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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.
WEDNESDAY NIGHT. As a consequence of several player absences, the group is smaller than normal—five players instead of seven. But no matter—a major battle had been fought and won the week before, and this week's session begins with the aftermath. The heroes have slain the red dragon Hyragos, driven off Sea King Senestrago, and claimed another ship for their burgeoning fleet. They've also freed three goliaths trapped in the dragon's prison and discovered three gold dragon eggs amid the dragon's hoard. Over the course of the evening, the heroes learn that the goliaths are criminals and exiles from their tribe. They stole the eggs in the hopes of unleashing a gold dragon's rage upon their tribe-mates, but by sheer misfortune they were captured while heading back to their island.
A bit of roleplaying bolstered by Insight checks is enough to convince the heroes that the goliaths are evil, and so the party's interest shifts to returning the gold dragon eggs to their rightful owner . . . which leads them to the gold dragon overlord of a nearby island called Damandaros. The dragon overlord and his mate are so grateful for the eggs' return that they bestow three honors upon the party: free ship repairs, exclusive trade rights for Sea King Silvereye (played by Rodney Thompson), and permission to erect a temple in Pelor's honor, which pleases the party's goliath battlemind, Ravok (played by Andrew Finch).
The session ends with Ravok taking his evil goliath kin to a desolate island aboard a submersible vessel captained by Nevin, one of Rodney Thompson's retired characters, while the rest of the characters head to the raft-city of Anchordown in pursuit of their next quest. Halfway to their new home of exile, the goliath criminals break their bonds and try to seize the submersible vessel, but Ravok and Captain Nevin manage to kill them in what amounts to the only combat of the evening.
I might not be the best Dungeon Master in the world, but I'm good enough to know when I'm off my game, and this past Wednesday I was quite tired and out of sorts. My day had been filled with meetings, furious email exchanges, and the dousing of many fires. I had half a mind to cancel the game, but five of my seven players were eager to play, so, of course, the game must go on! My D&D players need their weekly fill of slaughter, Byzantine plots, and roleplaying.
My players are accustomed to NPCs infused with lifelike personalities. They like the funny accents, the first-person acting, and the witty repartee. But on this occasion, I was feeling lazy. I found myself describing what the NPCs say in the third person, rather than speaking with their voices. "The gold dragon thanks you for returning the eggs," and so on. There were also many times that evening where I said nothing at all, but rather listened to the players discuss their many options, including the ramifications of letting the three goliath exiles go free. Chris Champagne, one of the players, actually dozed off (I guess his day had been a lot like mine). To his credit, his character was physically absent for that part of the session, having used a teleportation circle to deliver Sea King Senestrago's captured concubines to another of the party's ships.
The long periods of DM silence went relatively unnoticed because the conscious players were fully engaged, plotting their next move. Normally I use moments such as these to chart the course of the campaign or scope out the next encounter, but on this occasion, I found it hard to stay a couple steps ahead of the players. I could barely keep up. "We set sail for Damandaros," they would say, and I'd be like, "Uh, okay. The voyage takes six days. When you arrive, a dragonborn officer in the service of the island's magistrate greets you. The officer wears a gold dragon mask and receives your tribute for the island's dragon overlord." Normally I'd ask the players what their characters do during the six-day voyage, and then describe the island of Damandaros as they approach, but not this time. That's when I knew I was really off my game.
My lackluster DMing notwithstanding, I was reminded of something important. The thought came to me just before the three goliath criminals tried to commandeer the party's submersible, which, in hindsight, was nothing but a desperate attempt on my part to end the evening with some violence and invalidate the players' rather uncharacteristic act of mercy. And here's what I learned: Despite my less than stellar performance, the players had a great time. When the session ended, my players thanked me for the terrific game, to which I responded with silent surprise. I've earned similar reactions before, usually after a gripping cliffhanger or bloody climactic battle against a major campaign villain. On this occasion, I felt like I'd underserved them, and yet they hardly seemed to notice. They had spent the last three-and-a-half hours arguing about the rights and wrongs of killing a trio of goliath criminals who posed no real threat to them, decided on various courses of action, received the good graces of a gold dragon overlord, and watched the goliaths throw away their lives in a failed attempt to win their freedom. To them, it was all very gratifying.
As long as my players have choices to make, engaging problems to solve, and moments where they feel like things are finally going their way, they can handle an evening without the funny accents, the first-person acting, the sudden reversals, and the clever parlor tricks. The goliath villains got their final comeuppance, the heroes found a powerful new ally, they've taken the campaign in a new direction, and I didn't pull the rug out from under them (as I occasionally do when things are going well). I couldn't have planned it better.
If your players care about what's happening in your campaign world, you don't always need to dazzle them. I've found the same thing to be true with many beloved TV shows: once I discover that I like the show's characters and the situations in which they find themselves, not every episode needs brilliant, Emmy-worthy performances for me to continue liking the show. Because I'm hooked, I don't need to be impressed week after week. The same is true, I suppose, with my campaign. One mediocre DMing effort on my part goes unnoticed because my players are fans of the campaign, and they feel empowered to take what they've been given and run with it. Kudos to them.
Until the next encounter!
Dungeon Master for Life,