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Shiny New Thing
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. Anyone who sails the Dragon Sea eventually comes to a towering wall of necrotic fog known as the Black Curtain, and hidden beyond this barrier is the magocracy of Vhalt, a lost kingdom erased from historical scrolls and watched over by the god-lich Vecna. Backed by their dark deity, the rulers of Vhalt have begun to plot the downfall of the Dragovar Empire, which nearly destroyed their kingdom long ago, all the while keeping themselves hidden.

For the past ten levels of the campaign, the player characters have learned more and more about the secret threat that lurks beyond the Black Curtain, but only recently did they discover the full extent of Vhalt's plans. With the last great mystery of the campaign finally revealed, the stage is set for what I hope will be an epic endgame that will determine the fate of Iomandra and the adventurers. Will the campaign actually end this way? Only time will tell. . . .

N ot every campaign comes to a satisfying end. When it does happen, it's a rare thrill—a testament to the dedication and effort of everyone involved. I commend any DM who can keep a gaming group (including himself or herself) entertained long enough to see a campaign through to its natural conclusion.

I don't need to tell you why campaigns die before their time; if you're reading this article, you already know the reasons. Life gets in the way. The group breaks up. The players become bored. The power creep gets out of hand. The campaign loses its spark. TPK. The DM runs out of steam. I've experienced all of these things in my thirty-odd years playing and DMing the game. A D&D campaign is like a television series; statistically, the odds are high it'll get cancelled before its time.

The first ten years I spent playing D&D, I never completed a single campaign, either as a player or as a DM. My experience up to that point taught me that campaigns only ended when the characters died or when the next campaign began. This week, I'd like to briefly discuss one of the leading causes of campaign death and share with you two of the steps I've taken to keep my campaigns alive.

:thud:

Oops, another campaign has just died. It was jogging along Paragon Avenue toward Epic Boulevard when, suddenly, out of nowhere, the DM came upon an idea for something NEW! Yes, it's happened before, but on previous occasions the DM was able to get past the idea and keep his or her thoughts focused on the current campaign. Not this time, however. Maybe the campaign's lost some of its luster. Maybe it's completely out of control. Maybe it's just showing its age.

How does a DM keep the current campaign alive when the next great idea comes along?

Just when you thought you had a great thing going with your current campaign, a new and amazing idea steals your heart! Suddenly, you find yourself falling out of love with the campaign du jour and daydreaming about this wonderful new campaign that doesn't even exist except in your mind's eye. Or maybe your current campaign doesn't inspire you like it used to, and this new idea gives you a chance to do something you haven't done in a while: explore a new world.

A DM can't love two campaigns. Okay, maybe that's not true for you, but it's absolutely true for me. (You could argue that my Iomandra campaign is, in fact, two campaigns, but it isn't. It's one campaign being run for two different groups of players.) I know I'm not alone when it comes to issues of campaign commitment. Many DMs fall "out of love" with their current campaigns after falling in love with some newly imagined world of adventure. I hear about it all the time at panels and seminars. DMs are always asking me how I can keep a campaign alive for YEARS when they're ready to bail after 6 months! The truth is, when a wonderful new idea comes along, it's hard to keep the old fire burning.

Look me square in the computer screen and tell me that no new campaign idea, no matter how awesome and inspired, will ever come between you and your current campaign. As engines of creativity, DMs are always putting their minds toward the next creative endeavor. There's something to be said for starting fresh. But then, there's also something to be said for finishing what you started. After all, the most important part of any story is the ending. Can you imagine if Peter Jackson had shot only The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, but not The Return of the King? No one likes two-thirds of a story.


Lessons Learned

As long as the DM is committed to keeping his or her players entertained, nothing but divine intervention and life's little surprises can slay a campaign before its time. However, when that commitment falters, when the romance begins to show its cracks, it's only a matter of time before the DM abandons the campaign and drags the players away with him (or her). Fortunately, I've found a couple ways to keep that from happening, at least until the time comes to give the campaign its proper sendoff:

1. Get the new idea out of your head and "on paper."

I put "on paper" in quotation marks because almost nobody writes on paper anymore, but there's a reason why people like to keep diaries and journals: writing things down is a legitimate form of therapy. To me, transferring a creative idea to a Word file is like an exorcism. When I'm haunted by an idea and it's rattling around in my brain, sometimes trapping it inside a document is all that's needed to keep it from hoarding my affection.

The next time a new idea threatens your campaign, open up a Word file and pour your idea into it. Sometimes the idea will amount to a couple paragraphs, sometimes a couple pages. What's important is that the file becomes the vessel for this new idea instead of your brain, which isn't to say that it's erased from your mind. On the contrary—the idea's still there, but now you've done something with it. Having been shown a "night on the town," it's far less likely to nag you or tempt you with its seductive wiles.

My two most recent D&D campaigns (Arveniar 1999–2006, Iomandra 2007–Present) began as playtests of 3rd Edition and 4th Edition, respectively. Given that Wizards has announced that we're working on the next iteration of the RPG, it should come as no surprise that I've been giving serious thought to what happens after the current Iomandra campaign ends. While I haven't discussed it with my players (and they will certainly have their input), one idea has emerged as an early frontrunner. To keep it from getting in the way of my current campaign, however, I trapped the following paragraphs in a Word file:

VALOREIGN

Five years ago, the destruction of the Feywild caused a flood of arcane energy to wash over the island nation of Valoreign, transforming the realm and its many creatures. Ordinary folk became "deformed" or began manifesting otherworldly abilities, ordinary beasts were turned into monsters or imbued with sentience, and buildings were twisted into new shapes and in some cases gained personalities all their own. Even King Thomas is not his "old self" anymore. Five years ago, he was transformed from a senile 90-year-old husk of a man into a 19-year-old wizard in the prime of life, full of strange dreams and desires.

There's a new saying in Valoreign: Nothing is quite how it used to be.

Across the sea, foreign powers believe Valoreign is cursed, and some of them want nothing to do with the island realm. Others see Valoreign as a demesne of great magic to be conquered or destroyed. And then there's the Raven Queen, who understands quite well what the people of Valoreign are going through. Five years ago, she escaped the destruction of the Shadowfell by fleeing to the natural world and seizing hold of a mountain kingdom corrupted by the shadow plane. Surrounded by legions of dwarves, orcs, and giants possessed by the shadows that creep across her dark land, the Raven Queen has begun to stretch her talons outward. It's only a matter of time before her mad dreams and those of young King Thomas collide.

Valoreign, such as it is, is still more of a concept than a campaign setting, and it remains to be seen whether my infatuation with the idea will last and, more importantly, whether my players will be excited to explore this new setting. (If not, it's back to the drawing board!) However, the simple act of writing these paragraphs has helped me entertain and compartmentalize Valoreign as well as keep it from diminishing my enthusiasm for Iomandra.

2. Don't save the good stuff for the next campaign.

If you can work a new idea into your current campaign, DO IT. Don't save it for later. (You'll never run out of ideas, trust me!) It's easy to be seduced by a new idea when you're bored with the status quo, but sometimes a new idea is just the spark of excitement your listless campaign needs.

Allow me to illustrate my point by way of example:

A few months ago, the characters in my Wednesday night group hit 25th level, and it dawned on me that the players had basically solved all of the mysteries of the campaign. They knew who their enemies were and what needed to be done to save the world, as epic-level heroes are wont to do. Once all the mystery is gone, it's easy to become tired of the setting. So I decided to do a couple things I'd never done before: First, I acknowledged the heroes' greatness by making them powerfully influential and giving them followers and ways to exert control over the world around them. Second, I decided to sow some inter-party conflict, and I snatched the Raven Queen from my nonexistent "Valoreign" campaign to do it! You can read the sordid details here (http://wizards.com/dnd/Article.aspx?x=dnd/4dmxp/20111222). As a consequence, it's unlikely that the Raven Queen will be a central figure in my next campaign as originally planned (because I hate repeating myself), but that's perfectly fine. I've never been light on ideas, and I'm fairly certain I'll come up with something as good if not better to replace her.

Until the next encounter!

—Dungeon Master for Life,
Chris Perkins



Previous Poll Results

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?
Gnome illusionist 525 26.0%
Half-elf bard 431 21.3%
Dragonborn paladin 262 13.0%
Drow assassin 224 11.1%
Half-orc barbarian 128 6.3%
Tiefling warlock 100 5.0%
Human warlord 86 4.3%
Halfling rogue 81 4.0%
Warforged artificer 78 3.9%
Dwarf cleric of Moradin 67 3.3%
Elf ranger 38 1.9%
Total 2020 100.0%

Who dies last?
Warforged artificer 668 32.9%
Elf ranger 335 16.5%
Drow assassin 211 10.4%
Dwarf cleric of Moradin 178 8.8%
Gnome illusionist 169 8.3%
Half-orc barbarian 140 6.9%
Dragonborn paladin 113 5.6%
Halfling rogue 98 4.8%
Half-elf bard 45 2.2%
Tiefling warlock 38 1.9%
Human warlord 38 1.9%
Total 2033 100.0%

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #50

 How would you like to end your current campaign?  
Abruptly, without fanfare.
With a big fight.
With a big end-of-the-world scenario. (This is 2012, after all.)
By tying up all the loose ends, then sticking a fork in it.
With pizza and cupcakes and beer.
With lots of meaningful character deaths.
With lots of ignominious character deaths, to punish my players for the hell they put me through.
With a flash-forward to show my players what miserable old people their characters turned into.
With a teaser for the next campaign.
With the PCs ascending to godhood—lord help the multiverse.
By flying away on my umbrella like Mary Poppins.
Whatchu talkin' about, Perkins? My campaign NEVER ENDS!

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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