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. Curt Gould plays a devout cleric of Melora named Divin. As the god of nature and the sea, Melora has aspects that are both benign and malevolent, and over the course of the campaign she has intervened three times on the party's behalf.
The first intervention occurred when Divin fell into a water-filled chasm and was swept into a whirlpool. With no means of escape, he called out to Melora to save him, and the water itself hoisted him onto a safe ledge. This act of divine charity not only bolstered Divin's faith in Melora, but also made one of his companions — a Raven Queen-worshiping fighter named Garrot (played by Mat Smith) — an instant convert.
The second intervention occurred when an evil fog trapped the party's ship. Divin prayed to Melora for guidance, and a giant octopus latched onto the vessel and pulled it free of the vile miasma.
The final intervention occurred when bad guys seized control of the party's home base — a warehouse built on pylons inside a sea cave. With their proverbial backs against the wall, the characters once more pleaded for divine intervention. Within a few rounds, a colossal sharktopus (one of Melora's exarchs) swam into the sea cave and took a giant bite out of the warehouse, doing considerable damage to the structure but also swallowing a dozen bad guys in the process.
The Wednesday group had two other brushes with Melora that don't qualify as divine intervention but certainly contributed to her mystique. While searching the wreckage of a sunken ship, they angered a 5,000-foot-diameter giant crab buried in the sand and coral nearby. (Believing it to be one of Melora's exarchs, they fled rather than fight the behemoth.) Later, when Garrot found himself trapped in the Far Realm, Melora and the Raven Queen appeared to him as coquettish vixens vying for his love and attention. Mind you, these weren't the gods but rather Garrot's imagination made manifest by the Far Realm, but it proves that you can have a lot of fun with campaign deities.
f the supernatural powers of the various Outer Planes could and would continually and constantly involve themselves in the affairs of the millions upon the Prime Material Plane, they would not only be so busy as to get neither rest nor relaxation, but these deities would be virtually handling their own affairs and confronting each other regularly and often. If an entreaty for aid is heard one time in 100, surely each and every deity in the multiverse would be as busy as a switchboard operator during some sort of natural disaster. Even giving each deity a nominal number of servants able to supply aid to desperate adventurers, the situation would be frenzied at best. Add to this the effects of various spells — commune, contact other plane, gate. It is obvious that intervention by a deity is no trifling matter, and it is not to be allowed on a whim, even if characters are in extremis!
So sayeth the grandfather of roleplaying games, Gary Gygax, in the original AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide. However, Gary goes on to mention that his legendary Greyhawk campaign featured a number of appearances by divine beings. His rule for spur-of-the-moment intervention was simple: If the character beseeching help has been exemplary in faithfulness, the rules advised a straight 10% chance that some creature will be sent to his or her aid if this is the first time the character has asked for help. The rules applied bonuses and penalties based on the circumstances and the number of previous attempts made to call for divine aid. Gary also recommended a few ground rules, one of them being that no deity would send aid to any plane inhabited by other deities, ruling out most of the Outer Planes except for the Astral, Ethereal, Positive Material, and Negative Material Planes. You could do worse than follow Gary's advice.
The gods of Iomandra, like everything else in my campaign, are toys to play with. However, I don't profess to be so intelligent and wise that I could portray one honestly, nor do I want them stomping around my world like 100-foot-tall giants, flattening castles and cottages as they "throw down" with one another. In my mind, gods are like the monsters in great horror movies; the less you see of them, the better they are and the more frightening they become. And all gods, even the benevolent ones, should terrify the player characters to some extent. If and when a god answers a cleric's call for aid, it should be a scary, humbling experience. It should NOT be a "Yo, Melora, how's it hangin'?" experience.
I use Dogma, the Kevin Smith film starring Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, as inspiration when running encounters with divine beings and their direct reports. In my book, the film handles divine intervention brilliantly. With the exception of a brief encounter with God toward the end of the film, the protagonist, Bethany, is mainly dealing with intermediaries who are wise but not omnipotent. Because they're not gods, these emissaries can have humanlike intelligence as well as various faults and foibles, making them easier to relate to. When God actually appears in the film (played with quirky charm by singer Alanis Morissette), we discover that she has surprisingly little to say. She's an enigma. Why? Because Kevin Smith knows it's easier to write dialogue for a being with an IQ of 130 or less than a being with an IQ of 1,000.
Here's my advice on roleplaying gods:
1. Use intermediaries rather than have the gods themselves appear. An intermediary might be a weaker aspect of the god, an appointed exarch or champion, or a creature that resides on the deity's plane of existence.
The good thing about intermediaries is that they aren't all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful beings with whom the characters cannot identify. They can have their own personalities, eccentricities, and goals, as well as their own reasons for doing their god's bidding.
2. If the situation demands that a deity make a personal appearance, keep its appearance brief, and have it say as little as possible. The more a deity speaks, the less godlike it will seem to the players and the more chance you, the DM, have of inadvertently putting dumb words in its mouth. (Trust me: Been there, done that.)
As Mark Twain says, "Better to keep your mouth closed and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt." Demon lords and certain evil gods are exceptions in my book. In terms of how they interact with the characters, they're more like powerful evil monsters than divine beings. That's why I didn't shy away from having Vecna show up at the end of the Wednesday night campaign. Even so, I made sure he spoke as little as possible. My Wednesday night group likes to talk down to every antagonist they encounter, and the last thing I wanted was for Vecna to sink to their level and get swept up in the usual back-and-forth smack talk. (Mind you, it could've worked. I just didn't want to risk making Vecna anything but the most terrible and calamitous force the heroes had ever faced.)
3. If there's a cost or consequence associated with divine intervention, so much the better. The cost or consequence should be in keeping with the deity's nature, and it shouldn't be so punishing that the players think their DM is coming down on them unfairly.
If you can't think of a cost or consequence, no worries. Players, being suspicious of "freebies," will naturally assume one is forthcoming. Once a deity or its appointed minion has aided the adventurers, it might require that the party complete a quest as payment, or it might simply urge the characters to make a donation to their local temple. In my campaign, I had Melora's sharktopus collect payment immediately by taking a giant bite out of the party's warehouse; the god of nature could care less about property damage, and the repair bill alone would set the heroes back a few thousand gold pieces. On the other hand, when the party's elf ranger Alagon (played by Andrew Finch) got in the proverbial sack with the Raven Queen, she burned the names of five powerful undead creatures into his hand and told Alagon he had to destroy each and every one of them. I don't recall the heroes knocking on the Raven Queen's door too many times after that.
Until the next encounter!
—Dungeon Master for Life,
Previous Poll Resulst
What are your thoughts on divine intervention in a D&D campaign?
|To the Nine Hells with politics, I say! Politics and dungeon crawlin' don't mix!
|I love political intrigue and feature it often in my campaign(s).
|I love political intrigue, but I find it difficult to pull off.
|A little goes a long way. (I like a whiff of political intrigue every now and then.)
|I try to keep the political stuff in the background and focus more on inter-party shenanigans.
|I avoid political intrigue because it's not what my players enjoy.
|None of the above.
|Other. (Leave a comment.)
The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #94
Hey DMs: Which of the following non-evil D&D gods would be the most fun to roleplay?
Avandra (goddess of change, luck, and travel; patron of halflings)
Bahamut (god of justice, protection, and nobility; patron of dragonborn)
Corellon (god of beauty, art, and magic; patron of eladrin)
Erathis (goddess of civilization, inventions, and law)
Ioun (goddess of knowledge, skill, and prophecy)
Kord (god of storms, battle, and strength)
Melora (goddess of wilderness, nature, and the sea)
Moradin (god of family and creation; patron of dwarves)
Pelor (god of the sun, agriculture, and time)
Sehanine (goddess of illusion, love, and the moon; patron of elves)
The Raven Queen (goddess of death, fate, and doom)
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.