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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. Things have gone poorly for the heroes of late, due in no small part to their recent actions and misadventures.
Several months ago in "campaign time," the player characters allowed a group of human terrorists to crash a flying citadel into Io'calioth, the capital city of the Dragovar Empire, and were spotted fleeing the scene on phantom steeds. After nearly a year of "real time," an unfinished quest finally lured them back to Io'calioth, whereupon they were recognized and accused of consorting with the terrorists. To make matters worse, the heroes had given the Vost Miraj (the imperial spy network) ample proof of their secret alliance with the Knights of Ardyn, a group of non-evil renegades wanted by the Dragovar Empire for treason. Despite the accusations lobbed against them, the heroes managed to deceive local authorities long enough to avoid arrest and immediately took refuge in the home of Torel Winterleaf, a powerful merchant and sometime ally. The heroes used the Winterleaf mansion as a base from which to launch an assault against a tiefling crime lord hiding in the city's martial district (the aforementioned "unfinished quest"). The assault didn't go as planned, and once again the Dragovar authorities swooped down upon them. Faced with a host of new criminal charges, the heroes scattered to the four winds and reassembled at Lord Winterleaf's home, unaware that they were being tracked. A squad of dragonborn death knights sworn to defend the empire promptly seized the estate, but with assistance from Lord Winterleaf's daughter, Talia, the heroes escaped once more. Or, rather, most of them did.
There was a time not long ago when the heroes joined forces with the Knights of Ardyn and saved the Dragovar Empire, but news of their heroism has not yet reached individuals in power. So instead of being lauded as saviors of the empire, they're wanted criminals. Moreover, their human psion (played by Chris Dupuis) is dead, their human wizard (played by Jeremy Crawford) has been captured and placed aboard a Dragovar warship bound for the island prison of Zardkarath, their halfling rogue (played by Peter Schaefer) is in the clutches of the Vost Miraj, and their poor ally Lord Winterleaf has been arrested and charged with conspiracy and treason. Yes, I'm a foul DM, and I know it sounds unjust. But I prefer to think of it as fair turnabout for the mega-powerful magic item they acquired twenty levels ago.
I've said it before, but I think a strong campaign needs moments when the heroes feel like kings of the world and moments when they're on the ropes. Although the Monday group has enjoyed its fair share of trying times, they're in a real pickle now. There's nothing quite like watching epic-level heroes run for their lives, despite the fact that early in the campaign they gained some magic items and powers well beyond their level. It just goes to prove how much control a DM has over the balance of power.
At some point, every DM makes the "mistake" of handing out too much treasure or giving PCs access to magic items they probably don't deserve. I put the word "mistake" in quotation marks because, after years of DMing, I've come to the conclusion that it's not always a mistake to do so, and even if it is, it's easily corrected over time. When the Monday night game was still young, the 4th-level heroes traveled to the Feywild and fought an exiled fomorian witch with a glass eye that was actually a +3 dragon orb a level 12 magic item that allowed its wielder to dominate and control dragons at will. The heroes hailed from an island ruled by an evil green dragon overlord, and they needed the orb to defeat it, but the battle against the witch didn't go well. Thanks in part to the four faerie dragons under the witch's control, the heroes were captured and forced to complete a quest on the witch's behalf. By the time that business was concluded, they were 5th level and had found a way to break the fomorian witch's evil magic. They slew the giant and pried the dragon orb from her eye socket.
The dragon orb was a well-earned reward, far above what's considered appropriate treasure for a 5th-level party. Not only did the item make the battle against the green dragon overlord much easier, it played a prominent role in various other encounters throughout the heroic and paragon tier. If you've read my campaign wiki, you know that dragons are everywhere in the Iomandra campaign. Every time I threw a dragon at the heroes, the dragon orb played a pivotal role in the outcome of the encounter. It gave the heroes a HUGE advantage. And y'know what? That turned out to be perfectly acceptable. My players loved it! The orb made them feel mighty powerful. They'd make a dragon attack its allies, divulge the location of its secret hoard, and other things I dare not mention.
As a DM, I enjoy giving player characters that sense of invincibility. Sometimes it's a cleverly crafted illusion that's dashed as soon as the next threat rears its ugly head, and other times it's genuine as happens when PCs get their hands on artifacts and other powerful items. It doesn't bother me if the players turn an otherwise challenging encounter into a cakewalk thanks to some "quick fix" item, killer spell, or clever trap. I say let 'em enjoy the moment, for surely the wheels of fate will grind them down next time. And if not then, surely the time after that!
Eventually the Monday night group surpassed their +3 dragon orb in terms of level. Realizing they could hardly get by without it, they paid tens of thousands of gold pieces to have the orb's enhancement bonus boosted. Wisest money they ever spent, too! Time and again, the orb proved invaluable, though once in a while a draconic adversary would resist the orb's spell and take umbrage. Because of these wonderful "uh-oh" moments, I've never felt a need to deprive the Monday nighters of their precious dragon orb. The same thing cannot be said for the Wednesday night group, which also came into possession of such an item. Early on in epic tier, the character wielding the orb fell unconscious and a fire titan, having witnessed the orb's effect on his red dragon companion, picked it up and crushed it in his hand. Oh my, the looks of horror on the players' faces! WOO-HOO, Bastard DM rides again! (The Monday night players can't be the only ones who suffer, am I right?)
To give this week's article a bit of meat, I'm attaching the dragon orb stat block I created for my 4th Edition game. You won't find this item in the D&D Character Builder or in any other published source because (1) it was designed specifically for my campaign and (2) a magic item with an at-will dominate power is insanely good, even if it affects only dragons. Feel free to hand out these orbs like cheap Halloween candy just brace yourself for the sugar rush!
This week's "lesson" is a simple one, but it took me several campaigns to realize: It's okay to break the rules when it comes to doling out magic items, and a busted item doesn't need to spell a campaign's demise.
It's cool to give PCs items much too powerful for their level. Such items can help define characters in much the same way Stormbringer helps to define Elric or Guenhwyvar helps to define Drizzt. More than level-appropriate items, they become part of a character's (if not the entire adventuring party's) identity.
It's been my experience that a strong campaign is highly resistant to damage from world-destroying characters and their overpowered magic items. Just because Devastatorz Megabomb, a king among overpowered characters, seems invincible at 5th level doesn't mean he won't get smacked around at 15th level or 25th level. As long as the campaign keeps forging ahead, you'll find ways to humble even the mightiest character.
Granted, an ill-gotten and ill-used magic item can negatively impact your enjoyment of the game. However, I urge you, fellow DM, not to take drastic action unless the item is also causing grief to one or more of your players. In that case, it's best to act quickly lest the campaign lose its charm. Here, then, are three tried-and-true ways to divorce a busted item from the party without simply making it disappear:
- You can put the heroes in dire situations where the busted item avails them not.
- You can have the busted item gain sentience, become willful, and lose its appeal.
- You can have a powerful deity show up, declare that the item is being recalled because of some manufacturer's defect, and hand its wielder a coupon for 25% off his or her next magic item purchase.
Okay, maybe that last suggestion isn't so great, but I'm sure you'll think of something clever if you're patient. And if you can't think of a clever way to separate Sir Megabomb from his world-shattering weapon of choice, share your concern with the players and ask them for advice on what should be done. But know this: throwing the whole campaign out the window isn't your only option.
Until the next encounter!
Dungeon Master for Life,