One of the worst feelings as a Dungeon Master is building a masterpiece of a plot, only to have your players ignore it and wander off in a direction unrelated to anything you had planned. This is the eternal struggle for DMs; how do you keep your players invested in the story? What do you do when players break your plot, or bypass it entirely? In this week’s article, I want to put forward my personal model of plot development. It is best referred to as nonlinear or branching narratives.
Linear narratives rely on moving from point A to point B, with very little room for deviation. We see this type of plot structure a great deal in prewritten modules. Descent Into Avernus, for example, brings players to hell, and they are given exactly two pathways out of hell. They might handle specific scenarios in different ways, but each scenario is unavoidable, and must be dealt with before the clue to the next scenario in the linear narrative is unveiled. Eventually, the plot points are spent and the players make their way out of hell. But they are very much guided in a straight line through the adventure, and their player agency is limited. And while this leads to a good story, it has some limitations that really rub me the wrong way.
To start with, in linear storytelling, players are forced into situations where there is no way out other than to take the next plot point. The module relies on players being low-power and generally powerless to escape their fate except for these one or two threads of hope they are required to chase. Players are also discouraged from exploring their own personal backstories. Who cares that you are the son of a noble wizard-turned-lich in Thay and slated to become apprentice to Szass Tam himself? You’re in hell. Szass Tam isn’t coming to help you. You’re in the module now, follow the breadcrumbs. Any player could be cookie-cutter inserted into the game, and it would run the exact same. Backstory and player character originality is irrelevant.
Compare this to the story structure of Curse of Strahd. You have one objective – to escape Barovia – similar to Descent Into Avernus’s objective of escaping hell. But in Curse of Strahd, you are given next to no direction. You are placed in the world of Ravenloft and set loose. Your players can investigate different threads and piece together the lore of the world, find allies and remove enemies in the order they choose, and no two playthroughs look exactly the same. Because it is so open-world, the customizability of the module is astronomical. And while player characters are still separated from their home, and many of their backstories, the ability to incorporate those backstories in a meaningful way is much more available.
Nonlinear storytelling is this type of experience. You are given a situation and absolute free reign in how your players solve it. Rather than a set of plot points with a string going from one to the next, you are giving your players a ball of yarn to untangle as they please. The ultimate goal is to get to the center of the plot, but no matter where they start unraveling the ball, they eventually get there in the end. And their choices matter – who cares if the players ignore the fact that people are dying by the hundreds at the temple because divine magic has stopped working? They’ll still get to the center of the plot by visiting the library instead. And because you have allowed the players to go about things their own way, they feel like their choices matter… because their choices DO matter.
The situation ultimately doesn’t change. If the cause of wild magic in the city happens to crash land in your basement, that plot point will stick. Even if the players ignore it, it’ll eventually come to them. Players can do whatever they want, explore the city they play in, interact with the world, get to know each other, and still have the plot happen around them. You as the DM can introduce a little urgency, when necessary, but whenever possible, let your players wander. Give them a multitude of plot hooks to explore. Make the world come alive.
For example: is a war brewing? Maybe your characters want nothing to do with that. Maybe they want to go clear out a goblin cave. But upon doing so, when they sell their loot, they get less in return… because taxes are higher… because there’s a war. The plot is still happening. They players don’t have to address it yet. Maybe they want to do a smuggling job. Cool! There’s plenty of jobs out there for people looking to sneak out of a country with closed borders that is in the middle of the conflict. The mere presence of the war alters the world the players are playing in. Letting your players wander just lets them see different aspects and offers you, the DM, the opportunity to build a more vibrant, living world that has more the players are attached to. So, when the war finally does reach their home, there’s a wealth of resources and history and investment keeping the players interested.
A good plot bends like a bowstring. The starting point might always look the same, and the players might always end up in the middle of your main conflict final confrontation. But everything in the middle can bend far in any direction without derailing the plot. Branching narrative offers that freedom. Plots that play out like a straight line can still be compelling, but it’s harder to make the player characters themselves as memorable as ones playing in a world where they are free to interact and behave as they normally would. Let the world react to your players. Let them play and impact things meaningfully.
Anyway, I hope this was helpful for you. As always, I look forward to seeing how you use this advice. Go be a great DM, and I’ll see you next session!
Kenny, Dungeon Master Extraordinaire