- Broke: DMs are/aren't storytellers and that's the only correct way to play
- (most sensible people recognize this is a childish take)
- Woke: There are many different playstyles that are all equally valid, and you should try to just figure out the one you prefer and then go find players who agree
- (this is what most sensible people settle on)
- Bespoke: A good DM can achieve a game that both keeps player agency perfectly intact and features a good amount of "emergent story" from the simulated world and has a DM-prepared plot that unfolds and wows the players with their storytelling prowess.
- Caveats before I get started
- Theory about story structure and scenario structure
- Tools I'm recommending you use
- Finally, use Princess Mononoke as a detailed example to illustrate all this. Full spoilers, by the way.
- Challenges to making this work
- The villains are an evil cult going to do a ritual where they sacrifice the princess to Tiamat, and the players are trying to stop it. The players arrive in the ritual room just in the knick of time! ...Regardless of whether they teleported straight there, worked through the dungeon room-by-room, or spent an extra two days doing sidequests in town first. Miraculously, no matter what they chose to do, they would burst in the room at the exact moment that the knife's point was mere inches from the princess's throat.
- The party comes to a fork in the road. They pick a direction, go that way, and find the dungeon. Either way they picked, they still would have found the dungeon, but not because the two paths converge again. It was just one of those awful "Quantum Ogre" situations, although I'm choosing an example of greater consequence than a mere "random encounter."
- Although the original example is slightly more complicated and adds a twist that is also relevant here: the ultimate goal the DM has for the players is decided to always be in the second place they check, so that way the DM can make sure the party will encounter the ogre first no matter which way they choose. Still robbing players of the chance to make informed decisions that have an effect on the results.
- Even worse is "palette shifting." The PCs choose a road, see the dungeon from afar but dislike the looks of it, backtrack and pick the other road, and encounter a "different" dungeon instead whose interior is secretly the one which the DM had planned to be used originally!
There are things that are legitimately outside the players' power to influence, and it's absolutely fair for the DM to be using those world elements.
|Art Credit: kit-kit-kit|
See, there's an old adage in storytelling that "villains act, heroes react." I find it especially common in the superhero genre, where the activities of the heroes are usually just crime-fighting, and thus, responding to crimes being committed. In most heroic adventure stories, the conflict is instigated by the villain. A lot of the time, the audience is presented a status quo that is basically peaceful and just, and the villain is a disruptive force that must be stopped. Of course, you don't have to write adventure fiction this way, and in many cases, the opposite has been done. The heroes find a treasure map and are inspired to set forth on their own journey. The hero wants to enter a martial arts tournament to prove themself. They're an intrepid entrepreneur who wants to start a ghostbusting business. Or maybe the status quo is unjust and the world is a dystopia and the heroes decide to start a rebellion. In any of these situations, you are likely to find the villains reacting to the heroes instead of the opposite, like the EPA getting pissy at the Ghostbusters. But even within those narratives, they can sometimes still introduce a villain that is proactive and forces the hero to suddenly be the "reacting" one during the third act, like the ancient god Gozer needing to be stopped by the Ghostbusters. Hollywood-style villains lend themselves really well to the "villains act, heroes react" method.
- A timeline is literally a schedule of events that'll happen in your game at predetermined times. They can be actions taken by NPCs or environmental changes or whatever. They're not sacred. Should the PCs' actions disrupt what the timeline's plan is, then the PCs' actions take priority. In fact, that's one way to confirm that their actions have an impact: you can literally tell (or maybe show) them what would have happened if not for their choices.
- However, a timeline is "anchored" to specific points. It's not merely a list of scenes you plan to have. The relationship of one event to the next isn't just, "after we're done with this moment, we'll do this one next" or something. Their pacing is totally independent of player actions. If the cult is scheduled to sacrifice the princess at midnight, then it happens at midnight no matter where the PCs are. If they're too slow then it'll come and go and that princess will be dead by the time the PCs get there.
- If you've played Blades in the Dark before and you're reminded of clocks, then be warned that I'm not talking about those. Yes, clocks visually appear like timekeeping devices and are named as such, but they're actually ways of tracking progress on something. They only fill out with the passage of actions. A timeline's events will pass on their own regardless of actions.
- Thus, in order to make use of a timeline, you'll also need some way of firmly tracking the passage of time. This isn't as hard as you'd think but it's definitely not something most people are used to. If you've never done it before, I know it sounds like a pain but I assure you that the payoffs are way better than you realize.
- Your timeline can be really complicated if you'd like. If you've ever played The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask then think about the Bombers' Notebook. It's a ledger with the schedule of every single character in Clocktown tracking their locations and activities for every hour of a 3 day period. Skerples' heist adventure Kidnap the Archpriest relies on a very similar tool for the DM in order to help you run the complicated scenario in which the PCs have their opportunity to, well... kidnap the archpriest.
- Of course, if the actions of the PCs do derail the timeline, then that's what you have those NPC motivations written down for. When the plan fails, you can just fall back on their base motivations to figure out what they would do in a situation they didn't account for. Of course, if you're trying to run a very intelligent villain then you might make multiple timelines for different possibilities, but you'd be surprised how reliable it is to just use the motivation alone. At least, it's usually enough to get you through the end of the session so you can take a breather and start thinking about the villain's new plan come next session.
- The timeline also contains things that you (the DM! The person with meta knowledge!) already know aren't going to be "according to plan." While I've introduced this idea in the context of villains having motivations and plans, the timeline as a tool of the DM is not necessarily the timeline that the villain has written up for themselves. It'll contain things that would surprise them just as much as the PCs! But if the villain does have a plan that can be broken into steps, then those should be seeded into the timeline appropriately among everything else. You may also prepare moments of the villains' plans being disrupted as part of your intended sequence! Just understand that this is probably unnecessary since the players will handle that just fine.
- A map of the adventure area
- A list of characters and factions, with all their normal stats defined but also a motivation given for each one
- A timeline of events that will happen by default AND a list of events/scenes that are likely to happen under various circumstances
|Ashitaka, former prince of the Emishi clan.|
He's been cursed because of the damage done
to the Forest by humans, and is seeking a cure.
He's our "player character."
|The Spirit of the Forest, AKA the Nightwalker. It's|
more of a plot device, and is completely passive.
It can grant and take life, but if it were to die itself
then the whole world would go to shit.
|Lady Eboshi, the leader of Iron Town. She has a|
body guard named Gonza and a small army
of riflemen. Eboshi wants the iron extracted
from the forest in order to maintain her power
and independence, despite the damage it does.
|The people of Iron Town. They want safety and|
to not have to return to their old lives. The women
used to work in shitty brothels, and many of
the people are afflicted with leprosy. They're all
completely loyal to their leader, Lady Eboshi.
|...San, AKA the fabled "Princess Mononoke"|
who is a human raised by wolves. She's totally
loyal to the Forest side but isn't always on the
same page as the rest of the wolves.
|The Wolves, led by their mother goddess, Moro.|
There are only like three of these but that's enough
to make them one of the most powerful factions
involved. They want to protect the Forest Spirit, but
they also want to protect...
|The Boars, led by their god, Lord Okkoto.|
Just like the picture says, they want to kill
humans and save the forest. They're much
dumber than the Wolves, but have an army.
|The Apes, who are on the side of the Forest|
Spirit but are generally very passive and
fatalistic. Their general strategy is to plant
new trees faster than Eboshi can cut them
down. They'll also fight humans if the chance
|The hunters, who are (presumably) loyal|
to the Emperor and will carry out his orders
without question. They're fairly ruthless. They are
introduced through Jigo, who is given command
|Jigo, a mercenary disguised as a monk. He's|
pretty much just an opportunist looking to
get rich, with no true loyalties to anyone.
|The Samurai, led by a daimyo named Lord Asano.|
Asano himself never actually appears on screen, but
he's been sending his samurai to attack Iron Town
in order to conquer it and take its riches for himself.
- The inciting incident! Ashitaka was just vibing in his home village when a crazy boar demon came in, wrecked shit up, and passed its curse onto him. Of course, this is a classic "Villains Act, Heroes React" where the PC didn't really have a say in what today's adventure would be. Not my personal style, although it's worth noting that the thing the PC is reacting to isn't really a "villain's action." It's more like the PC is prompted to react to a situation, and when they do, they'll discover all of these other NPCs/factions who are each proactive-yet-unconcerned with him personally.
- The Wolves attacking the rice shipment to Iron Town near the beginning of the movie. Ashitaka isn't present for this but he sees the fallout of it. Eboshi injures Moro and a couple villagers get thrown over the cliff. If there wasn't a personal conflict between the Wolves and Iron Town before this, there definitely is now. So the DM prepares two scenes to follow from this: Ashitaka briefly meeting San and the Wolves and Ashitaka encountering the surviving men who fell from the cliff. The first scene results in the Wolves telling him to get lost and the second one results in him rescuing the villagers, who then tell Iron Town all about how awesome he is. Once again: the outcomes were not predetermined, but the setups were.
- San trying to assassinate Lady Eboshi in the middle of Iron Town. This literally interrupts what the PC is already doing and could not really have been influenced by their actions. The reason the result is "everyone lives and goes back to their corners" is only because the PC is present, intervenes, and manages to get that result. If he'd been anywhere else at the time, Eboshi would probably have been killed.
- Lord Asano's samurai attacking Iron Town. This was probably "scheduled" to happen at the very first opportunity that the village was left undefended. It's hard to even imagine how this could have been influenced by the PCs since Lord Asano lives somewhere totally off the map!
- The boars choosing to attack Iron Town. Look, there was already conflict between the forest and Iron Town before the PCs showed up, and violence is the default answer all these bitches use. Not to mention, the boars are already an aggressive and proud warrior race, and they're getting stupider by the day! They explain in the movie that one of the effects of the forest slowly being destroyed is that the intelligence of the animals is also being reduced, making them more primal and having poorer judgment.
- Jigo teaming up with Eboshi. The audience (and the PCs) don't realize it when Jigo is introduced, but the whole reason he's traveling the same way as Ashitaka and knows all this stuff about the Forest Spirit situation is because he's already secretly on a mission to go there and chop its head off. The Emperor hiring Jigo to do this happened off-screen, and it's a pretty predictable thing for Jigo to look at what's going on and see a more natural ally in Eboshi than the wolves or boars or whatever. The flimsier part is Eboshi joining with him. Ultimately, she does so because she believes that if she helps deliver to the Emperor what he wants, then the Empire will send people to protect her from Lord Asano. It still ties into her core motivation I described above, but puts her at slightly higher risk than her previous plan of just "continue cutting down trees, extract iron, and find a way to kill those wolves." On the other hand, there's a short scene where she's shown explaining to her women that she doesn't trust Jigo and is making contigencies for the alliance going poorly, so that makes this event all the more believable and likely.
- Lord Okkoto being turned into a demon. As stated above, it's almost inevitable that at some point the boars were going to attack Iron Town, and I also believe it's almost inevitable that Lord Okkoto would get shot in the process. 1) They're a proud warrior race, so they put their leader up front, 2) they're fighting an opponent who uses guns, which we're told is the thing that transforms gods into demons, and 3) he's fucking blind. Wherever this adventure has the stat blocks written out, there better be a "Demon Lord Okkoto" in there. That's not railroading, that's just common sense.
- The players fail to prevent San from killing Eboshi. As I said before, this is really more like the default situation if the PCs had done literally anything differently or been anywhere else. So in this group's game, Gonza is made the new leader but everyone is angry and unstable and he leads everyone into their deaths at the hands of the wolves and boars. Lord Asano takes advantage of this and successfully takes Iron Town for himself, now with enough power to directly challenge the Emperor.
- The PCs kill and rob Jigo at the beginning. They find some letters from the Emperor, including a promise of reward for killing the Forest Spirit. They decide to pursue this themselves, thinking the same immortality that the Forest Spirit's head will grant the Emperor could also potentially cure them of their own curse.
- The players join the attack on Iron Town, fighting alongside Lord Okkoto, the boars, and San. With their help, in this version the forest army is actually victorious! Okkoto never becomes a demon, and instead the people of Iron Town flee and submit to the rule of Asano in his own shitty domain. Then the PCs face the question of maybe looting the remains of Iron Town for themselves, and think about setting up there (with San probably feeling quite conflicted about it).
- The players kill Lady Eboshi just before she pulls the trigger, successfully rescuing the Forest Spirit. Once again, Iron Town will be unbelievably angry and hungry for revenge, but while there will be a temporary lull in the conflict (that appears as though the Forest factions will be fine, since the spirit has been successfully defended after all), the ensuing retaliation by the townspeople will be much more effective now that the boars, Lord Okkoto, and Moro are all dead. Of course, that lull will be a crucial moment for the PCs to possibly influence things differently once more!
- PCs are not as unpredictable as you think. This is a meme about D&D that needs to fucking die already. If you say, "I've tried to have a plan before and the PCs immediately derailed it!" then you probably had a bad plan. You were probably thinking like a screenwriter: "here's how I want things to go down based on the ideas I have for what would be most dramatic!" You need to think like the simulationist: "here's how I think things would go down based on what I know about the world, what my players will know about the world (at that point in time), what their desires are, and what they're most likely to do in order to achieve their desires." If you want that series of events to look dramatic and cool, then you just arrange a situation in which the players will naturally do things that are dramatic and cool! And no, players do not always act rationally and pragmatically. But they do act in ways that can be learned fairly easily. If you have a PC who likes setting shit on fire and then running away then you'll pick up on that pretty quickly. And you'd be a fool if you didn't also include contingencies in your plan to begin with. Half of your "plot" should be statements that go, "If the players try X, then Y will happen" with the top three most common X's accounted for at every crucial moment.
- The "plot" you have in mind should have built-in flexibility anyway. In my Halloween adventure, I merely planned for an encounter between the bullies and the PCs at Wolf Creek at 7 PM. I didn't plan for who would come out of it on top. You would do better to prepare a direction for the adventure rather than outcomes of it. You can arrange when confrontations, twists, and climaxes will happen without compromising player agency, but deciding for the PCs the actions they'll take within those situations is where you go too far.
- And for fuck's sake, stop assuming the PCs will overcome every challenge you throw at them. Never assume victory. And fuckit, never assume failure either. Prepare for both! Prepare for something in the middle! Why don't people do this more??