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D&D character subplots: adding them to your campaign

Updated: Apr 11, 2023

This article continues from yesterday's Seven Character Subplots







Introduction


A role play game, when all is said and done, is a shared story telling experience with some randomisation and chance.


The shared bit is crucial, a rich, vibrant game experience can't be dictated by the DM alone. Players must become involved in the creation of the world and the telling of their own character stories.


So what do you do when you have an amazing campaign planned and one of your players says:


"My Knight character has reached the age that his father died at and the family prophecy says he has to travel to his father's tomb in the mountains to retrieve his sword and defend the family's keep against an ancient evil."


The answer, of course, is roll (or role) with it, and embrace it. With a little deft thinking the two stories can intertwine and create something truly amazing.


This blog is devoted to the glorious creativity that comes when ideas collide, combine and produce new stories.


I. Subplots


When embarking on a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, the DM and players work together to create a rich and engaging narrative that immerses everyone in a shared world of adventure, mystery, and excitement.


One of the most effective ways to enhance this narrative experience and deepen player investment in the story is by integrating character-driven subplots with the main campaign theme.


This approach allows the players to explore their characters' personal stories, motivations, and growth while reinforcing the overarching theme that ties the entire campaign together.

A well-integrated thematic subplot can make the campaign feel more cohesive and meaningful, as the players' characters are not only pursuing their individual goals but also contributing to the larger story.


By delving into these personal arcs and plot lines, players gain a deeper understanding of their characters' motivations and desires, which in turn, can lead to more compelling role-playing and decision-making.


Furthermore, character-driven subplots and plot hooks provide opportunities for players to forge stronger connections with NPCs, factions, and the world around them, ultimately enriching the overall gaming experience.

However, integrating character-driven subplots with the main campaign theme and major plot arcs is not without its challenges. Striking the right balance between personal stories and the larger narrative, as well as ensuring that each subplot aligns with the campaign's theme, requires careful planning and ongoing communication between the GM and players.


When done effectively, this process can result in a harmonious blend of individual character arcs and the main plot, creating a richer, more engaging, and memorable D&D campaign.


In the sections that follow, we will explore various strategies and tips for aligning character backstories with the campaign's theme, generating thematic subplots, integrating these subplots into the main campaign narrative, and fostering player engagement in their character's personal stories.


By following these guidelines, GMs and players can work together to create a campaign that not only tells an epic tale of adventure but also offers a deeply personal and immersive experience for everyone at the table


II. Identifying Your Campaign's Central Theme


Before delving into the process of integrating character-driven subplots, it's crucial to have a clear understanding of your campaign's central theme. The theme serves as the foundation of your story, shaping the narrative's direction and tone, and providing a cohesive thread that connects all aspects of the campaign.


This is general good practice whether you're combining your campaign with a player led subplot or not, as it means you can sum up your story in a one liner (this stops the focus drifting to other narratives which can be saved for another time).

A. Understanding the Core Theme of Your Current Campaign


To identify the core theme of your campaign, consider the primary narrative elements that define it. For example, is your campaign focused on heroism and the struggle against evil, political intrigue and power struggles, or exploration and discovery of a vast, unknown world? By pinpointing the central theme, you'll be better equipped to guide your players in creating character backstories and subplots that align with and enrich the overall narrative.


B. Recognizing Subthemes and Their Relation to the Main Theme


In addition to the primary theme, your campaign may also encompass various subthemes. Subthemes are secondary narrative elements that add depth and complexity to the main theme. For example, a campaign centred on heroism might explore subthemes like redemption, sacrifice, or the blurred line between good and evil. Recognizing these subthemes can help you and your players craft character-driven subplots that not only align with the main theme but also explore different facets of it.


Once you have a solid grasp of your campaign's central theme and related subthemes, you can begin the process of integrating character-driven subplots that complement and enhance the overall narrative. The following sections will provide guidance on aligning character backstories with the campaign's theme, creating thematic subplots, and weaving these subplots into the main campaign story. By taking these steps, you'll create a richer, more engaging, and immersive D&D experience for both you and your players



III. Aligning Character Backstories with the Theme


Now that you have a clear understanding of your campaign's central theme and subthemes, it's time to ensure that the character backgrounds align with and support the overall narrative. This step is crucial because well-aligned backstories provide a solid foundation for creating engaging character-driven subplots that enrich the campaign's thematic depth.


A. Encouraging Players to Create Backstories That Resonate with the Campaign's Theme


To achieve thematic alignment, it's essential to communicate the central theme and subthemes to your players. Encourage them to create backstories and use subplots that resonate with these themes and contribute to the overall narrative. For example, in a campaign focused on political intrigue, players might develop characters with connections to powerful factions, hidden agendas, or a history of manoeuvring within the complex web of politics. By creating characters that are thematically relevant, players will be more invested in the campaign's story and better positioned to engage in character-driven subplots that align with the overarching theme.

B. Tips for Adapting Existing Backstories to Better Fit the Theme


In some cases, players may come to the table with existing characters and backstories that don't quite fit the campaign's theme. In these situations, it's important to work together to adapt and modify these backstories to better align with the central theme and subthemes.


This process might involve tweaking a character's background, motivations, or goals, or even reimagining certain elements of their history in a way that makes them more relevant to the campaign's narrative.


This is the sort of thing that happens all the time with comic book/novel movie adaptations. One character or another is subtly repurposed or reimagined in order to better support the story or tell a different type of story.


Alternately, the clash between the PC's subplot and the main theme might result in interesting chaos, and as long as you can think on your feet and see how that anarchy can be effectively channelled into adventure plot points, it can be useful.

C. Case Studies: Examples of Thematic Alignment in Popular Campaigns and Media


To illustrate the concept of thematic alignment, consider examining popular D&D campaigns, TV shows, movies, or novels that effectively incorporate character backstories into their central themes. By analysing these examples, you and your players can gain a deeper understanding of how to create and adapt character backstories that seamlessly integrate with the overarching narrative, resulting in a more cohesive and engaging campaign experience.


By guiding your players in creating backstories that align with the campaign's central theme and working together to adapt existing backstories as needed, you'll lay the groundwork for character-driven subplots that enrich the overall narrative and provide meaningful opportunities for character development and growth.


A great example of how sub plots intersect with the main narrative can be found in Marvel's MCU. If we look at the example of a secondary character such as Sam Wilson, AKA Falcon, his loyalty to Steve Rogers was unconditional since Captain America and the Winter Soldier. If we imagine the Avengers as a D&D party, he is one of the characters that gets less time and exploration than the others until, of course, Falcon and the Winter Soldier.


When Sam Wilson gets his own story line we learn that he feels unworthy of becoming the next Captain America, and his subplot (his journey to step up and face destiny) coincides with the major theme (the Thanos Snap and its consequences and the world's subsequent post snap chaos). When those two story strands weave together they create a rich narrative and this is why looking to find room for your player's stories alongside your own is so powerful.



IV. Creating Thematic Subplots


With character backstories that align with the campaign's central theme, you can now begin crafting thematic subplots and side plots that delve into each character's personal story while reinforcing the main narrative (this is far more rewarding than relying on random encounters to fill in the time between plot threads). These subplots provide opportunities for character development, exploration of the campaign's themes, and memorable moments that will leave a lasting impact on both the players and their characters.


A. Identifying Aspects of Each Character's Backstory That Can Be Developed into Subplots


To create thematic subplots, start by examining each character's backstory and identifying aspects that can be developed into engaging narrative threads. These could include unresolved conflicts, personal goals, relationships with NPCs, or connections to the campaign's factions and organizations; each adventurer, if they are fully rounded will be to some extent a morally grey character (can it be possible to wield a battle axe and have lived and untarnished life? Unlikely). Exploring this moral ambiguity is the best way to find new plot points or even a major arc, as a specific character's past might return to haunt them. Look for elements that resonate with the central theme and subthemes, ensuring that the subplots contribute to the overall narrative and enhance the thematic depth of the campaign. Unless you want PCs to embark on solo side quests, try to find ways of incorporating the entire party.

B. Ensuring Subplots Enhance and Reinforce the Campaign's Central Theme


When crafting character-driven subplots, it's important to ensure that they not only align with the central theme but also enhance and reinforce it. This means that the subplots should explore different facets of the theme, challenge the characters' beliefs and motivations, and ultimately contribute to the larger narrative in a meaningful way. By focusing on thematic relevance, you'll create subplots that not only engage the players on a personal level but also enrich the overall campaign experience.

C. Generating Ideas for Thematic Subplots and Potential Challenges


As you brainstorm ideas for thematic subplots, consider the potential challenges and conflicts that the characters may face as they pursue their personal goals and navigate their relationships with NPCs, factions, and the world at large. These challenges should tie into the campaign's central theme and subthemes, pushing the characters to grow and evolve while testing their resolve and commitment to their personal quests. By incorporating thematic challenges and conflicts, you'll create subplots that engage the players, advance the characters' personal stories, and contribute to the campaign's thematic depth.


By following these steps, you'll be able to craft character-driven subplots that not only align with the campaign's central theme but also enhance the overall narrative and provide opportunities for character development, exploration of the campaign's themes, and memorable moments that will leave a lasting impact on both the players and their characters



V. Integrating Subplots into the Main Campaign



Once you have crafted thematic subplots for each character, the next step is to integrate them into the main campaign narrative. This process involves weaving the individual character arcs into the overarching story, striking a balance between personal stories and the main plot, and maintaining pacing and narrative cohesion.

A. Weaving Subplots into the Overarching Campaign Narrative


To successfully integrate character-driven subplots, look for opportunities to incorporate them into the main campaign story. This might involve linking subplot events to key moments in the main plot or revealing connections between characters' personal stories and the larger narrative. By intertwining the subplots with the main story, you create a more cohesive and immersive campaign experience that allows players to see the impact of their characters' personal quests on the world around them.


B. Balancing Character-Driven Subplots with the Main Plot


Finding the right balance between character-driven subplots and the main plot is crucial for maintaining narrative cohesion and pacing. While it's essential to give each character the opportunity to explore their personal story, you also need to ensure that the main plot remains the central focus of the campaign. To strike this balance, consider alternating between subplot sessions and main plot sessions, or intertwining subplot events with main plot developments in a way that feels natural and engaging.

C. Maintaining Pacing and Narrative Cohesion


As you integrate character-driven subplots into the main campaign, it's important to maintain pacing and narrative cohesion. Be mindful of the overall campaign arc and ensure that subplot events don't disrupt the main story's momentum. Additionally, keep track of the various subplots and their developments to ensure that each character's personal story remains consistent and coherent within the larger narrative.


By weaving character-driven subplots into the main campaign story, balancing their prominence with the main plot, and maintaining pacing and narrative cohesion, you'll create a rich and engaging D&D experience that allows players to explore their characters' personal stories while contributing to the overall narrative. This immersive campaign experience will leave a lasting impression on both you and your players, creating cherished memories of a shared adventure that resonates on both a personal and thematic level.


VI. Fostering Player Engagement in Character-Driven Subplots


An essential aspect of integrating character-driven subplots into your campaign is fostering player engagement in their character's personal stories. By encouraging players to become invested in their character's subplots, you create a deeper, more immersive gaming experience that leads to memorable moments, strong character development, and a lasting bond between players and their characters.

A. Encouraging Players to Actively Participate in Their Character's Personal Story


One of the key ways to foster player engagement in character-driven subplots is to encourage them to actively participate in their character's personal story. This might involve asking them to describe their character's thoughts, feelings, or reactions during key moments, or prompting them to make decisions that influence the direction of their subplot. It might involve reflecting back to the player what you see in the character 'Thandar is way tougher than that, I doubt he'd flee from a fight with those orcs,' or 'do you think Yellan is really like that? Stealing that traveller's gold seems really out of character, they are normally a lot more principled than that.' Once a player really inhabits the personality of their character, then getting them to think of that character's backstory and its bearing on the present would

B. Creating Opportunities for Character Development and Growth


Character-driven subplots offer excellent opportunities for character development and growth. As the subplot unfolds, challenge the character's beliefs, motivations, and relationships, pushing them to evolve and adapt to new circumstances. This growth can manifest in various ways, such as changes in their alignment, the acquisition of new abilities or skills, or the forging of new alliances. By creating opportunities for character development, you deepen the players' investment in their character's personal story and the overall campaign.


Going back to the previous Marvel example, in the Disney Plus TV show Loki, there are several moments where Loki the character is given opportunities for change (witnessing his own death at the hands of Thanos, finding an affinity with Sylvie). These are moments where the character is able to grow and develop into something new. If characters never do this, then they become lifeless and dull eventually and hard to relate to (just as we all need to change over time, so do the imaginary versions of ourselves).


C. Ensuring All Players Have a Chance to Shine


While it's important to focus on individual character subplots, it's also essential to ensure that all players have a chance to shine and contribute to the overall campaign. Be mindful of spotlight distribution, giving each player opportunities to showcase their character's unique abilities, strengths, and personality traits. By allowing each player to take center stage, you create a more engaging and balanced gaming experience that fosters a sense of camaraderie and teamwork among the group.


By encouraging players to actively participate in their character's personal story, creating opportunities for character development and growth, and ensuring that all players have a chance to shine, you foster player engagement in character-driven subplots and create a more immersive, rewarding D&D experience for everyone at the table.



VII. Adapting and Evolving Character-Driven Subplots Based on Player Choices


One of the greatest strengths of D&D as a storytelling medium is its flexibility and responsiveness to player choices. As you integrate character-driven subplots into your campaign, it's important to adapt and evolve these storylines based on the decisions your players make, creating a dynamic and interactive narrative experience that keeps players engaged and invested in the outcome.


A. Responding to Player Choices and Decisions


As your players navigate their character's subplots, they will undoubtedly make choices and decisions that influence the direction of the story. Embrace these moments and allow them to shape the narrative, adapting the subplot to reflect the consequences of their actions. This might involve adjusting planned encounters, altering NPC motivations, or even changing the course of the subplot entirely. By responding to player choices, you create a more immersive and engaging gaming experience that emphasizes the impact of their decisions on the world around them.

B. Allowing for Unexpected Twists and Turns


As your players make choices and face challenges within their subplots, they may uncover unexpected twists and turns that you hadn't originally planned. Be open to these surprises and use them as an opportunity to add depth and complexity to the narrative. This might involve introducing new plot elements, revising existing storylines, or even incorporating elements from other characters' subplots to create a more interconnected and cohesive narrative.


C. Balancing Adaptability with Narrative Cohesion

While it's important to be flexible and responsive to player choices, it's also essential to maintain narrative cohesion and pacing. As you adapt and evolve character-driven subplots, be mindful of the overall campaign arc and ensure that these changes don't disrupt the main story's momentum or create inconsistencies within the larger narrative. Striking the right balance between adaptability and narrative cohesion will create a more engaging and immersive D&D experience for both you and your players.


By adapting and evolving character-driven subplots based on player choices, embracing unexpected twists and turns, and balancing adaptability with narrative cohesion, you create a dynamic and interactive narrative experience that keeps players engaged and invested in the outcome. This approach to storytelling fosters a deeper connection between players and their characters, leading to a more rewarding and memorable D&D campaign for all involved.


VIII. Reflecting on Character-Driven Subplots and Their Impact on the Campaign


After incorporating character-driven subplots into your D&D campaign, it's important to take a step back and reflect on their impact on the overall narrative, player engagement, and character development. This process of reflection and analysis can help you identify areas for improvement, hone your storytelling skills, and create even more compelling and immersive experiences in future campaigns.


A. Analyzing the Success of Character-Driven Subplots


To evaluate the success of character-driven subplots, consider the following questions:


Did the subplots effectively integrate with the main campaign narrative?

Were players engaged and invested in their character's personal story?

Did the subplots contribute to character development and growth?

Were all players given equal opportunities to explore their character's subplots and contribute to the overall campaign?

By examining these aspects, you can gain valuable insights into the strengths and weaknesses of your approach to incorporating character-driven subplots, helping you refine your storytelling skills and create more engaging campaigns in the future.

B. Gathering Player Feedback


Another essential component of reflecting on character-driven subplots is gathering feedback from your players. Talk to them about their experiences with their character's personal story, asking for their thoughts on the plot's pacing, engagement, and impact on the overall campaign. This feedback can provide invaluable insights into what worked well and what could be improved, allowing you to fine-tune your approach to character-driven subplots in future campaigns.