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. Jeremy Crawford plays a human wizard named Alex, who began the campaign as an orphan shipwrecked on the backwater island of Kheth. There, he studied the magical arts under the tutelage of an eladrin recluse.
In the first episode of the campaign, Alex came face-to-face with Serusa, a dragonborn wizard in the service of the Shan Qabal (an imperial sect of wizards dedicated to magical research). Little did Alex realize that Serusa had come to the island to kill him.
In due course, Alex learned that he and several other children were part of a magical experiment in which the spirits of mighty dragon-sorcerers were bound within them. In a story inspired by The Manchurian Candidate, Alex and the other children—dubbed the Wyrmworn—were to be used as weapons against the enemies of the Dragovar Empire. However, a change in the political landscape resulted in the sudden termination of the project. The Shan Qabal then sought to eliminate all of the Wyrmworn, quietly and without fuss, but opposing forces managed to smuggle several of the children to safety aboard two merchant ships. The ship bearing Alex and several other children was lost in a storm and presumed destroyed. It took the Shan Qabal fifteen years to learn there were survivors.
By the time he hit paragon tier, Alex was exploring the world with his adventuring companions, and Serusa was nothing more than XP in the bank. As happens with many orphans in fiction, however, Alex discovered he wasn’t an orphan after all. His father, Vincent van Hyden, was discovered to be an influential member of a worldwide trade consortium. From his father, Alex learned that he’d been given over to the Shan Qabal willingly, in exchange for money and the promise of power. Like everyone else, Vincent presumed his son had been lost at sea and spent years wallowing in fatherly guilt. After making amends with his father and tired of the sect’s constant attempts to end his life, Alex took it upon himself to confront the leader of the Shan Qabal: Lenkhor Krige.
Lenkhor was an ancient, bedridden dragonborn archmage clinging to life by means of a magical crystal acting as a life support system. To his surprise, Alex learned that Lenkhor was the one who secretly arranged for the Wyrmworn children to be smuggled to safety, for he could not bear to see his handiwork destroyed. Taking fatherly pride in Alex’s many accomplishments, Lenkhor also offered to help the young wizard contend with Hahrzan, Lenkhor’s apprentice and political rival. Alex comes to learn that Hahrzan not only despises Lenkhor and seeks to wrest control of the Shan Qabal, but also conspires to destroy his master’s legacy. Thus Hahrzan, it turns out, is behind the attempts on Alex’s life.
Anticipating a confrontation with Hahrzan, Lenkhor tells Alex how to awaken his dragon spirit, believing him powerful enough to control it, but so far Alex hasn’t dared do so. Alex has witnessed others like him dominated or destroyed by their awakened dragon spirits, and it remains to be seen whether he has the will and fortitude to do what no other Wyrmworn has been able to.
Maybe awakening the dragon is part of his epic destiny….
The Wyrmworn Experiment was something I dreamed up at the start of the campaign. The seed of the idea was a simple character background: one or more characters are survivors of a shipwreck. Of the eight players in my Monday night group, only Jeremy Crawford selected this background. As I began plotting out the first few adventures, I started to contemplate the cause of the shipwreck and eventually settled on a magical storm. I surmised that the storm was a deliberate attack on the ship, but why would someone want the ship destroyed? I made the logical leap that maybe, just maybe, the ship was transporting something dangerous to the Dragovar Empire… something that had to be destroyed at all costs.
For the sake of good drama, this clearly had to be Alex.
When Jeremy chose “shipwrecked orphan” as the hook for his character, he didn’t know anything about the Wyrmworn Experiment. His character didn’t even have a last name. These are elements I concocted and doled out over the course of many levels. I’d be lying to you if I said I knew the full extent of Alex’s story from the very beginning, or how the various facts would come to light. As happens, a lot of Alex’s story was dreamt up along the way. But from the outset, I knew three things were true:
- Alex survived a shipwreck as an infant and knew nothing about his parents. (This information I got from Jeremy during character creation.)
- Alex and several other children were turned over to a group of dragonborn wizards, who bound the spirits of ancient dragon sorcerers within them.
- Ironically, the same wizards who bound the dragon spirit in Alex were now trying to kill him.
The truth about Alex’s father and Lenkhor Krige (whose last name I stole from the wonderfully alluring actress Alice Krige) came much later, whenever something would happen in the game that drove home the need to give Alex’s story a forward push. The decision to make Lenkhor a sympathetic character was a spontaneous decision that happened in the middle of a session, when it occurred to me how cool it would be to give Alex two father figures, each repentant for different reasons: his conniving biological father who gave him away, and the dragonborn archmage who made him into the man he’s become. Also, I was wary of the “evil archmage” cliché and wanted the leader of the Shan Qabal to be something unique and unexpected.
The heroes stormed into Lenkhor’s tower expecting a big fight, and what they got was a withered husk of a mighty archwizard lying on his deathbed. The image of a figure who was simultaneously powerful and weak appealed to me, as did the idea that Lenkhor would do anything—magical and otherwise—to prolong his life, if only to aggravate his apprentice.
For Jeremy, who enjoys a good roleplaying challenge, it was an opportunity for Alex to confront the architect of the Wyrmworn Experiment and realize he’s not dealing with a monster but a wizard whose lifelong quest for knowledge and power matched his own. This decision to portray Lenkhor as something other than a threat also opened the door to the possibility of Alex becoming a member of the Shan Qabal, which is basically what happened at the end of the paragon tier.
I’ve been watching Mad Men on DVD. It’s another one of those ensemble shows I like so much, where every character receives a measure of growth and development. (Sounds like my D&D campaign!) As is typical for me, I’ll watch an episode and then immediately watch it again with the commentary track, and what occurs to me over and over is that the show’s writers and creators don’t map out everything from the beginning. They give the actors just enough understanding of their characters to be effective in their roles, put them in dramatic situations, and then watch and see what happens. As each character’s story comes into focus, the writers add new layers of complexity. They pay attention to what the actor does and give the actor new things to play with. Along the way, they look for surprises… and sometimes the things they thought were true in the beginning turn out to be false, or—better yet—lead to deeper truths.
The Wyrmworn Experiment is an example of an evolving character arc. It starts with something simple (“Your character is a shipwrecked orphan”) and grows into something epic (“Your character was sold to dragonborn wizards and transformed into a vessel for a mighty dragon spirit that the Dragovar Empire intended to unleash as a weapon against its enemies”). It’s a difficult thing to pull off for every character, and frankly, not all players are hankering for something so intricate. For the invested roleplayers in your group, you can develop similar character arcs by asking two questions at any point in the lifespan of your campaign:
What’s true about the character?
What’s really true about the character?
Alex is an orphan (no, he’s not). The Shan Qabal is trying to kill him (yes and no). He has the spirit of a dragon-sorcerer locked inside him (absolutely true, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing after all).
Not all characters have or need as much built-in mystery as Alex van Hyden. Consider another character from my Monday night game: Matt Sernett’s character, Bartho, began the campaign as a “local yokel,” a dull-witted youth who fishes all day and drinks all night. All we knew about Bartho (and all there was to know about Bartho!) was that he wasn’t particularly bright, and that he was taught how to fish by his uncle, who also happens to be the village drunk.
When a character is bereft of mystery, it’s incumbent upon the DM to get creative and look at all of the elements that make the character what he is, including influential NPCs. Why is Bartho being raised by his uncle? Who is his uncle, really? Maybe the “village drunk” is a role he plays to divert suspicion. Maybe there’s more to Bartho’s uncle than meets the eye. In fact, what if he’s secretly an agent for the Knights of Ardyn, a radical group led by a politically motivated silver dragon who seeks to overthrow the corrupt Dragovar Empire? What if the uncle realizes that Bartho might make a great fighter someday and gives the lad a gift—a silver dagger that the Knights carry around to identify one another? Maybe one day Bartho will find himself in a Dragovar settlement, innocently skinning an apple with his uncle’s knife, when someone familiar with the emblem takes notice. It might lead to Bartho’s first brush with the Knights of Ardyn… or the Dragovar secret police. The possibilities alone make me smile and clap my hands like a schoolboy.
Next week we’ll check out the winners of the Magnificent Minion contest.
Until the next encounter!
—Dungeon Master for Life,
Poll 06/02/2011 Results:
Which of the following minion powers do you like best?
Explodes in a close burst when it drops to 0 hit points: 38.6%
- Shouts “Argh! I shall be avenged!” when dropped to 0 hit points: 20.4%
- Deals extra damage when it has combat advantage: 10.5%
- Has an aura that deals auto damage to adjacent enemies at the start of its turn: 9.2%
- Shifts 2 squares as a free action when missed by an attack: 7.7%
- Deals extra damage on a critical hit: 5.9%
- Gains resist X to all damage, where X is some positive integer: 3.2%
- Deals half damage on a miss: 2.7%
- Makes two attack rolls and uses the higher result: 1.8%
The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll 06/09/2011
The Chaos Scar adventure series in Dungeon magazine is wrapping up this year. If we do another series, what should be the setting?
If you had to have one of the following demon lords for a roommate, which would you choose?
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.