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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. The epic-level heroes are wanted for crimes against the Dragovar Empire. They stand accused of crashing a flying citadel into the capital city, killing the imperial regent, impersonating imperial officials, assaulting a military stronghold, killing a witness under military protection and stealing her corpse, slaughtering dozens of Dragovar soldiers, and conspiracy to overthrow the government. Now, in all fairness, a pair of evil NPCs named Kharl and Nemencia crashed the citadel into Io'calioth; our "heroes" simply decided to do nothing about it.
Cornered in a run-down theater and confronted with the real possibility of a TPK, the heroes summon an efreet who owes them a favor, and he teleports them to a remote island where they can take a much needed extended rest. However, they're forced to leave their human psion ("Kyle Rolark," played by Chris Dupuis) behind. Kyle had already met his end at the hands of two pit fiends, which paved the way for his ghost to manifest. Since then, ghost-Kyle has been hijacking bodies and using them as hosts (talk about fun!), and while possessing one such host he managed to accidentally teleport himself out of sight and out of range of his criminal companions moments before the efreet teleported them away. Since then, ghost-Kyle has been trying to reunite with the other PCs, but they're more than half a world away. There's no telling when and if they'll see Kyle again.
My players know better than to split the party, and yet it happens with alarming frequencyand not just in the Monday night game. I could charge my Wednesday night group with the same crime, and that group has more repeat offenders! Let me tell you a brief, sad little story about Garrot the fighter, played expertly (some might say incompetently) by Mat Smith. Two sessions ago, the party was fighting three different encounters at once when Garrot decided to leap onto an undead beholder and ride it around. (You think he would've learned his lesson after the Catapult incident, but no.) The death tyrant reacted by floating away, taking Garrot with it, and drifting into the middle of a vast glacial chasm filled with white dragons. (Yep, you read that right.) Last week, Garrot's friends had the option of coming to his rescue or taking sides in another fight between two mobs of NPCs. Well, long story short, Garrot was left to his own devices, fell off the beholder, took a pile of damage as he slammed into the jagged floor of the chasm some 200 feet below, and then was flash-frozen and eaten by the dragons.
But I depress.
In my 3rd Edition campaign, whenever the party splits, I would deal with each party "splinter" separately, making one group wait while the other group's current misadventure played out. Then, at an appropriately dramatic or tense moment, I would shift my attention to the waiting group for a while until an opportunity came to put them on hold and return to the first group. It has the same effect as cut scenes in movies—a simple trick that allows the audience to follow two or more narratives that unfold simultaneously in different locations. By the end of the session, every player felt like they'd been given equal time, albeit the equivalent of a half session's worth of attention. Invariably what happens is players become disinterested when the spotlight's no longer on them; they start texting friends or decide now's the time to strike up a mildly distracting side conversation. You would think that these bouts of inactivity would urge them not to split the party in the future, but no. My players never really learned that lesson. Most of them are in my 4th Edition campaign, and splitting the party is what Chris Champagne, one of my newer players, would call "a clear and present danger" every time they sit down to play.
When the party splits, a DM needs to be prepared to jump back and forth between the various fragments until an opportunity to reunite the PCs rears its beautiful head. However, these days I tend to use the "back-and-forth" approach only as a last resort. I've found another approach I like better, and it's effective even when one or more of the splinter groups aren't in combat.
Here's how it works: Regardless of the number of splintered-off party members, everyone rolls initiative, and I use the initiative order to govern the flow of the session. Sounds simple, and it is.
To take an example from this past Monday night, ghost-Kyle spent the majority of the session in spiritual possession of Thorbalt Mithralstar, dwarven son of Sea King Mithralstar, using the dwarf's good name and influence to finagle passage on a ship. The rest of the party spent the same session trying to stay one step ahead of their Dragovar pursuers while dealing with some infernal beasts they accidentally pulled through a tapestry depicting the Nine Hells (it's a long story fraught with far-reaching consequences). Regardless of ghost-Kyle's separation from his friends, everyone was in initiative order for the entire night, and every time we came to ghost-Kyle's turn, the action would suddenly shift to Thorbalt Mithralstar in Io'calioth. Since he wasn't in combat, ghost-Kyle's turn would sometimes entail more than a single round of actions and allow for such things as a short conversation with a dwarf NPC (not in Dwarven, because—quelle surprise—Kyle doesn't speak the language), or a botched attempt to lose a pair of human handlers assigned to follow Mithralstar and keep him out of trouble. However, his turn was not markedly longer than anyone else's because, as a DM, I'm trained to think of initiative as a way to keep the action moving from one player to the next.
In a recent Wednesday night game, Xanthum the gnome bard (played by Curt Gould) blasted himself onto another plane when he accidentally activated his extradimensional cloak inside a portable hole, and he spent the better part of a session trapped in the Astral dominion of a Greyhawk deity (Istus) and isolated from the rest of the party. However, I kept Xanthum in the initiative order and circled back to him every time his turn came up. Curt was kept in the game, but he wasn't given any more attention than any other party member, which kept the other players from drifting off when Curt's turn came around.
Relying on the initiative count to pace the session has a couple advantages over the more traditional approach of dealing with one party splinter at a time:
- The initiative count gives you the feeling of "cut scenes" but lets players know when their turns are coming up. It makes it harder for players to ignore the part of the session that doesn't directly involve them.
- The initiative count removes the burden of having to guarantee every player equal play time and lets the DM focus on the fun stuff: listening, reacting to the players, and improvising.
Well, as they say in television, that's a wrap for this week. I'm off to peruse a dazzling array of dungeons submitted as part of the Dungeon Map contest. Thanks to everyone who submitted an entry. Oh, and if you have an idea or topic for a future DM Experience article, leave a quick comment.
Until the next encounter!
Dungeon Master for Life,