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Excerpts: Famous Dragons

Some sages collect names of stars, spirits, deities, or exarchs, in hopes that the possession of such lists might make them wise or even grant them mastery over the workings of the world. In the same way, masters of arcane arts might assemble lists of dragons past and present. Within these lists, such masters seek keys of power in hidden congruencies and subtle threads.

No compilation has so far bequeathed anyone with such power, but lists continue to grow. Here follows a list of famous dragons from various worlds of the D&D game—a list by no means comprehensive. It is a mere sampling of the reams of known dragon names.

Dragonlance Setting

The world of the Dragonlance setting may contain more dragons than any other.

This smallish dragon had the body shape and acidic breath of a black dragon, but his scales were white like snow. Albino was mistreated both by his fellow hatchlings and his own mother, the Snake of Blackness, for his small size and oddly hued scales. Albino got his revenge one day by walling off an underwater lair entrance while the Snake of Blackness was outside with bricks he etched with his acid. Fleeing from Malystryx (see below), the Snake of Blackness descended beneath the surface to the lair entrance, only to find it blocked. Too short on air to return to the surface, she drowned. Albino appears in the story “The Albino” in the collection Search for Power.

This fierce red dragon was the mount and protector of Verminaard of Nidus. Verminaard was in charge of Pax Tharkas’s mines, supplying ore for weapons and armor to the Dragonarmies. Ember is referenced in the War of the Lance sourcebook.

A massive, sinuous black dragon, Khisanth guarded a fabulous treasure called the Disks of Mishakal in the ruined city of Xak Tasroth. In her underground lair in the sunken, ruined city, Khisanth gathered many other treasures to her besides the Disks, including a spellbook of Fistandantilus. Khisanth appears in DL1: Dragons of Despair.

When the Age of Mortals began, Malystryx was the first of the great Dragons to come to Ansalon from across the sea. Unbelievably massive, this fantastic monster measured more than four hundred feet from snout to tail, with her wingspan reaching almost five hundred feet. Her deep red scales were each as large as a shield and as hard as steel. Her rule was finally ended by the hero Mina who slew the mighty dragon overlord. Malystyx appears in the novel Age of Mortals.

D&D (Greyhawk) Dragons

The oldest D&D campaign setting boasts many famous dragons.

In forgotten barrows in a lonely swamp lurks a vampiric lizardfolk whose grasp on power is aided and abetted by the black dragon Aulicus. This black dragon appears in the adventure I2: Tomb of the Lizard King.

Brazzemal the Bright
Brazzemal has unusually light scales for a red dragon, and a particularly bright flaming breath. The dragon is given to long periods of sleepy torpor. But these habits do not make it too vulnerable, thanks to the location of its lair in a deep cavern under the volcanic ground in the Hellfurnaces. Above his chamber, fire giants lair. This red dragon appears in the adventure G3: Hall of the Fire Giant King.

Calcryx was the white dragon wyrmling mascot of a kobold tribe that lived in the ruins of a fallen fortress known as the Sunless Citadel. The white dragon was stolen by enemy goblins, and its fate afterward was never fully established. Calcryx appears in the adventure Sunless Citadel.

Near the Tower of the crazed mage Zagig is the cavernous lair of the ancient red dragon Farcluun, who knew full well of Zagig’s unstable state, and took what advantage it could. Farcluun appears in WGR1: Greyhawk Ruins.

This young black dragon lairs beneath the fallen dwarfhold of Khundrukar in a sunken cavern called the Black Lake. The dwarves are long gone, but various goblin and orc bands now inhabit the tunnels, but view visit Nightscale, because the black dragon is always hungry. Nightscale appears in the adventure Forge of Fury.

Forgotten Realms Dragons

The dragons of Faerûn are legion. All the dragons described below appeared in Dragon Magazine’s Wyrms of the North feature.

Daurgothoth, “The Creeping Doom”
This male black dragon has embraced undeath, and hunts the world as a dracolich. This great dragon lairs not too far from Waterdeep, and through bribes and threat of death, “employs” several agents to purchase or steal interesting items in the City of Splendors to continue building his hoard.

Hoondarrh, “The Red Rage of Mintarn”
This male ancient red dragon keeps several lairs. His main one on the isle of Skadaurak is a vast complex of subterranean rooms with easy access for a flying dragon. The dragon has a deal with the folk of Mintarn; in return for a yearly tribute, Hoondarrh won’t lay waste to Mintarn, and sometimes he even protects it.

Mornauguth, “The Moor Dragon”
This female adult green dragon lairs in the Misty Forest in an area of steep-sided, breakneck wooded ravines. Rumor has it that Mornauguth is a human transformed, trapped in green dragon shape by a curse. Formerly a priestess of Shar, her reckless ambitions caught up with her.

Olothontor, “The Minstrel Wyrm”
This elder blue dragon lairs not far from Waterdeep. Olothontor loves music above all else. He is rumored to grant extravagant gifts to minstrels whose songs please him. Intruders who stumble into his lair and then play or sing won’t be attacked, so long as they furnish good music and plenty of it.

Voaraghamanthar, “The Black Death”
This elder black dragon has learned something of sorcery. It lairs in the Mere of Dead Men, a salt water swamp. Rumored to have the ability to be in two places at one time, in truth Voaraghamanthar and its clutch sibling, Waervaerendor, fool the incredulous by posing as each other as need demands. No one suspects the flitting black ghost of claws and jaws that strikes out of nowhere, that lives in black swamp waters that hide the bodies of victims soon to be dined upon, is really a team of two.

Found in an Old Book

By Doug Beyer
Spellbook by Ciruelo and Book of Rass by Sandra EveringhamWelcome again to Steal This Hook! This edition's theme is found in an old book: adventure hooks that begin with someone cracking open the pages of a careworn tome, for good or for ill. (Hey, who are we kidding? Of course it's for ill). Unleash one or more of these on your players, and show them that ignorance may in fact be bliss!
The Blank Codex
The uncle of one of the PCs dies and leaves his adventuring nephew or niece a curious old codex bound in leather and locked with a keycharm (Shadows of the Last War, pg. 24). The cover has no title but is decorated with circular sigils. When they get it open, its pages are blank -- yet the book radiates magic! It turns out that each page is written with a special kind of illusory script: unreadable unless certain conditions are met. Some of the pages are time-based: one becomes readable when the plane of Dolurrh is waxing, for example. Others are based on characteristics of the reader: only elves or those with the Mark of Handling can read certain pages.
What can be read there? The book is the journal of a wizard and Last War veteran in the uncle's family (the wizard's arcane mark is probably on it somewhere). The wizard traveled extensively and saw many wonders and mysteries, making the book a gold mine of potential adventures. Now that it has emerged, the book may also draw attention to the heroes. A representative of House Sivis would pay handsomely for such a work of scribing; enemies of the old wizard may try to steal it; and an obsessed cultist who believes it may contain a map to a protected seal may threaten or kill the heroes for it.
The Henge in the Gloaming
In the Eldeen city of Xandrar, Gatekeeper druids are concerned about signs that the poaching of good creatures in the Towering Wood has increased. They ask the PCs for help investigating these crimes against their faith. It turns out that someone has been buying up pixie wings, giant eagle feathers, and unicorn horns, and payment has always been in the form of letters of credit from Morgrave University.
Meanwhile, in the thickest, darkest, most claustrophobic grove of The Gloaming, a Druidic Studies student and his horrid ape companions work tirelessly to build... something. They fell trees. They move huge, oblong stones. They arrange a collection of wings, feathers, and horns on a rune-covered stone slab, following exactly the diagrams and directions in a set of Old Galifar scrolls titled A Dialectical Discussion of the Planes, by Professor Uric Helbaine, paying special attention to the third scroll: "Musings concerning the Early-Walkers and their Connection with Mabar." The heroes must not only confront the misguided student but also deal with the disastrous consequences of focusing the Gloaming's negative energies through the mystical henge dreamed up by the long-dead Professor Helbaine.
The Almanac of Tomorrow
In a dungeon beneath the Mournlands, the heroes discover a chamber full of loose parchment pages (note: fire hazard!). Buried under the pages are the remains of a magical almanac that adds a new page to itself each day. Years ago, the book's cover burst under the strain of the stream of new pages, and now the dungeon room is packed with them. Each page carries the date it was created and makes predictions about what will happen tomorrow (that's tomorrow from the day the page was created). They predict weather patterns, casualty numbers, troop movements, and other significant events.
The most recent page reports that a disaster will occur tomorrow, and the heroes may be able to prevent it! Perhaps it reports that, despite the Last War being over, tomorrow's "casualty numbers" are in the hundreds, and it states "Cyre" is moving troops toward the border of Thrane (which could mean the Lord of Blades is planning an attack). Perhaps it reports a weather disaster brought on by a rogue member of House Lyrandar. It may report pestilence and famine that the heroes know to be caused by an evil curse.
The almanac loses accuracy if it is removed from the dungeon chamber but still produces useful information. Investigating its origin might lead to further adventures.
Expedition of the Tome of Glyphs
The heroes' patron informs them of rumors that the true Tome of Glyphs, a legendary book detailing the history of giants in Xen'drik, may be located in a dungeon in the misty jungles of Q'barra. An archaeologist and linguist of Sharn, Brenna Dowen, will accompany the adventurers and help them follow a set of clues to the whereabouts of the dungeon.
At the dungeon entrance, they find the deserted camp of a rival expedition. They may be too late! Inside the dungeon, the party comes upon a hexagonal chamber containing six enormous books (each about the size of a noble's bed) on heavy display stands. Which is the right one? Bloody smears on the floor lead to one wall. Then the books attack! The party has been lured into the lair of six mimics (or whatever number your PCs can handle). The previous expedition was subdued or destroyed, and their remains are poorly hidden behind a secret door at the end of the trail of blood. Is the real Tome of Glyphs somewhere in this dungeon, or was a crafty illithid using the legend to lure adventurers into its mimic-lair? Perhaps Brenna Dowen tricked the party for her own reasons.
Monsters in the Library Basement
Mr. Pumble Dombibbin, a night clerk at the Library of Korranberg, calls the adventurers' for help one moonless evening. He trapped two monsters in the bottom floor of the Library, which houses books in storage. Only the heavy door leading to the stairwell has kept them at bay. Dombibbin has no explanation for how the monsters got into the Library; he just wants them captured and removed. He insists they not be killed and will give the heroes a handsome reward if they succeed quickly.
The PCs stalk the monsters among the dark corridors and dusty stacks. Behind an iron door labeled "Rare Books," whose lock is broken, they come face-to-face with a pair of fihyrs (Monster Manual II, or substitute any aggressive monsters with appropriate CR). The fihyrs are actually Mr. Dombibbin's sons, ages 12 and 10. There were accidentally transformed by a spell they read out of a nearby tome. The spell affected their minds, too, so they believe themselves to be ferocious fihyrs. Mr. Dombibbin knows what happened but he will be in big trouble if his employers find out he allowed his boys to play in the stacks. He believes he can reverse the spell if the PCs trap the monstrous boys and recover the book they read.
Still hungry for more adventure hooks? Here are some bite-sized book-themed ideas to chew on.

  • What appears to be a book of spells is actually a recipe for an extended magical ritual to call down meteors from the Ring of Siberys -- with the power to destroy an entire city.

  • In the ruins of a half-sunk Shadow Marches temple, the heroes discover a set of stone tablets describing the location of an ancient artifact related to the daelkyr.

  • A book of poetry with pages of fine vellum is found at an estate sale. The author turns out to be the personal scribe of old King Jarot. It could be full of clues of historical import, coveted by many nations.

  • A financial ledger in the Mror Holds reveals evidence that an underground organization seized a huge amount of resources through shrewd, almost prophetic business deals. Perhaps the Aurum has enslaved an earth weird to guide their business practices.

  • The PCs are hired to steal a book from a private collection. The book itself is unimportant but it contains a magic dagger hidden in a hollowed-out space in the center pages, and the dagger is happy to be free.

  • A student of the magical arts must finish her dissertation on necromantic phenomena before her academic deadline. She needs the heroes to bring her tissue or bone samples of at least three specific undead creatures within one week.

  • A famous novel is delivered to one of the PCs -- with a message from the author penned in blood inside the front cover.
About the Author
Doug Beyer spent a lot of time getting philosophy degrees until he figured out that he should just move to Seattle and become a web developer for Wizards of the Coast. Now he spends his days working on games and his evenings playing them. Doug uses the time normally allotted for sleeping to lurk on the message boards as his alter ego, WotC_Doog.

Mysterious Disappearances

By Doug Beyer
Welcome to "Steal This Hook!," a new column of Eberron adventure hooks. Every other week this column will bring you, the DM, a bevy of Eberron ideas to steal for your campaign. Think of yourself as a picky, bib-wearing, hungry monarch and "Steal This Hook!" as platter after steaming platter heaped high with juicy delights. Grab whatever looks appetizing, your majesty, and toss the rest to the dogs! (You know, because there're always dogs.) You'll find several entrée-sized hooks and then a bevy of bite-sized mini-hooks in each installment.
Each "Steal This Hook!" column will have a topic that ties the hooks together -- kind of an Iron Chef-style theme ingredient that flavors all the ideas. The themes will vary from straightforward fantasy motifs to ludicrously bizarre Eberron headtrips. Our first theme? "Mysterious disappearances." So glad you asked!
The Case of the Locked Vault
A House Tharashk bounty hunter hires the heroes to investigate a rash of thefts from their private stores of Eberron dragonshards and other treasures. The treasures are kept sealed in a windowless stone vault behind an impressively warded iron door, and the vault is guarded day and night. The thefts have happened every night. The guards swear they didn't open the door or even see anyone -- the loot just mysteriously disappeared. Is a mystically skilled thief using teleport to enter and exit the vault? Could an ambitious ethereal filcher be coming back each night? Might someone have dug a tunnel under the vault? Or are the "thefts" a ruse to distract from the real crime -- many of the treasures are illusionary, and are disappearing as their spell durations end? The heroes need to bring their forensic skills to bear to solve this mystery.
Runaway in the Reaches
A farming family near the edge of the Eldeen Reaches' Towering Wood sends a call for adventurers to find their missing daughter. The girl was last seen three days ago, when she disappeared along with a heavy wool cloak, an antique shield, and two weeks' rations. Investigation may reveal that she had been receiving letters in the Sylvan tongue -- was she wooed by a charming satyr? Invited to join an unknown sect of Eldeen moon-worshippers? Or was she kidnapped by mischievous fey, who also stole the supplies to confuse the issue? Is her family covering a dark secret -- that they sold their daughter to evil druids in exchange for a bountiful harvest? The heroes must locate the girl, and time may be of the essence.
The Eyestalks Have It
A kalashtar scholar was away at a conference when his collection of preserved beholder eyestalks was stolen. When the heroes come to investigate, the first thing they discover is that the scholar is obsessed with the crime: he follows the PCs wherever possible and uses psionics to "eavesdrop" on the investigation when he can't personally be on the scene. Furthermore, the crime scene is perplexing -- the scholar's front door was apparently chewed open by something with powerful jaws, and his wood floors are gouged with claw-marks, yet the wards and locks on the glass display cases were carefully dispelled and disabled. Who would have taken the eyestalk collection? A purist sect of the Church of the Silver Flame persecuting the man for his kalashtar heritage? A mad artificer (with iron defenders) interested in the eyestalks as wands or as components for some bizarre, eldritch machine? A summoner (with a bound rast at her side) needing odd gifts for her hungry, conjured demons? Some poor, blind monster that believes the beholder eyes might grant it sight? An actual beholder and its servants that wants to end the kalashtar's abominable collecting?
The Missing Mummy
When the Historical Museum of Sharn's exhibit, "Ancient Rulers of Galifar," opens to the public, the most anticipated item on display is the recently-discovered sarcophagus of Bruudash the Third, a centuries-old Galifar lord. The docent of the exhibit throws open the sarcophagus to reveal Bruudash's mummified body, but besides the musk of embalming spice, it's empty. Did the local rich aficionado hire thugs for "grand theft mummy" to add to his private collection? Has a curse somehow shriveled the mummy to dust? Perhaps worst of all, did Bruudash walk out of his box of his own accord, bent on punishing the living for his centuries-long dirt nap?
One Carload Short of a Lightning Rail
The lightning rail train from Wroat arrives in Sharn -- missing a car. The train's conductor and security personnel explain, in half-shock, that while the train passed through some heavy fog, the private sleeping car simply vanished, leaving the train severed in two. They stopped the engine, reconnected the train, and continued on, hoping to get help in Sharn. What force could have snatched a car from a moving train? Was it disintegrated or teleported? Was the rest of the train somehow frozen in time (by a mass sleep spell, or even time stop), allowing the culprit(s) several undisturbed minutes in which to spirit away the car? Or was it snatched by a roc in the fog? A wrinkle: When the train left Wroat, the missing car carried the famous Brelish Last War veteran Forv Yannar, who was to speak at a rally in Sharn. Were Yannar's enemies intent on stopping that speech? Did Yannar himself stage his disappearance to get attention or to avoid assassins? Was he traveling with a valuable cache of Last War weapons? Finally, where is the train car and its passengers or cargo now?
Still hungry for more adventure hooks? Here are a few bite-sized ideas to chew on.
  • The Library of Korranberg hires the adventurers to locate certain crucial maps from a Last War refugee's journal that went missing during a bizarre raid by savage halflings.
  • A dragonmark heir contacts the PCs to interview her family members when their dragonmarks begin disappearing.
  • A living mass invisibility spell somehow gets transported to a crowded market and causes havoc when people and objects begin vanishing at random.
  • A Cyran expatriate hires the heroes to explore the ruins of her hometown in what is now the Mournlands, but now only a misty lake remains where the town used to be.
  • An important Karrnathi official goes missing but reappears just before a crucial vote involving policies on changeling rights; the heroes are hired to investigate what happened.
  • A warforged thespian takes a break between scenes of a high-profile play and is never seen again.
  • An Old Galifar-era village once thought lost to time reappears on a misty night during the conjunction of four planes -- and may vanish again when the conjunction ends.
  • An arcane marked letter of credit from a House Kundarak bank in the Mror Holds must reach Korth, Karrnath, in two weeks' time, but witnesses at a small inn along the way say that the courier vanished, leaving his traveling equipment in his room.
  • The stone gargoyle decorations on Queen ir'Wynarn's castle in Aundair have gone missing overnight; royal scions hire adventurers to aid in their recovery.
  • Morgrave University loses contact with their team of archaeologists on a dig in Q'Barra. Coincidentally, a cell of Dreaming Dark spies and assassins have taken up residence in the vine-covered ruins the scientists were uncovering.
  • A pair of wererat criminals are captured but they vanish from their locked coach during their transfer to Dreadhold.
Editor's Note: For those of you lucky enough to be too young to remember 1970, that was the year Abbie Hoffman (Google him -- yes, him) published a book called Steal This Book. It had nothing to do with D&D or Eberron, but in the spirit of anarchy, we decided to hijack his title for our series anyway. Abbie would approve.
About the Author
Doug Beyer spent a lot of time getting philosophy degrees until he figured out that he should just move to Seattle and become a web developer for Wizards of the Coast. Now he spends his days working on games and his evenings playing them. Doug uses the time normally allotted for sleeping to lurk on the message boards as his alter ego, WotC_Doog.

Dot to Dot

By Michelle Bottorff
Ideas for interesting towns
Exciting Actropolis is where the vile underlord Morticus spins his cruel plots. The adventurers have discovered a message from him on the body of one of his hirelings and are heading toward the mighty city. Fewmar eagerly looks at his map. ‘Look here! If we travel across country we’ll cut weeks off the journey’.

The adventurers head out into the wilderness, make a few bad rolls during a river crossing, and finally, sick and tired of roughing it, they run across the road to... Poketon? The DM stares blankly at the dot on his map. The players are sick of random wilderness encounters and are ready for some real role-playing, but he knows absolutely nothing about this place!

Just because the DM is improvising doesn’t .t mean that all the small towns on the map need to end up generic and boring. The players may want a change of pace, or the characters may need a bit of nudging to get them back on the path of the planned adventure, or maybe the DM just wants to add some realism to his campaign.

Whatever the reason, here are some ideas for making improvised towns interesting, exciting, memorable and maybe even useful.

The personality of the place
One method is to give the town its own mood. The original edition of the AD&D® DUNGEON MASTER® Guide has many splendid lists of adjectives. (If you don’t have it, try a thesaurus.) These were originally intended for the fleshing out of NPCs but work equally well when determining the character of a town. Pessimistic, aloof, dreamy, soft-hearted, spendthrift; all these adjectives, and a host of others, can be used to describe towns as well as people. With practice a DM can generate a whole town from a randomly picked adjective.

DM: Tall fences line both sides of the road. Past them and to the left you can see a farmer working in his fields. Though he shouts no greetings, you seem to sense his head turning as he watches you go by. Soon you find yourself among the stone buildings of the little village. Stout oak doors with peep holes line the narrow street. A little boy playing with a cup and ball game stops to stare at you. Suddenly a door is flung open. A young woman runs out and grabs the boy, hauling him inside. The door crashes shut behind them.
Lady Ariadne: (Placing her hand on her rapier and frowning after the vanished child.) My friends, this town seems less than friendly.
Beran the Brave: Much less!
Fewmar: I wonder why so suspicious...
When creating a ‘mood town,’ most of the people in the community will share its dominate characteristic, but be careful not to overdo it. Even the most suspicious of towns probably has one or two friendly characters.

The inhabitants are not the only thing that affects the mood. Architecture is an important factor, and it is much more likely that the buildings fit the adjective better than the people. A friendly town for instance, might have thatched roofs and brightly painted cottages; an extravagant town would have peaked arches and impressive façades. Other things to take into consideration are the town layout and the types of businesses. A town with numerous taverns built around a bustling town square conveys a totally different mood than one built on a grid, with one small tavern and no inn, with only a way-house at the nearby religious retreat.

Another more subtle indication of town personality is how quickly it accepts new ideas. Progressive towns are interested in news of other places and are delighted by anything that is innovative and new. Anti-progressive towns aren’t interested in the rest of the world and are scornful of any device (or fashion) they haven’t seen before. Some towns are mixed, with half the populace eager for change, while the other half clings desperately to the past. This alters not only the mood of the town but also its technology level. The technology levels that are possible depend largely on your campaign world, but don’t hesitate to go to extremes. Inventors do not always live in the city, so Poketon may well be a few years ahead of the rest of the country, while the neighboring town is centuries behind the times.

If the players are bored, the DM may decide not to take the time to build a mood but opt instead for quick action. The easiest way to do this is to have the town already involved in some kind of fight. A special dispute not only keeps the players happy but also serves to make the town stand out in their memory.

Feuds work well. Take, for example the story of Romeo and Juliet. It’s about two important families whose feud is so severe that they manage to involve a good part of the city. In a small town this sort of situation is even more deadly. It’s virtually impossible for anyone to remain neutral; even chance visitors need to take sides at least to the degree of deciding whose inn they will sleep in that night.
DM: You awake to the smell of smoke and the sound of shouting. Footsteps are clattering down the hall outside your door.
Beran: (Leaping to the door and throwing it open.) What’s going on here!?
DM: A peasant boy turns to face you, waving his dagger and shouting, ‘Death to all Saiger-lovers!’
Beran: (Picking the boy up and shaking him.) I love only Galyna, Lady of Hearthkeep, and I’ll kill anyone who says otherwise!
Fewmar: What’s a Saiger? Wasn’t that the name of the innkeeper?
Lady Ariadne: Never mind that; I think the inn is on fire!
Another interesting situation occurs when the town is divided politically. For instance, the last election was a tie, and both candidates now consider themselves mayor. If the situation is violent, the players will be called upon to choose sides, but there is always the possibility that there is no fighting, just two town sheriffs enforcing two sets of laws, two tax collectors, two places they must get their weapons licensed, etc.

Each mayor could have his own distinct territory, but it is generally more fun to just have each mayor claim the whole town or to at least have the border line between sections irregular and indistinguishable so the players never know which set of laws they are subject to at any given moment.
Guard: Ho there!
Fewmar: Yes?
Guard: You just used magic!
Fewmar: Err, yes.
Beran: You got a problem with that?
Guard: It’s against the law to use magic in Poketon.

Lady Ariadne: Nonsense, my good man. That fellow in High street didn’t say anything!
Guard: High street is in Upper Poketon. You’re in Lower Poketon now. Come with me.

If Poketon has a close neighbor, then it would be quite likely for them to have developed a rivalry. This rivalry is most commonly expressed by strong competition in sporting events, with a number of towns going so far as inventing their own events. For instance there are two towns in England that annually compete over a side of ham. The ham starts at a midway point between the two towns, and the town that gets it into their own town square first gets to keep it. A fun variation could be to have a whole live pig, which would, of course, be doing its best to get away. Any type of contest will do: and there are many to choose from; team sports, wrestling, greased pole climbing, target shooting, seeing how high you can count before taking a breath. Try to pick something that will interest your player’s characters.

Whether there is a sporting event actually going on, there are many people in a rival town willing to bore the players to death by giving blow by blow accounts of every event that occurred during the last 10 years. It is important to remember that according to Poketon’s loyal citizens, Poketon is clearly superior. Anything Rivalburg does, Poketon does better. This attitude carries over from sporting events to industry and almost all other aspects of small town life; Poketon’s cows produce better milk than Rivalburg’s cows, their priest is more pious, their blacksmith better skilled.

In extreme circumstances a rivalry develops into a war,
DM: The small shifty-eyed man behind the bar leans towards you.
Bartender: Are you from Rivalburg?
Lady Ariadne: Use your eyes, my good man. Do I look like somebody from Rivalburg?
Beran: Never heard of the place.
Bartender: Then I’m glad you’re here. You two look like you’d be useful in a fight. The sheriff asked me to look out for anyone who might be willing to join our march on Rivalburg!
Fewmar: Why are you attacking Rivalburg?
Bartender: (Ignoring Fewmar.) What do you say?
Lady Ariadne: Hmmm. Why not?After all, a good fight is always amusing.
Bartender: Well, we’re not attacking them, precisely, you understand. It’s a protest march.
Beran: A what?
Fewmar: What are you protesting?
Bartender: Those scurvy knaves have been under-cutting our prices! We’re going to lay down the law to those dastards! Either they put their prices back to where they used to be or we retaliate! (The bartender shakes a fist in the direction of Rivalburg, then realizing he’s making a scene, looks back at the adventurers.)
Lady Ariadne: I’m sorry. I don’t do demonstrations.
Bartender: (Shrugging.) Sheriff wanted some heavy-weights around in case there was trouble. We’ll pay you, of course.

Poketon doesn’t need to be fighting another town; they could be fighting outlaws, a renegade magic user, an appropriate monster or some kind of spell effect gone wild.

Points of interest
Some ‘points of interest towns’ are considered so interesting that they expect people to come visit them. The PCs are not likely to turn tourist, but the townsfolk don’t know that and will expect them to be fascinated by the local points of interest. Some points of interest can even prove useful to the characters. Tourist towns are usually easy for the DM to invent, since he can ‘borrow’ a town that he has actually been to and alter it to fit his campaign world.

Buildings are common points of interest, though they rarely contribute directly to a campaign. Buildings are generally notable for their architecture, purpose, and historic association. Good choices for small towns are: the Deserted Tower of Joe the Ultra-magical, the tavern where Black Bart the famous Outlaw ate his last meal, or one of the Royal Hunting Lodges. Haunted buildings are also good, especially if the characters actually get to meet the ghost.

When inventing a notable building, keep in mind what people might be staying there. These people can often be useful to the characters. For instance, the country residence of a VIP will be populated by his dependents, who can act as a source of valuable introductions and provide an excuse for getting the players back on the road to Actropolis.

Lord John: You wouldn’t by any chance be heading to Actropolis?
Beran: Yes.
Fewmar: Why do you ask?
Lord John: I was hoping you could deliver a message to my brother, the Earl of Swaite.
Lady Ariadne: We’re entirely at your service, milord. Where is he staying?

Other points of interest are a trifle harder to make useful. Natural features, for instance are mostly just boring for the players because most of them look interesting. Of course you can use boredom to convince the characters that they are in a hurry to get out of town. After hearing eight or nine people tell them how spectacular the local waterfall (mountain, rock formation, centuries-old tree, etc.) is they will be happy to climb right back on their horses.

Much more interesting is the town with historical associations. This is the town that has a real place in history and capitalizes on it. Some towns may invent a place in history, and, unless one of the characters has an education, it comes out to much the same thing. As a rule of thumb, half of the people in a ‘historic’ town have an encyclopedic knowledge of the historic event in question, and the other half thinks the whole thing is a great bore. At least half of those who know exactly what happened will know a vastly different version from the other half, and at least one person from each side likes nothing better than to argue about it.

Historic towns are a lot of fun but are easier to improvise if you already have a good grasp of the history of the campaign area. If the campaign area has no predetermined history and you are inventing it, remember to take notes. Absolute consistency, however, is unnecessary since most history tends to get distorted. In fact, it is more authentic to have several versions of a particular historical incident.
Miller: Don’t you sneer at me milady! I’ve a respectable trade. And it was a miller, after all, that hid King Connie when his brother Ed tried to usurp the throne.
Lady Ariadne: I sneer at whom I like.
Fewmar: Besides, it was a blacksmith who hid King Connie.
Miller: Nonsense, it had to be a miller. Who else would have such a large supply of grain sacks?
Fewmar: Grain sacks?
Miller: Didn’t you know that he was smuggled out of the country disguised as a sack of grain?
Fewmar: I thought he disguised himself as a serving maid.
Beran: The brewer told me he hid in a keg of ale.
Lady Ariadne: What? Not a cart load of cabbages?
Miller: It was a grain sack, I tell you! I know all about it.

It can be difficult making a historic town useful unless the town also contains a collection of historic artifacts. Often some historian or collector lives in a small town so he can pursue his hobby in peace, and many of these can provide genuine assistance to adventurers. He might lend them some special magical item, or they might be able to peruse ancient documents for clues to the location of this ancient ruins, or that powerful item.

Usually a collector demands yet another item to add to his collection as payment. This often leads to another adventure. If you do not wish to create another adventure (it does not have to happen immediately; the collector may be willing to wait) then another form of payment must be found.
Collector: I call it a collusion detector. It’s a very rare item, and not very useful in a fight, but invaluable for uncovering secret plots. It’s how King Connie finally discovered Prince Ed’s treachery.
Fewmar: It must be very valuable. You wouldn’t want to lend out something so unique!
Collector: Well, I offered it to his majesty when I first found it, but he preferred to rely on the services of the Royal Wizard. It’s terribly easy to counter, you see, so it’s really only useful if no one knows you have it.
Beran: What price? Collector: You wouldn’t happen to know where King Connie’s Crown has gotten too?
Fewmar: In the capital? Collector: Oh dear me, no! That one is quite fake. (Looks at adventurers and sighs.) Oh well, I could use some help about the place. There is a terrible manpower shortage here in Poketon. Inventory perhaps, and if you could help me move some of the larger pieces and do the dusting...
Lady Ariadne: Sir! I’ll have you know, I don’t dust!

Some collections are singularly useless; old theater props for example, and decorated chamber pots; but they still add immeasurably to the flavor of the town. In fact, useless items are often more distinctive than useful ones. Who could forget a giant hammer, a floating building, an illusionary organ grinder and monkey, or the statue of a moose? Things that are odd or out of place are noticed and remembered. You must use this technique sparingly, however, because if there is something peculiar in every town the players will come to expect it, and it will no longer be memorable.

Unforgettable Characters
Often a town is remembered not for itself, but because of someone who lives there. You don’t even have to make up a character; you can just steal one from another source. Just remember that when you are in a town, character is established not just by how the DM describes a character but by how the other townspeople talk about them. A character that is interesting to the players is also likely to be interesting to his fellow citizens.
DM: It’s a town, about average size. Only one street is paved, the one you are on, the rest are packed down dirt.
Players: Where’s the tavern?
DM: A sign showing a foaming mug hangs over a building ahead and to the right. As you approach you pass close to a young man. He wears tattered rags, and his bright red hair looks like it has never been combed. He is looking about vacantly, but when his eyes pass over Lady Ariadne he starts and rushes over to her, grasping her sleeve.
Lady Ariadne: Hands off, sirrah!
DM: One of his eyes stares earnestly into your face, while the other eye wanders about. ‘Who?’ he asks. ‘Who?’
Lady Ariadne: I am Lady Ariadne Wynn. Hands off knave!
Townswoman: Don’t mind him none, Milady, he’s just Moe, the town idiot.
DM: Moe releases your arm and wanders off to the side of the road. As you enter the tavern, the bartender, a tall man with a mop of improbable yellow curls addresses you.
Bartender: So already met the town idiot.
Beran: He seems harmless enough.
Bartender: Surely, but there is something about him. Normally he seems to have the wits of a rabbit, but then he says something so remarkably apt... (Shakes his head wonderingly.) And then there’s the way he arrived!
Fewmar: Oh? How was that?

The town’s interesting character may not live there any longer. This is potentially very useful. If he is a personage of importance in your planned campaign, this is a great way to let the players dig up some back-ground information on him. Not only do the townspeople know all about his childhood, but they likely have a very good idea of what he is up to now.

Establishing the legal limits
A small town may have developed its own set of laws and rules. Though most of these rules had a very good reason behind them when they were made, not all reasons last as long as the rule does. Not knowing the reason for the rule, (which may indeed no longer exist,) the players are likely to find some of the villagers‘rules ridiculous in the extreme, such as: anyone walking down main street must wear a hat; no lighting fires out of doors; no talking in the town square; or anyone who sleeps in town overnight must first introduce himself to the priest.

Other rules are obvious as to the reasoning but irksome to the players: one way bridge, no wearing of unregistered weapons, no mounts allowed in the village proper, no killing the local wildlife without a license, taxes.
Sheriff: Have you got a license for that there creature?
Fewmar: Shasta is a marmot. She’s my familiar.
Sheriff: Doesn’t matter. All domesticated animals require a license if you want to bring them into Poketon. You also need licenses for your horses.
Lady Ariadne: Don’t be ridiculous, my good man!
Sheriff: Oh, you needn’t worry, horse licenses are easy to get. Just walk into town, take a left at the Mermaid, and pretty soon you’ll find Jasper’s stables. Jasper will come out here and inspect your beasts for a reasonable fee, and then I write out your license. Simple! I don’t know about that marmot creature though. Never done a license for a marmot!

Getting any kind of a license requires finding the person with the proper authority. This is not necessarily any easier to do in a small town than in a big city. A common problem is that no one is sure who the proper person is. The landlord sends you to the mayor, who sends you to the sheriff, who sends you to the priest, who thinks that really Lord So-and-such ought to be the one to sign it, only he’s off hunting or something and no one knows when he’ll be back. By having the locals waffle back and forth you can keep the characters running around for some time. This is not a good idea if you are trying to hurry the players off to Actropolis, but it works fine if you just thought of a neat adventure they could have right here if only you have enough time to work out the details.

Another important thing to remember is the powerful effect that organizations can have on a town. At some points in history, the guilds were more powerful than the monarch. A guild (or local equivalent) flexing its muscles is a good way to make a town memorable. Merriment and cheer are in short supply at the tavern if the brewers are on strike; the players may have to brave the picket-lines in order to buy supplies at a non-union grocer, or the Tanner’s Guild may have picked this very town for their annual conference, and the stench is making the place uninhabitable. Even lesser organizations can have quite an impact. Never underestimate the power of the PTA or the Civic Improvement Association; the local busybodies may well decide that adventurers make rotten role-models for their children and attempt to run them out of town.
Townsman: Are you a member of the Magistar and Wonderworkers. Union?
Fewmar: No, I can’t say that I am.
Townsman: In that case we would really rather you moved on, this being a union town and all.
Fewmar: Can’t I just promise not to use my magic?
Townsman: If I just say a few words to my fellow citizens this town would become less than comfortable: ridiculously high prices, full inn, that sort of thing.
Lady Ariadne: We will not be threatened!
Beran: We are trying to get to Actropolis. We only stopped here to get some more supplies.
Townsman: Oh? Well in that case I would be happy to direct you. Our grocer is on High Street, he carries hardtack guaranteed to survive flood, spell, and hard journeying. Our armorer is just there, across the square, and...

Yes, Poketon is certainly an interesting place. It will be long remembered by your players, who are now back on the road to Actropolis. At least they were back on the road to Actropolis until a random encounter with some horse thieves somehow put them on the road to Sameville. Sameville is another dot on the map, but there is no problem making it distinctive. The dots themselves may look identical, but by using one of these ideas you can guarantee that Sameville won’t be the same at all!

Things to remember:
1. Pick an adjective, any adjective
2. Technology level
3. Feuds
4. A Town Divided
5. Sporting Rivals
6. Other battles
Points of interest
7. Buildings
8. Natural features
9. Historical
10. Collections
11. Oddities
12. The Character
13. He used to live here
Legal Limits
14. Ridiculous rules
15. Bureaucracy
16. Guilds
17. Other organizations

Improve with Improv

Jason Strasser

Most people associate improvisation with jazz, yet improvisation is the heart and soul of being a good Dungeon Master. No skill is more useful or more called upon, nor so separates the masters from the novices.

It is essential to the seamless progress of a tightly woven campaign that you, the DM, be ready for any eventualities that the ever-crafty players may come up with. This is not merely a matter of assuming a few probable courses of events and planning for them, nor is it simply resorting to manipulation of NPCs and settings willy nilly. Players deserve a reasonable, consistent reality.

A DM who tries to influence the players to follow a carefully plotted adventure inevitably winds up restricting them and impinging upon the necessary illusion of freedom. No one wants to play in a world where everything is obviously predestined. Free will is important, as it draws the players deeper into the game. It therefore behooves the wily DM to give the players all of the rope they need to hang themselves. This is where the improvisation comes in.

Like a jazz musician, the experienced DM has a few scenarios (scales) and characters (chords) up his sleeve to throw out in response to any situation he may find himself in. The real art is in the spontaneous application of these templates in real time. As DM, you must be able to follow the changes, moving effortlessly between scales in response to the chord changes. Changing the scenario to fit the changing characters is the key to improvisation. The flexibility to adapt constantly to the mood, sentiment, and attention span of your particular cast of characters lies in intelligent and tasteful application of this principle.

Improvisation is a delicate balance between order and chaos, a balance that constantly shifts and is extremely tenuous.

Say, for example, that your players are between adventures or embarking upon a fresh one. A poor DM would simply tell them what happens to lead them to the next scenario. This, however, is an excellent opportunity to draw your PCs in by using a little improvisation. Instead of telling the players what happens to them, let them do whatever they want to do. In fact, try to stay out of their way. Simply describe for them the locations they place themselves in. Then use NPCs and elements natural to the setting to introduce plot threads. Be subtle, allowing the players and the natural inclinations of the NPCs to dictate the action. On the other hand, something dramatic must happen in the first few minutes in order to hook your players in and perk up their interest in continuing.

I have seven “golden rules” useful in DM improvisation.

1. Listen to the players
DMs often ignore the valuable information that players knowingly and unknowingly hand them throughout the game. The most important information you can glean from your players is whether they are having fun. Sometimes we forget why we play these games, so it is vitally important to gauge the player’s level of interest in a given subject or aspect of play.

Try to ascertain what sort of adventure they want, for what kinds of objects they would quest, what kind of enemy they would fight, what causes they would defend, etc. Are they hackers and slashers or puzzle solvers? You need to know this right away.

Listen to what they say, especially their first impressions. Pay close attention to how your ideas work in execution. You may be able to tailor future scenarios if you are better aware of what has worked and what hasn’t.

Use the words your players use. Sometimes even repeating back the last object they spoke about in your descriptive reply can be a useful device. For example, when Borundi the Bold says he wants to ‘grab the purple-headed serpent by the neck and crush the life out of it,’ then you reply with, ‘As you grab the purple headed serpent by the neck and attempt to crush the life out of it, it spits a stream of acid at your eyes. [Rolling the dice.] Oooh! You might wanna make a saving throw.’ Don’t overuse this device, however, as it can get monotonous. When used in moderation, it gives the players the feeling that they have an effect on the outcome, or at least that you are listening to them.

Listen, listen, listen. This cannot be said enough. Listen to the tone of voice your PCs are using. You can give yourself a pat on the back and know that you have done well if you hear them laughing or displaying some other emotion. If they sit up and pay closer attention to your words, then you are on a roll... go with it.

2. Break scenarios into plot pieces and threads
Start by taking all of your scenarios and breaking them down into the smallest amount of action possible. Separate out all of the ‘plot pieces’ that do not require any previous action for their logical usage at any time.

These are your threads, and with them you can weave any story into your players’ destinies.

Compile, a list of each thread with all relevant details (such as NPC and monster stats with a brief description). When the players find themselves in a likely location, you can apply any suitable thread. Good threads immediately create conflict and moves the story along quickly.

For example, a woman in the room is actually the goddess Artemis in disguise, and she is looking to abduct a few decent woodsmen for her annual mortal hunt. Having heard the PCs bragging and exaggerating about their exploits, she assumes them to be worthy heroes and attempts to kidnap them. Neither brilliant nor boring, this is the type of thread that can be played at any time with a good chance of snagging all the players into a series of events that would never have otherwise happened.

Give players a chance or two to opt out of any situation, but also give them the chance to opt in. It is a good idea to have a few divergent threads going simultaneously, allowing the players to follow whichever they please or none at all.

Not all threads are huge events that just seem to happen; many are simply interesting NPCs or inviting locales (e.g.; scuffling noises emanating from a circus tent after hours). Once the players have taken a thread, however, you can choose plot pieces. Improvisation is about knowing where you can smoothly go to from where you are now. Smooth is the key word.

If you are paying attention to your players, you will know when to use which plot piece and which ones grab specific players. You may have to work a little to bring them all in. The PCs may require different threads. Seemingly dissimilar threads can, in fact, be different entrances to the same scenario.

Plot pieces from different scenarios can be used anywhere they fit, but they never force the PCs into anything. Allow free will to draw them into whatever scenario they would most thoroughly enjoy. Let them think they are chosing their own destinies; only you need know they are following your plans. Remember that storytellers are illusionists. Strive to use plot pieces in as unobtrusive a manner as possible. If the hand is quicker than the eye, then how much more so is the mind?

3. Practice creating details on the spot
No matter how well you plan ahead, there will be something in the course of play (more likely many somethings) for which you couldn’t have planned. Your players will wind up asking questions for which you haven’t prepared answers. It is therefore to your advantage to be able create details on the spot. Many times this is just a matter of asking yourself some key questions.

Your scenarios should include a well answered who, what, where, when, and why, but you need to be able to come up with the how and a bunch of logistical and descriptive details fairly quickly. Ask yourself what kind of things you would find in the current locale. Try not to be too clichéd, but really go after those things we take for granted. Avoid simply telling the players about details; rather, introduce details with action.

For example, when Uther the Barbarian gets up and knocks a table over in the Red Crow Inn, this is a good time to mention details such as (a) the texture and consistency of the pea soup Uther was eating, (b) the relative positions of the PCs and NPCs to the flying debris, and (c) a more detailed description of Uther and his demeanor. You may want to describe some things with a magnifying glass, while allowing other details to go unreported.

Much of this is a question of style. Your campaign may be filled with jokers and be something of a comedy. On the other hand, your campaign may be more of a standard action adventure.

Even within the traditional sword and sorcery genre there is room for many styles. Dark fantasy requires a different touch from epic fantasy. It is quite possible that you prefer a minimalistic style, and just want to cut to the chase. Most campaigns jump genres to some degree while staying within a fantasy framework. Many times a perceptive DM will change the tone of the campaign to match the current mood of the PCs. Again, this is up to you as the DM, but in any case, be prepared to conjure believable details out of thin air, regardless of the style or tone of your campaign.

Even the best written modules are merely outlines that your words flesh out. Your spontaneous ability to turn flat, two-dimensional scenarios into vivid, larger-than-life, technicolor dramas is constantly called upon as a DM. It’s worth spending a little time honing this skill by practicing visualization exercises and enacting multiple ‘what if’ scenarios. Much of this is daydreaming, so to speak. In fact, the better you can daydream, and the more control you can exert in those dreams, the better DM you will come to be.

4. Determine the probability of success for any action
Many times, players attempt to do something for which you either can’t remember the rule or for which there is no rule. Back in the early days of RPGs, when rules were more ambiguous, DMs had to make quick judgments on the spot as to what should happen. Even today there are many circumstances for which the rules are silent. You have to be able to judge the ease players will have in performing some action or another.

Once the players get into a flow and are quickly moving along, you should do everything in you power not to break the spell. In any event, a good DM should be familiar with all the rules; you should be able, when necessary, to come up with quick percentages or modifiers to speed things up and not break the flow of the game.

Begin by giving everything a 50/50 chance or an attribute roll, and apply modifiers as you see fit. For instance, if Phylo the Nimble has the priceless Eye of Imhotep and is running down a slick marble hallway from two burly temple guards, and he comes to a dead end, the player may desperately come up with some impossible move (probably seen in some movie) to save him. Say Phylo decides to run full speed at the wall with the intent to flip backwards off the wall and kick both guards in the head. Ludicrous, you say, and you are right; but Phylo wants to try it, and he does have a Dexterity of 17. So, instead of wasting time looking the issue up in the DM.s guide, you bite the bullet and make a ruling. Due to the complexity of the maneuver, you may start with 51%, or three times his Dexterity rating. Then, because of the slick floor, subtract maybe 10%, and maybe another 10% for having his arms full, and you get 31%. Using percentile dice, allow Phylo the chance to pull off his Bruce Lee dream move. (Of course, even if he makes it, he still must successfully roll his attacks.)

Whether the percentage accurately reflects Phylo’s chance of actually accomplishing the act is not as important as whether you have to spend five or 10 minutes looking up the actual rule. In general, if the players can think it up, then give them some chance at succeeding. This doesn’t have to be realistic; the players are fantasy heroes and expect to be able to do things impossible for normal people. By all means, if someone rolls a 01, let him do just about anything. Even David killed Goliath.

5. Really get into the NPC.s heads
NPCs are generally shop-worn stereotypes or thin, penciled-in extras. Worse, the typical DM plays NPCs with little or no differentiation and solely to further the plot. DMs are missing out on a gold mine of overlooked methods to draw PCs further into the game. Interesting NPCs can provoke players into situations they might never have found themselves in otherwise.

Whenever you are called upon to play an NPC, do your best to get into that character’s mind. What motivates that particular character? Put some thought into what this character would say or do in a given situation. Make them complex, realistic, and living beings.

NPCs are seldom privy to the deeper secrets of a campaign and may act for many very different reasons. It adds another layer to the scenario if the NPCs think that something other than what is happening is happening. It can be useful to allow a delusional NPC to steer the players down the wrong path.

Let the players get to know your NPCs, and use the same NPCs (especially the villains) over and over again during the course of a long campaign. Nothing adds more continuity than recurring characters and locations. Bring old characters back in new locations and old locations with new characters. This is a sure-fire way to grab the characters. (What is Father Johnston doing 1,500 miles from his church out here in the bush of some tropical island?)

It would be even more intriguing if in past adventures the PCs had stumbled upon some small piece of evidence that the church was involved in smuggling slaves. Perhaps the characters are searching for a treasure described in the journal of some shipwrecked slave traders. The possibilities are endless.

Never get too attached to your NPCs. You must be willing to let the PCs slaughter, ridicule, or - even worse - ignore your NPCs. They are fodder, grist for the mill, and as such their sole purpose is to give you a pre-made cast of characters to fall back upon. Sometimes they are just filler, like the dark-eyed rogues in the marketplace with the smug grins. Other times they become essential story movers, like the Dwarven prince who hires the PCs to escort him home.

When necessary, you can improvise and change things so the rogues from the marketplace can become would-be assassins hired by a rival kingdom to kill the sole heir to the dwarvish throne before he can get back to the safety of his homeland. It really doesn’t matter. The important part is the ability to improvise well and to keep the player characters interested in the game.

The more thought you put into your NPCs, the better they will serve you in this regard. This paradox, like many of life’s little secrets, is only contradictory on the most obvious level. It may seem like thinking about your NPCs beforehand would work against spontaneity and improvisation, but in actuality you are more likely to improvise well and generate believable dialogue if you have some idea as to what their principle motivations are.

If you have already run through all of your pre-generated NPCs and you need to come up with someone on the spot, think of some character from fiction, film, or your life who could be cast in the role. Even without statistics, simply having a personality in mind while you play the NPC adds a whole new level of reality to the scene. There is nothing worse than a DM who plays all of his NPCs the same way. Unless trying to slip a little Twilight Zone effect into the campaign, you should avoid making entire groups of people think and act the same way.

6. Juxtapose things to add variety and interest
Get creative. How many more balding, fat barkeeps or inn proprietors with an ear for gossip do we really need? And about those damsels in distress....

A quick and easy way for a swinging, jazzy improv-DM to be rid forever of clichés and overused stereotypes is to swap opposites in any traditional setting. For instance, instead of the ogre who crashes at the gates in the wee hours being a man-eating savage brute, make the ogre a scholarly priest fleeing from a hideous army of zombies and wraiths that have destroyed his temple and university. Why not? Ogres can be educated and religious, too. It makes for an interesting story.

Although few campaigns live up to their potential, RPGs are about the realtime interactive creation of a story with several people. Even though most campaigns wouldn’t make it as reruns of He-Man cartoons, they have the potential to create interesting dramatic fiction.

Instead of having the characters start a new adventure by leaving their homes to go search dungeons for treasure again and again, try having the characters live in the dungeon (as prisoners) and go searching the palace upstairs for treasure after an earthquake releases them from captivity. If you need a blacksmith NPC because Gan-Win Chung has broken his spear and wishes to have it fixed, you could use your typical bare-chested, glistening bald guy with a hammer, but perhaps a young woman, the only daughter of a late master craftsman, might be more refreshing. (Even more so if she has a higher Strength than the strapping Gan-Win Chung and bests him in an arm wrestling match.)

What seems frequently to be askew or wrong somehow is, in fact, inherently powerful. I would recommend trying as many off-the-wall characterizations and settings as you can come up with. Think of something often seen or read before and simply throw in a major twist. Oftentimes, this propels the scene along, practically doing all the work.

Take special care to flesh out the oddities realistically when using juxtaposition. Give bizarre things a bit of normalcy and vice versa. If done correctly, this technique has the ability to generate complex and rewarding scenarios for many sessions to come.

7. Always ask what the players want to do
The final golden rule is perhaps the most pertinent and useful of all. Throughout the game, the DM is constantly asking the players what they want to do. The key to artistic improvisation is deciding when to ask. Now, obviously, you can’t play the entire game in melee rounds, asking the players what they want to do every minute of the game, but you can and should ask them after every new description or major action. The time frame in which they answer should set the pace of the game.

Asking the players what they want to do involves them in the decision-making process to a higher degree and gives you a break.

After any cursory description, especially one involving material previously unplanned, you owe it to yourself to stop and ask the players what they want to do. This gives you the opportunity to breathe and think about the situation. It also supplies needed feedback on what is getting through to the PCs and what they wish to pursue. A DM at a loss to come up with something often tosses the ball back to the players only to find, upon the ball’s return, that the players have keyed in on something the DM may have overlooked.

If you happen to be on a roll and the PCs are listening raptly, then ride, captain, ride. But, the moment you notice the players becoming distracted, start thinking about asking them what they want to do. Wind up the monologue, and get back to a moving dialog.

Allow players to do what they want unless or until something prevents or makes it difficult to do so. Say, for instance, that Brother Lawrence tells you he wants to try to sleep in a makeshift lean-to he built in the forest. Fair enough; he is basically successful in this, other than the fact that every hour or so, you may want to roll on the local wandering monster table. If a wandering monster is generated, then most likely Lawrence will have to wake up. The point is that his intent to sleep remains the same and carries him through hours of game world time. (Of course, hearing a troll gibbering outside his lean-to might get him to change his mind.)

Realizing that, while gaming, you are either describing something to the players or listening to their intentions, you can surmise that these are the two most important aspects of being a DM.

A DM can’t plan descriptions ahead of time; it is impossible. Nor can a DM be expected to know the players’ intentions before they actually express them. Improvisation therefore becomes an essential factor in the effectiveness of a DM.

The most essential tool any DM has in his improv-arsenal is the golden question, the role reversing, polarity shifting, rhythm defining question: ‘What do you guys want to do now?’

Spontaneity, as the central force in improvisation, is unrehearsed creativity. Although many jazz solos are unrehearsed, the musicians are in no way unprepared. This holds true for DM improvisation as well.

Quick and dirty worldbuilding

A world may seem overwhelming. Consider the detail and breadth of the FORGOTTEN REALMS® and the GREYHAWK® settings. What DM, by himself, could create such a thing?

The answer is you; and in a lot less time than you think. The process has only three broad steps - one of which you can do in a hammock with your eyes closed. Admittedly, each of these broad steps has smaller steps within, which is where the real work is. Based on what you do in Step One, though, creating your own campaign world can be as quick or easy or time-consuming as you like. (We can even design one as we go).

Step 1: Decisions, decisions...
You won’t need any graph paper or pencils for this stage, though it may ultimately be the most important. You must make three decisions, but don’t cast any of your choices in stone until you’ve considered all three.

First you will have to decide how much detail you want your world to have.

“More is better” is not necessarily the correct idea. If you spend 400 hours developing every burg and bramble, you won’t have much time for actual DMing (or anything else, for that matter). Also, if you have all the details worked out ahead of time, you won’t have much flexibility later on if you have new ideas, if your campaign changes, or if you find a module you like but can’t use because your world is too defined for improvisation. What may be worst of all is that too often DMs create wonderful, rich adventures and settings for the places they think the of all is that too often DMs create wonderful, rich adventures and settings for the places they think the PCs will go, then the PCs go in the opposite direction, and all the work is wasted.

The other extreme is to have very little detail. Perhaps a map and what type of culture you want to occupy each area will suffice for you and your players. In a combat-intensive campaign, who cares who the Pasha of Phlegnar is, as long as you get to kill the fire giants in his mountains?

The best approach for most people is one of moderation. This approach gives you the detail you need immediately and allowing flexibility to change things later on. You might decide to detail the areas where the campaign begins and add other details to areas as the players travel there. Obviously, this will be a problem if your players don’t go where you expect them to. You might instead decide to add some detail to each area, just in case. The problem now is either that an area is short-changed with too little detail or that overworked detailing every tree and bird. A lot depends on how much information your players want and what type of campaign you’d like to have.

You must next decide where to place the balance between science and fantasy. If you choose a high-fantasy world, there can be steamy jungles in the middle of the arctic tundra, rain can fall up, dandelions can talk, and all unicorns can expect to be addressed, “Your Hornedness.” In other words, you’ll be making up the rules by which your world functions. This choice is a good one for those who don’t want to add much detail, since you can make up whatever details you need, whenever you want and needn’t worry about players arguing that “it can’t be”. Keep in mind, however, that in a fantasy world where the rules by which the players live are void, they will probably have a lot of questions. A high-fantasy DM must be very creative and inventive.

On the other hand, there’s the scientifically accurate campaign world, based on the actual principles by which we live (at least to the extent that used in the AD&D® game). This is a choice favored more by detail-enthusiasts, because of the abundance of languages, flora, fauna, climate, topography, alphabets, political systems etc. While this method offers immediate answers to questions like “What season comes after spring?” and “Is it cold up in the mountains?” it can be restrictive. If you follow geographical science, areas along rivers which flood yearly must be fertile, even if in the middle of a desert, whether you want them to be or not. Likewise forests north of a certain point will have to be strictly coniferous due to the extreme cold and lack of water. In such a world, you needn’t be as creative, but you are somewhat more restricted in terms of what is possible. (For our sample world, we’ll lean toward science but reserve the right to explain some things with fantasy).

The third thing you must decide is the type of campaign you want to play. As noted before, details like politics and personalities don’t matter much to players whose goal is to kill monsters and collect treasure. If this is the type of campaign you’ll be running, your job as world designer is much easier.

If, on the other hand, you like geo- politics and intend to run a role-playing intense or political intrigue type game, you can be pretty much assured that the low-detail approach does not work. Roleplaying and intrigue both rely on NPCs and good stories. NPCs need homes, backgrounds and experiences; stories need settings. No matter how heavily based on fantasy, a low-detail, highly improvised world soon develops people and stories that should be connected but aren’t. Players quickly notice discrepancies and become disenchanted. This is not to say that a political campaign needs notes as thick as a phone book, but it does imply that more detail and work may be necessary.

Step Two: Get the crayons
Now that made your basic decisions, the concrete process of creation can begin. By the end of this stage you’ll have a map with civilizations and topographical features a plenty.

First, list the various climates and topographical and geographical formations you want to use. You can also draw your basic land form(s) (e.g., a big island, several small islands, continents, etc.).

Your decisions may be influenced by the resources you have, such as the Viking Campaign Sourcebook. To incorporate this, use an area with a cold climate, mountains, and fjords on a sea that borders on other cultures.

Another option is to choose features based on the monsters who inhabit them, such as a jungle and vegepygmies and su-monsters. You may want hills for halflings and forests for elves. Bear in mind that you’ll have difficulty squeezing it together realistically if you choose too much that is too diverse. It is better to have too many ideas and have to scrap some than to not have enough. If planning a high-fantasy campaign, your topography may be somewhat unusual (or even weird).

Map one. At this stage, you are mapping out the generalities. This includes geographic features and which cultures inhabit what areas. You may define some areas by the campaign materials you plan to use for them, as in the areas based on the AL-QADIM® and RAVENLOFT® settings above.

Next, list the various cultures and civilizations you want in your world. Keep in mind that any PC races you want need to have a homeland. If you have sourcebooks such as The Roman Empire, Kara-Tur, or the AL-QADIM® setting, you can count each of those as at least one culture. Really what doing is paving the way for adventures and plots within your campaign.

If you intend to play a “Law vs. Chaos” campaign, you might be able to get by with two vast empires and some small independent states. If you don’t want to have to detail too much, you can just have a few nations. Civil wars and other political forces could always diversify your selection later on. If you intend to do this, you may want to build cultural or religious differences into the country right from the start.

Cities are a special problem, since you have to either own one that’s predesigned, such as the LANKHMAR™ campaign, Golden Huzuz, or Waterdeep, or you must design your own. Consider that each country probably has a capital too (see Step Three). Important ruins, landmarks, and religious sites might also be added to your list.

You should now have a pretty impressive list of geographical and political features ready to be placed on a map. This is the third task. Depending on the diversity and quantity of features you listed, this step can be easy or difficult. Likewise, if you’re designing a more fantastic world, you needn’t worry too much about the rationale of any decision.

Elves and dwarves may live together (maybe even underwater) in a fantasy world, while the more reality-oriented designers will want to separate them a bit. Keep in mind that if they’re too far apart, you won’t be able to justify their traditional racial animosity toward each other.

 A quick glance at the first map shows that there are four states based on class, four based on race, and five “sourcebook states.” Two states focus on political systems, three are centered around monstrous inhabitants, four are based on culture, and several areas are unoccupied by an established body. This arrangement is perhaps a little crowded, but so is Europe. Unlike Europe however, my states still lack borders.

Because borders are often geographical features, they require some attention at this point. As yet, we have no rivers on the map because I've saved them for this purpose. Not all states need to be separated by rivers and mountains; they might use stone markers or have borders established only by tradition. As usual, fantasy worlds might have no borders and no sovereign states, thereby avoiding these problems altogether. For adventuring purposes, however, borders and border conflicts can be great plot motivators.

Step Three: Then what happened?
At this point, we have a stage with scenery but no play. Four things remain to be done to make the production a success. The first (and easiest) is to name all the nations, cities, seas, forests, and so on. I find that taking names from the phone book or words from the dictionary and switching a letter or two is a good way to come up with names. You might also try twisting a synonym for the region, such as Arcania (from arcane) for a nation of magic users.

Map two: Here is where you give everything names and draw the borders. Whether you actually delineate borders or keep them in your head, know where your empires and kingdoms are. Places previously identified only as capitals, major cities, and game world-based areas are named.

If you’ve chosen a rather scientific approach, be sure that the names you choose correspond to whatever language you assign to an area. One interesting alternative to this might be not to label anything except where your players start (and perhaps where they’re from). As they travel through the world they can note names - which you’ve had plenty of time to think up - and draw their own map. The map would be very valuable to the party (and other less scrupulous parties) as would maps with information gathered by others. Imagine the PCs breaking into Hegel Keep just to steal a look at the Chamberlain’s map of the northeast corner of the world.

If you chose this rather unorthodox approach, it could make your second step more complicated; namely, devising the plot(s) occurring in your world. This step is probably the most important if you want your campaign to exist in a vibrant, “living” world. Even if you chose a low-detail, high-fantasy approach, a certain amount of plot is necessary to keep the game from getting stale. If you chose a more political type of campaign, you’ll definitely want these plans well laid.

For example, a civil war is beginning in eastern Rathuric due to some Paladins’ beliefs that not enough is being done to oppose Gnashskull. This area, known as Tarnation, has historically been the home of ‘Good’ extremists, in the ‘Lawful vs. Good, which is more important?’ debate. The leader of this uprising is one Sir Derek, assisted by his advisor, Nemur. While Derek is Neutral Good, Nemur is Chaotic Neutral and an agent of the Lord of the Dark Lands. It is the Lord’s hope that a divided Rathuric will be unable to stand against the continental war he is planning.

I’ve decided that the civil war will be in full swing after one month of game time (from the start of the campaign). After six months, the Dark Lord will begin to mobilize his forces, and within nine months the war will be well underway. If my characters pass through Rathuric or the Dark Lands, I know what’s going on there. If in another part of the world and ask a Paladin for news, he can relate the most recent news of the war. If I were more interested in details, I could have five such plots for each country and region. Instead, I have one or two for each, some related to others, all interwoven into the Dark Lord’s plans.

The plots in each country are mostly political, but the details devised vary from economic to political to social and historic. In Grundee, I’ve focused on the military fears of the Rift and relations with the Nomads on the other side of the mountains. In Yeo, I’ve focused on the emergence of two new political and religious leaders, while the entry under “Elementia, League of” focuses on the social influence of the Elements in those countries. The only uniformity I’ve held to is defining a nation’s borders, capital and leader(s). A more detail-oriented DM might want to define the political, socioeconomic, and historical background for each country. Likewise, they might detail each capital city (which I did not do).

With everything named and the story in motion, the third step is to define other major actors besides the PCs. In actual game play, most kings, queens, and emperors will probably not be vital NPCs to the party, as they will be far too important to waste time regularly on even high-level adventurers. The nobles, merchants, generals, priestesses, and other characters who will be helping, healing, and harassing the PCs however, should be considered.

Some DMs prefer to play NPCs as they arise, others have entire life histories written up. Whichever extreme you choose, this is the time to plan for those encounters. Again, if you know the route your players are likely to follow, you might be able to develop NPC’s for the first few months of game time and worry about any others later on.

The final step is detailing. Even if chosen initially not to add many details to your world, you will eventually need some. If chosen to detail your new creation heavily, you’ll quickly find that there’s no end to what you could do. For the sake of playability, there are several other subjects you should probably focus on initially.

Religions, weather, and languages tend to have a lot of impact on actual play. Folklore, customs, and etiquette can be used a lot in dealings with foreign governments. You may also choose to design your world like this sample one, where there could easily be another continent somewhere off the map to the north. (My players have yet to learn that they can cross the glacier and reach another land).

Over the years, I’ve created four campaign worlds, and, using the aforementioned system, can now create a playable one in about three hours. Obviously, it’s not a high-detail world. For that I’d need several days. Adding details isn’t as Herculean a task as it sounds. Nothing about creating your own world is difficult if you know what you want first and take it one step at a time. You’ll find creating your own world is the most satisfying experience a DM can have.