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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. Hahrzan, an evil dragonborn wizard, was holed up in a heavily defended military stronghold located in the heart of Io'calioth, the capital city of the Dragovar Empire. The player characters used a True Portal ritual to teleport directly into his secret cloning lab, where they set off a glyph of warding that brings the fortress defenders down upon them in droves. As if the guards weren't bad enough, they also faced a black dragon that could phase through solid walls, not to mention the aforementioned dragonborn wizard. In the course of the battle, several canisters of poisonous gas were shattered, filling the lab with deadly fumes.
What made this particular session stand out were the daring heroics of the adventurers. Every character got to do something cool. Never mind the plot! These are just fun stories to tell:
Bartho, the human fighter (played by Matt Sernett): He trapped the dragonborn wizard on a spiral staircase, preventing his escape. He also absorbed a crap-load of damage while drawing multiple attacks from every hostile in the room, and yet somehow he survived.
Alex, the human wizard (played by Jeremy Crawford): Alex spent much of the battle teleporting into and out of sealed cloning tanks to reduce the amount of poison damage he took from the lingering gas. He also polymorphed several bad guys into rabbits and dominated one of the dragonborn guards, ordering him to remove his gas mask and hand it to the party's gasping rogue, Oleander.
Oleander, the halfling rogue (played by Peter Schaefer): Hopping invisibly around the battlefield, Oleander used a power that tricked the dragon into accidentally attacking the dragonborn wizard. The dragon rolled a critical hit and, much to its chagrin, bit the bloodied wizard's head off. This caused the wizard's life force to transfer into one of his clones, which I'll get to in just a moment.
Varghuum, the dwarf paladin (played by Stan!): His Sturdiness was thankfully immune to the poison gas, but not to the wizard's spells and domination power. While dominated, Varghuum nearly decapitated one of his companions, but later redeemed himself by scoring a crit against the black dragon, cleaving it in two.
Triage, the warforged artificer (played by Nick DiPetrillo): Triage created a simulacrum of himself using a new power. This clever trick enabled him to benefit from his own buffs, which is something he'd never been able to do before. He also spirited himself and Varghuum away to an astral demiplane of his own design, where they could recuperate for a round before rejoining the battle.
At various times throughout the evening, three of the five characters were dropped to negative hit points, but no death saves were rolled because their steadfast comrades got them back on their feet in no time. The session ended on a fun yet dark note, with the characters trapping the dragonborn wizard's last surviving clone inside a cloning tank and watching him slowly suffocate to death.
Every time I sit down to write an installment of this column, I try to offer something of substance, whether it's concrete advice or some kind of useful "takeaway." However, this week I find myself waxing philosophical. I think you'll find something in here worth contemplating, but the article falls short of offering anything concrete. Hopefully it will spark some discussion and debate.
Like many folks at Wizards, I occasionally do press interviews at conventions, and every year someone invariably asks me how D&D specifically the tabletop RPG has managed to survive despite ever-growing competition in the digital universe. I usually get asked this question at conventions ruled by digital games (such as PAX), where our more traditional and beloved tabletop RPGs are viewed as sideshow attractions. So, how has the game managed to survive for 40 years despite the expanding range of entertainment options?
I believe tabletop D&D's longevity can be attributed to a primal need born in the dawn of human civilization: the need to tell stories around a campfire. As a social activity, it's one of the earliest forms of group entertainment. Humans have been doing it for so long that it's part of our social evolution. There are very few modern-day experiences that serve this primal need. You can't get it reading J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit (or listening to the audiobook or watching the movie), and you can't get it playing World of Warcraft or Assassin's Creed. To serve this primal need, the experience requires moment-to-moment, back-and-forth interaction between the storyteller and a captive audience. Alas, we can't conjure J.R.R. Tolkien to appear across the campfire and tell us everything he knows about hobbits. The designers of World of Warcraft and Assassin's Creed can't see you react to the worlds they've created, nor can they adapt their work to serve your personal needs of wish fulfillment. Conversely, a D&D campaign is created in the moment. It's not recited or recorded or immutable. Even a published D&D campaign setting such as the Forgotten Realms or the World of Greyhawk isn't meant to be run exactly as written (and, as far as I know, never has been). Campaign settings are books, not campfire stories. Like novels and movies, they merely contain ideas that a clever DM can bring to life as interactive stories around a dining room table among friends who bring their own contributions to the story, be they emotional reactions, commentary, characterizations, plot wrinkles, or what-have-you.
The D&D RPG successfully replaced the traditional campfire with a table, but the social experience feels like a campfire experience, and that's why D&D continues to hold its own despite the plethora of new entertainment options vying for our attention. As fun as it is to curl up with a favorite novel or play a video game, there's still that human need for the campfire experience that beckons us to gather in small groups and share stories that exist in the moment, if not for all time. Often, for better or worse, these stories remain with us for the rest of our lives.
If you believe what I'm saying is true, then there's nothing weird about being a Dungeon Master. DMs merely do what humans have been doing since the dawn of recorded history: oral storytelling. It's as human a pastime as any other social activity, and certainly one of the most creatively engaging. The sad truth is that a lot of our D&D stories exist only in the memories of the players, for they are rarely recorded. Fortunately, this is where the digital universe can help us. Humans in the 21st century have so many different ways to chronicle what happens in their D&D games, and if you're a Dungeon Master, you have an important decision to make: You must decide if the stories you plan to tell what amounts to your living campaign is something you wish only your players to experience. Until I started writing this column, that's pretty much how I felt. My 3rd Edition campaign exists, for the most part, in the memories of the dozen or so players who participated in it. There are no blog posts, YouTube videos, or wikis to capture the events of the Arveniar campaign, and there might never be, and that's fine by me. However, you might feel differently about your campaign. How will your great stories be remembered?
Since our topic-du-jour is storytelling, I'd like to share a few great quotes about the storytelling experience, some of which inspired me to write this article, and some of which reflect my own storytelling style and sensibilities. Each quote reminds me of game sessions that I've run, but in the interests of brevity, I think I'll save those tales for another campfire. Without further adieu, here they are:
"People have wanted to narrate since first we banged rocks together & wondered about fire. There'll be tellings as long as there are any of us here, until the stars disappear one by one like turned-out lights."
(author of Perdido Street Station)
"Stories have to be told, or they die, and when they die we can't remember who we are or why we're here."
Sue Monk Kidd
(author of The Secret Life of Bees)
"All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town."
(novelist and essayist)
"I have stolen ideas from every book I've ever read."
(author of the His Dark Materials novel trilogy)
"When someone is mean to me, I just make them the victim in my next book."
Mary Higgins Clark
"There's a great tradition in storytelling that's thousands of years old, telling stories about kings and their palaces, and that's really what I wanted to do."
(American screenwriter and playwright)
"Human stories are practically always about one thing, really, aren't they? Death. The inevitability of death . . ."
"The world is shaped by two things stories told and the memories they leave behind."
(fantasy and science fiction writer)
"Whatever story you're telling, it will be more interesting if, at the end you add, 'and then everything burst into flames.' "
Brian P. Cleary
(humorist and grammarian)
Next week, I'll climb into the skin of a D&D player and tell you what I think of some of my past Dungeon Masters. The good ones have one important trait in common, and I bet you'll never guess what it is.
Until the next encounter!
Dungeon Master for Life,