Way back in the mid-1980’s when I started playing Dungeons & Dragons as a kid, I feel pretty confident saying the word “narrative” never came up as regards our funny-shaped dice rolling adventures. We played a lot of modules as standalone adventures, and our characters didn’t really engage with the plot very much. A country frozen in time by a strange red light, a town under siege by goblins and a lost valley, rescuing a captive baroness from the evil Temple of the Frog deep in the Great Dismal Swamp… yadda yadda yadda. We go in the ruined palace, slay the white dragon and get the giant ruby. The Iron Ring was defeated after exploring much of Eastern Karameikos. The Fetch paid us as promised and we returned to our own time. And it wasn’t until this moment as I’m writing why back then the narrative was largely irrelevant, but my current D&D campaign — intended to celebrate the old school spirit — wound up with a strong narrative all on it’s own. So let’s get into it and see how a narrative emerges in your D&D campaign, whether you want it or not.
Keeping up with a D&D campaign narrative is tough!
For the curious, the adventures described above are some of my favorite D&D modules. Palace of the Silver Princess, Night’s Dark Terror and Temple of the Frog offer terrific plot hooks that bend time and space like it’s just another Tuesday and contain great maps, monsters and treasures. I regularly mine classic modules from every edition to throw into a D&D campaign. Between all the great material from the past, new content from the Dungeon Master’s Guild and no end of incredible fantasy art on Pinterest I am never at a loss for stuff to add into my games.
What those and many classic modules have in common, which led to D&D campaigns with little to no narrative, is the setup. The DM Background sections are robust, and by the time the module gets to the Running the Adventure section, it’s a foregone conclusion the adventurers take up the quest. There’s varying degrees of wiggle room, with Palace of the Silver Princess being the most direct. It’s a dungeon crawl, and while there’s a ton of great material like rumors and landmarks, the adventure begins and ends in the titular ruined palace. The module does note how it’s meant to be a resource for your own D&D campaign…but we always just played through them and onto the next one.
After a two-year ongoing Spelljammer D&D campaign with a single narrative arc running through it (saving the crystal sphereverse doesn’t leave a lot of time to dilly dally) I wanted a fresh start. My pitch to the group was an old school adventuring party. They’d be members of an adventuring guild, and their primary goal was to adventure. They have cool enamel pins from the guild that pulse when an adventure locale is nearby. The idea was for the party to explore the unknown lands, discover places where adventure awaits, and return home to the little coastal fishing village the guild shipped them off to when they joined.
This is not what happened.
The players were so enarmored of their new home and the residents there, they spent two sessions settling into town, meeting as many NPCs as they could and walking the length and breadth of the settlement. By the end of the second session, they’d filled up their quest log with several adventure opportunities and discovered a web of conspiracies and legends among the folks living in this little seaside community. The only thing is, they constructed a complex narrative all on their own!
SPOILER FOR PLAYERS IN THE ADVENTURERS OF ADVENTURE D&D CAMPAIGN
The best example of this came about by innocuous comments from me, the DM. The characters asked one of the residents when something had happened, and I told them it was about 8 months prior. In the following session the party discovered a journal, and they asked when the last entry was. I told them it was 8 months ago.
They were instantly curious, bordering on obsession very quickly. What happened 8 months ago? That other thing was 8 months ago, and now this. What does it all mean?
The players are convinced some mysterious event occurred 8 months ago, and whatever it was, they’re on the case. Most of their exploration and motivation is piecing together some vast conspiracy or event they believe many — if not all — the residents of their town are covering up.
And you know what? Sure, why not.
END OF SPOILER
The emergent narrative in your D&D campaign
The players in our Adventurers of Adventure campaign beautifully illustrate two things for me. The first is something Nerdarchist Dave said during Nerdarchy’s appearance on GM Tips with Satine Phoenix. We’ve got two ears and one mouth, so it makes sense for a DM to listen twice as much as they talk. The second is the concept of the emergent D&D campaign. It might simply be a justification for being a lazy DM, but I’ve experienced the best gaming of my life by including the players into the worldbuilding and narrative development as equals.
My perspective on a DM’s role is a guide to help the players tell the story of their characters. Through considerate listening, players will tell you everything you need to know about how to proceed through this story. What they find important, what intrigues them, the NPCs they love and hate — all the things you need to help make their story dramatic. This saves a DM a ton of time and effort. Whether you’re playing through a published adventure or your own homebrew campaign, it’s important to leave yourself the wiggle room needed for the narrative to progress in a unique way for the characters. Waterdeep: Dragon Heist is an excellent example of this.
Stories of group’s adventures in the City of Splendors seem to have significantly more variation than most other published adventure, and I attribute this to Chapter 2 of the adventure storyline — the same one it seems like many DM’s find most problematic. I strongly believe for a DM who listens considerately to the players and encourages freedom to explore not just the urban setting but their characters’ place within it might find this the best part of the adventure. To a great extent, the premise of the chapter is setting the adventurers loose in the city to observe what they do. Talk about a polar opposite of my mid-80’s D&D adventuring.
Running a D&D campaign like this is incredibly satisfying, and as a bonus the DM can share the workload with the players. By easing off my own narrative ideas and passing the ball to the players, my group’s overall enjoyment has gone way up. Player engagement increases by orders of magnitude when they’re asked to help describe what something looks like, or even what a place is called. A new character in our campaign, coming in at 3rd level, was asked what sort of adventures they’d gone on previously. Without skipping a beat, the players added a wonderful piece of lore to our D&D campaign setting.
“You ever heard of Lost Lake?”
“Yeah, way up north?”
“That’s the one. I was in the adventuring party that discovered it.”
“Really? That’s amazing!”
“It was! They call it Found Lake now.”
I never know where their story is going, and there’s huge swaths of the map I have no clue about what lies there. And I love it! I’m just as excited to discover what secrets await the Adventurers of Adventure in the course of their D&D campaign — and even more excited to watch their characters’ narrative unfold alongside them.
But what about you? Do the players in your D&D campaign create their own narrative with the DM’s guidance? Do you enjoy serial adventure modules and stick closely to the story (or ignore the story completely)? I’d love to hear your stories of emergent campaigns and how the narrative adventures come together at your gaming table. Please share in the comments below! Our D&D experiences only get better when we share them with each other.
GM Tips with Satine Phoenix — Off-The-Cuff Home Brew Games with Nerdarchy
Nerditor-in-Chief Doug Vehovec is a proud native of Cleveland, Ohio, with D&D in his blood since the early 80s. Fast forward to today and he’s still rolling those polyhedral dice. When he’s not DMing, world building, or working on endeavors for Nerdarchy or his own blog The Long Shot, he’s a newspaper designer, copy editor and journalist. He loves advocating the RPG hobby and connecting with other nerds and gamers on social media and his site thelongshotist.com.