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. In his youth, Alex von Hyden (played by Jeremy Crawford) was one of several children subjected to a magical experiment. An arcane sect of the Dragovar Empire called the Shan Qabal trapped the spirits of ancient dragons inside these children, with the goal of raising and training them as elite imperial assassins. However, a change in the political landscape forced the sect to abandon the project and terminate its subjects. Alex and a handful of other children were spirited away, and the Shan Qabal spent years hunting them down. This led to the first major conflict of the campaign as a Shan Qabal operative named Serusa arrived on the island of Kheth and discovered Alex, now a young wizard of formidable power, in the company of several friends who would eventually become his adventuring companions. Although she was ultimately thwarted, Serusa managed to wreak all sorts of havoc throughout the heroic tier before her eventualand well-deserveddemise.

Throughout paragon tier, the Shan Qabal resurfaced occasionally to deal with Alex and his companions. Serusa was replaced by her master and mentor, Hahrzan, who proved a difficult adversary to eliminate because of his clones. Eventually, the heroes fought their way through enough Hahrzans to reach the supreme leader of the Shan Qabal, the venerable Lenkhor Krige, the dragonborn archwizard responsible for binding the spirits of ancient dragons to Alex and the other children. Confined to his deathbed and kept alive by magic, Lenkhor regretted having to terminate the experiments and finally made peace with Alex, even offering him a seat within the Shan Qabal. Hahrzan would have none of it, of course, and so the Shan Qabal splintered in two.

Now an agent of the Shan Qabal, Alex set out to destroy Hahrzan's splinter sect. However, those plans were derailed when a new threat emerged in the form of the Dragovar Empire's spy agency, the Vost Miraj, charged with defending the empire against "outside threats." Its leader, Zarkhrysa, believed that Alex and his companions were too great a threat to ignore, so she planted an agent in their midst to spy on thema dragonborn rogue named Baharoosh (played by Stan!). Eventually, the heroes made Baharoosh a believer in their cause, and Zarkhrysa realized he was no longer following orders. She summoned Baharoosh to the Vost Miraj headquarters, signed his death warrant in front of him, and ordered him to carry it out. When he refused, she had him disposed of.

Although quite adept at staying alive, Zarkhrysa knew her day of reckoning was fast approaching. The epic-level adventurers were out of control and gunning for her. Her best hope of survival was to forge an alliance with someone as powerful as she . . . someone who had fought the heroes and survived countless times. And thus the alliance between Zarkhrysa and Hahrzan was born.

Tis the season for Christmas movies, from saccharine-sweet classics such as Miracle on 34th Street and It's a Wonderful Life to the holiday-gone-awry slapstick comedies of National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation and Home Alone. Me, I'm more of A Nightmare Before Christmas guy. However, my all-time favorite Christmas movie is Die Hard. The movie's premise is simple: a police officer travels to Los Angeles to be with his family at Christmas and ends up trapped in a high-rise with a gang of terrorists. Part of what makes the movie work is the oh-so-perfect combination of the action-adventure storyline set against a holiday backdrop. But the thing that makes the movie's narrative superlative is the ever-shifting balance of power between our "everyman" protagonist, John McClane (played by Bruce Willis), and his ruthless Scrooge-like antagonist, Hans Gruber (played by Alan Rickman).

In any narrative, the most interesting and memorable conflicts occur when the balance of power shifts back and forth between protagonist and antagonist. This "dance" is what keeps the audience on edge. If the protagonist always has the advantage, then the villain never feels like a genuine threat. Conversely, if the protagonist never gains the advantage, any victory he achieves at the end of the film doesn't feel earned. It feels more like a cheat.

Here's how the dance of power plays out in Die Hard:

Terrorists seize control of a high-rise during a corporate Christmas party, trapping our hero inside and taking his wife hostage. (Advantage: Antagonist)

Our hero uses the element of surprise to knock off terrorists one by one. (Advantage: Protagonist)

The terrorists catch on and begin scouring the building for our hero, who's forced to hide. (Advantage: Antagonist)

Hopelessly outnumbered, our hero clamors to the rooftop and contacts the police using a terrorist's walkie-talkie. (Advantage: Protagonist)

The terrorists trick the police into thinking the hero's call was a hoax. (Advantage: Antagonist)

Our hero throws a terrorist's corpse out of a window and onto a police car, providing irrefutable evidence that something's amiss. Within minutes, cops are everywhere. (Advantage: Protagonist)

The terrorists begin executing hostages and threaten to kill more of them unless our hero surrenders himself. (Advantage: Antagonist)

A chance encounter places the main villain temporarily at our hero's mercy. (Advantage: Protagonist)

The main villain escapes and uses superior firepower to force the hero's retreat, during which our hero is wounded while running barefoot across a floor covered with broken glass. (Advantage: Antagonist)

And so it goes, from the beginning of the movie to the end. One can dissect a lot of stories and find, at their very heart, this seesaw dynamic. The hero gains ground then loses ground; every setback is followed by a victory. You see the same thing in pro wrestling rivalries. Say what you want about Vince McMahon, but he and other ringmasters like him propelled professional wrestling into the stratosphere because they understood what makes great drama. When you analyze the greatest pro wrestling matches in history, one constant is the back-and-forth shift in advantage between competing wrestlers, rather like a dance. It's readily apparent, even formulaic, but absolutely necessary for creating real conflict.

Unfortunately, this wonderful seesaw dynamic is very hard to accomplish in a D&D campaign, where the outcome of any direct confrontation is resolved through random die rolls, and let's face it: most players will go to extremes to make sure the villains never get the chance to turn the tables or seize the advantage. They're not looking to dance or play your narrative reindeer games; they want to win.

Lessons Learned

The first time the hero and villain meet face-to-face in Die Hard, the hero has the advantage. He has a gun; the villain does not. The villain tries to buy time until he can escape, which he does. The second time they meet, the balance of power is reversed. The villain has the advantage, not to mention the hero's wife at gunpoint, and it seems like only a Christmas miracle will save the day.

As a DM, I don't have that level of control over my campaign. Were I to place one of my major villains at the characters' mercy, I have little doubt that the villain would be taken out. And though I could probably contrive some means to facilitate the villain's escape, my players would think I was going to excessive lengths to steer the campaignand they'd be right. It's a big turn-off.

After running campaigns for many different groups, I've come to the conclusion that I can't let my appreciation for the back-and-forth power shift between good guys and bad guys affect my DMing style. If it happens, it happens. Sometimes die rolls can work in my favor, allowing a beloved villain to gain the upper hand or perpetrate a daring escape. I savor those moments, but I don't plan for them. Better to let the dice fall where they may.

That said, there have been a few nice power shifts in the Monday night campaign of late, mostly due to the fact that the heroes are fighting villainous organizations as well as individuals. The good thing about using villainous organizations such as the Shan Qabal and the Vost Miraj is that they can survive the loss of particular members, and it takes more than a few lucky dice rolls to dispose of them once and for all. If you're like me and you crave that ever-shifting balance of power, I recommend spending more time fleshing out your villainous organizations than worrying about any one particular member. Apart from being durable and resourceful, an evil organization can itself become a character in your ongoing campaign, and a rewardingly multifaceted one made up of members who don't always see eye to eye and sometimes work at cross-purposes. Evil organizations can be sabotaged, undermined, and infiltrated. They can be turned against themselves and transformed. They can be defeated, only to return with a vengeance.

Well, that's all I got for 2012. Y'all have a great holiday. As for me, I'll be watching How the Grinch Stole Christmas for the umpteenth time and trying to track down my DVD copy of Die Hard, which I think I might have loaned to someone I can't remember who. Speaking of Die Hard, this particular installment of The Dungeon Master Experience was written while listening to Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, portions of which feature prominently in the film's musical score. (Like I need another reason to love that movie.)

No column next week, as Wizards of the Coast is closed for the holiday break, but I'll be back in January with some advice on playing gods and divine intervention, not just from me but also from the Grandfather of Roleplaying Games himself, Gary Gygax.

Until the next encounter!

Dungeon Master for Life,
Chris Perkins