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My Campaign Has Issues
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 citizens of Arkhosia, a collection of more than two thousand islands spread over half the world. Centuries ago, a dragonborn empire sent its fleets across the Dragon Sea to conquer the human nation of Bael Nerath and the dwarven nation of Gar Morra. A bitter war also led to the destruction of the tiefling nation of Bael Turath. After these conquered islands were absorbed into the Dragovar Empire, dragonborn became the dominant race. Humans, dwarves, tieflings, and other "lesser" races became second-class citizens of the mighty empire, though sincere efforts were made to preserve their cultures and religions under Dragovar rule.

Fed up with years of oppression, terrorists from Bael Nerath launch a daring attack on the Dragovar capital. The heroes tried to stop it but failed, and the beleaguered empire was forced to send a fleet to make an example of the humans. General Rhutha, a dragonborn warrior who embodies the best and worst traits of the Dragovar Empire, believes that humans should be grateful for the mercy her people have shown them. She does not bow before terrorists or believe that humans have any rights beyond those given to them by the Emperor. She is ready to make war to ensure that Bael Nerath never gains its independence, for that turn of events would surely weaken the empire and reignite old conflicts. However, some of the heroes are human, and their noble actions of late have proven to General Rhutha that not all humans are fools. She's willing to hear them out, and they persuade her to meet with the leaders of Bael Nerath before crushing the rebellion beneath her jackboots. Still, the heroes don't know whether to trust General Rhutha. Is this warmonger capable of setting aside her deepest prejudices for the good of the empire, and is there any way to end the unrest? And how much do they really care?

T he Star Trek franchise has more influence on my campaign than any other brand of entertainment. I steal from it shamelessly, right down to its episodic structure and its vast, never-ending mythology. One thing that has kept Star Trek relevant for generations, one of the reasons why it resonates with so many different people from so many different cultures, is that it tackles real-life issues. So does my campaign, and that's the way my players like it.

Not every Trek episode deals with important issues, however. Not every episode offers thought-provoking commentary on the horrors of war, race relations, politics and religion, life and death. Some of them are just dumb fun. As it happens, there are moments in our existence when we want to explore "the human condition" and other times when we want to sit back, set our brains on stun, and watch big stuff go boom. Silly, paradoxical creatures that we are, we find both superficiality and depth entertaining. Star Trek writers had the smarts to give us both, and I make a conscious effort to do the same as a DM.

A campaign can get by without delving into the sorts of "issues" that magnetize or galvanize our moral compasses and spark debates and wars on Earth. I've seen player characters lose themselves in vast dungeon complexes, killing monsters week after week, never once wrestling with the "why?" question as they plunge endlessly downward into deeper treasure-laden vaults. However, a campaign suddenly comes to life and feels more "real" when the heroes tackle issues from time to time. But there's a fine line to walk, which perhaps can best be expressed as a question: Is it possible to create an arena in which players can have fun wrestling with serious issues such as political corruption, slavery, noble sacrifice, prejudice, genocide, and ethical misconduct? I believe so.

D&D is first and foremost a game, and a game is supposed to entertain players, not make them feel like they're in school, in church, or at work.

That doesn't mean I, as a DM, can't put my players and their characters in situations where their morals, ethics, and perspectives might be tested or questioned on occasion. For example, how might the characters deal with a friendly dwarf wizard who keeps half-orc slaves? How would they interact with angry farmers hell-bent on burning innocent women at the stake because their crops are dying and they don't know why?

D&D is more than a game—it's a roleplaying game. Week in and week out, the players are trying to put themselves in the boots of their characters and make decisions that reflect their characters' chosen alignments and personality traits. Roleplaying is, by its nature, an outlet for exploring different facets of human and animal behavior. Roleplaying is, for most of us, a safe outlet to explore various issues we humans face in real life, but in a safe environment free of actual consequence. In a D&D game, I can kill and pillage to my heart's content and still be outraged by an evil king who burns a church to the ground because its priests worshiped an unpopular god. Issues give players who like to roleplay something to sink their teeth into.

Lessons Learned

I can't assume that every Dungeon Master has a lot of experience running campaigns that tackle serious issues, but I'd be surprised to hear from a DM who ran a D&D game that didn't, at some point, confront players with a moral dilemma, ethical conundrum, or similar happenstance. One classic example: The heroes slaughter a tribe of evil, rampaging goblins and find a cave containing several harmless goblin children. Suddenly the characters are faced with an ethical conundrum: Do they kill the goblin children, or do they let the children survive? Some DMs avoid the issue by removing the children from the equation, if for no other reason that not all players enjoy wrestling with this kind of issue, and that's perfectly cool.

If you think your campaign needs issues, here's some general advice that has served me well over the years.

Try not to beat the players over the head with an issue. A player isn't going to get excited by a "very special adventure" about the evils of racial intolerance, or a world in which his dwarf character is bad-mouthed by every non-dwarf NPC week after week. Better to present an issue in light brush strokes, and leave it to the players to make a big deal out of it (or not). If the players would rather turn a blind eye than confront an issue, let them. Some issues will resonate; others won't.

Let the players make their own judgments. Most players I know don't want to be told how their characters should feel or how they should react to a given situation. They prefer to make those judgments on their own, based on their understanding of what motivates and provokes their characters. If the characters happen upon a wounded monster, leave it to them to decide whether it's better to slaughter or heal the creature. Imposing your own judgment on the situation doesn't make the decision any more engaging or challenging for the players.

Present issues fairly and responsibly. Ye gods, if you decide to present a controversial issue within the framework of your D&D campaign, be aware that an issue, by definition, can be seen from more than one point of view. If you intend to use religious fanatics as villains, for example, it would behoove you not to use them as tools to reflect your own personal misgivings about organized religion or to cast all religion in a negative light. Better to show more than one side of religious devotion by including a few devotees who aren't villainous and fanatical. Trust me when I say the party cleric will thank you.

Until the next encounter!

—Dungeon Master for Life,
Chris Perkins

Previous Poll Results

Hey DMs: What do you think of the three-act encounter structure?
I'm familiar with the idea and enjoy building encounters this way. 330 20.7%
I've never thought about building encounters this way, but I aim to try. 1073 67.2%
It's an intriguing idea, but I'm not likely to try it. 57 3.6%
I prefer to build encounters differently. 71 4.4%
None of the above. 66 4.1%
Total 1597 100.0%

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #44

 Your party has just slaughtered a tribe of goblins. Expecting to find the chieftain's treasury, you kick open the last door and see a room full of frightened goblin children. What do you do?  
Kill 'em all. The only good goblin is a dead goblin.
Let 'em live. Killing defenseless goblins is wrong.
Leave 'em be. They're not worth any XP anyway.
Let 'em live if they take you to the treasure.
Take 'em prisoner. They might be worth a reward.
Use 'em as mules and make 'em carry all your stuff.
Eat 'em. Goblins are surprisingly nourishing.
Let the party's paladin decide.
Let the party's barbarian decide.
You gotta be kidding!

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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