Plot Basics for Dungeon Masters: Complications and Obstacles

In my last article, I started laying out some basics of storytelling for new Dungeon Masters trying to put together their first campaign. I discussed the establishment of the stasis (the status quo of the world of the characters, before it is thrown into crisis) , and the upsetting of that stasis through an igniting incident.

There is no denying the memorable drama that often accompanies such turns in your story, which promise an even more thrilling conclusion down the line. Between that moment of ignition and the final act of your story, though, lies most of your playing time. If you simply skipped to a conclusion too quickly it would lack the pay-off you are hoping for. What’s missing? How do you get from the first moment to the last in a satisfying way? How do you make it feel earned?

The answer is simple: obstacles. On their journey to accomplish their goals, the characters must struggle. Without struggle the journey lacks weight or meaning.

What does this mean for us as Dungeon Masters? How do we use this to our advantage when making a campaign?

The Importance of Stakes

You may already be familiar with the concept of the dramatic curve of a story. If not, a brief explanation: a story begins with a low level of tension and energy, then builds along a set of rising complications to a climax, after which that energy is released in explosive fashion and falls off. This is the basic lay-out of a story, though you can expect multiple climaxes of varying intensity to occur during a well-made story.

How do you adapt this to a Dungeons and Dragons campaign?

By nature, a DnD campaign will not usually take on a focused narrative. The heroes wander and do side adventures unrelated to the main plot, they get into unrelated shenanigans because you have a chaotic neutral rogue in the party, and individual sessions may not even contain a hint of your main plot.

You don’t have to fight this tendency. Being able to make choices about what to further explore in such an open-ended way is the beauty of games like Dungeons and Dragons. Too much of even such a good thing will become bad quickly, though, if you were hoping to forge an epic campaign story and nobody seems interested in following it. What is going wrong in these situations is partly on you as the Dungeon Master; you didn’t provide the players enough reason to get invested in your main plot.

The stakes weren’t high enough.

This doesn’t mean every plot has to be the possible end of the world, but it does mean that you have to give the characters (and by extension the players) reasons to care about what’s happening. You can’t expect them to care just because it’s the plot you came up with.

Raising the Stakes

So how do you make the stakes high?

Along the path to their goal, part of your job will be to manufacture complications for your party. Complications come in the form of obstacles, physical or otherwise, that stand between your party and their final goal. They heighten the tension and raise the stakes, bit by bit, to build you to a satisfying climax.

Think of it this way: You start on a scale of tension, valued 1 to 10. At the start of the story, the tension is sitting calmly at 1. Then, your igniting incident happens, and the tension starts to crank up. You can’t just jump to 10, though! Aside from feeling cheap and unearned, it leaves you nowhere else to go from there. You don’t want to hit that peak moment of energy until the thrilling conclusion of your story.

Instead, you lay obstacles along the path that slowly ratchet up in severity as you build to that conclusion. Perhaps the party has been driven to action against a corrupt local lord. At first, he isn’t even aware of their efforts, which makes the stakes low. It might seem dramatic to have the lord kidnap or threaten the family of one of the party, but this is the kind of action you save for your climax. Instead, you should raise the stakes patiently over time, moving slowly up along that dramatic curve.

First, the Lord learns that the party is working against him and they begin to hear rumors that he is searching for information about them. Next, one of Lord’s lackeys escapes an encounter and returns to him with accurate descriptions of the party. Finally, armed with this new intel, he takes a family member of the party hostage and threatens their life if the party doesn’t turn themselves in. This could all take place over several sessions, and by the time you take the drastic action in the final step it feels earned because you built up to it.

When creating obstacles that complicate the goals of the party, you have to use an even hand. Build step by step patiently, and save your most powerful curve-ball for just before the climax.

Creating Good Obstacles

By now I’ve hopefully amply explained why it’s important to make good obstacles, but how do you do it?

The bad news: There is no one right answer. The myriad of factors that go into what might make a good complication for your story with your particular players make it difficult to pin down.

Here are the basic guidelines I can lay out; ask yourself questions like this when deciding if a complication or obstacle will work well:

  • Does it make sense? Does this obstacle fit the setting I’ve created?
  • Will the party be invested in this obstacle? Do they have a reason to care?
  • Will this raise the stakes for the party? Does the obstacle demand that the party deal with it in order to complete their larger objective?
  • How might the party overcome this obstacle? You don’t need to know all the ways this issue could play out, but having at least one path to success in mind is a good idea to make sure you aren’t backing the party into a corner.

There’s good news too: There are numerous sources of inspiration to pull from, you aren’t working alone. People have told stories since long before the technology existed to record them in writing, and they haven’t shown any signs of stopping. You have thousands of years of human story-telling to draw from. Read stories, watch stories, listen to stories, and try to see how they are complicating the main character’s objectives. Try to understand why it works when it does, and why it falls flat when it doesn’t.

Having a good library of stories under your belt will provide you endless ammunition when trying to craft your own. This kind of work is crucial to advancing any craft, and make no mistake: storytelling is also a craft, not just an art. Learn from the successes and mistakes of others that have come before you, and don’t be afraid to make your own mistakes. That just means you’re taking risks, and that’s the best way to push yourself to grow. Mistakes should be celebrated and learned from.

Another good starting point here would be to get to know the characters your players are bringing (did you hold a Session Zero?) before you even begin. This gives you a well of inspiration to pull from when cooking up your complications, often with baked in NPC connections you can play with. Don’t overuse this resource or you may drive players away from defining relatives or friends that the DM is just going to hurt them with in some way – that’s not interesting or dramatic, it’s just predictable. Make sure to balance these negative moments with plenty of positive moments associated with such relationships so you don’t scare players away from them (and also because that’s just good story-telling).

I’ll list some possible obstacles and complications, from mundane to serious, to provide some more inspiration:

  • The city the players are staying in enters a total lock-down after a very public attack by local extremists. They now have to conduct their sensitive mission with locked city gates, heightened guard activity, and an enforced curfew.
  • The players have a contact in the city of the Lord they are working against feeding them information, an old friend of one of the party. One day, the party stops receiving responses when they try to contact this friend. Have they been captured? Killed? Turned?
  • The party is escorting a caravan along a dangerous road between two cities. They survive a goblin raid, but the food stores are damaged in the fight and there is not nearly enough to go around now.
  • One of the party has a sick sister back home they take care of with their adventuring funds. They receive a letter from the caretaker informing them she has taken a turn for the worse, perhaps pulling the character between their desire to be with their loved one and the mission they have found themselves on.

As you can see, obstacles can take on just about any form you can imagine. The unifying factor is that they stand between the party and what they want to achieve. In each case, this is a challenge that must somehow be addressed in order to move forward.

They can be purely mechanical challenges with mechanical solutions, like the food shortage example. Realistically, any combat or trap you prepare along the path is also an obstacle, albeit a mechanical one. You can raise the stakes with a well-timed combat just as well as with any of the examples above. The party is chasing an individual they know has information they need through the streets when they are set upon by gang members sent to hinder them – if they don’t approach the fight intelligently, their culprit is now likely to escape!

They may be entirely character-driven as well, like the example with the sick relative. They can also be environmental, such as the city-wide lock-down. The possibilities continue to branch out from there! As the story progresses and each player’s investments become more clear, you can more easily pull on the threads you know will speak to each character to raise the tension for them.

Good obstacles raise the stakes of your story, increase immersion and investment for the players at your table, and brick-by-brick build upon the foundation you laid with your stasis and ignition. The better structure you fill out during this phase of your story, the more satisfying it will be when it all comes tumbling down at the end.

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