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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. The gaming group was shy two players, leaving the party without its two defenders. The remaining players were understandably hesitant to throw their characters into harm's way. Luckily, I had an idea a goal the players could accomplish with minimal bloodshed if they were clever.
The Wednesday night group had a lengthy "to do" list of stuff to accomplish before the end of the campaign. One of the tasks near the top of the list was to hunt down Sea King Senestrago, who had gone into hiding. Senestrago's fleet had ambushed the other Sea Kings during a summit in neutral waters, but the heroes intervened and stormed Senestrago's flagship. In the wake of this latest defeat, Senestrago fled on dragonback to one of his secret island strongholds, which the heroes found and plundered. Again, Senestrago escaped, after which the trail went cold. Other important matters came to the fore, and the pursuit of Sea King Senestrago slipped farther down the "to do" list.
Although the party had more pressing matters, I decided the time had come for the Sea King Senestrago storyline to resurface. The session began with a doppelganger spy in the party's employ telling them about a theft of 15,000 platinum pieces from a warehouse belonging to Sea King Kalas. What did this theft have to do with Sea King Senestrago, you ask? Well, early in the campaign, the PCs heard rumors that Senestrago's poor leadership had resulted in the defection of several of his captains to rival Sea Kings. It turns out the defections were orchestrated by Senestrago himself. One of these defectors, flying under Sea King Kalas's flag, plundered her warehouse and set out to deliver the stolen funds to Senestrago so that he could begin to rebuild his shattered fleet. The party's doppelganger spy caught wind of the betrayal, and the characters now had the means to find their elusive quarry. All they needed to do was find this errant sea captain and follow him straight to Senestrago. Unfortunately, the captain's vessel had not made port since the theft, so its exact whereabouts was unknown.
Through their spy network, the characters discovered that the elusive captain a half-elf named Rance Urvilgar had a beloved younger sister named Lydia who owned a successful tavern on a backwater raft-town called Underkeel (which, incidentally, is ruled by a crafty pseudodragon named Dart). Based on some well-reasoned advice from their well-informed doppelganger spy, the player characters decided that they could capture Lydia, use a Sending ritual to get in touch with her brother, force a confrontation, and blackmail Urvilgar into divulging Senestrago's location. The rest of the game session was unscripted. The heroes visited Lydia's tavern and gave her every impression that her brother was in danger. Captain Urvilgar, in turn, was given the impression that his sister was the one in danger, and this deception led to a confrontation between the party's flagship and Urvilgar's ship. Unwilling to risk Lydia's life and unable to match power with the heroes' well-armed vessel, Urvilgar eventually caved and told the heroes what they wanted to know.
Not everything went as planned, however. The players decided they wanted the platinum coins that Urvilgar had stolen and hidden in a booty safe (a small extradimensional vault) aboard his ship. They allowed Urvilgar and his first mate a tiefling henchwoman named Violence to return to their ship unsupervised to retrieve the platinum in exchange for Lydia's safe return. While Urvilgar retrieved the stolen booty, Violence secretly used a sending stone to warn Senestrago of the imminent threat to his life.
I don't mind leading the player characters by the nose once in a while, and my players don't mind it either provided I play by certain guidelines. What are these guidelines, you ask? I'll get to that in just a moment. But first, let me clarify what I mean.
There are times, I've noticed, when my players (and by extension their characters) aren't sure what to do next. They have a "to do" list, but it's not always easy for them to prioritize which objectives or quests are the most crucial or time-sensitive because they don't necessarily have all the information they need to make the call. Moreover, some of the stuff on their "to do" list is keyed to specific characters, such that if certain player characters are absent, it's hard to justify moving forward on those particular quests. Once you omit the character-specific quests, it can still be a challenge for a short-handed group to decide what to handle next. Fortunately, my players don't freak out if I give them a gentle nudge in one direction or another. They trust that I will nudge them toward something fun.
There are also times when players can't reach consensus on what to do next, and a nudge from me can settle the matter or provide a little direction (or "divine intervention," if you prefer). The alternative is to let the players spend twenty or thirty minutes debating or arguing over which item on their combined "to do" list takes precedence and why . . . which, incidentally, isn't necessarily a bad thing if they enjoy this sort of discussion.
Finally, there are times when a particular story arc comes to an apparent dead end, and the players have no clue how to get their characters back on track without the DM providing some clues or additional information to set further events in motion.
It's easy for a campaign to drag, so when I lead players by the nose, it's seen as an attempt (elegant or ham-handed, depending on the execution) to overcome inertia and provide momentum. That said, my players rarely need my help; most of the time, they are self-motivated and can pick a direction or decide on a course of action with little or no DM intervention. Leading them by the nose is something I do only rarely, and that's probably a good thing.
I can tell when I'm leading my players by the nose: the campaign becomes much more "scripted" as things begin to happen without the characters taking an active hand in the unfolding events. In the case of my Wednesday night campaign, the characters had reached a dead end in their quest to find Sea King Senestrago, so I used an NPC to feed the party some information.
I could've given the friendly doppelganger spy the exact location of Sea King Senestrago, but where's the fun in that? Leading players by the nose doesn't mean circumventing the adventure. If the goal is to help players "find the fun," the last thing I want to do is take away all of the challenges, complications, roleplaying opportunities, and suspense. Instead, I offer them another chance to catch Senestrago . . . if they play their cards right and everything goes as planned. Well, the truth is, nothing ever goes exactly as planned, and that's part of the fun.
To catch Senestrago, the characters had to travel to Underkeel, negotiate with the raft-town's pseudodragon overlord (who enjoys parties, and perches like a parrot on the shoulder of an ex-pirate captain who lost his marbles), trick Lydia into helping them, pretend to hold her hostage to force a confrontation with her seafaring brother, and convince Captain Urvilgar to give up Senestrago's whereabouts. These weren't options that I forced on them; in fact, I assumed they would simply kidnap Lydia and hold her hostage, but instead they tricked her into thinking her brother was in danger, which incentivized her to be cooperative. I also figured they'd resort to violence to pressure Rance Urvilgar into divulging Senestrago's whereabouts, but they used innuendo and intimidation instead, allowing them to accomplish their goal without ever once drawing swords.
Here, as promised, are the guidelines I follow when leading my players by the nose:
- Thou shalt always lead players toward fun, not boredom.
- Thou shalt use this opportunity to advance the story of the campaign.
- Thou shalt not betray the players' trust by leading their characters into a trap.
- Thou shalt never tell the players what their characters say or do.
If my players are going to allow me to lead them by the nose, they need to trust that I will make the experience anything but dull. My players must also trust that the journey will be worth it in terms of pushing the campaign forward. There's no point nudging them toward nowhere.
If following my lead is going to result in the characters falling into a trap, the players will be less inclined to follow my lead next time, and that's ultimately counterproductive. The trap idea can work, but the players either need to suspect a trap from the outset and try to work around it, or I need to drop big clues along the way to foreshadow whatever betrayal I have planned. Both are risky propositions, I'll tell you right now, which is why the general rule stands.
The last point is very important. When running a heavily scripted encounter designed to nudge the player characters in a particular direction, some DMs make the mistake of putting words in the characters' mouths or gods forbid! dictating that characters take specific actions. Unless the characters are possessed, dominated, or otherwise under DM control, that is not the DM's role, and this kind of "leading by the nose" is sure to elicit player contempt.
Next week, assuming I don't get any other bright ideas, I plan to discuss the extent to which I rely on plot devices by which I mean events that need to happen regardless of the PCs' actions or decisions and how much I love and loathe them.
Until the next encounter!
Dungeon Master for Life,