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I’m a Bad DM: A persistent Forgotten Realms

Hello, I’m David Foxfire, and I’m a bad DM. I’ll pause while the rest of you say “Hi, David.”

I guess I need to introduce myself for starters. I got into D&D several years back in the later parts of 4th Edition, but I really dived into the game full-time would be when they started playtesting 5th Edition. While I’m not one who’d do into any Edition Wars (I’d play any Edition) 5th Edition is the version for me.

When the Encounters table I used to go to split into a separate table for playtesting, I went to the 5th Edition table with relish. However, after a couple previous campaigns, the DM had to leave the Encounters table during Murder in Baldur’s Gate and since I had the seniority, asked me to take his place. I tried my hand at DMing with the gone-but-not-forgotten Virtual Table from DDI once, and the other players really liked the way I did it. So I was honored to pick up the slack, and took to the my new role, screwing around with the players and doing very bad things to the poor unsuspecting city. Just for the record: I had two Chosen of Bhaal at the end of Murder in Baldur’s Gate; Silvershield and Ravenguard. They ended up killing each other off and destroying most of the Upper City in the process. Bhaal hasn’t spoken to me since.

This will be important later in this article.

So now 5th Edition is all in everyone’s business, with all three of the main books published and its current Encoutners Season, “Tyranny of Dragons,” out in the stores by now. I wanted to take my table through both Hoard of the Dragon Queen and Rise of Tiamat if I could breeze through the books. I was so focused on developing my own style of DMing; some parts I’ll share in future articles here if the admins here would be so kind and tolerant of me and my crazy ways. But I knew that I was in a bit of a pickle when the party breezed through the Encounters-themed content—up to the Dragon Hatchery chapter—in the course of a month and a half. At first I thought, hey, we might be able to get to the official end of the big story here, but then I realized something that would cause many a Dungeon Master conniption fits: The players reading the modules!

That would annoy some DMs more than seeing Ravenguard in Rise of Tiamat and wonder “Hey, didn’t I kill him off more than a year ago? It’ll be a bit jarring for the table to find him back to life after he became the Chosen of Bhaal on my table.” (And I had two of them.)

Granted, the former is more of a derailment of many a campaign than the more minor irritant of the latter. How many DMs called upon Tiamat to blitz the party because one of the players on the table has been a bad boy—and what a coincidence, that’s what the Cult of the Dragon’s trying to do, isn’t it? I even heard of DM’s giving PC’s a stroke and giving their players the boot. I’ve found a better way, and it can deal with both problems, people reading up on the modules, and parts in the current Adventurer’s League storyline that just doesn’t fit.

By setting these Encounters campaigns in a persistent Forgotten Realms, where the effects of the campaign are remembered and carried over to future campaigns. Persistent, as in “continuing to exist or endure over a prolonged period.” This requires a bit of tweaking of the published material, but in the end, it’ll give the players a much needed twist in the game. Especially the jerks who read up on the module. Imagine the evil grin on your face when they do, “This isn’t in the book,” as you reply, “You’re so expletive right.”

This requires a bit of note work and preparation with your campaigns and sessions, of course. With every event and choice that the party on your table makes, you have to make a record of it and keep it in a list on your side of the DM’s screen. Once you get the following campaign, you bring your list of what has happened in prior campaigns when you plan your sessions. If something from the book is different from what is in that list, change the details to fit what happened before. More often than not, you don’t need to change that much in the main gist of the published document, mostly change an NPC, move an encounter around, create a little detour, replace one batch of enemies or another or add some kind of fluffery to fit the changes into the campaign.

It would have to be within some limits, however. The Adventurer’s League is, of course, sanctioned play, and there’s only so much you can alter before a published game ends up being something better served for a home game. And Wizards of the Coast would prefer that you stick to the main structure of the module, the actual chapters and storyline. Of course, they didn’t say that you can’t broadside the party with something so unsuspecting that it throws the whole party off their guard and those who are metagaming off their own rails.

Referring back to what happened in Murder in Baldur’s Gate, I’ll give you an example for Rise of Tiamat. Sure, I did put in parts that the party sees the reconstruction progress in the Upper City as they travel north to Waterdeep earlier. However, in the second part of the Tyranny of Dragons storyline, most of the power players in the Sword Coast has gathered into Waterdeep to form a council to address the Cult of the Dragon. First off I’m thinking that this Council remains well after the events in this module conclude. Not only will it behoove the members that a line of communication among each other would help smooth out any matters, the possibility of this Council providing a future hook or plot device in future campaigns is too good to miss, not to mention tweaking any future campaigns in my Encounter table. But then I read down on the list and found Marshal Ulder Ravenguard in the group.

The same Ravenguard who became a Chosen of Bhaal and died in a blood-crazed frenzy, not too long ago. Because of this I had to make a change there, by replacing Ravenguard with another NPC. While I had my own NPC to whip up, you can just as easily swap in Coran, one of the two other dukes, make your own character, or something else that whatever fits. It’s not majority altering the main thrust of the campaign (The Cult of the Dragon raising Tiamat up from the Nine Hells), just altering one detail to show a continuity from your previous campaigns. As long as you’re just doing that, I doubt that Wizards of the Coast will down the door and drag you away for screwing around with their published campaigns.

And this persistence can carry on to future campaigns as well. I don’t know what will come after “Tyranny of Dragons,” but I’m already thinking up contingencies for whatever happens at the end of Rise of Tiamat.

Consider what would happen if Tiamat TPKs the party at the end. According to the official document, Faerun takes it very bad. All of the council members go into ‘Bring me my Brown Pants’ mode as the whole Sword Coast gets eradicated into a multi-colored dragon breath induced wasteland, and the Forgotten Realms fall into a new dark age where Dragons rule the land. Or I would have her look at the Cult of the Dragon, after nomming Sevrin in five bites (One for each head. At the same time.), go “Foolish Mortal! No-one Commands Tiamat,” (Oh, did I say that I make an occasional nod to the online games like ‘Neverwinter’ on the table?) and take off to a far off land where she can set up her own lair devoid of meddling adventurers. That would give the Council time to regroup, replan, and focus on sending Tiamat back to the Nine Hells. Either way, those who plan perpetual Forgotten Realms will plan on having Tiamat returning every now and then, even if it’s just in name mention, in the upcoming campaign.

Example: The party encounters a dragon in a future Encounters session. The dragon is consulting a message from a mirror. As they creep further to get into position, one of the party members realizes that the image in the mirror is not of the dragon, but of Tiamat, who looks right into that person’s eyes and then tells the dragon, “You need to work on your lair security, pal. Snooping mortals at 6 o’clock low.” If Tiamat wins at the end of ‘Tyranny of Dragons,’ expect me to put in a lot of those scenes.

On the other hand, what would happen if the party drives Tiamat back? The Cult of the Dragon is beaten down, most of the Dragonspeakers and Wearers of Purple are killed off, and the rest of the group is scattered into disarray. It is by no means over for the Cult of the Dragon, just as it was with the Thayans when their turn as the top bad guys were seriously trounced during the Sundering eras. I’m sure that they’ll find a way to remarshal their forces and plan to get back on top. Maybe they’ll go back to just making dracolishes, or maybe they’ll take a completely new direction for the Cult. Either way, the Cult of the Dragon is never down for good. The remains of the cult will be back. And they will remember what happened before. Sure, they won’t be able to exact revenge on the party, but they will remember what went wrong and learn from their mistakes.

I just record the result, brainstorm up possible aftereffects for the survivors, and have that in mind in tweaking the details (again, we’retalkingg what’s happening in the background, not the main story of the game). And as for the actual Player Characters? I’ll also record what the players see the PCs do after their crowning moment of glory, and look for opportunities to reference them in the future. A character the players were roleplaying with today may appear as an NPC in a year or two down the line.

More often than not, it’s possible that the upcoming campaign isn’t affected at all. It might have a different place in the Realms, deal with a different bad guy, set in a city or village that hasn’t yet been touched by your ‘everything you touch just turns to rubble’ hands, or some other way that you can just play the campaign unedited. In that case, you can go along with that campaign without a worry, just add a newsletter or update report on what is happening to the previous locales (like the reconstruction reports I give about Baldur’s Gate) to keep reminding the players that their actions have consequences.

If by any chance that you can’t find a way to fit a future published module into the persistent continuity, like having a major character that you previously killed off, or based on a town that ended up nuked when Tiamat quintuple-blasts it into irradiated glass, or some other way that somehow doesn’t make it fit. Fortunately, for the Adventures League, you have options. You can switch over to Expeditions and have a little fun in the Moon Sea region, out of the way of the Sword Coast (Or for that matter, Cormyr or Nethril or Thay) or any other area the printed modules put places the party. Also, Expeditions have their own continuity built in so that you don’t need to alter those modules in any way. After a couple of Expeditions, you’d have enough time to think up a good explanation of a returning village or a resurging faction.

It might take a little more work than you’d expect using published material, but I believe that giving the modules these tweaks is for the better. Especially when your table has been a regular weekly event for some time, and doubly so if they have been cheating. Setting the campaign in a Forgotten Realms that remembers the Player’s actions from before; even though it’ll exist in ways Wizards of the Coast would never expect, will be more enjoyable for the others on the table, because it’ll be all the more real to the people on the table living several lives in it. Because they will see their actions having effects that really matter.

Unspoken, of course, is the obvious; Wizards of the Coast won’t mind because it’s doubtful that they’d ever want to know how you make it different than they do. They’d be too busy questioning my sanity when I talk about my latest time I’ve been a bad DM:

While on the road to Waterdeep, I covered the rained over a patch of ground ahead with mushrooms up to people’s ankles.  When someone up front stepped on one, he started to act a bit…weird.  While the party swept the rest of the shrooms away, the spores the fungus produces got inhaled by everyone in the caravan, adventuring party and all. The next thing the players knew, their characters found themselves lost in the woods.  Along with the rest of the caravan. Even the Cult of the Dragon members.

When Tiamat arrives, she would like to have…words…with me.

Author: DavidFoxfire

I've been into D&D since the latter parts of 4th Edition, but I really chose 5th Edition as my Edition of choice, even to DMing and designing campaigns with this recent edition. I hope to start off a streaming my D&D table--both real life and online--on the web. When I'm not playing D&D you can find me making artwork and illustrations online. In fact most of the headers for the articles I make (and some in-article illustrations) are drawn by me. I live in the St. Louis Metro East area with an extended family and supporting a game shop that has just gotten off the ground.

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