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. Peter Schaefer plays a 28th-level halfling rogue named Oleander who moonlights as the leader of a spy network rapidly spreading throughout Iomandra. For the past several levels, his organization has been trying to infiltrate the Dragovar Empire without incurring the wrath of the Vost Miraj, the thoroughly corrupt imperial secret service. Thanks to the party’s efforts in thwarting a conspiracy to assassinate the imperial heir and the Vost Miraj’s complicity in said plot, Oleander’s unnamed spy network has found a crack in the proverbial firewall. However, in the time it has taken Oleander to establish relationships with influential Dragovar nobles and officials, two of the party’s sworn enemies have joined forces and set into motion a plan that could wipe out everything Oleander has accomplished.
The Monday night campaign has two major dragonborn villains. One is Zarkhrysa, the former leader of the Vost Miraj, who was forced into hiding after the botched assassination plot against the would-be Emperor. The other is Hahrzan, the wizard mastermind behind a government-sanctioned experiment to trap the spirits of dead dragons in humanoid hosts, and the one tasked with eliminating all evidence of the experiment (including Jeremy Crawford’s character, Alex) after the plan fell out of political favor. Lately he’s been experimenting on doppelgangers in an effort to create dragonborn who can naturally alter their forms. Both Zarkhrysa and Hahrzan support the ascension of someone other than the current heir to the imperial throne, and more important, they have formed a secret society that welcomes wizards and rogues in defiance of the traditional imperial caste system, which separates wizards into the arcane caste and rogues into the martial caste.
Using her private network of contacts, Zarkhrysa learned of a secret meeting in Io’galaroth between Oleander and a dragonborn noble named Vahadin, who supports the rise of the imperial heir. She also caught wind of a rumor that Oleander was trying to entice members of various other spy networks to join his guild. Hahrzan took one of Zarkhrysa’s dragonborn operatives and turned him into a test subject, imbuing him with doppelganger-like shapeshifting abilities. This mole then assumed the form of a dwarf with known ties to a defunct spy network and made the necessary overtures to attract the attention of Oleander’s guild. Hahrzan also gave Zarkhrysa’s spy a very powerful bomb, built with the aid of elemental research stolen from Hahrzan’s former sect, the Shan Qabal.
That’s a lot to take in, I know. But here’s the fun part: Oleander believed the dwarf spy would be an asset to his organization and arranged a face-to-face interview. Moreover, Peter wanted the dwarf to be impressed, and so Oleander made sure the dwarf was present during his meeting with Vahadin, the influential dragonborn noble who had powerful connections throughout the empire. When the magic bomb went off, Vahadin’s daughter and several high-ranking members of Oleander’s guild were killed in the blast. A few were disintegrated. Vahadin survived thanks to one of Oleander’s NPC friends, who used his own body as a shield against the collapsing ceiling. Oleander survived because his NPC lieutenant, a blind tiefling named Kzandro, “saw” the dwarf’s true form with his magical robe of eyes moments before the bomb detonated. Kzandro threw himself between the shapeshifting assassin and Oleander, saving his boss at the cost of his own life.
None of the other player characters were present. The meeting with Vahadin and the disaster that followed played out in the first few minutes of the session while the other players listened and waited for their cues to join the action. After surviving the bomb blast, Oleander paid to have Vahadin’s daughter and key members of his organization brought back to life—assuming their bodies hadn’t been disintegrated, of course—including the brave Kzandro. As breath returned to Kzandro’s body, Oleander leaned down and told him, “You deserve a raise.”
he attempted assassination of Oleander was, for all intents and purposes, a spectacular teaser for the session. The plot was orchestrated and ultimately thwarted by NPCs, with most of the PCs in no position to alter the outcome. The only one with a “say” in the proceedings was Peter-slash-Oleander, and after nearly five years of running the campaign, I have a pretty good sense of what Oleander’s about. I left it to Peter to decide whether Oleander would meet with the dwarf spy before or after his meeting with the dragonborn noble, and I was positively giddy when he opted to have the dwarf attend the meeting, as a way to show how well connected Oleander was. (Ah, the arrogance of epic-level characters!) Without knowing any better, Peter-slash-Oleander had played right into the villains’ hands. Not only would they kill Oleander, but Oleander’s new ally in the Dragovar Empire as well—or so it seemed.
Killing Oleander was never the intent of the teaser, as evidenced by the likable NPC throwing himself in harm’s way to keep Oleander alive, not to mention the inevitable raising of the dead. (It’s worth noting that, in my campaign, Raise Dead and similar rituals don’t always work on NPCs.) My intent, for the record, was to start the session with a bang and set into motion a storyline that would carry us through the evening.
Usually, it’s the player characters who are bringing the fight to the bad guys, not the other way around, so having the villains score the first touchdown of the evening was a refreshing change of pace. The assassination attempt gave the player characters a mystery to solve (who wants Oleander dead?) and laid the groundwork for the eventual resurfacing of two major campaign villains whose alliance might come as a surprise to the players, since the PCs had always encountered Zarkhrysa and Hahrzan separately in the past. We’re rapidly approaching the campaign’s grand finale, so I thought it would be efficient (and fun) to bring these two forces of evil together. Villains are, after all, best encountered in pairs. (Buffy the Vampire Slayer taught me that.)
A plot device is something that drives the narrative forward, usually without the involvement or interference of the protagonists. It’s the sh*t that happens when the story needs a push. Plot devices come in all guises. One of my favorites in film and television is the character who must suffer and/or die to fuel the protagonist’s thirst for revenge. For example, in the 1989 Bond film License to Kill, the main villain nonchalantly feeds CIA agent Felix Leiter to sharks (a plot device borrowed from Ian Fleming’s novel Live and Let Die). This plot device needs to exist, for it carries the story and gives James Bond, our hero, all the motivation he needs to make the villain pay.
Another great plot device in TV and film is “the wedding,” which is often used as a ratings gimmick to bring lots of characters together into one scene and bring simmering conflicts to a boil. Forgive the bad pun, but how many weddings on television go off without a hitch?
I am torn when it comes to using plot devices. They are, in my mind, a necessary evil. Sometimes you need one to move the campaign from Point X to Point Y, but a poorly staged plot device can be an eye-rolling experience for players and viewed by them as a ham-handed attempt by the DM to shove the adventure down their throats. I think the trick to making a plot device palatable in D&D is to find things—even small things—for the players’ characters to do, so that they don’t feel completely paralyzed as things begin to happen around them. To take the recent Monday night example, my plot device du jour was the deadly explosion in Oleander’s lair, but leading up to that moment, Peter got to enjoy a little roleplaying and make at least one decision that could’ve moderately altered the outcome. It wasn’t like Oleander was tied down and blindfolded as events played out. Quite the contrary; without Oleander’s contributions, the plot device wouldn’t have had as deep an impact.
I like to compare a plot device to a staircase connecting two levels of a dungeon. The only way to get from Level 1 to Level 2 is via the staircase, and the players know as much. They can refuse to go down the stairs, or they can spend hours searching it for traps and other interesting features, but what really needs to happen for the adventure to continue is simple: The adventurers need to walk down those stairs. Ideally, the stairs are nothing more than a means to get the characters where you want them to be AND where the players want them to be. The trick is not to make the players suspicious of the staircase or give them reasons to dawdle or turn back.
I try to use plot devices deliberately and sparingly. As a DM, the last thing I want is to turn my player characters into spectators, with zero influence over the unfolding of events. Here are a couple key points I try to keep in mind:
The best plot devices don’t overstay their welcome.
The best plot devices can be undermined or turned to the party’s advantage.
Crafty players like to tinker with plot devices for their own ends, and in some cases, they can cleverly undo the damage that a plot device causes, thanks to Raise Dead rituals and other resources. That’s okay in my book. It doesn’t matter that Oleander used magic to undo some of the more devastating results of the bomb blast. The plot device basically accomplished what it set out to do, which was to tell the PCs there’s a problem demanding their immediate attention and someone who needs to brought to justice. How they proceed from there is up to them.
After sifting through the wreckage and making a few skill checks, the Monday night group concluded that the magical bomb was built using research stolen from a Shan Qabal library, which pointed the heroes in the direction of Hahrzan. That was my intention all along, of course. Wicked things, plot devices.
Until the next encounter!
—Dungeon Master for Life,
Previous Poll Results
Hey DMs: How much help do your players need to decide what to do next in the campaign?
|They are occasionally mired by indecision, but they can usually extricate themselves.
|They often need help deciding what to do next, so I provide direction upon request.
|They can't agree on any course of action, and they spend lots of time debating options.
|My players are very decisive and/or easygoing. They don't need my intervention.
|If it wasn't for my Random Pizza Topping table, they'd starve during long gaming weekends.
|None of the above.
The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #83
Hey DMs: Speaking of evil, what alignment are you?
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.