|Sneaking minis under the table doesn't make much sense.|
I've got a lot more articles in the works, including a full series planned after this new Friday series on Monster Roles. I've also been thinking about doing a series of articles on how I put together an actual session. Like, I imagine, many Dungeon Masters, I tend to take a little bit of a different approach each time I write an adventure, depending on the type of campaign or session I'm running. But there are some common threads, and I think it might be helpful to explore them. Plus, I can do a couple other articles about "special sessions" that don't follow the usual format.
But writing a session happens at two levels. There's the main storyline, which usually involves a problem, challenge, or villain that the players all have to focus on, and then there's individual character plots. The big bag evil guy (BBEG) doesn't care if Sir Elfadin the Elf Paladin avenges the burning down of his tree-home by orcs. That's up to Sir Elfadin.
Beyond the most basic "my character is adventuring because reasons" plots, each player will have some other levels of engagement with the game. And knowing how to connect those plots to your player (not just to the character) can help them become invested in your game.
Theming Character Plot
The first step to this is going to be pretty obvious, but it can be difficult. In order to create plots and story elements that your players will resonate with, you must...
|Own a copy of D&D|
A long time ago, in the days of Tomb of Horrors and Gary Gygax, the DM was seen as an impartial God-figure who simply worked against the PCs. In fact, to maintain this illusion, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson would sit behind barriers that completely obscured them from the players. They wanted to show that they didn't care about the players or their desires. They were only going to make life hard for whatever character came their way.
But nowadays, the D&D world has divided. There are DMs who maintain this illusion (usually Old-School DMs or DMs who play online games) and DMs who become a more benevolent, interactive God-figure, who can be bargained with, swayed, and is seen as more personally responsible for the fate of the characters.
I don't want to argue one is better then the other. I prefer the latter, and this article is about that style of play.
If your players are interested in story hooks, finding things tailored to them, and interacting with the game world on a higher level than fighting monsters, then you have to take some time to get to know who they are and how they want to play the game.
I, like many people, play D&D with my friends. This makes it fairly easy to get to know their likes and dislikes. I also encourage non-D&D gatherings, and off-topic discussions on our D&D Slack forums. I can see what they find funny, what genres and characters in media they are interested in, and how they react to certain scenes in movies or mechanics in board games.
Believe me, knowing ahead of time who is going to flip the table and when they are going to flip it is useful information.
Levels of Theming
|Much like the comedy in this show, you can go as simplistic and low-brow as you like|
Low Level Theming
On the lowest level of building plots to suit your players, you can include simple nods to things they like, or mechanics related to things they are interested in.
This can most often come in the form of small magic items, pets, clothing, or trinkets. If you have a player who loves cute things, you can add animals, children, or romantically-inclined NPCs to the story without losing much. If the player adopts one of them, congratulations, they are hooked to your game.
In the same vein, you can theme regular character upgrades in ways that the player would prefer. You can give a player a +1 longsword, or you can have the player receive a slip of paper telling them to go the the grave of a long-dead hero, where, at midnight, a black blade pushes forth from the dirt below, which grants a +1 to attack rolls and damage, and when not in its sheath drips the blood of the last creature it slew.
Same piece of gear, but one ensures the player gets to play the character they want to play.
On the subject of theming mechanics, this comes in two flavors: theming mechanics that already exist, or creating mechanics to interest the player.
You can tell a player that their Aaracokra wizard creates a Mage Wing instead of a Mage Hand. Or you can decide that a half-orc fighter doesn't just regain his breath on a Second Wind, he is re-invigorated by the dark power of Gruumsh. Again, these changes don't change the abilities or power level of the character. But it gives the player something they can say is uniquely theirs.
The more difficult and time-consuming way to theme mechanics is to write a new mechanic that your players can use. If you have a player who wants to be a blacksmith while they aren't adventuring, you're going to need a crafting system for them. And D&D 5e's current system is a bit lame. What if you have a Wizard who wants to spellcraft, or do alchemy? Those aren't covered at all.
But this is still low-level theming, because you are essentially just responding to the direct, in-game interests of your characters. Your player wanted a smith, a half-orc fighter, a grimdark or cute character, and you put something in the game for the character.
Not bad, but let's go one level further.
Mid Level Theming
|Be a professional actor. Oh wait|
This is where knowing your players is very important. Pay attention to what sort of movies they enjoy, what characters in media they admire, what other games (video and board) that they get immersed in.
Then, just use that character, plot, or mechanic in your game.
Including a character is easy enough. Many DMs run games in a setting where if they have an in-world analogue to a celebrity or fictional character, the players will find it fun and not bat an eye. But taking it a step further, figure out why the player likes that character. Are they attractive? Are they mysterious? Do they have a troubled past, or an epic destiny?
If they do, make a character with that trait, but change everything else about them. The player will still respond to the NPC you've created, because they like the quality that NPC has.
The difficulty here is that most players will just play the character they like. And for characters with epic destinies, world-altering abilities, or dark histories, it's usually for the best that they are PCs. But that doesn't mean you can't scale it down for your NPCs. Frodo had to bear the burden of carrying the ring, Faramir had to bear the burden of gaining his father's approval. One is a good PC, the other is a good NPC (or PC if you're running a less-epic campaign, I suppose).
Including plots is a little trickier. I like to steal plots from famous movies for my one-shot games, and see when people catch wind of what I've changed. Sometimes they don't even figure out that it was a stolen plot the entire time. That's usually for the best.
|Stealing things and changing them to be D&D-flavored: everybody does it!|
Importing mechanics is a little trickier, and I wrote about that a month ago. Basically, look at the games your players play outside of D&D. Do they like Skyrim and Settlers of Catan? Try a sandbox game. Or do they prefer Overwatch and One-Night Ultimate Werewolf? Maybe having an arena in their base would be fun for them.
High Level Theming
This is the tricky stuff. You really have to know your players, how they think, and how they react in order to pull this off. It's something I experienced with my first DM (who had ran for 15 years before I showed up in his games) and something I'm still trying to work on in my own games.
I'm going to lead with an example, because this stuff is tricky to explain. I listen to the bi-weekly D&D podcast The Adventure Zone. It's quite funny, and the show's DM, Griffin McElroy, does a great job of weaving the plot to fit the characters and world. But he takes it a step further with his Crystal Kingdom story.
|They are perfect boys|
Now, Griffin plays with his brothers, Justin and Travis, and their father Clint. About a decade before the Crystal Kingdom was recorded, their mother and wife Leslie passed away. So every one of Griffin's players knew what the NPC was going through, and by confronting and counselling this character, they were able to express a part of their life that perhaps wasn't easy to discuss.
That's a pretty clear analogue between something that the players experienced and something the characters experienced. And it really got the group into a powerful mindset, connecting them to the story on a personal level and allowing them to live out, as characters, things they were holding back in their own lives.
I think you can start to understand why this is tricky to pull of in a game. First, it involves you having a very trusting relationship with your players. They need to be on board with the direction you are going, and if they aren't you have to cut the plot.
They also need to trust that you won't turn against them. If you are playing a plot where they are fighting an analogue of their father, a political figure they dislike, or a representation of something they are personally struggling with, they have to be satisfied by the ending. If you build an analogue for the thing they hate and use it to overpower and kill them, then that isn't a fantasy game anymore. It becomes cruelty.
|A great example of this kind of stuff, actually|
That isn't to say the PCs can't lose, or shouldn't die. But when you make this sort of plot, the ending should be satisfying. Perhaps legions of soldiers swear vengeance for the death of the PC. Perhaps their sacrifice is just enough for the final plan to be put into place.
Another thing to consider is not being too transparent with what you're doing. Don't name the king of your country after a real-world political figure. Don't make the "fight against the father" literally against the PC's father. It's better for the player (and much easier to implement in the setting) if you have a layer of difference between the real-world and the story.
Again, this is hard to pull off. You could reach into the past and pull up things that your players may not want to find. You could overstep your limits and break the trust of your players. You could even get called out for doing it, and accused of mocking the lives of your players.
So, be careful. Start small. Do a few side plots and single-session stories before you make your whole campaign about something your players have experienced.
If you can pull it off, it will be the greatest campaign in your player's lives.
The last thing I wanted to discuss is something we explored in one of the areas of the Tomb of Horrors. Once you have a theme, you can start applying it to different parts of your campaign.
This is briefly mentioned on page 36 of the DMG. When you've found your theme, you can distill it to a broad essence: good vs. evil, law vs. chaos, life vs. death, mortals vs. immortals, intrigue, mystery, it could be anything. But making the theme broad allows you to apply it in many different ways.
|This doesn't really scream "Parental Abandonment"|
This can boil down into the design level too. Many undead have effects that lower a PC's Maximum HP. Perhaps HP becomes almost like a currency, and shopkeepers ask for years off your life instead of gold. Maybe an artifact lowers your HP in exchange for a powerful benefit.
The step that's missing in the DMG is that this will eventually lead to a Tone for your campaign. Tone is a tricky concept that happens over the long-term, which makes it harder to nail down. By focusing on the theme of your game, you can move closer to setting the right tone.
Interestingly, tone can change between two groups running the same adventure. And a good DM will adjust the campaign to fit that. For example, in Dice, Camera, Action, the Curse of Strahd campaign turned into a lighter, quirkier story that focused less on defeating enemies and more on befriending them. So, when the players entered the final dungeon (while being pretty badly underleveled), the DM allowed them to simply talk to and seal away the vampire Strahd Von Zarovich.
So the lesson is to use theming to inform your design choices as much as possible. If you're running a game about mystery and intrigue, have battles where the players can learn a secret weakness of the monster to kill it quicker. Have the evil overlord killed by a poisoned blade, not a mass combat.
Don't fall into the trap of thinking a game should always go a certain way. You might be the most important player, but you're still a part of the group telling the story.
|As long as your game doesn't become basically Jumanji|