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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-wrought spiral staircase leads to an octagonal room. A few paces from the top of the staircase are a cluttered desk and a chair with a haversack slung over its back. Drapes conceal the windows, and a 10-foot-wide circular rug adorned with a silver pentagram covers the floor. Hanging on the far wall is a majestic tapestry depicting a war in Hell, and standing next to it is the tiefling crime lord, Dorethau Vadu. With an Infernal command, she summons two pit fiends. The devils step through the tapestry as though it was a doorway, and the stench of brimstone follows them. Roll initiative!
While I find the various Dungeon Master's Guides fun reads, they taught me little about how to DM. It's much easier to learn by watching someone else do it. Sadly, I didn't have any role modelsno older siblings or friends under whose wing I could learn the tricks and pitfalls of being a DM. Before I joined Wizards of the Coast, I was the only DM in my neighborhood. I dimly recall the odd time when I actually got to sit on the opposite side of the DM screen and play a character, but they were short and often forgettable experiences. Inevitably, the DM would lose interest after a session or two, and I'd be back behind the screen, doing what it seems I was born to do. It wasn't until I joined Wizards that I actually became a regular player, most notably in Monte Cook's Ptolus campaign and its lesser-known precursor, Praemal. Therefore, it's no surprise that I don't have any DM role models. There are, however, many people to whom I owe a debt of gratitude every time I write or run a D&D adventure, and Stephen King is one of them.
Before I tell you how an American horror writer made me a better DM, I need to explain a little bit about my own literary background. I'm an English major with a degree in Rhetoric and Professional Writing, and one of my most memorable courses at the University of Waterloo was a literature class called Imitatio. Our weekly assignment consisted of taking some distinguished piece of literature, such as Milton's Paradise Lost, and writing long-lost passages in the same style as the original work. By analyzing Milton's technique and stealing glimpses into his mind's eye, one could (in theory) appreciate the depth, intricacy, and nuance of the man's work enough to create something Milton himself might have written, albeit on an off day. It's like taking an art class and being asked to paint the Mona Lisa's long-lost sister, or better yet, the rest of the Mona Lisa, as though you were Leonardo da Vinci himself and not just some poseur. Imitating Stephen King wasn't part of the curriculum, probably because it was 1990 and his work wasn't considered "literature" at the time. That same year, I had a rather pedestrian and forgettable senior class in creative writing, for which I wrote a screenplay that was a rip-off of the film Heathers and a short story titled "A Day in the Life of My Dog," written from my dog's point of view. Never mind the fact that my dog, Taboo, was dead two years. Only in hindsight does it occur to me that I should've written about a day in the afterlife of my dog. That would've been a riot.
In that otherwise pointless creative writing class, I stumbled upon a short essay written by a contemporary American fiction writer who by that time had cranked out more than a dozen popular horror novels, including one about dead pets. Stephen King's essay is titled "Imagery and the Third Eye," and it taught me a great deal about writing fiction and DMing. It turns out these two activities are kissing cousins! Creative writing and DMing are both firmly grounded in the ancient art of storytelling, the only difference being that one is primarily a written activity and the other primarily oral.
Let me ask you something, you're a DM: Have you ever wanted to write a novel? I'm betting the answer's yes. I'm betting you've actually written one or more, or maybe half of one. Maybe you wrote only the first chapter before the characters got stale or the process frightened you off. DMs are by nature storytellers, so I'd be mildly shocked to learn that you've never once imagined your name (or dorky pseudonym) on a novel jacket or in the credits of a movie based on your fictional creation. I certainly have, although I must admit that novel writing isn't my bag. I'd rather write an adventure or a screenplay. I crave structure. I'm a creature who needs a cage.
If you're telling me that you've never wanted to write a novel or a screenplay, then, well, I guess I don't believe you, simple as that. You're a liar, liar, pants on fire. Dungeon Mastering is storytelling in the ancient oral tradition, and storytellers have a primal need to share stories. If I stole a glimpse into the nooks and crannies of your hard drive, would I find a partially written novel or screenplay locked away in that extradimensional madhouse? I bet I would!
We DMs can learn a lot from a storyteller as successful and experienced as King. "Imagery and the Third Eye" is readily available online in case you want to read it. It's still as fresh and true today as when King wrote it, lo those many years ago. I highly recommend it for all writers and all DMs. I can't promise it'll take you to the same place creatively that it transported mea million miles from Nowhere, Canada to an amusement park where all the rides are free. However, I can promise you that you'll learn at least one trick that'll make you a better Dungeon Master.
It's easy to take Stephen King for granted, in much the same way we take American processed cheese for granted. He's a fixture of our time. The best scare Little Stevie ever laid on us happened waaaay back in 1999. A careless Maine driver sent him flying pell-mell over the pearly gates of Heaven. Fortunately for us, he flew clear over Heaven and fell back to Earth, and in the years since that fateful collision of bone and steel, he's written some damn fine stories and received the equivalent of a literary knighthood. The duly appointed guardians of Literature were willing to overlook King's past success and all those f-bombs, and now he's become part of the pantheon of American literary elite.
Just so you know where I stand on King's work, the man can do no wrong, even when he fails spectacularly. His characterizations are as deep and unsettling as the Mariana Trench, and nearly all of his work is eminently re-readable. I've read 'Salem's Lot, The Tommyknockers, and Dolores Claiborne each three times. Pet Sematary and It, five times. Misery, eight times. (That Annie Wilkes is hot!) I'm re-reading Duma Key now for the second time, and I'm long overdue for a reunion with Eyes of the Dragon (the closest King ever came to writing a D&D novel). But let's put his fiction aside and talk about King's nonfiction, starting with "Imagery and the Third Eye."
So let's get on with it, shall we?
As a Dungeon Master, my first job is to immerse my players in the world I've created, and to do that I need to describe what their characters see, hear, and smell. In other words, I need to be able to set the scene. Knowing what to describe and what not to describe is crucial. If I focus on the wrong details, it can be a tiresome or laughable experience for the players. As King says in On Writing, it's not just a question of how to describe something, but how much to.
In "Imagery and the Third Eye," King talks about creating an image in the mind's eye (what he calls the "third eye") of his reader. He doesn't aim to supply a "photograph in words" but rather gives his reader just enough detail to paint a picture for him or herself. It doesn't matter that the picture isn't exactly the same as the one King sees with his own third eye:
"Too many beginning writers feel that they have to assume the entire burden of imagery; to become the reader's seeing-eye dog. That is simply not the case. Use vivid verbs. Avoid the passive voice. Avoid the clichÃ©. Be specific. Be precise. Be elegant. Omit needless words."
Stephen King, "Imagery and the Third Eye"
King pulls a specific example from his own work, a paragraph describing the haunted house from his second novel, 'Salem's Lot. Allow me to present a similar example some read-aloud text plucked from the pages of a famous D&D adventure, The Temple of Elemental Evil by Gary Gygax and Frank Mentzer:
Lurid light from a flaming cresset and a glowing brazier full of charcoal reveals a 30-foot-by-20-foot chamber containing a rack, iron maiden, cage, and all the other unspeakable devices common to a torture chamber. Two adjacent, 10-foot-square alcoves, one to the south and one east, are barred, their doors held fast by chain and padlock. Two prisoners are in each, obviously here to await the tender mercies of the torturers. Two female humans are in the south alcove, and two orcs in the east.
Players might have trouble envisioning a "flaming cresset" if they don't know what a cresset is, but that's probably okay since the description offers sufficient context. The room dimensions aren't belabored, and they give players a good sense of the space into which their characters are moving. The text stumbles a bit as it describes the arrangement of the alcoves (almost demanding that the DM provide an accompanying map), but it rights itself quickly with the "doors held fast by chain and padlock." By the end, we have a pretty clear image of the room.
What the read-aloud text doesn't do is provide a laborious account of every torture device, nor does it describe what the cell doors are made of. It feeds us the major features (the rack, iron maiden, cage, and alcoves) and leaves the rest to our imaginations. Similarly, it doesn't paint a detailed picture of the prisoners. Are the two women similar in appearance or different? What color is their hair? Are they clothed or naked? None of these details is presented; that's what the listener brings to it.
Imagery does not occur on the page but in the listener's mind. As a DM, the trick is determining which details are important and which details are left for the players to imagine. As a general rule, I tend to under-describe things at first, then allow players to ask questions if they're having trouble seeing the picture in their mind's eye.
Here's another example pulled straight from King's work:
Lookhere's a table covered with a red cloth. On it is a cage the size of a small fish aquarium. In the cage is a white rabbit with a pink nose and pink-rimmed eyes. In its front paws is a carrot-stub upon which it is contentedly munching. On its back, clearly marked in blue ink, is the numeral 8.
Stephen King, On Writing
While not the best piece of writing in history, as King points out, it's adequate for making the point that nowhere in the description do we get the shape or exact dimensions of the cage. The cage I see with my third eye won't be the same cage you see with yours, but that's okay. If adventurers happen upon the cage, its shape and dimensions might become relevant if they decide to stuff it inside a bag of holding, but otherwise who cares? What's important is the numeral on the rabbit's back, a detail deliberately placed at the end of the descriptive passage for emphasis. (That's another lesson I've learned: If you want your players to remember a particular detail, save it for last.)
There are no shortcuts to figuring out what details to focus on. The storyteller learns by asking him or herself, What should I emphasize? If all else fails, be specific, be precise, be elegant, and omit needless words.
We can learn just as much, if not more, from bad examples. Here's an example of a room description that might be read-aloud text or something the DM conjures out of thin air. It isn't horrible but could use a little work:
"You enter a 40-foot-by-40-foot square chamber with a domed ceiling 20 feet above. Six feet from the entrance, you see a statue. Other statues are scattered about the room. Hanging from the ceiling by iron chains is a heavy iron chandelier, beneath which is a dead basilisk. The room has no other exits, far as you can tell."
The text does a serviceable job of describing the room and its contents. It would be nice to know how the room is lit (are there candles or torches burning in the chandelier?), and more attention needs to be spent describing the statues; it's hard to get a good mental picture without knowing what they depict. Do they look like unfortunate souls who crossed paths with the basilisk before it died? We don't need a detailed description of every one, mind you.
One could make a case for not describing the basilisk as "dead" but rather "still." The players might assume incorrectly that it's asleep and try to sneak up on it, only to discover someone or something beat them to it! One could also make a case for using the word "basilisk" at all. By instead referring to it as a "giant, six-legged lizard," you let the players jump to their own conclusions.
The dead basilisk is by far the room's most interesting feature, but it's buried in terms of importance by the last sentence. Perhaps the lack of other exits is information that could be tacked onto the first sentence, where the room's general configuration is described. Also, the phrase "far as you can tell" is basically shorthand for saying Hey, stupid! Don't forget to search this room for secret doors! If that was the intent, mission accomplished. Otherwise, the passage would be fine without it.
On the topic of omitting needless words, you don't need "40-foot-by-40-foot" and "square" in the same expression, and "a 20-foot-high domed ceiling" is better than "a domed ceiling 20 feet above." Above? I mean, c'mon, where else would the ceiling be?
Here's how I might revise the description:
"You enter a 40-foot-square chamber with a 20-foot-high domed ceiling and no other exits. Six feet from the entrance, a statue of an armored dwarf clutches a stony battleaxe. Three more statues are scattered about the room, all of them depicting adventurers. Hanging from the ceiling by chains is an iron chandelier set with sputtering torches. Beneath it a giant, six-legged lizard lies perfectly still."
In Conclusion . . .
Most DMs describe things on the fly. In such cases, it's doubly important to use vivid verbs, avoid the passive voice, avoid the clichÃ©, be specific, be precise, be elegant, and omit needless words. It's not like you can go back and revise your work, after all. My general rule of thumb is that if you can't describe a scene, a character, or an event in 30 seconds or less, your players are suffering needlessly. Any DM who's tried to run a published adventure with a full column of read-aloud text knows exactly what I mean; by the time you get to the end, the players are bored to tears and remember only one-tenth of what they've heard.
Next week, I'll share with you a few bits of DM wisdom I picked up from reading Stephen King's On Writing and his earlier nonfiction work, Danse Macabre. It'll be a Frankenstein's monster, the stitching together of various tips and tricks; I promise the experience will be eye opening and appropriately terrifying.
Until the next encounter!
Dungeon Master for Life,