We made the decision to homeschool back in 2017, simultaneously the same year we started playing Dungeons and Dragons. Believe it or not, I had never really heard of the game except for a few whispers back in the 80s between the evils of Halloween and video games. Much to my surprise, Dungeons and Dragons, a tabletop roleplaying game providing a means to tell stories.
Storytelling is something we have done since the dawn of time. Myths and legends, history and tales, all in oral form around the campfire, in lecture halls and eventually scribed upon parchments. Eventually, we filmed movies on the big screen.
I believe a revolution is occurring; one where we show our dissatisfaction with the current content of entertainment and desire to simply create our own. Read more about which one you think you are here, Consumer or Creator?
When we started incorporating Dungeons and Dragons into our homeschooling curriculum, I watched as my children read more, solved math with ease, and picked up writing their own stories at night before bed. In short, it enriched our education and curriculum, read more on that here! All things any parent wants to see. As a dad of 3, I have my very own adventuring party right there to play with anytime! I hope it stays that way for many stories to come.
Three Steps to Take to include Dungeons and Dragons in your Life
Gather together 3-6 of your friends and family and schedule a game night!
Bring back the old ways, when we used to sit around the table and face each other. Rolling dice, keeping notes and having fun with each other. It’s no surprise that tabletop roleplaying games have resurged, and now is the time to bring everyone together and tell a story.
Welcome to Season 6 of Sojourners Awake!
Von – Level 4 Monk Way of the Kensai
Sterling – Level 4 Druid Circle of the Stars
Hawkins Level 4 Fighter Battle Master
We play Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition with an emphasis on storytelling
Visit TableTop Audio for background music and ambiance.
Visit Sojourners Awake for more Dungeon Master Tips on how to tell stories around your table.
Visit Sojourners Awake on Gumroad to invest in your craft as a game master.
May your story continue!
In this age of Do It Yourself, people are diving into gardening, starting businesses, and learning an instrument. The “DIY” culture helps a community grow in its knowledge. The RV community is another good example.
Homeschooling is the mother of all DIY projects. Now, more than ever, parents are looking to homeschool their children, by choice, or by obligation. The modern homeschool family has a wealth of resources at their fingertips via the internet. And along with these resources comes the famous roleplaying game, Dungeons and Dragons.
While some parents might consider the themes to be too violent or include magic, I would have you consider that D&D can be used as an endless resource to supplement your child’s education and enrich their experience.
How does D&D supplement education?
Now, when I say supplement, I am indicating that D&D, while not necessary to be present on your child’s transcript in order to pass to the next grade, does strengthen the natural intelligence of the child. Howard Garner’s Multiple Intelligence divides intelligences into multiple categories such as musical, logical, kinesthetic and linguistic. His theory surmises that each child, while having access to all forms of intelligence, usually drills down on 1 or 2 in development. While topics in school are sometimes isolated to draw upon one or two intelligences only (Math-Logic, Writing-Linguistic, Music-Musical) D&D draws upon all of the forms of intelligence. This means each child’s experience is different, although they are playing the same game.
This learning is natural and holistic. The child flexes their brain without knowing they are doing so. That is the power of playing storytelling games in the school place.
Besides math, reading, writing and social studies, can you think of other topics we might use on a daily basis? Think of systems thinking, critical analysis, risk-assessment, workplace collaboration, and conflict resolution. As adults, we might be familiar with some of these terms and have sat through seminars explaining what they mean. But I don’t see these taught in any textbooks, because education is primarily information download.
Memorization, Study and Test. Now, I’m not wanting to revamp the education system, nor do I know how you homeschool. But what I do know is that within the game Dungeons and Dragons, a high level of energy goes toward using each of those features that children will eventually use in the workplace. D&D enriches the educational experience of the child by potentially preparing them for real life situations in a safe fantasy simulation.
One of the reasons I love homeschooling is that I get to build my child’s education, and often we do it together, as a family. While incorporating multiple intelligence theories in our learning, I can justify any activity as educational! This includes playing such a wonderful pastime of dice and storytelling.
So, next I will explain exactly how to incorporate D&D on a weekly basis using your current curriculum. And so, our story continues!
I started off by asking the player’s “what do you do?” I got a lot of blank stares. I figured that I wasn’t doing a good enough job setting the scene for them to make any informed decision. So I increased my descriptions, but then got interrupted by players stating their actions, probably just to shut me up from talking the entire game.
The truth is, I don’t want to talk more than the players. I love the games where I sit back and watch the story unfold in front of me. I prepare most of the week for a game, writing quotes down, reviewing lore, developing
Good GMs ask great questions one of the questions I posit to my players is “where do you pay attention?” I ask this question upon describing an opening scene for exploration. For example: a thick layer of mist blankets the floor in this cellar. Crates stack to the ceiling and rats scurry in the corners. Somewhere beyond the walls, you hear the faint click click click. Where do you pay attention? Assuming the PCs are all here for the same purpose, to discover the secret hideout of a gang, they then have the opportunity to “play” with the descriptions i provided. They could ask, what happens when I press my ear against the cold stone wall? and get a great result, “along with clicks you hear the shuffling of hurried feet”. However, if they want to get creative, they can push the boundaries of my descriptions by coloring outside the lines. They could ask, do I see any meat hanging in this cold room? Notice I didn’t mention any meat hanging in this cellar, but because the player demonstrates curiosity, the meat now exists. Of course, I would only say yes assuming this was probable, very likely that meat hangs from metal hooks in this cold room. But it gets more interesting when the player then begins to show suspicion as they snoop around the meat locker. A quick GM could then drop a discovery of foul play as the PC then finds a familiar signet ring in the ground meat packaging. Yikes! The power of asking the players an open question “where do you pay attention?” broadens the search field of exploration beyond your simple opening descriptions. For simplicity, it gives the PCs a chance to play with the 1-3 descriptors you do hand out for free. For creativity, it gives the chance for PCs to search beyond the explicit descriptions.
Another great question I ask is “how does this affect you?” “how do you respond” “who do you notice?” “where does this day find you?” “how does the story continue?”
I watched a scene in Casino Royale and asked myself, what is the recipe for a satisfying chase scene? Tabletop Roleplaying Games are not known for their action packed, intense speed, but I still think there are ways to increase the dynamics in any scene in your game. Here is a recipe I made, and hope you enjoy!
Hunter: the one pursuing the quarry
Quarry: the one chased by the hunter
In preparation, divide the scene into 5 turns of the chase. Success occurs when the hunter obtains the quarry and failure occurs when the quarry escapes the hunter. Success or failure is determined by the table master by the fifth turn and not sooner. The goal is to have the quarry and hunter run in 5 turns to create tension and release.
Pro Tip: Include as many dimensions as possible (height, weight, depth, time, space)
The hunter cannot catch the quarry by simply succeeding on movement. They must interact with the setting and succeed upon a skill check. Do not give advantage until the final turn.. The turns increase in difficulty, 10, 15, 18, 20, 22, 25. Upon a successful die roll, the player moves forward in their pursuit as described. Upon a failure, the player moves forward in pursuit, but at a cost and the table master rolls upon the mishap table. This ensures the chase does not grind to a premature halt due to a dice roll.
As the table master, establish the setting, distance between hunter and quarry, and describe 3 interesting features of the setting.
Players may then take their turns in initiative order, and describe how to maneuver through the environment to obtain success.
Table Master: restate the setting, making sure to include any changes in the setting due to the previous turns (continue this step throughout the chase).
Players: take their turns in initiative order.
At the end of turn 2, have one explosion occur and make an attempt to weave this from the player’s actions.
Explosion examples: a crowd erupts into an angry mob, a fireball, a car drives off the bridge, earthquake: any of these will work as long as they make sense in the setting. The goal is not to create false action, but rather to impose a loud dynamic to alter the plans and give the players a new feature to interact. Again, make an attempt to have the players cause the explosion if possible.
Table Master: Establish the alignment of the quarry by giving them NPC interactions
Upon intersection, consider running combat. This helps break up any stale motion by giving an enjoyable social interaction moment. During time of banter, consider leaving the initiative order to give a more free form conversational style between hunter and quarry. By the end of the interaction, the players should learn something about the NPC that creates tension in the chase, or further validates the chase.
Players: take turns in initiative order, and allow for more free form order while conversing with the NPC.
Table Master: Upon the beginning of the 4th turn, introduce a setback for the pursuit. This could look like the quarry/hunter having to strip their armor to continue the chase, or split the party momentarily to avoid burdening a creaky bridge, or it could be leaving behind the party’s favored NPC due to the danger that awaits. At this point, pull out all stops on the tension and prepare for the outcome upon turn 5.
Players: take turn in initiative order.
Tablemaster: stay silent during this round until the players make their final move.
Players: describe attempts to finally achieve success either by obtaining the quarry or escaping the hunter.
Table Master: allow for rolls if needed, having increased the difficulty, at this point, give advantage. Describe the final outcome with a closing statement. Whether success or failure, the description should include a highlight of the player’s actions. Think of yourself as a bard in that respect, you are embellishing the feats of heroism, no matter how the chase ends. However, it ends, make it glorious!
Note to the Table Master: this 5 turn chase sequence was designed by watching chase sequences in movies and developing a framework. Sometimes, in RPGs, the players will incur an action that warrants a sudden halt to the “plans” of the table master. This is where you use judgement to decide if the scene should come to a close. The 5 turn chase sequence is simply a place to start, but it is still decided upon by the table master and the table whether or not to close the scene. Chases that drone on or end early are both disappointing. Make the magic happen.
There are many reasons TTRPGs like Dungeons and Dragons have been lauded for their ability to simultaneously grant us fun and growth. Part of that reason, I think, involves all of the tenets in the the book Mindset by Carol Dweck.
In the book, the author explores tons of research involving human motivation and success. I liked this little chart here and thought how similar the growth mindset is to how we play our characters in D&D.
Unlike real life, our characters are simulations of our imagination, and often we expand our exploits way beyond how we would behave in our own life situations. But now look at the markers of a growth mindset and see how often tabletop roleplaying games match up with this mindset driving us to success in life.
A fixed mindset avoids challenges where a growth mindset embraces them.
WOW. If that isn’t D&D, I don’t know what is. In life, we avoid challenges when we are laced with shame, fear or frustration over the potential for failure. In a growth mindset, we embrace that challenge, because those three toxins are not worth the embrace that a challenge can provide. The main reason is that a growth mindset seeks to experience and learn wisdom. A fixed mindset stays home when the wizard comes knocking at your door, but a growth mindset says, “I’m going on an adventure!”
A fixed mindset gives up easily where a growth mindset persists in setback.
Again, wow! In the game, the player’s role is to determine a team goal and pursue it. But you didn’t think the villain was going to hand you the keys to the fortress? In the game, the dungeon master’s role is to provide setbacks that the players so they can practice persistence in accomplishing their pre determined goal, through all the setbacks. What I think is wild is that because the players and dungeon master agree that these are the roles, no one gets upset when the DM throws a curve ball the players’ way. It’s expected. Setbacks are encouraged and like the person who thinks with a growth mindset, they thrive off of the experience that leads to wisdom.
A fixed mindset sees effort as fruitless wherea growth mindset masters
Part of the fun of the game is taking a level 1 character that begins an adventure and using the rules of the game to level up after completing an experience. Some tables use experience points, some tables use checkpoints to level up the characters, but all understand that the purpose of the game is to do better at playing your character by granting that character bonuses, rewards and features. A fixed mindset would remain static in their levels of mastery because they don’t believe it would make a difference. But then again, the fixed mindset is already avoid challenges and running away from setbacks, so why would they attempt to master their craft? The growth mindset, as you can now see, builds upon itself like a series of interconnected muscles. The growth mindset believes that every experience adds up to reward and therefore, they look for that reward. Seek and you shall find, it has been said, and when players defeat the long awaited villain, they indeed look for treasure and lo and behold, it is there. I wish to gather that gumption in my own life, that I look for the reward.
A fixed mindset ignores criticism where a growth mindset learns from it
So much can be said about criticism. When to give, where to give, how to give and more importantly how to receive. We cannot control another’s opinion, but we have agency over our reception. In the wonder of D&D, as a player, you can have a metagaming view of your character, watch them, learn from them and even criticize them from a 30,000 foot view. Yes, the player brings the criticism and not afraid because they have power to learn from their character’s weakness, flaws and mistakes. In our own lives, I believe the reason a fixed mindset avoids criticism is that we feel powerless to do anything with it. A growth mindset apprehends the criticism and uses it as a resource, for everything is a value of energy. Sit around and think about that for a while!
A fixed mindset feels threatened by the success of others where a growth mindset celebrates and becomes inspired by the success of others.
At it’s heart, D&D is a collaborative storytelling game. The rules create a party balance in which not one character has every tool and resource to beat every challenge presented by the dungeon master. Therefore, the collection of the players must celebrates the collective success because the party moves as a unit. There is no room to feel threatened, because the healer’s spellcasting might bring you back to consciousness before the axe falls upon your neck! The warrior’s rage might shield you from flying arrows! The inventor’s brilliance might bring about the answer the entire party needs in a split second. A growth mindset is required to play the game well.
Those who continue to operate in a fixed mindset eventually see their fate as determined and their agency stripped to a life of doom. Flipping into a growth mindset is the answer to bring about the agency, the free will and the empowerment one needs to achieve and succeed. By playing Dungeons and Dragons, with a growth mindset, we can simulate real life situations with imagination. In doing so, I think we will find ourselves “leveling up” in real life, because lessons are transferable. It’s that easy. May your story continue.
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!
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!
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”.