Adventure Builder Workshop: The Story

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on September 13, 2010

Story is the driving force behind any good movie. The movie can be loaded with action, special effects and an all star cast, but without a good story it falls flat. The same is true of your D&D campaign. You can craft the most intricate combat encounters, reward your players with the best treasure, but without a great story to tie it all together expect that your players may soon become bored and tired with the campaign.

This is the third instalment of the Adventure Builder’s Workshop that was held at GenCon this past August. The previous entries include information on the villain and creating locations.

When considering the story of your campaign keep the following two points in mind:

  • Narrating the action
  • Encounter difficulty

Narrating the Action

Writing an adventure is a little like writing a book, you need a beginning, middle and end. It is very important that you know exactly what your villain is trying to accomplish. If you as the DM aren’t sure of this, you can guarantee that your players won’t know either. This means they’ll be wandering around aimlessly in a campaign of your devising. If they like meaningless combat you’re ok, but don’t count on it lasting long.

Your villain’s central motivation or goal is tied directly to the story’s advancement. The two exist together and while at times your players may take on a side quest or two, the primary villain should always draw them back to the central adventure of the campaign. Whatever nefarious plans your villain has, ensure you develop ways for the PCs to thwart them.

As the villain’s goals are central to the adventure you want to make the interesting parts of the story obvious to the players. They need to have a clear indication of what to do over the course of the adventure. In many respects all campaigns (except perhaps Sandbox games) feature the effects of the railroad. That is you know where you want the players to go, you just need to get them there. After all, you’ve spent all week preparing the maps and NPCs that the PCs will face. Therefore, it’s vital that the PCs actually get there.

Your job as the DM is to dress up the railroading mechanic in the story so that the PCs won’t want to make another choice. All the investigation leads to one clear outcome. For this reason you need to avoid red herrings and providing false information whenever possible. We’ve written about red herrings before and to an extent this mechanic is fair play. After all, how often do you get the absolute correct information all the time? Just be advised that all your planning will be for nothing if you deliberately provide false information that your players act on.

I would advise DMs to take a page from Hollywood or fiction when it comes to false information. In the movies the hero’s may receive a false lead, but it always leads to the correct outcome eventually. Random red herrings most likely won’t accomplish this, but deliberately wrong or misleading information might. If you use red herrings and false information often expect that those players who are driven by the story line may become frustrated with the campaign.

When narrating the action and driving the story forward remember that the players and the antagonists actions affect the story. If the PCs foil the plan of the villain, the villain will react with a new plan. The same can be said if the villain does the same thing to your players, expect them to react and to drive the story forward.

Encounter Difficulty

When setting up encounters it is important to create scenario’s that will challenge player expectations, just do so sparingly. If every encounter has an earth shattering revelation or a tweak on a rule your players will start wondering why they purchased the Player’s Handbook.

As DMs we like to keep our players on their toes, it keeps the game interesting. However, players also like to feel superior, they like to be able to brag about their feats of bravery. Grant them these opportunities, not every encounter should be a back breaker.

It’s important when designing encounters that the threat be appropriate for the hero’s level. A group of heroic tier PCs are not going to run off to fight Orcus and if they do they’ll get what’s coming to them. We’ve written previously on Fighting an Opponent That You Can’t Beat and there is nothing wrong with including these elements in your adventure. Just don’t cheat the PCs and don’t set them up for failure.

A monster or challenge the PCs can’t beat should be obvious. If it isn’t you aren’t doing your job correctly. If the players still insist on fighting the monster, well you did provide fair warning.

What challenges have you had in keeping the story moving with a long term campaign? What did you do to keep the players interested in the outcome?

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