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Slave To the Rules
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.

WEDNESDAY NIGHT. The players know that a secret society of Vecna worshipers has been spying on them from a hidden demiplane. They also know that the Vecnites have a garrison of warforged at their command. Fleet, the party's warforged warden, is unwilling to face his fellow constructs in battle, so the players hit upon the idea of using an illusion ritual to disguise their characters as warforged, slip past the garrison unchecked, and infiltrate the Vecnites' inner sanctum.

G reetings, fellow Dungeon Masters! My last two articles were a bit long-winded, so I'll endeavor to keep this one short and sweet.

It's been my experience that D&D players, by and large, tend to deal with in-game problems by hacking them to death with swords. When they come to a locked door guarded by a monster, they kill the monster and break down the door. How much I relish those occasions when a player decides to talk to the monster, fool it, or lure it away instead! To incentivize such behavior, I tend to reward players who take risks and solve problems without resorting to brute force. This approach can, over time, inspire players to take greater risks, which often fuels the most memorable adventures.

Before my players hit upon the idea of using a Seeming ritual (Eberron Player's Guide, page 119) to disguise their characters as warforged, their only working plan besides charging forth with spells a-blazin' was to have Fleet (played by Nacime Khemis) confront his brethren and persuade them to embrace their individuality and throw off the yoke of oppression thrust upon them by their evil Vecnite masters. This plan was even more audacious than the "warforged disguise" plan. Had Nacime agreed to let Fleet deliver a speech before a wall of warforged adversaries, I would've done everything in my considerable power as DM to reward him in some fashion. Ultimately, the players abandoned this plan because Fleet's low Charisma made it unlikely that a Diplomacy check would succeed. Unbeknownst to them, I probably would've given Fleet a bonus on his skill check, and I probably would've given the party some advantage even if Nacime had rolled a 1. Worst-case scenario, the warforged aren't swayed by Fleet's speech, but maybe there's some small victory to be gained. What if a single warforged sees through Fleet's unlikeable manner and chooses to help the party in some innocuous or profound way? What if Fleet's speech prompts an exchange wherein the players discovers a schism among the warforged, prompting their characters to drive a wedge between the loyal guards and the disenfranchised ones? My goal is to find some way—any way—to make the players glad they decided to put Fleet in the line of fire. As the DM, I can choose to be a rules monkey or a storytelling juggernaut.

I'm reminded of a previous session during which the Wednesday night heroes summoned the Sea Kings (oceanic merchant lords) to a "summit meeting" and urged them to unite against a common threat. By then, the party had already gone to great lengths to forge this alliance, so by the time the Sea Kings arrived, I wanted to reward the players for their accomplishments by having the alliance come together as planned. (My players are always stunned when that happens.) After an hour of roleplaying, I asked each player to choose a skill that his character might have used in the course of the encounter, and then had each player make an appropriate skill check against a moderate DC. The results of these checks had nothing to do with the outcome of the summit meeting. Instead, I gave the players one secret for each successful check. In the end, the party had its alliance, and they also discovered some things they didn't know previously about the various Sea Kings in attendance.

Lessons Learned

I know many DMs like to forgo dice rolls in favor of pure roleplaying, but my personal preference is to let the dice play their part. This is D&D, after all, not a Vampire LARP. Having said that, I'll be the first to admit that I've never been a slave to the rules. I try to be fair and impartial, but when it comes right down to it, I'm more interested in creating a fun and engaging campaign than crafting the perfect skill challenge or making sure a character is using a skill exactly as written. If my players want to infiltrate an enemy stronghold disguised as warforged, the rules say I need to make an Insight check every time a creature views or interacts with them, to which I say "Screw that!" It might seem odd that a member of Wizards R&D would discard D&D rules on a whim, but to quote Captain Hector Barbossa: Sometimes the rules are more what you'd call "guidelines."

The rules will boss you around if you let them, but they exist to serve you and your campaign. Don't let them shackle your creativity or the creativity of your players. By the same token, the rules aren't your enemies. They're your allies, ready to win battles for you on command. Use them as you will.

Until the next encounter!

—Dungeon Master for Life,
Chris Perkins

Previous Poll Results

Hey DMs: Would you consider giving an epic-level magic item or some other item of comparable value to a character of 10th level or lower?
If it was important to the character or the campaign, yes. 896 53.1%
Maybe. Depends on the item. 501 29.7%
What kind of silly question is that? No, of course not. 225 13.3%
Absolutely. I love overpowered characters in my campaign! 45 2.7%
Sure, if the player buys me pizza three weeks in a row. 21 1.2%
Total 1688 100.0%

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #48

 What's your default reaction when you can't remember a specific rule during a game session?  
Not an issue: someone at the table always has the answer.
I make it up—my game, my rules.
I make it up just to keep things moving, then look up the actual rule later.
I ask one of my players to look it up, then I apply it as warranted.
I look it up personally, then apply the rule as warranted.
My players and I agree to a rule we can all live with.
I defer to one or more of my players. They know the rules better than I do.
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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