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Gang Aft Agley
The Dungeon Master Experience
By 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.


MONDAY NIGHT. Paragon tier. The characters thwart Sea King Senestrago's plot to sink an island using a very expensive ritual and several catastrophic dragon eggs plucked from the Elemental Chaos. Not only that, but the PCs manage to steal one of the eggs and tuck it away in a bag of holding for safekeeping. Two years and fifteen levels later, the egg finally comes into play.

F ast forward to epic level: The characters are told that two major campaign villains, Hahrzan and Zarkhrysa, are imbuing dragonborn spies with doppelganger-like traits, allowing them to shapechange naturally. Moreover, Hahrzan and Zarkhrysa plan to use these shapeshifting spies in a nefarious plot to seize control of the Dragovar Empire. Shortly after the spies are sent on their way, the heroes corner the villains in a battered citadel along the coast of an island ruled by a green dragon named Emerlas. The citadel, damaged years ago by a tidal wave, still has some ancient magic on it that guards against scrying and teleportation magic — hence the decision to use it for a not-so-secret rendezvous.

In anticipation of a glorious battle in the ruined stronghold, I drew a multi-level map on a wet-erase battle map. I went so far as to show the various gaps in the walls and floors through which characters could maneuver, allowing me to place well-armed minions on multiple levels. I also added the island's green dragon overlord to the roster of bad guys in attendance, just because fighting a dragon is always fun.

Rather than assault the citadel as I'd anticipated, most of the PCs hung back while the halfling rogue, Oleander, mounted his ebony fly (everyone's favorite figurine of wondrous power), flew over the citadel, and dropped the aforementioned catastrophic dragon egg into the roofless structure, whereupon it exploded.

The Monday night group had seen a catastrophic dragon egg explode once before, so they were aware of its destructive capabilities (in my campaign, anyway). Still, they were surprised when the citadel collapsed in on itself, burying the villains under tons of rock. Everyone inside took 500 points of damage. Hahrzan, Zarkhrysa, and their forces were killed outright. Only the green dragon survived. Bloodied by the explosion, it burrowed out from under the debris and chased after Oleander. However, Oleander was able to catch up to the rest of the party, who finished off the wounded dragon in one round. Then they cast Speak with Dead on the dragon's corpse, learned where Emerlas hid his treasure, and looted the dragon's stash.

You know what they say about the best-laid plans.

It took me about thirty minutes to draw the map of the citadel. Pity I never had a chance to use it . . . but that's the way the castle crumbles. A smarter DM probably would've remembered that the party had a Weapon of Mass Destruction from an earlier adventure; usually, my players are more apt to forget about that stuff than I am. On this particular occasion, however, they had the perfect work-around to my clever plans.

The REALLY interesting thing is that my players had fun ruining my plans and circumventing the requisite battle with the bad guys. They spent most of the remainder of the game session excavating the corpses of the bad guys and casting Speak with Dead rituals to glean information about their wicked plans. Oleander's bomb-drop had saved them hours of dice rolling while basically achieving nearly optimal results. (I say "nearly" because a good-aligned NPC — a captive of the bad guys — was inadvertently killed in the blast. Fortunately, the PCs were able to raise this NPC from the dead.)

As one of my players put it afterward, "Cheating is fun!"

In the end, that's the important thing: the players had fun. So what if I wasted 30 minutes prepping a useless map. Maybe I can put that map to use somehow in my Wednesday night game!

Another thing worth mentioning is that the destruction of the citadel and the deaths of Hahrzan and Zarkhrysa didn't spell the end of the adventure. The "doppelborn" spies are still out there, for one thing, and rumor is they're backed by two powerful and unscrupulous dragonborn noble families. (There's a campaign motto buried in there somewhere: Kill two villains, and four more sprout in their place!) Oh, and the party hasn't seen the last of Hahrzan or Zarkhrysa, either. One of the wonderful things about epic tier is that the villains tend to be as resourceful as the PCs. Hahrzan's an archwizard with a clone or two, and Zarkhrysa stole an hourglass talisman from the party's rogue a few levels ago. This time-traveling device allows its user to step back in time for one hour. Using the talisman, Zarkhrysa murdered herself in the past, stuffed her own corpse into a bag of holding, brought it back to the present, and raised it from the dead . . . effectively creating a "temporal twin" in the present timeline.

"Cheating is fun," indeed!

Lessons Learned

Here are this week's takeaways, in three nutshells:

1. You reap what you sow. If you give your PCs the equivalent of a Weapon of Mass Destruction (be it a catastrophic dragon egg, a wish spell, an iron flask containing a trapped god, or whatever), they will probably use it . . . and rarely how or when you expect them to.

2. Players like to play D&D on "Easy Mode" once in a while. (Thank you, Matt Sernett, for this analogy.) I don't get annoyed when my PCs outsmart an adventure . . . whether it's a published adventure or something I've whipped up on my own. It's like that classic confrontation in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones circumvents what might have been an awesome swordfight with one shot of his pistol. Very entertaining, if unexpected! Just be ready to plow onward. Worst-case scenario: the players spend the rest of the game session patting themselves on the back and sorting out the loot.

3. You can never have too many explosions. (Thank you, Rich Baker, for that observation.) If I can rig something to explode without making the players think I've gone insane, I will. If I can swing it so that the PCs are the ones setting off explosions, so much the better!

Until the next encounter!

—Dungeon Master for Life,
Chris Perkins

Previous Poll Results

Hey DMs: In your current campaign, how many times has an NPC betrayed the party’s trust?
Never. 223 21.5%
Once. 272 26.2%
More than once, but fewer than five times. 484 46.7%
Too many times to count! 58 5.6%
Total 1037 100.0%

What’s the name of your next character’s horse?
Black Doodie 14 1.3%
Fourshoe Skidoo 51 4.6%
Thunderwhinnie 59 5.3%
Hi-Ho Electrum 31 2.8%
Wyvernbait 169 15.2%
Tinderbox 66 5.9%
Sir Trotsalot 185 16.6%
Lance 39 3.5%
None of the above 140 12.6%
Wow, this poll is just . . . wow. 361 32.4%
Total 1115 100.0%

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #89

  As a DM, which of the following magic items do you find the most annoying?  
Ebony flies (fly fast, fly often)
Exodus knives (cut to: instant getaway)
Sending stones (the D&D equivalent of Twitter accounts)
Skeleton keys (why bother having locks?)
Stones of __________ (Yay, free reroll! Good thing I got a whole bag of ’em!)
Horns of summons (they blow, all right)
Rings of feather falling (farewell to pit traps)
None of the above
Other (leave a comment)

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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