Plot Progress in D&D — The Cheese and the Pill
Salutations, nerds! Today we’re going to talk about plot and the differences between what plot progress looks like in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons from the point of view of a Dungeon Master contrasted by the point of view of a player. Contrary to popular belief these are not the same thing. It can be easy to lose sight of from behind the DM’s screen, but we are privy to things our players are not. And as players this goes the same way — things that can seem like frustrating stalling out can actually be movement. So let’s talk about that for a minute.
Plot progress for the Dungeon Master
Dungeon Masters look at the bigger picture stuff, am I right? Don’t answer this — I know I am. Here’s the situation: doling out information about the plot, introducing your NPCs and setting up story related things all look like progress to the DM because they’re going somewhere and you already know this.
The thing is these things aren’t always obvious to your players.
And I know, this kind of misdirection while you make a scene look super innocuous while you thread in information, that Chekov’s Gun effect, can feel really useful in fiction. If you’re just writing a story the characters aren’t going to get frustrated with a slow scene included for set up.
Players aren’t characters in books, though. When there’s a real person behind each of your protagonists, they expect something to chew on in every scene. To keep them moving. So let’s talk about that.
Plot progress for the player
Player characters have their own goals. They have their own agendas. Most of the time the players are invested in the story. We want to ride the plot train but not every scene has to further the main story.
Plot progress for the player can look like taking steps to accomplish our own goals. If one of your characters wants to be a master chef for instance, working your plot stuff in while they’re learning some ancient magical recipe is a good way to sneak this into the campaign.
Think of your players as dogs and your plot build up as medicine. These little accomplishments are the cheese you put the pill in so the dog will eat their medicine.
And you want the cheese to taste good! This brings me to…
Things that feel good vs. things that feel bad
There’s a balance to be struck here and it’s not an easy one to find. In fact I find I end up missing the mark a lot myself. But theoretically I know it exists, and one of the many things to bear in mind as a DM is the balance of good vibes and bad vibes you throw at your players.
Being hoodwinked feels bad. There’s a reason why whenever a NPC gets the better of the party they feel unmanned and want to go after them immediately. Being kited around feels bad. I have never known a party that took very well to getting to the place where their goal was and then being sent on a side quest because some shmuck doesn’t want to talk to them until they’ve cleared the basement out of rats.
Getting to solve a problem feels good. When you present the characters with an injustice expect them to want to do something about it. If you know you’re going to be putting your players into a situation likely to end badly for them (the pill), work in a separate problem they can solve (the cheese).
Matching up the vibes
The trick for this one is knowing what is going to feel good for the players and what is going to feel bad.
Confession: I have been banned from using Groundhog Day as a plot because it turns out this doesn’t feel very good to the players. They want to feel like what they’re doing is real and has real stakes.
Go down your list of beats. If you were a player, how would this make you feel? If the answer is bad you have a pill — wrap it in some cheese. If the answer is good and there isn’t any bad potentially in the adventure you have a lot of space with which to work things in for foreshadowing. Congratulations. Go make use of it.
On another note really consider which of your NPCs need to have the essential tag. Because I know you don’t want them to take down your big boss immediately and it’s good to be able to have long term villains sometimes but giving all of their lieutenants plot armor too is just asking for an angry party. Let them progress sometimes. It’s less about letting them have dessert first and more about working in periodic goals so they don’t feel like they’re accomplishing nothing. Periodic pay offs make a long plot more rewarding.
All right, so that was plot progress. What are some things that feel good to you in a gaming session and what are some things that feel bad? What kind of cheese do you wrap your pills in for your pets… I mean players? Please let me know in the comments below, and of course, stay nerdy!