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5(ish) Storytelling Ideas for the Discerning DM

on April 19, 2020

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The maiden wails, straining against her bonds, whilst the evil King’s laughter echoes about the hall…

No doubt you could fill in the remainder of this without the slightest bother. It’s the plot writing equivalent of popping on an episode of Masterchef and mindlessly scrolling; old-fashioned, forgettable. And that just won’t do.

So, what to do? Given that there are only so many ways you can carve up a fantasy campaign, here are five twists on popular tropes that will hopefully get your creative juices flowing.

1. What even is a tank, anyway?

How much damage do I take? Oh… is that it?

Ok, we get it, you have a lot of hit points and it takes an actual age to bring you down (looking at you, War Cleric). That being said, the idea of tanking? Boil it down and you come to the idea that the tank takes the hits so that the less able don’t have to. But where does this long standing tradition end?

Chances are you already know a character that does this: the bard who talks their way out of/into every troublesome situation. The rogue who can disarm a trap from fifty paces. The wizard who deciphers ancient scrolls in their sleep. Doesn’t matter what their skill is, they’re a tank in their own right.

So what next? Any DM worth his salt has centred an encounter around more than just combat, but why not stretch that idea to the extreme? Take the concept of a ‘tank’ and work it into some sort of competition: The poet’s tourney, beauty’s burden or something as vague as the stoic’s rite. It doesn’t even have to be a one-time thing; what if the idea of a tank is a longer term idea? That one member of the party is bearing a unique burden that only they are equipped to handle? Take the idea and run with it to see what you can come up with.

2.Bag of Holding

This bag has an interior space considerably larger than its outside dimensions, roughly 2 feet in diameter at the mouth and 4 feet deep.

Dive deeper and you’ll know that your bog-standard, garden-variety bag of holding is a miniature portal to a pocket dimension, how convenient! But where exactly is this pocket dimension?

Borrowing handily from Rick and Morty’s ‘Microverse Battery’, what if your bag of holding’s pocket dimension wasn’t a benign null-space but a full-fledged demiplane of its own? Using anything from cargo cults to the civilisation that developed on Bender’s backside in that one Futurama episode; what are the implications of your characters using that otherwise taken-for-granted tool?

Alternatively, what if the bag of holding was a sentient entity in its own right? Come to think of it, what if the bag of holding was an ensorcelled mimic? The possibilities are, within the bounds of the aforementioned pocket dimension, endless.

3.Balance Buffed… Explicitly

Ok, so I got this cool new ability last level and now I’m going to… (exit BBEG. Spectacularly)

Empowering players is a core part of any TTRPG. In fact, it’s an open secret that every half-decent DM tweaks their encounters on the fly to make the PCs feel suitably OP/comfortable/terrified. So why not make these changes explicit?

Instead of ad hoc changes because the finely crafted encounter just turned to red mist, try a cosmic game for size. Make the PCs, and their foes, the explicit tools/playthings/objects du jour of the gods. Instead of hiding the stat tweaks, announce them in the voice of the gods themselves; because everybody knows that the gods hate having their fun spoiled.

4.I Hit It With My Sword

The barbarian charges, greataxe gleaming above her head. The kobold has time only for a wide-eyed gawp before its tale is cut short.

This is the bread and butter, the status quo, the tried and tested. And even if there is a time and place for stabby-bois stabbing and spelly-gals spelling, the concept is fully played out at this point. So here are two ideas on how to make the bread and butter a little more compelling.

Galaxy Brain Barbarian

Some barbarians hit things because they can. Others hit things for a cause. Even more still, recognise that their strength is a tool to be wielded with care and consideration. Let’s go full circle and introduce the barbarian who hasn’t taken INT as a dump stat and understands all of this, but also realises that they just really like hitting things with their f***ing greataxe. Sometimes it really is best to call a spade a spade, and who says you can’t have an academic barbarian? Woe betide the antagonist who interrupts the barbarian curled up in front of a roaring hearth with their favourite book.

Spell Slots… from where?

Wizards get their spells by reading, warlocks get theirs from a dark patron and sorcerers get theirs from being flat out awesome (authors note: fight me). How can you make this more interesting as a DM? Why not link spellcasting directly to HP? Or the life of a loved one? Or why not make it purely monetary (neatly providing a GP sink for high level parties)? What exactly is the cost of casting a spell, after all?

5.What if we aren’t the Murderhobos?

You loot the corpse and find two copper pieces, a rusted dagger and a crudely drawn sketch of what looks like a goblin family.

This is an unashamed twist on ‘What if we’re the NPCs?!’, but it’s a fun one to consider nonetheless. Every kobold has a life, presumably, so why not lean into this and make your PCs the background scenery to an actual adventuring party’s shenanigans? Removing player agency whilst, ostensibly, keeping your PCs at the centre of the story can be a powerful world building tool. We all know that starting characters are weak, but why not amp this up and make mid to high level characters the bit part players in a larger drama?
So, there you have it, five(ish) ideas for any DM who wants to tweak their some genre staples. Hopefully this has sparked some ideas of your own, which we’d love to hear! Let us know in the comments below.

The Dragon Wings Crew

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