I have been engaging with some D&D regulars on Twitter over the possible outcomes of adventures and their story. In many regards, a lot of adventures and plots usually climax with a rigorous fight—one where success is contingent upon slaying the antagonist. But what if you want something more dynamic than that? What if success and failure revolved around something less defined? Let’s delve into this and more.
Image from SlyFlourish.com. Artist: Jared Von Hindman
I’ll be honest. In 1988, when my older brother first introduced me to Dungeons & Dragons, I was captivated by the idea of kicking butt with a sword, and slaying foul beasts with my physical might. Back then; I was a snot-nosed little kid that was inspired by movies like the Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, and Willow. I had no idea what plot-development was, or how to craft a story through any structured means. I had to base it on mediums I understood—namely, movies.
Now that I am older (notice I didn’t say more mature?), to simply slay the dragon is not enough. There needs to be meat and substance; a roll of anticipation that leads to a thought-provoking resolution. Following a linear arch to completion, where the antagonist is killed, is just not going to cut it anymore.
I have plenty of unfinished stories stuffed in my brain. I usually aim to provoke some form of thought in my players, and present options that are both obvious and not. Here is an example we’ll work with.
We are crafting a story whereby a group of orcs has been pillaging a border-town. The mayor is willing to pay to have someone remove the threat.
Basic Success: The heroes track down the orcs, slay them, and return victorious. The mayor pays them for their success and they continue on.
Basic Failure: The heroes die a glorious death while fighting the orcs. Game over.
This is the simplest idea that just about anyone can figure out. The players’ purpose, direction, and motivation are clear and cut. Bing. Bang. Done! This can be enjoyable. Some groups want simple things to do, and as a designer, I could write this out into a full-blown adventure, chalk-full of awesome maps, tokens, sidebars, and compelling monster stat-blocks. There is nothing wrong with this kind of design. In fact, it just might be what you need to help bridge sections of your campaign. That being said, it isn’t terribly thought provoking, and it plays upon the orc-flaying meme that has existed since 1974.
Now let’s look at something more dynamic.
We are crafting a story whereby a group of orcs has been pillaging a border-town. The mayor is willing to pay to have someone remove the threat. In the course of gathering information about this adventure, the players might become aware that the mayor is hiding something. Little do the players know that the mayor has been secretly sending thieves to steal crops from the orc-farmers that reside on the outskirt of town. The orcs, who do not speak common, are merely reacting to the provocation of the mayor. In order to appear as a strong and capable leader, to impress a local baroness, the mayor is gaining from both the increased resources, and his ability to lead an attack against the barbaric orc tribe!
Advanced Success: The heroes track down the orcs through the course of investigation, and learn breadcrumbs about the possible treachery. While it might not be obvious, it will present itself as the heroes learn more and more about the plot. The heroes might engage the mayor and call him out for his indiscretions, which will lead to a political scene where they discredit him. The heroes are praised by the local populous for their unveiling of the crook mayor, and establish a healthy, symbiotic relationship with the orc tribe.
Advanced Failure: The heroes die a glorious death while fighting the orcs, fighting the mayor, or being completely oblivious to the contextual clues. The rift between the orc tribe and the town grows over time and the battles become bloodier. The mayor usurps more power through his devious ways and soon becomes a tyrant of his own right. The story continues, and an even more powerful antagonist is created.
This should be self-evident. The heroes are engaged in something much more complex and dynamic than the basic version. They must make meaningful choices that will have lasting effects. Even in failure, they have gained something. And you, the advanced dungeon master, have much more to work with. With the advanced version, death isn’t even an option. The heroes do not have to slay anyone, and instead must use wit and resolve to save the day.
About the Author
Matt James is a freelance game designer from Washington, DC. In addition to many articles in Dragon and Dungeon magazine, his works include Soldiers of Fortune (Open Design), Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale, Into the Unknown: The Dungeon Survival Handbook, and Lair Assault: Attack of the Tyrantclaw. Follow Matt on Twitter at www.twitter.com/matt_james_rpg