I have been leading story telling sessions for Dungeons and Dragons since 2017. I started by watching a fantastic session with Matthew Mercer by googling “live action dungeons and dragons.” I was struck with awe! This was exactly the kind of games I played as a young child. Somehow adult life crept in and I forgot how to tell stories. Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition really has introduced me back into the world of role playing and storytelling. Crafting adventurers for many groups of players, I have had lots of time to build a campaign and then review my work to see how I could refine my skills. I have found that treating adventure planning like a meal recipe helps me remember to keep the ingredients simple and consistent in order to deliver a wonderful home cooked adventure for your sojourners around your table!
Session Number I think it is important to keep track of how many sessions you have run and how long your campaigns survive. This can also be important regarding leveling up your sojourners if you are using the milestone rule.
Title Give your session a title. A title focuses the session into a common story. By shifting their perspectives into the title, all of the players around the table can share in the same story. I’m not sure about you, but this makes me feel like I’m in a book.
Inspirational Quote I always like to remind myself of why I play the game. From the plethora of great GMs, I will borrow an inspirational quote I have heard from another game master or story teller. Some examples that I have used before are as follows:
- I begin this game assuming I’m already having fun
- Players will have only as much fun as you do
- Blessed are the flexible, for their stories will not be broken
- Great storytellers ask great questions
- You are creative!
Sojourner’s Spotlight and Goals Share a recap on the sojourner’s characters by their stating their place in the world and why they care about the mission at hand. By keeping the sojourners as the centerpiece of the adventure takes skill, you can avoid derailing the adventure with distractions from the main characters. Take a moment to jot down who your sojourners are and why they make the difference in the story.
Introduction When I say, “And so our story continues,” this lets the players know that I have begun the session. I like to start off by sharing about 3 paragraphs of a recap of last session or the current story in a narrative past tense format. This gives me opportunity to crystalize the mission, and highlight some of the most daring escapades of the sojourners. I will then complete this narrative with the phrase, “and so, our story continues.” Also note that with this phrase, “and so, our story concludes for now” is how I let the team know that the session has ended for the day. Bookending the adventure with a consistent ingredient keeps the table on the same page as the storyteller.
Villain Of course, a great adventure requires a great villain! As the story teller, I challenge you to think about your villains as your personal player character. Answer the questions of their origin, who they are, what they are doing in the world and why. Give them bonds and flaws and elaborate backstories. Treat them as you would your own player character and allow them to complete the adventure for the sojourners in a mighty and epic finish! Then, at the end of the campaign, tear up the character sheet in celebration that you helped craft a story of excitement.
Holy Grail This could be a powerful relic, a piece of land, a hostage princess, or any number of holy artifacts. Basically, this is what the sojourners and the villains compete for in the adventure. Along with physical objects, it could also be the affection of another, the witness of the gods, or the favor of a queen. By using the unicorn horns, lost stones, the ancient crystal or whatever your mind fashions, this gives the story a theme of competition between the sojourners and villains.
Setting Where and when your adventure session takes place helps set the mood. There is a big difference between describing the opening scene taking place on the barge floating in the great sea and a dungeon cell locked in a vampire’s lair. Take this time to impose senses onto the sojourners and asking them how they choose to interact with their environment. Some favorite questions I have asked the players at the beginning of the session are as follows.
- To what does your character pay attention?
- How do you respond to this scene?
- What wonderful smell do you sense this morning?
- How does the weather affect your character in a way we can all see?
Incident I have heard it said that consumers will decide if they enjoy an establishment within the first 15 seconds of arrival, whether it be a restaurant, church, or anywhere that has a vibe. After you have described the opening scene, you must impose an event or encounter to kick start the session. Instead of blankly looking at the sojourners and ask them, “well, what do you want to do?” Take a moment to place the encounter in front of them. The incident can be a great place to hand a quest or mission, perform a lore drop via a street corner prophet or town crier, or invoke an emotion by a demonstration of the villain’s perilous plans. After this push from the story teller, look out, because the adventurers will steer the story from this momentum!
Encounters Following the incident or starting point, I can then branch out into possible encounters the sojourners will experience. Please note that I can change the order in which they occur depending on what this particular session needs to manage the energy at the table. Encounters can include social interactions with contacts and villains, exploration of cities or wilderness, or wild combat that pushes the narrative into exciting scenarios.
Contacts Contacts are NPCs and a critical part of the adventures. Various NPCs can help or hinder the quest at hand by offering information, giving clues, or leading down trails where you believe the sojourners should go. Honestly, the contacts offer to cover the blind spots the sojourners might have in their adventure. If the table requires a damage dealer, maybe offering a raging warrior NPC to aid them on their quest allows them to share in a harrowing adventure without taking enormous damage and death. If the table requires a book smart librarian, maybe including a mage to tag along with the party might provide opportunities for lore drops to keep the quest on track.
I have also found the game master’s contacts can draw out wonderful roleplay for the players to experience. This provides a show and tell style learning right there at the table. Use the contacts to endear the party to the mission and draw out their backstories for all to experience!
Monsters Monsters. Wow. I have so much to say about them. What I will say is that the process of “re-skinning” a monster from a manual is the best thing I’ve ever done for combat. Most of the time I will browse through the monster manual, and choose at the most, 3 monsters. I choose 3 just to make life easy on myself, rather than rushing back and forth between hundreds of pages and books. Please note that a monster is really any live action challenge placed in opposition to the sojourners. This could appear as a warring tribe of goblins, a rival gang of pirates, or a crime lord beholder. Since I only run 2 hour sessions (for now) I may or may not have combat each session. But when the story begs for some carnage, I have at the most 3 monsters ready to fight. Upon the sojourners meeting the monsters, I’ll give a vivid description depending on our shared imagination and then use the stat block to crunch out the attack rolls and defenses.
Discoveries Discoveries can really drive the story and act as hand holds for the sojourners to experience in furthering the plot. If no discoveries are made, I believe the trail can become cold and the players yearn to round off the quest by prematurely completing the mission. A major discovery includes a finding about the sojourners or the world around them, This could include the villain’s plans which act as an appetizer to tease them to sticking around for the main course, the final showdown. Some great discoveries my players have made include
- new cures from local plant life
- history on a local area
- a newfound truth about their own character
- the backstory of another player character
These discoveries also present a great way to reveal something about the villain without them making an appearance, all could arrive as messages, prophecies, warnings, or news from afar.
Rewards There are so many ways to hand out goodies during a game session, but just like any other party, they are best done at the end. Normally, I will already have customized a reward for each sojourner. This could include a social benefit, magic relic, cash prize or holy blessing. Towards the end of the session, I will utilize the high dice rolls as an opportunity for the sojourner to discover their coveted gift. However, in the case that if a player actively goes off the rails to seek for something and rolls high, I will use a random treasure table and dish out a reward.
Surprise and Twists Most of the time, the quest is the main quest, the contacts are trustworthy, the villains are evil incarnate. Occasionally, adding a twist into the narrative can challenge sojourners to think outside the box and surprise everyone with a clever maneuver. Some of the best twists I have used
- making the initial rescue mission contact also the main villain by the end of the adventure
- a necromancer deal with the party instead of suffering defeat by advocating for the benefits of a recyclable workforce
- part of the session was a dream state. This lead to an interesting future session taking place on another plane helping the sojourner get back to their consciousness
- Again, use sparingly!
Highlights After the session is over and I utter those magical words, “and so, for now, our story concludes” the players and storytellers will debrief the session by sharing one or two moments that really stood out and pleased them as players. Seriously, this has nothing to do with the characters in the story. This is simply an opportunity for the players to highlight what they enjoyed about the session. It could be a moment of victory for another character, or a villain’s closing monologue or maybe just the way the story teller described the scenery. This gives you a window of opportunity to listen to what your players at that table enjoy about playing roleplaying games. Listen!
Hopes In keeping with alliteration, after you visit the highlights for each player, ask everyone around the table what they hope to see for next session. While they can share future hopes in the overall campaign, allow this time to show you to what your players are paying attention to. They will share you their theories about where the story is going and where they expect the adventure to travel.
I want you to know that we are all creative people and story tellers. Hopefully, by viewing this creation as a recipe for adventures will help you design your own stories with friends and family around the table!
And so, our story continues!
Thank you to all of the story tellers from whom I have drawn inspiration! (In order of exposure)