RPG Table Top

Dungeons and Dragons Advice: How Much Do Players Tell The Story

When people start getting into Dungeons and Dragons, I think one common idea is that the Dungeon Master tells the story and the players follow along. This makes some sense when you look at it from the outside. The Dungeon Master is running the sessions, keeping things guided, but is it the best way?

Player Involvement Benefits

There are some good reasons to have your players involved in the story telling process. The most obvious is that it keeps the Dungeon Master from having to come up with everything. Now, it doesn’t need to be large amounts of involvement. Naming places and NPC’s can be enough to help lighten the load.

Lightening the GM’s Load

But why do you want even that much help? Firstly, it keeps the players more involved in the game. Also, the character that they name, those are probably going to be more important characters to them as players. It helps create that instant connection with an NPC, because they named it. So if you have an NPC that you think will be important, have the players name that one. The same goes for locations, or even backstory for the NPC’s. It’ll make your job easier, and give the players more buy into everything that is happening.

Image Source: D&D Beyond
Directing the Story

To go along with that, it also is often important because the players can help direct the general direction of the story. This piece is a kind of scary benefit in the process. It seems like it should be a very safe one to have, but what makes it scary is that the players, you won’t know what direction that they will go. I said above that the named PC’s will probably be the most interesting ones to them, and it can help you lead the players along, but the players will also pick random NPC’s, plot threads, and more that they will want to explore deeper.

You don’t need to make these things tie into the main plot, but it can certainly tell you what direction the players are interested in taking the story. If you can weave the main plot into what they are interested in, that is going to be even better. Weaving it all together will really create a more interesting set-up for your players and give you a whole lot more buy in on what is happening in the game. It might mean that you need to switch up some of your big ideas for the game, but will also give you more ideas and a more fun game.

Develop Future DM’s

Now, this is less about the current game that you’re in, but there are a lot of DM’s who get stuck in that role for for a long time. This isn’t a bad thing, I love telling stories, and playing Dungeons and Dragons gives me a chance to tell a lot of stories. But having more player direction gives them a chance to flex that story telling muscle and learn the skills to become Dungeon Masters for themselves.

But How Much Is Too Much?

Dungeons Masters are sometimes accused of railroading their players. Railroading is a term where the story is on tracks and it can’t deviate to either that left or the right from what the Dungeon Master has in mind. Players can also railroad their own characters, but that’s a different thing for another time. To the other extreme is the sandbox, where players can do anything, go anywhere, and often times have to find their own story in that.

I personally believe that a good game is going to be a little bit of A and a little bit of B. Players need to have freedom to explore, and stuff like naming NPC’s, directing what they are most interested in, those are important things for long term buy-in in a game. On the flip side, if it’s too open, there are too many options and it’s overwhelming. They can go explore the swamps of despairs, the pits of agony, or the mountains of sorrow, that’s great, but why are they going there? Maybe they’d go set-up a flower shop in the Town of Happiness instead, it seems like a nicer place there. And sandbox, true sandbox, can lead to less of a focused storyline that is going to keep the players engaged.

Image Source: D&D Beyond

So, it’s a balancing act between the two. You want player input because that’ll keep them invested, but hand over the reins too much, you end up with too many choices and the players lose interest because there is no focus. For the Dungeon Master, to become a really good one, I think finding that balance for your group is important. Some groups will want more structure, others will want less, but yes, it is a collaborative journey in story telling at all times.

The Takeaways

To me one thing stands out as being the most important, and that is Dungeons and Dragons being a collaborative process for story telling. Players need input to stay involved, but the Dungeon Master needs to provide story to guide the time. Like I said above, the ratio changes depending on the group, but it’ll always be that way. Even with a convention one shot game, a scenario might be serious one time for one group and light hearted the next time. So even in those cases where the story is heavily planned, the Dungeon Master still needs to be able to adjust tone and other elements as you go along for the group you have. The Dungeon Master needs to take cues from the players on how much collaboration there is, and the players need to take cues from the other players and Dungeon Master as well in this process.

What amount of player collaboration do you have in story telling in your Dungeons and Dragons games? Do you want more?

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