Welcome back to the Beginner’s Guide for Dungeon Master series, the step-by-step guide to help new DMs plunge into the world of Dungeon Mastering. My name is Kenny and I am the Dungeon Master for the Bard Rock Café Podcast. Last time, we had a brief overview of the different steps to being a dungeon master. Today, I’m going to delve a little deeper into what considerations should come into play when you make your storyline for your game. Some of this comes from understanding what type of game you want to run. Some games are focused on combat, stopping some grandiose threat. Others are focused on delving into lost ruins to explore. But whatever the case may be, you want a story that engages your players enough that they want to interact with the world and the setting, rather than just kill their way through every obstacle.
First, remember that your player characters are the main characters. They should never feel irrelevant. They should never be irrelevant. Whatever story you’re telling, the players should end up at the center of the conflict. Maybe they stumble upon a secret cabal of cultists plotting to summon a demon into the world while taking odd jobs from a tavern. Maybe they get pulled into another realm to face a dark vampire lord who holds that realm in eternal captivity. Maybe they own a café that gets struck by a mysterious meteor that grants wild magic powers. Whatever the case may be, it’s important that the characters be the center of your plot. It’s no fun to play in a game where you’re playing second fiddle to an NPC. This is known as the Hero’s Call to Adventure – the thing that involves the character in the plot. Every story needs one, or the character might just walk away from all of it because it just doesn’t affect them.
Second, make it human. Whatever your plot, however wild and crazy you let things get, include elements to make it “normal”. While all players enjoy throwing dice at big monsters until those monsters die, for a longer campaign, there needs to be something relatable in the plot. It’s easy to kill gnolls until you realize they’re cursed into insanity by the demon lord Yeenoghu. Insert a single sane gnoll fighting off the curse to explain what’s happening, and suddenly it’s bittersweet killing gnolls. Of course your party still has to; gnolls are terrible and kill and ransack everything and they have to be stopped. But it’s bittersweet, and if the day ever comes that the party can fight Yeenoghu? They’re still going to try to kill him, but it’ll be more than just a fight. It’ll have weight behind it. Another example: bandits are raiding the village? When the party gets to the bandit camp, make it awful. They’re starving. Desperate. Now suddenly violence is an option, but so is finding a way to give the bandits a different solution to starvation. Suddenly the encounter is more than just throwing dice at things until they die. Now it’s human. And because it’s human, there’s more for your players to do, to interact with, to care about. This is a big part of making an immersive game world.
Third, write what you know. This is important, because you need to be able to draw on an internal reserve of knowledge and human understanding if you want something to be relatable. Everyone, every single person, has experience with pain, heartache, loss, joy, sorrow, excitement, and so on. Part of making the game human is infusing those emotions into the game, and writing a story that you personally understand and can communicate is crucial. You don’t need to know every minute detail about the story you’re telling, but the overall themes of the plot need to be something you can personally relate to and communicate. It doesn’t matter how good your storyline is if you can’t tell it in a way that is visceral and evocative.
Consider Harry Potter. Regardless who J.K. Rowling turned out to be as a person, the storytelling in Harry Potter is effective. Harry Potter resonates so strongly because, while none of us have been to wizard school, we’ve all had to deal with our own Draco Malfoys. We know that guy. Screw that guy. Remember the time Hermione punched him in the face? Remember how good that felt? That’s because we’ve all wanted to do that to our own Draco Malfoys. That moment wasn’t even an important plot moment, but everybody cheered for it. And everyone wanted Voldemort to lose, sure, but the best villain in the series was Dolores Umbridge. Why? Because we all knew her, that unapologetic asshole with enough power to make everyone’s life miserable just because they can with no threat of consequence. We’d met her personally at some point in our lives. And we didn’t just want her to lose, we wanted her to get what was coming to her. Death was too good for her, she needed to suffer the way she made everyone around her suffer. She never even killed a character like Voldemort. But she was so relatable and hateworthy because we all knew her. We understood her. And that only made us hate her more.
Fourth, don’t get stressed out about not knowing everything. This is a variation of “don’t overprepare your game” but it’s serious. Whether you’re making a homebrew world from the ground up, or planting your game in the middle of an existing setting, you cannot possibly know everything there is to know about the world and the people in it. Embrace the improvisational part of Dungeon Mastering. You cannot predict what your players will do, and you will have to come up with things on the fly. While you might be expecting to start the next adventure, the party might decide to go to the library instead. Odds are, you didn’t prepare for a trip to the library. The best moments, the funniest moments, the most endearing moments in Dungeons and Dragons come about from the moments you did not plan for. As clever as you think you are, the most fun happens when the game goes a little bit off the rails.
To expand on that a little bit, particularly with established settings, we have this wonderful resource called the internet where all knowledge is accumulated and at our fingertips. You can do some prep work, like learning about the city of Waterdeep before beginning a game set in that city, but unless it’s a tavern in a small crossroads town, you’re not going to know everything about the place. Especially in established areas that have existed for decades and been accumulating lore for just as long, it’s ok to botch it up. Sure the Blackstaff’s Tower has hundreds of floors, and you might improvise how that looks from the outside, only to later read that the tower is enchanted to only look three stories high from the outside after you gave your party’s rogue a full description of balconies and massive towering height. It happens. If you need to course correct later, that’s ok. If you just gave wrong information and it flies in the face of established lore? Nobody cares. It’s your game, and so long as everyone is having fun, you’re doing it right.
I hope this is helpful to you. The best stories are the ones that come from thinking “I want other people to experience this moment” and building a plot around it. Have fun, make a story you can enjoy telling, and find people who want to experience it with you. Sure, you’ll make a few mistakes along the way – every DM does, even the really experienced ones. The important thing is to use the game as a tool to share the experience together, and that’s what makes it fun. Don’t be afraid to jump in and get started!
Thanks for reading!
Kenny, Dungeon Master Extraordinaire