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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 session begins underwater. Bartho, the party's beleaguered human fighter, is staring at the floating corpse of a doppelganger he'd slain the previous week. Suddenly, a dark shape emerges from the inky depths . . . a 15-foot-diameter bathysphere shaped like an eye of the deep (an aquatic beholder). As it passes by, Bartho spies a familiar figure at the helm. He's faced this evil eladrin warlock before, and Bartho can almost smell the blood in the water.
I watch a lot of serialized television dramas, and by studying the best of them, I've learned how to sustain and pace my weekly D&D game. In terms of narrative, a D&D campaign is a lot like a serialized TV show, the difference being that a D&D campaign is performed as it's being written, and consequently the action and dialogue are mostly improvised.
Having watched a great deal of serialized drama, it occurs to me that what happens in the middle of an episode is ultimately less important than what happens at the beginning and the end. If you're a show runner, your ultimate goal is to create a dedicated following. You want to keep your audience engaged and turn them into diehard fans who will follow the story from beginning to end. You need to make sure they never get bored and never lose touch with the story you're trying to tell. The same is true if you're a Dungeon Master running a campaign, only in this case your players are both the actors and the audience.
I would argue that in a typical 45-minute episode of a serialized TV show (and most hour-long network shows are roughly that length), the most important minute occurs in the first thirty seconds and the last thirty seconds. The first thirty seconds of an episode tells the audience what they're in for. The last thirty seconds gets them pumped for the next episode. Within these short spans of time, a good storyteller can hit emotional beats that will not only resonate throughout the episode but also make the audience feel a certain way at the end of the episode and "tide them over" until the next one.
That's how long I have to set the atmosphere and mood of a game session. It's also how much time I need to set up a cliffhanger or evoke some other emotionally resonant endpoint for the session. The notion first occurred to me while watching a rerun of an episode of The X-Files titled "Jose Chung's From Outer Space." If you haven't seen it, you're missing one of the most brilliant hours (or, rather, 45 minutes) of network television EVER. It's the one with the cigarette-smoking alien, Jesse "The Body" Ventura and Alex Trebek (yes, the game show host) as "men in black," and arguably the most infamous and oft-quoted nod to Dungeons & Dragons ever spoken onscreen.
The episode opens thusly: We're standing on a dark, lonely stretch of road in Washington state, staring up at the sky. Suddenly, a massive starship hovers into frame and blots out the night . . . or not. What we thought was a starship is actually the underbelly of a hydraulic crane lift carrying a power line repairman. He gripes to his boss on a cell phone while being hoisted up into the air.
Instead of proof of alien visitors, we get a rather mundane counter-revelation, a scene so banal that it makes us wonder how we could ever believe aliens were anything but figments of our childlike imaginations.
The next 44 minutes of the episode are outstanding, but I won't spoil anything. Instead, I'll jump to the ending: In the middle of the night, a lovelorn teenage boy stands on the rain-soaked lawn outside his girlfriend's house and throws a small rock at her bedroom window, rousing her. He tells her how much he loves her, to which she replies, "Love. Is that all you men think about?" The boy, dejected, walks off into the night, and we're reminded (in the immortal words of Jose Chung himself) that we humans may not be alone in the universe, and yet (tragically) we ARE all alone.
The first thirty seconds of "Jose Chung's From Outer Space" tell us to expect the unexpected. The last thirty seconds tell us what the whole crazy episode was about. That, my friends, is TIGHT.
Think of other episodes of other television shows that you like. Recall, if you can, the first and last scenes of those episodes and ask yourself, how important are they in (a) communicating the overarching theme or mood of the episode and (b) carrying a specific emotional tone. In similar fashion, a Dungeon Master can, in the first thirty seconds, tell players any one of a number of things (not necessarily EVERYTHING) about the next three hours, or at the very least, remind players where the previous session ended by picking up where it left off in an emotionally satisfying way. The DM can also end the session whenever he or she wishes, preferably with some kind of emotional beat. It could end with excitement (in the form of a cliffhanger), a sobering sense of closure (in the form of a resolved campaign arc), a tearjerker, a revelation, or in any one of several other emotionally satisfying moments.
While it's true that Dungeons & Dragons can teach you a lot about courage, it can also teach you a lot about the power of strong narrative, the goal of which is to hit certain emotional beats to brace players for what's to come and ultimately make them feel a certain way by the end. If you think back on the best game sessions you ever ran, they probably got off to a good start and also ended well. If you pay particular attention to the first thirty seconds and the last thirty seconds of your game sessions, I think what happens in between has a better chance of making the time investment well worth it for all concerned.
- The first thirty seconds set the tone for the session that follows.
- The last thirty seconds make the players glad they stuck around.
Our last Monday night game session (or episode, as I like to call it) almost ended with the characters thwarting a villain's escape by flash-freezing him inside of his beholder-shaped bathysphere, but it didn't feel right to end the evening at that moment, so I let the session continue a few minutes beyond that point. To my surprise and delight, the players began discussing whether or not to let the villain suffocate in the ice. The party was torn down the middle, with three PCs in favor of letting him die and three wanting to keep him alive. They agreed to let Ardyn, a silver dragon NPC, cast the deciding vote. That's when I ended the session. In the wake of battle, the PCs had a cool ethical debate, and I got my cliffhanger. What would Ardyn decide? The players would have to wait until the next game session to find out!
If you were DMing the Monday night game instead of me, how would you kick off the next session? You might begin precisely where I left off, with Ardyn deciding to spare the villain's life or let him die. You might contrive a third option and have Ardyn make that choice instead. You might begin the session at some other point in some other place with some other character, such as a PC who was absent the previous week. You might begin the session ten years after Ardyn's decision and spend the rest of the campaign dealing with the consequences of her decision. Depending on what happens in those first thirty seconds, your players will respond a certain way. Hopefully they'll react exactly as you'd intended, and that reaction will set the tone for the hours that follow, leading to a denouement that will convince the players that your campaign is worth "tuning in" for next week.
Until the next encounter!
Dungeon Master for Life,