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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 heroes have summoned the Sea Kings to Krakenholt to discuss an alliance. Conspicuous by his absence is their hated enemy, Sea King Senestrago. When he finally shows up, he brings his entire fleet with him and attacks his Sea King rivals, triggering a massive naval engagement.
The heroes board Senestrago's flagship and begin kicking ass, but the tide turns. They're spending a LOT of healing surges, they're spreading their damage too thinly among too many enemies, and Senestrago's escort ships are sending reinforcements. Back and forth the battle rages until Senestrago appears from below decks. Before the PCs can focus fire on him, a red dragon plucks the Sea King from the battle and spirits him away to safety. After two sessions of combat, Senestrago's flagship is destroyed, and the remains of his fleet are scattered to the four winds.
Rather than let Senestrago regain his strength, the heroes chase him all the way back to his secret base on the island of Hyragos. There, the defeated Sea King negotiates with dwarven agents of the Ironstar Cartel to procure a massive iron torpedo capable of obliterating a small island. Senestrago plans to use it against Krakenholt, but when the PCs are spotted sneaking onto the island, one of the Ironstar Cartel dwarves rigs the torpedo's timer to explode in 10 rounds. While the party's goliath battlemind single-handedly confronts and kills the red dragon, the other PCs try to disarm the torpedo, prevent the Ironstar Cartel ship from escaping, and confront the evil Sea King. When all's said and done, the dragon is slain, the bomb is disarmed, the ship is stopped, but Senestrago once again escapes amid the chaos. I, for one, am very surprised. Delighted, but surprised.
I believe that I possess the four basic qualities of a good DM: I'm fair, I improvise well, I'm self-aware enough to recognize my strengths and weaknesses, and I don't take myself or my campaign too seriously. About a third of everything else that defines my DMing style came to me the same way a skier learns to fly and a guitarist learns to rock the house: years of practice. Another third came from reading fiction (primarily horror, science fiction, and fantasy) and nonfiction (primarily ancient history). The rest I picked up from various actors, directors, and writers.
DMing is a complex activity that demands a lot of skills. The ability to describe things in a succinct yet evocative way is something I learned from Stephen King, and it was the subject of last week's article. This week, I'd like to share with you a few snippets from two of King's nonfiction works, On Writing and Danse Macabre. A lot of his discoveries about writing fiction (and not just horror fiction) also apply to DMing, which, as I've said before, is a similar kind of storytelling.
Let me share with you some of my favorite passages from On Writing and Danse Macabre and explain how they've helped shape my own DMing style. Do they ring as true for you as they do for me? If what King is saying strikes you as wrong or unsettling, like the off angles in Shirley Jackson's Hill House, I urge you not to turn away but study them more closely, for these aren't the ramblings of a madman but the revelations of a master storyteller.
1. Start with a "what if."
The most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a What-if question: What if vampires invaded a small New England village? ('Salem's Lot) What if a policeman in a remote Nevada town went berserk and started killing everyone in sight? (Desperation) What if a cleaning woman suspected of a murder she got away with (her husband) fell under suspicion for a murder she did not commit (her employer)? (Dolores Claiborne) What if a young mother and her son became trapped in their stalled car by a rabid dog? (Cujo). SK
King asserts that he never writes outlines for his novels and never gets hung up on plot. In fact, he regards plot with great suspicion. Instead, he creates characters, puts them into "what if" situations, and lets the story evolve from there.
When I prep an adventure for my D&D campaign, I don't waste time and effort trying to plan what the outcome will be. I'll let the players' actions and the random die rolls determine that. But when I'm trying to come up with adventure ideas, I do it in much the same way King does (or rather, the way I envision he does). It starts with a what-if question:
- What if a tiefling player character who died the previous session came back as a pit fiend?
- What if the Raven Queen commanded one of the characters to kill his companions because they know her true name?
- What if the party's ship was possessed by a succubus who died aboard the vessel?
- What if someone found a warforged pinned under an anchor at the bottom of the sea?
- What if the heroes discovered a network of secret demiplanes used by worshipers of Vecna to spy on the Maimed Lord's enemies?
- What if Sea King Senestrago decided to attack his rivals during a summit at Krakenholt?
Once I have a good what-if situation, I can let the story develop naturally over the course of however many sessions it takes. I might need to prepare a map and gather some stat blocks and miniatures ahead of time, but the plot isn't something I need to worry about, since that depends greatly on how the player characters react to the situation (and that, my friends, is beyond my control).
2. Never mind the plot.
I'm not able to guess with any accuracy how the damned thing is going to turn out, even with my inside knowledge of coming events, and . . . why worry about the ending anyway? Why be such a control freak? Sooner or later every story comes out somewhere. SK
The best D&D adventures allow players to make real decisions that affect its outcome. Many plot-driven adventures make the mistake of driving toward a specific endpoint, such that the PCs' actions and decisions are of little consequence. On the one hand, as a DM it's nice to know where the campaign is heading in general, but on the other hand, an adventure that requires the villain to escape or requires that the heroes be captured is just badly designed. The plot has basically rendered all other options inert, and that usually leaves players with the awful sense that they're trapped in a novel that you've already written.
DMs who are control freaks aren't self-aware enough to realize the fact, nor do they realize that their controlling behavior can trigger different forms of player rebellion. When a DM approaches me at a convention and asks for advice on dealing with unruly or disengaged players, one of the questions I ask is, "Do your players feel empowered?" This is sometimes met with a blank, confused stare. A DM can't cage players like animals and expect them to behave. As soon as players realize that they have no control over their characters' destinies, their attention quickly turns to finding ways to break out of their cages, and once they've broken free, they'll begin to run amok, resisting all attempts to lock them up again. Better to show them that they're the masters of their characters' destinies, and their choices are what shape the outcome of an adventure or a campaign.
In a recent Wednesday night game, my PCs had the villain cornered in his lair. Sea King Senestrago only escaped certain death because the party split up. Distracted by a ticking doomsday weapon, a huge red dragon, and a fleeing Ironstar Cartel ship, they tried to fight too many battles at once. Throughout the adventure, I kept thinking, this feels like a good time for the villain to die. Frankly I was surprised he got away, but his decision to flee was perfectly consistent with his cowardly nature. Will the party ever face him again? I have no clue. It's really up to the player characters. It's all about them, not the plot.
3. Looks aren't everything.
I can't remember many cases where I felt I had to describe what the people in a story of mine looked likeI'd rather let the reader supply the faces, the builds, and the clothing as well . . . Nor do I think physical description should be a shortcut to character. SK
Of the thousands of NPCs in my campaign, most are faceless "extras" with no lines of dialogue. These minor NPCs add texture and verisimilitude to the campaign, little more, though on occasion one of them will get a name and a touch of personality. A few hundred NPCs have more significant roles to play in my campaign, and these major NPCs receive the bulk of my creative attention. However, I've taken King's point to heart. The only time I describe an NPC's physical appearance is when there's a story behind it. A dwarf that walks with a crutch is interesting because there's a story there: how was the dwarf injured? By comparison, a dwarf with blue eyes and a white beard is far less interesting, at least to me, because there's nothing to build on. That character would be better served having a unique voice, a quirk, or a specific manner that the players are likely to associate with that NPC (and that NPC alone) for the remainder of the campaign.
If you have relatively few NPCs in your campaign, each one can be a complex, multi-layered character. The Iomandra campaign has scores of them, so I've adopted the standard of giving each of my major NPCs one identifiable thing that truly defines them, and that certain something varies from NPC to NPC. It's not always a unique voice, for example:
- Nyrrska, a dragonborn assassin, has a scar across his throat and speaks with a raspy voice. How did he get that scar, one wonders.
- Zirko Axaran, a plane-hopping dwarf from the world of Greyhawk, likes to enumerate when he speaks: "There were three of them, I tell you! Not ONE, not TWO, but THREE!"
- Excellence the tiefling is wise beyond her years, to the point where the players trust that she's never wrong. They can always count on her advice.
- Anchor, a barnacle-encrusted warforged salvaged from the bottom of the Dragon Sea, is mute. He doesn't read or write, so he communicates by nodding or shaking his head.
- Sea King Senestrago is a coward at heart. Nothing is more important than his own life, and he'll never stand toe-to-toe with an enemy if it means he might be physically hurt in any way.
Two above-mentioned NPCs have identifiable physical characteristics, and both of them come with a story. Nyrrska had his throat slashed by the dragonborn pirate warlord Vantajar and was raised from the dead, but the scar remained. Anchor's barnacles tell the story of how his ship sank and the months he spent alone, trapped at the bottom of the sea.
4. Let dialogue define.
It's dialogue that gives your cast their voices, and is crucial in defining their characters. SK
Imagine you're running an encounter with a mad troll who carries around a stuffed doll with one missing eye. The doll's name is Candy. Also, the troll likes to taunt its prey. You might choose to have the troll say nothing during the encounter. You might choose to describe what the troll is saying in the third person ("The troll hurls insults at you."), or you can "inhabit" the troll and speak in its voice ("Candy doesn't like you! She says you nothin' but a meat sack!") You tell me, which version of the troll are the players likely to remember?
I like to inhabit my major NPCs, to "act them out," as it were. Conversely, with minor NPCs I'm more inclined to adopt a third-person voice ("The shopkeeper takes your money and thanks you profusely for your patronage.") I find that when I crawl into an NPC's skin and speak in its voice, the players are more inclined to engage that NPC in a meaningful dialogue. If I don't, my players take it as a sign (i.e., Chris is telling me this NPC isn't very important right now) and move on. One of the Wednesday group's favorite NPCs is Nyrrska, the dragonborn ex-assassin who serves aboard their ship. He doesn't do much onscreen, but when he speaks, it's always me speaking in his voice, and the undercurrent of menace in his raspy words makes the PCs glad he's on their side.
They say actions speak louder than words, but that's not always true. We judge people and characters just as well and as often by what they say and how they say it. In the film The Silence of the Lambs, how important is dialogue to the character of Hannibal Lector (played by Anthony Hopkins)? In the first half of the film, everything we know and fear about Lector is learned by observing his eerie stillness and paying attention to what he says, how he says it, and how Clarice Starling reacts. Dialogue defines that character.
5. Learn by osmosis.
When I read Ray Bradbury as a kid, I wrote like Ray Bradburyeverything green and wondrous and seen through a lens smeared with the grease of nostalgia. When I read James M. Cain, everything I wrote came out clipped and stripped and hardboiled. When I read Lovecraft, my prose became luxurious and Byzantine. I wrote stories in my teenage years where all these styles merged, creating a kind of hilarious stew. This sort of stylistic blending is a necessary part of developing one's own style. SK
I learned to write adventures by reading adventures. In fact, when I was twelve years old, I used to build covers for my adventures out of construction paper and model my designs after the 1st Edition modules in my collection. I even glued the maps to the inside panels and used the covers as DM screens. As for the adventures themselves . . . well, my maps were Gygaxian labyrinths crafted my mad wizards, and my prose was akin to the early works of Len Lakofka and Tom Moldvay. But then I discovered Tracy and Laura Hickman, and suddenly all of my maps made more sense and the encounters were written with "Trick/Trap" and "Lore" sections like The Desert of Desolation module series. When I needed adventure and encounter ideas, I turned to the "U" and "UK" series for inspiration because I enjoyed their complex plots and clever use of weird Fiend Folio monsters.
While I didn't have any DM role models, I think it's safe to say one can learn a lot about DMing by playing in someone else's campaign. In On Writing, King says that a bad novel can teach one about the art of writing as much as, if not more than, a good one. The same is true for DMs. Those of you who attend gaming conventions know that there are plenty of awesome DMs out there plus a handful of dreadful ones who lack the self-awareness to realize just how bad they are. If you survive a horrible DM experience, talk to your players about it. Tell them why you think the DM sucked, and pay close attention to their eyes and body language. If during the conversation they avoid making eye contact with you or give you that awkwardly measured silence, they may be telling you something about weaknesses in your own DMing style!
Ultimately, you have to be your own brand of DM. You can learn things from others and steal the best of what other DMs have to offer, but no two DMs are exactly alike, and that's a good thing.
6. Let character, not event, steer the ship.
The best stories always end up being about the people rather than the event, which is to say character-driven. SK
I think most DMs would agree with the above statement. It's the actions/inaction and decisions/indecision of the characters that propel the story forward or not. Some DMs become overly concerned when the story flounders and the PCs waste time harassing townsfolk, discussing options, planning their own little side ventures, and engaging in all manner of distractions that have nothing to do with the adventure. As long as the players are "in character" or focused on the campaign world (as opposed to, say, distracted by the real world), I'm willing to cut them some slack.
Monte Cook once confessed to me that some of his favorite campaign moments are the ones where he doesn't have to do anything but sit and listen to the players talk among themselves about what their characters should do next. He also spoke fondly of those unplanned, unscripted moments when our characters wandered around the streets of Ptolus, engaging inconsequential NPCs in conversation, tying up loose business, or enjoying some insidious sideline escapade (Erik Mona!). As long as all the players are having a good time, there's no reason why the adventure can't wait. If one or more of the players seem eager to get on with it, then as a DM I feel it's within my right to push the story forward by whatever means necessary. There are times when character development needs to take a back seat to ACTION, which is not to say you can't have character development while action is taking place. On the contrary, we learn lot about characters by watching them in action.
What King is saying touches on the fact that he doesn't know what's going to happen in his novels until it happens. In that respect, he's as much the reader as the novelist. Often his characters will do things and say things that surprise him. He doesn't say, "At this point in the novel, Annie Wilkes needs to get hit in the head with a typewriter because it'll be shocking and ironic." Similarly, it would be presumptuous for me to assume that Sea King Senestrago will escape and live to fight another day because I have another adventure planned in which he captures the PCs and makes them cry uncle. If he escapes, it'll be because the heroes gave him an opening and it's his nature to flee rather than fight.
7. Put the party on a teeter-totter.
All fantasy fiction is essentially about the concept of power; great fantasy fiction is about people who find it at great cost or lose it tragically; mediocre fantasy fiction is about people who have it and never lose it but simply wield it. SK
I take this to mean that good drama is all about the constant shifting of power. Take J.R.R. Tolkien's character of Gollum, who finds the One Ring and gains unnaturally long life, but at great cost. At some point, Gollum simply has to lose the ringthere wouldn't be much of a story otherwise. Consider also the character of Tyrion Lannister, the dwarf in George R.R. Martin's Westeros novels, and how much less compelling he would be if everything went his way. Conversely, imagine if Tyrion was always being crushed underfoot and never gained the upper hand. Part of the reason why Tyrion is such a great character is that he has both ups and downs, moments in the story when things are going his way and moments when the whole world threatens to crush him.
In a recent session of the Wednesday night campaign, I threw an entire fleet of bad guys at the heroes and nearly overwhelmed them, to the point where they were powerless to stop Senestrago from abandoning ship. The very next session, they were back on the offensive and cornering Sea King Senestrago in his island base. It's like a wave, with high points and low points marking times when the heroes feel powerful and powerless.
Many campaigns suffer and die either because the player characters feel powerful all the time or powerless all the time. A campaign that makes the PCs feel like they're teetering toward world domination one session and tottering toward oblivion the next is much more exciting. Power needs to be gained and lost, lost and gained.
Until the next encounter!
Dungeon Master for Life,