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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 game has been cancelled for the fifth week in a row. Despite having eight players, I haven't been able to pull enough players together for various reasons mostly having to do with summer vacations and conventions. Not surprisingly, my players are anxious for things to settle down and for the weekly game to resume, but so much time has passed that they can barely remember where we left off. Under normal circumstances, I would kick off our next session with a recap similar to what many serialized television shows do, but not this time.
I have taken a cue from Battlestar Galactica (the reimagined TV series, not the 1970s original) and advanced the timeline of my Monday night campaign by one year. It's a risky move so close to the end of the campaign, but as a DM, I'm always looking for ways to excite my players. I originally planned to surprise them by announcing the timeline advancement at the start of a game session but changed my mind when I realized that they would need time to reflect on what their characters had done during the intervening months. Instead, I sent them the following email (rollover the red links for explanatory text):
I'm advancing the in-world timeline. When last we left the heroes, they'd captured Starlord Evendor and left it to Ardyn, the leader of the Knights of Ardyn, to determine Evendor's fate. The next game session will pick things up approximately one year later. In the intervening months, your characters have been lying low and doing non-adventure-related things. As a homework assignment, I'd like each of you to send me what you imagine your character has done in the intervening time. Here are some major world developments of which your characters are aware:Starlord Evendor: An eladrin warlock who forged a pact with evil star spawn. He and his mind flayer allies tried to free the evil star powers from their ancient celestial prisons. The heroes thwarted Evendor's plans by crashing an illithid nautilus into his stellar observatory. The Knights of Ardyn captured Evendor and planned to turn him over to the Dragovar Empire to prove that they are not imperial traitors, but this plan was thwarted.Ardyn: This politically motivated silver dragon believes the Dragovar Empire is rife with corruption, and she and the Knights of Ardyn strive to eradicate the corrupted elements. Imperial propaganda condemns Ardyn and her loyal knights as terrorists.
1. Ardyn ordered Starlord Evendor's execution, considering him too great a threat to be kept alive.
2. The death of Starlord Evendor and the attack on the Dragovar warship by the Knights of Ardyn basically ended any hope of reconciliation between the knights and the empire. The Dragovar Empire is more convinced than ever that the Knights of Ardyn are terrorists who must be destroyed. Ardyn's island lair has been abandoned, and the knights have gone into hiding. Several of them have been hunted down and exterminated, but Ardyn is still alive. Her whereabouts are unknown, and she isn't reachable via Sending rituals.Dragovar Empire: This mighty dragonborn empire rules several hundred islands that constitute the nation of Arkhosia and its conquered regencies, including the human baronies of Bael Nerath, the shattered tiefling nation of Bael Turath, and the dwarven kingdoms of Gar Morra. The Emperor, Azunkhan IX, has been missing for over a year and is presumed dead. His sister, Kalavai, ruled as Holy Regent in his absence until she was killed in a terrorist attack on the Dragovar capital of Io'calioth. Dragonborn society is comprised of six castes: noble, divine, martial, arcane, expert, and commoner.
3. The coronation of Hlastro is imminent. His mother will serve as Imperial Regent until his coronation, although the Dragovar Empire's martial caste has not formally recognized her title or ended its declaration of martial law in light of the Vhaltese threat (see below). If he lives long enough to be crowned, Hlastro will be the youngest Emperor in the history of the Dragovar Empire. (He'll be 15 years old.)Hlastro: A young male dragonborn and the nephew of Emperor Azunkhan IX, he stands to inherit the Dragovar crown. If he's successful, the PCs will have a powerful ally on the imperial throne.
4. The Narakhty and Irizaxes noble houses are currently united through marriage and gaining support and influence throughout the Dragovar Empire. They openly oppose Hlastro's impending coronation. Menes Narakhty is being positioned as a more adequate candidate for the imperial throne, and rumors abound that his mother, Kaphira Narakhty, is actively plotting against the legitimate imperial heir. House Narakhty has powerful friends in the nobility, the Temple of Tiamat, and in the military.Menes Narakhty: The only son of Kaphira Narakhty, Menes is a powerful and ambitious dragonborn determined to seize the imperial throne. His house was strengthened through marriage when Menes took Taishan Irizaxes as his bride. House Irizaxes is one of the largest, most influential dragonborn families in the Dragovar Empire and is ruled by Tyzaro Irizaxes; Taishan is his eldest daughter.Kaphira Narakhty: This dragonborn noble will do anything to see her son Menes become the next Dragovar Emperor. She has vowed to kill herself if Hlastro lives long enough to don the imperial crown and rule as Emperor in her son's stead; she gives the phrase "over my dead body" new meaning.
5. The Myrthon Regency no longer poses a threat to the empire. The Dragovar navy patrols Myrthon waters, and the military has rounded up and executed hundreds of high-ranking Myrthon officials convicted of conspiracy and treason. Tsarana Faijhan, the daughter of the late Myrthon regent Tsar Dakor, has been installed as a puppet regent (mostly to appease the Myrthon citizenry), and her dragonborn advisors are secretly affiliated with the Knights of Ardyn. If the Dragovar authorities discover this fact, it's likely that Faijhan and her advisors will be arrested and and/or executed.Myrthon Regency: This chain of islands along the western perimeter of the Dragovar Empire was infiltrated and conquered by mind flayers, and later declared its independence in order to provoke a war with its sovereign state. Thanks mainly to the player characters, the mind flayers were killed off, and without the illithids to motivate them, the Myrthon forces were no match for the Dragovar war machine.Tsarana Faijhan: When the mind flayers subjugated her father's regency, this dragonborn noble managed to escape with the help of several Knights of Ardyn. Faijhan was sequestered on Ardyn's island as war raged between the Myrthon Regency and the Dragovar Empire. Now that the war has ended, she has returned home to restore order to her beleaguered state.
6. The evil General Kamal didn't make many friends when he declared martial law and tried to install himself as Emperor. Kamal was recently stripped of his rank and ousted by his military rivals, with the full support of the Dragovar clergy and concerned nobility. He is under house arrest, and his mental state has deteriorated markedly. The highest-ranking member of the martial caste is currently General Rhutha. Although she's popular within her caste, her support among the other castes isn't great. Rhutha is under pressure to deal with the threat posed by Vhalt, and some believe she's reluctant to take orders from an Emperor as young as Hlastro. It's unknown whether she supports Menes Narakhty or not.General Kamal: Kamal was the arrogant dragonborn leader of the Dragovar Empire's martial caste and tried to usurp to the imperial throne. The heroes discovered that Kamal was a mind flayer puppet with orders to destabilize the Dragovar Empire, and they succeeded in killing Kamal. However, another dragonborn villain named Zarkhrysa used a magic item to alter reality, and in so doing, undid the heroes' work and restored Kamal to life.General Rhutha: This warmongering dragonborn soldier has little respect for non-dragonborn, but the characters managed to convince her that war isn't the only way to protect the Dragovar Empire against its enemies. Although she's not prone to hearing words of wisdom from individuals outside of her "inner circle," the characters managed to make an impression and earn her grudging respect.
7. The new leader of the Vost Miraj is a dragonborn named Khoda, who reports directly to Rhutha. Khoda recently uncovered a conspiracy to assassinate General Rhutha and personally interrogated several captured conspirators with suspected ties to Vhalt before condemning them to death or life in prison. A warrant has been issued for the arrest and capture of Sea King Valkroi, who is allegedly involved in the conspiracy to assassinate Rhutha. The Vost Miraj has much less free reign than it did under its prior leadership.Vost Miraj: A branch of the Dragovar Empire's martial caste responsible for espionage and national security. It's basically the imperial secret service, and it's comprised mainly of rogues. Until recently, the Vost Miraj was led by a female dragonborn named Zarkhrysa, but she was forced into hiding after a botched, government-sanctioned assassination attempt on the life of the imperial heir.Khoda: This sinister dragonborn (whose name is a riff on "coda") is a new NPC whom the heroes have never met. Whether he plays an important role in unfolding events remains to be seen.Sea King Valkroi: The Sea Kings are the powerful merchant lords of the Dragon Sea, with vast fleets of trading vessels at their command. Mykel Valkroi, a human, is one of the most powerful Sea Kings in the world, and he has quietly supported human solidarity and independence and shown little patience for the Dragovar Empire's domineering attitude.
8. The Magocracy of Vhalt has "invaded" Arkhosia. Dozens of Vhaltese flying citadels have taken up positions over the islands of Bael Nerath, and Vhalt has signed a mutual defense treaty with Bael Nerath and supports the humans' declaration of independence. Having just crushed the Myrthon secession, the Dragovar Empire has no intention of allowing Bael Nerath to break away. The imperial navy has reinforced its blockade around the islands, but the ships cannot stop the Vhaltese citadels from coming and going, so the blockade is ineffective.Magocracy of Vhalt: This kingdom is hidden beyond the Black Curtain, a seemingly impenetrable wall of dark mist created by the god Vecna. The kingdom was believed to have been destroyed by the dragonborn long ago, and has only recently emerged from the Black Curtain to threaten the Dragovar Empire. Many Vhaltese archmages are secret Vecna worshipers who use warforged as soldiers.Arkhosia: This is the name given to the hundreds of islands that comprise the Dragovar Empire.Bael Nerath: Each of the seven islands that comprise Bael Nerath is a barony, and collectively Bael Nerath is considered a regency (a vassal state) of the Dragovar Empire, and has been ever since the dragonborn conquered it. Bael Nerath recently declared its independence, which has provoked a swift military response from the Dragovar Empire. Most humans in the world of Iomandra come from Bael Nerath.
9. According to rumors coming out of Bael Nerath, some of the Vhaltese citadels are populated by eladrin, elves, and wilden. Groups of these fey creatures have been seen meeting with Bael Nerathi leaders and officials.
10. The dragonborn wizard Hahrzan and the remnants of his evil sect have gone underground. Meanwhile, the Shan Qabal has been officially dissolved and its members disavowed by the arcane caste in order to appease the other castes that hold the Shan Qabal responsible for the terrorist attack on Io'calioth. Former members of the Shan Qabal not associated with Hahrzan have formed a secret society that still reports to Lenkhor Krige, and they still refer to their order as the Shan Qabal.Hahrzan: Due to a magical experiment gone awry, this evil dragonborn wizard is forced to inhale a strange admixture of arcane gases to stay alive, and he must wear a sealed leather body suit and mask at all times. Hahrzan is the mad genius behind the Wyrmworn Experiment, which successfully trapped the spirits of ancient dragon-sorcerers inside the bodies of children who could, in theory, be trained as assassins. When the project was abandoned, Hahrzan was ordered to terminate the subjects. A few of the children were smuggled to safety. One of them is Alex von Hyden, a player character.Shan Qabal: This small sect of the Dragovar Empire's arcane caste is dedicated to preserving arcane lore and magical research. Several members of the caste splintered off and used their knowledge of elemental power to construct a citadel that rode atop a gigantic waterspout. It was later sold to wealthy Bael Nerathi nobles and used in a terrorist attack against the Dragovar capital of Io'calioth. The attack destroyed many Dragovar warships and killed thousands.Io'calioth: The capital city of the Dragovar Empire. Much of the campaign's political intrigue is centered here. The city is built atop a crescent-shaped island and is divided into districts. Several of these districts (specifically Khas Imperia, where the royal palace is housed, and the caste-centered districts of Khas Nobilia, Khas Divinia, Khas Arcana, and Khas Martia) are off-limits to non-dragonborn; however, the city also includes metropolitan districts open to all races, including the Trade District.Lenkhor Krige: This ancient dragonborn archmage leads the Shan Qabal sect of the arcane caste, which is dedicated to unearthing and preserving arcane knowledge and magical research. He is bedridden, but kept alive by powerful magic.
Time is one of the most overlooked and ignored elements of a D&D campaign. Some DMs are fastidious when it comes to tracking it, but most of us aren't. For the sake of our own sanity, we're willing to put matters of time aside. We don't care if the party wizard achieves 30th level before his 30th birthday, and we're okay with an entire campaign transpiring within a year of game time, despite what history books teach us about medieval life, the Middle Ages, and how long it really takes for important events to transpire. In most D&D campaigns, character age is irrelevant; the chance that the party's dwarf paladin or elf ranger will die of old age is virtually nil. A pity, really.
Once in a while, I get it in my noggin to tinker with time. Playing with time is risky, but it can also be fun and rewarding. I experienced the benefits firsthand when I allowed the Monday night group to travel back in time, and now I'm using time as a narrative device in a different way.
When the producers of Battlestar Galactica advanced their show's timeline by one year, they knew they were taking a creative risk, but the potential rewards were irresistible. The show's writers were excited by the drama that might unfold as a result of this narrative leap forward, and the decision allowed the show's primary and secondary characters to explore new relationships and grow in interesting ways. We (the audience) were thrown for a loop at first, but if nothing else, the one-year leap gave us the chance to see Admiral Adama with a mustache, Lee Adama with a potbelly, Kara Thrace with long hair, and Saul Tigh with one eye. These aren't the same high-ranking, gun-toting, Cylon-hating combat junkies we've seen week after week. We get to see how time transforms them.
By advancing the timeline in the Monday night game, I'm inviting my players to develop their characters and contribute to the overall narrative of the campaign "” much like a team of writers on a serialized television show. How many times in the campaign do their characters get to enjoy an extended break and exist more or less as normal people? Will my players seize this opportunity to transform their characters and set up future adventure possibilities? I certainly hope so, or this leap forward will be for naught.
There are several advantages to advancing my campaign's timeline:
- I can show longer-term consequences of the heroes' actions
- I can reinforce which story arcs are most important going forward
- I can give characters extra room to evolve and become part of the world
- I can let my players tell some of the story
Moving forward in time shows the players that their characters' actions have consequences. Nearly all of the NPCs mentioned in the email are individuals with whom the PCs have interacted in the past, and in many cases, the changes that have transpired are direct results of the party's actions. For example, the heroes thwarted a conspiracy to assassinate the imperial heir, Hlastro. As a consequence, Hlastro is on track to become Emperor, and the Vost Miraj (the imperial secret service) has new leadership. One could argue that it would have been implausible to show so many consequences of the party's actions without advancing the timeline. When concocting these narrative developments, I try to strike a balance between positives and negatives. To some extent, I want the players to feel like their characters' decisions have changed the world for the better, but there also needs to be a few things left to "fix." I also like to dream up consequences that are logical yet unexpected; for example, the heroes were responsible for several changes in leadership within the Dragovar Empire, one of which resulted in a warrant being issued for the arrest of Sea King Valkroi, whom the heroes consider an ally.
The leap forward also lets me encapsulate the most important story arcs of the campaign, which is important as the campaign spirals toward its conclusion. Buried within this email are hints at the various threats the PCs should be concerned about. Some major campaign villains no longer pose an imminent threat, while others clearly have parts to play in the drama yet to unfold. I can also plant seeds for future adventures. For example, the ninth item on my list includes a passing reference to wilden; until now, the only wilden to appear in my campaign is Shawn Blakeney's wilden shaman, Kettenbar, who's spent a sizable chunk of the campaign trying to get back to his home in the Feywild. Perhaps Shawn will seize this opportunity for Kettenbar to reunite with his people; the fact that they're associated with worshipers of an evil god adds an element of mystery and drama.
My players have a golden opportunity to reinvest themselves in the campaign world and imagine ways in which their characters might have evolved in the intervening span of time. After months of bloodshed and running around, the characters are given ample time to accomplish things they wouldn't be able to do in a more compressed or urgent timeframe. They also have a chance to strike off things on their "to do" lists and get into all sorts of player-instigated mischief.
I want my players to have a say in how the campaign unfolds, and if I'm lucky, their ideas and thoughts about what their characters do during a year of "down time" will add new layers of drama to the campaign and inspire future adventures as we resume our breakneck sprint toward the big finish. The next step for me as the DM is to see what ideas they come up with, answer any questions they might have, and figure out what to do with all of this great stuff. I not saying it's easy, but then good storytelling never is.
Until the next encounter!
Dungeon Master for Life,