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Master of Suspense
The Dungeon Master Experience
By 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 party’s dead. No corpses or body parts means no Raise Dead rituals, begging the question of what happens next? Will the spirits of the slain adventurers somehow find their way back into the world? What kind of deus ex machina will the DM invoke to set everything right?

I have often said that my primary role behind the DM screen is to entertain my players, which includes keeping them in suspense. Suspense heightens anxiety and uncertainty, and one way to create suspense in a D&D game is to put characters in jeopardy and then cut away to something else, thus leaving players anxious. Take the Wednesday night group, which was all but obliterated in our penultimate game session. Instead of picking up where the campaign left off and answering the big question on their minds — Are the characters truly dead? — I went somewhere else entirely and kept the players in suspense for 20 minutes.

The game session began with me describing a weirdly bucolic scene — clouds shaped like gnomes and devils drifting above autumnal trees, curled leaves raining down upon a garden filled with diabolical topiaries and brilliant flowers — viewed through the parlor window of a rustic estate in the Feywild. Looking out the window is Xanthum Zail, the gnome bard (played by Curt Gould). He's sitting across from a styx devil advisor who's staring at a chessboard and contemplating his next move. There's a knock on the parlor door, foreshadowing the arrival of Xanthum's elderly tiefling manservant. Ambling behind him is a gnome-sized straw golem that's the centerpiece of the Burning Gnome Festival, a seasonal event hosted by Xanthum in which the straw golem is set ablaze and unleashed in the gardens while giddy gnome children chase after it and beat out the flames with shovels. I'm particularly proud of this little bit of imagery because of the laughter it elicited from my players, and nothing's better than a laugh to disarm the audience before ratcheting up the suspense.

I chose to open the session with images of devils and burning gnomes for a reason: In the middle of the epic tier, Xanthum was separated from the party and trapped in the Nine Hells. During his absence, he managed to claw his way up the infernal ranks to become a Duke (he is epic level, after all). He tried to rejoin the party but was no longer welcome. His former adventuring companions tossed Xanthum off their ship, believing he was now an emissary of evil, and so he retired to his Feywild residence. Consequently, the gnome bard wasn't with the party in its final moments. (Curt's other character, Divin, took Xanthum's place and paid for it with his life.)

My plan was to use Xanthum as a point-of-view character to explain what had happened in the wake of the previous session's events. It presented Curt with a fun roleplaying opportunity and a chance to close the book on his surviving character. Meanwhile, the other players sat around the table, wondering whether their characters were truly dead and if they'd somehow get drawn into Xanthum's unfolding story. The suspense was finally shattered as Xanthum returned to Iomandra, made contact with a number of important NPCs (as well as Rodney Thompson's other surviving character, Nevin), and learned what the players already suspected: the party was really dead, and the campaign was truly coming to an end. Several months of in-world time had elapsed since the party's demise, and the world was in a much better state. The Black Curtain had fallen, there was peace among the Sea Kings of Iomandra, and old disputes were finally being laid to rest. Many beloved NPCs had moved on to bigger and better things, and Xanthum — the great gnome bard — took it upon himself to ensure the party's legacy would not be easily forgotten.

Lessons Learned

You might think that the other players were unhappy with the attention lavished upon Xanthum, but let's be honest: It didn't take long for them to realize I was using the gnome as a plot device to show the results of their characters' sacrifice, and that justified their lack of participation in the Xanthum storyline. For suspense to work, you need to keep the players emotionally invested in the story; otherwise, suspense is quickly replaced with boredom.

With suspense, timing is everything. A second too short, and the audience isn't wound up enough. A second too long, and the audience's pent-up tension turns to exasperation. Film directors who specialize in taut thrillers will tell you that suspense is created not in front of the camera but in the editing room, where bits of film can be added or removed to get the timing of a scene just right. These same directors will also tell you that music and sound are great contributors to suspense, but these aren't tools that most DMs can use to great effect, making timing even more important in a D&D game.

Suspense can't last forever, of course. Eventually, it needs to pop like a balloon so that the audience gets some well-deserved relief.

Once I was done with Xanthum and the world of Iomandra, all attention shifted to the Raven Queen's palace in the Shadowfell, where the spirits of the dead adventurers were gathered to witness the goddess of fate putting the final nail in Vecna's coffin. (The heroes sacrificed themselves to ensure the evil god's demise and deliver his soul into the Raven Queen's waiting arms.) Before releasing their spirits to the afterlife, the Raven Queen gave each character the chance to help decide the fates of those they'd left behind. Speaking for his goliath battlemind, Ravok, Andrew Finch urged the Raven Queen to let faith in the new gods flourish in a world of religious intolerance. Nacime Khemis, speaking for the warforged warden Fleet, asked that fate conspire to free his people from servitude. Divin, Curt Gould's dead cleric, asked the Raven Queen to salvage an old canoe that once belonged to the party (it was lost during the heroic tier) and let it transport some new hero on a great adventure. Deimos, Chris Youngs' tiefling sorcerer, declined the Raven Queen's offer to meddle in the fates of others, certain in his belief that people should rule their own destinies. That brought us, finally, to Rodney Thompson's character, a champion of the Raven Queen named Vargas, who'd spent the entire campaign struggling to find his place in the world, and finally ending up by his god's side. It was Vargas who uttered the campaign's final words, striking at the heart of what makes me love this game . . .

And with that, I now leave YOU in suspense.

Until the next encounter!

—Dungeon Master for Life,
Chris Perkins

Previous Poll Results

In general, how do the NPCs in your world treat adventurers?
Like crap. 31 2.5%
Like criminals. 31 2.5%
Like everyday schmoes with big-ass swords. 161 12.8%
Like better-than-average blokes deserving of some respect. 363 28.9%
Like heroes of the people. 131 10.4%
Like gods. 5 0.4%
It depends on the party's level. 479 38.1%
None of the above. 55 4.4%
Total 1256 100.0%

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #103

 Hey DMs: What’s your favorite way to create suspense?  
I talk in a quiet voice.
I use creepy background music.
When things get really tense, I cut away to another location or scene.
I like to take players aside to give them secret information.
I like dramatic pauses, sometimes accompanied by wicked grins.
I like to describe what the heroes feel, hear, and smell instead of what they see.
I use Lovecraftian prose to convey a sense of mounting dread.
I withhold the results of critical die rolls for as long as possible.
I make the stakes high so that failure has serious repercussions.
I create hard dilemmas that demand hard choices.
I drain party resources so the PCs feel vulnerable.
I use time pressure (the “ticking clock” scenario).
None of the above (leave a comment)

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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What did he say???
  
Posted By: Faerion001 (3/5/2014 9:39:21 PM)
Rating: 
0.51.01.52.02.53.03.54.04.55.0

 


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