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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Dungeons & Dragons - How to Create and Manage Ongoing Storylines

This article is about developing sub-plots and storylines in Dungeons & Dragons. D&D is weird. You're not writing a book. You can't just think of a storyline and then force your players to walk down that path. Players always do things you don't expect.

That is the fun of D&D, but it also makes things complicated.

It's hard to put into words how to handle storylines, but I am going to give it a try. Here's what works for me.

My games have two threads:
  • Main Plot: Whatever adventure I am currently running.
  • Sub-Plots: Little story elements that might grow in time.
The Big Picture

In each session, I run a portion of a published campaign/adventure. When the characters go to their home to rest, I introduce/develop NPCs and ideas. The heroes interact with them, and a chain of events causes a story to unfurl. Eventually that subplot will either culminate in a session of its' own or get tied into the main story.

Here's an outline of how you can progress storylines. I'm going to explain all of this further below:
  1. Establish story elements in the campaign
  2. Plan out an idea
  3. Foreshadow the idea and put it in play
  4. Let the group twist and shape your idea
  5. Build on what they did and hand it back to them
  6. Let it grow until it explodes.
  7. Reinforce the notion that player choices matter
Establishing Story Elements

So how do we start? You need set up some elements. By "elements", I mean NPCs, places, factions, whatever. Define them. Introduce them into the campaign. Then, as the characters interact with them, develop the relationship. Sub-plots can grow from this.

Brainstorm: To start with, create a bunch of stuff for the heroes to interact with. I usually run games where the heroes have a "base," either a pirate ship or a hometown. I make up a bunch of NPCs, whatever I think is fun. I give the NPCs secrets and motivations. I make sure many of the NPCs are nice and helpful to the group, and that I don't just use them as a way to "screw over" the players plotwise.

Put Your Elements in Play: Let the group interact with your elements. You might have some favorites, so try those out on the group first and see what the players do.

Player Reactions: As the group mingles with your elements, they might be sort of overwhelmed in a meta-game way. They might wonder "Which of these NPCs have story hooks?" or "What are we 'supposed' to do with them?"

It's good to keep them on their toes! Your world will feel rich and more real. The truth is that maybe you have cool plot ideas for one or two of them, but the rest of these elements are in play just for fun. You throw them out there, and see what comes of it. In time, that NPC might spark a plot, but in the meantime they're a face in the crowd.

The group will be surrounded by potential plot hooks which can slowly grow over time in natural ways.

Let me give some examples of how an element can grow into an adventure:

The Cleric: A cleric at the church often heals the heroes for free, because the heroes are low level and they are just starting out. Perhaps as they gain levels, the heroes offer big donations to the church to return the favor. You might decide that the church built an entirely new wing  using the money the PCs gave them.

Maybe things get bad for the heroes down the road - the whole world has turned against them. Or they are suffering from a curse. The only people willing to help are the members of the church. They let the group stay there, but the curse brings danger to the church. We have a whole adventure with the heroes and the NPC cleric trying to fend off monsters drawn by the curse and trying to figure out a cure. I'd bet the heroes would feel undying loyalty to this church and do everything they could to keep it from harm.

Factions: I'm running a Planescape campaign. Planescape is full of all of factions that characters often join. You can build something out of that. Each session, have that character do something with the faction and interact with members of the faction.

One character in my campaign, Bidam, joined the Sensates, a faction devoted to experiencing everything there is to experience. They record their experiences on magic sensory stones, which allows other people to relive your experience and feel what you felt.

There is a ridiculous amount of possibility with that. You could have the heroes use some sensory stones and see something that sparks an adventure - maybe they spot an overlooked magic item in the memory in the sensory stone.

The heroes can make friends with other Sensates and do tasks for them. The group can rub elbows with the Factol (the leader of the faction). Maybe the faction goes to war with another faction, which could lead to a series of pretty epic adventures.

Intertwining Sub-Plots: Once you've established your element, you can have it interact with other elements to create a complex narrative.

In order to do this, you need to look at your list of elements and think about how they might interact with each other and the main story.

Quick Example: Selinza is the apprentice to the party mage, Theran. Her ultimate goal is to find the villain who took her from her homeland and get revenge. After a few sessions adventuring alongside the group, Selinza goes with the heroes to the Infinite Staircase. She learns that in the staircase you can find a door to your heart's desire, but you will never return. She thinks that if she finds this door, it will take her to the villain. So now she is trying to sharpen her wizard skills so she can go get him.

The apprentice story and the Infinite Staircase were both separate elements, and we found a connection. Now we have merged them in a logical way and the world feels more rich and "real."


One of the goals of D&D is to give the players the feeling that they're in the middle of a saga. Things are happening, everything's boiling over, the world is alive.

The best way to foster this feeling is to plant story seeds. I'm going to give two examples, one with no foreshadowing, and one with foreshadowing:

No Foreshadowing: Let's say the heroes live in a village and they protect it on occasion. You decide that you want to have an ogre pulling a cart full of bomb-throwing goblins rampage through the village.

Now, you could just have it happen. Who are these bad guys? Where did they come from? Why are they doing this? It doesn't really matter, because they are here right now making things explode and they're probably going to be dead in an hour or so.

You can get a lot more mileage out of this with a little planning. It will also feel much more climactic as you build up to it. Here's what I mean:

Foreshadowing: Let's say there's a jerk guard in the town. The heroes have interacted with him and humiliated him in previous sessions. Let's plant the seeds:

Session 1:
  • Family: Establish that the jerk guard has family all over the area, in many different settlements.
  • Rumors: The group is on an adventure and they hear some bad guys talking about the ogre in hushed tones. They talk about his scars and his band of loyal goblins and how they eat people or whatever. They can communicate with each other through enchanted skulls.
Session 2:
  • Ogre's Handiwork: The heroes are out on an adventure and they discover a nearby settlement or farm has been blown up. Could this be the work of the ogre? There are a few survivors. they ask the heroes to bring them to the village.
  • Things Are Afoot: The heroes do so and then need to deal with the rest of session 2's main adventure. What they don't know is that the survivor of the ruined village is related to jerk guard. Survivor stays with jerk guard and reveals that he stole something off of a dead goblin - a magic skull.
  • Recruitment: The jerk guard secretly uses the skull and contacts the ogre. He wants to help the ogre come here and kill the heroes.
Session 3:
  • Climax: Now we have the ogre and the bomb-throwing goblins show up. 
  • Development: Jerk guard might reveal what he did, he might not. Maybe during the carnage, jerk guard realizes he made a horrible mistake and tries to help the heroes while risking his own life.
With foreshadowing, everything feels organic and has more meaning.

Let the Group Shape Your Ideas

So you've cooked up a "story map." Here's the thing. This is D&D! The players might make a car wreck out of your scenario. Maybe in session 2 of the above example, the heroes somehow find the enchanted skull on the villager.

Your instinct might be to try to steer it back "on course." Don't! This is a cool development too! The heroes have stumbled onto a way to contact the ogre. What wacky player-thing will they do with it? Find out and roll with it.

Preparation: What this means is that right when you are ready to start foreshadowing this potential plot, you need to have the bad guys statted out, the enchanted skull's specifics, where the bad guys live and what their ultimate goal is.

That way, when the players tap dance all over this thing, you will be able to handle it smoothly.

That's the Fun of D&D: What I have learned over time is that much of the joy of being a DM is in throwing something out there and seeing what the group does with it. When you're not married to a story, it's very liberating. Together, you and the players are creating this living novel and nobody knows how it will end.

It is scary to allow the group to turn your thing upside down, because you might feel unsure as how you will fill your session. But if you prepare for a disruption, then it's no big deal. The key is to have a clear picture of the antagonist and what they want.

NPCs Are Vital: The above story grew out of a jerk NPC. That's why I think it is important for you to establish NPCs in the campaign for the group to interact with. Give them secrets and motivations.

Make sure many of them are kind and helpful to the PCs! Don't fall into the trap of using NPCs as triggers for bad events all the time. This will lead to the players not wanting to interact with NPCs at all, because it always leads to bad things.

Build on What Your Group Has Done

In one of his DM Experience columns, Chris Perkins said that in his Iomandra campaign he would have 3 main plots. He'd dangle them out there and see which one that the heroes took. Chris said that the other two plots developed without the group's involvement. The world doesn't wait for them. Their choices matter and the group may have to deal with the ramifications down the road.

D&D is alive. You've dangled an element in front of them. They have done things with the element that maybe you didn't expect. Now you use logic and determine the ramifications or developments of their choices. Here's an example:

The War: The heroes are friends with a woman named Pollidemia. There's a war brewing in her homeland and she feels compelled to go help. All Pollidemia has is a really crappy sword. You know that the party fighter has a magic sword that he doesn't use any more. Your secret plan is that in a few sessions, the group will be drawn into this war and Pollidemia might be a valuable ally in one way or another. There's a fateful choice here:
  1. If the party fighter loans her the magic sword, the sword turns the tide in a crucial battle over there.
  2. If the party fighter doesn't think of it, or just doesn't want to give up the sword, then that crucial battle goes poorly. Pollidemia's crappy sword shatters, her arm is severed and she is left for dead. She survives, just barely.
When you introduce this plot, be aware of some possibilities:
  1. The group might drop everything and go off to that war with Pollidemia.
  2. The group might give her some other type of aid or boon.
  3. Maybe the group convinces Pollidemia not to go at all.
Think Ahead: Be ready for anything! What you need to do here is come up with the details of the battle and know what happens if it's won, and what happens if it is lost. Keep in mind that the group might go there and sketch out what happens if they do.

And here's the most important thing: If the group abandons the adventure they're in the middle of to go to this war, figure out the consequences! If they were tracking down some bad guy but then they leave, that means the bad guy is now running amok.

The point of this example is to show that the choice the group makes here will have major consequences. Not necessarily good or bad, just drastically different.

Know Your Players: If you've played with the same people for a while, you will likely be able to predict what they will do in certain situations. That will make planning much easier!

Grow the Story Until it Explodes

Now that we're off and running, just play off the group. Eventually it might build into something that you can get a full session out of.

Keeping Track of Plots

How do you keep all this stuff straight? I'm sure there are a lot of ways. Here is what works for me.

Record Your Sessions/Write a Summary: Using a digital recording device is the best way to keep track of things. It can be a pain to skim through it later, but it's there if you don't remember about how something went down. Writing a session summary is great, as you have an accurate log of what happened. Be sure to write it within a day or two of the session, otherwise you might forget details.

Keep a Plot Log: I have a text file on my computer. On it are all of the little elements and ideas in play in the campaign, each on their own line. After each session, I open it and update it.

Right now in that file I have all sorts of stuff, from magic items I want to give the group to vague concepts that I need to think about more. There's over 20 elements in there right now. I won't list them all, but here's a few so you can get a clear picture of how I use this:
  • Bro: I had an idea last night for a frat bro NPC who hangs out with a dwarf that is always drunk. I brainstormed funny things for him to say, googled a bunch of "bro" words and I watched this youtube clip of Will Ferrell. I'm thinking the group might want to party with him.
  • "Slicing Power": This is part of a giant storyline I have going that would take forever to explain. The fighter and a few NPCs have been magically touched by the Lady of Pain. They don't know it, but they have the power to cut people just by looking at them. I want to start foreshadowing this, so I am going to have the heroes hear a rumor that a citizen was killed in this manner. If they investigate, they might link the incident to an NPC and learn the whole story.
  • Aza Dowling: There's a spy for Shemeshka the Marauder working at a business the heroes own. Next session, I want to plant a subtle clue that something is up with Aza and that she might be stealing valuable information.
Eternally Updating: At the end of the next session, I'll come back and update these. If the "slicing power" goes unnoticed, I'll plan the next step and type it in.

That's how I do it. You just track and update each plot after each session.

Plot Hammer

I'm sure there are much more elegant ways to handle storylines. However you do it, just remember the keys to a satisfying sub-plot.
  • Foreshadow the plot whenever possible
  • Play off what the heroes do and grow the story
  • Use logical consequences
  • Track story progress after each session
  • Keep your eyes peeled for intersecting plotline opportunities
Remember most of all that this is about having fun. When you're torn about what to do next with a sub-plot, just go with what is most fun for you and/or the players.


Davout said...

Thanks, very helpful.

Jason Raabis said...

Learned a great deal here. The idea of introducing NPC's that initially have nothing to do with the major plot line is excellent. Certainly rare for published material but so necessary for an imersive ongoing setting. I'm going to use many more of these starting now. Also, I've obviously been too conservative with sub plots. Keeping track of them as you do, there's no reason to scrimp on these either. I admire you're free spirited use of anything that might be interesting to the campaign. I've been much too rigid in my thinking in this regard. Great insights here as usual Sean. I hope you continue exposing your GM secrets :D

Sean said...

Davout: You're welcome, I am glad it was useful!

Jason Raabis: Thanks! Sometimes it can feel overwhelming to try to juggle a bunch of storylines at the same time. But if you break it down into a little list that is updated after each session, it really is a piece of cake. Also, you can start with just one side story and see how it goes, and then add more if you want.

Jason Raabis said...

Do you use any electonic or software tools (iPads, Evernote, etc) in your prep or during games?

Sean said...

Jason Raabis: During a game I use a tablet. For my Planescape campaign, I'll have pages from my blog open - the guide to sigil and the guide to the infinite staircase. This blog is like a campaign notes repository for me. Prep is just good old fashioned pencil and paper with a lot of googling to learn more about fun little D&D things. I refer to my campaign notes while preparing, which are in a txt file. Sometimes when I am combining all my different elements and lining them up for the session, I will type up the session outline first and then write it down after. That's because as I plan out a session, sometimes I have a cool idea that I need to insert into the above text, and with pencil and paper that's going to get messy.