Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, May 22, 2012
Story-telling in D&D

When I mentioned story hooks in my post about playing D&D modules as written, I got a reader asking whether I could discuss the ongoing story with my players. I thought about the question, and the best answer I can give is that the reason I can't discuss the story too much is that I don't *know* the story. And as this isn't much of an answer, I think I have to elaborate on story-telling in D&D a bit.

Computer games have stories which are either fixed, or have a limited "tree" of possible developments based on player decisions. Pen & paper roleplaying games don't work like that, although if you are unlucky you might stumble upon an inexperienced DM who tries to run his game like that. The best description that I can give of the stories in my adventures and campaigns is that I know how the story will develop if the players either do nothing, or just play along with the suggestions of the NPCs. Let's call this the "base story".

I know this base story not only for the current adventure, but also for the next 3 or so adventures I am planning to play. That enables me to add story hooks for future adventures into my current adventure. I can have characters or items appear in the current story which aren't important right then, but will become important later, in another adventure. And I can have players meet NPCs they already know from previous sessions, which makes the world appear more "persistent", to use an MMO term.

But this base story is not known to the players in advance, and is not fixed in stone. For example in my previous session I had a story hook for a future adventure by having the players meet some Vistani. And the reaction of one player told me that he already knew the upcoming adventure, which then prompted me to change it around. I also start out my game sessions by having the players recap the previous session, and their version of the story which happened tells me which aspects of the story they found interesting, and allows me to elaborate on those.

The most important way for the base story to get altered into something else is that the players do something which wasn't foreseen in the base story. Many years ago I ran an adventure where the story played out in a castle, room by room, having been written as a story development from bottom to top. Only the first challenge was to get into the castle in the first place, and the players had some means of magical flight and promptly entered the castle on the top floor, going through the rooms from top to bottom. Things like that require some improvisation from the DM to still make a story that works. Ultimately in a game of D&D, anything can happen. We've had adventures where the story foresaw a meeting between players and an NPC in a tavern, which ended with the players burning down the tavern and then being on the run from the city watch. The final story as played results from the interaction between the DM and the players, involves a lot of improvised theater, and is often quite different from the base story that was planned.

I think it is best for a DM not to prepare the story of his adventures or campaign in too much detail. You want to know your base story, so that you can prepare something. But you also need to be prepared to throw that base story out of the window and improvise something else if the actions of the players require it.

At the far edges, I have had games where I had a mystery and a plot I was following, and while listening to my players discuss what they knew and what they thought was happening have had them persuade me. Totally re-writing the "hidden backstory" to make my players (mostly) right is one of the wonderful freedoms in pen and paper compared to CRPGs.
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