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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. Three years ago. The Iomandra campaign has just gotten underway. The characters have converged on Kheth: a small, politically insignificant island in the middle of the Dragon Sea… an island with many secrets yet to be revealed.

Chris Youngs is playing a tiefling warlock named Deimos, who was shipwrecked on the island as a child nearly two decades ago. Little does Deimos know that the shipwreck was no accident, nor does he realize that the Dragovar Empire wants him dead. Neither Chris nor his character know that Deimos was, as a child, subjected to an arcane experiment that trapped the spirit of an ancient dragon-sorcerer inside him—or that he was sold off by his grandmother, the leader of a powerful tiefling thieves’ guild called the Horned Alliance. Over the next several years, these secrets will come to light, and the full story of how Deimos came to the island will be known.

Every campaign starts somewhere. A tavern in Waterdeep. An isolated village. A ship wrecked upon the shore of the Isle of Dread. These are backdrops against which we first meet the characters—the heroes of the campaign. At this point, the campaign world is a complete mystery to the players, and the only things they can relate to are their characters. For this reason alone, it behooves the Dungeon Master to take some time before the campaign begins to create hooks that tether the heroes to the setting… origin stories that make the characters feel intrinsic to the world.

Once I’ve chosen a starting point for my campaign, but before play begins, I like to inspire my players to consider their characters’ origins… get them thinking about where their characters came from. I’m less concerned about how the characters found one another; that bit of artifice usually isn’t important, since most players are willing and eager to accept that fate or circumstance has brought their characters together. However, it’s been my experience that players have trouble coming up with origin stories because their understanding of the world is so limited. (This is less true if you’re running a campaign in a world with which the players are intimately familiar.)

All characters had lives before they became adventurers—at least, that’s the underlying conceit of character themes (first introduced in the Dark Sun Campaign Setting and carried forward in other 4th Edition products published since). While character themes are terrific and I heartily encourage DMs to permit them in their campaigns, published themes can’t account for the specific stories you’re aiming to tell in the course of your home campaign. Consequently, I like to create origin stories that my players can choose from, if they’re stuck for ideas.

After I decided to start my campaign on a small island, I spent a rainy Sunday afternoon writing up a bunch of different origin stories that my players could choose from. (It wasn’t required that they do so. In some cases, my players already had an origin story in mind and I just needed to figure out how to fit it in.) This activity turned out to be a great exercise, because it forced me to think about different ways to bring characters together and connect them to events that were about to unfold.

Here’s what I gave to my players as they were creating characters for the Iomandra campaign:

Your Origin Story

The campaign begins on the isle of Kheth, which begs the question: Are you a native of the island, or did events conspire to bring you here? Following are some likely origin stories for your character. Once you’ve chosen or concocted a story for your character, you can begin to hash out the details with the DM.

You’re Tyrak’n Born

You are a native of Tyrak’n, the only settlement on Kheth. Your family lives in town and either fishes, forages, tends a modest garden, or runs a small business. You are friends with just about everyone in town, although you’ve probably forged a very close bond with at least one local citizen.

Racial Possibilities
If you are a half-elf between the ages of 17 and 25, you may choose to be the son or daughter of Magistrate von Zarkyn, giving you a fair amount of local clout. Your father is a shrewd leader and has taken great pains over the years to appease the island’s green dragon overlord and uphold his grandfather’s good name. Your mother is warm and funny in private, but surprisingly aloof and formal in public. You fear that there’s something important she hasn’t told you or your father… a secret she’s likely to carry to her grave.

If you are a halfling between the ages of 17 and 25, you may have had a troubled older or younger brother named Jynt who disappeared four years ago. Jynt broke the law when he persuaded two other local youths (a human boy named Jesper and a half-elf girl named Vazia) to join him on an expedition to the ruins atop Serpent Hill. No one is allowed there by order of the magistrate. Jynt and his friends never returned, and the magistrate refused to send a hunting party to find them.

You’re a Shipwrecked Orphan

Nineteen years ago, a ship called the Morrow’s Folly crashed on the island of Kheth during a freak storm. The only survivors were the captain—a half-elf named Denarion Morrow—and several young children, yourself included. You were very young at the time (2-5 years old then, making you 21-26 years old now), and you don’t remember anything. You and the other children were adopted by the local townsfolk and raised as natives. Although he’s not much of a father figure, Captain Morrow has been watching over you all these years, but still claims that he can’t remember anything that happened before the shipwreck. You have no clue where you came from, or who your real parents are. You’re friends with just about everyone in town, although you’ve probably forged a very close bond with at least one local citizen.

Four years ago, three of your friends (a troubled halfling boy named Jynt, a curious human lad named Jesper, and a half-elf girl named Vazia) left town to explore Serpent Hill, even though locals are strictly forbidden to go there. They never returned. Captain Morrow urged Magistrate von Zarkyn to send a patrol to locate them, but the magistrate refused. The two men haven’t spoken since. Jesper and Vazia were also survivors of the Morrow’s Folly shipwreck, and Captain Morrow regrets not going after them himself.

You’re Forsaken

You were born and raised elsewhere, brought to the island of Kheth by ship, and, for whatever reason, left behind. Hoping to find your place in the community, you’ve probably forged a close bond with at least one of the local citizens.

Racial Possibilities
If you are a dragonborn, you may be the son or daughter of parents who were exiled from Arkhosian soil. One or both of your parents may have been pirates or outspoken opponents of the Dragovar monarchy. In either case, they probably figured you’d be safer on a small, backwater island of little consequence to the rest of the Dragovar empire.

If you are an elf between the ages of 24 and 30, you may choose to be the son or daughter of Lady Thariel von Zarkyn from a previous marriage. Your father is a wealthy ship captain named Torel Winterleaf who recently made some powerful enemies. Three weeks ago, you were spirited out of Io’calioth (the Dragovar capital) by your father’s servants, smuggled aboard the tradeship Lantheon, and sent to stay with your mother for your own safety. You never got a chance to say goodbye to your father, and your mother didn’t exactly welcome you with open arms. It’s been 23 years after all, and your sudden arrival has created unrest in Von Zarkyn Manor. For his part, Magistrate von Zarkyn seems to be handling the situation quite well, particularly since your mother never told him she had a child with her previous husband.

If you are a tiefling between the ages of 17 and 25, you may choose to be the niece or nephew of Lucius Vezetus, the friendly proprietor of the Talisman. You were born and raised in the slums of Io’calioth, and several years ago your parents brought you to see “Uncle Lucius” as a child and left you with him without explanation. Although he makes you do chores around the tavern, your uncle has been very forgiving of your irksome adolescent antics. When asked about your parents, he merely frowns and grumbles in Supernal.

None of the Above

Perhaps you’ve come to Kheth for entirely different reasons. As a result, you may or may not have forged strong ties with the community. Some brief suggestions are listed below:

  • Someone you care about was arrested ten years ago by Dragovar authorities and sent to the prison island of Mheletros. You believe this person was imprisoned wrongfully, and the key to clearing his or her good name rests with a missing sea captain named Denarion Morrow… whom you’ve finally tracked to the backwater town of Tyrak’n on the island of Kheth.

  • You swindled or double-crossed a sea captain named Lydia Taralan, only to discover afterward that she was working for Sea King Senestrago. Upon learning the truth, you fled aboard the hammership Lantheon, headed for Tyrak’n. You’ve opted to lay low until things blow over. Hopefully by then, you’ll have found some protection… or some way to make amends.

  • The church of Avandra has sent you to Tyrak’n to assist the local priest, Sister Alyson. She specifically requested “someone gifted with an adventurous spirit.” Alyson believes that certain townsfolk are blessed with an adventurous nature that will soon manifest, but they need Avandra’s assistance to survive their travails. You are the one Sister Alyson hopes will help these other adventurers “safely walk the dark path.”

  • You had a vivid dream about a silver dragon. It asked you to travel to the island of Kheth and locate a man named Johias Ilum. The dragon in your dreams sounded real enough, and also claimed that the rewards for your success would be great.

  • You recently joined the crew of the hammership Lantheon, but your duties to date have been less than thrilling. The ship has just returned to Tyrak’n loaded with goods, and you’re beginning to think maybe Captain Raiko isn’t going to promote you anytime soon. A sailor’s life isn’t as exciting as you’d dreamt it would be, and you see yourself wanting more.

Lessons Learned

One of the joys of running a campaign is watching the players learn its mysteries. However, at the start of the campaign, everything is a mystery. One of the ways you can tell the players a little bit about the world and build anticipation for what’s to come is to give them origin story ideas that you can connect to some of the bigger stories of your campaign.

Case in point, Chris Youngs was looking for a hook to tie his tiefling character to the world of Iomandra, and he liked the “You’re a Shipwrecked Orphan” idea quite a bit. He also liked the idea that Deimos would form a close bond with Lucius Vezetus, the tiefling proprietor of the Talisman. They were, after all, the only tieflings on the island.

You only need a handful of origin stories, and the time you invest in their creation will pay off in spades over the course of the campaign. Here’s why I love creating them:

  • Origin stories make the heroes feel like living, breathing elements of your campaign world.

  • Origin stories come with pre-built hooks for adventures. Let the events of the past inform the events of the future.

Until the next encounter!

—Dungeon Master for Life,
Chris Perkins

Poll 03/17/2011 Results:

Which version of the Dungeons & Dragons game provided the rules set for your first DM experience?

  • Dungeons & Dragons Basic/Expert Game (“Red Box”/”Blue Box”): 27.1%
  • Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition: 19.8%
  • Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition: 16.6%
  • Dungeons & Dragons v.3.5: 12.1%
  • Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st Edition (Player’s Handbook et al.): 10.2%
  • Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition: 10.1%
  • Original Dungeons & Dragons (“White Box”): 2.9%
  • I wish I knew!: 1.1%

Which version of the Dungeons & Dragons game provided the rules set for your best DM experience?

  • Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition: 62.9%
  • Dungeons & Dragons v.3.5: 12.7%
  • Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition: 9.3%
  • Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st Edition (Player’s Handbook et al.): 4.9%
  • I wish I knew!: 4.3%
  • Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition: 3.4%
  • Dungeons & Dragons Basic/Expert Game (“Red Box”/”Blue Box”): 2.4%
  • Original Dungeons & Dragons (“White Box”): 0.3%

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll 03/24/2011

How do you prefer to bring characters together at the start of the campaign?
I assume the characters all know each other, give ’em a common quest, and move on.
I ask the players to figure out how their characters met before the campaign gets underway.
At the start of the first session, I let each player introduce his or her character and describe or improvise the circumstance(s) by which he or she came to know the other party members.
I have an idea in mind for how the party came together, and I get the players to buy off on it.
I throw the players into the action and let the story of how they met come out later.
Which of the following characters has the best origin story?
The Bride (from Kill Bill)
Darth Vader
Drizzt Do’Urden
John Connor
Philip J. Fry (from Futurama)
The Wicked Witch of the West
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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