I mentioned last week that everyone should read Chapter 2: DM’s Guide to the City Campaign because it provides a ton of advice for game masters of all stripes and today I wanted to focus on the six elements of a story that Douglas Niles identified. These elements are:
Let’s talk a little bit about these.
Most stories, and certainly almost all Dungeons & Dragons style games, require an antagonist for the heroes (your players, hopefully) to struggle against. This villain can be as large as a world-devouring monstrosity, or as small as a corrupt sheriff.
Douglas Niles, though, offers some really solid advice in the text here: string your villains together. By this he means that as you are building your adventures from the early explorations at level one that each villain you introduce should lead to the next. Either the lower leveled villain should work for, or against, the more powerful villain so that it propels the story forward.
This is one that I struggle with as a Dungeon Master, but Douglas Niles offers some suggestions in the text to help build this skill.
First we need to listen to our players (they often come up with the best ideas). Then we need to reinforce what they’re coming up with by providing them with hints that lead towards their suspicions. This can come in the form of a fortune teller heavy-handedly telling the players that some doom stalks them; but more commonly it’s going to come in subtle moments where you have the players roll to help ground a suspicion, or a note that points towards a direction they are already theorizing about.
Ultimately what we want is to create a moment in the game where the players see something coming. Whether it’s real or just a momentary dread that takes hold of them isn’t important so much as the feeling that there is more going on than just these isolated moments. Foreshadowing helps push our imaginations forward and makes the world feel bigger.
Often when you see the word “mystery” in a role-playing game it comes along with an eye roll and groan. Mysteries are not easy to plot out for a game where the players can so easily choose not to fuck with anything that puts them in danger or forces them to be a part of the event. Which is why this is such an important aspect of the game.
The mystery that Douglas Niles is referring to here isn’t a simple who done it, but rather a feeling of who is pulling the strings and why are these things happening. Why is a powerful question and one that Niles encourages us to foster in our players.
Douglas Niles here is very clear: without a challenge the game isn’t going to be memorable, let alone fun. It’s a similar argument to the one Arnold K., of Goblin Punch, asked us to consider when they asked what is tested in our dungeons. Niles, though, argues that what we’re looking for is a moment that tests the skills of the players. Early on this can be something that draws out their abilities or asks for them to pull their wits together to overcome a challenge. Ultimately for an event to be a challenge the players must risk losing something.
Loss is key to a challenge being meaningful.
They say timing is everything and this is doubly true in a role-playing game. As a Dungeon Master you have to recognize when the moment is right to reveal the next big thing. You have to know when the players are paying attention and when they’re going to be surprised.
We’ll talk a bit more about this later, but for now just know that Douglas Niles makes an important point here: if the reward is meaningless than so too will the adventure be.