If you?re stuck for what to write, or what to do next, simply pick one of these 3 things. Or even better, pick all of them?
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The situation is unavoidable. Not the situation in the story, in your campaign, but the storytelling situation for you, the DM. Your players have navigated their way through your fiendish scenarios, your ethereal maze of spine-chilling monsters, of dusty tomes, of skin-prickling sub-plots and subterfuge. Something isn?t quite right though. Something happened, something you weren?t planning on. Something you didn?t even think of when you wrote the campaign.
They?ve bloody broken it. Shit. *skim through your notes*.
It doesn?t work any more.
As a DM you?ve visited this place before, but this time is different, the story well is dry. The shock of the planned reveal requires something different to have happened, only it? didn?t.
Don?t blame the PCs! Yet. Well, maybe blame them a little bit. But don?t panic, stay calm.
You take a second, readjust yourself. Take a swig of beer (or other beverage, but for me it?s more often than not a beer.) Think?
It always happens at some point in a campaign, so you can?t avoid it, you just have to be ready for these situations to manifest. It?s easy to look at the DMs role from a distance when you think about this with either hindsight or outside of the situation actually happening. But the crux of the matter is this. Something happened that you did not plan for. If you look rigorously through your notes you risk losing the party, losing the game to a sort of atmosphere sucking monster that lives in the empty seconds between someone asking a question or doing something, and it actually happening.
I?ve got 3rules for this. One to avoid it happening in the first place, one to maintain as you play, and one to follow when it inevitably does go off-piste. Really simple.
(Pre-emptive) Rule #1: Make it magnificent
Here is your guiding rule for increasing player engagement with a story, a setting or a conflict, be it one that is happening now (add in that shit on the fly if needs be), or one that has happened or is happening somewhere else.
Make it just unbelievably bloody marvellous and gosh darn magnificent as all hell.
Make it wondrous to experience, make it a marvel to behold. Make it magical and fantastical and breathtaking and make it awaken the senses.
Make it visceral and it will have power over your players. They will be captivated by it, as you already are through the simple act of writing it, and you can enjoy that world together.
A scenario or setting that is not magnificent and fantastical is, by inference, boring and dull, it is commonplace. Your players are playing to engage in a fantasy world, and unless you?re playing in a very low fantasy universe, you owe it to them to make that experience as incredible as possible. By spending the time crafting locations, settings, characters and enemies that are more fantastical than your players could possible imagine, you will have already won them over. And if you don?t have the time to craft them yourselves, well, save some fantasy artwork that inspires you to some pinterest boards and let your mind do the rest?
With the expectation of something wonderful and world changing happening, you bet your players are going to do everything in their power to make that happen. To help make your world come to life, and to help you keep the session on track. Which is good for everyone at the table.
(As you go) Rule #2: Pour that tension on thick
Tension is the backbone of any good story. The tension between characters, the tension of conflict, the tension of trying to attain the unattainable, the tension of morally questionable decision making, the tension of regret.
Tension drives story. It?s like a good roast dinner, the more food you add to your plate, the more gravy you need. Same for D&D campaigns. The more story you add, the more plots you introduce, the more locations your players explore, the more tension gravy you need to slosh all over the damn thing.
Add NPCs who don?t agree with the principles of some of your players characters, or straight up just don?t trust them despite their best efforts. Create settings which play on your players characters fears and worries. Write situations where your party may be divided on what to do moving forward. Create antagonists whose backstory is similar to a player character, or one who has been through similar experiences. Or better yet create antagonists who have the same goals as the player characters, but they are just trying to achieve it in a different way.
You probably have far more ideas than I do sat here writing this, but just remember to douse that thing with tension gravy.
All over the gosh darn place.
(Post-shitstorm) Rule #3: Raise OR change the stakes
When in doubt, and all hope has left. When your story has fallen to shreds and the situation has gone completely the wrong way and you have nowhere left to turn, you need to do the opposite thing that seems right in this situation.
Don?t try and control it, give up, admit defeat, or try and contain it.
Raise the stakes.
(Or change them.)
Take this situation:
Your players enter an encounter where they are trying to kill an evil army general, a demon prince, and to take the amulet he wears around his neck. It is an ancient artefact they are trying to return to someone. The demon generals men are meant to hold the players back long enough so that he can escape, as he is the campaign big bad, someone who will feature prominently in the storyline to come. However, your players through some shenanigans and freak critical damage manage to kill the general before he even has a chance to get away. Perhaps this was bad planning on your part, but your boss encounter has fallen flat before it even really began. One of the player characters grabs the amulet from around his neck as the generals falls to the ground, dead.
So going by the raise or change the stakes rules here are a few things you could do. This requires some improvisational cahones but go for it.
Changing the stakes:
As you grab the amulet you feel an evil presence overcome you, your body contorts, twisting and turning in anguish. Wild and vicious demonic energy courses through your veins as your skin trembles and distorts. (This could be a high level charm person where the PC when charmed will act as if they are the re-incarnated demon prince general, with actions chosen by the DM.)
The threat is now back, the tension is present, and the motive of ?retrieve the amulet and kill the demon prince general? becomes ?save our friend from being possessed and kill the rest of the generals men before they kill us.?
If you want to raise the stakes maybe something like:
As the demon general falls to the floor the room begins to shake. You can feel energy pulsing through the room, the air becoming thick and heavy, and a black dust beginning to appear in the air. Bright red veins and demonic glyphs crack through the ceiling and the walls of the palace and where the demon fell a black spot opens up on the floor, a void to somewhere horrible and evil. As you look at it you can see figures begin to emerge from the black void, soldiers, demonic, and as you look around you you see the glowing eyes of the remaining soldiers still in the room. They turn to look at [whichever character picked up the amulet] and start moving towards you, picking up stride and breaking to a run. Swarms of soldiers start pouring out of the void as the ceiling begins to collapse, huge chunks of rock and stone crashing to the floor around you. What do you do?
It puts the player characters immediately in another spot, one that is arguably worse than they were before they completed their objective. It also heightens the stakes, and forces the players to act, as well as manage another element: choosing which of them carries the amulet (or taking turns) as it appears to be drawing the attention of the demon soldiers.
As always though, I?m still constantly looking for ways to improve my own storytelling and DMing, so let me know your stories where the PCs have done something completely unexpected, and how you resolved it without letting the story and plot dissolve into complete and utter mush before your very eyes!