Article Header Image
Setups and Payoffs
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. Epic tier. The heroes are on a collision course with Starlord Evendor, an eladrin warlock who plans to free a bunch of evil star-gods from their celestial prisons. Unfortunately for the heroes, they possess some information that Evendor needs, and so the villain dispatches one of his apprentices and a strike team of mind flayers to retrieve it one way or another. Despite their clever infiltration of the party's ship, Evendor's evil agents are swiftly dealt with and his apprentice captured.

After interrogating the prisoner, Deimos (played by Chris Youngs) decides it would be prudent to "off" her, or, at the very least, toss her overboard. Ravok (Andrew Finch's new goliath battlemind character) thinks Evendor's apprentice might be more useful as a prisoner than a corpse, and so he urges Deimos not to be hasty. Deimos reluctantly—yet wisely, as it turns out—opts to keep her alive a short while longer.

When Ravok tries to use a Sending ritual to contact some allies of his (a holy order of Pelor worshipers who are working against Starlord Evendor and the mind flayers), he quickly realizes something is amiss. They've been arrested on trumped-up charges of treason by the crew of the Bloodmonger, an imperial warship under the command of a dragonborn captain named Artana, whose ship (according to intelligence reports) was lost during an intelligence-gathering mission in enemy waters. Not only has the warship's crew been partially lobotomized by mind flayers, but the captain and her first mate have been replaced by doppelgangers in league with Starlord Evendor.

Rather than risk losing prisoners in a bloody conflict, the heroes inform "Captain Artana" that they have one of Starlord Evendor's apprentices in their custody. Surely she is worth something to Evendor, and so the heroes begin negotiating a prisoner exchange.

M y players learned a valuable lesson this week: sometimes it pays to take prisoners. As for me, I take no prisoners—at least not when it comes to throwing new challenges at my players and fishing for those "Wow!" moments that really pull players into the heart of the campaign. Ask yourself: when was the last time your players found themselves in the middle of a classic prisoner exchange? In the case of my Wednesday night group, it's been a long time, so it took my players a few minutes to get back into the "Oh, hang on, we don't need to kill everything just yet" groove.

As a DM and a storyteller, I live for those moments when something that happened earlier in the campaign helps, hinders, or haunts the PCs later on. It might be something a character did, something an NPC said, or some seemingly random occurrence that suddenly becomes significant. Sometimes it's accidental, sometimes it's planned, but when it happens, you know it instantly. You see it on your players' faces: the dawning horror, amusement, or relief brought on by the moment of revelation.

Novelists and screenwriters can illicit moments of revelation using a foreshadowing technique I like to call the setup and the payoff. The idea is that you establish something early in the story and then pay it off later on. In this week's example from my Wednesday night campaign, the surrender of Starlord Evendor's apprentice was the setup, and her value as a tradable commodity is the payoff. The players felt instant gratification because the story was rewarding them for not only keeping the evil apprentice alive but also for realizing they had the perfect bargaining chip. It's possible that one or more of the players saw it coming, but I don't think that diminished their enjoyment of the moment or made me feel any less brilliant.

It's like that moment in a James Bond movie when Q gives 007 a new gadget. You expect that the gadget will come into play at some point, and so you wait for the payoff. Sometimes in the heat of the narrative you forget that Bond has the gadget, so when it finally comes into play, there's a nice moment of surprise. The Aston Martin's ejection set in Goldfinger (1963) is a classic example. The wrist-mounted dart gun in Moonraker (1979) is another—and especially surprising because it comes into play not once, but twice. Conversely, if Q gave Bond gadgets that he never used, what would be the point? The writers know they can't set up something like that and not pay it off.

Of course, novelists and screenwriters don't have to worry about RPGers mucking with the story of their novels and screenplays. They have total control when it comes to planting their setups and payoffs. A Dungeon Master, on the other hand, doesn't have complete control of the story and can't always predict what the heroes will do next. Consequently, not every setup has the perfect payoff. If my Wednesday night heroes had thrown Evendor's apprentice overboard or killed her outright, the encounter with "Captain Artana" would have played out very differently.

A setup that hinges on the characters keeping a captured villain alive is risky, but there are other kinds of setups that are subtle and thus more likely to pay off later. For example, at this summer's live Acquisitions Incorporated game, I set up a mystery involving several crates of raw hamburger, which were delivered to the Darkmagic estate with no hint of who ordered or sent them. Later on, the heroes learned of the enmity between the New Hampshire Darkmagics and the Wisconsin Wortstaffs—and that most of the Wortstaff family were necromancers by trade. The big payoff came in the climactic battle, when the hamburger was transformed into four undead minotaurs by a Wortstaff necromantic ritual.

The time that passes between the setup and the payoff can vary. You don't want the payoff to happen too soon after the setup, but in a long-running campaign you can delay the payoff for months or years. In my Wednesday night game, the heroic-tier heroes were arrested for attacking a military weapons foundry. While in captivity, Rodney Thompson's character was tortured by a dragonborn priest of Tiamat, who replaced one of Vargas's eyes with a unique magic item called an eye of vengeance. The magic eye was supposed to be delivered to the island prison of Zardkarath, where it would find its way to an imprisoned, one-eyed dragonborn pirate named Vantajar. On the voyage to Zardkarath, Vargas and his companions escaped . . . and it wasn't until epic tier (nearly two years later) when Vantajar was released from prison and came searching for his missing eye.

Lessons Learned

Not every setup will pay off in a satisfying manner. However, this fact doesn't discourage me from planting seeds that will hopefully bear fruit in the future, because when the payoff happens, it's immensely gratifying and makes me appear so much smarter than I actually am.

Here are three classic D&D setups and payoffs which I use from time to time and which you're free to plunder for your home campaign:

Setup #1: The heroes find a strange word scrawled in blood on the floor, etched into a wall, or written on the inside cover of a spellbook or diary.
Payoff: The word turns out to be a password to bypass a magical trap or unlock a sealed vault, the command word to deactivate a golem, the true name of an evil fiend, or a clever anagram.

Setup #2: The heroes find a locket on the corpse of a slain NPC. It contains a tiny painted portrait of someone familiar or unfamiliar to them.
Payoff: The heroes come face-to-face with the figure portrayed in the locket—a distraught or vengeful lover, one of the heroes' relatives with a secret to share, or an NPC willing to reward the heroes for returning the locket and completing a quest.

Setup #3: The heroes find an intelligent magic item with a secret past.
Payoff: Someone recognizes the item in a future encounter and shares a bit of history that sheds light on the item's previous owner or the secret curse that haunts all who wield it.

Until the next encounter!

—Dungeon Master for Life,
Chris Perkins

Previous Poll Results

Hey DMs: How many campaign arcs do you like to set up in a long-running campaign?
0 20 1.6%
1 200 15.6%
2 469 36.6%
3 338 26.3%
4+ 256 20.0%
Total 1283 100.0%

What's the hardest thing about campaign arcs?
Keeping them interesting throughout the campaign. 368 24.8%
Finding ways to make them relevant to the players. 354 23.9%
Foreshadowing them early in the campaign. 189 12.8%
Building actual adventures around them. 165 11.1%
Weaving them together. 145 9.8%
Coming up with good ones. 136 9.2%
Wrapping them up. 85 5.7%
None of the above. 39 2.6%
Total 1481 100.0%

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #34

 Which of the following movie setups/payoffs is coolest?  
Setup: A young boy sees dead people.
Payoff: The boy's shrink is actually a ghost. (The Sixth Sense)

Setup: A detective interviews a suspect about Keyser Soze.
Payoff: The suspect IS Keyser Soze. (The Usual Suspects)

Setup: A young kid mocks farmers throughout the movie.
Payoff: The kid becomes a farmer. (The Magnificent Seven)

Setup: A swordsman swears vengeance against the six-fingered man who killed his father.
Payoff: The swordsman finally confronts the six-fingered man. (The Princess Bride)

Setup: Ripley proves that she can operate a power-loader.
Payoff: She uses it to fight the alien queen. (Aliens)

Setup: Harry Potter embarks on a quest to destroy Voldemort's horcruxes.
Payoff: Harry realizes he's one of them. (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows)

Setup: An assassin working for SPECTRE plans to kill James Bond with a garrote.
Payoff: Bond strangles the assassin with his own weapon. (From Russia With Love)

Setup: Spock tells Kirk that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.
Spock saves the Enterprise at the cost of his own life. (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan)

Setup: Indiana Jones hates it when his father calls him "Junior."
Payoff: We learn "Indiana" was the name of the Jones family dog. (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade)

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.
Sort Items By: Newest First Oldest First Top Rated
There are no comments yet for this article (or rating). Be the first!

Create Comment
Follow Us
Find a place to get together with friends or gear up for adventure at a store near you
Please enter a city or zip code