassal state of the Dragovar Empire, has been taken over by mind flayers. They also just learned that the Knights of Ardyn recently helped the daughter of the Myrthon regent escape . . . and that she's been sequestered on Ardyn's island. It's not enough to send the heroes to Ardynrise; I also need something to HAPPEN there. I've decided that the mad Myrthon regent, Tsar Dakor, wants his daughter back and has an ally hidden in the party's midst. I also know that I have some other stuff to resolve en route to Ardynrise.
This step requires me to wrap my brain around the main "plot points" of the episode, which could (depending on what happens) take multiple game sessions to resolve. Basically, it's how I see the story unfolding in my mind barring the unexpected.
Step 4: Event-by-Event Breakdown
Once I've written down my prediction of how the plot will unfold, it occurs to me that there's about a 75% chance that the episode will take an unexpected detour, forcing me to rearrange events or jettison my ideas altogether. Nothing I can do about that; the PCs are epic level, after all, and anything can happen. Still, it helps me get a handle on the "scope" of the adventure by breaking the plot down into a sequence of events, the order of which is less important than the ideas. After doing the event breakdown for this episode that I've decided to call "Ardynrise," I realize that it might take more than one session to resolve all the business I have planned, and that's okay. Before the heroes get to Ardynrise, they'll have some interesting scenes with Vecna's followers and perhaps another Far Realm mishap.
Not every event is a combat encounter, but it always adds something to the story or gives the story some forward momentum.
Step 5: Other Roleplaying Notes
Event-based adventures make it easy for me to think about the game session in terms of roleplaying opportunities for the players. Every event is a roleplaying opportunity waiting to unfold, even the ones planned as combat encounters. During Step 4, I'll sometimes think of ideas that don't really qualify as "events" but are likely to come into play. I group these together under the heading "Other Roleplaying Notes" as a reminder to myself. For example, Stan! Brown plays a dragonborn agent of the Vost Miraj, the equivalent of MI6 in my world. The Vost Miraj leadership sees Ardyn as a threat to the Dragovar Empire's stability rather than a potential ally, so I'm expecting some friction between Stan!'s character and the Knights of Ardyn played by Michele and Nick. However, I'm not sure how that potential conflict will be resolved and can't really plan around it.
Here, then, is the complete episode summary, which conveniently fits neatly on one double-sided sheet of paper and easily into my campaign binder:
PREVIOUSLY IN IOMANDRA . . .
Osterneth the Bronze Lich (Vecna's ex-wife) forged an alliance with the party against their common enemy: Starlord Evendor and the mind flayers in control of the Myrthon Regency, who are using the Dragon's Eye constellation to affect changes in reality. A flight of dragons bore the heroes safely to the island of Sha'hadam, where a derelict illithid nautilus had washed ashore. Aided by the Knights of Ardyn, the heroes commandeered the vessel, raised the ship's elder brain from the dead, and convinced it to do their bidding. Osterneth's changeling manservant, Metis (played by Peter Schaefer), discovered that he could pilot the nautilus by assuming the form of a mind flayer and sticking his tentacles into the ship's navigation station. The Knights of Ardyn wanted to use the ship to spy on illithid forces in Myrthon waters, and so the heroes persuaded the elder brain to cross a vast distance of ocean by taking the ship through the Far Realm. Metis's inability to navigate the plane led to a random encounter with three beholders. After surviving the encounter and returning to the natural world, the heroes appeared in the middle of a naval battle between Dragovar and Myrthon ships and quickly took the nautilus underwater. Using a sea snake figurine of wondrous power, Andraste (played by Michele Carter) and Kithvolar (played by Jeff Alvarez) rescued four survivors of a destroyed Dragovar warship and learned that they're deep inside enemy waters but not where they hoped to be.
HEROES (in alphabetical order)
Alex von Hyden (one-eyed male human wizard and Wyrmworn) played by Jeremy Crawford
Andraste (female eladrin warlord and party leader) played by Michele Carter
Baharoosh (male dragonborn rogue and Vost Miraj agent) played by Stan!
Bartho (dull-witted male human fighter) played by Matt Sernett
Kettenbar (male wilden shaman from an alternate reality) played by Shawn Blakeney
Kithvolar (male elf ranger) played by Jeff Alvarez
Metis (male changeling warlock and Osterneth's manservant) played by Peter Schaefer
Melech (male tiefling warlock and vessel of Ulban) played by Bruce R. Cordell
Theralyn (female elf ranger and dragon-riding Knight of Ardyn) played by Nick DiPetrillo
with special guest star
Xanthum Zail (male gnome bard from an alternate reality) played by Curt Gould
Ardyn (female silver dragon and leader of the Knights of Ardyn)
Arando Corynnar (male human Knight of Ardyn captain and Andraste's confidante)
Thorn Rel (male tiefling Knight of Ardyn captain)
Lily von Marek (female human Knight of Ardyn, reporting to Thorn Rel)
Kiril Szarke (male half-elf Knight of Ardyn, reporting to Thorn Rel)
Taras (maimed male dragonborn Knight of Ardyn, reporting to Thorn Rel)
Roksana Kral (female dwarf Knight of Ardyn, reporting to Thorn Rel)
Vastian von Hyden (male human Knight of Ardyn, Arando's friend, and Alex's cousin)
Tsarana Faijhan (female dragonborn noble and daughter of the mad Myrthon regent)
Ramiel (male demon-possessed elf with a dragon orb)
Nyrrska (male dragonborn ex-assassin turned acolyte of Bahamut)
Tauth-Xelramar (elder brain powering the illithid nautilus Soulmonger)
Alathar Balefrost (male half-elf lich working with Osterneth)
Kronze (skeletal red dragon "overlord")
Osterneth ("the Bronze Lich," Vecna's ex-wife, and the PCs' temporary ally)
Imazhia (female dragonborn priest of Bahamut)
Thorn Rel recommends that Andraste assume command of the illithid nautilus Soulmonger, which has been without a captain. The heroes and the Knights of Ardyn conduct a very successful reconnaissance of Myrthon waters before setting sail for Ardynrise. En route, Osterneth instructs Metis to guide the ship to prearranged coordinates where Vecna cultists are waiting to perform a ritual designed to make the heroes aware of past reality changes and protect them against future ones, but she also has ulterior motives. On Ardynrise, the silver dragon Ardyn gives Andraste a new assignment: helping Arando capture Tsar Dakor, the mad regent of the Myrthon Regency, using information gained from Tsarana Faijhan, who is staying at Ardynrise as the dragon's protected guest. Suddenly, Imazhia reveals that she's a Myrthon agent and opens a portal to the Far Realm, bringing forth an aberrant attack force to destroy Ardyn and recapture the Tsarana.
Event 1: "This Ship Needs a Captain"
Thorn Rel urges Andraste to take command of the illithid nautilus Soulmonger and keep Metis the changeling in line.
Event 2: "What's Wrong With This Picture?"
With Metis at the helm, the nautilus successfully reconnoiters Myrthon waters, gathering intelligence on enemy fleet movements and bases. The ship's elder brain seems very helpful in this endeavor and well disposed toward Imazhia, who raised it from the dead.
Event 3: "We Really Don't Belong Here"
If Metis is dead-set on cutting down travel time by taking the nautilus through the Far Realm, another failed series of Dungeoneering checks might lead the vessel into a part of the mad plane ruled by Mak Thuum Ngatha. Giant tentacles ensnare the ship, and a gibbering orb emissary of Mak Thuum Ngatha boards the vessel to negotiate the crew's surrender or a more suitable offering to the Nine-Tongued Worm.
Event 4: "By Your Command, My Lady"
Back in Iomandra, Osterneth informs Metis that Alathar Balefrost and his operatives have perfected a way to shield the nautilus against changes to reality evoked by the Dragon's Eye constellation and orders him to guide the ship to the tiny island of Kronze, where Vecnite ritualists are waiting to board the ship and cast the ritual to protect the vessel from the reality-altering constellation.
Event 5: "It's All About Secrets"
The ship arrives at the prearranged coordinates—a craggy island inhabited by Kronze, a skeletal red dragon "overlord" under Alathar Balefrost's control. The Vecnites have an artificially constructed demiplane that overlaps the natural world at this point. While Vecnite ritualists emerge to cast their warding spell on the ship, Alathar Balefrost smuggles special operatives onto the ship for the trip to Ardynrise, but strangely enough, Melech (with his otherworldly connection to the starspawn Ulban and the ship's elder brain) can sense them. En route, the Vecnites try to deprive the heroes and Knights of Ardyn of their memories so that they alone are privy to the intelligence gathered in Myrthon waters (knowledge is power, after all).
Event 6: "Many Dragons Died Here"
Thorn Rel guides the nautilus toward a mist-shrouded, star-shaped island littered with crumbled statues of dragons. Phantom dragons descend from the sky to fetch the heroes and bear them safely to Ardyn's fortress atop the spire that rises from the middle of the island. The story of the island is that a powerful dragonslaying wizard once resided here, and that many dragons united to slay him, only to fall prey to a powerful petrifying ward. They were turned to stone and became testaments to the wizard's power. Eventually, one dragon hit upon the idea of hiring adventurers to eliminate the wizard, and her plan succeeded. Ardyn was that dragon. The heroes are reunited with Arando Corynnar and meet Faijhan, the daughter of the Myrthon regent. She fled her homeland to escape the madness that has engulfed it. Ardyn asks Andraste to join Arando on a "rescue mission" to capture Faijhan's family, including the regent, and thus destabilize the Myrthon government.
Event 7: "So Fall the Knights of Ardyn"
Having allowed the heroes to lead her straight into Ardyn's lair, the priest Imazhia reveals that she's a Myrthon agent and a "living gate" to the Far Realm. She summons forth a large force of Myrthon soldiers as well as an old "friend" of the heroes—Ramiel, the demon-possessed elf. He uses the dragon orb (given to him by the PCs) to subjugate Ardyn and turn her against the knights and the heroes. Alex's cousin, the "red shirt" Vastian, tries to stop Ramiel and might be killed off. Left to his own devices, Nyrrska assassinates Imazhia to close the living gate. Whoever kills Imazhia becomes deranged (as per permanent confusion), and although a Remove Affliction ritual rids the affliction, the individual remains ever haunted by glimpses of the Far Realm.
Event X: "They Call Me Xanthum Zail"
Depending on how events unfold, the starspawn "godling" Allabar might use the Dragon's Eye constellation to trigger another reality change, inadvertently bringing Xanthum Zail from the Wednesday night campaign into the Monday night game. Xanthum displaces Andraste as party leader, but who knows what'll happen when he actually shows up and tries to takes charge. Wackiness, one assumes. Having been a puppet of Allabar himself, Xanthum senses that there's a piece of the starspawn godling lodged deep in Kithvolar's mind—a result of the change in reality.
OTHER ROLEPLAYING NOTES
The Vost Miraj: Will Andraste, Theralyn, and the Knights of Ardyn allow Baharoosh—a known Vost Miraj agent—anywhere near Ardynrise? Stan! will need to be on his game if he wants to keep from being sidelined in Events 6 and 7. If he's forced to remain aboard the illithid nautilus, the ship's elder brain can keep him company . . . and turn on him once Imazhia tips her hand.
The Von Hyden Drama: Vastian von Hyden (Alex's NPC cousin) is introduced here for the first time. Vastian's a likeable NPC who can provide Alex with news about his beleaguered family and is also someone to throw in harm's way (a "red shirt").
If you've followed this column from the beginning, you've seen this sort of episode summary before. My episode summaries are very modular, and each element is short and surprisingly easy to write. And you know what? They become even easier to produce with practice, and they collectively form the "bible" for my campaign.
Preparing for Combat Encounters
Once I have an episode summary on paper and in my head, preparing for the actual combat encounters is relatively easy. There are three things I need to think about:
Miniatures for key monsters and NPCs
Stat blocks for unique monsters and PCs
Tactical maps for key encounter locations
I have a large selection of miniatures and, given time, can find something appropriate for any monster or NPC in my campaign. I keep a selection of "stock NPC" minis of different races in containers that I take with me to the gaming table, and I pull monster minis from a giant coffin-sized plastic bin I keep under my desk. (It's the worst organizational system in the history of miniatures collecting. Sorting my minis is one of those rainy day activities I never get around to doing, which is inexcusable since I live in Seattle, which gets more than its fair share of rainy days.)
I've already discussed my secrets for creating instant stat blocks, so I won't repeat myself here. When it comes to maps, I try to reuse existing materials where practical; for example, I keep an array of "stock" tactical maps for shipboard battles. (It's no accident that a lot of the action in my campaign takes place on the decks of ships!) Most of my creative efforts go into mapping unique and important set pieces. For Ardyn's fortress, I have two options: I can design something new or steal a fortress map from some previously published source, in the manner I've previously discussed. Fortunately, since Ardyn prefers to assume humanoid form and her home was once the lair of a wizard, I don't have to create something humungous befitting a dragon of her stature.
Given the choice between reusing an existing map or creating a new one, I prefer the latter endeavor because the act of sitting down to draw the map forces me to imagine what goes on inside the location I'm creating. It gets me in the mood to dream about how Ardyn furnishes her lair and what surprises might be in store for heroes who take time to explore it. It also inspires me to think of interesting encounter set-ups and terrain. Some DMs are content with a roughly drawn map or doodle, but if I can't spend a generous amount of time creating something new, I'd rather just pillage something. When it comes to maps, I rarely see the event horizon before I'm completely sucked in. I could spend an entire weekend designing Ardyn's fortress, from the time I settle on the architectural layout to the time I finish putting pen to graph paper. Talk about getting sucked into a black hole.
Next week I'll let some of my esteemed players chime in and mention a few things they've learned about Dungeon Mastering from the weekly abuse inflicted upon them by yours truly.
Until the next encounter!
—Dungeon Master for Life,
Previous Poll Results
How do you feel about off-topic humor during your game sessions?
|I don't like it at all.
|It bothers me sometimes, but usually it's alright.
|I'm cool with it in short controlled bursts.
|I like it, and it doesn't seem to adversely affect the game.
|I like it, and it pretty much dominates the game.
Hey DMs: How often do you incorporate comedic elements into your game sessions?
|All the time. I run a very light-hearted campaign.
|Once in a while, when it's appropriate for the campaign.
|Once in a while, but usually on a whim. It isn't something I plan in advance.
|Rarely. It doesn't really fit the tone of the campaign.
|I don't need to — there's enough incidental humor in the game already.
The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #40
When it comes to DMing adventures, what's your preference?
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.