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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. Matt Sernett plays Bartho, a human fighter with little ambition or drive. For most of the campaign, Bartho has gone where the action is, happy to follow rather than lead. A few sessions ago, in a particularly climactic battle, Bartho not only witnessed the death of his childhood friend Melech (Bruce Cordell's former character) but also played an unwilling part in it. He had been polymorphed into a giant wormlike creature and actually swallowed Melech whole. That by itself didn't spell Melech's doom, but it had a profound impact on Bartho. It hearkened back to a childhood event I'd concocted many levels ago to explain, in simple terms, the relationship between these two characters.
Melech was always getting into trouble and, on one occasion, had climbed down a village well. Far more cautious and timid, Bartho refused to follow him. When Melech was unable to climb back out, he called to Bartho to fetch a rope. Instead, Bartho panicked and ran away, leaving his friend trapped in the well (for a while, at least). This event would be reflected later in their adventuring careers. Melech would blunder into danger, and Bartho would follow until things turned dire, at which point he would flee, much to Melech's chagrin. Now that Melech's gone, Bartho's snapped. Not only has he lost his rudder and his impetus to go on adventures but also he's succumbed to murderous bloodlust after twenty-seven levels of continuous slaughter. In a bold move, Matt's using Melech's death as a diving board and cast Bartho into a deep, drowning sea of madness.
Last session, some doppelgangers conspired to liberate a major campaign villain who'd been captured a couple sessions earlier. While the rest of the heroes tried to prevent the villain's escape, Bartho confronted and killed a doppelganger that had assumed Bartho's appearance. The tÃªte-a-tÃªte ended underwater, off the coast of an island called Ardynrise. Realizing that his bloodlust could not be quenched, Bartho found himself staring at his own dead self and, rather than rejoin his friends, elected to remain underwater until his air ran out.
One could argue that any good story regardless of the medium through which it unfolds needs to relate to its human audience. It tugs at certain themes that define the whole of human existence, including friendship, adversity, family, solitude, happiness, unhappiness, life, and death. It is through character, setting, comedy, and drama that these themes manifest and collide.
One of the most gratifying aspects of watching a D&D campaign unfold is seeing how a character that began as a concept built around a conglomeration of statistics can evolve into something more, be it a brilliant caricature or a fully realized character with as much depth as anyone real or imagined. When it happens, you start to really care about what happens to the characters and where the campaign is heading. As the Dungeon Master, I can "steer the ship" a little, but the players and the dice have just as much control. Bartho is one of the few characters who's been around since the very start of the campaign, and if you'd asked me what his ultimate fate might be back when the campaign was young, I would've guessed he might have gone the way of many frontline fighters, which is to say, he'd probably be eaten by a dragon somewhere in the paragon tier. I could not have imagined that Bartho would end up in a much darker place than a dragon's stomach, literally drowning his sorrow.
In the real world, there are people who are risk-takers and people who are risk-averse and people can switch from one to the other depending on the magnitude of the risk and their current disposition. But all things being normal in today's day and age, I think it's safe to say that most people err toward being "risk-averse." The same thing could be said for D&D player characters. Many players are loath to risk characters they care about (as opposed to characters created for "one-off" games such as Lair Assault challenges or Tomb of Horrors-style slaughterfests). Others are quite willing to throw their beloved characters into deadly peril. So what if a character dies? At best, it'll be a memorable tale to be told at conventions and throughout Internet forums and chat rooms. It might even pave the way for a new character with greater potential. At worst, it'll be an ignoble end to a character best forgotten. Either way, in the mind's eye of the risk-taking player, there are plenty more characters where that one came from!
I am struck by how my Monday night players handle the upper epic tier. Most of them are just as protective and risk-averse as they were at low heroic tier even the ones who are on their second, third, or fourth characters. I suspect they, having come this far, want to see their characters reach the very end . . . to neatly wrap up whatever character arcs are outstanding. They don't want their characters killed off with so few sessions remaining, and they certainly aren't keen on rolling up all-new epic-level characters with so little time left to develop their personalities.
Matt is bucking the trend with Bartho. In the "early years," he would've fled the battlefield before risking death (and did on multiple occasions). However, recent campaign events have awakened in Bartho some disturbing revelations, as well as given Bartho his most dominant storyline since the campaign's inception more than four years ago. Up until now, everything that needed to be said about Bartho could be written in big letters on the front of his shield. No longer. Out of nowhere, he's become infinitely more complex . . . and disturbing. Had events played out differently had Bruce not left the game, had I not lured the characters in a certain direction, had Bartho not been transformed into a giant worm Bartho might never have reached this grim (yet entertaining) nadir in his adventuring career. What does this mean? Will Bartho be "written out" of the story two-and-a-half levels before the campaign's expected end? Is Matt cool with that? Am I cool with that? Is Matt expecting me to contrive some other event that will push Bartho beyond his despair, or does he have something else in mind he's not telling me?
One of the greatest aspects of a D&D campaign, for me personally, is the romance of it all. Sometimes the romance is brief, and sometimes it endures for years. A DM needs some level of romantic attachment to his or her campaign to sustain it. The players need to feel that romance as well. When the romance is over, the campaign is over. That's why some players choose to leave, and though I can take steps to help keep the romance alive, different people fall out of love with a campaign for different reasons (or they fall in love with something else against which the campaign cannot rightfully compete). A DM must expect and honor that. Maybe Matt's tired of playing a complicated epic-level character. Maybe four years of playing the same character is enough. Maybe he'd rather spend his Monday nights with his daughter than coming to grips with Bartho's sad purpose in life. Or maybe, like me, he just wants to see where this latest character development will lead . . . or how much deeper his character can sink.
Regardless of Matt's intentions and desires concerning Bartho, my job as the DM is to conjure stories and character development opportunities out of the ether, and put them before the players to be judged as worthy or unworthy of their attention. My campaign is strewn with the flotsam and jetsam of stories and adventure hooks that weren't picked up by anyone. But the DM is a bottomless well of ideas. That is why, regardless of Matt's plans for Bartho, I've hatched a scheme to keep him in the campaign a little bit longer. Whether Bartho bites the hook or not isn't really up to me, but bait him I will. Because that's what the DM does.
When last we left poor, unhinged Bartho, he was sitting on the bottom of the sea, staring at the lifeless corpse of his dead doppelganger, counting the rounds until he runs out of air and has to start making Endurance checks if he wants to live. His adventuring companions are out of sight a half-mile way, fighting a pitched battle on a fleeing Dragovar warship. But all is not what it seems. If what the characters were told is true, then there's still one doppelganger roaming around unchecked, and by the sheer simple fact that Bartho is by himself, he's the only one who can stop it. Out of the inky depths, a small submersible shaped like an eye of the deep (an aquatic beholder with pincer claws) approaches, on its way to a fateful rendezvous that could change the course of the campaign. Will this mysterious arrival draw Bartho up from the depths to investigate? I guess we'll find out next week!
Speaking of next week . . . some community feedback on recent articles has prompted me to share some campaign-ending tips in next week's column. If you think my Monday night players have it rough, wait until you see what I have in store for my Wednesday night group.
Until the next encounter!
Dungeon Master for Life,