• Justin Handlin

D&D: Storytelling is NOT just the DM's job!

Updated: Feb 20

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Storytelling in Dungeons & Dragons is NOT just the DM's job!

"Storytelling is the DM's job!" Although this is a commonly held belief, it could not be more wrong. Everyone at the table has a hand in storytelling, whether he or she is aware of it or not. As a player, you don't have the most obvious role in telling the story, but at the end of the day, the story is about you.

Sure, you can play D&D as a tabletop game of tactical combat, but that overlooks the singular opportunity that roleplaying games offer, to collaborate in the creation of a story that stars you and your friends. In the long run, the impact of these shared stories outweighs any memories you might have of rules, tactics, or treasure.

It's nearly impossible to play a game of D&D without a story creeping in somewhere even when you're not really trying all that hard. In fact, the very rules of the game nudge you towards those classic heroic stories.

Fortunately, you don't have to construct this narrative alone. The DM, your fellow players, and even the random fall of the dice all contribute to the story as a whole. But what is it you can do to help add to the story beyond what’s determined by the DM?

As a player, you should recognize the power at your disposal. In contrast to the all mighty DM, the arbitrator, the narrator, etc of the game world, your power is often overlooked. The DM may decide what you see, but only you decide where you’re going, what you're doing, and what has your attention. May not sound like much, but it's a fantastic way to influence the world around you.

Example from the player tip in episode 78 Campaign Themes. If your party finds themselves in a city with hundreds of people, it's likely that the DM only has a few of them fleshed out in the context of the story. For instance, if you ask a random merchant about his family, the DM's response, either off the cuff or scripted forces a response. So if for example the merchant states he doesn't have a family, you can ask why? What happened to them? If they were killed, when and where? By whom? Your questions help make the world feel alive.

By showing the DM what parts of the world interest you, you also assist them in fleshing out details that are of interest to you specifically. Of course, don’t ask about things you don’t care about, otherwise, you’re just wasting everyone's time. But if you tie these to your character's priorities, you in a sense can directly create the world and self-tie in your character with the world. The more time you spend interacting with a part of the world, the more important that aspect of the world becomes the story.

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Taking the Bait!

We often find that there are some players who go out of their way to ignore hooks tossed out by the DM, the “My character wouldn’t do that.” springs to mind. Others, just are oblivious. This can stop the fun-dead in its tracks.

You need adventure hooks to go on an adventure. This is why you are here after all. When a hook is presented, take action. This action leads to adventure, the adventure leads to experience, experience leads to treasure and that leads to great stories. Choosing to dodge a DM’s hook not only can lead to a less prepared module but waste the DM’s time and effort on what they’ve prepared.

Create your own Hooks!

Don’t like what the DM is offering? This happens often if the DM prefers a certain aspect of the game, such as combat, and cares less for things such as exploration. If you prefer to engage in more politicking for example, and your DM doesn’t toss that at you, come up for a reason for your group to visit a Duchess of the court. If you’re a rogue or maybe a noble, you could have easily heard about a spy ring infiltrating the city. Sharing this idea with the DM is a very direct method of what you would like to see.

These hooks don’t have to be complex, just enough to give the DM info on what you would like to see. Too much detail can leave little wiggle room for the DM. This can make them less interested in your idea. But a simple “Hey, I would love to chase some slave traders into the Icewind Dale.”

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Other examples:

Hunt an exotic or legendary monster! Haven't you always wanted to fight a dragon or a beholder?

Locate someone who can train you in an unusual talent This can be an in-world excuse for learning a new feat or ritual, multiclassing.

Join an organization! It stands to reason that powerful groups in the world of D&D would ask prospective members to prove their worth in fantastic ways.

Narrating Spells/Skills/Features/Actions!

When you narrate an action instead of naming the power and rolling a die, inject a bit of personality into the attack. A player can declare that his or her fighter is taking the attack action against an enemy, or the player could describe how the character shifts her grip on the axe and swings a wild haymaker toward the foe. Although the first gets the point across, the second is more compelling and is more likely to keep the attention of everyone at the table.

You can really spice up even your spells by including the material components, arcane focus, or a simple touch description in the casting. (Our GUN Mage does this)

“I cast Magic Weapon”, it's a touch spell. So not much room to work with right? Wrong. Tie your race or backstory into the effect. Your Triton runs her webbed finger down the blade and a tiny spectral shark appears to circle the blade.

This will quickly become known to the group and you will never have to say “I cast magic weapon” again.

As long as the rules of the ability stay the same, it doesn't matter how you describe it. Be careful of including the outcome before it’s decided though.

You can even go further, instead of something like magic missile, maybe it’s not bolts of arcane energy. Maybe it's laser vision, which is why you never miss. Or maybe your kenku summons a flock of ravens that slam into the enemy kamikaze style. As long as you don’t change the effects, for the visual portrayed, anything goes.

This applies to actions as well as spells. What does your character do when they take the dodge action? Maybe plant their tower shield into the dirt and hide behind it? Does the fighter take on the more invasive windstance, with their blade pointed out in front of them defensively? Maybe the wizard puts up a temporary magical barrier.

These descriptions are a great way to convey a character's personality as well. This can even be done with mundane tasks such as drinking a potion. Does the noble sip it like a warm tea? While the barbarian swallows the entire vial, breaking the glass in its teeth?

Keep in mind, as with all things, it can be overdone. Don’t go into a one-minute-long narrative of drawing your blades.

Customize your gear!

Your gear isn’t just a collection of numbers. By taking a few minutes to describe the look of your item and imagining what story lies behind it, you turn a block of game statistics into a part of the world.

Sindori carries a dirk honed from obsidian that formed in the midst of two powerful mages slinging spells that impacted each other. Making the ground harder than any steel. It sits inside of scabbard that bears her family’s elven crest passed down for generations.

Remember when playing any roleplaying game, just because your DM hasn't created a story for every item that appears in the campaign, doesn't mean those stories don't exist. Writing up a few details for your newly found +1 pact dagger turns it from a collection of numbers into a part of the world.

Related Article: Enhance Lore and Exploration Pillars with Different Types of Puzzles

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