Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Dungeon Mastering: Giving Players Control

Although I have been playing Dungeons & Dragons for decades, it was not until very recently that fundamental changes to my style of play began to appear. About a year and a half ago, I joined a game run by a friend of mine. It was set in Eberron and involved a group of characters that would eventually become known as the Hatheril Sheriff's Department. What was important about this game was that the DM did something one session that began to change the way I looked at playing Dungeons & Dragons.

Eberron. Where every race has an identity crisis.
During one session, the party came to a small village as they were heading across the Talenta Plains. The told us that a vast dragon flew overhead, high in the sky. We all thought about this for a moment and the DM suddenly asked each of us if we had seen a dragon before. It was a question with no right answer but it gave all of us an opportunity to think about whether or not our character had seen a dragon before. [Note: Talking to him later, he admitted that although generally no answer was a wrong answer, there would be some responses that would have needed grooming. For example, "Of course my character has seen a dragon! He shared an apartment in Sharn with a dragon for three years!"] The idea that the DM gave players a little bit of control over the narrative was a really great feeling for me as a player.

I have tried to find ways to give that kind of narrative control to players. As I continue to run multiple games, I find new and different ways to subtly (or not-so-subtly) give players the ability to drive the direction in which the story goes. There are different ways to shift narrative control to the players. Some of them are relatively simple while others can quickly become quite complicated. I thought I would discuss a very simple one here: developing character (back)story with players. For a take on collaborative dungeon design, consider reading this article at Dungeon'sMaster.com.

Collaboratively Developing the Character's Story

Today's Forecast: Partially cloudy with a
95% chance of Blazing Inferno.
Having players develop the history and relationships of a character can be an important way to allow players to contribute to the narrative. A lot of groups probably already do it on a basic level by having players write a bit of backstory that the DM integrates into the adventure. That kind of process can even be done as a group. When a new player in my Waterdeep campaign showed up with a character that was the "Chief" Meteorologist of Waterdeep, we spent some time talking about why he left the Meteorologist's Guild to take up a life of adventuring. Between sessions, several of my players were together and came up with the idea of another meteorologist in the guild, a sort of nemesis for our Chief Meteorologist. This nemesis was another meteorologist within the Guild who had lofty ambitions to do more than just predict the weather. Soon enough, this character (who would eventually become a gnome) was named: Chet Doppler.

Although he has yet to appear and threaten the heroes of Waterdeep, Chet Doppler is potential villain that the group helped create. By giving my players control of significant portions of the narrative, I have made my work as a Dungeon Master easier and allowed the players to invest in more than just their own character. Every player that helped contribute to the development of Chet Doppler knows that this is a potential threat lurking on the horizon. When he finally appears to menace Waterdeep, it will be something familiar yet also new. Most importantly, it is something that the players contributed as much (if not more) to as the Dungeon Master.

Giving Power to the Player

There are many other ways to give narrative control to the players. Collaboratively developing backstory, history, and potential enemies and allies is just one thing that shifts the game from being just the Dungeon Master's game to everybody's game. Although this style of more collaborative play may not appeal to every player or group, it can help get everybody more involved with the story of a campaign in a greater way than they may have been normally. For Dungeons & Dragons campaigns that focus on character and story, this can make it a lot more fun for everybody at the table.


  1. Greater involvement is definitely one of the draws for me. City descriptions, even ones I've put lots of thought into, often fall flat, with details either left in the dust or probed for loopholes. This last time around, my players have been building the city with me and are very interested in it, and how it works. I plan to do more collaborative design with them.

    1. Since I shifted the focus of my D&D campaigns to a more collaborative game where everybody helps build the story, everybody has been more interested and has been having more fun. Honestly, it's been an interesting experience infusing more collaborative, story-game features into a typical D&D game.