Tuesday, January 27, 2015

D&D: Campaign and Story Structure via the Lost Mine of Phandelver

After last week's article on the Infernal Captain's Pact, I thought briefly about doing some more work on the Hellknight concept.  It would be fun to play against type.  We could build the Hellknight as an infernal oath for Paladins and perhaps also design that melee Warlock build we discussed last week, either as a Pact of the Glaive or, more likely, as a new entity pact, perhaps the Angelic Pact.

Angels are amongst my favorite D&D monsters.
The problem with this is that it's not necessary.  You can already build a melee-based Warlock without issue, you just have to take some care with the build.  Spells like Hex do not discriminate between melee and ranged attacks, and the Pact of the Blade already does pretty much everything that we might wish from our Pact of the Glaive.  I still wish we had a spell like Searing Smite in at least one of the Warlock pacts, but if that's the only change we're going to make, it hardly requires an entire article justifying pacts with angels.  Ditto for adding Burning Hands to the Paladin's Oath of Vengeance by way of creating a Hellknight.

My wife and I went to Two Roads Brewery on Saturday, and while we were waiting for our friends, I asked her what she thought.  Sally sees this stuff differently than I do, and--I don't think this is a secret--a lot of what I write goes through the lens of her perspective before it actually hits the page.  Sally cares a lot less about the fantasy aspects of D&D than I do, but she likes the fact that the game allows our family to engage in collective storytelling.  She likes that it gets us all playing make-believe together.  With that in mind, she suggested an article about writing and the way story structure interacts with D&D.

I like D&D for a couple of reasons.  As an engineer, I like the mathematical aspects of it, the way it uses simple statistics to model fantastical elements with at least a cursory attempt at realism underlying much of the math.  I also like the sheer fantasy of it, the swords and spells and all of the allusions to classic mythology.  My homebrew setting isn't a lot different than the Forgotten Realms in many ways, but I like it better because it's grounded a little more firmly in actual myth and in more realistic geo-politics.  However, my favorite thing about D&D overall is the way that the game is a collective storytelling experience.

The Adventures of Hiro Arturian,
 is one of my favorite comic
projects, but it looks far different than
I'd initially envisioned.
When you script a comic, you come up with a plot and dialogue, but you then hand that stuff off to an artist.  He or she then interprets your vision in ways that you could never have imagined.  The result is both different and better than anything you could have come up with on your own, though the experience of scripting requires a certain flexibility of mind if you want to be successful.  A good comic writer embraces fully his or her artist's interpretations of the work, making changes where necessary to create a cohesive whole.

Writing an adventure and running it for a group is similar.  It helps to have an idea, a basic story structure, and a grasp of scene and sequel structure in mind, but more than that, you need to be able to roll with the punches and adapt your creation as your players interact with it.

Ideas are easy.  Everybody has ideas.  The question is: How do we adapt those ideas for our games?

That's where story structure comes in.

There are several basic story structures that can work for a Dungeons and Dragons campaign.  Three-Act structure is perhaps the most famous, but my favorite is one I learned at a writing class in Manhattan, the ABCDE structure.

  • A: Open on Action
  • B: Background
  • C: Conflict
  • D: Development
  • E: Ending
Most successful stories follow this format in some way.  Granted, you do not have to follow them in order, but I often do because I find it to be a useful way to build plot.

Let's look at the pieces using "The Lost Mine of Phandelver" from the D&D Starter's Set as our base.  If you're not familiar with it, "Lost Mine" is excellent.  We played through about half of it while we were in Maine over the summer, and everyone in the family thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

**Warning** Spoilers ahead!
Warning:  What follows is written from the Dungeon Master's perspective.  There are lots and lots of spoilers for the "Lost Mine of Phandelver" in the text below.

Open on Action
The goblin ambush at the start of a campaign has become a cliche because it's effective.  It works because it hooks the Players immediately.  Not only are they instantly involved in combat, fighting for their lives and living the "cool" parts of D&D, they also become emotionally invested in the events that have threatened their Characters' lives.

"Lost Mine" opens with an ambush that leads to a short dungeon crawl through a goblin hideout.  There's a little backstory as lead in, but even if you totally ignore the backstory beforehand, this opening tells you all you need to know.  Goblins are trying to eat us, and oh hey!  There's a human in here, and he wants to hire us after we're done.

This is the part of the story where we find out what's going on.  It's tough because you want to give your Players enough information upfront that things make sense, but at the same time, it's supposed to be their game.  You don't want to monologue for half of your session.  This is why it's good to Open on Action, if not with a goblin ambush than with something else, and go from there into "what's really going on".

We get most of the Background in "Lost Mine" from Sildar Hallwinter, and we get the rest from walking around town asking questions.  It turns out that the Rockseeker brothers just opened up this mine, but nobody's sure where they went.  Also, there's a band of ruffians in town called the Redbrands, and they may have something to do with all the damned goblins outside town.

"Lost Mine" succeeds beautifully with Background because you can learn enough to get you started in Phandalin, but you don't learn everything, and learning it doesn't take very long.  Figuring out how the clues all fit together is a substantial part of the campaign.  Unsurprisingly, we see this device frequently in successful fiction.  Correctly executed, it becomes a "slow reveal".  As an example, almost every episode of the old TV show The X-Files worked as a slow reveal.

I often think that Conflict is of a piece with the Background.  At the same time we're learning "what's really going on", we're also learning what we have to do to solve the mystery.  The essential questions at this stage are: "Who's the bad guy?"  and "How do we win?"

Conflict is of a piece with Background in "Lost Mine".  We get background from Sildar Hallwinter, but we also get a mission--find the Rockseekers.  We also get work for some of the factions operating in town.  It's enough to get us motivated and moving towards the greater goals of the campaign.

For lack of a better description, Development is "when things get worse".  This ought to be the meat of our story.  In fact, it's supposed to take up at least 80% of our total campaign.

Development is a particular challenge in writing for RPGs because the party--the heroes--need to win most of the time.  Typical scene structure makes copious use of disasters, of complications that occur because things went wrong.  This develops tension and drives the story forward.  In Star Wars the heroes escape from the Death Star, but it's only because the Empire is letting them go.  Darth Vadar and his cronies are tracking them back to the rebels' hide out.  This leads to the monster showdown at the end of the movie.  But in D&D, the PCs mostly win fights, defeat monsters, and collect treasure.  They go from  glory to glory, and if we're not careful, there's not a lot of overarching suspense.  The game can become little more than a tactical simulation of High Rennaissance fantasy combat.  That's not bad, per se, but it's suboptimal.  A better game keeps the stakes high by making things worse on an ongoing basis.

"Lost Mine of Phandelver" has some very good developments.  For example, it's a good twist when we learn that the wizard Glass Staff is really Iarno, the supposed friend of Sildar Hallwinter.  Likewise, the druid Reidoth might know the way to Cragmaw Castle, but he's hiding in an abandoned town that's overrun by zombies, and oh by the way, there's a dragon up on the hill!  Did I mention the crazy-assed cultists who want to make friends with the dragon?  That whole section is terrific.  Thundertree is easily my favorite part of this campaign because of the number of complications that occur as the party strolls through town.

Unfortunately, Development loses a little focus after that.  There's a whole section in the book called "The Spider's Web" that has almost nothing to do with the Black Spider and the quest to find Wave Echo Cave.  Things don't get worse here so much as they go sideways, sending the heroes off on a bunch of side-quests that are entirely optionally because, bottom line, they don't actually matter.

Fortunately, business picks back up once we get through Cragmaw Castle.  We find Wave Echo Cave, and that's when the finally twist occurs.  It turns out that we're not only looking for a rogue drow wizard, but the silly bastard is actually hiding in a cave that's teeming with the undead!  This leads to an interesting three-way contest between the party, the drow, and the spirits inhabiting the cave for control of the vaunted Forge of Spells.  As with the town of Thundertree, this ought to be pretty darned engaging if it's run right.

After all the twists have turned and all the disasters have befallen, finally we come down to the finale, the bit where there's no more tricks.  It's do or die.  

Spoiler Alert: the Black
Spider is a drow.
I often find myself wondering if a finale is exciting enough when I'm writing, but in reality, the excitement of the finale is built in Development.  It's exciting if the heroes are invested.  If they've had to fight their way through Hell to get here, then there's very little chance that the final victory will be anything other than memorable.

We haven't played through the ending of "Lost Mine" yet, and while it looks well conceived, I think that my favorite part of it is the way that the Players' strategy impacts the course of the overall campaign.  If the party charges straight in and lets the Black Spider set the terms of the final engagement, they're left with an extremely difficult fight that they can--perhaps--win.  However, if they make good use of stealth, they may pick off the Spider's allies one by one, leaving him isolated and relatively alone at the finale, which then plays out more on a strategic level than a tactical one.  This is not bad, nor do I think it would be anything less than very interesting.  Even in total success, I expect the party would see the traps that they've avoided and get the feeling that it was only their cleverness that had saved them.  That's a certain kind of ending all on its own, especially in a story where Development was executed successfully beforehand.

Applying Story Structure to your Home Campaign
What have we learned?

 -- It's a good idea to open with a fight.  This doesn't have to be a goblin ambush, but it's better to drop your party into something interesting than it is to let them meet up in a tavern and go looking for trouble on their own.

 -- When you lay out Background and Conflict, decide ahead of time what your Players need to know and what you want to make them work for.  Give them enough to get started, but don't lay everything out.  If necessary, remember that people lie.  Having characters lie to each other is a good trick, both in writing and in D&D.

 -- Development means making things worse.  Your party is going to have its share of triumphs.  Spend some time thinking about ways to set them back, too.  If necessary, play off the lies you told in Background to set them up for failure.  Remember, a hero is only as good as the crises he or she overcomes.  The meaner you are in Development, the more triumphant your Players ultimately become.  Plan for failure, and think about ways to turn success on its head.

 -- When it comes to an Ending, almost anything will work if you developed your story correctly.  Big boss fights are fine, but endings that turn on cleverness are also highly satisfying.

That's all we've got.  I hope you found it helpful.  If you've got questions, feel free to drop them below.
Like this article?  Check out Sneakatara Boatman and the Priest of Loki, available now for the Kindle.

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