Turning Numbers into Narrative

I’ve been running a lot of classic Rules Cyclopedia Dungeons & Dragons lately and it was very evident that published modules were very very different back in those early days of D&D. A lot of adventures provided a rough framework which is then parsed through the rules by the DM who then painted the results into a picture for the players. The level of involvement for the DM was much higher than today, where each encounter is so meticulously detailed that even the novice DM should have little trouble presenting things to the players.

Neither the old or the new way is right or wrong, though people have preferences I’m sure. Instead of comparison though, I want to offer some advice to DMs from both eras on how to take dry numbers, and convert them into a fuller narrative picture.

A basic example

In D&D there are a lot of random elements which help to keep the adventure unpredictable, with the side benefit of making them more replayable. Among the random elements are:
* Wandering Monsters — a chance that a native monster might wander by.
* Reaction tests — How do the monsters react to the party.
* Surprise tests — Is the monster and/or the party caught by surprise in the encounter.

In a recent adventure random roles determined that the party had run into a group of four kobolds who had surprise on the party. Kobolds are vicious little murderers but they also tend to be cowards. The dice said that four Kobolds would attack the party with a round of surprise, but the party was full of plate mail wearing well armed fighter types who outnumbered the kobold party. Attacking would be suicide for the kobolds even with the element of surprise.

As the kobolds were native to the dungeon I assumed they know where many other denizens live. In this case, the kobolds knew of a group of bandits just down an arm of the T-junction. The kobolds scurry of and make a deal with the bandits, who alone wouldn’t have had a chance against the party either.

The ‘bad guy’ plan was simple; if the heroes turn left at the T-junction then they can be attacked from behind using the bows the bandits had. If they turned right, the band of bandits and kobolds would combine strength and share the loot, with each planning to backstab the other of course.

The point of this example is that rather than taking the Wandering Encounter at face value, which would lead to some boring dice rolls and a few dead kobolds, I chose to allow the kobolds to think and plan how to best use their position. This led to a more challenging encounter still well within the PC’s ability but which felt more interesting for all involved.

Who, what, where, when, why?

The rules to building better narrative, and for managing encounters on the fly, is the same method used by authors and many other creatives to ensure a scene is properly evolved. Also known as the five Ws. In the above example we can break things down as follows:
Who — Greedy but cowardly kobolds vs well armed PCs
What — What can the kobolds do in the situation, especially as they have surprise?
Where — The kobolds know where they are and who else is near.
When — As they plan their attack with the bandits the bad guys decide they will attack when the party turns at the T-junction
Why — Because they are greedy and a group of adventurers is a walking treasure trove.

Thinking about and applying one or more of the Five Ws will help you swiftly calculate how to sculpt any encounter to what’s happening in the game session, rather than feeling trapped by what the written adventure says should be happening.

Being able to move with the flow of the game while creatively manipulating the key elements is at the heart of good DMing. Whether you are using a store brought or home brewed adventure, it’s important to always recognise that you are starting with a guideline on how the adventure should be run, not a religious text to which the dogma must be adhered.

Taking it to your own Adventures

The Five W’s should also be carefully considered as you write your own stories. I remember creating dungeon adventures a few years after getting into D&D. I’d have monstrous labyrinths that filled A3 sized fine graph paper. While there was usually a theme or key boss encounter, the majority of the dungeon was populated with things I thought would be ‘cool’ but which lacked any thought beyond that.

Over time I learnt to apply an ecology to every adventure. Everything had a purpose, a place, and a means to survive. Rather than being boorish and limiting creativity, it actually expanded it. Once players caught on, they began to study each ecology and thus each and every adventure became a puzzle to be unlocked. Players became more excited by each discovery, and things evolved from a hack & slash into deeper more involved roleplaying experience.

Chekhov’s Gun

Chekhov’s Gun refers to a element of writing proposed by the author Anton Chekhov. In simple terms it says that if you include something in your writing, it must have a purpose in the story. Anything you mention, such as a gun hanging on the wall, makes a promise to the audience that it will be used.

While I see the point of this, I disagree with using the principle in roleplaying. For a very long time roleplaying modules adhered to this principle, and if the GM mentions something in a description, then it must be important. Applying Chekhov’s Gun works fine for simple hack and slash stories, or stories where you want to keep things simple for the players. However, it completely destroys adventures which require investigation, intrigue or indeed, any form of problem solving.

In adventures with deeper roleplaying, players should be invited to see everything as a potential clue. It’s their task to separate the clues to find the truth. This is where applying the Five W’s to your narrative becomes vital.

To provide another example; I was running an intrigue adventure involving murder and such. I described to the party in graphic detain how the walls of a room were splattered in blood, and how shreds of flesh hung from furniture around the room. None of that scared the players of course, as they are used to such gore. What terrified them was that one chair beside the bed was completely free of gore. Also free of gore and folded neatly on the chair was the maid uniform of the maid whose blood provided the graphic backdrop. What was so scary? It said a lot about the meticulous intellect of their foe, and that meant this would be no simple hack and slash.

Ultimately you have to cater to the players you have, but you’ll help those people become more mature players if you take a moment to use the numbers as a guide to better story telling, not as a tool to hide behind. I’ve known many DMs who have claimed the TPK wasn’t their fault, it was the fault of the dice. Dice provide a tool to arbitrate actions, they should never have the final say as to how a story plays out, that’s a sacred trust between the DM and the players.