How To Build The Story Around The Playerss In Dungeons & Dragons

In old-school Dungeons & Dragons, it’s the Dungeon Master’s world and the player characters are just living in it. As the hobby has grown and evolved, though, the best DMs have found ways to make the heroes the center of the story. This gives players the most agency possible, leading to a campaign they’ll never forget.



Related: D&D: DM Tips For Dealing With Failed Rolls

Putting the PCs in the spotlight works best with communication and preparation. With the right setup, you can give your players everything they need to create heroic tales in your preferred campaign setting. Read on to learn how!

Tie Backstories To The Main Campaign

As a DM, you’ve likely poured countless hours into developing your campaign’s story. It can be hard to watch players follow plot threads that aren’t part of your meticulously-crafted tale, but if you leave room for the player characters in the narrative it will make the game better as a whole.

For example, a player character’s primary motivation might be getting revenge on an NPC that wronged them before the campaign began. If the PC’s rival turns out to be working with the main villain – or is actually the big bad themself – then the character has a reason to keep up with the main quest and will naturally advance the story just by doing what they were hoping to do anyway!

Related: D&D: Great Motivations For Your Character

Create Characters As A Group

Dungeons & Dragons Swamp
Dungeons & Dragons Curse Of Strahd Illustration By Jedd Chevrier

Some groups will have players show up to the first session with their characters ready to go, since this saves time and helps get straight to gameplay. If you’re planning on running an extended campaign, though, it’s highly recommended that the entire group make their characters together.

Creating the party as a team rather than a collection of individual characters not only ensures that encounters will be balanced, but it also gives players an opportunity to tie their backstories together. Lots of players – particularly those who are close in real life – will naturally bounce ideas off of one another and find reasons for their characters to be journeying together.

If your players need a bit of a nudge in establishing their characters’ existing relationships, try having each player write down how their character knows the character played by the person seated to their left. This ensures that the party is all tied together in some way, while still allowing for some team members to start from zero and get to know their characters through gameplay.

Pay Attention To What’s On The Character Sheets

Dungeons and Dragons - character sheet on left, character art on right

When players fill out their character sheets, they’re making a statement about how they want to approach the game. A good DM will take that into consideration when devising encounters.

For example, if a player builds a Rogue with a focus on Sleight Of Hand and Stealth, they’re going to be looking for opportunities to engage in skulduggery at every turn. Be sure that they have at least one chance per session to really shine with the powers they’ve chosen; they’ll leave happy, even if the dice don’t fall the way they’d like.

This goes for overall party composition as well. If nobody is playing a Charisma-based hero, chances are the players want to let their swords and spells do the talking. Rather than punishing them for leaving such a glaring hole in their abilities, give the players what they want and put them in situations where the skills that they do have will be effective.

Avoid Deus Ex Machina And Lose-Lose Scenarios

Dungeons & Dragons Ship In Space
Living Ship by Alfven Ato

If a DM really needs something to happen for the story to move along, there’s going to be temptation to make it happen regardless of what the player characters do. However, player agency is the most important thing in any roleplaying campaign. The PCs should be the ones driving the action whenever and wherever possible.

For example, there are plenty of ways to show off the villain’s formidable power without throwing the PCs into a fight that’s engineered for them to lose; the baddie might murder an important NPC or steal a valuable artifact while the party is elsewhere. In either case, the villain’s point is made without the players having to go through the demoralizing process of watching their best spells and combos fail.

The same goes for when things go wrong for the players; if the heroes are in need of a rescue, give them the chance to rescue themselves. A jailbreak storyline is always a good time, or perhaps a previously-insignificant magical item in the characters’ possession turns out to have properties they weren’t aware of! As long as the players don’t feel like they had to be bailed out, they’ll remain engaged and the story will benefit for it.

Always remember, the game belongs to the players even more than it belongs to the DM!

Next: D&D: How To Run Large-Scale Combat

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