Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, September 19, 2012
Good storytelling in Dungeons & Dragons

Pen & paper roleplaying games can have extremely good storytelling, much better than any computer RPG. It can also have extremely bad storytelling, with the DM just reading the box text in a flat voice. In this post I would like to give an example from my current campaign to explain some of the principles I use for storytelling in Dungeons & Dragons, and discuss with you how they can improve the stories we play. The example is a recent one (if you are following my journal of the adventures of my campaign), the traitor who ended up revealing the battle plans of the party to the enemy before they could find and kill him. If you were to read the adventure module on which the current adventure is based, you wouldn't find that character in there. So how did this story come to happen?

Principle 1: Actions should have consequences

The story began a few sessions before that, when the players had returned from a mission to help the rebels capture supplies. For their success the rebels were throwing a big celebration in honor of the heroes. The leader of the rebellion suggested to celebrate now, and to discuss the next step the next morning in private. But the players were eager to continue, and started discussing their plans with the leader of the rebellion right there, in the tavern, during the celebration in their honor. Now the adventure module described the innkeeper as somewhat unreliable, and not able to keep a secret. So as a reminder that "lose lips sink ships", I put in a sequence in the next fight (which was scheduled anyway) where the attackers obviously knew the name of the adventuring group and where they were heading. At this point I hadn't completely worked out how they got that information, the idea was just to show the players the consequences of their actions.

Principle 2: Storytelling is interactive

Not all the elements of a story have to come from the adventure module or the DM. The players are also a source of new story elements. If your group's rogue is persuaded that the chest they found is trapped and does a great roll on find / remove traps, it is better to add a trap right there and then and tell the rogue of his success in disabling it than to tell him "no trap there". In this case the players came back from their search for allies with 60 elven archers, and suddenly remembered that their previous plans had been revealed. So they hid the elves in a forest before entering the village. It was at that very moment where the traitor was really born. I was expecting the players to look for the traitor, so I had to make sure there was one. I decided to promote the innkeeper from unreliable to downright traitorous, and to equip him with carrier pigeons as an explanation on how previously the message had come to the enemy so fast.

Principle 3: The players are always central to the story

I had created the traitor for the purpose to be caught, for example during the skill challenge with a short investigation and an insight check. But after first having been worried so much about the traitor, the players then just blocked the road south and told the NPC war council of their suspicions. They later told me they had expected the council to deal with the traitor. But that is something that is unlikely to happen in my campaigns: Major story elements don't get resolved backstage between NPCs. Even if that makes some of the NPCs appear incompetent, it is important that the players are always the heroes of the story, and not bystanders to something happening between NPCs.

Principle 4: Stories shouldn't be too smooth

Stories in computer games frequently either are a constant string of successes for the player, or have setbacks which occur whatever the player does. Setbacks are a good story element, because they make success sweeter. If there is no possibility to fail, success isn't much fun. The first principle of actions having consequences, and this principle, that setbacks in a story are okay, led me to decide that if the players didn't search for the traitor, the traitor would act "in role" to continue to reveal their plans. Having already mentioned the carrier pigeons to the players in a different context, I now let them see one flying south towards the enemy.

Principle 5: Leave room for extraordinary luck

On seeing the carrier pigeon flying south, the dwarf warlord threw his hammer after the pigeon. Although in reality that probably could never work, I would have allowed that to succeed on a critical hit. Dice are central to pen & paper roleplaying, and sometimes one must allow for the story to be changed by the roll of the dice. In this case he missed.

Principle 6: Don't completely derail the story

The setback with the traitor will have serious consequences. They players already know their initial battle plan, which depended on the enemy attacking from the south, has failed. On the other hand that doesn't mean the battle is lost. That would completely change the story. The setback with the traitor will change the story, but not completely destroy it. Unless of course the players react in a way that results in them losing the battle.

So how do you handle storytelling as a DM in your campaigns? Are my principles something you would agree with? What else do you do to make stories in pen & paper games come alive?

I usually have one guiding principle: roll with it. Essentially, it means to be prepared for the unexpected, to have to wing it when necessary.

I'm one of those DM's (yeah, old school) who prefers to plot things out ahead of time, but I also realize I can't cover everything. Therefore, I sketch out some motivations and whatnot that NPCs may have, so that when the players (inevitably) go off script, I'm ready.

Being able to wing it also means that if a player wants to do something obscure, I'm not afraid to ignore the rules and just call for a basic roll based on my judgement. I much prefer to keep the game going rather than grind it to a halt by trying to find the applicable rule in the books.

Okay, this is an inevitable question when you mention that you play D&D: which version?

I handle story telling roughly the same way.
I find it hard to take player input for the story during play.
I often take notes and work on it after playing.

@Redbeard, I also keep away from rules lookup during play, nothing kills momentum faster than that.
Okay, this is an inevitable question when you mention that you play D&D: which version?

4E. And before you start, I don't think 4E is in any way less suitable to tell a great story than other editions of the game. Storytelling is not the part of the game which is covered by any rulebook.
Was I going to start?

Oh, maybe, but more along the lines of 4e being different enough that it should have gotten its own name rather than the D&D line.

Besides, I'm running 4e for my kids right now (they asked), and it's okay. I refuse to run a hack and slash or combat only campaign, so I'm putting in a bunch of RP as the party moves through the Nentir Valley.
Yeah, I already suggested they rename 4E into "D&D Tactics" and keep it alive while rolling out D&D Next as the one just called "Dungeons & Dragons".
The best storytelling is the emergent kind. Pre-planned, "astro-turf" storylines are never as good as the ones players can create simply by interacting with an open game world. The problem is that most modern RPGs and gamers have been brainwashed by video game "RPGs", they have no idea how a proper emergent storyline can be done.

Read this article. It completely changed the way I play RPGs.
I agree with everything but the last. I want to emphasize #2, as well, as I think that one is the most overlooked by other DMs. The players can generate content very effectively, from something as direct as asking for something to happen to as indirect as thinking out loud about one of the problems you've presented them with and coming up with a great idea that can be co-opted elsewhere in the game.

I've had players do both. Since I rely on a lot of RP to flesh out mechanical development, I've had players ask me to present them with opportunities to use certain skills so that they can do so and develop them. I always take those requests seriously while also making sure I give them what they want in a way that they wouldn't expect. I've also had players come up with ingenious plot devices that weren't accurate at the moment, but would work well elsewhere.

As for #6, I would derail a story in a heartbeat if the players' actions called for it. I had a very serious incident in a game where a player murdered an NPC in warm blood (it wasn't really justifiable homocide nor self defense, but there was SOME argument that the guy had it coming). Still, it was murder, and he was charged and thrown in jail. The plot the players were working got finished up, but instead of moving forward with that story line, the players had to decide what to do about the captive PC. That decision generated more stories to the point that they never really got back to the original story line. It still worked out very well.

I'd also add as a side note to #3 that while players should always be at the center and that you shouldn't let them pawn off their work on others (so for the most part I agree, as I stated before), you have to take some of their actions into consideration when looking at their interests. If the PCs didn't want to deal with an investigation and tried to pawn the work off on the war council, I'd still make them deal with it, but I'd be a lot more sparse in use of investigations in the future. As an example, my players turned out to hate puzzles, so after the first puzzle (probably at level 2), I only used two others throughout the campaign (to about level 12 or so). I didn't completely stop, but I only used them when I felt it was REALLY called for, since they'd shown a distaste for them.

Very interesting post!
I think you're an awesome DM, and definitely agree with all the points above! ^_^
They later told me they had expected the council to deal with the traitor. But that is something that is unlikely to happen in my campaigns: Major story elements don't get resolved backstage between NPCs.

That seems pretty meta-game. If the world and it's NPC's was given it's own chance to react (rather than forced to concede to the meta rule that NPC's don't resolve things), what would the world/the NPC's do?
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