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 assaulting the Black Candle, a secret stronghold of Vecna-worshiping wizards. Upon reaching the inner sanctum, they discover that their adversaries have summoned an aspect of Vecna mounted on a dracolich. As the aspect turns to destroy them, the beleaguered, resource-drained heroes lower their weapons and beg for a truce, remembering that they and the Maimed Lord share a common foe—a growing threat from the Far Realm.
I ask the players to make group Diplomacy checks as the aspect of Vecna considers their characters’ words. The dice results are in the party’s favor, and so the undead lord decides to heed the wisdom of their counsel and forge a temporary alliance. The aspect allows the heroes to destroy those they came to destroy and promises to send a more worthy vassal to them at a later time, as part of a pledge to aid them in their efforts to destroy the Far Realm threat.
End of session.
This is not how I expected the game session to end. I expected what most DMs expect: a few minced words followed by a lot of blood and shattered bones. But then, I sometimes forget that a good DM provides the compass but lets the players choose the direction.
I’ve often said that improvisation is the best tool in any Dungeon Master’s toolbox. Actually, it’s more of a skill than a tool, and I primarily rely on improvisation to curtail on preparation time and to keep my game from stalling or becoming dull. And like any skill, it develops over time.
If you doubt your improvisational skills, take the following test:
The heroes have a quest to slay Snurre Ironbelly, the fire giant king. After slaughtering their way to his august presence, they decide on a whim not to kill him. Instead, they offer their services as mercenaries-for-hire, citing their success in breaching his hall as proof of their competence. Maybe the offer is genuine, maybe it’s a ruse. Regardless, does Snurre attack the heroes?
Some DMs prefer to run published adventures because the story is heavily scripted, and the likelihood that the DM will be called upon to improvise is greatly reduced. But even published adventures cannot account for every action the player characters might take.
In Hall of the Fire Giant King, the classic AD&D module, the heroes are expected to kill Snurre. At least, that’s what Gary Gygax surely intended when TSR published the original adventure back in 1978. However, no published adventure can account for every possible player choice, and a good DM, like any good storyteller, knows an opportunity when he or she sees it. Snurre’s death might be a foregone conclusion, but situations that naturally arise to forestall the inevitable are always worth exploring, as are opportunities that allow characters to break out of the traditional “adventurer” role and spend a few sessions trying on different hats (like the mercenary hat, for example) or exploring their morality.
Were I the DM, I would let the skill check results guide my decision, but I would be strongly disposed toward taking the story in the more unexpected direction. Being a fire giant, Snurre would certainly respect shows of brute force and raw power, so of course he’d want mighty adventurers at his beck and call—who wouldn’t? Having the heroes become Snurre’s henchmen, even briefly, is the stuff players will remember long after the campaign has ended.
Now try this one:
The heroes receive a quest to escort the Imperial heir to the capital. The foolish young heir proves to be a royal pain in the ass, and despite the heroes’ efforts (or because of them), the heir dies en route. Rather than deliver his dead body, the heroes bury it and decide that one of them will use a hat of disguise to impersonate the heir and perhaps, in time, assume lordship over the kingdom. As the DM, do you allow this?
Yes, of course you do! Maybe you never expected the campaign to bend in that direction, but it’s a perfectly logical development to the story, and one that’s likely to spur all kinds of wonderful roleplaying opportunities and campaign developments. Suddenly the heroes have a secret and a chance to really turn the campaign on its head. By allowing for unexpected twists and turns, you’ve forced yourself to improvise, and every time you do this, your improvisational skill improves and the players’ expectations are blown out of the water.
In a seminar at San Diego Comic Con, I urged DMs to “under-prepare, then improvise.” My campaign, like many campaigns, has needs that published adventures can’t address. (It has lots of roleplaying and politics, and very few sprawling dungeons.) Consequently, I rarely use published adventures, even short ones, preferring to devise my own encounters week after week. Before each game session, I type up a one-page document that goes into my campaign binder (click here for an example). On this page is a summary of important things that need to be recapped at the start of the session, followed by a list of NPCs who will likely make an appearance, followed by short descriptions of events or encounters I expect to happen. If the adventure includes a location to explore, I include a map accompanied by swatches of descriptive text reminding me of important details. Sometimes I’ll require a stat block for a unique NPC or monster, but I try to use existing stat blocks and modify them as needed (as discussed in Instant Monster).
The one-page session overview illustrates the degree to which I “under-prepare” for a game session. It provides a few guideposts, but most of the session is improvised. I find my players don’t suffer for the lack of preparation on my part, as long as I prod them when the action stalls and roll with them once they’ve committed to a course of action.
When the players do something that threatens to take the story in an unexpected direction . . .
Imagine the next logical outcome or event, and proceed from there.
If, for some reason, you can’t think of the next logical outcome or event, consider ending the session on a cliffhanger and allowing yourself time to mull over the implications. A hero wants to use a hat of disguise to impersonate the royal heir? No problem. But let’s see what happens when a perceptive royal sibling succeeds at an Insight check and senses something is amiss. Maybe the threat of discovery leads the characters to kill two birds with one stone by murdering the king and framing the suspicious sibling for his death. Again, no problem! Yeah, the characters have usurped a kingdom, but all the threats to the kingdom are still there—and, ironically enough, the heroes’ skills as adventurers might be the kingdom’s best hope of survival. The campaign marches on, just not in the way you or your players expected.
So my Monday night group, out of dire necessity, has forged an alliance with the evil god of secrets. The players know it’s a marriage of convenience not long for the world, but it raises lots of interesting questions and opens up lots of roleplaying opportunities. Can the heroes learn to work alongside Vecna’s evil servants? Will certain characters’ personal misgivings threaten to end the alliance? Which side will betray the other first? By their choices and actions, the players have made the campaign more interesting and complicated, and they’ve put my improvisational skills to the test. I shall not disappoint them!
I’ve learned that the secret to developing one’s improvisational skills as a DM is to listen to what the players want to do, and then steer the adventure in that direction, even if it runs counter to my own expectations. Only when my expectations are challenged can the campaign go off in surprisingly fun directions. Many campaigns die of boredom (DM boredom, player boredom, or both), but you can mitigate the threat of boredom by keeping yourself open to ideas and demonstrating to your players that you’re not locked into telling one story and one story only.
Until the next encounter!
—Dungeon Master for Life,
Poll 08/04/2011 Results:
How do you prefer to create maps for your campaigns?
- The old-fashioned way: Pens (or pencils) and graph paper: 51.5%
- The old-fashioned lazy way: I let someone else do it for me: 25.9%
- The newfangled way: With a computer and digital drawing tools: 14.6%
- The newfangled lazy way: With mapmaking software: 7.9%
The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll 08/11/2011
1. Hey DMs: What are your player characters most likely to do when confronted by one or more intelligent enemies of comparable power level?
2. What are your player characters most likely to do when faced with certain death at the hands of intelligent enemies?
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.