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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. Several months ago, a dragonborn rogue named Baharoosh (played by Stan!) joined the party. From the day he arrived, he made it clear that he was an agent of the Vost Miraj (the intelligence gathering arm of the Dragover Empire's martial caste), sent to aid the party in its fight against the more extreme elements of the empire, and to send back reports about their activities. The party was understandably suspicious of Baharoosh, but they were a bit perplexed as to what to do with a spy who showed his ulterior motives so plainly.
Over time, Baharoosh proved his loyalty to the group and revealed his conflict with his Dragovar masters (he was a devout worshiper of Bahamut who wanted to purge Tiamat's influence from the empire), but he was never quite able to garner the full trust of the other characters. They always wondered where his ultimate loyalties lay, and whether he could be trusted with sensitive materials and information.
In recent weeks, the party even came to question Baharoosh's dedication to their work. Whenever a fight commenced, he quickly fell to the ground and was spirited off by Vost Miraj minions. When the hostilities were done, Baharoosh would reappear, fully healed, with some new assignment from his spymaster, Zarkhrysathe latest of these assignments being to secure the signature of a Grand Vizier on a document that would brand him as a traitor to the empire. Unfortunately, the document also implicated the Shan Qabal (the research arm of the arcane caste to which the party wizard, Alex, belongs) as having been behind a terrorist attack on the Dragovar capital city.
Baharoosh helped the other characters rewrite Zarkhrysa's document so that it more blatantly condemned Turazad but made no mention of the Shan Qabal. After the party ambushed the Grand Vizier and dominated him to get the signature, Baharoosh brought the document to Zarkhrysa who, upon seeing the modifications, looked coldly at her once trusted agent and said menacingly, "I am NOT pleased."
Hi, I'm Stan!, one of the D&D producers at Wizards of the Coast and the guy who plays Baharoosh in Chris's Monday night campaign. With all that's happened to my character lately (and the overview above is just the start of the story), Chris asked if I'd step in and take the reins of the column for a week to discuss what I think about the way Chris, as the DM, handled my character's latest predicament.
Let me begin by saying that over the last several weeks of game play, I've made more than a few questionable tactical decisions and suffered a phenomenal string of bad die rolls. In the previous half dozen or so major encounters leading up to this past week's session, Baharoosh had been poisoned, dominated, swallowed whole, and beaten into unconsciousnessgenerally within the first three rounds of combat in any given fight. I failed nearly every saving throw, Perception check, and death save that crossed my path. There was more than one occasion where Baharoosh should have died. The party was forced to leave him behind, or worse, didn't have any idea where he was. My poor dragonborn spy was on death's door, and all Chris had to do was let things proceed on their natural course to let Baharoosh pass silently from the campaign.
But he didn't.
Each time, Chris came up with an inventive, feasible, and logical (within the campaign parameters) reason for someone to save Baharoosh's life. Often it was the Vost Miraj, and at least once it was Zarkhrysa herself. And each time there was a price to pay for this interventiona mission to be achieved or a piece of information to be delivered.
Of course, from the perspective of the other characters, it seemed like Baharoosh was constantly abandoning them during the battlesrunning off to hide under the hem of his spymaster's skirt, and only coming back when the coast was clear. [DM Note #1: For the record, dragonborn spymasters don't wear skirts in my campaign. They wear Kevlar girdles.] Consequently, Baharoosh had to prove his value to the team again and again. But every time he did, it was by performing an act that made it clear that he valued the party more than he did the spy organization, thus decreasing the likelihood that the Vost Miraj would be there to pull his fat out of the fire the next time.
In this latest session, Baharoosh had his loyalties very clearly and plainly tested. Zarkhrysa, tired of his failures, expressed her displeasure as described above and, when Baharoosh replied with a defiant "I know," she pulled out a death warrant, wrote his name on the document, signed it, and said, "You could save us all a lot of trouble if you simply do the job yourself, like any honorable dragonborn would." He was alone in hostile territory, without the party to back him up. [DM Note #2: The other characters were hiding not terribly far away, but to Stan!'s chagrin, they decided to pick a fight elsewhere.] Faced with the head of the imperial spy corps who wanted him dead, Baharoosh drew his weapon and launched an all-out fight for his life.
Unfortunately, my recent spate of bad rolls continuedBaharoosh couldn't hit a blessed thing. Chris, on the other hand, was rolling particularly well, so Zarkhrysa and her minions had no trouble bringing the rebellious Baharoosh to his knees. Within three rounds, he was bloodied, having made no attack roll higher than an 8 the entire time. The kicker came when Baharoosh was dominated by the spirit of an ancient yuan-ti prince possessing one of Zarkhrysa's allies (really . . . look, I can't explain all this . . . I'm just a player).
When the opportunity arose to save against the domination, I rolled a natural 1.
"Now, do what you didn't have the guts or honor to do on your own," the yuan-ti commanded. "Kill yourself!"
Baharoosh raised his dagger, aimed it at his own heart . . . and I rolled a natural 20.
Although the self-inflicted blow dropped Baharoosh well below zero hit points, he didn't quite meet the death threshold of reaching a negative number equal to his bloodied score. On the next round, I made his first death save . . . and rolled a natural 1. Before I had a chance to fail two more death saves, though, Zarkhrysa picked up Baharoosh's own dagger and finished the job once and for all. Then her minions took Baharoosh's body away to make sure that it was disposed of in a place and manner that would ensure he was never going to be anything more than an unpleasant memory.
By the time the rest of the party finished their combat and got up to Zarkhrysa's office, she, the yuan-ti spirit, all the minions, and every last trace of Baharoosh were gone. Of course, from their point of view, this was exactly like what had happened at the end of the four previous fights. As near as they could tell, Baharoosh was off with his spymaster getting some new bit of informationhe'd show up again eventually. Or not. You never can tell with spies.
And so my character died. Permanently. And no one in the party will ever know, or perhaps even care.
Telling this story to friends, a few of them remarked that they thought my DM had treated me badly. My character was put in a nearly impossible situation, with no resources and no access to the rest of the party. When things went (predictably) against my character, the villains killed him out of hand and removed the possibility that the party could retrieve and revive him.
Looks pretty bad for Chris and his reputation as a fair, quick-thinking, and fun-minded DM.
But, if you ask me, he did everything perfectly.
While this fateful session began in medias res, the scene was one that Baharoosh had arrived at organically. I chose for him to make all the decisions that set up the scene, and I even decided to have him march into that chamber where he knew the deck would be stacked against him. I chose to make him defiant rather than apologetic. I shifted the encounter from a menacing social interaction into full-on combat. Indeed, from the very beginning, I chose to play a character that was an active member of a morally questionable organization and about whose loyalties the party could never be certain. In other words, it was a long road getting to the "no win scenario" that Baharoosh found himself in, and I willingly had him walk every step along the way.
Chris certainly made it clear to me, at various junctions, that Baharoosh's actions would have consequences. I knew that he was offending Zarkhrysa, and that she had a well-earned reputation for taking revenge on those who crossed herembodied most clearly by the skull of her predecessor that she kept as a trophy on her desk. [DM Note #3: I thought it would be cool if Zarkhrysa kept the skull as a reminder of what could happen to her if she's not careful, and I liked the idea of the players never knowing if she had a hand in her predecessor's demise. But best of all, I hit upon the idea that Zarkhrysa would use Speak with Dead scrolls to solicit counsel from the skull. Seems like something a spymaster would do, don't you agree?]
It is always fair, I think, for the DM to give a character bad choices to make, as long as the player understands the repercussions. And, in the wake of that, it is always reasonable for the DM to follow up on those repercussions if the character makes those choices anyway. In fact, I'd say that it's worse for the DM to spell out specific consequences for risky behavior, then not follow through with them when the time comes. Doing that can lead the players to feel like their characters can do anything they want without fear of reprisal or ramification. For my part, every time Baharoosh played fast and loose with his orders from his Vost Miraj handlers, I knew that he was risking being cut loose or (worse) being made a target.
Additionally, one thing that we all acceptplayers and DMs alikeis that the dice can sometimes be cruel. And in a game where success and failure are determined by dice rolls, being unlucky can be deadly for a character. There are, of course, many varied and sometimes subtle levels of success and failure, and the DM is there to adjudicate that sort of thing. But when one failure follows another, when die rolls come up repeatedly in the lower 20% of all probabilities, they begin to have a narrative weight of their own. [DM Note #4: Tell that to the employees of Acquisitions Incorporated.]
My string of bad die rolls clearly bespoke of a character having a bad day. (A bad week, actually.) Anything that could go wrong pretty much did. A bad Perception check didn't mean Baharoosh merely failed to notice a detailhe focused on the wrong detail, or saw things in a false context. A particularly low attack roll became more than an errant swing; it was an embarrassing misstep.
When the session was over, Chris asked me what I wanted to do next. He kept a door open for Baharoosh to returneven from such a definitive and seemingly inescapable endif that's what I wanted. But, after thinking about it for a day or two, I decided to let the poor dragonborn rest in peace. It's never easy to lose a character, and especially not so when that character falls in an embarrassing and ignominious set of circumstances. But there is something to be said for having the cold comfort of a story that makes sense. [DM Note #5: I just didn't want to put Stan! through the pain of rolling up another 27th level character. I'd already tortured him enough.]
Chris's offer, though, reminded me that he always is open to possibilities. His campaign is vibrant, and flexible, and able to absorb any particular event and keep rolling on. Like in the real world, life in Iomandra goes on and adapts to whatever set of circumstances the characters happen to create.
I'm not sure what my next character will be. But I have a sneaking suspicion that no matter what choice I make, there will be a niche somewhere in the Dragovar Empire for him, and (more than that) somehow there will be intrigue, menace, and most of all adventure waiting for him.
Now if I can only do something about my horrendous die rolls!
I'd like to thank Stan! for bearing the burden of this week's column. In previous installments, I've talked about how character death is handled in my campaign, and this is not the first time I've backed a player character into a corner. Did I set out to kill Baharoosh? No. But as the campaign reaches its end, I wanted to put the character in the most dangerous situation he'd ever faced and bring a long-simmering conflict between him and his temperamental superior to a boil.
The thing that keeps my campaign alive for years on end is the idea that conflict comes in many forms and can be resolved in different ways. Most of my energy is spent thinking about how the actions and decisions of the player characters might give rise to new conflict. Every new conflict I can imagine becomes the seed for a future encounter, or sometimes an entire adventure. And not every conflict can be solved by the swing of a sword or a skill check. Sometimes it's about a character wrestling with his role in the party or his place in the world. Sometimes it's about choosing loyalties, turning enemies into friends, and turning friends into enemies.
If you ask me how Baharoosh died, I might say "bad dates" to be funny. [DM Note #6: That's a Raiders of the Lost Ark reference, for all you 20-somethings who've never seen the film.] A case could also be made that the Dice Gods were gunning for him, or that his demise was written into his genetic code at character creation. Or it could be that the fault lies with the other player characters who abandoned Baharoosh in his time of need. But the DM? I think not! After all, it's the DM's job to set up conflict and make it as interesting and immersive as possible. Okay, yes, it's true that I orchestrated the situation leading up to Baharoosh's death, but not because I wanted to kill off the character. If that were true, I wouldn't have given Stan! the opportunity to bring his character back. Ultimately, he chose Baharoosh's fate. The character had faced his demons and lost, and that's sometimes the way conflicts end.
Until the next encounter!
Dungeon Master for Life,