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. Until recently, Curt Gould played a character in my campaign named Xanthum Zail. As a gnome bard, Xanthum provided some useful healing and battlefield control powers, but he never earned the complete trust of his adventuring companions. Curt had imbued the character with one fatal flaw, an attribute which wasn’t reflected at all in his statistics: Xanthum brought ill luck to any ship he set foot on.
When he conceived Xanthum’s back-story, Curt made specific mention of past expeditions gone awry, but never once did Xanthum willfully bring ruin to any of his traveling companions. It was more like a series of unfortunate coincidences. When he first joined the party, Xanthum thought it prudent to keep his previous misadventures under wraps. Fortunately for him, the other players were more interested in Xanthum’s healing ability than his back-story, and he was welcomed aboard.
I exploited Xanthum’s “curse” on more than one occasion, but the most damaging event happened at the beginning of epic tier. While he was possessed by a powerful star spawn entity, Xanthum set off a Far Realm mine that sank the party’s ship and killed nearly everyone aboard, including several PCs. The dead characters were eventually restored to life, their ship was salvaged from the ocean’s depths and made to sail again, and the star spawn invader in Xanthum’s brain was banished. However, the damage was done; the party would never trust Xanthum again.
Gnomes are stereotypically hard to trust. They are the Puckish rapscallions and madcap inventors of the D&D game. But Curt didn’t play Xanthum as an instigator or troublemaker. Quite the opposite: Xanthum was actually very trustworthy and never set out to jeopardize his fellow adventurers. However, I took advantage of any opportunity to place Xanthum in the midst of misfortune — to make his “curse” readily apparent. Once, he was banished to the Nine Hells, tortured, and scarred for life by the ordeal. Sometime later, a pit fiend used Xanthum as a receptacle for its life force, and although the fiend was eventually exorcised, Xanthum retained some of the devil’s knowledge and put it to use, plotting revenge against his infernal torturers. None of this sat well with the other player characters. After all, what could be more dangerous than a mentally unhinged gnome out for revenge?
Using political information and secrets gained from the pit fiend, Xanthum not only survived a return trip to the Nine Hells but also rose quickly through the infernal ranks, earning the title of duke. Upon returning to his companions, Xanthum tried to summon diabolical aid to repel an invading force, but his adventuring companions didn’t want devils in their midst, so they turned against the gnome. Xanthum was cast off the ship and barely escaped with his life.
anthum’s recent misadventures not only represent the culmination of a rather gratifying character arc but also illustrate the risks of allowing inner-party conflict to drive campaign narrative. As I’ve stated before, conflict between characters can be extremely rewarding if all the players are “on board” with it, but if even one player finds the idea off-putting, it’s best avoided.
This year’s “Ask the DM” seminar at PAX was a packed house and included a half-hour Q&A session, during which the panelists (myself included) fielded all sorts of great questions. Every year, without fail, the topic of inner-party conflict arises. Some DMs encourage it, while others discourage it, but as Rodney Thompson pointed out (and correctly so), neither approach is wrong. Every game group has a social contract that the DM must honor and uphold — an unwritten code that defines what is acceptable and unacceptable at the game table. If your players are cool with inner-party conflict and you deem it an essential element of your campaign, then have at it!
One of the obvious outcomes of inner-party conflict is the loss of one or more characters, and everyone at the game table needs to understand and accept the risks; if they can’t, you should urge players to focus on external conflicts rather than internal ones. But even experienced DMs who foster inner-party conflicts can’t always predict the outcome. I was surprised by the turn of events that resulted in Xanthum getting punted off the party’s ship, particularly given that his recent behavior hardly represented his worst campaign offense, but on this occasion he was cast off in no uncertain terms. It became a matter of trust: the other heroes finally reached the point where they stopped trusting Xanthum, and so he got the boot. (It didn’t help, I suppose, that one session earlier a gnome NPC named Barnacle Trizm blew up the ship’s rudder, hindering the party’s ability to escape an attacking vessel.)
So, yeah, Xanthum was forced out of the party rather suddenly and unexpectedly. It was as much my fault as anyone’s. At the end of the session, I asked Curt whether he wanted to continue playing Xanthum or not. I reassured him that it wouldn’t be hard to dream up a way for the gnome bard to worm his way back into the party. I am, after all, the DM, with the power of a thousand djinn to shape the world and manipulate events to suit my dark whims. Curt ultimately decided to give Xanthum a break. He had another character in reserve that he was itching to play. (The sudden departure of a character isn’t necessarily a bad thing, particularly when you have a player who isn’t married to the character and who likes to try different things.) As far as I’m concerned, the player decides what he or she wants to play, and it’s my job as the DM to make it work within the context of the campaign.
Curt’s back-up character is a human cleric of Melora named Divin, who traces his origin back to the start of the campaign. In fact, Curt “retired” Divin midway through the paragon tier to make way for Xanthum. I asked Curt to contrive a way by which Divin would suddenly find himself twelve levels higher, and ultimately he settled on the notion of Melora investing Divin with a fragment of her power, basically using him to help the rest of the party in its time of greatest need. So, Divin jumped from 17th level to 29th level and was instantly back in play. The rest of the party welcomed him back into the fold, and Xanthum became the gnome that time forgot. (Although just between you and me, I don’t think we’ve seen the last of him.)
Curt was lucky to have his old character lying around. If Curt didn’t have Divin to “dust off,” I suspect Xanthum would have found his way back into the party through some bit of narrative legerdemain (just to spare Curt the pain of creating a brand-new 29th-level character). However, as much as I love Xanthum as a character (he’s one of my all-time favorites), I can’t say I’m disappointed to see him fade away — that’s a gnome trait, by the way. The best characters never overstay their welcome, and in a way, the reintroduction of Divin at the end of the campaign takes the Wednesday night campaign back to where it began. The party can finally unite against some of the campaign’s big external threats without having to worry about that chipper little gnome tripping them up.
There are two ways in which inner-party conflict is instigated:
A player does something to put two or more characters in opposition
A DM does something to spark conflict between two or more characters
I won’t speak to the former except to say that players who are hell-bent on evoking inner-party conflict are free to do so if your campaign allows it, and as a DM it’s your job to “direct” that conflict in a manner that ultimately entertains the players and propels the campaign forward. The conflict needs to be constructive, not destructive. It needs to fuel the narrative. If it starts to get out of control, to the point where the game’s participants are no longer having a good time (as be sure to count yourself in the mix), then you might need to intervene and remind the players that conflicts between characters need to be resolved eventually . . . and in a manner that everyone can appreciate and enjoy.
The Xanthum conflict is an example of the latter — a conflict sparked by the DM. I created a situation in which Xanthum’s “curse” would cause his fellow party members to turn against him. It was a risk, but I knew Curt would enjoy the roleplaying challenge. I also knew that Xanthum was well liked by the other players (if not their characters), so the chances of him getting killed or dumped were minimal. In this instance, I bet against the house and lost.
You might think that the Xanthum incident would discourage me from instigating further inner-party conflicts, but you’d be wrong. I’m a sucker for character-driven conflict, particularly at higher levels when my players know their characters really well and I’m looking for new ways to challenge them. Trust is a major theme in the Iomandra campaign, and any time I can contrive scenarios in which trust is strained or put to the test, the more tense (and hopefully fun) the campaign becomes.
Case in point, Rodney Thompson’s character is a sworn champion of the Raven Queen, and he has a holy quest to wipe out all warforged. In my campaign, warforged aren’t living constructs; they’re powered by necrotic energy, specifically the distilled essence of trapped souls, which is why the Raven Queen cannot abide their existence. The problem is that one of my other players, Nacime Khemis, plays a warforged character. It’s a bit of a conundrum, and without Xanthum around to provide a worthy distraction, Rodney and Nacime are going to have to deal with it. And I’d be lying if I said the Wednesday night group didn’t have other trust issues to work out before all’s said and done. Meanwhile, Xanthum can lie low and plot his revenge. . . .
Until the next encounter!
—Dungeon Master for Life,
Previous Poll Results
Hey DMs: Which of the following events from world history would make the best hook for your campaign?
|The Salem witch hunts
|The Black Death
|The French Revolution
|The assassination of Abraham Lincoln
|The fall of the Berlin Wall (and the Soviet Union)
|The burning of Rome
|The Trojan War
|The Spartan stand at Thermopylae
|The Boston Tea Party
The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #80
How many gnomes can you take in a fistfight?
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.