Friday, September 24, 2010

Plot Elements in D&D

Recently on the gaming blogs there have been discussions of sandbox vs. railroading, and how a story isn't an adventure.  I maintain that there are elements of a story that can make a classic adventure.  You just have to remember that prompting is good, railroading is bad.  

In this post, we will examine the standard plot elements found in fiction, and discuss how to apply them to a D&D adventure (or any fantasy game, I'll just be using D&D in my examples for the sake of brevity).  This might be especially important for the novice DM. 

For my example of each, I'll use Star Wars: A New Hope in the bullet points.  The italicized text will explain how to use this plot element in a D&D module.  

This shows off the setting, characters, and other things that are needed to understand the story.  It also sets the tone.

- Darth Vader is a bad dude -- snapping the neck of a soldier on the blockade runner
- Luke Skywalker feels trapped on Tatooine
- Ben Kenobi is a Jedi Knight hiding from the Empire
- Lasers make noise in space in the Star Wars universe
- The tech level is ray guns and spaceships. 

This would be simple enough to set up in D&D adventure.  The trappings of the characters and the place they're in would be sufficient. 

This gives you some kind of hint or clue that will figure more prominently later on as the story progresses.   
- It didn't make the final cut, but there was an encounter with Luke's friend Biggs Darklighter, who was heading off to join the Rebellion, and tells Luke how bad things have gotten.
- During the encounter between Han and Greedo in the cantina, both of them mentioned Jabba the Hutt, who is a major character in the third film, Return of the Jedi.  

The way Foreshadowing usually turns up in a D&D adventure is with a dream or vision.  In some cases rumors are gathered.  They could happen on the scene in the middle of a battle with raiders or orcs or monsters.  Or, in some cases, the dark citadel on the hill is enough to foreshadow evil and danger.

This is a person, place, thing, or event that starts the conflict. 

- The Trigger would be Darth Vader and the Death Star.  More the Death Star, though Vader was a compelling enough villain. 

TSR wanted a villain in every module, at least during the days of 2nd Edition.  This is proven by one fact and one anecdote.  Fact: In the Dungeon Master's Design Kit, you need to to know who your villain is.  Anecodote: A friend of mine submitted an adventure to Dungeon Magazine in the 90s, and it was rejected because it had no villain.  Even though it was an excellent adventure, there was no villain, so it couldn't exist in the D&D canon (grumble).   

You don't need a villain for the trigger.  Events, such as war, famine, disease can be triggers.  A place, for example a Wizard's Tower can be a trigger.  Or how about an evil ring, which turns its wielder invisible? (grin)

A struggle of some kind.  For our purposes, the conflict is usually expressed as X vs. X.  Man vs. Nature, Woman vs. Machine, Man vs. Nature, Outcast vs. Society, Man vs. Self, Man vs. Demon, Man v.s the Gods.  I purposely restructured this classic element to help further define the conflict.

- The conflict in Star Wars is the Rebels against the Death Star, the Rebels against the Evil Empire. 

The conflict in a D&D adventure is the main point of the adventure.  Goblin raiders, bandits, warlords, battling against the unknown, rescuing a kidnapped princess, vengeance, sacrifice, errors in judgment, H.P. Lovecraft-inspired monsters threatening to return, etc.  
Rising Action
A sequence of events based on the Conflict,  starting with the Trigger and ending with the Climax.

- Princess Leia Organa is captured, believed to be carrying stolen plans for the Death Star.
- An escape pod is ejected from the Blockade Runner that contains two droids, one of whom is carrying the stolen plans.
- Luke finds the message from Leia in R2, and asks an old hermit, Ben Kenobi, about it.
- Stormtroopers trace the droids to Luke's Aunt & Uncle, and kill Owen & Beru.
- Luke agrees to accompany Ben Kenobi.
- The group, now including Han Solo and Chewbacca take off from Tatooine and discover the Death Star.  - They are drawn in, but the ship remains captured while they look for Princess Leia.
- Ben Kenobi turns off the tractor beam, but is drawn into a fight with Vader.  Ben loses the fight and is killed. 

Rising Action would be the sections in a D&D module where things really get moving.  The raiders beset a caravan and the PCs draw arms and stop them, the disease claims more lives, a kingdom falls, a warlord marches on the town, assassins come after the PCs, etc.

It is vital to remember that in a story, the events take place in the most dramatic order.  It is necessary in a story for this order of events to be maintained.  Not so in a D&D adventure.  The players should have multiple exits from every encounter, so that they don't have to be "herded" from one scene to the next.  Of course, each scene should also contain clues that help move the action forward.  If they find out that their friend was murdered in such and such a district, they could question neighbors present now, possible witnesses down by the docks (for example), enter the local bars to find out if anyone saw anything or knows anything, talk to their friend's former housekeeper, interrogate their friend's former bodyguard, or question the guard commander who didn't seem too interested in solving the crime. 

Not only should you provide multiple exits, you should also perhaps alter the scenario so that it better fits the PC's actions.  What if the scenario called for them to visit a specific graveyard, and yet they end up visiting another?  Maybe you can subtly alter events so that they can do whatever they were supposed to do in that graveyard.  Maybe the scene doesn't call for them visiting a graveyard at all, and they get a wild idea about searching for clues there?  Maybe you can arrange for them to find a clue there (logically placed, of course), or even invent a clue out of whole cloth to put the adventure back on track.  Never push the players, always subtly guide them.  If the scenario is a chariot driven by the player's actions, if they think it was all their idea in the first place, you've succeeded.

The turning point of the conflict, when enemies meet and the intensity level is cranked up.  This occurs before or simultaneously with the climax.   

- The Death Star travels close enough to Yavin to blow it up.  
- The plans are taken to the rebel base at Yavin, analyzed, and a plan is formed to fire blasters into an exposed exhaust port.
- The X-Wing fighters take off and fend off TIE fighters while heading into the trenches to find the exhaust port.

At this point in the D&D module, it's the endgame.  It's when everything comes to a head and sets up the climax.  The heroes enter the bandit fortress, they have dispatched all the minions and the "boss" shows up, they have the cure or the components to dispel the curse and must now race to a particular location to use them, etc. 

The end result of the crisis, and the high point of the adventure.  This is where the intensity level rises to 11.  It's when the outcome can usually be predicted.   

- Luke hears Ben's voice in his head, and uses his Jedi training to hit the exhaust port square.
- Death Star blows up 

The D&D climax is the battle with the boss monster, or the rescue of the princess, vengeance on the big baddie for the murder of their friend, whatever high octane point you want to make.  Everything is fine once the climax is passed.  It almost always takes place close to the end of the adventure. 

Falling Action and Resolution (Denouement)
These are the events immediately after the climax.  Sometimes combined with the resolution for the end of the story.  This is where the hero goes home, couples marry, a ruler is restored, etc.  "And they lived happily ever after" is a classic example of Denouement.

- They are decorated as heroes. 

In a D&D adventure, this is where the heroes celebrate their victory and mourn their losses.   

This is simply a skeleton that a GM can follow when constructing his adventures.   There shouldn't any issues with story vs. sandbox.  Because, just letting the players run all over willy-nilly can get really old after a time, because the game can degenerate into "let's see how much use we can get out of random encounter tables this session."  Plot is important, but it's also important to let the heroes react to the plot however they wish (as long as the intent is not to wreck the plotline, campaign, or the GM's good graces). 

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