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. Their love was a tempest. Yuriel (played by Nick DiPetrillo) was a stormy genasi sea captain, and Pearl (a nonplayer character) was the prickly genasi first mate who questioned his every order. They argued a lot, and then out of nowhere, Yuriel proposed. The next session, after the fastest whirlwind romance in history, they were hitched. The session after that, they were both dead.
successful D&D campaign incorporates many different genres and themes. Variety keeps the players entertained week after week, and so a good DM routinely shakes things up. A single campaign might include swashbuckling on the high seas, a harrowing exploration of a haunted house, a murder investigation at a local carnival, a political scandal between rival merchant houses, and a tense negotiation with a greedy dragon. When I look back at the campaigns I've run, I see a lot of familiar themes again and again: deception, isolation, intrigue, horror, humor, war, loss, and vengeance, just to name a few. However, one important theme is consistently underplayed.
Love may be a many-splendored thing, not to mention the most fertile of dramatic themes. However, I've never run a campaign — or played in one, for that matter — in which two player characters were married or in love, nor have I made a concerted effort to create interesting love triangles between PCs and NPCs. For one thing, I find real-life romance awkward. Also, I'm pretty sure that my players enjoy D&D because they get to beat up the bad guys, win the treasure, and become more powerful and influential in the campaign world. They don't play D&D because they're looking for some vicarious romantic thrill to fill heart-shaped voids in their lives. They also have understandable misgivings about their characters having serious relationships with NPCs because their DM is of a mind to put those love interests in jeopardy. (What DM could resist?) The Yuriel–Pearl debacle wasn't what you'd call a "love for the ages." When Pearl screamed "Yes!" and threw herself into Yuriel's arms, the other players laughed their asses off because the love affair had all the romance of a sardine sandwich.
My concerns with love as a D&D theme are that (a) it takes a long time to develop naturally and (b) it's a hard thing to fake without it seeming weird. I can make vengeance, hatred, and loss feel real, but love? Not so much. The last thing I want to do is make my players uncomfortable by turning the campaign into a soap opera. That doesn't mean I can't have fun portraying a playful and promiscuous tiefling spy who likes to tease men and women with her tail, or a genasi first mate so lovably prickly that she makes sea urchins blush. These are caricatures bereft of serious emotional depth, played mainly for laughs. However, I'm deluding myself if I think I can create an NPC guaranteed to capture the heart of one of my player characters. I'm not saying it couldn't happen, but at the pace my campaign moves, it's hard to carve out the time it takes to make that relationship seem real.
I'll be the first to admit that the Yuriel–Pearl relationship never got a fair shake. Yuriel died rather unexpectedly (mostly due to bad die rolls, as happens often). However, rather than go the Raise Dead route, I had the grieving widow petition an emissary of Vecna to reanimate her dead husband, replacing his heart with an artificial one that pumped necrotic sludge through his undead veins. (Necrophilia . . . now there's a theme for your next D&D campaign.) Not long thereafter, the party's ship came under attack, and Pearl was killed in the crossfire. A few rounds later, Yuriel (again the victim of bad die rolls) literally had the necrotic heart ripped out of his body before he was unceremoniously tossed overboard. The other characters were never cool with Yuriel's undead transformation. As his corpse sank to the bottom of the ocean, the party wizard put the last nail in Yuriel's coffin by blowing his necrotic heart to bits with a magic missile.
Take THAT, love.
I'm cool with a player creating a character who has strong emotional ties to other characters or NPCs. In fact, I think that's awesome and very brave. I'm also not against relationships evolving as the campaign matures. Relationships add drama and dimension to any campaign. However, I'm happy to let my players take the lead on that one. If they want to pursue romantic liaisons with NPCs or with each other, I would like to think I'm man enough to let those relationships blossom or run their course and not go out of my way to destroy them (my heart-wrenching Monday night antics notwithstanding).
Over the years, I've chatted with players and DMs for whom love is a major campaign theme. Usually that's because their gaming groups include married couples or lovebirds who've created characters with strong emotional ties to one another that reflect their own relationships (which is not to say all groups with mated players have emotionally entangled characters). Call me a terrible person, but when two character are in love, I wonder what happens if one of them is eaten by an otyugh. When I ask other DMs how they deal with this sort of "typical" D&D situation, I get all sorts of great answers — everything from "My campaign is more about relationships than fighting monsters, so it's not really an issue" to "We have a real-life funeral and wake for the fallen character." I remember meeting one enthusiastic D&D player who told me that her character, a paladin of Helm, had been married to an assassin for twelve years . . . and I'm talkin' real time AND in-game time. Not surprisingly, her husband of fifteen years played the assassin. I couldn't help but think, Lucky for them I'm not their DM. Putting aside my wonder at a campaign lasting twelve years, I was impressed that their DM could exercise such restraint in allowing the relationship to survive. I also had a tough time reconciling the paladin's conflicting vows . . . until I reminded myself that (a) love has no boundaries, (b) internal struggles are fun, and (c) stranger things can happen in the D&D multiverse. It tells me so much about the power of this game, if not the power of love.
When I analyze the prevailing themes of my campaign, I ask myself, "Where's the love?" It's nowhere to be seen. That's because my players and I aren't looking for a campaign with serious emotional overtones or undertones. We err toward action, adventure, and the very manly swinging of swords, but we so rarely flirt with romance. Methinks one cannot slay a dragon and love at the same time, and my players would rather slay dragons and then go home to their significant others. As for me, I like to lavish attention on my campaign. I'm not ashamed to say it's been a real love affair—five good years with no complaints. I'm sad it will be over soon, but that's the way it goes.
Until the next encounter!
—Dungeon Master for Life,
Previous Poll Results
Which of the following races is most “at home” in campaign rife with intrigue?
The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #101
In your campaign(s), how much importance do you place on romance involving one or more PCs?
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.