Maximum value is achieved through full participation.
I’ve been thinking recently that I decided to become a dungeon master because I honestly like the process of preparation. The process of creation in itself is the reward. I am a creator. Through this preparation and honestly, work, I found enjoyment. In short, I’m never bored. But I did wonder if my players were achieving similar levels of satisfaction.
The truth is that when we participate in something, we invest our time and interest and end up developing value from that something. The surefire way to generate interest, and cure boredom, in any project, including your tabletop games is to increase participation.
Short disclaimer: I do realize that dungeon masters enjoy prep. Players play and DMs prep. And in this beautiful tango, the game happens! Great stories are told. However, this writing is to address the boredom one might find with the players who lack participation. In my experience, players always desire to contribute so as long as it relates to their character development.
As a dungeon master, I initially struggled with sharing the workload (much like in real life) and would keep all the world building responsibilities to myself. But in assuming all of the worldbuilding responsibility acted as a “gas hog” in my energy levels. Upon bemoaning my state, I received guidance from Johnn Four and he asks a GREAT question.
“How are you allowing your players to share the prep?”
Initially, I thought there was a secret behind the DM screen I couldn’t share. I think I am just now beginning to realize the possibility of sharing the creation process. So, this is what I came up with for next session.
My goal is to build a richer, more believable world to play in. I think at the very least a player could prep is assisting in generating the “Sly Flourish: strong start“. I assign one player the home of generating a simple monologue in which their character recounts the last session adventure. This could appear as a letter to home, a prayer to a god, or a private musing by the seaside. This level of participation helps kick start the session. More importantly, the more a player participates, the more value they find.
Regarding world building, I found a large challenge. No doubt, there are many ways to prepare a persistent and consistent world for the players to immerse themselves. I decided that the burden of lore and locales could be partially outsourced to my players. I had each player generate a simple lore/fact/knowledge about the world of Bonzarel and promised the reward of inspiration upon when their character shares that information in game. By the way, I have never used the inspiration rules of getting one time use re roll, so I thought this would be a good reward. Otherwise, I know that without a tangible reward, lore has little value in the game.
Here is the simple assignment I ascribed a week before the session.
Garindan: you know of one person who lives in Avernus, they have a name, title, job, and relationship to the Blood War.
Felthran: you now know of a thing in Avernus, possibly relating to the wildlife, natural order.
Bramble: you remember (from your studies) reading about a social grace in the politics of Avernus
Hey: you know a magnificent local landmark that provides aid/guidance or resource, possibly you learned this from your patron, the archfey.
Zarion: besides the other sojourners, you can now see Felthran’s abyssal corruption, and you are able to sense the growing disease within him.
Each player determines the time and place their character shares the lore. Upon sharing, the DM grants one point of inspiration.
Now the question for you is what part of preparing as game master do you find to be a “gas hog?” And how can you allow your players to share in that process? Remember that maximum value is achieved through full participation. And remember that the only reason anyone ever does anything in D&D or any RPG is because of the reward. You know your players and will find appropriate assignments that provide enjoyment, but if you want your players to engage, totally cured of boredom, make sure to share the wealth in preparing for a session.
When playing Dungeons and Dragons, each player has their own reason for joining a game. Perhaps they want to spend more time with their friends, or they have a creative streak they want to express. Some people enjoy the rolling of dice and gambling aspect of random chance, while others enjoy the well thought out plans and execution. All of it is storytelling.
In good storytelling, I ask “why do the characters show up to the action?” and more importantly how, as a Dungeon Master, can I hook them into my story in such as way that it becomes our collaborative story. Action is good, but Motivation is better.
Every good adventure successfully hooks the characters in the story. Just like when fishing, the hooks must be appetizing so the players easily “take the bait”. The hooks then, have to be tempting enough so the players can honestly play out their character’s values rather than chasing empty meaningless action. I would like to discuss two main hooks.
Active plot hooks happen to the characters
Passive plot hooks draw in the characters
Let’s start with the active plot hooks. The goal is to generate action with incidents, events and occurrences with a direct action interrupting their everyday life. These are things in the world that happen to the characters, or at least around them. Some possible hooks include war, famine, a birth of a baby, the first holiday after the war, or simply the dawn of a new day. You can think of these as “ability saving throws” so common for use in the game. They just happen because you as the dungeon master determines. I enjoy using these hooks because they can demonstrate the passing of time which helps immerse your players into the story. Time, after all, is the great equalizer.
Also, do not be afraid to sprinkle your session with mundane events to continue hooking the characters into the game. Some might include, price of rations increase in town, registration on your sailing vessel has expired, a note arrives informing your character that they received an inheritance, or a demigod announces to the church that they are retiring. One of my favorites to keep hooking the characters is to announce, “your stomach rumbles with hunger, for it is time to eat.” This simple autonomic response can drive the players right in the heart of a story. Active hooks invoke an immediate response because of their invasive nature on the characters.
Now, let’s continue to define hooks. There is a story that you are telling. In order to draw the players into the story without directly spoiling the details, the dungeon master provides tempting hooks to lead them into the storyline. These hooks can be active, such as events that occur, or passive. A goal of a passive hook is to create interest that relates directly to their story.
Passive hooks do not happen to the characters, but rather, they draw them in and at their best, they are tempting morsels of storyline the players cannot resist. These passive hooks invoke the players to act.
In order to set up a passive hook, the dungeon master needs to explore the values of the characters in question. Do they respond to needs of justice? Then a crime committed acts as a passive hook. Do they resonate with keeping up the natural order? Then a necromancer practicing in the town graveyard draws them into the story. Passive hooks don’t really link to the place or time, but rather make an attempt to directly reach the characters themselves. Passive hooks do not “happen” to the characters, but sit aside quietly until the characters decide to act. Naturally, then, these are the main hooks that drive the plot.
Ingredients in a plot hook
Now that we have defined hooks, here are some flavored ingredients that you can add to the hooks in order to solidify the success. These work because you know your player characters. By directly asking the players of their character’s values in a Session Zero, you can better prepare hooks that are sure to, well, hook the characters.
Family and Friends
Money and Wealth
Places they love
Places they want to travel
Monsters they hate
Items they have or want
Items they want to encounter
Answers they seek
Knowledge they seek
Vengeance they seek
A word of caution:Fridging is the practice of killing off or hurting a minor character in order to motivate or torture a main character. The term comes from the world of comics, describing an issue of Green Lantern in which the hero’s partner is killed and stuffed in a refrigerator for the protagonist to find. Yikes. While many stories in movies kill off a character to further the plot, I would personally exercise caution in over relying on using family bonds as a plot driver. While I think great stories like Conan and Braveheart both involve deaths of a loved one to motivate an entire story, these are also true stories in people’s lives. Please, tell these stories respectfully.
Upon deciding hooks, just remember that characters have the ability to ignore passive hooks, but cannot ignore active ones because of their invasive nature. Again, in Session Zero, and beyond, revisit the character’s values through various NPCs and even direct conversation. If the character says they value knowledge, seeking to knock off their parents might not be the best course of action, but threatening to burn down the local library may. If a character says they value their village, launching an all out raid upon that village would be appropriate, but threatening their mental sanity might go too far. What kind of story are we telling together?
Without creating false action or gratuitously noise, here are some other benign and humane active hooks to continue generating action and the passing of time in your story. These are particular enjoyable in a realism genre and should reasonably happen to anyone in any given time period.
A patron gets sick
A page is missing from your textbook
A rival frames you for cheating
A secret admirer delivers a gift
A piece of equipment or weapon needs repair
A new skill is available for training
A family reunion occurs
A characters wardrobe is outdated
In every great story, there is a believable motivation on the hero’s part. And the best stories speak to all of us, resonating with our values. I hope this read was useful to hook your player’s characters into a story with grace and ease. May your story continue!
While back in nursing school, I remember the long nights of studying, the groupwork projects and of course clinicals. It can take a lot of steam to keep track of everything there is to learn before you pass your NCLEX. So, naturally, great educators of the bygone days developed simple yet, effective models to help with learning all of this information. One of the standards of being a nurse is learning to think critically about any situation and the model we use is ADPIE.
ADPIE is a nursing theory which helps professionals remember the process and order of treatment to obtain the best possible results. Having this grilled into my brain over and over, I realize now that I use this process in everyday life, including while playing Dungeons and Dragons. Instead of referring to the players as “nurses” in this model, I will call them “sojourners”.
For reference, ADPIE stands for Assess, Diagnosis, Plan, Implement and Evaluate. I would like to have you think of ways to use this model during your roleplaying game sessions, emphasis on “game”, no one’s life is at stake, right? Roll for initiative.
Without some scaffolding, even roleplaying games can go in meaningless directions that may leave the table feeling unsatisfied, because I do believe everyone desires to accomplish something in the game. But if you have no structure, most likely, your desires will go unmet. That’s why I think it’s important to use models like ADPIE, or anything really that helps you achieve your TTRPG fantasy!
Please, be warned, this model could change your life and help you achieve your goals. Any success gain while in use of this model is your own fault and reward. May your story continue!
Assess – This process is in place to ensure the sojourners ask questions. What I find most often happening, the Dungeon Master will set the stage for any scene of exploration, interaction or combat, and then the players will immediately jump into action. Might I suggest to follow the nursing model by first asking questions? Pry into the mind of the DM, and describe what your character would pay attention to. Just because the DM didn’t mention a 30 foot oak tree with a fort above the canopy does not necessarily mean it’s not there! But in my games, if a sojourner asks a question about a scene, “would there be a trap door we could utilize?” I will then answer that question, hopefully in favor of the heroes of the story. While assessing the situation, this process allows for sojourners to gather as much information as possible so as to make the best dice rolls as possible!
Another note – I use Owlbear Rodeo in my games and something I always remind them is that “just because you don’t see it on the grid, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist“. This means I don’t always have time to place all of the furniture within the virtual tabletop and encourage my sojourners to continue using that theater of the mind imagination skill by asking great questions.
Example: the DM describes a sinking boat with the colors of the local fishing guild flying humbly in the wind. The players then assess by asking questions about the peripheral information left out by the DM, are there passengers, are their skulking figures nearby, what is the weather, how fast could I swim to get there in time, can I make a memorial so as to come back tomorrow to loot the sunken ship? All great questions before any action is taken.
Diagnosis – While this might seem a word strictly used in the medical world, to diagnosis simply means to Determine what you Know. This is critically important step in the process, because if the table comes to a divided acknowledgment of the situation, then the outcome of the attempts will also be divided. In my games, I like to present two basic situations – Invitation and Challenge. The overall question the sojourners should be diagnosing is “is this an invitation to accept, or a challenge to meet?” Diagnostic indicators are used in the medical world and this is where players need to refer to their character backstories and determine how their character would judge this situation. While being aware of this step in the process, rich moments of roleplaying can occur, because if you properly diagnose the scene as an invitation or challenge, then the entire table will stay true to their characters throughout the story.
Example: After all of the assessment has taken place, the players then confer with each other (in and out of character) that this ship sinking is most likely an act of threat towards their beloved fishing guild. They firmly decide that the party’s course of action is to discover who is behind all this and make them pay dearly.
Plan – after watching a few streams since 2017, I have to say I think even the most seasoned players can flub up on this step in the ADPIE process. We are quick to roll the dice and quick to act and while this can make for some comical moments in the game, planning can provide a more sure outcome. Planning is simple. After taking into consideration all of the questions answered, and forming a unified judgement about the situation, the players use their particular skills, features, spells, and silly accents to ensure their plan goes off without a hitch. Also, on a side note, I think this step is where most of the bonding between players at the table takes place. This step should not be sidestepped by rogue players who shoot first and ask questions later. While there is a place for that level of roleplay, most of the time I have seen players enjoy the unilateral approach to problem solving.
Example: After asking great questions about the sinking fishing boat, and determining this was a crime, the players then decide to split up and gather intel in the town using their various charms, connections and coercing. One player thinks it best that they stay behind and keep a sharp lookout to see if anyone shows up tonight to clean up any messes.
Implement – While developed as a nursing theory for medical professionals to provide the best care, I bet that the best sessions you experience already use something like this! We are over the halfway point of the ADPIE step by step process to providing a rich tabletop session! Implementation, of course, this is where you pull out those shiny math rocks and get to rolling. This is where steel meets steel and everything progress (hopefully) as planned. However, before you start rolling the dice and holding the DM at knifepoint to tell you what you’ve won, please, take a moment and follow this method. As I say in my games, “Describe to me what you are doing, and I’ll tell you how to roll.” I do this because while D&D is fun, I think it’s also a creative exercise in developing perspectives. For example, if I describe to you that I’m drinking from a teacup, what does the teacup look like? Five players can silently write out a description and we will easily gain 5 different images, and none of them were as the DM imagined! The point being, that while rolling all that dice and gleefully anticipating the results, use this step to describe what your player is thinking, feeling and doing.
Example: After witnessing the sinking ship, determining a villain was to blame and planning with the party, Jon the Bard and another sojourner rendezvous with an old friend. They play cards, share a drink and an old story. The other sojourner (player at the table) learns a little bit about Jon’s past as he remembers his hometown. And then, Jon asks the dark question, “who would have an interest in sabotaging the fisher’s guild?” The rooms goes silent and the DM says, “make a persuasion check”. Jon checks his die, “24” he says.” The DM smiles, now ready to drop some serious lore.
Breathe deep for now we take the last step to the ADPIE process for your Dungeons and Dragons sessions. Some might have easier methods, but if it’s good enough for living saving medical professionals, then it’s good enough for RPGs, right? 🙂 Don’t forget, once your brain uses a model, it likes to remain efficient and use the model for other areas in your life. Remember, if you use this, prepare to be successful!
Evaluation: This step is incredibly simple, for it’s about time that the Dungeon Master gets a chance to speak. Oh yes, that’s why I love using this in my games, because he players are doing all of the interacting, talking, laughing and sharing. Aside from answering questions, the DM simply keeps up the pacing of the story, and checks their notes. The evaluation falls into the DMs hands based on the assessment, diagnosis, plan and implementation of the players.
Example: After witnessing their beloved ship sink, decided the villain was to blame, the sojourners make a plan to use their various features and go gather intel. The plan goes off well, for the dice were in their favor, with the exception of the cleric, who despite having the best course of action (gaining intel from the local shrine), the dice failed her. Here is the evaluation. “The fishers guild is being sabotaged by none other than Charming Chums, a bogeyman pirate group who have allied with the town sheriff to chokehold the industry. Rumor says, they meet in the haunted mansion up the hill. Sadly, while doing so, the cleric found to her horror, that the local priest failed to provide info and falsely believe her to be a heretic, and she will now have to navigate town without the churches blessing, imposing a new challenge.“
When in doubt, just ADPIE! Remember that if you use this model in your games, or anywhere in your life, anything worth doing is worth doing poorly at first. You will need to reference it like a dry checklist, but the more you use it, the more natural the process will feel. In the game, you have steps in combat, – movement, action, bonus action, speech, interaction, but over time, those become second nature in your memory. So, don’t allow structure to scare you, for constraint makes for a creative spirit. I hope you enjoyed this step by step walk through of a popular nursing theory ADPIE, and I hope you can use it in games and life.
I believe that everyone of us is a storyteller. You don’t have to speak of elves and dwarves or aliens from a far realm to convey a human experience using your words to another fellow human. Every time you make an attempt to persuade someone, you are crafting a story. Every time you rationalize an event, you are telling yourself a story. In other words, you already tell stories, and if you want, you can become better with practice.
I found this article while browsing for better ways to tell stories and discovered this method! I wondered how my Dungeons and Dragons campaign would hold up to the heat of this crucible for storytelling. Let’s see.
Immediately I drafted a list using this five pillars and overplayed my current game. We have been playing this since March 2020 and what started as a couple friends rolling dice while rescuing a lost miner has turned into a fantastic story, if I may say so.
I believe that is partly thanks to my amazing players, or as I call them sojourners, for together we sojourn through life telling stories. These stories make us. By playing Dungeons and Dragons, life begins to imitate art and we learn to utilize many sorts of problem solving practices in real life that we played in game.
But D&D being good for you is a different story. Today, I wanted to celebrate a success in my campaign and show you the overlay of the 5 Cs and how my story lays gently into this model of storytelling. While I think you should read the article above, here are the 5Cs.
Circumstance, or the setting
Curiosity, or why bother listening?
Conversation, or how would I share this with others?
Characters, or how do I relate as a listener?
Conflict, or what happens in the end?
And here, as promised, is my story.
Because Zariel, ruler of hell, struggles to maintain order in the war torn land, the hordes of the demonic abyss rise in numbers and threaten to overrun our beloved plane of Bonzárel. If she loses, the hordes will rise in numbers, but if she wins, she sets up a military cult recruiting mortal souls into her blood war and martial service. The characters are Felthran, who is honest, stubborn, loyal and dutiful. Garindan, who is haunted, darkened, redeemed, and rehabilitated. Bramble, who is vengeful, humble, proficient and pragmatic. Hey, who is lovable, simple, pure and abandoned. So then remains the difficult decision of setting up the ruler of hell, where an eternal war occurs between evil demons who want to overrun the universe and evil devils who want to enslave and overrule the universe. While the sojourners begin by visiting this neighborhood of conflict to ensure the battle stays far from their home, they discover they are they have been appointed to set up the rulership of hell sanctioned by the gods.
So, there you have it. I’m pleased to find I didn’t require much tweaking with the storyline in order to neatly fit into the 5 Cs of Storytelling. Whether you are sharing your morning coffee with a friend, selling a service to a customer or interviewing for a job, we are all telling stories. Because they appeal to the very core of our ancient humanity, we should learn to tell them well. May your story continue!
The sojourners arrive at the monolith after harrowing travel through the wilds. Upon their arrival, a bright light shines from the stone and they hear a booming voice greet them, “you have sojourned far to find me, now that you are here, what do you want?” They have finally reached the lost shrine of Torm, the god of courage.
How do you imagine deities working within Dungeons and Dragons? My style of running the game always involves telling a story. But even then, I want to benefit the players with boons and banes every time they choose to interact with these immortal beings.
I begin with an introduction to review the story so far. This involves about 3 minutes of me narrating what has happened in relevance to the sojourners. By the way, I call my player characters “sojourners” to remind us all that we are sojourning through life.
After the introduction is read, I inform them of the setting and ask them “how they are preparing for the adventure today?” You’ll see that right out of the gate, I’m having the sojourners describe themselves interacting with the world. And from there, I drop the incident, which is a simple action that kicks off the adventure and prompts them to act. We go around and around until a nice story has been told!
The world of Dungeons and Dragons has many deities who manage domains of the universe. I could get into all of the lore, but to be honest, I don’t know much of it. Instead, I think of how it makes sense to me for these immortal beings to interact with the universe. But the recurring question I have is how and why would they intervene in the affairs of mortals? In short, they are non player characters in my story and I need a motivation and a means for their actions.
To keep things simple, I use the pantheon list from the 5th ed. Player’s Handbook. The way I imagine everything working out is that some gods are all powerful, some all knowing, and some all loving, but not one god holds all three responsibilities!
They have clear limitations, otherwise, I feel they would overpower the story. Their motivation and means of action stems from one of those three responsibilities they possess, either power, love or knowledge. Now I just have to divide them into appropriate groups.
To start, I set up a division between power, love and knowledge. Then I determine that those with power oversee historical events, those with love rule over natural creation and those with knowledge govern mortal experiences. I align the domains within the PHB into each of those three categories. The formula is simple. If the god rules an event, they possess power. If they rule a part of creation, they possess love, and if they rule a mortal experience, they possess knowledge. For example, I think war is an event, therefore the god ruling over war is all powerful. Storms are part of the natural order, therefore the god who rules this domain is all loving. Finally, mortal experiences (love, divination, loss) are assigned to gods who are all knowing. In my mind, this is where technology breakthroughs occur, whether it’s the hit song, or the cure for a disease, or a 10th level spell, these gods show up and deliver knowledge.
First, let’s talk about the all loving gods. Deities of the natural world such as Meiliki of the forests, Moradin of creation, and Selune of the moon are gods who demonstrate love and care for their creation. Their motivation originates from their love for what they have made and how they care for it. Of course, goddesses like Auril, the evil one of winter, manages to fit in this “all loving” category and in truth, she loves winter, but severely crosses anyone who opposes her. In truth, Meiliki would do the same if some powerful warlord burned down an entire forest to cause calamity. Then we might see the passionate love of Meiliki as she avenges! Either way, these gods, though they love and care, do not possess much power or knowledge. Asking them for favors will only go so far in your request, but you can trust their motivations always stem from their beloved creation.
Example: Garindan is a young dwarf with much ambition. Although he lived in civilization all his life, he later committed himself to Moradin. Every time my player indicates Garindan cares for natural creation for a dwarven community, I allow him to gain advantage on one spell attack that day. This affects the world around the players and still, allows for mechanical bonuses in game.
Secondly, the deities who oversee events and time possess power. This includes war and peace, birth and death. They rule their domain with abilities that frighten mortals, causing them to evoke respect rather than love. Indeed, these gods do not particularly care for mortals so much as they take seriously the event they rule. I can imagine beings such as Bane and Eldath contesting as to who gets to determine the fate of the realms. Will this be a time of war or peace? I can imagine Lathander overseeing each birth, taking the responsibility of beginnings seriously, not out of love, but duty. He then bestows power based on adherence to that duty. Do not come praying to these immortal masters believing they will favor you, for quite possibly all mortals are pawns on a chess board in order to fund the domain in which they rule.
Example: During this crisis of war, the sojourners encounter an obstacle with running low on supplies in ammunition. Out of desperation, the monk, Windrunner, sets up a small shrine to Bane. Even though he does not “serve” this god normally, he is making a request for more ammo to destroy his enemies. Since this aligns with Bane’s domain, the god sends a messenger in the form of an arrow shooting a random sojourner. After dealing damage, the team notices a note from Bane divulging a stockpile of weapons within a nearby dungeon that will turn the tide of the war.
Finally, deities of knowledge, in my opinion, hold the most domains within the universe. I categorize these by their domains of mortal experiences such as wizardry, strategy, and pain, other examples include beauty, courage, and justice. These gods, though without much power and love for mortals, roam the universe with mastery of their domain. Asmodeus belongs here, for he knows all things of indulgence and from his palace in the Nine Hells, he gathers intel on the best way to provide enjoyment to its fullest extent. Gond, who understands the matters of crafting and construction boasts his insight and his followers beg to learn of the secret ways to build their empires. Milil, the god of poetry and song, might share with a servant the most impressive love song and release it into the world for the sake of spreading knowledge. Again, these deities are not motivated by their love for their creation, nor the will to rule the events of time, but rather, like springs of intelligence, they sprinkle information on those whom they deem fit.
Example: The sojourners gather with Bardock, the bard as he insists they view a once in a lifetime performance of Milil, god of song. The god performs and anyone within 300 feet that can hear and see the god’s avatar perform receives the benefits of the Crusader’s Mantle spell for a one time use. Or if Milil performed a stand up routine, the sojourners can permanently learn the Vicious Mockery cantrip as they relay his brutal jokes to their enemies!
All in all, adding interactions with deities in game can provide rich storytelling, and adding boons and banes can encourage the players to encounter gods themselves. Whether you bonus the players by giving advantage, adding a d4 to an ability check, or the benefits of a spell for a day, you encourage the interaction with a deity besides simply telling a good story. However, every god needs limitations because conflict makes a good story. So to recap, some gods are powerful, some are loving, and some are knowledgeable, but none possess three qualities and they, for the most part, stay in their lane of their ruled domain. If a god rules an event, they possess power. If a god rules a creation, they possess love. If a god rules an experience, they possess knowledge.
Go mortal, do my work, and I promise you favor: cross my will and suffer the consequences. And so, our story continues.
In Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition, one of the playable classes is a warlock. As I understand, magic is available through many avenues in a fantasy world. Some wizards study their whole lives to memorize formulas, some cleric devout their lives to serving a deity. Warlocks, I imagine, cut a deal with a powerful being, who is not a god. These powerful beings, I think of as “black market” magic, whether it be a cheap knock off of the original brand, or a product laced with unholy ingredients designed to get the user hooked on a sale. Or this could be a source of “homegrown” magic, where the patron wants to provide a free range source to their warlocks, for free, because, you know, they believe in free magic for all.
Either way, power is fun! Handing out power in Dungeons in Dragons to players is fun and I have found warlock classes really help propel the story in a dramatic way.
Personally, I love it when my players dive into the servant of the archfey. George MacDonald, who wrote “The Princess and the Goblin” paved the way for many great authors like Tolkien, Lewis and Carroll. I really enjoy movies like “Legend” and anything with faeries. I’ve tried to isolate what makes a person “fey” or a world “feywild.” My simple answer is that in the feywild, one truly never ages. And in this perpetual state of childhood, the creatures only become more powerful in immortality, but nevertheless retaining the childishness and childlikeness of their former selves. This can be displayed as sweet innocence or a holy terror. Think of a child playing with their toys. If an archfey view mortals as playthings, they may care for them or completely use them up and horridly destroy them.
The fey don’t feel the passing of time. And this makes them fey. Anyway, it’s my thoughts and feelings on the matter. But what is exciting is playing that out in this episode! I hope you enjoy the banter, the drama and the way this propels the story to draw my players into Avernus.
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?
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.
If you want, skip to the bottom to see my bulleted instructions; otherwise, enjoy the read! I call my characters “sojourners” to remind myself they are journeying through the world we are creating together.
Boxed text in the tradition Dungeons and Dragons modules serve a purpose. I believe one of the most underplayed pillars of the game is exploration and reading aloud a narrative script to your players can prompt wonderful moments of exploration that make your world all the more fulfilling. Like any NPC name, or monster stat, most of the Dungeons and Dragons experiences can be substituted for your own table, as can boxed text. How can you make your own text? Maybe the text doesn’t fit your current plan for a scene, or maybe you want even more texts. Anyway, here are some methods for crafting your very own boxed text.
Around the corner of the ancient oak tree, a herd of cows assemble under a sheltering canopy. In the center of their circle, lies an injured woman, bleeding in the snow. Within your thoughts , you hear a chill voice whisper, “guard that which remains the most important”.
First of all, take a moment to consider each of the senses. Sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, balance, proprioception, intuition, and temperature (relative to the setting) can all be called upon to create a collective perspective to the scene. In the above text, the use of adjectives appeals to the senses. Ancient invokes largeness of size as well as the possible influence the tree could hold on the forest citizens. The woman is implicated to be injured, but let the sojourners decide the details of the injuries. A good rule of thumb is to keep the text as vague as possible, until required to specify a detail related to a discovery. For example, if you want to draw attention to the four fingered handed man playing cards, it assumes that the missing digit is of importance. In the above case, bleeding implies she is in the progressive process of dying and therefore, may be able to be saved. The telepathic voice enters the mind without any form of consent and reveals that the woman holds some importance. Either way, the incident triggers the sojourners to involve themselves in the scene. Maybe you wonder how often to impose the sense’s experience upon a player. I say, use the senses all the time! Feel free to describe the sun’s heat as blistering, or the wave’s crashing as deafening, or the instability of the bridge as nauseating. When you describe the scene using adjectives appealing to the senses, then you are telling the players how the average person in the world would experience this moment. If a particular sun soul monk then smiles while staring at the sun, that then furthers the narrative of exploration. If an air genasi gently levitates, then a fearful NPC can steady their shaking body against hers. Start by describing the scene in the broadest terms and then the players can detail out their character’s responses.
In reading aloud the boxed text, be careful about linking text to one another, for the text could have happened if the sojourners followed the outline, but of course, they could have travelled elsewhere.
After the worm lay dead at your feet, a gentleman approaches you with a hefty backpack and walking stick. “Fine day for a journey, you think?” he announces. Dressed in light clothing and a wide brimmed hat, he carries a brand new map case. He whistles to his dog, who comes running at full speed in happy obedience.
Here, the incident triggers the sojourners to interact with their guide. However, the opening phrase implies they recently killed a worm. While the storyteller plotted for them to encounter the worm and hopefully kill it, they may have dealt with that encounter entirely differently than the text describes. Rather, the storyteller could simply say, “After the brilliant rays of sunshine rise over the eastern lake, a gentleman approaches you…”
The storyteller can not infer that the sojourners killed a worm, that’s up to their actions. However, at any time, the storyteller can imply that the sun rises and a new day dawns. The main idea is to keep the read aloud text as a description of action only the storyteller can perform.
Another way to think of this is in regards to the difference between Ability Saving Throws and Ability Checks. Think of the read aloud text as an ability saving throw, where the sojourners must choose how to respond because the story defined the situation for them. Then, the sojourners actions are the ability checks. Then, depending on how they narrate their actions, the story continues.
A digestible amount of boxed text involves around 3 sentences. Of course, when I’m giving a story introduction, I will use more than a few sentences, but that’s another purpose. An easy 3 sentences gives just enough information for the sojourners to then ask their questions to expand upon the scene before they make their actions. It’s important to share the storytelling, for if you describe everything scene in vivid detail, you first exhaust the imaginations with business and then you take away any spotlight for the players to build the world. After a vivid description of the scene, I always encourage players to ask 1-2 questions about the scene. I want their characters to generate exploration so that together, we can build an exciting setting. Using the above example, here are a few sample questions that one might ask:
How many cows are there and do they appear threatening?
Is the woman breathing?
Do I see a tree stump where I could place the injured woman?
Does anyone else hear this voice?
I review my journal, do I remember anything specific from this command?
Do I smell any demons? (divine sense)?
What’s the light look like, do we have time to dawdle before sundown?
Wow! After spending a couple moments filling in the gaps, the storytelling team has created quite a fulfilling scene of exploration. The second part of exploring this scene involves pushing buttons and pulling levers to see how one could affect the situation. Here are some sample actions based on the questions above. And of course, the details are not cumbersome, because everyone assists with the heavy lifting of world building and the exploration pillar. A shared vision is a sustainable vision. When players simply nod their heads in agreement, the investment is not as high as when we have created something together.
So now, building upon the boxed text, here is what the table built together by the sojourners asking 1-2 questions about the scene.
Eight cows appear in a circle around the woman and while, noticing you with a quick nod, they do not appear anxious or threatened, but stand still like guardians in the snow. The woman’s chest rises slightly and she begins to stir. About 50 steps further in, you see a fallen tree lying in the drift. As you query your fellows, each of you confirm the whispering voice echoed in each of your thoughts. With a couple pages turned in your journal, you find the inscription “that which is guarded must be returned to the temple of the love goddess and this woman appears very much like the drawings of her that you have seen. A quick sniff in the air reveals only celestial beings are nearby, originating from the center of the circle of cows. With only 2 hours left of daylight, the winter wolves will be howling soon and on the hunt out in the open forest.
Can you imagine how much everyone enjoyed discussing each of their thoughts? With all this exploration going on, besides inquiring of the story teller, each sojourner gets a chance to interact with their fellows by roleplaying out the exploration and interactions. The storyteller then collects each patch of creativity into a whole scene. Now the action can begin!
Now, let’s talk about using ability scores in the building of a scene. Using an initiative, I like to go around the table gathering everyone’s actions before I narrate. Here, I also invite and challenge each player to listen to the other player’s actions and then narrate their own. A slight nod from myself or a quick thumbs up lets the players know everything is moving along smoothly from my point of view. Sometimes, I will spin my fingers around as if to say, “let’s keep this going”. My players narrate their actions and assume they “hit” the difficulty class, while I stay silently approving, in order to keep the story flowing freely. Upon challenging the situation, I will step in to say, “let’s see an ability check”. Regarding ability checks, I will use these for two reasons. Number one, I think that what they are attempting is beyond simple or easy and requires some risk of failure. Note that unless I am willing for them to fail, I do not ask for a check. Sometimes I can overuse perception checks that slow the game. A player asks if they see any magic items for sale in a busy city. I ask for a perception check (why???) and the player rolls a 4, So they narrate that a bird pooped in their eye. It’s funny and in the right setting, that could work. But it is plausible that one could buy a product in a marketplace. As the storyteller, I answer with
“yes you do see what you are looking for, please describe it.”
And then we move along. However, I like to use ability checks in this way. I like worldbuilding, but at the rate I play, I do not have all the answers for what is under rocks and in every shop and have great amounts of respect to DMs who are also worldbuilders. So, when a player asks for something in the world which I really don’t know the answer to, I will say, “I don’t know, let the dice decide and roll an ability check.” Most often, I use this with wisdom, intelligence and charisma based checks. Upon a high roll, there is a river nearby with freshwater (even though I didn’t plan for a river encounter). This is a check in which the dice helps decide the outcome not of a player’s actions, but of their luck in exploration. Maybe we didn’t discuss your sojourner’s backstory regarding their understanding of the politics of the nine hells, so let’s see an ability check. Upon a low roll, it has been foretold that no, even though your character shows interest in politics, you now have the opportunity to narrate WHY or HOW your character missed that piece of information.
To summarize, I use ability checks when a player challenges the world so as to present a conflict (pickpocket, hit, unlock, remove, expose, lift) for all these things that do not want interference. Secondly, I also use ability checks to help paint the world and history involving the characters, such as determining knowledge, influence in a city, or existence of medicinal plants.
Regarding the difficulty of an exploration check. Without giving away the DC, I think that a player needs to know how arduous a challenge is and if it’s even possible. I want to inform them of this so they can accurately narrate their response. I intend to be clear when specifying the rolls because I want the player to know that either they failed, or what they tried was impossible. The player rolls a 4 on a strength check:
“I lift and grunt, but the boulder won’t budge, it’s here for a while, I say”. The player rolls a 3 on an arcana check, “I spend a minute going through my notes and begin cursing my laziness, “I should have studied more, I say, I don’t recall the politics of hell and announce that to my fellows.”
You see, the second player didn’t fail in the search, because the information doesn’t exist, but rather gave us some insight into their past. A converse example would be as follows:
The sojourner stands in the massive library. With only an hour to spare, they begin to frantically race through the tomes to search for insight into the politics of the nine hells.
If this presents with no amount of challenge in the world, and the librarian is generous with the sojourner’s privilege, then why make the player roll? Simply describe their success because in this case, it is plausible that a scholar with a desire succeeds with the right amount of resources and environment. However, in this present situation, we are not asking “did they remember” but “can they find?” With the large amount of books, the narrowing look from the librarian who thinks you a crook and the pressing time before you have to leave to avoid the town guards, now that calls for a challenge! Have the player roll an ability check. Upon a success, your sojourner is a hero and is free to narrate their discovery, but upon a failure, the sojourner must pick themselves up, and try again elsewhere. Again, it should be specified from a honest standpoint on the storyteller’s part if the book exists! I think that if this is a clever player inventing the politics of the world and generating a narrative, then the sojourner should discover a clue with any roll, but upon a low roll, perceive the clue but have it without their reach, furthering the challenge.
Hopefully, you can see this asks for communication between the storyteller and the sojourners. It’s important to communicate the how and why of a success or failure, because your sojourner needs to know how they can communicate the outcome to their fellows.
When reading aloud boxed text, consider altering the tone of your voice. This cues your players to lean in and listen to the narration so they can assist in building encounters. Some possible ideas include using your “reading voice”, dropping your range, adopting an off screen narrator NPC that follows the sojourners around on their journey giving life to their actions through commentary. If not altering your voice, set up a sign or place an object in the middle of the tabel to signify the changing of scene. Whatever you do, make an attempt for consistency so that the team around your table can operate on the same page as you. Soon enough, your shared voices will sound like a symphony of stories all in agreement.
Another great question to prompt exploration from your players is asking them directly, “how does your sojourner respond to this?” I’ll ask this question when something particularly evocative occurs whether by the action of another sojourner, or an incident that kick starts the action.
An unconscious body rolls down the stairs onto the cellar floor. The queen shrieks as a spectral figure approaches the judges bench and demands justice. The fisherman halts his step, his eyes locked open in terror and begins muttering “the beast below, the beast below”.
These incidents may shock the players at the table and jar them from the roleplaying experience, simply because you’re an amazing storyteller and have possessed their attention. Reminding them that the story will not progress without their involvement may be necessary when they are either bored out of their minds, or having the time of their life. You can simply remind them to get back into the story by asking them, ‘how does your sojourner respond to this?”
Bulleted Instructions for Creating Boxed Text
Open with a prepositional phrase indicating the time and space of the scene, examples (around, in, within)
What is the subject? (cows, woman, voice)
What is the subject doing? (assemble, lies, whisper)
Describe appealing to the senses (herd, injured, chill)
Use 3 sentences and consider highlighting 3 props in the scene. (Oak Tree, Circle of Cows, In your thoughts)
Around the corner of the ancient oak tree, a herd of cows assemble under a sheltering canopy. In the center of their circle, lies an injured woman, bleeding in the snow. Within your thoughts , you hear a chill voice whisper, “guard that which remains the most important”.
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)