The surging popularity of D&D has given rise to a lot of great campaigns, but I’ve always felt the best part of any tabletop roleplaying game is the act of creating a story with the players. But creating your own homebrew world can be a monumental task, and perhaps nothing is more intimidating than creating a story plot for your adventure. Does it have to be so hard?
There’s a lot written about the basic story plots from the Hero’s Journey to the Six Basic Plots to All Stories. These articles can be great reading, but really, you can boil any story plot down into the three basic acts:
- Act 1: Introduce characters
- Act 2: Introduce conflict
- Act 3: Resolve conflict
And if only it were that easy! We can talk about basic story arcs for hours, but none of it would help with the biggest obstacle we all face when coming up with our own stores: filling in the details.
You Don’t Need to Create Story, You Simply Need to Find It!
Forget your basic plots. A D&D adventure is not a story and the last think you want to do is railroad your players to follow an already established plot. Homebrew D&D is so great because you are creating story as it happens based on the actions of the players, and while a lot preparation is required, too much preparation can actually hinder you as it will make you want to force the players to discover the cool stuff you created.
If you are looking for story, watch Star Trek. Or the Mandalorian. Or Firefly. Or any show that has a small cast of characters (“the party”) and are mostly self-contained stories in each episode. Obviously, a show like Game of Thrones has story arcs that play out over several episodes along with season-long plotlines, so it is harder to derive a basic plot from it. But a show like Star Trek: Next Generation is perfect because it has a roaming party that gets into adventures that are mostly resolved at the end of the episode. And many of the episodes follow a basic story arc that can be transplanted into a fantasy world with ease.
The Wizard’s Request
A strange man with a foreign accent and an odd gait comes upon the party at a tavern beckoning them to meet with his master, a wizard of some renown in the region. “10 gold just for the meeting,” he says. “And I think you will find his proposal even more rewarding.”
The man leads the party to the wizard’s tower where the mage offers them a sizable reward to quest for an enchanted emerald locked away in a dungeon filled with guardians and traps. “And, of course, you can keep whatever you find excepting the emerald,” the wizard promises. He shares basic information about the dungeon including its location but can provide little about the final vault itself. “I only know that no one has been able to solve the puzzle in centuries of trying.”
After several encounters, the party finally reaches the dungeon. They make their way through traps and magical creatures such as gargoyles and elementals until they find the vault itself. Using what clues they have found, they finally break the secret, but when they enter the vault and reach for the emerald, the entirety of their surroundings vanish only to be replaced by… an old, run-down barn.
The wizard is no where to be found, but traces of his illusion can be found. A stack of hay has been decimated by a sword, no doubt the water elemental faced before arriving at the vault. The door to the barn appears newly broken, and even the fields show signs of the adventurer with trampled corn stalks and a destroyed vegetable garden.
It’s a basic story and one that I came up with thinking about how the holodeck might make an appearance in a D&D adventure. The story itself can easily set the stage for an entire campaign where the illusionist becomes the main antagonist leading the party on adventure after adventure as they try to hunt him down and find out what he plans. The illusion itself, they learn, was the wizard using the party to find out how he might break into the vault, but unfortunately, the directions to the vault were incorrect, so the party must first learn of its true location to get a clue to what the wizard has planned.
And that’s just from one episode. The next adventure could come straight out of The Mandalorian with the party being roped into a prison escape in exchange for information about the wizard, only the prison escape turns into a double cross… or perhaps the ‘prisoner’ turns out to be a renowned villain and their escape leads to the party becoming wanted criminals… or the prisoner is also after the wizard because of some wrong deed… etc.
To Find Story You Simply Need to Look For It
The fun part about being the game master is that story is everywhere. Almost any show you watch, movie you see or book you read can become fodder for your campaign. Stuck on how to get started? Think about your favorite movies and how Act 2 (“Introduce Conflict”) started. Why did the characters go on their adventure?
For Luke, he received a message from a captured princess. Perhaps the most cliche of all story hooks and yet it started one of the most iconic adventures in film history.
What about Ready Player One? A D&D version would have the party going on an archetypical quest to find long lost treasure. After finding a mysterious object and consulting with sages, an attempt is made on the party’s lives by masked assassins and dark mages. Thus begins their hunt for who is behind the attempts and what they want. Is the mysterious object cursed and attracting this conflict? Is it part of an epic artifact with world-changing power? Is it a religious object and the characters have angered a lesser god?
The great thing is that your inspiration need not be a high fantasy show. We’ve taken a star trek episode about VR and turned it into a great start to an adventure. The key is to start watching for how the plot begins and how it unfolds and then start putting it into a fantasy setting with your own little twists.
And thinking of story in this way can also help with improvisation. While at times we DMs need to railroad the party in order to start major plot points — they need to follow that odd man back to the wizard’s illusion — we should also create an open world where the players have real choice both in action and direction. It’s a hard balance to achieve and you’ll sometimes need to come up with a side quest on the fly when the adventurers go off the broken path. Random map generators can be handy, but they are best when paired with a basic story.