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How to be a better story teller as a DM

Updated: Jun 18, 2023



1. Introduction: How to be a better story teller as a DM


The Dungeon Master is ultimately a story teller, their role is to create a world for the players to inhabit, to explore and through their own actions to change in some way. A Dungeon Master (DM) is the person responsible for creating and controlling the overall narrative of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. The DM sets the stage for the adventure, presents challenges and obstacles for the players to overcome, and controls the actions of non-player characters (NPCs) in the game. As such, the DM is effectively the storyteller of the campaign, guiding the players through the story and shaping the events that unfold.


The role of the DM is central to the play experience of Dungeons & Dragons, as the DM is responsible for creating the world in which the players' characters live and interact. The DM must be able to think on their feet and improvise as necessary, as the players' actions can often lead to unexpected outcomes. Additionally, the DM must be able to present the story in a compelling and engaging way, using descriptive language and appropriate tone to bring the world to life for the players.


In addition to acting as the storyteller and controlling the actions of non-player characters (NPCs) in a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, the dungeon master (DM) has several other responsibilities. These may include:

  1. Managing the game mechanics: The DM is responsible for ensuring that the game is played according to the rules, and for interpreting and applying those rules as necessary. This includes rolling dice, keeping track of character stats, and determining the outcomes of various actions and events.

  2. Providing challenges and obstacles: The DM is responsible for creating challenges and obstacles for the players to overcome in the course of their adventure. These may include battles with monsters, puzzles to solve, or other challenges that test the players' skills and abilities.

  3. Setting the tone and mood: The DM is responsible for establishing the tone and mood of the game, and for setting the stage for the adventure. This may involve describing the environment, providing background information about the world and its inhabitants, and creating a sense of tension or excitement as appropriate.

  4. Managing player interactions: The DM is responsible for facilitating interactions between the players and their characters, as well as between the characters and the NPCs. This may involve acting as a mediator in disputes, or helping to facilitate role-playing and character development.

  5. Creating and adapting the story: The DM is responsible for crafting the overall narrative of the campaign, and for adapting the story as necessary in response to the players' actions. This may involve creating new plot twists, introducing new characters or challenges, or altering the course of the story as needed.

If you're new to DMing, this is a lot to take in, and it is important to see it as a craft that is learned gradually over time. You wouldn't expect any other art form such as performing music or drawing graphic novels to be something you could just do instantly, and DMing is an equally skilled activity. The good news is that as long as you like to have fun with your players, you can learn on the job and get things wrong as you get them right.


In this post we're going to focus on the art of story telling exclusively, as this is the glue that holds the game session together. If you can't tell a convincing story, there won't be much of a game to speak of. Below are some easy wins, along with some examples of how to put them into practice.


1. Use descriptive language

Describe the sights, sounds, and other sensory details of the environment and the actions of the characters to help players visualize and become immersed in the story.


Example:


'As the players enter the dark forest, they are immediately struck by the musty smell of damp earth and the sound of rustling leaves underfoot. The trees tower above them, their branches twisted and gnarled, casting eerie shadows on the forest floor. A cool breeze whispers through the leaves, sending a shiver down their spines. Suddenly, a twig snaps and the players turn to see a group of goblins sneaking up on them, their beady eyes glinting in the dim light. The goblins hiss and snarl, baring their sharp teeth as they close in for the attack. The players ready their weapons and prepare for battle, their senses heightened by the danger lurking in the shadows.'


Imagine you are describing to your players the movie that they are in, you are giving their imaginations tool clues, hints and prompts that they need in order to create a rich and compelling picture.


2. Create compelling NPCs

Develop interesting and well-rounded non-player characters (NPCs) with their own motivations, goals, and personalities to interact with the players and advance the plot.


Example:


Let's say the players are hired by a wealthy merchant to retrieve a valuable object from a dangerous ruin. The merchant, who we'll call Skaar, hires the players and gives them the details of the job.

To make Skaar a more compelling NPC, you could give him his own motivations and goals beyond simply hiring the players to do a job. Maybe Skaar is desperate to retrieve the object because it holds sentimental value to him and he's willing to risk anything to get it back. Or perhaps Skaar has ulterior motives for wanting the object, such as using it to gain power or leverage over his competitors.

In addition to his motivations, you can also give Skaar a distinct personality. Maybe he's arrogant and dismissive towards the players, or perhaps he's nervous and anxious about the potential dangers of the ruin. By giving Skaar his own personality and motivations, he becomes a more well-rounded and interesting character that the player s can interact with and react to.

As the players progress through the adventure and interact with Skaar, his motivations and personality can come into play and shape the direction of the story. For example, if Skaar is revealed to have ulterior motives for wanting the object, the players may have to decide whether or not they want to continue working for him. Or, if Skaar is anxious about the dangers of the ruin, the players may have to reassure him or try to calm him down. By giving Skaar his own goals and personality, you can create a more dynamic and engaging story for the players to participate in.



3. Establish clear goals and objectives

Make sure the players know what they are working towards and what they need to do to achieve it. Sometimes players just don't know what it is they are meant to be doing. They reach a moment which is similar to the experience of losing the plot of a convoluted movie.


"So why are we going there?"


"Why is the bad guy trying to do that?"


"What's the importance of doing this?"


Whilst having mysteries to unravel is a key part of DMing, having a party confused about what they're meant to be doing and why doing it is important is a real problem in game play and it leads to a demotivated group. Players who don't understand the objectives in the game stop seeing its relevance for their character.


Example:


The players are a group of adventurers who are hired by a wealthy merchant to retrieve a valuable item that has been stolen from him. The merchant tells the players that the item is a rare and powerful magical artifact, and that it was stolen by a group of thieves who are known to be hiding out in a nearby cave. To establish clear goals and objectives, you might give the players a list of tasks to complete:


1. Find the thieves' hideout: The players must gather information and use their skills to locate the thieves' hideout in the cave.


2. Infiltrate the hideout: Once the players have found the hideout, they must figure out a way to get inside without being caught.


3. Retrieve the artifact: The players must search the hideout and find the artifact, which is being guarded by the thieves.


4. Escape with the artifact: Once the players have retrieved the artifact, they must escape from the hideout and make their way back to the merchant with the artifact in hand.


By breaking the task down into clear and specific goals and objectives, the players know exactly what they need to do to complete the quest and achieve their goal. This helps to keep the story focused and gives the players a sense of direction and purpose. The example here is obviously very simplistic, but if you are running a long and complex campaign, you might want to break each section down into tasks and goals that the PCs can focus on, whilst clues and information about the bigger campaign emerge bit by bit.


4. Use foreshadowing and hints

Drop subtle clues and hints about future events or plot twists to keep players guessing and engaged.


Example:


Imagine that the players are investigating a series of strange occurrences in a small village. They have heard rumors of a group of thieves operating in the area, but they have no concrete leads. As they explore the village, they come across a group of children playing a game of tag. One of the children is wearing a strange mask and seems to be avoiding the other players.

As the players approach, the child with the mask runs off, leaving a trail of footprints in the mud. The players might follow the footprints and eventually come across a hidden underground lair where the thieves are storing their loot.


However, the child with the mask is actually a member of the thieves' gang, and the mask was a way of communicating with the other members. By leaving the footprints and drawing the attention of the players, the child was actually trying to lead them away from the lair and throw them off the scent.

The use of the mask and the footprints as subtle clues and hints can foreshadow the presence of the thieves and create tension and suspense as the players try to piece together what is going on.


5. Use nonlinear storytelling

Mix up the order of events and allow players to explore and make choices that affect the outcome of the story.


Example:

Imagine the players are a group of adventurers who have been hired by a wealthy merchant to retrieve a valuable artifact from a long-abandoned temple. The merchant has provided them with a map and a description of the artifact, but little else. As the players explore the temple, they encounter various challenges and obstacles, such as traps, puzzles, and monsters.


As they progress, the players have the opportunity to explore different parts of the temple and make choices that affect the outcome of the story. For example, they might find a side passage leading to a room filled with treasure, but it is guarded by a powerful monster. The players must decide whether to fight the monster or try to find a way around it. Alternatively, they might encounter a group of NPC thieves who are also searching for the artifact. The players must decide whether to cooperate with the thieves or try to outsmart them.


By giving the players multiple paths to take and allowing them to make choices that shape the story, the DM can create a more dynamic and interactive experience for the players. This can help keep them engaged and invested in the story, as they feel that their actions have consequences and that they have some control over the direction of the game

6. Employ conflict and tension

Introduce obstacles, antagonists, and other sources of conflict and tension to create drama and keep the story moving forward.

Example


The players are traveling through a dense forest, searching for a rare and powerful magical artifact. Suddenly, they come across a group of bandits who are also after the artifact. The bandits demand that the players hand over any information they have about the artifact's location, and threaten violence if they refuse. This creates conflict and tension between the players and the bandits, as the players must decide whether to comply with the bandits' demands or risk a fight. The situation becomes even more tense when the players discover that the bandits are working for a powerful enemy who will stop at nothing to get the artifact for themselves. The players must now decide how to deal with the bandits and their employer, creating even more conflict and tension as they try to achieve their goal of finding the artifact. So, this is an example of how introducing obstacles and antagonists can create conflict and tension in a story


7. Use dialogue and role-playing

Encourage players to role-play and interact with NPCs and each other through dialogue and social interactions.

Example:


The players have just arrived in a small village where they are seeking information about a mysterious artifact they need to find. As they enter the town square, they are approached by an NPC named Marcus, a friendly but nosy innkeeper.

DM: "As you enter the town square, you see a group of people gathered around a well in the center. A man with a round, friendly face and apron approaches you, a look of curiosity on his face. 'Welcome to our humble village,' he says, extending a hand. 'I'm Marcus, the innkeeper. What brings you folks to these parts?'"


Player 1: "We're on a quest to find an ancient artifact that we believe may be hidden somewhere in these lands. Do you know of anything that could help us?"

DM: "Marcus's eyes light up at the mention of an ancient artifact. 'I might know a thing or two about that,' he says, lowering his voice conspiratorially. 'But I can't just give away information like that for free. I run a business, you know. Perhaps if you were to buy a drink or two at my inn, I could let you in on a few secrets...'"


This interaction gives the players an opportunity to role-play and interact with Marcus through dialogue, using persuasion or other social skills to try to get information out of him. The DM can then respond to the players' actions and decisions, continuing the role-playing and building the story through the players' interactions with Marcus and other NPCs


8. Use props and handouts

Use physical props, maps, and other handouts to help players visualize the story and make it feel more tangible.


Example:


Let's say your players are exploring a ancient temple that is filled with traps and puzzles. You could create a physical map of the temple and give it to the players, along with a handout describing the different rooms and their features. As the players move through the temple, they can refer to the map and handout to help them visualize the layout and understand the challenges they are facing.


You could also use physical props to help bring the temple to life. For example, you could create small models or miniatures of the traps and puzzles and place them on the table as the players encounter them. You could also use props such as candles, incense, and other decorative items to help set the mood and atmosphere of the temple.


Overall, using physical props and handouts can help players feel more connected to the story and more immersed in the game world. It can also make the gameplay more interactive and engaging, as players can interact with the props and handouts directly as they make their way through the temple


9. Use music and sound effects

Use music and sound effects to set the mood and atmosphere of the game.


Example:


Imagine that the players are sneaking through a creepy abandoned mansion. You could play some eerie music in the background to set the mood and make the scene feel more suspenseful. As the players move from room to room, you could also use sound effects like creaking doors, footsteps on creaky floorboards, and distant whispers to add to the atmosphere and make the players feel like they are really there.


You could also use music and sound effects to contrast with the mood of the scene. For example, if the players are in a bustling marketplace, you might play some lively music and use sound effects like the clinking of coins, the chatter of merchants and customers, and the sound of carts and animals to create a vibrant and lively atmosphere.


Overall, the use of music and sound effects can really help to enhance the immersion and atmosphere of the game, and can be a powerful tool in a DM's storytelling toolkit



10. Take breaks and switch up the pace

Vary the pace of the game and take breaks to give players time to rest and process what has happened so far


Example:


You're running a D&D campaign in which the players are exploring a mysterious, ancient temple filled with traps and puzzles. The players have been working their way through the temple for a few hours, and you can tell that they're starting to get tired.


To give them a break and switch up the pace, you decide to take a short break and have a snack. You also use this opportunity to describe the temple in more detail and give the players some time to think about their next move.


After the break, you introduce a new puzzle that requires the players to use their wits and problem-solving skills. This helps to break up the monotony of simply moving from one room to the next and keeps the players engaged.


Later in the session, you decide to give the players another break and have them stretch their legs. This gives them a chance to relax and regroup before tackling the next challenge.


Overall, using breaks and varying the pace of the game can help keep players engaged and prevent burnout. It's important to find a balance and make sure that the game doesn't drag on for too long without a break, but also to make sure that the breaks don't disrupt the flow of the story too much.


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