Article Header Image
Unfinished Business
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 epic-level adventurers have some unfinished business in the city of Io'calioth. A tiefling crime lord named Dorethau Vadu, whom the party hasn't encountered since paragon tier, remains at large, and the players have decided her time has finally come.

Behind the grandmotherly façade is a woman who despises the Dragovar Empire so completely that she kidnaps dragonborn babies and eats them for breakfast. With her guild in shambles, Vadu has turned to an unlikely ally for protection and sequestered herself in his fortified manor. This ally is someone the heroes have yet to meet: Colonel Arzan, a corrupt Dragovar official whom Dorethau Vadu is blackmailing. It seems Colonel Arzan plotted with several others to overthrow the Emperor, and though he was never caught, Vadu obtained evidence of his treachery and is blackmailing him for protection. That's not to say Arzan is deserving of the party's sympathy, for as the players will soon discover, he parades around with orphans on leashes and wears a cloak made from the stitched faces of his enemies.

I magine you're a Dungeon Master who's just put the finishing touches on a new adventure that promises to entertain your players for several game sessions. Suddenly, out of the blue, something unexpected happens. The campaign turns left instead of right; the players decide to go this way instead of that way, and you decide to follow them to see what happens next. In short, your best-laid adventure is over before it begins. Has this ever happened to you? I ask because it happens to me all the time.

I like to dangle all sorts of adventure hooks in front of my players. That way, they never feel like the campaign has only one road to follow. I like my campaign to have lots of roads, lots of trails, lots of meandering footpaths, and even a few dead ends. When my crafty players see an adventure hook dangling in front of them, sometimes they bite, and sometimes they swim away. Even if they swim away, I leave that hook dangling, just in case they come back.

I expected Dorethau Vadu to be dead by now—another evil bag of XP on the party's road to glory. The heroes had all but wiped out her organization, and I had planned an elaborate final showdown with the horned crone. Then the adventurers got distracted by some other shiny adventure hooks, and off they went. Oh, sure, the players occasionally reminded themselves of the need to rid the world of so evil a creature as her, but as they gained levels and crossed over into epic tier, it seemed increasingly unlikely that the party would trouble themselves with eradicating the tiefling crime lord. And so, presumably, she kept on eating dragonborn babies.

In every group of players, there's at least one who keeps a list. You know what I'm talkin' about. In my Monday night group, that player is Peter Schaefer, and somewhere near the top of Peter's list is the name "Dorethau Vadu." So here we are, almost a year later. Through a series of adventurers and misadventures, the party is back in Io'calioth, and Peter's decided the time's come to strike that name off the party's list. Through his growing network of spies, Peter's character (Oleander the halfling rogue) has discovered where Dorethau Vadu is hiding, learned the layout of Colonel Arzan's fortified manor, and even bribed one of his unfaithful household servants. (Ah, the joys of being epic level!) The party is planning to invade the manor and rid the campaign of Dorethau Vadu, and probably Colonel Arzan, too.

I should be pleased, yes? The players have finally deigned to complete my little adventure. Unfortunately, the adventure was designed for paragon-tier characters, not epic-level ones! What's a DM to do?

Lessons Learned

Scaling up an adventure is easy. If you've been keeping up on this column, you already know my tricks for advancing monsters and NPCs; however, in this case, I decided not to use any of them. I decided to keep Dorethau Vadu at her current level and instead make her environment and her allies more threatening. My reason is simple: In terms of pure logic, there's no in-world way I can think of to explain how Vadu's power increased so dramatically, particularly after the heroes laid waste to her organization. But more importantly, the threat she poses doesn't derive from her statistics, but from her influence. If the PCs can get to her, they'll have no trouble killing her. The trick is getting to her.

I'm doing something similar but different with Colonel Arzan. Like Vadu, he's well below the party's experience level in terms of raw statistics. However, he's a member of the imperial martial caste, and if the party simply kills him, they'll be branded traitors of the empire, which carries with it consequences more than commensurate with their level. The trick here is to find proof that Arzan himself is a traitor, and ironically enough, to do that the heroes need Dorethau Vadu.

By the time players get around to knocking off a threat that's been on their hit list for nearly ten levels, one needs to give serious thought to how challenging the encounter needs to be. A "cakewalk" can be a lot of fun for players because it reinforces just how powerful their characters have become in the world. Still, it's always fun to confront players with the consequences of leaving behind unfinished business. When the PCs decided not to finish her off, Vadu crawled under a rock and stayed out of their hair just long enough to become dangerous again. The tiefling crime lord hasn't been idle all these many months. Oh my goodness, no! Like any evil tiefling grandmother, she's been knitting a tapestry depicting a scene from the Nine Hells. She's also paid ritualists to enchant the tapestry, transforming it into a portal through which she can summon powerful devils to do her bidding. It's hanging on the wall of her bedroom in Colonel Arzan's estate. I don't know where I got the idea, but as far as I'm concerned it's brilliant because all that's left for me to do is surf the online D&D Compendium and figure out which devils I want to use!

So, to summarize:

  • Don't get frustrated if the players turn away from your adventure. If you can afford to, let 'em. Maybe they'll find it more alluring later on.
  • When the players finally come around, only "scale up" the parts of the adventure you have to. Trust your left brain to determine what needs to change, trust your right brain to come up with simple yet creative ways to challenge the heroes, and let the rest be a cakewalk.

Next week marks a major benchmark for The Dungeon Master Experience. It will be the 50th article in this series, wherein I will tell you about my next campaign and how it's already affecting the current one.

Until the next encounter!

—Dungeon Master for Life,
Chris Perkins

Previous Poll Results

What's your default reaction when you can't remember a specific rule during a game session?
I make it up just to keep things moving, then look up the actual rule later. 1243 46.2%
I look it up personally, then apply the rule as warranted. 362 13.5%
I ask one of my players to look it up, then I apply it as warranted. 320 11.9%
My players and I agree to a rule we can all live with. 292 10.9%
Not an issue: someone at the table always has the answer. 244 9.1%
I make it up—my game, my rules. 140 5.2%
I defer to one or more of my players. They know the rules better than I do. 51 1.9%
None of the above. 36 1.3%
Total 2688 100.0%

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #49A

 A mad archmage teleports a bunch of adventurers to a tropical island infested with monsters. They are stranded and without rations and have no hope of escape. Who dies first?  
Dragonborn paladin
Drow assassin
Dwarf cleric of Moradin
Elf ranger
Gnome illusionist
Half-elf bard
Halfling rogue
Half-orc barbarian
Human warlord
Tiefling warlock
Warforged artificer

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #49B

 Who dies last?  
Dragonborn paladin
Drow assassin
Dwarf cleric of Moradin
Elf ranger
Gnome illusionist
Half-elf bard
Halfling rogue
Half-orc barbarian
Human warlord
Tiefling warlock
Warforged artificer

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.
Comments
Sort Items By: Newest First Oldest First Top Rated
 >
There are no comments yet for this article (or rating). Be the first!
 >

Create Comment
Follow Us
RSS
Find a place to get together with friends or gear up for adventure at a store near you
Please enter a city or zip code