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. As happens from time to time, three of my eight players are absent, so this game session is a bit more intimate than usual. The combats move quickly and seem a lot more dangerous, probably because I’m not the kind of merciful DM who adjusts encounters to account for absent players!
Fortunately, one of the attending players is Jeff Alvarez. By day, Jeff is the VP of Operations at Paizo Publishing, but on Monday nights, he transforms into the elf ranger Kithvolar: a whirling dervish of gut-spilling destruction who deals obscene amounts of damage. Tonight is Kithvolar’s moment to shine—Jeff is about to learn that he’s not in complete control of his character, and that something vile is living in his brain….
A quick aside: This article was inspired by a question posed at a PAX East seminar called “The Rat Bastard’s Guide to Running Long Campaigns.” Experienced DMs will find the point of this article rather obvious. If your reaction to the article is “No kidding,” then you’re well ahead of the curve. However, as with all things, that which is most obvious is often most ignored, and countless campaigns and players have suffered because experienced DMs have forgotten what I’m about to share with you.
In an earlier article, I recommended treating your campaign like a TV series. If you analyze some of the best dramatic series in recent history, you’ll see that individual episodes generally focus on plot, character, or both. When Mulder and Scully are exposing the government’s cover-up of alien-human hybridization, they’re in a plot-driven episode of The X-Files. When they’re investigating the abduction of Mulder’s sister or dealing with the fact that Scully has cancer, they’re in a character-driven episode. Sometimes these two things cross: When we learn that Mulder’s sister and Scully’s cancer are part of a worldwide conspiracy, things get really twisted. When the Battlestar Galactica crew is trying to escape from Cylon-occupied New Caprica, we’re talking plot, but we also have moments in which different character arcs are expanded: Saul Tigh’s discovery that his wife is a Cylon collaborator, Kara Thrace’s attempts to escape imprisonment, Lee Adama’s “battle of the bulge,” and so on.
I have three overarching (i.e., world-shaping) plots that form the foundation of my campaign. However, I’m always looking for opportunities to do “character episodes”—to present individual quests that help advance certain character arcs and give objectives that are personal. Again, TV series do this all the time; if all the Battlestar Galactica crew did was fight Cylons week after week, the series would get tiresome, and we’d stop caring about the characters. When push comes to shove, it’s the heroes that are most important, not convoluted plotlines or crafty villains or ethical conundrums or “end of the world” ticking clocks.
Which brings me to Kithvolar, the elf ranger. Early in the paragon tier, my Monday night group opposed “kraken cultists” lurking underneath the city of Io’galaroth. The adventure culminated in an encounter with some aberrant horrors, during which Kithvolar fell unconscious. Amid the chaos—and unbeknownst to the players—a mind flayer implanted a critter in the elf ranger’s brain before slinking back to the Far Realm.
Flash forward several game sessions: The heroes are in the creaking bowels of Anchordown (a floating “raft town”), assaulting a nest of aberrations. Strangely, none of the creatures seem to be attacking Kithvolar, and the players have no idea why. Also, Kithvolar sees disturbing things the other characters don’t, such as tentacles crawling inside the walls.
Flash forward several more game sessions: The thing in Kithvolar’s brain has matured. It takes control of his mind and uses him to assassinate the trusted adjutant of a Dragovar military general, throwing the empire into chaos. A simple ritual is enough to remove the critter in his brain, but the more interesting questions are how will Kithvolar react to being used as a pawn, and can he make amends? Jeff’s character is standing at the epicenter of the action, and Kithvolar will help set the tone and direction of the campaign going forward.
Every character deserves a moment in the sun.
Sometimes the moment comes unexpectedly when a character does something particularly cool and memorable, or when something surprising happens to that character. However, a good DM doesn’t wait for these moments. A good DM also prepares for them. As I prepare for a session, I ask myself, “Which character is this ‘episode’ about?” It’s okay to be proven wrong—after all, you can’t always predict what’ll happen once the players convene and the dice start rolling! I remember planning an entire Monday game around Bruce Cordell’s character… which was great, except that Bruce couldn’t make it. (That was the infamous session in which Bruce’s character was decapitated.)
Before you run your next game session, ask yourself which character gets the spotlight… and then see how right you are. Week after week, if you discover that the answer is the same one or two characters, consider that a warning sign: Not all of your player characters are getting their moment in the sun.
Giving each character “equal time” isn’t easy. It’s something I personally struggle with. Some characters naturally become more integral to the campaign than others. However, here’s some good advice if you have underdeveloped characters: Ask the players to send you three things they would like to see happen in the campaign. Once you have their lists, take one idea from each player and work it into an upcoming adventure. Then ask yourself, “How might this affect that player’s character?”
Static heroes do not a great campaign make. If you want your D&D campaign to thrive, its heroes need to evolve. Your more sophisticated players will demand it, but even players with a relatively shallow investment in the game don’t like being treated as supporting characters or fifth wheels for very long.
For me, the greatest challenge of running a long campaign is keeping all of the players invested in what’s happening. Toward that end, I try to keep the following in mind:
A campaign has an ensemble cast of heroes. Make sure they all get time in the spotlight, and keep the spotlight moving!
Every character gets an arc, including the player who doesn’t really crave one.
Okay, enough about the heroes. Next week, let’s embrace our “inner evil,” talk about amazing campaign villains, and compare notes.
Until the next encounter!
—Dungeon Master for Life,
Poll 03/24/2011 Results:
How do you prefer to bring characters together at the start of the campaign?
At the start of the first session, I let each player introduce his or her character and describe or improvise the circumstance(s) by which he or she came to know the other party members: 25.9%
- I ask the players to figure out how their characters met before the campaign gets underway: 23.8%
- I have an idea in mind for how the party came together, and I get the players to buy off on it: 22.8%
- I throw the players into the action and let the story of how they met come out later: 15.5%
- I assume the characters all know each other, give ’em a common quest, and move on: 12.0%
Which of the following characters has the best origin story?
Darth Vader: 19.3%
- Batman: 16.5%
- Gollum: 14.9%
- Drizzt Do’Urden: 10.6%
- Philip J. Fry (from Futurama): 10.5%
- The Bride (from Kill Bill): 6.4%
- The Wicked Witch of the West: 4.7%
- Spider-Man: 4.6%
- John Connor: 4.0%
- Superman: 3.0%
- Tarzan: 2.6%
- Spock: 2.5%
- Shane: 0.6%
The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll 03/31/2011
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.