Where do I start?
That’s a question I’ve seen many new Dungeon Masters asking when making their own campaigns. How do you push the party to action? How do you introduce plot threads without feeling heavy handed? Hopefully through guides like this I can demystify the process a little by explaining some basic storytelling wisdom I’ve picked up along my journey.
The formula I’m laying out in this article isn’t the only way to structure a story, but it’s the most common and easiest to wrap your head around.
To kick off, we’re starting in the most logical place: the beginning.
The Four Parts of a Story
Broken down to the most essential elements, there are four basic phases to a story. I’ll talk in detail about the first two today, but I feel it’s good to see the whole picture before you get into the details.
First, you establish the stasis. That is to say, you let the audience spend some time with the characters and world as they would usually be on a typical day. This gives you a chance to establish your setting solidly before the complications of the plot throw your world into disarray.
Next, you throw the characters into crisis with an igniting incident. This is the event that breaks the world you established out of that stasis, forcing the characters to act. This could be as grand as your main villain’s introduction or as innocuous as a letter from a distant relative asking one of the party to come to their city.
Once the characters have been set into motion, the third phase of the story begins as you throw them complications that prevent them from accomplishing their goals. You continue ratcheting up these complications to raise the stakes until…
The conclusion. This is the moment the characters either do, or dramatically don’t, achieve their goals. It’s what you are building to during the rest of your story, and should tie up as many loose threads as possible in a satisfying manner by the end.
You could also include a fifth phase here if you want to be technical; the resolution. This is the moment the characters return to their now-back-in-stasis world carrying the consequences and lessons of their journey with them. In a DnD game, you’d probably be handling this in a campaign epilogue rather than in a typical session.
These are basic guidelines, and of course not every story will follow them – but when you strip away most stories to their barest skeleton, this is what they look like underneath all the dressing.
Establishing the Stasis
This first step feels insignificant, but the foundation you lay here will be crucial to future steps of your story.
As a dungeon master, you will find yourself grappling with a problem other storytellers lack – the main characters in the story are entirely out of your control. If you play your cards right, though, this becomes an advantage.
At it’s best, creating a campaign with a group is an act of collaborative storytelling. Every person involved will leave their fingerprint on the result. A lot of the pressure in establishing a good stasis is actually going to be on the players, not you, as they fill out their backstories. There are steps you can take to encourage this, such as holding a session zero to meet and discuss the world and character ideas, but you can’t force a player to do this.
What you can do here is listen carefully to any character backstory details that you are given, perhaps talking with players before the game to get a good sense of the character each will be bringing. You can mine these backstories for good first adventure hooks to provide your initial ignition.
Most of your work on this front will be in creating the first location your players will be visiting. This is usually a town, in which case taking the time to think about the current state of affairs there and the opinions of the locals on various matters will go a long way. Spending preparation time on aspects like this also lends more depth and believably to your world, preventing situations where you don’t know what to say when the party approaches Random Farmer #3 that you have neither a name nor a character ready for.
Let the players spend a little time in that world, getting to know it and each other. I would usually recommend creating a party that already knows each other for simplicity, but you could also take the time here to have everyone meet up. You could even fit one or two short adventures in here before your main plot ignition, as the heroes solve minor issues in the area. This would be an excellent way to get the group to bond before throwing the pile of shit you’re hiding behind the screen into the fan.
The Igniting Incident
This is when it gets fun.
Let the party get comfortable, let them feel out the world and get a sense of how their characters fit into it.
Then, when they feel safe, light the match.
The igniting incident doesn’t have to be overtly dramatic at first, but it does have to upset the balance of the party’s world in such a way that drives them adventure. Most obvious would be the introduction of a major villain here, carrying out the beginnings of some nefarious plot. This is far from the only way to light a fire under your party, though.
Maybe there has been a famine in town. The crops were struck by a strange blight and the food stores are low. The party goes to the next town to get supplies and finds that they, too, have had a terrible blight on their crops. As the party journeys further out and finds more and more fallow fields all over the kingdom, it becomes clear that there is a larger plot at work here.
An igniting incident can be personal, too. Perhaps one of the party members receives a letter informing them of an inheritance from a relative they weren’t aware of. When the party goes to claim it, they find that that relative had been embroiled in some deeper plot and acquiring their estate unexpectedly swept the party into the whole mess. They find themselves suddenly wanted by various criminal organizations, and must unravel what that relative did to clear their names and secure their safety.
A good ignition doesn’t have to be grand in itself, but it should throw the party on the trail of your main story thread. It must be a strong offer the party feels they must take. This is where knowing your party helps, too. An ignition out of step with the character’s goals is likely to fall flat. If you have a party less concerned with doing good and more concerned with making money, the igniting incident involving starving villagers is unlikely to catch much attention.
Never forget, as you move forward, that you are not the only storyteller at the table. You are a guide. The players, too, are there to tell the stories of their characters within the context you provide.
When you build your story it isn’t in a vacuum; it must account for the characters each player is bringing and what they are looking for from your campaign.