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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. Two party members landed in prison for meddling in the affairs of the Vost Miraj, the counterintelligence agency of the Dragovar Empire. The Vost Miraj prefers to incarcerate enemies of the state rather than kill them not only because it's good politics but also because it makes more sense in a world where people can be raised from the dead. The imperial prison-island of Zardkarath, ruled by an adamantine dragon named Mheletros, makes Alcatraz look like a youth hostel.
Conventional DM wisdom suggests that the logical course of action is to plan an adventure around a jailbreak. Not a bad idea, but the party members who aren't behind bars have bigger problems to deal with. I decided to have a good-aligned group of NPCs called the Knights of Ardyn storm the prison to free one of their own members. In the course of doing so, they freed the imprisoned PCs as well. It all happened quite fast, with the prisoners being taken to safety through a portal, and there were a couple good roleplaying moments, as one might expect. But in the end, it was a group of NPCs who brought the PCs back together. You might call that "stealing the party's thunder," but my players weren't complaining. Their characters had more important things to do.
A campaign needs to earn the players' respect if it has any chance of survival. Too many potentially awesome campaigns get ripped to shreds by disaffected and disenfranchised players, and for good reason.
In a few weeks, I'll be traveling to Boston for PAX East, and I guarantee there will be DMs in attendance whose campaigns have been turned into chew-toys by players driven to obnoxious behavior. Are your players doing their utmost to sabotage your campaign and make your life behind the DM screen a living hell? Are you players so apathetic to the events of your campaign that they'd rather kill time in a tavern or set it on fire than chase a quest? If the answer is yes, I have a good guess as to why: your NPCs aren't doing their jobs very well.
Last year, I was listening to the DVD commentary that accompanied an episode of Mad Men, the award-winning TV series about commercial advertising in the 1960s. Matthew Weiner, the show's creator and lead writer, hit the nail on the head when he said (and I'm paraphrasing here) that audiences will forgive a character's many faults as long as that character is really good at his or her job. In other words, no one wants to hang around people who are unpleasantly incompetent. I hold that a D&D campaign is no different: If the PCs think they're the only ones capable of doing their jobs well, they see the campaign world as a nightmare and begin to attack it directly. If your players think your NPCs are a bunch of ass-hats and nincompoops, they're doing themselves and you a big favor by setting fire to the world.
If you want your campaign to resonate with players, you need to create a world worth saving. The easiest way to do that is to make the majority of the non-hostile NPCs in your world good at what they do and well disposed toward the adventurers. If the village priest is sympathetic without being sanctimonious, the PCs will care what happens to him and his flock. If the local bartender charges fair prices, tells a good joke, and throws the heroes the occasional free ale, the players will feel less inclined to burn his establishment to the ground. If the king is smart, politically savvy, and fond of adventurers, the players will be more likely to put their characters on the line when the kingdom is threatened than if he's a condescending jerk with no regard for his most worthy subjects. It sounds so simple, but many campaigns are left in shambles by player characters who couldn't, for one reason or another, abide the people they were supposed to protect.
Almost every creature that appears in a typical D&D adventure is dead-set on killing the PCs or making their lives miserable, and most players expect that. (You can't have a campaign without conflict, after all.) However, when the PCs return to town after slaying the dragon, they don't expect the sheriff to treat them like 1st-level chumps or the innkeeper to charge them 1 cp for a good night's sleep. They don't expect the mayor to immediately shove another quest down their throats because the village has proven itself completely unable to defend itself from anything more than a rat infestation.
You want to create a world worth saving? Here are three keys to help you succeed:
Have an NPC show some initiative. Here's a good example: While the characters are investigating a series of murders in a large city, a gang of assassins jumps them in a darkened alley. During the fight, one of the assassins is wounded and flees. Instead of making the PCs chase down the miscreant, have a city guard or helpful passerby tackle the assassin and thwart the escape. Or, have a couple irksome street urchins on a rooftop hurl rocks at the assassin to harry him. Suddenly, it feels like the world is on the party's side for a change!
Have an NPC throw the party a bone. Imagine the party is paying an NPC wizard to craft a magic item or an NPC priest to raise a dead character. In addition to doing what he or she is paid to do, the NPC might throw in a free "upgrade" to the magic item or a free batch of healing potions the party can use at some later date. Of course, you don't need to bribe players with magic items to make them like your world. Even the simplest gesture, such as a farmer tipping his hat to the PCs or offering them fresh apples as they wander by, does the trick.
Have an NPC solve a problem. Hapless NPCs are constantly looking toward the adventurers to solve their problems for them, but players are more inclined to respect an NPC who isn't useless. If a mystery has the party befuddled, an NPC might volunteer a helpful bit of advice that steers the party in the right direction. If the characters visit a town threatened by orcs, an NPC woodsman or scout might single-handedly capture an orc that the heroes can interrogate to find out where its fellow orcs are hiding. The PCs shouldn't have to solve all of the world's problems alone.
Until the next encounter!
Dungeon Master for Life,