Tuesday, February 10, 2015

D&D: Monomyth Structure & Campaign Design

Even if you’ve never heard the term monomyth,” you are in all likelihood already familiar with at least some of its aspects.  Also called “The Hero’s Journey,” the monomyth is the story structure that underlies most ancient mythology and which has more recently served as the foundation for more than a few of pop culture’s most enduring and iconic stories.  The most famous and explicit of these is the original Star Wars trilogy, but the form can also be found underpinning the structures of various books and films, including The MatrixHarry PotterPercy JacksonAlice in Wonderland, the “Smallville” version of SupermanCaptain AmericaThe Hunger Games, and pretty much every other story in which the hero’s mentor dies tragically somewhere around half to three-quarters of the way through the story.  

The story of Heracles is one of the earliest
examples of the monomyth structure.
The monomyth works as because it’s part of our shared cultural language.  We’ve been brought up on it since the Greeks first started telling stories about Heracles around their shared camp fires some three thousand years ago.  It’s ingrained; it’s part of what makes us who we are.  As such—and because of its inherently mythological structure—the monomyth seems like a natural fit for a Dungeons and Dragons campaign.

Before we get to that, though, I’d like to take a minute to close out last week’s discussion of Angelic Pact Warlocks.  I got the following comment from Jonathan over on G+:
Going into this article, I was skeptical because I generally believe Warlock patrons are subversive at best and malefic at worst. I am inclined to believe that a beatific entity would not engage in such a one-sided deal with a mortal, so I tend to reserve this sort of power transfer for Paladins and Clerics.

Each pact has a price: Soul, Sanity, Beauty (in the case of the playtest fey pact)

So I thought, what would an angel want in return for power? Life. In exchange for power, the angel puts the warlock's life at risk. The angel constantly puts the warlock at odds with his earthly foes.

The angelic pact is a death sentence and the warlocks only hope is that he/she doesn't suffer too long. The angel doesn't consider the life of a warlock any more than we consider the life of an ant. This turns the angelic pact warlock into every bit a tragic character as an infernal or fey pact warlock.
I like that.
I was a little surprised last week to see the number of people who liked my vision of the Angelic Pact because it gave them a chance to play a Warlock without getting into the demonic aspects of the class.  Jonathan’s comment, though, brings things back to what I think is a more reasonable footing.  The Warlock class comes with a cost.  Your Character may think that he/she can grow powerful enough to escape that cost, but the entity granting the pact is at best neutral to your overall prospects.  This is as true of angels as it is of fiends or fey lords.  Perhaps you’ll be the one-in-a-thousand that escapes his/her fate, but don’t expect anybody to celebrate if you do.  For the entity granting the pact, you are a means to an end and nothing more.  
Let’s keep that in mind as we talk about the monomyth, which is itself inherently celestial and mythological.  Just as angels are the potential prime movers of an Angelic or Celestial pact, so to can they be the first step along a potential Hero’s Journey.
Cover art for
The Demon Queen's Enclave.
The monomyth may be a natural fit for D&D, but as a matter of reality, I can think of very few published adventures which use its structure.  In fact, the only one that spring immediately to mind is the 4th edition adventure The Demon Queen’s Enclave, and while I really liked that one, even it misses some of the essential story beats.  The monomyth may be a classic structure with obvious applications to D&D, but it is not necessarily easy to adapt into a workable campaign.
What is the monomyth?
It’s a story structure with elements common to mythology.  There are several versions of greater or lesser complexity, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s take the one that my daughter’s sixth grade class uses:
  • The Ordinary World – The hero exists in a mundane world where he or she doesn’t quite fit.
  • Call to Adventure – The hero learns about his/her quest or destiny.
  • Entering the Unknown – The hero leaves home to explore a strange, new world.
  • Supernatural Aid/Mentors – A wise old man gives our hero direction.
  • The Road of Trials – The hero travels, and Things Get Worse.  The hero grows into his/her role.
  • Allies/Helpers – Along the way, our hero meets up with some buddies.
  • The Supreme Ordeal – The hero must use his/her superpowers to overcome evil.
  • Restoring the World – The hero is now a Hero.  He/she restores some supernatural order and may even ascend to another plane of existence.  He/she may also just ride out of town on a slow horse.
A cursory glance shows that most D&D uses at least some of these elements, and indeed, the entire 4th edition was predicated on the idea of the journey from mundane hero to demigod on another plane of existence, but there are very few campaigns that use all—or even most—of this structure.  Still, the monomyth is iconic; it’s worth at least discussing how we might adapt its parts to suit our needs as cooperative storytellers.
The Ordinary World
For the monomyth structure to be effective, it’s important to set the heroes up in an ordinary environment in which they’re frustrated.  This is the part where Luke doesn’t want to be a moisture farmerwhere Harry Potter is stuck living beneath the stairs at his aunt and uncle’s house, where Katniss and her family are slowly starving in District 12.  If life were good, our heroes would have no reason to go looking for adventure.
D&D typically tackles issue with Backgrounds and Story Hooks, but these are treated more as origin stories than as a basic part of campaign structure.  You could, perhaps, encourage your Players to develop Backgrounds that play into the idea that Something Went Wrong and then they had to leave home, but these will not automatically be compelling, and in any event, it’s not a storytelling solution, it’s a solution that relies of a simple retelling of events without emotional resonnance.  It won’t do to have our party sort of milling about, unmotivated save for the fact that Cousin Frodo wants to have their help opening the local mine.
Speaking personally, my go-to for this is always to make my PCs broke.  I start them out with some amount of gold that is just under what they absolutely think they need to survive, and then I make sure that their living expenses are as high as they reasonably can be.  If you start in the Apprentice Levels, you may also add some anti-mentors, grizzled old men who belittle the party with no discernable upside, but in that case, you may wind up with a fight.  Granted, this may well give your party a reason to Get Out of Town.  Likewise, more experienced Characters can often be had through political intrigue or some form of basic unfairness.  In any event, if you want to take a cue from monomyth structure, don’t start from a place of contentment.  Make the present uncomfortable, and give your heroes a reason to look for change.
The Call to Adventure
Perseus is a classic hero of
Greek myth.  His story is an example
of a Monomyth.
This is the part where the heroes learn about their quest or destiny.  It doesn’t have to be supernatural, but it frequently is.  Harry Potter learns that he’s a wizard in a moment that is quintessentially mythological, when the half-giant Hagrid comes to his door to pick him up.  By contrast, Luke learns that he’s the son of a space wizard around a cup of coffee in an old hermit’s house, and Katniss hears her Call when her sister’s name is picked at the Reaping.  The Call can come in many forms.  What’s important is that it’s the part of the story where the heroes realize that things can no longer continue as they have.  Something must to change, and it is the heroes who will have to change them.
For what it’s worth, Demon Queen’s Enclave handles this so beautifully that I stole a part of it and ran it in one of my home games a few years ago.  In DQE, the drow Zirithian has become a vampire in the service of Orcus.  He seeks to become one of Orcus’s Chosen, and to this end, he devises a plan to sacrifice the PCs, then in the Paragon Tier, to his god.  Orcus doesn’t mind, but neither will he help.  Zirithian either succeeds and becomes a Chosen, or he fails and loses his soul.  Zirithian therefore invades the party’s dreams as a way to egg them on, showing them visions of death and avarice, hinting at what he has in store for them and leaving the way open for them to come and find him.  It’s a beautiful if wicked Call to Adventure because it’s inherently supernatural, and it leaves the party with little choice but to confront their tormentor.
For those looking for a place to insert angels into their story, the Call is a good place to do it.  Calls frequently come via dreams, but that’s not necessary.  Good old fashioned celestial visitations also work well, as will demonic visitations if your game has more of a wicked bent.
Entering the Unknown
This is a part that D&D ought to handle well but which is easy to muff.  To be honest, it may be a little easier in the movies.  Luke enters the cantina at Mos Eisley; Harry Potter sees Hogwarts for the first time; Katniss and Peeta spend a week on a train eating more food than they’ve ever seen in their lives, and then they’re ridden into the capital on a flaming chariot.  
The key to this phase of the story is making it weird.  This is not home.  This is new and dangerous.
Again, DQE handles this very well.  There is a whole collection of disconnected encounters meant to show how strange the Underdark can be.  We get giant mushrooms, a cavern of fire, refugees from the Far Realm…  There’s a lot there, and it works.  As a DM, I can understand getting impatient to get to the meat of your story, but as a storyteller, spending time in setting the tone for the adventure is almost always worth the effort.  Players have no way of seeing the world their Characters inhabit except through the DM’s showing it to them.  This part in particular is critical to the success of your entire campaign.
Supernatural Aid/Mentors
This isn’t so much a phase of the story as it is a requirement of its structure.  Many D&D campaigns will feature elements like this, though they usually come via NPCs and allies and less as actual mentors in the Obi Won Kenobi mold.  Lately, D&D has added these elements via its use of factions, and in fact, that is what DQE does as well, but I think that’s a distortion of what’s implied by this part of the story.  I would prefer to see more meddling from angels, artifacts, and/or other divine-but-not-necessarily-benevolent extra-planar entities per our opening discussion.  D&D is a magical experience, and as storytellers, we need to find ways to reinforcing the inherent supernatural elements.  Giving your Players a chance to join the Harpers is not as effective as having an angel of Bahamut appear to tell them that the Platinum Dragon is watching their efforts as they go forth to rescue the princess.
While we’re at it, this is why angels are good as a means of divine intervention but involving the gods directly is not.  It’s about maintaining that sense of mystery in your story.  The gods are like the man behind the curtain.  Given a choice, you’d rather maintain the illusion of the Great and Powerful Oz.  If you choose to make this a call-back toyour Call to Adventure, you’ll begin to develop a theme you can return to again and again throughout your story.
The Road of Trials
D&D is fundamentally organized as a series of combat and non-combat encounters that together form a Road of Trials.  This is nothing new, and any adventure you read is going to contain this element.  DQE is built this way, as well.  You journey to the Underdark, enter the drow city, fight your way through, pass beyond the portal into the Shadowfell, journey to the citadel of Zirithamon, and then fight your way to his stronghold.  Along the way, you find treasure and potential allies and enemies.  It’s standard D&D in almost every facet.
I would argue that the party structure of D&D covers this aspect of the Heroes’ Journey in perfect detail, but as we noted above, many adventures give the party additional chances to find allies, join sometimes helpful factions, and generally exist as a part of the wider world.  These elements are not, strictly speaking, the allies that this aspect of the monomyth intends, however.  Allies and Helpers are guys like Han, Lando, and Chewbacca who round out the Hero’s party and help on his/her adventures.  
The Supreme Ordeal
We could also call this the Boss Fight and leave it at that.  It’s not missing from most D&D, nor is it hard to add in.

There can be no triumph without struggle.
Restoring the World
One of the important issues in the monomyth is this idea that the Hero transcends the mortal realm, becoming more than he/she has been.  In this, some ancient supernatural element is usually restored.  For example, Luke destroys the new Death Star and becomes the foundation for a new Jedi order.  Katniss becomes the inadvertent leader of a civil disobedience movement, renewing the fight against the hated Capital.  Harry Potter restores freedom to the world of British wizards.  Whatever it is, it’s an important part of the mythos that the world is changed by the Heroes’ struggles, that things will not be the same, and that part of the reason is that the Heroes’ themselves will never be the same.
If you want your campaigns to feel epic, you need to find a way to show how the world changes because of what the heroes do.  This can be simple denouement, or it can be truly mythic, leading to some kind of Epic Destiny.
If we’ve learned nothing else, this discussion has shown us the importance of involving the supernatural, and not just on the side of the evil.  Making use of supernatural Call to Adventure will lend an epic element to your story that you can call back to later in order to keep the stakes high.  As we noted at the beginning, we can use angels or other supernatural elements to achieve our ends, and this does not have to be because angels are nice guys with the party’s best interests at heart.  
"I mean you no harm."
There are a lot of ways to use elements of the monomyth to make your game more interesting.  Whether or not you choose to invoke the elements discussed above, knowing what they are can only make you a better storyteller in the long run.
Like this article?  Check out Sneakatara Boatman and the Priest of Loki, available now for the Kindle.

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