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.
Monday Night. The characters have been searching for Hahrzan, a dragonborn wizard who's experimenting on doppelgangers in order to create a "super race" of dragonborn shapeshifters (dragonborn that can naturally alter their appearance). When you get right down to it, it's a story as old as Mary Shelly's Frankenstein about a mad wizard and his fiendish experiment. However, several elements to the story make it unique, one of them being the villain himself.
A botched alchemical experiment several years ago left Hahrzan unable to breathe air. To survive, he is forced to inhale a gaseous admixture, and he must wear a sealed leather body suit and gas mask, with a nest of hoses attached to a pump strapped to his back. When he is first bloodied, his suit ruptures, creating an aura of poisonous gas around him. Add to that a twisted sense of patriotism and a determination to replace key figures in the government with "doppelborn" operatives, and you have an antagonist who's a far cry from a cackling wizard in a pointy hat.
One of my favorite books is Save the Cat! a how-to guide written by the late, great spec screenwriter Blake Snyder. It carries a somewhat immodest (yet entirely deserved) subtitle: The Last Book On Screenwriting That You'll Ever Need. In it, Snyder says:
A screenwriter's daily conundrum is how to avoid cliche. You can be near the cliche, you can dance around it, you can run right up to it and almost embrace it. But at the last second you must turn away. You must give it a twist. And insisting on those twists, defying that inner voice that says, "Oh, well, no one will notice," is a universal struggle that good storytellers have been fighting forever.
Snyder goes on to say that every Hollywood film fits snugly into one of ten categories based on its setup and plot. For example, Jaws, Alien, and Fatal Attraction are all "Monster in the House" films, while Die Hard, Titanic, and Schindler's List are all "Dude with a Problem" films. He also goes on to illustrate how some films are, beat for beat, the exact same movie only with different titles and characters.
Snyder's storytelling insight applies as much to DMing as screenwriting. Although there's no limit to the number of D&D adventures that can be created, the number of adventure setups and plots is remarkably short. There's the rescue adventure, the mystery adventure, the kill-the-monster adventure, and a handful of others. For every category, there are plenty of examples. However, if you're a DM looking to delight your players with a "slay the dragon" adventure, you'll need something more than just a dragon in a cave. A great adventure needs elements that make it stand out as a unique piece of work, even if the basic story is a cliche.
Let's run with the "slay the dragon" scenario:
A red dragon terrorizes a small kingdom. Agents of the king hire brave adventurers to mount an expedition to the dragon's lair, slay the creature, and recover its treasure for the crown. In exchange, the adventurers get fame, experience, and a portion of the dragon's trove.
Without altering the basic storyline, a DM can add elements to the adventure to make it unique, turning a groaner into something that feels fresh. Here are some examples:
"“ The adventure takes place in the dead of winter, and the dragon has taken to hibernating in its lair. Snow and blizzards make the trek particularly dangerous.
"“ Two guides are tasked with leading the PCs safely to the dragon's lair. The guides are a pair of bickering dwarves, one of whom thinks the other is sleeping with his sister. As the characters get closer to the dragon's lair, the truth comes out, and the characters must break up a fight between them.
"“ The dragon has a bit of history. When it was younger, it served as a mount for a brutal hobgoblin warlord who died in battle. The dragon keeps the warlord's skeletal remains (and possessions) hidden in its lair, and maybe even talks to them.
"“ The dragon has allied itself with an evil wizard who is teaching it how to cast spells. The wizard has been living in exile for years and plans to win the dragon's trust.
"“ The dragon is extorting a local village, threatening to burn it to the ground if the villagers don't provide it with tribute in the form of cows and sheep. The characters have the option of slipping past some of the dragon's defenses by posing as shepherds delivering a flock of sheep to the dragon's den.
"“ The dragon has a crystal orb through which it communes with the ruler of an enemy kingdom. This evil king or queen is using the dragon to spread terror and foment unrest as a prelude to invasion.
"“ The dragon's cave provides access into a lost dwarven tomb, within which the characters find an intelligent magic axe. The axe might have a quest of its own, or it might be useful in defeating the dragon.
"“ The dragon's lair contains a magical waterfall that serves as a fey crossing. Characters can use this as a sanctuary if they're really hurt, and there might be a dryad or nymph there to advise or hinder them.
Granted, not all of these ideas are original (the crystal orb idea is clearly inspired by the Palantiri in The Lord of the Rings), but I think some of them are pretty good. This sort of exercise is called "spinning the cliche." It's fun to take a tired D&D cliche and find ways to spin or twist it into something original. In my "slay the dragon" adventure, only half of the twists are directly related to the dragon itself; the rest have to do with the dragon's lair or ancillary elements of the adventure. It just goes to show that you can twist the framing elements of the story just as much as its core elements to surprise and delight your players.
My ultimate goal, as the DM, is to find the perfect spin or twist to make my players forget that they're partaking in yet another "rescue the ________" adventure or "kill the ________" quest. If they're concerned about their characters freezing to death or bemused by a pair of bickering dwarves, then the cliche can do its work, and my players are none the wiser.
I love creating adventures, and once I realized there aren't very many different adventure plots to choose from, I became obsessed with finding clever ways to spin these well-worn stories. For my Monday night group, I wanted to turn a plot about an "evil wizard's experiment" into something that felt original.
Really good players can spin a cliche just as handily. When you look at the character options available, certain cliches immediately rise to the surface, from the sly rogue who pilfers coin pouches off drunken tavern patrons, to the holier-than-thou paladin who turns a blind eye to the rogue's shenanigans. A clever player knows all the tired character cliches and looks for a twist or a spin. As a DM, you can learn a lot just by observing what these players come up with.
"Give me the same thing . . . only different." According to Blake Snyder, that's what storytelling has always been about. There's nothing wrong with sending adventurers after red dragons and evil wizards. Once you realize you're wrestling with a cliche, you can start to spin it around in your mind, and suddenly the creative possibilities begin to bubble to the surface. If you don't believe me, try this exercise: There's a ruined tower on a hill just outside town. The locals believe it's haunted, and occasionally strange lights can be seen floating amid the ruins at night. The adventurers are hired to investigate. It's a classic "haunted house" scenario. How would you spin the cliche?
Until the next encounter!
Dungeon Master for Life,