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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. No game this past week, sadly. As happens occasionally, I had a scheduling conflict that couldn't be reconciled any other way. However, the evening wasn't a complete loss.
Andrew Finch, who plays Ravok the Mindhammer (a 29th-level goliath battlemind), had sent me an email that I'd been putting off answering . . . mostly because it required a thoughtful response, and I hadn't been feeling very thoughtful. With the campaign drawing to a close, Andrew was searching for something to justify his character's continued involvement in the story. Ravok, who entered the campaign late in the game, had positioned himself as a psionically endowed crusader against a growing mind flayer threat. Now that the mind flayers have been eradicated (they were killed off by a psychic pulse triggered when the heroes killed the elder star spawn Allabar), Ravok's lost some of his motivation. True, there are other campaign threats to be squashed, but none of them resonate as personally.
Although Andrew has a well-earned reputation for being a power-gamer and min-maxer, he, like many of my players, is just as concerned with character development as raw statistics. Yes, it's nice to play a powerful and effective character, but if the character doesn't have a specific need to be fulfilled or a deep-rooted place in the unfolding story, it's hardly worth playing at all.
Breathing life into a D&D player character is the player's job, but keeping the character motivated and relevant is something the DM and player hash out together. It's a little bit like developing a television character. In television, you hire an actor to become a character, and once an actor is comfortable wearing that character's skin, the character takes on a life of its own. However, when the character is being underserved or its purpose called into question, the actor will often turn to the show's writers for ideas. Working together, the writers and actor can find new and clever ways to tie the character into whatever else is happening in the show.
In my Wednesday night campaign, Starlord Evendor is a crazy eladrin warlock NPC determined to free the evil star powers from their celestial prisons and summon them to the world (which would be bad). Until recently, the mind flayers were helping Evendor fulfill his mad desire, but now that they're gone, he's pretty much on his own. Ravok the Mindhammer knows that Starlord Evendor needs to be put down for the good of Iomandra, but for him, it's not personal. Andrew's email suggested that he wanted it to be personal. He wanted Ravok to be more connected to the story somehow. He wanted Starlord Evendor to be more to Ravok than just another world-destroying sack-o'-XP to be pounded into oblivion.
Here's what Andrew proposed to me, in a nutshell:
I like the idea that psionics are nature's reaction to aberrations (like antibodies, if you will). Maybe Ravok had some event in his history that awakened his mind. This might be something as simple as an encounter with some aberrations as a child or adolescent, or it might be something more involved than that.
A campaign world belongs as much to the players as it does to the DM. Therefore, whenever a player begins to dream up new ways for his character to become more fully immersed in the setting, it's incumbent upon the Dungeon Master to help the player integrate his ideas into the campaign's gestalt. The end result of this collaboration is a richer, deeper play experience.
After giving Andrew's email some thought, here's what I wrote back to him:
Ravok's reason for wanting to destroy Evendor is the same as everyone else's: to protect the world from catastrophe. However, the question of how he gained his psionic power is an interesting one. Here's one idea:
When Ravok was a goliath boy, he and several other youths were taken to a henge a circle of stones erected by the tribe's goliath ancestors atop a mountain. The tribal elder told Ravok and his young friends about the henge's ancient builders and its power to chart and predict celestial events. Whereas the other goliath children showed little interest in the henge (they were more interested in their youthful contests), Ravok felt drawn to it. For several nights, he returned to the henge on his own and watched the stars. One night, he saw something . . . a flash in the sky. Maybe it was a star burning out, and maybe the star's death imbued Ravok with a glimmer of its power. Conversely, Ravok might have seen Starlord Evendor himself standing in the middle of the henge, using the circle to commune with distant star powers. (Evendor, being an eladrin, wouldn't have aged dramatically in the intervening years.) Evendor might have spotted the young Ravok and done something to make him forget what he'd seen, and one of the consequences of that "attack" was that it awakened the young goliath's latent psionic ability. You could also say that the ancient henge is where Ravok goes to gain "clarity." Whenever he visits the henge and spends the night, he gains mysterious insight into what he needs to do next. Perhaps he's visited the site on many occasions over the course of his adventuring career, and maybe the time's come for him to return once more.
Most television screenwriters aren't required to consult with paid actors when it comes to character development, although the smart ones embrace a more collaborative experience, allowing the actors to help shape their characters' roles and destinies. By comparison, a DM doesn't really have carte blanche to add background material to a player character without the player's consent. Thus, my email isn't framed as a dictum. Instead, it strives to take the idea that Andrew proposed (a childhood event triggering Ravok's psionic "awakening") and build on it. Ultimately, Andrew will decide whether my idea is a good fit. He might even develop the idea further and come up with his own version. Whatever he decides, Ravok will be a more interesting character to play.
Ultimately, I want Andrew to be happy playing his character, and even though we're one level away from wrapping up the campaign, his desire to "root" Ravok in the unfolding storyline is no less important now than if he'd asked the same question ten levels ago.
I can't tell you where the idea of the mountaintop henge came from, except to say that the Starlord Evendor storyline has an overarching astronomical theme, and the ancient henges of Earth have always fascinated me. I try to present my players with ideas that spur adventures. If Ravok decides to return to the henge seeking guidance, I can plan an encounter or two around his "homecoming" and let the henge play a pivotal role in Ravok's character development.
D&D players often find themselves torn between what's important to the adventuring party (and the campaign as a whole), and what's important to their character in particular. Saving the world is good for everyone, and it's certainly an accomplishment worthy of song, but does it leave the characters feeling fulfilled? Not necessarily. Every character's motivation is different, and the extent to which a character feels personally connected to the plot is important to many players.
It's one thing for Ravok the Mindhammer to save the world (with a little help from his puny friends). It's another thing to simultaneously confront the villain who inadvertently turned Ravok into a psionic weapon. It's ironic. It's personal. And it makes the final conflict that much sweeter.
In a deeply immersive and multilayered campaign, it's easy for player characters to become submerged in the unfolding story. Sometimes I need to remind myself that the campaign serves the characters, not the other way around. Thus, when a player takes strides to bring his or her character to the surface, I do my best to help, and sometimes it's a real test of my improvisational skills. The "DM as Motivator" role doesn't come up all the time, but it's no less important than any other DM role.
When a player asks for my help to root his or her character more firmly in the campaign, I try to keep the following things in mind:
- Build on what the player gives you.
- Be willing to take your campaign in new directions.
- Suggest ideas that have future adventure possibilities.
Hopefully the player will like your suggestions, but if not, that's okay too. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
In his quest to unlock Ravok's motivation, Andrew reminded me that the Iomandra campaign like any unfolding drama is as much about character as plot. A few DMs get locked into telling their stories, and they resist shaping their campaigns around the desires of their players and the motivations of their characters. However, it's been my experience that some of the best adventures and adventure ideas come from players exploring their character's deeper motivations, and such pursuits in turn motivate me to create a more immersive and entertaining campaign.
Until the next encounter!
Dungeon Master for Life,