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Ice Capades
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. Calderax is a glacier-covered island in the frozen north ruled by the cruel (albeit not too bright) white dragon overlord of the same name. The heroes have come to the island in pursuit of Kharl Mystrum and Nemencia Xandros, two wealthy nobles seeking the fabled Sword of Kas, which lies in the vault of a flying citadel that crashed on the island more than a thousand years ago and became entombed in ice. The villains need the sword to forge an alliance with Vhalt, a long-lost magocracy that has returned from the dead under Vecna's secret rule. Only together can they overthrow their common enemy, the Dragovar Empire, and destroy its mighty champions, the player characters.

The heroes waste no time finding the entombed citadel, wherein they slay one of Calderax's brood. Its death-roar rouses the dragon overlord, who plows through the icy dungeon in search of vengeance. A bizarre series of events set into motion by Vargas (Rodney Thompson's character) results in the Sword of Kas being blown out of its extradimensional vault, whereupon it buries itself deep in the dragon overlord's flesh. The dragon retreats to nurse her wound, and the characters are too battered to pursue. They regroup and make plans to trick the white dragon into giving up the cursed weapon.

An illusion disguises the heroes as dragonborn emissaries sent by the Dragovar Emperor on a "mission" to retrieve the sword, and in this guise they negotiate with Calderax for custody of the blade. However, their negotiations are cut short by a magical communiqué from their ships, which have come under attack by ice-hurling frost giants and their cold-dwelling eladrin allies. The attack coincides perfectly with the arrival of Vunderhild, queen of the frost giants, who, thanks to a substantial bribe, has Kharl and Nemencia's best interests at heart. The party must decide whether to pursue the Sword of Kas or race off to defend their ships. They choose the former and trade barbs with Vunderhild until, finally, the white dragon overlord tires of their prattle and orders the heroes and frost giants to settle things the old-fashioned way. Battle erupts in the dragon's lair—a broken-off spire from the crashed citadel that clings to the edge of a glacial chasm. As the dragon watches, several frost giants are knocked into the 500-foot-deep oubliette, and Vunderhild herself is impaled on an icy spike at the bottom. However, the illusion concealing the party's warforged is dispelled, and Calderax recognizes him as one of her offspring's slaughterers. The dragon overload screams in rage, and several PCs hurl themselves into the chasm to avoid her terrible wrath. Before she can follow them, an invisible Kharl tears the Sword of Kas from the dragon's wound and tries to flee astride a rimefire griffon, but not before Rodney's character lands a critical hit against him and slashes his face.

Deimos (played by Chris Youngs) transforms into a steel dragon, chases the bloodied Kharl through an icy fissure in the side of the rift, and teleports the villain off his mount. Kharl slides down the fissure, and Deimos decides to "bobsled" after him in dragon form . . . and slides right into a magical trap designed by Kharl's eladrin allies to snare Calderax. Caught in the dragon trap, Deimos is momentarily at Kharl's mercy, but Kharl isn't looking for the easily kill. He wants Deimos to suffer the destruction of his flagship, and so Kharl withdraws with one hand clutching the Sword of Kas and the other covering the gash in his face. Once he's alone, Deimos escapes the dragon trap with surprising ease and casts a ritual to teleport back to his ship, the Sorrow. Meanwhile, his friends manage to escape the dragon's wrath by hiding in an extradimensional redoubt created using an exodus knife and cast a Planar Portal ritual that yields similar results.

The heroes reunite aboard the Sorrow, only to learn that the attacking eladrin "beamed" their trusty first mate, Nyrrska, off the ship and trapped him in an ice gem. The eladrin have a dozen sleek catamarans rigged with blades instead of pontoons, enabling them to skim across the ice. Once she learns that the Sword of Kas is secure, Nemencia orders her eladrin allies to withdraw. The Sorrow can't plow through the ice fast enough to keep up with the eladrin catamarans, and so Deimos does some quick calculations before activating a shipboard device that allows for expeditious passage through the Feywild. The Sorrow vanishes in a flash of eldritch lightning, reappears 40 feet ahead of the fleeing eladrin vessels, spins around, cants to one side, and begins sliding backward on its keel across the ice. Ravok, the party's goliath battlemind, leaps 40 feet (ah, epic level!) from the bow of the ship onto the lead eladrin catamaran and begins pummeling his way toward an eight-year-old eladrin girl who has the coveted ice gem in her custody. Meanwhile, the Sorrow unloads on the eladrin ships with its ballistas and catapults. Ravok beats the little girl unconscious and takes her back to the Sorrow through an impromptu arcane gate created by Vargas. Xanthum, the gnome bard (played by Curt Gould), finds himself off the ship and standing on the open ice. A catamaran swooshes toward him and tries to slice the poor gnome in half with one of its 40-foot-long ice-blades, but the attack narrowly misses. A catapult shot fired by Fleet, the party warforged (played by Nacime Khemis), sends the offending ship into a hull-shattering tailspin as it races away from the shivering gnome. The ice gem is crushed, Nyrrska is set free, several more eladrin ships are obliterated before the night is through, and our recurring villains live to die another day.

A lot of crazy stuff happened in the last two sessions: a wounded white dragon mourning the demise of her offspring. A frost giant queen on the take. Blue-skinned eladrin on ice-skating ships. A belly-sledding chase ending with a surprising capture. A 120-foot-long warship sliding backward across the ice with catapults and ballistas firing. A 27th-level goliath battlemind standing toe-to-toe with an 8-year-old eladrin girl and punching her lights out. The fiendish dice gods depriving the gnome bard of another Emmy nomination for Best Death Scene. And in the end, despite some stunning moments of heroism and close calls for the bad guys, the heroes didn't get the Sword of Kas, and both Kharl and Nemencia escaped.

I titled the adventure "Ice Capades" for obvious reasons. The past two sessions, which I've described above, constituted "Part 2" of the adventure. ("Part 1" ended with the heroic perma-death of Garrot the fighter, and the departure of his real-life alter ego, Mat Smith, from the game. Thanks, by the way, to everyone who voted on Garrot's ultimate fate.) Cutting to the chase, the Wednesday night group's latest travails help to illustrate some specific pre-game preparations and amid-game decisions that ended up paying off in a big way, and this is as good a time as any to share them with you.


Lessons Learned

Here are some notions I kept in the back of my mind while planning the heroes' latest adventure on the frozen island of Calderax:

1. Let the Fates preside: I never know on what note a game session will end. I can imagine likely end points based on the events I have planned, but I have little to no chance of predicting the evening's outcome. I let the Fates decide. Will it be a cliffhanger week, or one of those rare weeks where the PCs feel like everything's under control? Will the villains get cornered and eviscerated, or will they beat the party senseless? Not sure. When planning an adventure around the party's visit to Calderax, I knew I wanted one of my main villains (Kharl) in the foreground and the other (Nemencia) in the background, guaranteeing the survival of at least one of them. The odds of Kharl surviving weren't great, given how much the players revile him and the fact that he's lower level than the characters, but I knew Nemencia was out of harm's way and would be very unhappy if the PCs slaughtered her fiancée. Hell hath no fury, and all that. So, yeah, I don't leave everything to the winds of fate.

2. Threaten the ones they love (a.k.a. good NPCs are like magic items): I've already managed to destroy the party's flagship once (see Joy and Sorrow), so this latest attack on the party's warship was a red herring. Rather, I elected to have the bad guys capture Nyrrska, the party's most beloved NPC. It's been my experience that players see eye-to-eye on very little, but there's an unspoken rule that says every campaign will have one NPC whom the PCs collectively admire or appreciate for various and sundry reasons. Nyrrska was a dragonborn master assassin who abandoned Tiamat to become an acolyte of Bahamut, and in this role he helped the PCs deal with some other dragonborn assassins out to get them. The players love Nyrrska because (a) he's a badass solo monster in his own right, (b) he's the strong yet silent type (i.e., he doesn't tell the PCs what to do), and (c) he can kill with a withering sneer. When I told the players they're ship was under attack, they rolled their eyes and replied, "What else is new?" When I told them Nyrrska had been abducted, it was "HOLY SHIT, all hands on deck!" Good NPCs are like good magic items; players will do crazy things to stop you from taking them away, and you would be wise not to. Threatening beloved NPCs is cool; treating them as mere plot devices to be killed off, less so.

3. Location, location, location: When I plan these sorts of "big" adventures, I tend to think a lot like a Director of Photography hired to work on a feature film such as Mission Impossible 4 or any James Bond movie. I do some "location scouting" in my mind and spend a lot more creative time dreaming up cool encounter locations than I spend fleshing out the actual encounters. Once I have a location (or even better, a map!) in my mind, filling it becomes a fairly fun and easy exercise. A citadel frozen beneath the glacial ice was the "set piece" for my latest adventure, with its dungeon-like interior and broken-off spire serving as the dragon overlord's lair. There was also the adjoining glacial rift haunted by Calderax's dragon brood and the five-mile-wide sheet of ice surrounding Calderax's island, upon which the climactic ship-to-ship battle against Nemencia's forces plays out. Sometimes I think I'm given more credit than I deserve, and that's largely due to the attention I give to WHERE the adventure takes place, because as every good Director of Photography knows, a memorable location becomes a character in its own right.

4. Every session needs a planned YFB moment: "YFB" stands for "You Fiendish Bastard!" Some players prefer to think of it as a conundrum, but it's usually something I plan in advance. The YFB moment comes when you surprise players with a revelation that might cause their best-laid plans to fly off the rails. Players love and hate complications. YFB moments invariably put the PCs in an unexpected bind, force them to second guess, or throw off their game plan to some extent. For example, I knew that the PCs were planning to take the Sword of Kas from Calderax one way or another, so I had my villains try to lure them away by staging an attack on their ships while making a separate bid for the weapon through an intermediary (Queen Vunderhild). To their credit, the PCs didn't take the bait. The following week's YFB moment was the dragon-trap the villains had set to capture Calderax but which ended up snaring one of the characters instead.

5. Every session needs a planned WTF moment: We all know what "WTF" stands for. Whereas YFB moments are meant to make the players think you're trying to thwart them (in the nicest possible way, of course), WTF moments are intended to momentarily stop them in their tracks. The reaction I'm looking for is: "Come again?!" I can achieve the desired effect in one of two ways: I can conjure up something that fits well into the adventure thematically (combining frost giants with cold-dwelling eladrin riding ice catamarans, for example), or I can go for broke and really throw the PCs for a loop (putting the epic-level heroes in conflict with an 8-year-old eladrin girl). I had also planned for Calderax to "barf up" Garrot's remains during the party's negotiations, much like my dog barfs up the grass he likes to eat but can't stomach . . . but I forgot about it in the heat of the moment. Alas.

And here are some spontaneous decisions I made as the adventure played out:

1. Rule with the punches: After the conniving Kharl Mystrum stole the Sword of Kas from Calderax, Rodney's character stepped in and scored a critical hit against the villain. In most games, I treat critical hits the same way the rules do, but on this particular occasion, I felt the critical hit needed to represent something more . . . and so I decided on the spot that Vargas's sword would leave a permanent mark. I asked Rodney what lasting scar he wanted to make, and he wanted Kharl to lose an eye. So that's what happened. "Let's see what Nemencia thinks of her fiancée now!" were Vargas's exact words. I don't plan to enact a rule that says every critical hit must leave a scar, but in this specific instance I felt it would heighten the animosity between Kharl and the heroes.

2. Challenge the players' expectations: Deimos was as good as dead when he got caught in the dragon trap, but the villain spared his life . . . and not because of some sudden and misplaced sense of compassion, but because he wanted to prolong Deimos's suffering. I think the players were surprised to see Deimos walk away from that one unscathed. They also weren't expecting Kharl and Nemencia to send intermediaries to negotiate with Calderax on their behalf, or the simultaneous (but tactically brilliant) attack on their ship to draw attention away from the matter at hand. As a DM, I like to foreshadow where the adventure is going, but I also like curve balls . . . keeps the players on their toes!

3. Revel in the absurdity. The D&D game, particular at higher level, is an exercise in the absurd. That's how we get the belly-sledding scene, the Xanthum-getting-run-over-by-an-ice-catamaran scene, and the goliath-versus-little girl scene. My players have their characters do absurd things all the time, and the rules allow for it. (Show me anyone who can perform a 40-foot standing jump!) As a DM, my inclination is to roll with it, build on it, and try to pile on more absurdity. It's called "pulling out all the stops," and it works particularly well in climactic battles. With each new absurdity, the players' energy level increases, and they start to take risks you'd expect to see in a feature film based on the campaign. One of the coolest moments in the game was when Xanthum saw the ice catamaran bearing down on him and decided to put on his goggles rather than leap out of harm's way. That's absurd and wonderful.

4. Describe things from the characters' POV: I try to put myself in the skin of the player characters so that I'm describing things the way they would experience them. For example, Kosh the pit fiend (played by Chris Champagne) was separated from the rest of the party for a while. He used a ritual to teleport back to the party's ship moments after it "jumped" ahead of the eladrin fleet and began sliding across the ice. When Kosh appeared below deck, I described the canted floor, the shrieking of the ship's iron hull, and the view out the frosty porthole indicating that the ship was sliding backward across the ice! I also had him make a saving throw to keep his footing. That really helped put Chris in the moment.

5. Portray different villains differently: Ice-hearted eladrin who refuse to speak anything but Elven . . . a canny, cool-as-a-cucumber frost giant queen with a Swedish accent who negotiates with the blade of her axe . . . a maimed villain who would rather see an enemy suffer than die . . . a dimwitted dragon overlord who doesn't know the meaning of diplomacy (or any other four-syllable word, for that matter) . . . a spoiled little girl who wants a dragonborn for her "collection." I like to spend a little time before the session thinking about how to make these villains come to life, but a lot of choices are made in the moment. During the game I ask myself, "What's this villain's thing?" or "How can I make this villain different from what the characters have faced before?"

6. Feel the need for speed: The next time you watch a scene in an action film that doesn't include a chase or a fight, pay close attention to the motion of the camera and the motion of people and objects on screen. It's rare in an action film to have scenes where nothing is moving on camera and the camera is perfectly still. Something is always in motion, and by the time the film gets to the really good parts, everything is moving—people, objects, and even the point-of-view. Directors use motion to energize the audience, and the more intense the action, the more motion is happening on screen. Anytime I can let characters leap through the air, bobsled down an ice slide, or avoid the blade of an ice catamaran, the session is better for it. I like to describe things in motion and use that motion as a kind of forward momentum to keep things from grinding to a dead stop. When the dragon tears apart a dungeon to get at the heroes or an iron ship slides across the ice on its keel, my players know things are about to get crazy, and the game really starts to heat up.

Until the next encounter!

—Dungeon Master for Life,
Chris Perkins



Previous Poll Results

Hey DMs: What do you think of single battles that take one or more sessions to finish?
If it's a momentous event, sure. Otherwise, no. 1477 65.9%
It's okay once every few sessions, but most battles shouldn't take that long. 385 17.2%
No D&D fight should take that long. 318 14.2%
It makes no difference to me how long a battle lasts. 47 2.1%
The more, the merrier. 14 0.6%
Total 2241 100.0%

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #62

Hey DMs: Please rate the following DM-oriented 4th Edition non-adventure supplements in terms of their value and usefulness to you, with 1 being "not valuable or useful at all" and 5 being "extremely valuable and useful."

 D&D Basic Game (Red Box)  
1
2
3
4
5
No opinion/don't own

 Dungeon Master's Guide  
1
2
3
4
5
No opinion/don't own

 Dungeon Master's Guide 2  
1
2
3
4
5
No opinion/don't own

 Dungeon Master's Kit (boxed set)  
1
2
3
4
5
No opinion/don't own

 Monster Manual  
1
2
3
4
5
No opinion/don't own

 Monster Manual 2  
1
2
3
4
5
No opinion/don't own

 Monster Manual 3  
1
2
3
4
5
No opinion/don't own

 Monster Vault (boxed set)  
1
2
3
4
5
No opinion/don't own

 Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale  
1
2
3
4
5
No opinion/don't own

 Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide  
1
2
3
4
5
No opinion/don't own

 Neverwinter Campaign Setting  
1
2
3
4
5
No opinion/don't own

 Eberron Campaign Guide  
1
2
3
4
5
No opinion/don't own

 Dark Sun Campaign Setting  
1
2
3
4
5
No opinion/don't own

 Dark Sun Creature Catalog  
1
2
3
4
5
No opinion/don't own

 Rules Compendium  
1
2
3
4
5
No opinion/don't own

 Demonomicon  
1
2
3
4
5
No opinion/don't own

 Open Grave: Secrets of the Undead  
1
2
3
4
5
No opinion/don't own

 Draconomicon: Chromatic Dragons  
1
2
3
4
5
No opinion/don't own

 Draconomicon: Metallic Dragons  
1
2
3
4
5
No opinion/don't own

 Adventurer's Vault  
1
2
3
4
5
No opinion/don't own

 Adventurer's Vault 2  
1
2
3
4
5
No opinion/don't own

 Mordenkainen's Magnificent Emporium  
1
2
3
4
5
No opinion/don't own

 Dungeon Tiles accessories  
1
2
3
4
5
No opinion/don't own

 Map Pack accessories  
1
2
3
4
5
No opinion/don't own

 The Plane Above: Secrets of the Astral Sea  
1
2
3
4
5
No opinion/don't own

 The Plane Above: Secrets of the Elemental Chaos  
1
2
3
4
5
No opinion/don't own

 Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond (boxed set)  
1
2
3
4
5
No opinion/don't own

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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