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  • Writer's pictureKL Forslund

D&D: Story Arcs

This is part two of how I “wing” DMing an adventure using a few tricks from my writing toolbelt. I started with showing how to make up an encounter or scene on the fly because a story is a bunch of those with a narrative thread. There’s a lot of ways to run a game, my goal is to provide a fun series of game sessions that in the retelling of it sounds like a cool story.


Some gamers just want the DM to simulate a world and let the players do what they will. I’m all for letting players do what they want, but not so much on being a human holodeck. Everybody needs to have fun at the table, and that includes the Dungeon Master. Thus, I’ve applied what I know of DMing, fiction writing, and designing lightweight processes (really!) to lay out how I’m running my latest campaign with my friends.


Dungeon Mastering

I wrote this, assuming you’ve played D&D and have a sense of how the game goes. I am not going into the whole process of DMing, as I want to frame up a way to run the game on the fly. So, be sure to check out the Dungeon Master’s Guide of every edition you can get your hands on. Each one starts with chapters on how to get started with varying perspectives and wisdoms. Glom it all together and then add the ideas from my articles if you like them.


The Story Thus Far

I’m going to give you the basic formula for adventure stories, aka genre fiction. There are other ways of making a story, but for our purposes, your neighbor telling you about the time they deposited a check successfully and they didn’t have any trouble may technically qualify as a story, it doesn’t make for good television. D&D is more like TV. Your hero goes out and things go wrong, get hard, and eventually they come out on top.


Now unlike television, the outcome isn’t certain. Our heroes have hitpoints. They might die, and not because of contract disputes or “finishing their journey” malarkey. You can temper this risk by carefully choosing difficulty levels of monsters, but while doing that, let the dice fall where they may.


Stories have a beginning, middle, and end. Partly because we can divide anything into three parts, but also because that’s how it is. The beginning is where we get the party introduced, setup signs of the story problem, and drop the hammer to show the problem means business. Then we’re off to the races for a solution through the middle. Once the players are ready to crawl out and tackle the final stage, we’re into the ending. It always sounds simple when we put it like this.



Opposition

Let’s start with two quotes:

“No plan survives contact with the enemy” - General Patton.

“Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” - John Lennon


Whether the players have a big goal for themselves or not, somebody else is opposing them OR about to do something the players will oppose. If the party is new, they likely don’t have a big plan, so expect to get the party started yourself. You need a bad guy who’s at the edge of the party’s difficulty reach with a dastardly goal. Like raiding the town and taking people and stuff. Something the party would oppose, or even better, NEED to oppose. It does no good to set evil in motion and the player’s shrug.


You’ll work out details as we proceed, but it starts with knowing Bob the Butcher is about to bulldoze the town and throw off whatever the player’s wanted. Remember to scale Bob, his plan, and thus resources like minions to the party level. So for a 1st level party, that means Bob is maybe CR2 at best. Tough, but you’re expecting him to lose at some point after a tough adventure. Unless he gets away, and levels up, and comes back later…


Think of what the villain’s plan is in three stages. If he’s raiding the town in stage one, there’s a reason. He needs money, supplies, labor, for stage two. Stage two might be ransoming the town to the regional government. And Stage three could be escaping with what he really wanted during this whole mess. Notice how three stages divides nicely into a beginning, middle, and end.


Lairs and Environs

The bad guy needs a base, and something between Town and them. Make or borrow some small maps. Keep it simple. Short distances through one or two annoying terrains will do it. As you get used to this and the party levels up, you can make it more complicated. Plus you’ll be building on what came before. This also means knowing what types of monsters or NPCs to have handy. You just want to know enough so when the players get there, you can flesh out the details.


Adventure Arc

For our purposes, especially starting out a story or adventure has NINE stages. Each one might be several encounters, with one scene. A scene being an encounter that actually moves the plot and gets us ready for the next stage.


Act One

Introduction

This is where we see the hero in their present state. In a new campaign, that might be a bar, not knowing anybody, hoping to find a plot hook. You could decide all the PCs know each other or not. Perhaps they were summoned. In an existing campaign, you’ll know where you left them, and what would make sense to show them doing. Or even start media res, in the middle of a fight on some quest they must’ve started when nobody was watching (like Indianna Jones first movie).


Our goal here is to get the players comfortable and caught up on the situation. Like the wagon ride in the beginning of Skyrim on the way to be executed. Here’s some intro ideas for a brand new campaign:


  1. We all happen to be in a bar when…

  2. We’ve been summoned by the local leadership..

  3. We’re shopping in town for our starting equipment

  4. We’re in the middle of fighting against a surprise attack while…


We may keep adding to that list. If there’s any trouble, try to link it to the villain’s plan, but this is not where the trouble becomes obvious. Kind of like Independence Day starts with TV signals going weird, so David investigates, but we don’t see the alien ships or or destruction until the next stage.


Inciting Incident

Once the players are comfortable or settled down, then  bring in the prompt for action. Maybe town leadership sent them on a rat hunt in the sewers. Or they’ve finished the bar fight. The intro should make them look confident or at least ready. Now we jack that up. If the last stage has them moving toward something (like going into the sewers for the rat hunt), let them do that. Even do an encounter with rats. Then you spring the real trouble on.


What’s the real trouble? Our villain (ex. Bob the Butcher), has started his plan. If it’s raiding the town, then it begins now. Make sure this event includes where the players are and affects them in some way. Attacking the town on the surface while the party is blissfully unaware in the sewers is not inciting. Have them run into a slew of soldiers infiltrating from that direction for a specific goal, independent of the main forces up top. Where the party could handle rats, they worry about the soldiers. And maybe they should go back and tell the town guard. Decisions have to be made, and that’s the point. Throw in some distant explosions and screams so they know more is going on.


What happens next is the party’s choice. Short of dying stupid, or shrugging and continuing to kill rats,  there’s no wrong one.


The goal here is to set some stakes. The players and things they care about are in trouble. Do something or lose.


Aftermath

Whether the inciting incident was huge (the town is on fire!) or modest, the party should be worried. They’re either on the run, or running to what they think they need to do next. If they’re moving, this is a little scene to reinforce the stakes. Perhaps it’s a squad of soldiers coming across them. Or town guard who heard there’s a BOLO on the party because they were falsely accused. What you come up with should make sense relative to what’s happened.


Act Two

Regrouping

The party needs to catch its breath, and should find a hiding spot. They’ll talk, make a plan. Probably want more information. Which means sneaking out, getting a prisoner, or talking to an ally. Find out what they want to do. Then set up the encounters for that to be attempted. You’ll need to think of what information to tell them. Using the Bob example, they should find out Bob took all the stuff and adults.  If the party captures a soldier, they can interrogate and find out the soldier has orders to report to a new location. But the soldier won’t know why, or what the next step in the plan is.


This gap gives just enough info for direction to be chosen, but they’ll need more, which entices them to do more. A party in motion is a party having fun, even if they don’t know it yet.


If the party seems to dither, a wandering patrol or monster comes upon their position. Again, incite them to move, to action.


As part of giving information, try to reveal enough to raise the stakes. Finding out those hostages are going to be fed to a monster unless demands are met, or that the army is growing and advancing on a bigger town. Or that the villain has a team looking in a ruin for a certain item he needs/is afraid of. Revealing something that is going to happen (and might be stopped, or more information gotten) gives the players ideas.



Counteroffensive

Logically, once the players have a clue as to what’s going on and where they might gum up the works, or get what they want, they’ll go do it. Again, the prior stages were about creating stakes the players care about. So, find out what the player’s want to do, and layout the obstacles expected along the path. If you had revealed a dungeon with an item the villain wants, and the party says that’s where they’re headed to get it first, make that dungeon. If they’re sneaking into the enemy camp to kill the leader, make that camp.


Here’s where it gets tricky as a DM. You don’t have a plan. You have a process. Whatever happens here, the adventure is not done. Things will get worse before they get better, If the party makes a major success here, roll with it, and the villain’s stage three is a pivot from his failure here. If the party botches it, the villain’s stage two kicks in as expected.


Worsening

For a compelling story, we’d like things to get worse before they get better. But, if the outcome of the last stage routed the enemy pretty good, then you might need to skip this and get to Act Three. Like the villain, your goal is to pivot and keep up the pain.


Assuming the villain still can, the second stage of their plan kicks in. a city burns. Demons run wild. Giants stomp among us. Like the inciting incident, you want the players aware of this, whether it’s happening far or near. So as the players come out of the dungeon with the MacGuffin, they see the city in the distance burning. And the squad sent to get the item (or reinforcements to secure it) arrive at the dungeon.


This is harder at low level because you need to keep the CRs lower. But just think smaller scale. Bad guys ruining a region, rather than a country. 


Fallout

Don’t give the players a break here. Right after the badness of stage 2 evilness happens, hit them with ramifications of what just happened. If the troops just bulldozed a city, now the predators come out. Find a problem that’s related or consequential of what the stage 2 plan was, and bring it to impact the players.


The goal is to worry them and increase the stakes. They are in big trouble if they don’t stop this.


The Break

You can keep harassing the players with chasing, and guards that keep finding them for a bit from the last step. Then you need to give them a break. Let them catch their breath. And maybe get a clue as to how to stop all this. That might be evidence, or part of the next plan. Just knowing where the villain will be (and when) means they could ambush him. Something.


This is also where you might hand out XP, especially if it means a level up. Or reveal the location of where some helpful items might be (a dungeon!). Maybe it’s a helpful NPC or surrendering prisoner from the last encounter.


The Climb

It’s time for the party to start making progress. Things are so bad, they can only get better. Maybe. After the break, the heroes should have a new direction and goal. Maybe it smells like the old one, but it’s freshened up with the light at the end of the tunnel.


This might mean travelling a bit to get to the needed place. Getting through a dungeon to get the real MacGuffin. This could take a few encounters and maps to work through. Your goal here is to ease up the difficulty at first, and increase it as they get to the end. You’re warming them up, but not fully baking them.


Act Three

Confrontation

It’s time to stop the bad guy. The party arrives just in time (unless he pushed the button to launch the warheads five minutes earlier and is just humoring them). Maybe don’t go into full monologue because the player will try to kill him once he gets rolling. But do allow for a bit of banter. Who knows, maybe they can convince him to stop without violence. Who am I kidding, this is D&D. Roll initiative.


Darkest Night - optional

For peak dramatic tension, if the party gets beat down pretty good and is about to lose, have something interrupt the fight (like the floor giving out), giving the villain time to gloat, and the players time to feel bad about their life choices before coming up with a tricksy last ditch attempt.


Finish This

If the party fails to stop the bad guy (it could happen), then the next step is revealing what life is like in the aftermath, rolling replacement characters, and figuring out what the next adventurer is going to be. The setting should be changed, presumably for the worse.


If the party won, there’s loot and XP. You might be tempted to say order and the status quo is restored and everything is returned to normal. But is it? The characters have more XP and respect. Lives were disrupted. Nobody is quite the same and recovery doesn’t really put you back where you were any more than insurance replaces your wrecked car with exactly what you had and no cost to you.


Do spend the time summarizing the outcome. Not too long. But let the players see what the world is now like.  That’ll be the starting point of your next adventure. Don’t worry if you made it sound great, and the next session reveals the seedy underbelly that grew in the aftermath. That’s how it works.


Exceptions and Observations

This is a lot of steps, but it’s roughly how books and movies work. Here’s a few extra thoughts on all of it to take in now that you’ve read this far.


  • Tread the line carefully between forcing things to happen and things happening. Bad luck and timing aren’t the same thing as the DM saying, “And then this happens to you.”

  • If the players have a great plan, good dice rolls, and skate through, let that win stand. Maybe later there’s a consequence for it, though by another NPC, which allows you to recover the plot under new management.

  • Each step might be a single encounter, or have extra encounters between them to cover travel, or harry the party.

  • Reading all of this can seem like you have to plan all of this first. Don’t do that. Plan step one, and play the game.

  • Each step should be be developed AFTER doing the previous. You may need to pause between steps to take notes.

  • As you run this, keep track of what step you’re on, and that the goal is to get to the next step.

  • If the party shrugs and ignores/runs from what’s happening, roll with it. The city burns. The party pursues their stated goal. Ideally, what you’ve set in motion affects their goal. That’s life. You can’t act normal while the world crumbles around you.

  • Three is a handy number for how many things or times to do things. More gets tedious. 3 acts. 3 plan stages. 3 times playing the same trick.

  • This is one way to do a story arc, you can add subplots, betrayals, and stuff. With a different bad guy plan, even with the same steps, you should still get wildly different adventures. We’re just here to make it challenging and dramatic.

  • Subsequent adventures can build off of NPCs, problems, and ideas from earlier sessions which will make all of this far less generic.

 

Click here for more of my articles about Dungeons and Dragons


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