Thursday 19 April 2012

D&D is a Story Game ...

But the DM isn't telling the players' story, but the dungeon's.

This is the best way I know to set up the last chunk of my comments and improvements-through-play for Tomb of the Iron God. Because in addition to making the dungeon's features more suitable for analog play, I also needed to thread a more coherent story through the adventure.

Like exploration or roleplaying, figuring out the dungeon's story doesn't need an explicit in-game reward, because it carries its own reward. All the same, story-delving can pass clues back to the adventure game. Insights from the dungeon's story help the players figure out where its treasure is, how to defeat a monster or bypass a hazard.

The dungeon's story also informs the larger campaign. What if the builders or occupiers are a faction in the wider world? Might there be secrets they don't want known? Stories they don't want told? A back-and-forth begins between the story of the dungeon and the story of the wider campaign. The most meaningful adventures get themselves embedded in this way.

Whose history is it?
Take all the advice and dialogue about how gamemasters should handle the party's story, and turn it into how they should handle the dungeon's story. It's different, of course; the history of the dungeon is set already, while the story of the party spools into the future. And yet ...a "railroaded" revelation of history is instantly recognizable, as clue follows on clue in a linear fashion. Histories are more interesting if their parts are not all equally discoverable, and seem a little incomplete even when totally revealed. Even more compelling, though difficult to pull off, is the Rashomon history - where different parts of the environment reveal different perspectives on events, and each group that goes through is likely to get a different story.

Part of old-school revivalism among the more experimental games set has involved just such a focus on generating adventure backstory through play - whether How to Host a Dungeon or Microscope.
If not generated by play of its own, then a story is hard to improvise. It can be done - I'll show you how, next post in this series - but it won't click as well.

So if I would urge one thing on module designers, it's this: Give the adventure a story of its own. Lay some initial clues down, make the structure of it interesting. Everything else I can handle - the mixed dwarven and Imperial coins in the hoard, the doors of stone because they couldn't be bothered to haul wood so far, the way the kobolds fall down and worship the party when cornered because they believe that the Architects will come again.

Oh, and who's telling the party's story? Why the party, the dice, and the DM, in one big contested collaboration. But the dungeon's story rests on one pair of shoulders only.

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