Anyone that has seen me Dungeon Mastering live on Howreroll will know that I am often saying “If the Dungeon Master and the players always put the story first, it will be a successful and enjoyable game.” I want to examine that statement and go into detail about why it is important.
Firstly the entire reason we really play Dungeons and Dragons, or any Role Playing Game is to have fun right? I understand that we do not all have the same exact criteria for experiencing fun, but for the most part if you have chosen to spend hours of your time playing a Role Playing Game, you probably have similar criteria as to what “fun” is as the other players AND the Dungeon Master that are at the table with you. To me the fun of running a Dungeons and Dragons game has never been pouring over rules, drawing maps, or creating interesting and complex encounters for my players, it has always been in telling the story, and watching my players embrace and interact with it. As the Dungeon Master your primary job is not to be an adjudicator or walking rules set, it is to tell the story.
When we tell our story we do so in a different way than a typical author. We set the scene and describe it to our players in a way which sparks their imagination and allows them to visualize the world around them. With this mental picture painted we proceed to lead our players through a series of encounters that make up an adventure, and a series of adventures that make up a campaign. weeks, months or even years later, when the campaign has come to an end how do you look back on it?
To me when I look back on my campaign and ask myself “Was that a great campaign?” I recall all the sessions we had while playing the campaign and all the key moments. The great encounters, fun role playing opportunities, epic dice rolls, player reactions etc but in the end I can really answer my question by asking myself another. “Did I and everyone else enjoy the story and would it have made a great book or movie?”
When we decide to run a game we as the Dungeon Master do a lot of prep work. We may write out our adventures (or read them if running a published adventure), create our encounters, draw our maps etc and then we sit down for our gaming session with our group of players. Yes this all has to be done but before doing any of these things begin by asking yourself “what is the story about?” define the tale you want to tell and depict the story first. Each adventure is like a chapter in a book, and the campaign is like the novel itself. You do not have to know the details of every single chapter when you first begin creating your story but you should know the general plot.
When I create my campaigns I begin by creating my story. Before I go further I should point out I have two distinctive types of campaign that I run based on player experience and the type of game we want to play. I call these pre structured and non structured campaigns. My pre structured campaigns are the typical campaigns that most Dungeon Masters will run. They consist of an organized chain of events that have an ultimate goal or come to a specific climax. The other is where I allow the players total freedom and they decide on what they want to do at any given time. I offer no obvious adventure path but instead just allow them to explore a vast world and choose what to do. This method is very organic and requires a much higher degree of skill as a Dungeon Master. It is also ESSENTIAL that you have a well developed world at your disposal to even make this successful (see my world building series). I will cover campaign creation in depth in other topics but for now lets talk about it from a story aspect.
I begin by writing the general plot synopsis for my campaign. for example. “Their is a vial cult that is working towards gathering the necessary items to conduct a powerful ritual that will allow a lost and dead chaos goddess to be reawakened and re enter the world.” It does not have to be too in depth at this point, its just the synopsis. Next I ask myself “how will the cult achieve this and where do the players fit in.” Well I decide that the cult will need to gather nine difficult and hard to acquire items and they do not wish to put themselves at risk of exposure or danger so they are going to find some lackeys to do it for them. This is where the players can come in.
Now I have to look at the players motivations. Assuming they are not evil and happy to help bring the existence of a destructive goddess into the world, they are going to have to have a reason to do such a terrible thing. Promise of wealth is probably not going to do it, at least not if they find out what the items are for, so I want something more compelling. So lets have the players each get ambushed and marked with a powerful arcane mark that they can not remove by any means they try, and lets allow them to believe that if they do not find a way to remove the mark it will ultimately kill them. Now we have one of the evil cult members play the part of a helpful local herbalist who can set them on a path to possibly removing the arcane mark.
By going through the thought process above I now have created the start to my story and also my campaign. Now I would write an adventure around the opening chapter of the story. I then continue with my story creating process and decide that the cult will literally dupe the players into gathering each item, and while the players believe they are doing it to rid themselves of the mark, they are in fact gathering all the needed items for the main protagonists of the story. Each adventure will deal with them gaining one of the items, and throughout the story I will drop very subtle little hints (that I know they wont pick up on at the time) about the true nature of what they are doing all the while knowing that when they get to the climactic end of the story/campaign the penny will drop and they will have a serious WTF moment. As I write each adventure I already know where it fits in the story. To bring the story to life I make sure to introduce several fun and memorable NPCs (Non Player Characters) for the players to interact with. Some interesting locations, villages, swamps, forests etc for them to explore and ultimately flesh out the details of the story. Finally I will put a lot of thought into the Final encounter of the campaign and by now I have a start and a finish and the details needed to create each adventure to fill in the middle. It is not necessary for me to create all the adventures of the campaign ahead of time, I can do so as play progresses. In fact I suggest you DON’T write to much initially as the players will most likely do things that will spawn ideas in your head that may be far better than what you came up with ahead of time.
In the end you have created the basis for a great story, and now all you need is the main characters (the players) to help fill in the details as you go. Between you and your players you should end up with a story that you can look back on and say “Wow that would have made a great movie or novel.” These are the campaigns that will stick in your memory for years to come.
Incidentally, you just read how I came up with the Marks of Intrigue Campaign. The first campaign I ran on Howreroll. If you would like to see how it played out you can check it out on our youtube channel.
You see the story is way more important than how strong or intelligent or charismatic a character is. It is way more crucial than using fun unique monsters or giving out magical items to your players. As the Dungeon Master you should consider the story in everything you do and ask yourself if what you are thinking of doing fits the story. A player should ask themselves the same question and consider it in the character they create and how they allow it to develop. This means that you may have to make choices that don’t make the most powerful character you could make. You may have to choose to act in a way that may not yield the best rewards for your character, but in the end one thing is for sure, if the Dungeon Master and the players put the story first and foremost, then all will have a greater enjoyment of the game and look back with pride and say “We told a great story!“