• Justin Handlin

Story Branching

Listen: Episode 26 Story Branching

Satisfying Dungeons and Dragons stories differ from other narrative forms in one major way: D&D stories don’t follow a single predetermined storyline through a series of turning points. Instead, each turning point presents the opportunity for the story to branch in an unexpected direction. By anticipating branches, you can ensure that the story keeps moving in an exciting and unexpected direction.

A strong branch point engages players and can move the story in two or more directions. In this episode we discuss in great detail leveraging dice rolls to create story branches that enhance the game regardless of success or failure of the roll.

Main Topic: Story Branching

When you call for a check you determine an action that affects the story. Creating a pass/fail branching point.

A successful check lets the PC’s pass the test and gain a benefit. Often releasing any tension.

This carries them to the next turning point.

When they fail a check, or flee they fail the encounter and should suffer any negative consequences.

  • This should increase tension in some way

  • This should still carry them to the next turning point, even one not of their choosing but a result of the roll

Example: A rogue picking a lock and fails his check. Do you continue to ask for checks until he succeeds?

  • No! Instead push the story forward. The check represents that PC’s ability to deal with that particular lock.

  • Maybe something breaks, is damaged, or he just isn’t good enough.

A branch that has a null result and doesn’t move the story forward, can cause players frustration

If players are unable to overcome a road block, there should always be another branch for them to take.

Create strong pass/fail branch points and build up that tension

  • Example crossing a chasm on a tight rope. Let them know the dangers of failure

  • A golden statue is on the other side of a room full of trip wires to temp them and reward their success.

Avoid Dead Branches

When looking at the outcome of two branch points, don’t let either lead to a narrative dead end.

  • Occurs most often when PCs can’t devise a solution to a problem

  • Or with very frequent and petty obstacles are in their path with no real consequence of failure.

If you are unable to device a consequence of failure that can take the story anywhere, it’s ok to allow the players an automatic success

  • Sometimes the players get lucky and the guards are asleep at their post

  • Maybe the bandits they stumble upon just robbed a wagon full of ale and are in a drunken stupor.

Turn all dead branches into a scene that moves the story forward

Branch Encounters

The aftermath of most encounters has two or more branches.

  • Lucky and smart players can often walk away from an encounter without expending too many resources

  • Bad luck or poor tactics in the same way can leave the PCs in worse shape and force them to rest to replenish their resources

  • Or worse one or more players die during the encounter exacting a much higher cost and loss of time.

You can turn these encounters into genuine pass/fail turning points with possible branches for both outcomes.

  • Building a much more difficult encounter against superior opponents.

  • Success leads to branch C that leads to their goal

  • Failure leads to branch B that they must succeed through before they reach desired branch C.

  • Both get you there, but a group luckier or playing smarter will get their sooner.

Additionally -you can have a secondary goal, if achieved in a certain number of rounds the encounter takes a positive turn

  • Success, taking out the dashing kobold before the rest prevents reinforcements

  • Failure, reinforcements show up making the encounter much more deadly

  • Make sure to tailor the branches to each encounter adjusting difficulty if necessary.

Branching Decisions

  • Strongly plotted adventures provide players with a multitude of opportunities to make decisions that generate branch points for the story

  • Not all branching is combat related. Normal interactions also cause branching

  • Which door to go through, choosing an NPC to talk to, demanding to speak with a noble

Players often make unexpected choices

  • Often a DM who prefers to have completely flushed out stories and encounters will often try to nullify a players’ choice and encourage them to return to their script.

  • A DM who can improvise might often let that players’ choice become an opportunity to take the story in a new direction

Strong decision branches give the players a sense of freedom and influence over events

  • When a decision branch lies between action and inaction, heighten the stakes by making both options seem appealing in different ways.

  • Example, a dungeon corridor to the left may smell of rotting flesh and necrotic magic, while the corridor the left may have an echo of an enchanting and alluring harpy’s song.

Unearthed Tips and Tricks: New and reusable D&D content for you to bring with you on your next adventure.

Character Concept:

The weapon lover!

This character has an obsessive attachment to their weapon. So much so, they constantly speak to it- even though it isn’t sentient.

The promise great things for it – ie, oooh I know you want to slice his throat, yes you do…(like talking to a dog)

Or talking to it as if it is a passionate lover. "Oh, I know you want to hit on him, doncha Rosy? You'll get your chance, don't worry."

Monster Variant:

Blazing Skeleton

Origin: Skeleton


Immunity to fire damage.

Set ablaze: The skeleton has set himself on fire. Any creature that starts its turn within 5 feet must make a constitution save DC 14 or be burned for 1d4 fire damage.

Replace Shortbow with: Fire Bolt Cantrip

Flaming Orb: This creature can cast Chromatic Orb(fire type only) once per day.


Medical Emergency

Our heroes are tasked with intercepting a caravan that is carrying an opposing kingdom/cities valuable cargo and confiscating the goods.

Doing whatever must be done to obtain their goal.

Upon arrival, the heroes find the wagons are protected by a mesh of what looks like mercenaries in mix and matched armor and weapons.

What the heroes don’t know is that the cargo is a medicine to help the opposing kingdom/cities populace that is being overrun by a disease.

In addition, the mercenaries in the mix and matched gear are just farmers and medicine men who wanted to help protect the cargo until it arrives. Basically, commoner stat blocks.

What will they do?

Magic Item: Mirror Force Pendant

Wondrous, Uncommon

This intricate silver pendant has a purple crystal as its center piece.

When you cast the spell Shield and successfully defend against an attack, as part of your reaction you can reflect some of the damage back at the attacker. The purple crystal absorbs the force of the attack and converts it to a spell attack with a range up to 30 feet for 1d10 force damage against your spell save DC. A target within 5 feet has disadvantage on save.

Dungeon Master Tip:

Don’t forget about the weather!

When battling near a volcano force checks to save from the heat.

In a blizzard, are they freezing their asses off? Does it affect their fighting?

In the middle of a hail storm does it hurt them or damage their armor or equipment?

In a desert are they still walking around in full plate?

Do the attackers get unseen attacker bonus in heavy fog?

Player Tip: Don’t be a dick! And you can avoid dickitude by...

Keep track of who is carrying shit!

Who is carrying the potions?

Who has the ancient relic recovered from the tomb?

Chest full of treasure?

If you have any feedback, unearthed tips and tricks or topics you would like us to discuss, please send them to us. You can email them to us at critacademy@gmail.com or find us on twitter and facebook @critacademy.

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Keep your blades sharp and spells prepared heroes!

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