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 plays a tiefling sorcerer named Deimos, but he is better known in the world of Iomandra as Sea King Impstinger, an up-and-coming merchant lord with a fleet of thirteen ships under his command. His hated rival, Sea King Senestrago, gets the heroes' attention by placing a catastrophic dragon egg aboard the Prince of Lies, one of Impstinger's ships. Unless the heroes agree to the terms spelled out by Senestrago's underling, an irksome tiefling captain named Eriesius Devilray, a ritual cast upon the egg will cause it to explode, sinking the Prince of Lies and killing its crew.
The heroes decide to teleport to the Prince of Lies via a network of magic teleportation circles that connect all the ships in the Impstinger fleet. Deimos plans to distract Captain Devilray and his retinue so that Vargas, Rodney Thompson's character, can attempt to dispel the magic cast on the enormous dragon egg. Using an invisibility spell, Vargas sneaks past the egg's guards and begins making Arcana checks. As he sprinkles magic dust on the egg to enhance his Arcana checks, he hears a faint sneeze and realizes there's a tiny, invisible creature perched atop the egg: Devilray's imp familiar! Vargas immediately casts time stop, preventing the imp from sounding the alarm and buying him time to successfully disarm the egg. When the time stop ends, the imp warns Devilray that the egg has been disabled, and all hell breaks loose.
Badly wounded, Devilray is forced to teleport back to his ship and immediately plots his escape. Deimos casts a Phantom Steed ritual, allowing the heroes to gallop across the ocean and board Devilray's ship before it gets too far. However, Devilray's crew is ready for them.
As the heroes subdue Devilray's crew, the ship's elemental rudder is activated, enabling the vessel to cross a vast distance by traveling briefly through the Elemental Chaos. When the ship reappears in the natural world, it's surrounded by six of Sea King Senestrago's warships waiting at a prearranged rendezvous point! Realizing they've fallen prey to Devilray's back-up trap, the heroes decide to stall for 10 minutes while Deimos creates a teleportation circle. Meanwhile, Vargas discovers that Devilray's ship is riddled with secret passages and finds Devilray himself hidden within them. A close-quarters fight leads to Devilray's capture, and Deimos gives Devilray a dire message to pass along to Sea King Senestrago before the heroes abandon the ship and make good their escape.
Yeah, I know, this adventure sounds a lot like a Star Trek episode! Given that I run a nautical-themed campaign wherein approximately half of the action takes place on ships and the other half takes place on remote islands, it should come as no surprise that all five Star Trek television series serve as inspiration. But we're not here this week to talk about Trek. This week, I'd like to talk about the structure I use to build combat encounters that feel epic, regardless of whether the player characters are actually epic level.
efore we begin, I think it's safe to say that 4th Edition has been around long enough that more and more DMs are gearing up to run epic-level adventures and campaigns. It's taken years for my weekly campaigns to reach the epic tier, but here we are at last! And so far, it's been a snap. Shocked? Having run tedious epic-level campaigns in the past, I know I am.
The epic tier makes a lot of DMs nervous. I suspect that's because the characters are much more powerful and have access to many more abilities, and consequently it can be hard to challenge them week after week. Nevertheless, in my campaigns there have been more character deaths in the epic tier than the previous two tiers combined, so I don't buy the argument that epic-level characters are indestructible (and neither do my players). The other challenge DMs face when running epic-level games is the simple fact that there are fewer epic-level monsters to choose from, which means a DM doesn't have as much pregenerated content to work with. I've gotten around this problem by repurposing stat blocks, as I've discussed previously.
When Rich Baker asked me to contribute some advice to his "Rule of Three" column concerning the obvious DMing challenge of "keeping up" with the game's power curve, I sent him an email that included the following advice for epic-tier encounters:
Don't show the players your entire hand at once. Let encounters unfold gradually, with new threats or challenges announcing themselves over a period of several rounds. I think of an encounter as a three-act play (or, if you prefer a different analogy, a three-stage rocket). I introduce a threat in Act 1, add reinforcements in Act 2, and then add a complication or twist in Act 3. Depending on how the heroes are faring, the "twist" might be to their advantage rather than to their detriment. For example, Act 1 might begin with the heroes defending their keep against an ancient red dragon. In Act 2, villainous rogues in league with the dragon announce themselves by attacking the keep from within. In Act 3, a gold dragon allied with the party shows up, chases off the wounded red dragon, and helps the heroes catch the fleeing rogues.
Not every encounter can or should have three acts, but it's a great format to follow for major combat encounters of ANY level because it keeps the players on their toes and varies the tension as the advantage shifts back and forth between the heroes and the villains. If you're familiar with literary three-act structures, you'll know that a lot of playwrights and screenwriters use them when crafting plays and writing scenes for much the same reason.
The events described at the beginning of this article follow this three-act format closely. Here's how the Wednesday night encounter breaks down:
Act 1: The initial threat is introduced. The heroes confront Captain Devilray and take strides to prevent the catastrophic dragon egg from exploding. When the egg is finally disabled, combat erupts.
Act 2: Reinforcements "arrive." Captain Devilray teleports away when first bloodied, and the heroes chase after his ship. They board his vessel and battle the crew. (In this case, Devilray's subordinates are the "reinforcements," even through the heroes come to them.)
Act 3: The twist. The heroes find themselves surrounded by a clearly overwhelming force. Now they're the ones who must flee.
As expected, the heroes were too busy negotiating, arguing, looting, and running about to take short rests between the three acts, which added tension and forced the players to be mindful of their resources. That said, the encounter could have "gone south" had circumstances been different. As a thought exercise, let's consider how the encounter might have changed had the following occurred:
Alternate Reality: Vargas fails to disarm the egg.
Perhaps Vargas fails his Arcana checks to remove the destructive spell cast on the egg, or maybe the evil imp detects him before he can finish his work. Either way, Captain Devilray and his retinue teleport away moments before the egg explodes and destroys the Prince of Lies. Each character gets to take one action before the explosion engulfs the ship, dealing 500 damage. Had this actually occurred, Acts 2 and 3 might have changed as follows:
Act 2: Reinforcements arrive. Captain Devilray's crew plucks the heroes' corpses out of the floating debris for delivery to Sea King Senestrago. Heroes who weren't killed in the blast might sneak aboard the ship and try to commandeer it.
Act 3: The twist. Captain Devilray intends to take his ship to the secret rendezvous point. The heroes must either convince him to betray Senestrago or find some other way to escape their predicament. If they fail, they are rescued and revived by one of Senestrago's rivals—another Sea King to whom the party is now indebted.
The example above illustrates the power of the three-act structure. Even if an encounter doesn't unfold exactly as planned, thinking of each major combat encounter in terms of three acts gives you room to ramp up the danger or diminish it. You no longer need to concern yourself with perfecting encounter balance because the three-act structure lets you make adjustments as the encounter unfolds. Epic level becomes no harder to manage than any other tier.
It's worth noting that not every three-act encounter needs to be structured exactly as I've described above. For example, I can envision a structure wherein Act 1 introduces a threat, Act 2 presents an unexpected twist, and Act 3 is when the reinforcements arrive. Here's an example: In Act 1, the heroes are leaving a tavern in Fallcrest when they are approached and threatened by a gang of rogues who seem intent on robbing them. Battle erupts until the start of Act 2, when a cutthroat suddenly recognizes one of the heroes as an old childhood friend. He instructs his fellow rogues to back off and apologizes profusely. He even offers to buy his PC friend a drink. Before things get too chummy, Act 3 begins when a rival gang of rogues jumps the wounded heroes and their newfound allies.
Once you've experimented with the three-act structure, you'll begin to see all kinds of variations and permutations that also work quite well, which are probably worth discovering on your own.
Until the next encounter!
—Dungeon Master for Life,
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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.