Invitation and Challenge

“How do you contribute to this scene?”

Around the table, while we play Dungeons and Dragons, I love to ask this favorite question to the sojourners as they attempt to explore the world. However, with the dungeon master participating in the storytelling, sometimes it can be difficult to determine if the scene is an invitation or a challenge. Possibly, they enter into a mine and a sudden collapse of the rafters send stone and dirt raining down upon them, trapping them in darkness. Depending on how the dungeon master describes the scene, this could be an invitation to interact, or a challenge to solve. Really, it all depends on the language I use.

Without directly telling players “what to do or how to feel”, language of invitation and challenge can send a polite nudge to them to arrive at this simple goal: that the entire table is on the same page of storytelling.

I enjoy playing Dungeons and Dragons from a story telling and narrative perspective. As the dungeon master, I describe the scenes, the happenings in the world around the sojourners, whether it be the weather changing, the priests praying or the hillside mountain looming above them like a stern judge, discerning their every thought. These descriptions, while meant to paint vivid scenery, are also intended to spark action on part of the characters. However, I never want to confuse them. I want the players to know without a doubt what tone the scene is using. So, I use evocative language to give the players a sense of the tone so they know how to act accordingly. If the winter wind blows with a fierce and evil blast, then maybe they understand that death awaits those who linger outside for too long. If I say that the eagle soars high over them with a protective shadow, never far from their sight, perhaps they understand that this moment, they are safe.

This can be referred to as invitation and challenge. In the wild, horses perform this kind of communication. Without using direct language, they initiate a tone that lets the other know they are welcome to lean in, or they should prepare a defensive stance. In order for my players to feel the pressure of the world, I must challenge them. And in order for them to sense the relief in the world, I must invite them. By keeping this simple back and forth in my mind, I can ask myself “am I wanting to provide challenge right now, or an invitation”? And then communicate with appropriate language.

For example, last session, the sojourners rushed into a burning building to rescue innocent bystanders during a cultic confrontation. While pulling people from the flames, the old devil master of a sojourner emerged from the soot and gently inquired to the hero “where did you find this crew?” He laughed at the reply and lifted a crooked hand, “but of course,” he says as the fires seem to still in response to his hollow voice, “you have but one word to speak to return to your old master.” He winks at you with a charm that belies his true intent. Notice the words which bring up a harmonious scene. The player can then infer that this was an invitation to engage. In this case, he responded curtly, displaying his resolve to a holier life and continued on out of the burning temple.

Depending on how the dungeon master describes the scene, this could be an invitation to interact, or a challenge to solve.

Conversely, imagine the scenario from a previous session. The sojourner had accepted a quest to traverse up into the mountains to handle a malicious dragon that had oppressed the people in the valley for centuries. The unforgiving crags and clefts of rock insulted the monk as he stood in the winter snow. The frost bit into his skin and the wind jostled his steps, attempting to dissuade him from his task. While pursuing a cliffside climb, the sky darkened and the cold began to drum away at his fervor. Once topside, ghastly spirits conjured images of his deceased family and called out to him in mockery to join them in the afterlife, with laughter and sadness, taunting his mind. The language evokes suspicion, a threat, and a conflict. The player can safely guess that this scene poses a challenge to solve and respond likewise.

The back and forth between invitation and challenge keeps the session moving and provides a natural rhythm to storytelling. Without directly telling players “what to do or how to feel”, language of invitation and challenge can send a polite nudge to them to arrive at this simple goal: that the entire table is on the same page of storytelling. And so, our story continues.

Without directly telling players “what to do or how to feel”, language of invitation and challenge can send a polite nudge to them to arrive at this simple goal: that the entire table is on the same page of storytelling.

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