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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. One of the main story arcs of the campaign is a war that has largely unfolded offscreen. The Myrthon Regency, which is part of the Dragovar Empire, has been invaded and enslaved by mind flayers in league with Allabar, an elder star entity. However, the main villain is an eladrin warlock named Starlord Evendor, who's using Allabar to free the other evil star powers (entities such as Acamar, Hadar, Caiphon, and Gibbeth) from their celestial prisons. The characters first heard mention of Evendor's name late in the heroic tier, but it wasn't until paragon tier that they became concerned with the war and began taking steps to depose Evendor. And it wasn't until epic tier that they commandeered an illithid nautiloid (an alien mind flayer ship) and crashed it into Starlord Evendor's tower observatory, thereby provoking a face-to-face meeting with the eladrin warlock. That encounter didn't go well for the party, but most of them escaped with their lives and minds intact.
Another confrontation with Starlord Evendor seemed inevitable. He was, arguably, the campaign's "Big Bad." However, the players weren't eager to go charging after him a second time, and so he faded into the background for several levels while the heroes went after villains who were more, shall we say, accessible. Then, out of nowhere, came the surprise announcement that Starlord Evendor had been captured by the Knights of Ardyn, an organization of NPCs dedicated to preserving the Dragovar Empire. Ardyn, the group's silver dragon leader, contacted the heroes to let them know the surprising news, and they traveled to her island fortress to confront the villain.
The Knights of Ardyn needed the heroes' help to interrogate Evendor and determine the whereabouts of the missing Myrthon regent, whom they sought to rescue, but some of the heroes were determined to slay Evendor and pry the information from his corpse (using Speak with Dead rituals). Before Evendor could be slain, however, the true villain of the session appeared and revealed that Evendor, the heroes, and the Knights of Ardyn were pawns in a plot hatched by two dark and distant stars, Ulban and Nihal.
The session's "secret villain" was Melech, Bruce Cordell's former character. (When Bruce left the game, his character became an NPC.) As a tiefling star-pact warlock, Melech had received many visions from Ulban and Nihal over the course of the campaign, tracing all the way back to the early paragon tier. These evil star entities had also given Melech special powers, which he used quite willingly and often. Melech, played by Bruce as somewhat corruptible and a touch mad, was told that he would one day supplant Evendor and become a "Starlord" himself. That day had finally come.
After Bruce left the game, Melech transformed into a tiny mote of starlight that haunted the party from time to time when it suit him. He could enter the bodies of his companions and possess them, if they allowed it which they did, on occasion. Little could they know, however, that their final confrontation with Starlord Evendor was at hand. Unknown to everyone but Melech and Evendor, the stars Ulban and Nihal were in perfect celestial alignment with Iomandra and its sun. Melech intended to use this rare conjunction to forcibly transform several of the PCs into gigantic star-worms the Dread Spawn of Nihal and Ulban. To make it work, I decided that these party members had been born during similar alignments, and thus they were destined to become these horrific creatures. What made it work was Stan!'s new character, a dwarf Knight of Ardyn named Varghuum. The instant Stan! decided he wanted to play a Knight of Ardyn, it seemed natural that Varghuum would be the missing piece of puzzle. As one of Evendor's captors, he would be the final "sacrifice" to Nihal and Ulban.
Bound in chains, Evendor watched helplessly as Starlord Melech called upon Nihal and Ulban to transform Varghuum and three of the other PCs (played by Jeff Alvarez, Chris Dupuis, and Matt Sernett) into horrific star spawn. The resulting battle pitted PC against PC until, at last, Melech was put down. With his death, the alignment of stars was broken, and those who'd transformed into star-worms reverted to their natural forms, whereupon they lamented the death of poor Melech.
I have, in previous installments of this column, touched on writers whose work I find inspirational. I've also made mention of episodic television series that have taught me how to be a better storyteller. However, I have yet to shine the spotlight on Joss Whedon, about whom essays and books have been written. He is, for those unfamiliar with the name, the creative force behind such TV series as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, not to mention the writer/director of this summer's mega-blockbuster, Marvel's The Avengers.
There are plenty of altars dedicated to the man already, so rather than bore you with fan-boy sycophancy, let me point out one thing that Joss does in his work that I've plundered and put to great use in my D&D campaign.
Once in a while, challenge the players' expectations.
I have this ongoing "meta-game" with my players, whereby I plan out my campaign and they try to anticipate how events will play out and plan accordingly. When they're feeling precocious, they also try to steer the campaign in directions that might be counter to what I have planned, just to see how well I improvise. This game-within-a-game is endlessly challenging and fun.
Anyone who studies Whedon's work can see how he dances with his audience before yanking the rug out from under them. I recall a scene in the middle of the third season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in which the heroes are gathered in the high school library, planning their inevitable end-of-season confrontation with the evil Mayor Wilkins. Out of the blue, their meeting is interrupted by the villain himself. As a viewer, I was knocked off balance. Suddenly, I'm expecting a fight to break out. Then I'm surprised again when it doesn't happen. The whole scene catches one off guard.
Early in the same season, we see the introduction of Mayor Wilkins' right-hand man, a suave vampire named Mr. Trick. The audience is led to believe he'll be a major player in the unfolding season, and thus we're surprised when he gets dusted and supplanted by Faith, a rogue vampire slayer. We get another similar jolt in the fourth season, when the ruthless Professor Maggie Walsh meets a surprising end at the hands of Adam, her monstrous creation. Joss Whedon and his allies are never shy about killing off characters (even beloved ones) to shock the audience. No one, neither hero nor villain, is sacred.
As a DM, I try my best to anticipate what the player characters will do next, and what the likely outcomes of their actions and decisions might be. And then I try to find ways to surprise them not all the time, mind you, just when I think the campaign could use a little twist or spark of uncertainty. My Monday night group was holding off on the inevitable confrontation with Starlord Evendor, but the introduction of Stan!'s new character spurred me to drop Starlord Evendor into the party's lap. As an added twist, I made Starlord Evendor a non-threat, which is risky. It's not my normal inclination to have a group of NPCs subdue a major campaign villain, nor do I usually place my villains at such a disadvantage, but that's the point. I knew it would surprise my players. The party had already confronted Evendor once, and another exchange of firepower was exactly what they were expecting. But when I took a step back and asked how things might play out differently, I realized that I could wrap up Melech's storyline and Evendor's storyline in one fell swoop. That intrigued me much more than saving Evendor for the usual end-of-campaign tete-a-tete.
Whedon is a master at shocking his audience, but that's not the only narrative trick or technique I've plucked from his large, juicy brain. Here are three other tried-and-true Whedonisms that I've stumbled across in my study of his work, which I'll only mention in passing as conversation starters:
- Every characterhero, villain, or otherhas a little dork living inside him (or her).
- Every hero should be allowed to do cool stuff.
- Before you make your players cry, make them laugh.
Each of these bullet points is practically an article in itself. Moreover, there are other things that I do as a DM which remind me of things Whedon does as a writer, most of which I've touched on in previous articles (particularly some of the earlier ones). One Whedonism I'm reluctant to try is having characters and NPCs break into song. If I had any songwriting or singing talent, that would be the fourth point on my list. But, alas, I'm no Joss Whedon, nor do I profess to know all of his storytelling secrets.
What Whedonisms have you embraced in your campaign? Inquiring minds want to know . . .
Until the next encounter!
Dungeon Master for Life,