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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. An iron shark golem chews holes in the heroes' ship. A flying citadel races across the ocean atop a 1,000-foot-high waterspout. A villainous spymaster threatens to launch the halfling rogue out of a giant cannon. The party shaman traps himself in an iron flask after being devoured by a giant awakened crocodile. An illithid vessel under the party's control crashes into an evil warlock's rocket-ship observatory moments before blast-off. Throw in earth sleds, water chariots, and fire gliders (read: jet-packs), and . . . well, you probably have a better sense of what the Iomandra campaign is like, and less respect for me as a DM. But then, I never promised to deliver the perfect campaign just a memorable one.
A few months after I joined Wizards of the Coast, Monte Cook told me about a new D&D campaign designed to test some experimental rules. He offered me a seat at his game table, and once a week for three years we explored the world of Praemal (the lesser-known precursor to Monte's more famous Ptolus campaign) and playtested rules that would gradually evolve into what is currently referred to as "3rd Edition." The Praemal campaign ended spectacularly with the PCs crashing a moon into a planet. It sounds absurd, I know, but really it seemed like a good idea at the time.
The Praemal and Ptolus campaigns are distant memories. I don't remember the names of all the player characters or all of the villains we faced, just the really weird stuff and the really big stuff . . . like the time my elf rogue/wizard/fighter banished his dark elf nemesis to the sun's core. That doesn't happen every day.
When my long-time players wax nostalgic about my 3rd Edition campaign, it's the weird stuff and the over-the-top stuff that survives the test of time. The blimp-like soar whales and creepy-crawly centipede carriages, the city carved out of giant mushrooms, the myconids with the funny voices, and those crazy cartwheeling clowns that showed up for, like, 5 minutes! The players also remember big sky-battles and my treacherous gnome villain, Erellak Golgof, plunging thousands of feet to his death.
Campaigns don't survive the test of time by being timid. The Dragonlance campaign setting is a textbook example, with its larger-than-life locations, amazing villains, and epic storyline. As a DM, I feel driven to tell the biggest stories I can without breaking the campaign world's internal logic. The pressure's on me to push the limits of my special FX budget and deliver images and encounters that leave crater-sized impacts in my players' collective memories. When I look back on my 4th Edition campaign, I can point to a number of mega-awesome moments where nothing was held back. These are the moments I know my players will remember ten years from now.
But let's forget about all the whackadoo stuff in my campaign . . . the iron shark, the rocket-ship observatory, the fire gliders, and so forth. When I aim to "make it big," I'm striving to ensure that my campaign has heroes doing more than just clearing out dungeons and slaughtering monsters. Don't get me wrong; I love a good dungeon crawl. But what happens in the dungeon usually stays in the dungeon. To really make an impact, the characters also need to butt heads with evil tyrants, face real dilemmas, and pull rabbits out of their hats when things are at their bleakest. The locations they explore need to be wondrous, majestic, magical places like something out of a Dragonlance painting or Guillermo del Toro's imagination. Shoot for the moon, I say! Go for broke, I say! Make it BIG!
My advice to "make it BIG" comes with a really big caveat: Every campaign has its upper limits, beyond which it becomes a farce. I'm not suggesting that all campaigns would benefit from having warlock towers that can launch into orbit, giant blimp-whales, crashing moons, or Death Stars for that matter. I'm not suggesting that you abandon reason and mock the rules of good storytelling. Of course you need to make choices that fit within the context of your specific campaign. "Make it BIG!" takes on an entirely different meaning if you're running a campaign that's modeled after feudal Japan, ancient Rome, or the Dark Ages. How you "make it big" in a low-magic setting is different from how you "make it big" in a high-magic one. Ultimately, a DM needs to define the limits. My advice boils down to this question:
What can I do to amaze my players without compromising the integrity of my campaign?
Or, put another way:
What are the biggest ideas I can think of that fit my campaign?
These are not always easy questions to answer, and believe me, I've missed the mark and crossed the line from time to time. In the Monday night campaign, I thought it would be fun to introduce an elder star-spawn that could alter reality on a global scale. At one point, I realized that I'd gone too far and twisted reality so much that the players couldn't keep track of what their characters knew, and I had to rein myself in and contrive a means to undo what I'd done using a time-traveling mercury dragon that "flattened out" wrinkles in reality with an enormous clocklike device called a Time Hammer. I sh*t you not.
A BIG idea could be anything: a plot twist, a striking bit of imagery, an audacious villain, a new monster, an army of monsters, a special "toy" or magical super-weapon for the heroes to play with . . . you name it. In a D&D campaign modeled after feudal Japan, is it too weird to have an evil samurai vampire with a god-slaying sword and a clockwork tiger controlled by a magical diamond? Would it be over-the-top to have an adventure that takes place in a floating palace inhabited by a green dragon empress and her shuriken-throwing kobold ninja assassins? Ultimately, that's for the DM to decide.
When you go for broke and pull out all the stops, is there not the risk of losing everything your integrity, your campaign's integrity, your players' interest and respect, your grasp on reality? Perhaps, but I wouldn't worry about it. In fact, it's been my experience that players enjoy watching the DM flex his or her creative muscles and stretch the campaign beyond safe tolerances once in a while. I wouldn't worry about jumping the shark. I'd worry more about a campaign that didn't dare to live large in the players' minds.
Until the next encounter!
Dungeon Master for Life,