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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 stand accused of heinous crimes against the Dragovar Empire. Rather than flee for their lives, they allow themselves to be taken prisoner so that they can gain an audience with General Kamal, the Imperial Regent, but not to plead their case. They intend to expose him as a mind flayer thrall and, in so doing, paint themselves as imperial loyalists. Talk about a risky gamble!
The heroes find themselves standing face-to-face with Kamal. Watching his back: an honor guard of Tiamat-worshiping dragonborn anti-paladins and scores of minions. The players think they have a fighting chance, and then out of nowhere a gigantic blue dragon and her brood arrive, and suddenly the likelihood of victory evaporates. A desperate stab at diplomacy proves fruitless, and as the battle erupts, scary reinforcements arrive to replace Kamal's slain minions while the anti-paladins turn their damage-dealing attacks into healing fuel for their dark general.
The battle lasts the entire session. When all's said and done, three of the six player characters have died spectacularly, and two more characters have turned invisible and withdrawn from the fight. The party wizard casts a mighty spell that sounds Kamal's death knell, but as the Imperial Regent is engulfed in a magical blast of elemental energy, I flash back to a familiar scene that played out four sessions earlier: The party's naked halfling rogue is a prisoner of the Vost Miraj, the imperial spy network. Zarkhrysa, the head of the agency, offers to use her influence and the information in her possession to turn the heroes from wanted criminals into saviors of the empire, on the condition that the rogue yield control of his private spy network (which he's been cultivating since mid-paragon tier). Four weeks ago, the rogue declined and escaped captivity, but he was forced to abandon all his gear. Among the rogue's belongings, Zarkhrysa found a single-use magic item called an hourglass talisman, a powerful device that allows its user to travel back in time briefly to affect changes in the campaign's history. Ironically, the players had been saving the talisman for the next time they faced a potential TPK, but they'd forgotten about it. It certainly never occurred to them that a villain might use the item and, in the process, put one character in the position of having to choose who lives and who dies.
When I planned the climactic encounter with General Kamal, I deliberately stacked the deck in the villain's favor knowing that if things went horribly awry, the Vost Miraj had the party's hourglass talisman. Accustomed to getting what she wants, Zarkhrysa uses the talisman to travel back in time to give the halfling rogue another chance to give her what she wants, and she's informed enough to know what will happen if he refuses a second time. The question is, will Oleander give up control of his spy network to save the lives of three companions killed in the future, or will he allow history to repeat itself and live with the outcome of the battle against General Kamal?
I cackle with glee when the player characters come into possession of powerful magic items, only to let them fall into the hands of villains who use them to make the PCs' lives a living hell. It's not something you can plan for, and it's not actually the topic of this week's article. It just makes me happy.
When I first learned how to play D&D, there was very little guidance on how to build a balanced encounter, by which I mean an encounter designed to challenge player characters without outright obliterating them. TSR published a veritable horde of adventures that I could study and emulate, but close examination of those adventures yielded some interesting facts. For one thing, it wasn't uncommon to see a mid-level adventure that included low-level monsters and high-level monsters, with chambers that contained monsters by the dozens. An adventure labeled "for levels 8"“12" didn't preclude anything, and the prescribed level range was at best a shot in the dark.
It wasn't until 3rd Edition that great effort was taken to compare the power level of PCs with the power level of monsters and define what constituted an easy, challenging, or overwhelming encounter. Words were written to delineate what percentage of encounters should be "appropriate" for the party's level. No doubt these efforts contributed to the longevity of many D&D campaigns, and many DMs were taught to believe that failure to adhere to certain encounter-building principles would shatter the players' enjoyment of the game. A new breed of adventures put these principles into practice, and DMs who studied them applied the lessons of balanced encounter design to their homebrewed adventures. The side effect of a system that prescribes an encounter-building formula is a tendency on the part of some DMs to make every encounter an "appropriate challenge" for the PCs, and as a consequence the players subconsciously become aware of the underlying truth: as long as they don't do anything blatantly foolhardy, the mathematics behind the encounter-building system will ensure the same outcome over and over. And that is, in a word, dull.
When I wrote "Life's Bazaar," the first adventure in The Shackled City adventure path (which first ran in Dungeon magazine and was later published as a hardcover book by Paizo Publishing), I made the main villain a beholder. So what if the adventure was designed for first-level characters? I wanted to show DMs the extent to which encounter-building advice can be ignored and demonstrate by way of example that rules and formulas should never constrict creativity. The fact is, there are beholders in the D&D world, and they don't just show up when high-level heroes come knocking. If you want to tell a memorable story, then consider the tale of the low-level heroes who survived an encounter with a beholder, or the story of how the epic-level characters came upon a treasure chamber guarded by four kobold pipsqueaks whose barks were worse than their bites. Surprises can come in all sizes and levels.
In my role at Wizards, I pay lip service to the principles of encounter design and even enforce them from time to time in published adventures, but in my own games I do not measure an encounter in terms of level or balance. I build encounters that I think will be fun and result in some memorable or exciting moments that the players will remember. The only burden I carry as the Dungeon Master is to be FAIR, but let's talk about what that word means in the context of running a D&D campaign. In my opinion, a "fair" encounter is one that allows for multiple outcomes. A fair encounter presents players with real choices and decisions, the consequences of which could lead to a completely unexpected and unplanned outcome. An unfair encounter is one where the conclusion is foregone. An unfair encounter turns your players into puppets unable to do anything you haven't allowed for.
I can get away with throwing everything including the kitchen sink at my players, as long as I honor the terms of our unspoken social contract. My players need to know that I'm on their side, that I'm rooting for their characters, and that I'll do whatever it takes to keep the campaign from becoming tiresome without depriving them of their ability to affect what happens. One cure for a predictable campaign is to put the PCs in a situation they're ill equipped to handle, encourage them to consider unorthodox tactics, and be open-minded enough to let the players imagine solutions you hadn't considered. As a philosophy, it's not without risks, but if my intentions are transparent, my players are more likely to pin any unfortunate outcome on their own decisions and bad luck. I'll let them flail about, find their way around obvious hurdles, create their own hurdles, and even leap from the proverbial frying pan into the fire if that's what they really want to do. And if they're genuinely screwed, I'll try not to laugh at their misfortune, and I might just throw water instead of gasoline on the fire so that the campaign doesn't go up in flames.
Which brings us to this past Monday night. I threw a kitchen sink at the party in the form of a gargantuan blue dragon, and consequently the players knew they had very few rounds to expose General Kamal's true nature. However, an invisible imp that the PCs had unwittingly summoned one week earlier thwarted their negotiations, drew attention away from Kamal, and incapacitated the party's dragonborn rogue at a critical moment. Add to that a string of botched saving throws and scores of minions dealing 20 damage per hit. And yet, even with overwhelming foes arrayed against them, the PCs ultimately accomplished what they set out to do. Kamal was slain after being exposed as a monster. The hourglass talisman was my back-up plan in case of TPK, but I ended up using it as a cliffhanger instead. There's a lot hinging on one character's dilemma, and I look forward to seeing how it pans out.
Until the next encounter!
Dungeon Master for Life,