Dungeon Master (DM) Workshop is a regular feature in which Charles draws on his experience as a DM, as well as what he’s learned from the other DM’s, to help people run better games.
This particular entry is part of a series designed to help DM’s craft custom campaigns from scratch.
Every story has moments or events which are their focal points. Foreshadowing, character development, exposition, etc… all exist to set these up. I call the culmination of all these focal points “narrative focus.” The points may all be different things, but when combined they form the meat of the story, the reason the consumer is interested in the story in the first place.
In a tabletop RPG campaign, narrative focus is comprised of a series of events experienced by the players. We talked about the different kinds of experiences a DM can incorporate into their campaigns in the last installment of this series. While it’s entirely possible to just string together a series of interesting experiences and create a perfectly serviceable campaign, if you have a narrative focus in mind ahead of time you can carefully select your experiences in order to deliver an especially memorable campaign.
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The following are some examples to help you understand how to think about narrative focus.
Combat Focused Narratives
One of the most common narrative focuses of a campaign is combat. For many players, the core of RPG’s like Dungeons and Dragons is the challenge of overcoming difficult combat encounters. They want a campaign where they are rewarded for carefully building their characters and making good decisions in battle.
In such a campaign non-combatant NPC’s, plot-lines, and other forms of character interaction are kept to a minimum, and only used to carry the party from encounter to encounter in a meaningful way.
A combat focused narrative creates a story about the player-character’s power and achievements. Players will walk away from the table telling stories of how they masterfully dealt with a difficult situation, or how their unique build made them a force to be reckoned with.
A campaign built with dungeon crawling as its narrative focus is similar to a combat focus in many ways. However, there are key differences.
The players’ take aways are still their sense of accomplishment that comes from overcoming adversity. However, in this case combat is merely one of the challenges they face. Their builds and battle prowess are still important, but they are only there to help them defeat their true enemy – the perilous dungeon (or series of dungeons) they find themselves in.
This a slower paced campaign than a combat focused one, but delivers a comparable narrative focus.
When people think of exploration they tend to focus on scouting out or discovering a geographical area. However, there are many forms of exploration that are suitable for table-top RPGs. Player’s could be exploring an unfamiliar society through character interaction, for instance. Or perhaps the campaign takes place in a setting created by the DM, and narrative focus is learning about the unique setting by thrusting the player-characters into it headlong.
Of course, it’s perfectly acceptable to build a campaign about exploring some wild, unknown region as well. But it’s important to remember that at it’s core an exploration focused narrative isn’t just about moving from point-a to point-b without knowing what’s in between the two. It’s about the joy of discovery, and the challenges the party overcomes to get to those discoveries.
Table-top RPGs provide an unparalleled player interaction experience. A DM can use this to create a campaign designed to drive interesting interactions between the player-characters, creating a narrative focus on the social aspects of the game.
Some of my personal favorite RPG moments have come from thrusting a difficult decision on the party that I know will be contentious. In most campaigns, doing so is a good way to derail the game and seriously dampen the player’s enjoyment. However, in a social narrative focus it becomes one of the key experiences of the game.
If the player’s do not feel that their characters’ lives are in jeopardy there will rarely be much interest in any campaign. However, their survival does not need to be the focus of the narrative.
In the types of campaigns mentioned above the player-characters’ well being is of concern, but not necessarily the narrative focus. Instead, the focus is on the things putting them in danger.
In a survival focused campaign, the threats are secondary to the players’ goal of making it out of
the campaign alive. The party often does not find itself in their situation willingly – perhaps they were thrown into a vast prison of some kind, or bad weather separated them from their caravan in a vast expanse of wilderness. In any event, the players are driven first by their desire not to die, and second by their desire to escape the predicament they find themselves in.
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Knowing what your narrative focus is going to be allows you to more effectively choose a rule set, setting, and set of experiences to deliver on the kind of campaign you want to create. When determining your narrative focus, it’s important to consider what tools you have available to you, where your skills as a DM lie, and what your players are looking to get out of the game.
In the next installment of this series we’ll discuss one of the most critical tools in delivering your desired narrative – your campaign setting.