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 campaign has taken a dark turn. Having just attacked an island base belonging to their hated enemy, Sea King Senestrago, the adventurers return to their ship with the spoils of victory. Yet upon their return, they find the ship adrift, its crew gone.
A thorough exploration suggests that the crew has been abducted. A strange sending stone discovered in the captain’s cabin confirms their fears—through this device, the heroes are contacted by another campaign villain who’s been shadowing their vessel, waiting to strike. He offers the heroes a trade: Their missing crew in exchange for a powerful relic the heroes have sworn to protect, an item which the villain desires above all and which, in the wrong hands, could cause great calamity. The question is, will the heroes agree to this exchange, knowing that surrendering the item will have serious repercussions? An intriguing dilemma…
… but not the focus of this particular article.
You see, there’s also a “B story” unfolding at the same time concerning Bruce Cordell’s character, a tiefling star pact warlock named Melech. Several sessions ago, a powerful star entity known as Caiphon branded him with a strange tattoo: that of a toothy black maw, slowly growing larger and larger over the course of the campaign. And in this most recent session, Melech received a gift from yet another star entity called Nihil, who imprinted upon Melech’s mind a powerful ritual allowing him to summon “starspawn serpents” (inspired by the Monster Manual 3’s serpents of Nihil, p.186). Bruce doesn’t understand why his character is receiving gifts from these star powers, or what he’s supposed to do with them.
And frankly, neither do I. Which brings us to the true subject of this article.
A good campaign, like a good stew, has many ingredients. Some ingredients add flavor to the campaign, others give it texture. Sometimes the ingredients are so subtle as to go unnoticed, and that’s fine. Not everything you throw into the campaign is going to make a splash. The players will pick up on some elements, while others are quickly forgotten. Campaign building is an art, not a science. It all starts with ideas. I get ideas for my campaign all the time, and the first question that comes to my mind once I get an idea is: How can I fit this into the campaign? The answer is always the same: I just throw it in the pot and see what happens. Which brings us back to the title of this article:
I don’t know what it means, but I like it.
Whenever I get a cool idea that I think is worth exploring in my campaign, I throw it into the mix—provided I can think of at least one character in the party whose story arc would benefit from its inclusion. By “benefit,” I don’t mean to suggest that the character necessarily becomes more powerful as a result. The ultimate goal is to add stuff to the campaign that makes the characters and their situations more interesting and fun to play. It’s also a great way to give your campaign extra layers or depth.
Let’s consider Melech’s situation: Many months ago, I had an idea based on the fairly common experience of someone waking up one morning to discover he or she had a tattoo, but no memory of how it got there. (If that hasn’t happened to you personally, it’s probably happened to someone you know—just ask Alias, from Curse of the Azure Bonds) This was an idea I wanted to include in my game. At the time, Bruce’s character was being overshadowed by the story arcs of other characters, and I wanted to give Bruce something to sink his teeth into while waiting for some of these other arcs to play out. So, without a lot of forethought, I gave Melech a magical tattoo that appeared out of nowhere. Here’s the actual tattoo, written up as a magic item:
Tattoo of the Horizon Star
The mark of Caiphon, the horizon star, resembles a toothy maw that widens and grows as the wearer draws closer to his doom.
Lvl 20 125,000 gp
Requirement: You must have the Fate of the Void pact boon.
Property: When you spend an action point to take an extra action, all enemies in a close burst 5 centered on you take 10 radiant damage and are blinded until the end of your next turn.
Curse: When you fail a death save, you take damage equal to your level.
The curse is a nice touch, don’t you think? It keeps the tattoo from being a simple power-up. It also conveys the flavor of the idea, that “an evil star power gives Melech a gift he can’t refuse.”
At the time, I had no clue what the tattoo meant or how it would factor into the campaign. I included it simply because I liked the idea. Several weeks later, I was thinking about one of my major campaign villains—an eladrin star pact warlock hell-bent on releasing a bunch of evil star entities from their celestial prisons. It occurred to me that these same evil powers might be secretly courting Bruce’s character, also a star pact warlock. Maybe they think he’s destined for greatness. Maybe the gifts are a form of temptation. Maybe the star powers plan to devour my villain and groom Bruce’s character as his replacement. At this point in the campaign, I’m still not exactly sure how it will all play out; a lot of it depends on Bruce and what happens to his character in the coming months. For now, the only thing I know for sure is that evil star powers have their eye on Melech… and that’s enough to keep Bruce both excited and terrified.
As the DM, your biggest challenges are keeping the players immersed in the story of your campaign, and making the campaign world a place the players like to visit week after week (or however often you meet). It’s also your job to surprise and delight them. One ironclad way to accomplish these admirable goals is to give players stuff to think about (and, by extension, stuff for their characters to think about). If you have an idea that fascinates you, don’t wait for the right opportunity to include it. Just include it, and let time and your players sort it out.
If the idea ends up going nowhere, the players probably won’t care (or even notice), but if it ends up going somewhere, your players will look upon you as a storytelling genius.
Here are the important takeaways:
Don’t squirrel away your ideas. Use them, even if you’re not sure how to get the most out of them.
Ultimately, it’s the players who decide what flies and what doesn’t in your campaign. So look for a way to connect your cool idea to one or more of the characters, preferably in a way that the player(s) might enjoy.
Until the next encounter!
—Dungeon Master for Life,
Poll #2 Results
What sort of campaign excites you the most?
Freeform campaign largely dictated by the actions of the players: 28.3%
- War-themed campaign: 12.8%
- Campaign rife with political intrigue: 12.2%
- Horror/Gothic campaign: 9.8%
- Planar campaign: 9.6%
- A published Adventure Path (e.g., Scales of War, Savage Tide, Age of Worms, Shackled City): 7.8%
- Sprawling dungeon crawl or Underdark campaign: 7.1%
- Nautical campaign: 4.6%
- Literary campaign (e.g., Wheel of Time, Middle Earth, Westeros): 2.8%
- Round-robin DMing campaign: 2.2%
- Historical Earth campaign (e.g., Vikings): 1.8%
- Non-campaign (standalone “adventures of the week” with little or no connective tissue): 0.8%
The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #3
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.