If you enjoy narrative style playing Dungeons and Dragons, then I think you will appreciate this adventure, roughly based on Descent into Avernus.
Follow four sojourners as they reconvene at a celebration after a year of not journeying together. After the Rise of Tiamat, and the success of their deeds, the sojourners find themselves in the middle of the eternal cosmic struggle known as the blood war. How will they respond to this request from Talis? Who is Talis and what is the Order of the Balance? And so, our story continues.
I realized something the other day while playing Dungeons and Dragons. Although we sit around the table to tell stories, nothing will really occur that matters in the game unless the characters in the story have a desire. As a dungeon master, I can place all kinds of interesting lore, evil villians, woes and grief, but nothing matters until the character decides they begin to want.
Let me use the story for The Lost Mines of Phandelver, one of the few modules I have tried out, and my first adventure I ran for my neighborhood game. In this story, a dwarf named Gundren Rockseeker wants you to deliver a wagonload of supplies to a small mining settlement in Phandalin, and then you get paid and continue on with your life.
First of all, can I say, that if you wanted to run a western tale, this story is perfect for a wild wild west adventure, with all its romantic glory and satisfying comedic ending. At least, when I run the story, everyone has a accent from the deep south. Anyways…
Keeping in mind, that this hook is superimposed upon the characters to begin, I think it is a good way to prove how a story in Dungeons and Dragons can only progress as long as the characters desire to meet a goal.
So, in this story, the characters want to get paid. That is the why they begin the tale. Now, I like to sprinkle in a little economic pressure to ensure that they desire to continue the adventure, because if money doesn’t matter, then why are the sojourners adventuring? So, be sure to include in the background a solid reason they need to get paid. Perhaps, they owe a large debt, or family has fallen on hard times, so they leave their normal job to pursue a high risk-high reward delivery, or possibly, this is their employment and they own the wagon and horses.
The other reason to adventure, as listed in the module, is that the sojourners know Gundren from a familiar standpoint, and this bond ensures they complete the adventure and *spoilers* ensures they continue to pursue until they rescue him in the end.
The main idea: characters will only pursue a storyline if what they want is at the end of that story. In this case, they want to get paid, or be a good pal to Gundren, and so, the story continues.
But that’s a great way to kickstart an adventure, but what happens when you take off the training wheels? What happens when they find *spoilers* that Gundren has been kidnapped? What happens after they get paid by the shopkeeper in Phandalin? If what they want is then satisfied, the Dungeon Master needs to establish a new goal. Before laying down any adventure threads, the first question the DM should ask themselves: “what do the characters want to achieve?”
Let’s go back to the example in The Lost Mines of Phandevler. Now that they have discovered good ol’ Gundren has gone missing, they will be asked to find him. However, I promise you, they won’t care if they don’t care. Gundren can rot in Hades if what they want lies upon a different road. So, before writing tons of storyline, confirm that you know what they want to accomplish.
Say a few of the sojourners befriended Gundren to the point where they would chase down goblins to find him. If that’s so, then you are settled. Because if they want his safety, then all you have to do as a DM is upset that balance and the characters will go through hell and high water to restore that balance. But if they only wanted to get paid, and coin now fills their pockets, now what?
Might I suggest a few other hooks? By drawing inspiration from the characters backgrounds, tie them into the safety of Gundren and what that entails. If Gundren is safe, then more money shall be added to their account. If Gundren is safe, then knowledge of the Forge of Spells shall be share with them. If Gundren is safe, then a chance to please their mentor shall be accomplished. And if Gundren is safe, then they have a shot at fulfilling their vengeance upon the Black Spider.
Or even juicer, if Gundren is safe, then they can deliver him to the Zhentarim for questioning. The point being that unless the characters have a pot of gold, namely their choice reward, at the end of the rainbow, then they will find another rainbow.
So, when designing my adventures, once I have understood what the characters want, I can “set it and forget it” and the adventure runs pretty smoothly, because everyone is rowing the energy along well. But once a mission reaches accomplishment, then that’s when it’s my job to establish once again, “what does a sojourner want?”
May your story continue.
After I whip up a good adventure by following a recipe, I like to hand out recipes for players to enjoy Dungeons and Dragons. You will find below a nice template to further thrive as a player while creating stories around the table with your friends and family. Here are a few ingredients you should add to your adventure sessions to fashion a satisfying session of Dungeons and Dragons!
- Title: It’s important to give your session a title, because this crystalizes the focus. For example, “The Breaking of the Fellowship”
- Find a great line to quote before you play to get you in the mood. For example, “I begin this game assuming I’m already having fun”.
- Describe the party make up and especially describe how your player relates to each other player character, or fellow sojourners. For example,
Gimli – taller than me, thick brown beard, drinking buddies
Legolas – clothing glistens in the moonlight, we went to the academy together
Aragorn – smells strongly of tobacco and earth, I respect him, but fear him at the same time, worried he will turn on me.
- Write 1-3 sentences of what transpired last session. This can help your character remember to bring up important details to other characters. After separating, we discovered that Frodo and Sam travel to Mount Doom alone. Aragorn inspires us to chase after the Uruk Hai to find Merry and Pippin. With the breaking of the fellowship, I hope to restore my faith in Aragorn.
- Party goals: answer the question of why adventure now? This makes the adventure feel more real than simply passing time playing a game. Keep it simple, for example: Find the two hobbits alive
- My character goals: of course, besides the party goal, your own character should have a reason to get out of bed in the morning after that long rest. An example could be, learn elvish from Legolas, question Aragorn about our plans after we find the hobbits, I wonder about Legolas’ history in this part of the world and hope to chat with him later on, I want to try out my new alchemical set when we get a breather and impress Gimli with my ale recipe.
- Contacts: just jot down a few names of people you met and why you find them important. Drunk townmaster named Phillipe who wants to leave town with us and Fairy named Glitter who wants to learn how to cook
- Discoveries: you may not find one of these every session, but this can help you roleplay instead of asking the Dungeon Master what your character remembers. Highlighting the discoveries can help you as a player feel like you are playing a game, and winning! Legolas keeps having visions of a white wizard stalking our steps and Aragorn finds a trinket left behind by Pippin
- Rewards – keep a short list of social boons, magic items and treasure you have acquired. I suggest this so again, you can measure your adventuring progress to closely align with the party goals. If the goal is to rebuild a city, and you have inherited a fortune from your wicked uncle, perhaps you could tie in the reward with the goal. I learned about the athelas plant and it’s curative properties and I found an orcish dagger +2 in the littered bodies
- Highlights and Hopes: I first heard this idea from a one shot podcast where the Dungeon Master called for a star moment in the game as well as a wish, or something the player would like to see in the next session. I have found this to completely revolutionize the endings of my sessions and help me and the players “feel” closure from the session. Also, I get honest and real time feedback on the session so I’m not worrying about how well I performed. It finally gives me a way to tie in player’s desires into the future sessions. If you do a session 0, think of Highlights and Hopes as a mini Session 0 between games.
What about you? What are some essential ingredients you incorporate for a satisfying game session?
While finishing up the last session for my Dungeons and Dragons campaign, I found that I really didn’t know how the story was going to end. It’s tempting to drive the story into a happily ever after ending, especially for the players who worked so hard on the development of their characters and investment in the plot. But I know that playing a roleplaying tabletop game involves dice, chance and a very evil villain who wants something very badly and is not about to let this group of sojourners barge into their plans and ruin them.
While I could play nerfball with the players, I want them to feel the pain of making a stand at the end of the story, and the stakes are high. While preparing for the final session, I have resolved that it is very likely that one character dies. That doesn’t terrify me. What scares me is that I don’t know which one that is going to be. I can’t plan for who is going to leave the session. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not beholden to the dice. I’m the dungeon master and I tell the story, but even with all my planning, there exists the element that nothing is set in stone, everything is up for grabs, and anything could happen.
A lot like life. I can plan and then forget a detail. I can study and fail. I can prepare and realize that what I had planned didn’t happen and the thing I didn’t even realize could happen did and now I’m lost. Sometimes life doesn’t make sense and sometimes, it just requires another perspective.
So, here is my plan. I’m going to write out the aftermath of victory and the horror of defeat. This narrative helps me envision what kind of ending I want to encounter. Regarding the players and their characters, I still believe the dungeon master tells what happens, but the players tell how it happens. This partnership in agency is what makes the collective storytelling process work and feel good when we do it.
The Aftermath of Victory
A drop of blood slides down the rough forehead of an old dwarf and splatters on the floor of the temple, and he drags his broken leg to rest upon a boulder. The wind settled as the dragons all perched alongside the rim of the volcanic well and they peered down into the temple and saw that the evil wizard, maddened with love for Tiamat, lay dead upon the ground.
Gundren nursed his leg with a swift chug of ale from a keg and he began an old dwarven hymn, the same that was sung upon the eve of the birth of Dadock Rockstrong. So much time had passed since that celebration last year. Since then, so many events had transpired. He chuckled to himself at how things would have been different if he had not sent his nephew Felthran out on that first journey. Maybe better, maybe worse, but for now, the problem of the red mask of Tiamat was solved. The west world of Faerun would know peace, at least from the troubles of dragons, for a while. Now maybe the dwarves had a chance to reclaim many of their old homes. For there were many home lost, and not just the dwarves, but of the Dessarin Valley, of Waterdeep and the Sword Coast, many people displaced, and much wealth lost. And worse, there was left an option for evil to assume a new form, but for now, he sighed in relief. His eyes caught the sigh of the sojourners standing strongly alongside each other. Perhaps, he said to Felthran, “could you help me? I have a wagonload of supplies that needs delivering to Phandalin.” he laughs with a wink. And so for now, our story concludes.
The Horror of Defeat
The heavy smell of sulfur fills the air inside the open caldera. The ground rumbles and breaks apart, splintering rock and stone, as sand and dust blast from within the rifts of earth. A deafening howl shrieks through the caverns, sending brave warriors clutching their chests and lifting their hands to heaven for mercy. A lone red reptilian claw, reaches from the rift in the earth and smashes onto the ground, spilling lava from its skin. A single finger stretches over the bodies of 3 cultists who lie dead on the floor of the unholy temple.
Tiamat’s voice begins to sound throughout The Well of Dragons, “I claim Bonzarel for my abode.” she cackles in draconic and her arm stretches from within the well and she lifts her body out for all to behold. Filling the temple from end to end, she surpasses 3 dragons in size, with her 5 mighty heads now all reaching up in the same direction. Her feet land upon the floor with a thunderous thud and her tail whips like a bolt of lightning in the air. With a devilish smile, her red face stares on to Severin and opens her maw revealing an inferno of bright fire.
“Tiamat!” he harkens, “goddess of creation, we, your humble representatives from Bonzarel, greet you with – “ but his voice is cut short as she snaps her jaw closed, crushing his body between her teeth.
“I do not need a representative,” she retorts and sulfuric fire burps from her lips. “I can claim my own domain.” The remaining cultists flee in terror. She then turns to you and breathes a blast of fire, “and I do not need anyone to stand in my way.” And so for now, our story concludes.
We’ve been playing this game since March 2020. So much has transpired in our lives since then and playing Dungeons and Dragons continues to be something that I look forward to every week. I’ve always loved telling stories. I feel that it is something missing from our world. Telling stories helps me understand and process my own.
In this powerful scene for our Sunday evening game, Garindan the dwarf fulfills a long campaign of getting his soul back from the devil. He started out young and wide eyed, naive and sure of himself, only to find himself entrapped in a no win situation. Moradin, the dwarven All-Father, simply buys him back from Zariel, at a hefty price, nevertheless, but reiterates that wonderful ancient truth: people are more important.
That’s why I love playing Dungeons and Dragons, with my kids at home between homeschooling assignments, and my friends around the table, or over a zoom chat. And so our story continues. It always does.
I hope this day finds you well. And finds those with whom you care for the most well and alive and full of light.
Light is a big theme coming up for me these days. Light is knowledge and wisdom, clarity and patience. Light is healing and peace. Light is, well, the antithesis of all that is darkness.
I invite to you continue to share your stories around the table. Playing Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition for the last 3 years has provided me with an outlook beyond myself. In placing myself in the minds and hearts of countless of NPCs, I have been able to understand your perspective, their perspective and even my own.
My last NPC (or non-player character) was a Stone Giant, large and reclusive, named Peligron. He dwelled in peace and safety, while barbarian tribes paid him tribute with food in exchange for safety. He only wished to work on his projects, slaving away at his tasks that brought him joy.
But he lacked care for the world around him. He only served his basic needs and shunned the suffering in the world outside. The players (Felthran, Felix, Bramble and Garindan) all convinced him to put his trade to use for the hurting around him.
They brought light.
You see, this character, much like many of us, live in the darkness of our own safety, while there are many plunging into the torrents of pain. I admit, I can only hold space for the hurting for a while before I start to break. But my constitution grows even today. I speak metaphorically, because I think that by speaking in riddles, you too, will be able to relate, no matter what your situation. Light has a way of simply showing us the truth about ourselves.
I want to say that I’m grateful to those who went out of their way to recognize the potential and talent in me, the way this group of sojourners spoke to this giant and bade him to make a difference in the world, for the good, even the greater good.
So, play Dungeons and Dragons and let it help guide you into greatness. And so, our story continues.
Recently, I have been pondering the role of story in the game Dungeons and Dragons. When I first began to play, I realized quickly that this kind of game facilitates story telling at its finest. Images filled my thoughts of villagers gathered around an evening campfire as the elder recounts the tales of their existence, myths and legends retold, along with variations added as, generation after generation, the tribe grew.
Eventually, books held the stories and myths were lost. The books kept the story told the same way every time with little to no variation save for edition updates. I rest that there remains something powerful about stories originating from our mouth and memory.
And then we began to passively watch television, streaming shows and movies. This form of entertainment required less imagination, for along with the verbal descriptions from books, now the visual descriptions were laid out for us right there on the screen. Little if any work was asked of the listener.
Still, from oral tales around a glowing campfire to lounging on the bed staring into another glowing device, we have always been wanting to hear a good story.
With Dungeons and Dragons, and other roleplaying frameworks, we are now able to flex our myth telling muscles into crafting stories around the table. Interesting that the word myth originated from the same word used to make “mouth”. These myths we share do more than entertain, they allow us to become the creators of our own entertainment. Beyond scratching out hit points and rolling dice, storytelling games lead the way in entertainment.
This is a call to summon your imagination to the forefront and begin by prompting your adventures with friends and family around the table. Playing Dungeons and Dragons is an exercise as old as time, long before books and long after television, we will continue to tell stories.
And so, our story continues.
Time is the understated resource in our lives. Whether you play D&D, please consider these words on how to make each moment shine in your life.
Dungeons and Dragons sessions often remind me of a group of musicians playing a song together on a Friday night. The same ingredients are there – a few friends, some talent, creativity, and most of all a shared spotlight. Considering the amount of players at the table, a weighty burden lies on the Story Teller to decide where does spotlight shine? As a storyteller, it is my responsibility to determine where the moment focuses on at any given encounter during a session. And so, each player must consider “how am I sharing this spotlight, am I shining within it or supporting the moment?”
I have found that paying attention, sharing attention and consideration are all things to regularly address at the table. While most have had some teaching or training on “taking turns” or active listening, I still hold that Dungeons and Dragons is one of the best ways to teach teams, friends and families on sharing the moment of spotlight in support and gracious hosting. This lesson extends beyond D&D and into your “real life”.
Sojourner – one who spends a day in journey with their fellows.
But first, let’s crunch some numbers! If you think for a moment, a 2 hour session lasts 120 minutes and if there are 4 players at your table, that’s 30 minutes of spotlight for each player and that doesn’t include the time the Story Teller speaks! Add combat, which takes (for me) on average 4 minutes per player per round, I can only plow through 3 rounds of combat for a 2 hour session, at a table with 5 players if I want to include some great storytelling moments in the session as well. When we spend time, we determine where our values lie. While some players will not speak as much, and therefore require less time in combat or otherwise, having a clear understanding of where the spotlight is located makes a tremendous difference in how everyone enjoys the game session.
If the spotlight is on a sojourner, they must be prepared to partner with the story teller to make this moment memorable. Note that I think each sojourner should bring their best foot forward in their moment. If you like verbal sparring, then speak away! If you like to tactically outwit everyone in the storyteller’s world, then go for it. Use your strengths and make the moment shine, and have fun with the scene!
However, if the spotlight is not on you as a player, that doesn’t mean you are sitting there silently (and certainly not in boredom) but means you are sharing the moment as either a support or gracious audience. As a support, your character exists to help the spotlight stay in the moment (more on that below). As an audience, you are smiling, laughing, gasping in abject horror, or simply shaking your head in response to the scene. By being a gracious audience, you are validating the moment the other sojourner is making.
Am I shining in the spotlight or supporting it?
Imagine a bowl on the table, nearby a spoon, and inside the bowl is your favorite cereal. Fresh out of the box, and now into your own personal bowl, everything is set for your Saturday morning cartoons, and now all you need is a cup of milk to douse the cereal into mouth watering bliss. At this moment, the cereal is really what holds the focus. The milk only validates the purpose of the cereals moment with the hardworking student at the end of the week. If the milk takes the spotlight, then the bowl is overfilled, cereal splashes out and onto the counter, becomes soggy and provides little satisfaction and possibly disappointment.
In the next moment, imagine on a clean counter a tall, ice cold glass of milk. It stands alone, beading sweat along the glass jar holding it contained. All it requires before you gulp it down is one simple dunk of a cookie. Satisfied, you slam the empty cup on the counter and wipe a lactose mustache off your face. What previously supported the spotlight in the last moment has now held the spotlight in this moment.
So, the question is, am I shining in the spotlight, or supporting it? Am I the cereal, or am I the milk? Am I the milk, or am I the cookie? This answer depends on the moment where the story teller directs the spotlight.
Referring back to the group of jazz musicians, imagine the conductor waves their wand and directs the soft music to collective glory, and every musician present agrees on the music, playing their part. If a random player steps up with a set up with bagpipes and begins playing a battle hymn during the symphony, the attention is diverted into another moment and the spotlight is spoiled rather than shared. It’s not that the random player played the wrong song, or even played it badly, it’s just that it didn’t fit with the recipe of the moment. And like a great song, I believe every D&D session can bring to life the creative forces within each sojourner, for each of us is an artist in the spotlight of the moment.
And so our story continues.