Saturday, July 21, 2012

Storytelling in Keep on the Shadowfell

Storytelling in D&D: Keep on the Shadowfell

I find telling a story in D&D quite hard.
My first experience as a DM was Keep on the Shadowfell.

Keep on the Shadowfell

When I first read the adventure I had no opinion whatsoever
about it. My experience in 4E was limited to being a player in Kobold Hall.

As we progressed into the adventure, the NPCs seemed boring
and one-dimensional.
You have the friendly innkeeper, the old sage, the mayor,
the spy, the healer and the big bad.
The adventure recommended giving the NPCs mannerisms, details and background.

I changed the sage into and old man looking to extend his
life with necromancy.
I made the mayor stupid and incompetent.
I made the spy the mother of the big bad which gave him
a background. That way the PCs had some idea about him
before the final battle.

The big bad had many creatures working for him, like kobolds.
I changed it so the kobolds worship dragons and Tiamat.
They are offended by humans expanding into their lands with
farms and digging up stuff in a nearby dragon burial site.

Later on, the PCs encounter an undead fallen knight as a skill
I gave him a quest in which his undead family should be
killed to grant them all peace.
As he was the former leader of the keep I wanted him to have
a bigger role in the story.

Near the end of the adventure, some PCs had left the group
permanently. I made them come back as undead versions of
themselves to attack the PCs.

My conclusions

The NPCs were static and boring. I made them more
memorable with a background and a more active role in the story.
I gave them a chance to be more than a NPC waiting for the PCs
to come by and perform his or her role.
I wanted the PCs to know a bit about the big bad before the final battle.
Otherwise the final battle is a hard battle at the end instead of a climax in a piece of fiction.

The cliches are overwhelming in this adventure:
  • the NPCs exist only to fulfill their role
  • all enemies either work for the big bad or attack anything in sight
  • there are no reasons given why intelligent enemies attack, except that they serve the big bad or get paid a lot
  • the big bad wants to open a portal for no other reason to serve his master and gets interrupted by the PCs

How to tell a story

Unlike other types of fiction like books, movies, television, etc
the story isn't set in stone.
Players should have meaningful choices and a way to impact
the world.
That is why I give the PCs situations and see how they react.
For example, in Keep on the Shadowfell, the PCs could
  •   destroy the kobolds
  •   could talk to them to end the fighting
  •   just leave them alone

To make these kind of choices, I give NPCs more backstory and motivation.

The second difference with other types of fiction is that
there may be quite some time between getting into a situation
and having to make a choice about it.
In real life, there can be weeks or months between the two, depending on how often the group comes together.

The third difference lies in the players don't understanding the situation.
This can be because they choose a different path the DM thought they would take. Or that the DM forgot some details or underestimated the information the players need to understand the situation.

The second and third difference can be fixed with repeating information the players need to understand a situation.
I learned this the hard way and found a helpful site:

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