The Story Focus of D&D

by Mike Shea on 9 April 2018

There's a change happening in Dungeons & Dragons games. It's something that's been evolving since the release of the fifth edition of D&D and continuing its momentum over the past three years. It lies at the core of many discussions on the differences we're seeing between streaming games, home games, and organized play games. It makes a lot of people uncomfortable and excites a lot of others.

This change is best described as fifth edition's focus on the story of our D&D games over tactical combat and heavy mechanics. This is a hard topic to get our heads around but today we're going to dig in and try.

In an episode of the DM's Deep Dive, the senior manager for development of Dungeons & Dragons, Mike Mearls, described this in his number one tip we might not have already heard, that we might think more strategically and less tactically about the direction of our D&D games.

Removing the Focus on Combat

Mike describes that many of us (and I am certainly guilty of this) have focused on combat as the core of the D&D experience. In the fourth edition of D&D, adventures were built around combat encounters. We'd have a set number of combats per session and the story connected these battles together. The length of time and refined system of combat in 4e made this nearly required. Books like the Dungeon Delve focused almost exclusively on combat.

Mike Mearls suggests that we consider the story of our adventures and campaigns without thinking about combat. What would our story look like without combat? What is the arc of the characters and villains regardless of the fights?

We can also think of this as a shift away from the focus of mechanics of D&D to the story behind the characters and monsters in our games. Mike describes how newer players come to D&D without the mechanical background of those of us who have played the third and fourth edition of D&D. Those of us with this experience might look at a particular character build from its mechanical capabilities while newer players look at the story behind, say an infernal pact warlock, and get excited about the class's theme regardless of the mechanics. This excitement for the lore of a class is something us veterans may have lost but can hopefully regain.

Us veterans might consider re-aligning how we approach our D&D games. For roughly fifteen to twenty years we've seen D&D move its focus to combat. Now that focus has steered away from it. We have some habits to unwire and adjust along with these changes.

An Uncomfortable Spot for Veteran DMs

Some DMs will look at these ideas and see that it is not for them or their group. Many groups have played for many years with a focus on refined adventures, clear combat encounters, and tactical play. As our friends on the RPG Academy say, if you're having fun, you're doing it right.

Nothing says you and your group have to shift your focus around this new story-based approach to D&D. How we choose to play our D&D games is completely up to each of us.

It's probably a conversation worth having with a group, however. We can experiment with these ideas. We can, for example, build a larger situation instead of a series of tactical battles to see how our players navigate a less refined setup. We can take Mike Mearls's advice and build out one session without considering combat encounters. What does the story of the session look like?

Our own individual games live in tiny bubbles among all D&D games taking place around the planet. However others choose to run their games has no impact on how we choose to run ours. Yet, thanks to the internet, we can peer into those other bubbles and see the new ideas other DMs bring to their games.

We don't have to jump into an entirely new style of play we're not comfortable with. We don't need to throw away twenty years of experiences. Likewise, we'd be remiss not to capitalize on the vast amount of shared knowledge we now have access to and learn some new tricks from our fellow DMs.

Tips for Focusing On the Story

For those of us interested in exploring this shifting focus on D&D, there are a few practical things we can do as we prepare and run our D&D games. Here are a few thoughts.

Prepare to Improvise

Improvisation is much more than roleplaying NPCs or coming up with funny voices. Improvisation lets us build a world that reacts to the unexpected actions of the characters. Improvisation is likely the most important skill us DMs can cultivate and every bit of improvement will pay off as we run our games.

Preparing to improvise sounds like an oxymoron. It's not. We prepare to improvise by giving ourselves the right tools to let the world expand in unexpected ways during the game. The easiest and possibly most powerful tool is a good set of names. Random treasure, traps, relics, and monuments likewise help us add unexpected elements into our games. Even random encounter tables can help us add some interesting new situations to our characters' adventures.

Most of all, great improvisation comes from a limber mind. The more we do it, the better we get at it. Filling our brain with lore (see reading the Monster Manual below) and getting used to spouting out descriptions helps us get better at it every session. The more we do it, the more comfortable we get doing it. This is a huge focus of the Lazy Dungeon Master.

Xanathar's Guide to Everything includes a wonderful set of thousands of names and a whole pile of random encounters for every environment. The Dungeon Master's Guide contains excellent random tables as well. Use them and be prepared to build the world at the table, not beforehand.

Further reading: On Improvisation, DM Deep Dive with Tom Lommell, DM Deep Dive with Matt Mercer, and Top Traits for Dungeon Masters.

Focus on the Characters

Story-focused games focus on the characters, the actions they take, and the reactions of the world. We think about the characters from their place in the world; who they are, where they came from, and what they want. We don't have to worry about their mechanics. We think about their class based on how that class fits in the world.

We can, of course hope that our players think of their characters the same way. If we ask players why they chose a paladin warlock multi-class character and they say "because they both use Charisma", we can dig deeper. Yes, but why did it make sense for that character? "Because they were saved by Gilgleam and their faith was shaken but not lost." Better.

We can begin our D&D preparation each time by asking "who are the characters?". This is the first step in the new checklist in Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master. Beginning our prep by focusing on the characters puts hooks in our head upon which we can hang the rest of the story.

Further reading: Focus on the Characters.

Read the Monster Manual and Volo's Guide to Monsters

We can get so absorbed with the mechanics of our games that we skip the delicious flavor. The fifth edition D&D Monster Manual and Volo's Guide to Monsters are packed with wonderful bits of lore and story hooks we can use to build out and improvise scenes and situations during our game. These books shows us what the story D&D really looks like. What would a village be like if an Oni has been secretly charming a quarter of the town and eating babies for a century? What might happen if two lost temples containing much-needed artifacts are guarded by opposing naga?

Reading the Monster Manual and Volo's Guide fills our brain with the deep lore of D&D. It helps us build and improvise fantastic situations. Reading the D&D monster books gets our head into D&D like nothing else can.

Dive Deep Into the Setting

Along with reading the Monster Manual, we can likewise dive into any material we have for the setting of the game we're going to run. If we're running in the Forgotten Realms, it's worth reading the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide and chapter 3 of Storm King's Thunder to understand everything going on in the Sword Coast. If we know our characters are heading to Baldur's Gate, we might dig into old Baldur's Gate material so we really understand the city.

If our campaign setting is a home brew setting, we might spend our time understanding enough of our own setting to bring up the right points at the right time. We should know what sorts of things our characters might run into. What factions are in play? What history might they uncover? Where do the borders of the civilized world and the wilds exist? Some DMs spend tremendous amounts of time building out their campaign worlds for this purpose, which is a fine use of time as long as they don't expect to use it all or force it down the players' throats.

There is a lot to be said by sticking to published settings. These publishers have done more work on these setting than we can ever do on our own. If it's a shared world, like the Forgotten Realms, our players might already have an established investment in the lore of the world; not something they're likely to have in our own world. The production value on published campaign worlds also bring a tremendous value. Books that cost tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce can be ours for forty or fifty bucks. Think about the total dollar investment in the Forgotten Realms and how cheaply the results of that investment can be yours.

Build Situations, Not Pre-Defined Scenes

The world and all of the people and places within it are not built expecting a group of four to six characters of a particular level to wander into it. The hobgoblin armies don't spread themselves out into perfect groups of four to eight; just the right challenge rating to challenge the characters.

When we build a story-focused game, we set up the situation as it makes sense for the story. How many mind flayers are in an undead mind flayer colony taken over by Orcus? How many make sense to us? Probably not a thousand. Probably not four. When we build out our scenes, we build them in a way that makes sense for the situation irrespective of the characters and then let the characters deal with it as they would in real life (you know, with fireballs).

Further reading: Build situations.

Be Flexible with Combat Styles

In decades past, we spent considerable time building out carefully planned tactical combat encounters. Many times we tremble in anger when the characters circumvent the encounter with something like invisibility, flight, or one hell of a charisma check. We need not get bent out of shape when things don't go our way with one simple technique: not knowing how it's going to go anyway.

We also don't necessarily know where a battle will take place. If we're building situations, those situations are dynamic. A bad situation could result in an entire hobgoblin army aiming bows at the characters in the courtyard of their castle.

As you can tell, this makes it difficult to set up typical battle maps with just the right miniatures. Instead, we can get used to running combat in the theater of the mind with loose sketches instead of fixed five-foot gridded battles.

We don't have to do this all the time, of course. Sometimes we might map out the entire area. Other times we'll want to have a nice climactic battle against a boss. But that's not the norm for a story-focused D&D game. In that game, the final battle might be a sniping conversation over wine.

We DMs who choose a story-focused game know to keep our options open for battles. We don't require a map and miniatures for every fight; or any fight for that matter. We're prepared to run very small or very large fights. We don't define combat encounters ahead of time. We just see how things go as the game unfolds.

Further reading: The Tyranny of the Grid, Running Narrative "Theater of the Mind" Combat, the Abstract Battle Map.

Worry Less About Balanced Combat Encounters

Along with our flexibility in running combat encounters, we need to let go of the idea of "balanced" encounters when running story-focused D&D games. Instead of futzing around with the three tables in the Dungeon Master's Guide or Kobold Fight Club, we need only ask ourselves a few questions. What types of monsters make sense? How many of those monsters make sense? If it turns into a battle, will it likely kill the characters? If so, can I telegraph this so the players know to tread carefully?

We can figure out if something is too hard by comparing the challenge rating of the monster to the levels of the characters. Too many monsters or monsters of a challenge rating significanlty higher than the level of the charaters could be deadly. A monster is roughly equvalant to four characters if that monster's challenge rating is close to the character's level. A single monster is roughly equivalant to a single character if that monster's challenge rating is roughly one quarter of the character's level (or one half if above level five).

Keeping some rough gauges in our head means we can look at a battle and immediately tell if it might be deadly or not.

Further Reading: Encouter Building Guidelines, a New Approach to Encounter Building.

Embrace Childlike Wonder

Above all we must become kids again. We might put the mechanics aside and remember what this fantasy world and the characters in it look like, sound like, smell like, and feel like. We can get outlandish with the descriptions. We can laugh at one another. We can break character. We can break the fourth wall. We can go big with descriptions, describe brutal killing blows, and mark our enemies not with a number on the base of a miniature but by the strange glyphed ring it wears in its overly large nostril. We must mix our years of experiences with the childlike wonder we pushed aside for cynicism and adulthood. Be a kid again, just be a smarter kid.

If you enjoyed this article, take a look at Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, Sly Flourish's Fantastic Adventures, and Sly Flourish's Fantastic Locations. You can also support this site by using these links to purchase the D&D Starter Set, Players Handbook, Monster Manual, or Dungeon Master's Guide.

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Send feedback to @slyflourish on Twitter or email mike@mikeshea.net.