Excerpts Archive | 8/17/2009
Article Header Image
Excerpts: DMG2 Ch. 1 Group Storytelling
Dungeon Master's Guide 2

In today’s Dungeon Master's Guide 2 preview, we dive right into the first chapter, exploring the various types of story elements discussed, specifically vignettes.

Group Storytelling

The D&D game offers a Dungeon Master and the other players the ability to craft a story out of each session and each adventure. Sometimes a gaming group creates a straightforward story, with sword-and-sorcery action and little character development or few plot twists. Other times, a group weaves a magical tale with dramatic layers of complex storytelling.

Chapter 1of the DMG2 focuses on the narrative side of the game from the DM’s point of view, offering techniques to encourage your group of players to help you shape the story of the game.

This chapter includes the following topics:

  • Story Structure: The basic building blocks of narrative storytelling.
  • Branching: Consider the narrative as a series of choices leading to multiple possible destinations.
  • Cooperative Arcs: Consult with your players to build a campaign from the ground up.
  • Your Cast of Characters: Help players work with you and each other to create dynamic characters.
  • Cooperative World Building: The cooperative storytelling approach builds a story through joint improvisation. Players feel they have a stake in the story when they participate in building the plot.
  • Roleplaying Hooks: Strong personality and plot hooks established at the start keep the characters involved throughout the life of the campaign.
  • Vignettes: Short, directed scenes allow players to see events from a different point of view.
  • Drama Rewards: Significant, dedicated roleplaying deserves XP rewards.
  • What Your Players Want: Create surveys so you can adapt the game to your players’—and their characters’—requests.
  • Companion Characters: Your story might call for an ally to join the PCs for a time, or maybe they need help in overcoming a challenge you want to use. These rules work independent of the storytelling style you adopt for your game.
  • Making Things Level: Guidance for handling the situation when a character of higher or lower level joins the party.

Vignettes

Add moments of character interaction to your game with vignettes—specially shaped scenes in which players respond to dramatic situations you create for them.

Vignette Types

Vignettes can fill a number of roles in your story.

  • Interactions dramatize current conflicts between PCs or other characters.
  • Flashbacks illuminate past events in the characters’ lives.
  • Dream sequences bring a character’s inner conflicts to life in a surreal mental environment.
  • Transitions leap the campaign forward in time.
  • Third-person teasers use NPCs, portrayed by the players, to foreshadow events that enmesh the PCs.

Interactions

Interactions resolve conflicts that arise during standard play between PCs. Push for resolution cautiously; preserve player autonomy by allowing some interactions to end in standstills. Interactions make useful session starters. They can kick-start a campaign after a long break. Use them as reminders when your planned adventure riffs on a previous PC conflict that might have receded into the background.

Flashbacks

Flashback sequences move the character’s background story into the spotlight for the entire group to imagine. These vignettes can sharpen the portrayal of unfocused PCs by playing out the pivotal moments that shaped their core motivations.

You can also use flashback sequences to introduce elements of the character’s past that later resurface in the main action. For example, if a previously unmentioned old mentor of a PC shows up to send the party on a mission, a flashback can add weight to the idea of their preexisting relationship.

In campaigns featuring elements of destiny or prophecy, flash forward to possible futures that provide a fun variation on the flashback. You might specify that these predictions offer glimpses into an immutable future. You might find it easier, though, to portray these sequences as possible futures (or hallucinations) that the PCs can avert or move toward, according to their actions in the present.

DM’s Workshop: Called to Account

Brom, who believes himself destined for greatness, ended last session with a craven surrender to the bandit queen, Isolta. To explore the gap between his self-image and his actions, you create a dream sequence in which Brom’s hero, the legendary warrior Ambek, calls him to account. You assign Amy to play Ambek, who wishes to convince Brom to follow in his footsteps. Deena also appears in his dream, as Isolta, who argues that Brom, as an ordinary man, took the only reasonable action when he bowed and scraped before her.

You want this scene to pose a question, not to answer one, so interrupt it as it reaches a crescendo. Brom, you narrate, jolts awake in his bedroll, drenched in icy sweat.

Dream Sequences

Dream sequences allow you to portray a PC’s inner turmoil with surreal imagery. The PC stands at one point of the triangle while other players try to pull him in opposite directions. They might play dream versions of themselves, figures from the PC’s past, or surreal personifications of abstract forces. For that matter, the other PCs can shift identities according to the whims of dream logic.

Transitions

Transitions acknowledge the progression of time in the campaign since the last session. They create the sense that the character’s life continues between adventures. In campaigns that use them, transitions can cover long jumps in time, taking the characters through months or years of unseen action.

Transitions require open-ended framing led by player input. Ask the players to describe a conflict that occupied them during the elapsed time period. Together, choose a dramatic moment, and frame a vignette around it. You might construct one vignette per character, or cast vignettes together into a scene of combined struggle.

DM’s Workshop: Illithid Attack

As the kickoff to an adventure in which the heroes fight mind flayers, assign each player a new character to play in a third-person teaser. Each character plays a soldier guarding a frontier outpost. Assign each soldier a name. Half of the six characters work toward a goal that forces them to interact with one another. After playing dice all night, Conrad, Aldfrid, and Ellis have lost their wages to Imric, Oswyn, and Hengist, and the former group wishes the latter group to forgive their debts.

After the players roleplay their temporary characters long enough to make them feel real and engaging, you describe the horrible results of a mind flayer attack on the outpost. Although you allow the players to describe their temporary characters’ responses to the attack, don’t use dice or rules to resolve the results. These poor soldiers have no hope. The two players who can convincingly describe countermeasures survive the longest. The illithid leader, Khardaghk, as played with sinister relish by you, interrogates and toys with the last two survivors. By the time he slays the last of the soldiers, the players despise Khardaghk and want to see him laid low—even though their characters have yet to hear of him.

Third-Person Teasers

Scenes featuring a cast of player-controlled NPCs foreshadow events for their PCs. Third-person teasers provide snappy openers to sessions that might otherwise begin with a gathering of PCs in a tavern.

Dialogue might drive third-person teasers, but they might depart from other vignettes by featuring descriptions of physical action.

For inspiration, look at the opening credit sequences of TV shows, especially openers that feature only members of that week’s guest cast. Horror procedurals, such as Supernatural or The X-Files, start with teasers that introduce an unknown threat to the main characters.

This device allows you to introduce your players to the bad guys before their characters kill them. They learn to dread and loathe the villains long before the climactic encounter, increasing its emotional impact.

Preserve future surprises by withholding information from the players. A monster attack scene might allow their temporary characters to see shadowy figures materialize from nothing and attack. In a scene of political negotiation or criminal plotting, you might not tell the PCs what characters they’re playing.

Third-person vignettes require players who can separate their knowledge of the events portrayed from what their characters know.


Excerpt Schedule

Monday Friday

August 17

Ch 1. Group Storytelling

August 21

Ch.1 Companion Characters

August 24

Ch. 2 Advanced Encounters

August 28

Ch. 2 Terrain

August 31

Ch. 3 Skill Challenges

September 4

Ch. 4 Customizing Monsters

September 7

Ch. 5 Adventures and Rewards

September 11

Ch. 6 Paragon Campaigns