One Story, Told Twice

A follow-up to “So You Want to Be a Dungeon Master?”

Dan Saad
8 min readMar 28, 2019


And now that we’ve talked about NPCs, it’s time to talk about what all this looks like in real life. Stick with me and I’ll show the kinds of things you can do when your characters feel like people, when your story is heavy and present and real. First I’ll tell you how the story happened at the table. After that, well, I’ll show you what goes on behind the DM screen.

Setting the Scene

Relevant Locations:

The Hanseatic Confederation — A collection of merchant states: Caoimhínhold, Teutonia, Wellesley, Brandeismark, and Ostrava. They are primarily ruled by Merchant Guilds, with local power occasionally held by minor nobility.

Elincia — The nation is best known for the City of Glass — in the capital, every structure is blown out of glass, blessed by the Pharaoh’s clergy and enchanted by mages from the Glass Tower to ensure their beauty and stability. Resting on the banks of a river and the outskirts of a great desert, the city is famed for its beauty, the Grand Bazaar, and the world-renowned College of Mages.

The Altaean Empire — An expansive human supremacist empire, whose Legions have already conquered countless states and people in “self defense,” integrating and assimilating humans while executing or enslaving non-human populations. They follow the Divine Twins Altaeus (the god of thunder) and Altaea (the goddess of lightning) who once before freed humankind from their servitude under the monstrous races, and call themselves the Children of the Storm.

It’s summer, and the sun is bright. The players are traveling from the Hanseatic Confederation to Elincia by way of the Wild Elven Forest in the center of the map.

However, to the south is the expansive human-supremacist Altaean Empire. The party are already familiar with Legionnaires, having narrowly avoided death with the help of a local elven tribe whose execution they stopped.

Through the Players’ Eyes

The Party:

Antonia, Wellish Gnome Inquisitor of the Celestine Church

Enderlyn, Morogravian/Fjordic Dhampir Sorcerer from the Fjordlands

Inari, High Elf Samurai from Yamato

Kassia, Altaean/Elincian Aasimar Warlock from Teutonia

Klaus, Morogravian Dhampir Battlemage and Baron

Alfons, his Werewolf Squire

The First Session

While escorting the merchant caravan through the forest, our players are constantly harassed by Altaean operatives and scouts. They suspect that the Altaeans are looking to expand into Elincia and are using the forest as a staging ground, and aim to make haste and warn the Elincian guards at the border post before a full-scale invasion begins.

After an extended stealth and disguise session involving hiding all non-human caravan members while treating with a small contingent of Legionnaires using only human PCs and NPCs, the party finally makes it to the border. However, shortly after issuing their warning, an Altaean mounted crier arrives and begins issuing demands. Klaus, however, attacks him on sight with a magic missile, sending the crier home with no deal.

The party prepares for an all-out assault on their position, coordinating with the Elincian outpost to form a defense. Between the party, the Elincian dragonborn, and the Elincian human guards, our heroes managed to rout a contingent of Legionnaires. During the struggle, they captured two enemy soldiers — one young man with a broken leg and one grizzled veteran who they knocked upside the head.

The Second Session

Knowing that the captives could have valuable information, the party devised a plan to separate and interrogate them. With the help of a particularly imposing allied NPC, the party intimidated the young man into giving up a solid chunk of information — his name was Gaius Junius Marcellus, and he was a recently enlisted 18-year-old former musician who was forced into the military by his strict parents, one of whom was a Senator and would not bear the shame of a son going into the vulgar arts. He revealed the name of his superior officer Marius Virtus Italicus, an old Triarius who had been taking special care to look after the new recruits. After breaking down, Gaius realized that since he had never wanted to go to war in the first place, this was the perfect opportunity. The party convinced him to rediscover life as a musician in Elincia, and even bought him a lyre to get started.

Meanwhile, Inari and Enderlyn guarded Marius in a separate wagon. Much to their annoyance, he had a penchant for tugging his ropes loose whenever they tried to tie him up, and whenever they tried to engage him in conversation, he’d call back haughtily with slurs like “knife ears” or “walking corpse.” So far, Marius was cool, but also a massive pain in the ass. Luckily, the players had a plan. Kassia used her Mask of Many Faces ability to morph into Gaius, and then pretended to have been beaten and tortured in an attempt to extract information from Marius. And while they certainly got useful information on troop movements and plans, they also learned a lot about Marius.

For one thing, he wasn’t just a racist human. He appeared to have ironclad faith in the Divine Twins, in Altaea, in the Emperor Lucius Cassius Altaeus, and in the fact that at dawn, when the dhampir would be shut away in their coffins due to the sunlight, he would break out of his cage and rescue Gaius. Despite the broken leg. No matter what it cost, he would carry that boy back across the Elincian desert for three days — unarmed, unarmored, with no supplies — if he had to, so long as he could keep his men safe.

A breakout meant trouble, and the party gathered to talk. Eventually, they came to a few conclusions. First, that Marius might be their enemy, but he wasn’t necessarily a bad guy, and there might be a peaceful resolution still possible. Second, that he had a strong sense of honor and loyalty. Third, that his quest to save Gaius was fruitless from the start — Gaius didn’t want rescuing.

So while the others were preparing for combat at dawn, Enderlyn walked into the cage with Marius, sat down, and talked. Enderlyn wanted to know what was it that made him more monstrous than a human? Was he evil simply by the bad luck of the circumstances of his birth?

Marius couldn’t really think of an answer. This idea was new to him, as he had not yet met a non-human that hadn’t tried to kill him or someone he knew. In fact, more than 30 years ago, when he was young, his village suffered regular and brutal attacks by a nearby Orcish warband. It was the arrival of Altaea and the Emperor himself driving out the scourge that finally made his family safe. And so, totally separate from an academic view of morality or philosophy, Marius made a simple resolution. He would join the army. He would do for all other humans what Altaea had done for him. And so he enlisted, and fought in campaigns all over the world for three decades before ending up here. Marius wasn’t convinced that non-humans were evil anymore, but they still had opposing goals, and he would not aid or abet enemies of the empire.

And then Enderlyn told him that Gaius didn’t want to leave, and it seemed as if Marius deflated, all the fire gone from him, his last purpose subverted. Marius said to take care of the boy. The boy who never should have joined the army, and who, in the end, he couldn’t protect. There was nothing left for him — three days through the desert was a death sentence, and he couldn’t promise that he wouldn’t come back to fight them again at the head of a new army. So Marius made a last request — that he be allowed to die like an Altaean. He walked out into the dunes, gladius in hand, and stabbed himself through the chest.

Behind the Screen and Beyond the Veil

During Session 1, neither Marius nor Gaius existed yet, though I was toying with and developing a number of potential Altaean NPCs. When the players took two legionnaires hostage, though, I knew I had some work to do.

There were a few things I did to develop the characters. First, I had to come up with their dynamic. I wanted it to be something interesting, a strong enough relationship to make a compelling basis for role-play. So I decided to play on a common relationship: that between a mentor/protector and a novice. To reinforce the basic theme, I decided to emphasize the age and experience gap between the two characters. If we think about them in terms of a character web:

Next we define a character’s individual role. What is their backstory, and how does it reinforce the theme the character is supposed to represent? Gaius, for example, is supposed to be emblematic of innocence and thus had to have a background wholly unrelated to war, and a reason for joining the military entirely unrelated to the unfortunate business of making widows and widowers. Music seemed a good choice both for its inherent expressiveness and for its relatively low social standing, providing a believable reason why he might have been forced to join the military. In order to keep Marius consistent with the themes of honor and loyalty, his backstory had to involve his duty to others.

And so, the duo was born. I had enough time to learn who they were before jumping into session 2. Handling Gaius was easy — after all, he just wanted out, and after he got over his initial fear of the party, there would be no issues at all.

Marius, though, was tougher. He had a few jobs — seeding information about Altaea (and future challenges they might face), explaining some of the roots of Altaean racial prejudice, and eliciting an emotional response from my players.

The decision for Marius to kill himself was spontaneous, but more importantly it flowed naturally from the previous events. In fact, it felt inevitable, even tragic. After the session, Enderlyn’s player sent me this message:

What’s Next?

Last week, my players wrapped up a dungeon crawl through an Elincian pyramid, trying to stop a grave-robbing necromancer from unleashing havoc with a reanimated former Pharaoh.

They met up with Gaius, who finally feels ready to hold the funeral.

Next week, they’ll hold funerary rites for Marius, and young Gaius will have prepared something to say:

So that none need suffer as I did,

I took up sword and shield

A guardian arm to smite our foes

And force them all to yield.

So that none need suffer as I did,

I fought and bled and lost

For a cause so noble the dream alone

was more than worth the cost.

“Here we lay Marius Virtus Italicus, a proud son of the Republic. May he ride with the wind and guard his people in death as he did in life.”

And then they will lay his body on a hill for the wind to take.



Dan Saad

Game Designer, Storyteller, Dungeon Master, Artist, Engineer