April 2, 2015 | by Joe Lastowski
Draggin’ Through Dungeons: Using Storytelling Tricks to Enable Fun

As a Dungeon Master (or Game Master, or whatever other term you want to use), I see myself primarily as a storyteller… or even a story enabler. Sure, I put together what I think will happen, but that’s never what the players end up doing. But at their core, each player is a character in a group storytelling effort, and my job as DM is to help steer that. Of course, there are lots of other things a DM needs to do, like adjudicating rules, tracking monster stats, and making sure folks at the table have an opportunity to have fun… but often that can all get rolled-into the primary goal: telling a great story with your friends at the table.

DnD_PotARecently we started a new season of the Dungeons & Dragons Encounters program. This is an organized play “season” that happens every Wednesday. This particular season (running through August) follows a storyline of “Elemental Evil”… an evil so great that it corrupts elements around it. There are cults devoted to different elemental beings, and the party has to stop them. The in-store version of the adventure is provided as a free PDF to stores that sell D&D products and are signed up with Wizards of the Coast (the company that makes D&D). However, this PDF is part of a larger, for-sale hardcover book (Princes of the Apocalypse, or PotA, for short) that takes the story much further.

And there’s where the rub is. While the PotA story ends with the party (hopefully) being victorious over primordial masters of elemental evil (after getting up to level 20 or so), the Encounters version only goes up to level 3, and ends without really defeating any great evil. In fact, the hardcover is supposed to start with characters at about level 3, so the store version is just a distillation of the disparate quests the book offers to get new parties up to level 3, where they can start the “real” adventure. Even worse, because most of the plot hook reasons for players to be in the town where the adventure starts revolve around stuff in the hardcover that we’ll never get to, there was a big chance that players would feel left in the lurch story-wise.

1239287125_dungeonmasterThis is where storytelling techniques can help. First off, I read up on the town online, then used some theater improv game techniques to come up with a list of potential reasons why players might be in the area (everything from exploring local cuisine to tracking down a reclusive favorite author). Next, I looked at all the foes that would be faced, and asked myself, if they were on their own, separate from the larger Elemental Evil plots, what would their power structure look like. This pointed me towards who/what the end-of-season “bosses” might be, so that I could alter the individual stories enough to make sure that it was clear who the players were going after. The end result will (hopefully) feel like a complete story, and not just some hack-n-slash dungeon of random encounters.

And finally, there was a bit of system/rules stuff to take care of. See, we had lots of new players at our first session at my FLGS, and I knew that 1st level in 5th ed D&D is very “squishy”… it’s easy for players to die. I also knew that new players often tend to be shy, out of fear that they’ll make a mistake or end up with a dead character (which is a real possibility in this edition). So I solved this with the magic of flashbacks. Session 1 had to get the party to town, with a random fight on the way. So we started off at the inn in town, where the party was about to rest, and the innkeeper & locals wanted to hear the story of their harrowing fight on the road. This cued the flash-back, and we got to act out the story they were telling. Not only did this let players know that they had survived the first encounter ahead of time, but they also knew they could use their precious daily powers, since they knew that they’d have a long rest to recharge them after the fight.

635457069831365258flashbackThis one oft’-used storytelling trick created a different feeling roleplaying experience, and even though most players didn’t realize the practical reasons why I had set things up that way, they all said they enjoyed the different kind of feel. As for the rest of the season, I’m sure that additional storytelling tools will help to make the disparate adventures feel more cohesive, but we’re off to a great start!

Born at a very early age, Joe has thus far proven to be unkillable. A writing teacher, longtime role-player, and fire performer, Joe is one of the few DMs on the planet who can accurately describe, from first-hand experience, how awesome it is to have a flaming sword in your hands. A member of the Doctor Who Club of Western Massachusetts, his interests range from Star Wars (including the EU) to Marvel's X-Titles to classic Anime (Robotech, Escaflowne, Lodoss War, etc) to old and new Who. He regularly runs 5th edition D&D Encounters at his local gaming store, a weekly Fantasy Flight Star Wars game, and a far-too-infrequent home game of 4th ed D&D (annoying things like "schedules" and "adult responsibilities" keep it from being more frequent). Joe is a frequent contributor to a variety of roleplaying podcasts, a blogger on game-related web sites, and a frequent speaker on panels and game organizer at conventions in the western Massachusetts area.

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