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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 heroes are trapped inside a military stronghold in Io'calioth, capital of the Dragovar Empire. A dragonborn villainess named Zarkhrysa is determined to annihilate them for their constant meddling in her plans. The characters know she's part of a conspiracy to overthrow the government, but how exactly remains a mystery.
There you have it: one plot, one NPC, and one secret. If this represented the entirety of my campaign, my job as the DM would be relatively easy. Alas, that's not the case. Over the past five years, I've littered the campaign with a plethora of plots, myriad NPCs with dreams and desires, and scores of secrets scattered everywhere in little fragments. All the king's horses and all the king's men, indeed!
Every time I run an adventure for my Monday and Wednesday night group, I'm adding complexity to the campaign new plot details to sort through, new NPCs to throw in the party's path, and new revelations to uncover. The longer a campaign runs, the more pieces there are to pick up and put together into something . . . whole. I could make the campaign shorter, include fewer NPCs, and reduce the number of fiendish plots, but then the campaign world wouldn't feel as big, and the players might one day find themselves out of things to do. It's a conundrum.
The three biggest contributors to campaign complexity are plots, NPCs, and secrets. Every new plot that brews, every new NPC who shows up with an agenda, and every secret I plant in the world has the potential to sweep the player characters away on an adventure that lasts for hours, days, weeks, or months. The Iomandra campaign has scores of plots, hundreds of important NPCs, and too many secrets to count. The adventurers are not only dealing with the quest-of-the-day but also dealing with the consequences of leaving other quests unfinished, and here I am, the not-so-blameless DM, trying to make the most of it.
The only things that keep me sane are my notes. As I've mentioned before, I go into every game session with a one-page printout that summarizes key beats from previous sessions, lists the names of NPCs likely to be of importance, and spells out what I think might happen over the course of the session. Throughout the game, I'm scribbling notes on this page the name of an NPC who makes an unexpected appearance, names of things I'm forced to create on the fly, reminders to myself, strange things that happen during an encounter that might have bearing on future events, and the occasional funny quote. Once in a while, a character will do something crazy but memorable; I'll jot that down, too. At the end of the session, the page goes in the back of my campaign binder, which has, over the past five years, become a chronicle of the party's shenanigans (albeit an unpublishable one).
Here's an sample page from my campaign binder:
Plots. NPCs. Secrets. These are the things I'm most interested in keeping track of. Why? Because in order to pull the campaign together and turn it into something more than just a string of adventures, I need to keep bringing old plots, NPCs, and secrets back into play and finding ways to pay them off. If I can't remember them, then I'm just littering the campaign with bits of debris plots that are never thwarted, NPCs without destinies or arcs, and secrets lost forever. That's not the campaign I'm trying to build.
I don't need horses or men to gather up the bits of my campaign and start piecing things together. My campaign binder contains everything I need to assemble my campaign: one-sheets from every single game session, in chronological order. Some barely have a mark on them; others are covered with notes, scrawls, and half-baked thoughts that don't really amount to much but serve to jog my memory of events from Way Back When. When I'm worried that my campaign might be falling apart, I open my campaign binder and start leafing through past episodes, sometimes going all the way back to the beginning. Look! Here's a quest the characters abandoned . . . what are the consequences of their negligence? Here's an NPC with some unfinished business . . . I wonder if there's a way to bring her back into the story? And behold, here's a little secret the players never figured out . . . maybe it's time they learned the truth!
Plots, NPCs, and Secrets
A couple sessions ago, the characters knocked off a major campaign villain and the last of his surviving clones. It was the kind of fate you wish upon super-villains in James Bond movies: violent with a dab of poetic justice. (The last clone was made to suffocate to death in his own cloning tank while the heroes watched.) I was concerned because I didn't know quite where to take the campaign from there . . . or how to make the next few game sessions just as thrilling. After all, once the campaign hits a dizzying high, the natural tendency is to go down from there. It takes a lot of thought and effort or pure delirium to keep going up. I had a few ideas (odds and ends rattling about in my brain), but I needed to go back to my campaign binder to find inspiration . . . or, more precisely, to find things that would resonate with my players. As it happens, I found several.
Here are some pieces I have to work with:
- When last we left the PCs, they were nearly out of resources. Our sly villainess, Zarkhrysa, allowed them 10 minutes to craft a teleportation circle, but with no intention of letting them escape. She and her wizards have been secretly scrying on the party and casting a ritual to disrupt their circle once activated. It seemed like a surefire way to get rid of the whole party at once, once and for all.
- The players suspected something was amiss when Zarkhrysa held her forces back instead of steamrolling over them. Only one of the characters (a warforged artificer named Triage, played by Nick DiPetrillo) actually ended up using the teleportation circle, and now he's separated from the rest of the group. The party's attempt to reach him via sending stone didn't work, suggesting that he might be dead. (Triage's sending stone is embedded in his brain, making it unlikely that the item was simply lost.)
- Speaking of missing party members, when Michele Carter moved to Baltimore, her character (an eladrin warlord named Andraste) left the party to become an NPC. The last time the PCs spoke with her, she was trying to get Alethia, her aunt, out of prison. Aunt Alethia is a member of the Knights of Ardyn, a good-aligned terrorist group dedicated to destroying corrupt elements within the Dragovar Empire. The party thinks she's being held in Zardkarath, an underground Dragovar prison on the island of Mheletros (ruled by an adamantine dragon overlord).
- Speaking of the Dragovar Empire, it's been without an emperor since the start of the campaign (hence the never-ending upheaval). The party's human wizard, Alex (played by Jeremy Crawford), recently captured a purple dragon because he needed her heart as a ritual component. In a bid to save her own life, the dragon informed Alex that the emperor was alive but refused to divulge his location.
- Zarkhrysa was a high-ranking member of the martial caste, which, in the absence of an emperor, has imposed martial law throughout the empire. Recently ousted from the Vost Miraj (the imperial spy agency) after a botched operation, she now wants to install a dragonborn noble on the imperial throne who shares her political ideology. However, no noble can claim the throne without the approval of the Council of Viziers, all members of the divine caste who are painfully fastidious when it comes to scrutinizing a candidate's royal bloodline. However, with the aid of a dragonborn archmage named Hahrzan, Zarkhrysa recently imbued a secret squad of dragonborn assassins with doppelganger-like shapechanging abilities. She plans to command this squad to assassinate the viziers, lay the blame on her replacement in the Vost Miraj, and use the resulting anarchy to push the Dragovar nobility into acting quickly to restore order with a new emperor on the throne.
- Zarkhrysa's choice for emperor is a terrifyingly evil member of the noble caste, a Tiamat-worshiping dragonborn named Menes Narakhty. Shielded by his equally vile mother, he seeks an alliance through marriage with the popular and influential House Irizaxes. Menes plans to marry Lord Irizaxes's eldest daughter, Taishan. She's the opposite of Menes caring, giving, and passionate about her faith in Bahamut. It's a disaster waiting to happen.
- Amid my campaign notes is an idea that never actually got used: a dragonborn masquerade. As a prelude to the wedding of Menes Narakhty and Taishan Irizaxes, I thought it might be fun to have the heroes crash the masquerade. Unfortunately, the PCs were always too distracted with other things to get involved in the political machinations of the Dragovar nobility, and so the masquerade idea fell by the wayside.
- At present, Peter Schaefer and Stan! both have secondary characters who were written out of the campaign at different times in the past year. You could say that both succumbed to "misadventure." As noted in my campaign binder, Metis (Peter's morose changeling warlock) was knocked unconscious and taken prisoner by Vost Miraj agents several months ago, and the players quickly gave up on trying to rescue him. (At the time he went missing, he'd managed to place his companions in great peril and wasn't very well liked.) Stan!'s previous character, Baharoosh (a dragonborn assassin) was a member of the Vost Miraj sent to spy on the party. The party never trusted him (not surprisingly), even though he sided with them against the Vost Miraj multiple times. When Zarkhrysa realized he'd gone rogue, she separated Baharoosh from the other PCs and promptly made him disappear. The other characters, unaware of the risks he'd taken to help them, weren't sad to see him go.
And here's how all the pieces are coming together:
Shapechanging dragonborn assassins: The idea began to germinate in my brain when Metis, Peter's changeling warlock, was captured by the Vost Miraj. I made a note to myself: The Vost Miraj turns Metis over to Hahrzan for experimentation. By experimenting on the changeling, Hahrzan learned how to imbue Zarkhrysa's dragonborn assassins with doppelganger-like traits. Now we have the "doppelborn," whose Vost Miraj training enables them to infiltrate the divine caste, worm their way into the Tower of Law, and assassinate the Council of Viziers. The fact that they believe they're working for the Vost Miraj exonerates Zarkhrysa, who no longer leads the organization. The blame falls squarely on her oblivious replacement, who will surely be branded a traitor and a fool.
The conspiracy to overthrow the government: I decided to keep the changeling alive and imprisoned in Hahrzan's cloning lab. Last week, while scrambling to escape the villain's stronghold, Peter's new character, Oleander, found his previous character, Metis, trapped inside a cloning vat and unable to change his form. But here's the fun part: as a doppelganger, Metis is really good at reading minds and reading lips. He knows a secret, which Peter is told by me in confidence: Zarkhrysa is planning to assassinate the Council of Viziers to expedite the coronation of a new emperor, while simultaneously placing her best candidate front and center. Moreover, as a prelude to the marriage of House Irizaxes and House Narakhty, a dragonborn masquerade is set to take place concurrent with the assassinations. Everyone in attendance, including Zarkhrysa and Menes Narakhty, will have an ironclad alibi. Metis also knows that the masquerade is taking place aboard a ship, and the only way to reach it is via teleportation circle. Zarkhrysa carries an invitation with the circle's arcane address printed on it.
The Dragovar Empire's missing emperor: Having just killed the last of Hahrzan's clones, Jeremy hit upon the idea of using Hahrzan's research to create a clone of the imprisoned purple dragon. If he's successful, he'll get the heart he needs for his ritual from the purple dragon's clone, and the real purple dragon can be set free. Were this to happen, the characters might suddenly learn the whereabouts of Emperor Azunkhan IX. I won't divulge that secret here, for the sake of keeping the Monday night group in suspense, but as a point of fact, it is the single oldest unresolved secret in the entire campaign. The question then becomes: what happens if the characters return the real emperor to the throne before Zarkhrysa can install Menes Narakhty in his place? There we have the makings of a campaign-ender, don't you think?
The other missing party members: Poor Triage. Zapped into oblivion by a sabotaged teleportation circle! What the heck do I do with him? Is there some way I can connect his latest misfortune to some other unresolved piece of the campaign? Why yes, there is: The prison of Zardkarath. Interestingly, the location has never been explored but has come up many times in the campaign (the name first appears on page 5 in my campaign binder, which must be at least 500 pages thick). It occurred to me that the Vost Miraj would probably have a secret level of the prison where they keep captives who are too important to kill and too dangerous to mingle with the "rank and file." No doubt the level would be scry-proof and sending-proof, its cells teleportation-proof. If you want to dispose of an epic-level party without the risk of them being brought back from the dead, there's no better place than prison, particularly if they show up sans gear. (Naturally their precious stuff would be teleported elsewhere. Thank you, Tomb of Horrors, for teaching me that old trick!) The only good news is that Triage is not alone he has Stan!'s former character, Baharoosh, to keep him company. Two characters who never really liked each other . . . reunited at last! Surely it doesn't get any sweeter than that.
Obviously, I can't have Triage locked up in an escape-proof penitentiary for the rest of the campaign. As a player, poor Nick would be bored to tears! (And based on the party's track record, there's a 97.1 percent chance that Triage's companions wouldn't bother mounting a rescue.) However, it stands to reason that the Vost Miraj would keep other important prisoners there as well, including Andraste's aunt, Alethia. It doesn't take a genius to imagine what might happen next.
By scouring my campaign notes and piecing together various unresolved fragments, I've stumbled upon a way to put Humpty Dumpty back together again by having Andraste and the Knights of Ardyn infiltrate Zardkarath and attack the Vost Miraj-controlled prison level in a desperate attempt to free Alethia from captivity. What better way to liberate Triage and Baharoosh as well? Since neither Triage nor Baharoosh are in any condition to "duke it out" with the prison's ardent defenders, I imagine it playing out more as a roleplaying opportunity than a combat encounter. Coincidentally, Andraste never liked Triage or Baharoosh because she always doubted their motives; it's a laughable bit of irony to have her show up and accidentally rescue them.
In the end, managing a D&D campaign is about knowing what you have to play with and fitting the pieces together as best you can. That's where the campaign binder (or whatever device you need to capture your notes) comes in. If you can't see all the pieces, you can't put the campaign back together again.
Until the next encounter!
Dungeon Master for Life,