Well met, adventurers. This week I’d like to give you some inside look into the behind-the-scenes thoughts that go into an organized D&D game in a public setting, though they can apply to any game you might be running.
Recently I’ve been managing the D&D Encounters weekly program for my local gaming store. Unfortunately, I ran into a bit of a problem: the adventures provided to stores to run for this season (based on the Elemental Evil storyline) are actually not really connected at all, and are taken from the random encounters available in the hardcover Princes of the Apocalypse Elemental Evil mega-adventure. The hardcover has characters starting at levels 3-4, and the stories given to stores are the random catch-up adventures to get folks at a level where they can start playing the real adventure.
Unfortunately, this means that there’s no through-line plot for this season, and it feels very much like a monster-of-the-week scenario. Players who come every week will not be rewarded with an ongoing epic plot that they are a part of, but with another fight against another foe that feels like it was pulled off a random table. When the adventures are done, there is no end boss, there is no satisfyingly concluded plot, there is nothing to indicate that the last 3-4 months were doing any of one of the most iconic things D&D can do: TELL A STORY.
So I’ve been tasked with fixing that. Using the encounters we’ve been provided, my job is to write a plot that will make sense with all these random encounters, and will give our consistent players a sense of a larger story that they are involved in (while still making it point to an even larger plot that players will want to buy the book to continue). Last night my DMs revealed the real crux of that story, and it nearly brought me to tears both as I wrote it and as I watched tables experience it.
Spoiler alert: if you’re a player at Modern Myths in Northampton, MA, you might want to stop reading to avoid learning surprises too soon. I’ll try to be vague anyway, because I know how the internet works, but don’t be meta-gaming at our tables!
So there are a couple named “bad guys” who could be a main boss for this season, though none of them are presented in the material as being a mastermind or overall leader of the elemental threats that keep popping up every week. It was easy enough to take one of those villains and make him a little more aware of what was happening. But I needed a motivation… and it needed to be worthy of an epic fantasy tale. Why had this villain turned his back on the gods and decided to worship the destructive Elemental Princes (and their master, the Elder Elemental Eye, who wishes to destroy everything)? Last night, though the players don’t know it yet, my DMs revealed that reason at all 3 of our tables.
The parties had each taken shelter from a wasteland sandstorm in a cave. The cave had clearly had a cave-in at the back, but was deep enough to provide shelter. Soon, as the party took their short rest, they started noticing strange lights & occasional things moving. The sort of stuff you’d seen in a Paranormal Activity movie, but without the creepiness factor. Soon, the image of a young boy, about 9 or 10, showed up. This was Jamie, who was off to see his father, the famous cleric of Helm (god of protection). Jamie also had taken shelter in the cave, but hadn’t realized that the cave-in had killed him. As far as Jamie knew, he was still waiting for the sandstorm to end. He knew he’d be safe, because he had faith in the protective powers of Helm that his dad had told him about. After some chatting with Jamie, they realized he’d been dead about 15 years, and that he was such a true believer he thought he’d grow up to be a paladin of Helm one day. Jamie was clearly a true believer, and his fascination with any divine characters and the questions he asked any paladins (“How many dragons have you killed?” “Do the gods speak to you directly?” etc) clearly showed his pure soul while also making the party really like him.
Dead kids always get to me, but it’s a PERFECT motivation for a fantasy super-villain. Distraught over the fact that the god of protection couldn’t protect his son, the cleric denounced his holy vows and turned to a power that can help him get revenge on the gods who let his kid die. Classic stuff, and very easy to understand (you never know who will show up at an Encounters table… so you try to be transparent with certain plots so that everyone has a clear idea of what is going on). Plus, over the past 15 years, it’d be easy for this villain to forget how pure his son was, and to just dwell in hatred for the gods. He’s probably also interacted with the “bosses” of the hardcover book, as they manipulate his hatred to serve their own needs.
Now here’s the part that drove me almost to tears. I wrote in an option, during the storm, for the party to dig out Jamie’s body and put his spirit to rest with a proper burial ceremony. To my intense joy, all 3 tables took the time to do this. After the ritual was completed, a white door opened and a radiant winged being in golden armor (adorned with Helm’s symbols) appeared, calling Jamie to its side. “Come, Paladin, you have a place among us” said the angel, as it took Jamie through the door to whatever Heaven the followers of Helm go to in the afterlife. Several players told me afterwards that they had goosebumps as that happened, and the DMs at my tables were likewise affected. And that, to me, is a truly iconic D&D moment… not the zany tale you tell years later about the crazy critical hit you rolled, but the genuine emotions felt as you all experienced something that touched your hearts.
Now, of course, the party doesn’t yet KNOW that the villain behind it all is the vengeance-seeking father of that heart-warming ghost boy, but once they do learn that, it opens up the option for the final fight to go differently, so that there might be an epic turn-around if a player makes an impassioned plea to the father, or tells him about putting his son to rest, or shows him young Jamie’s silver top to knock him out of crazy revenge mode.
Stat-wise, I haven’t changed the encounters from what we’ve been given by Wizards of the Coast as part of the official Adventurer’s League materials (that much is required by AL guidelines). But story-wise, there is now a reason for a main villain to be orchestrating these seemingly random encounters as part of a broader plot to get vengeance on the gods. When the party finally stops him (by either killing him or making him see the error of his ways), the other events of the hardcover will have already been set in motion, and players can buy Princes of the Apocalypse and continue the adventure as written, with a somewhat richer backstory of how their characters got to this point.
As DMs and as players, I urge you to look for those emotional connections you can make in your games. Sure, it’s great to slay the dragon and get some treasure, but this collaborative storytelling endeavor we call Dungeons & Dragons ought to also have some emotional power behind it, and the games that do end up being the ones we’ll remember decades later.