I’ve been playing D&D for over 30 years and during that time I’ve been fortunate to play under a lot of great DMs. This month I’ll be writing a series of articles in which I single out some of the very best DMs I’ve ever played with. This is certainly not an exhaustive list as it would be impossible for me to write about every single great DM I’ve ever had. The DMs I’ll be writing about are the ones who really left a lasting impression and changed the way I see and play D&D (in a good way).
Today I’d like to tell you about DM Curtis (a.k.a. Sterling). Curtis and I have been friends since grade school. We were roommates at university and after we graduated he was part of my Sunday night D&D group for over 10 years. Curtis ran one of the most fun and interesting campaigns I’ve ever played in. He also has the distinction of being the first DM to run me through a 3e game.
The camping Curtis created became know simply as “The Forest Game.” The premise of the camping was that the goodly races had fled the foreboding forest of the north for the relative safety of the plains and mountains to the south. Every hundred years or so there was an attempt to reclaim the forests, but the denizens of the north always managed to drive the insurgents south again. Our PCs, beginning at level 1, were part of an unprecedented, massive coordinated effort to explore, map, and reclaim the forest.
I remember that during the first encounter on the first night we ran across Kobolds. Our meta-gaming minds felt that a party of five PCs could easily take on four Kobolds. Little did we know that monsters in 3e could have PC levels. It was one of the most embarrassing defeats I’ve ever suffered as a player. But it opened our eyes to the changes of 3e. This was a new kind of D&D.
As the campaign progressed we learned to fear our enemies and we discovered the power of multi-classing in 3e as we all adopted levels in Ranger, Barbarian, Rogue, and Druid. The forest continued to yield great treasures as we uncovered lost knowledge. DM Curtis continued to present encounters that were unlike anything we’d ever experienced in D&D. It was amazing and so much fun.
One thing that Curtis did better than any DM I’ve ever played with is tweak and bend the rules to make the game better. Once he’d identified a problem with the rules that hurt the playability of the game (or at least hurt the way we were playing the game) he found a way to fix it. Two specific examples come to mind: healing and magic items.
Our party had one healer, me. I was playing Redfoot, the Cleric/Ranger. However, I was heavily favouring the Ranger side of my progression so the healing suffered. We were constantly getting slaughtered. So Curtis decided to introduce magic tattoos (part of the lost knowledge we were discovering). The PCs could choose to get a magical tattoo. Those with the tattoo could transfer some of their hit points to any other PC with a tattoo that they could see. It was a way to pool the entire party’s hit points. But there were consequences. The more hit points transferred at one time the greater the possibility of permanent hit point loss. The other down side was that a foe we eventually fought had mastered the tattoo magic better than we had and was able to siphon off our hit points. Genius!
(Read more about this in Making Healing Easier in D&D Next.)
When it came to magic items the PCs got greedy. We wanted more, more, more. So Curtis, having read the Weapons of Legacy handbook, took inspiration from it. The PCs discovered a rare metal and an ancient ritual (more of the lost knowledge). Items made from the metal could be infused with the PC’s own XP to power it up. So our +1 weapon could become a +2 weapon if we poured our own XP into it. We had to decide if we wanted magic armor or another level at the end of each gaming session. It let the players choose to advance as they wanted. So we had some higher level PCs with fewer items, and lower level PCs with lots of items. Again, genius!
The Forest campaign ran from level 1-25 before we decided it was time to retire the PCs. It spanned 5 years with only a few short beaks along the way. Curtis never failed to thrill and excite us when he was the DM. His problem-solving and creativity as a DM are legendary. I tried to emulate his Forest Game with another group years later and it just wasn’t the same. The magic of that campaign was equal parts idea and implementation. Without DM Curtis it wasn’t the same game. So to my good friend, DM Curtis, thank you. For those years when we were playing The Forest Game, Redfoot, Chas, Dank, and Suddry were as much a part of my life as my real life friends and family. Thank you.