Saturday, November 10, 2012

Cooperative Storytelling in D&D

I want stories in D&D in which both Dungeon Masters and players contribute.
People play through a passionate story while having fun.
The DM and players work together on this.

"Glowing Coals" by OakleyOriginals on Flickr
D&D is about cooperative storytelling.
There is no competition, no win condition that the players can achieve.
I want memorable stories. If someone asks the players, they respond with passion about everything that happened.
I go over some techniques I use to improve cooperative storytelling.

Relationship between DM and Players

An adversarial relationship between the DM and the players makes cooperative storytelling hard.
I build trust with my players, this way they are focused less on me and more on the game.

DMs have a lot of power: rule disputes, handing out treasure, playing antagonists, running the world, etc.
DMs have a responsibility not to abuse that power and to be fair.
Letting go is a good way to be fair and makes players active participants.
By letting go I mean giving up part of DM power and being flexible.

Rule disputes: When a rule is unclear I usually decide in favor of the PCs and look it up after the session. This moves the session along, keeping momentum and makes the relationship between DM and players less tense.

Magic Items
: I usually give magic items tailored to the PCs, which improves relations between DMs and players. These magic items reinforce the strengths and themes of the PCs.
I don't change the quantity of magic items the PCs get, just the quality.

Say Yes: Players often suggest character actions that the rules don't cover.
The DM should say yes to encourage creative thinking.
Possible responses are "Yes, and", "Yes, but" and "What".
The goal is work together with the players to make them accomplish actions.

Some examples of saying Yes:

Player: "I knock over an acid vat next to an enemy. Does that work?"
DM: "Yes, and you hit the vat with acid pouring over the enemy"

: "I jump on the table, kicking it over and hiding behind it. Does that work?"
DM: "Yes, but you need to make an acrobatics check to succeed"

: "I light the furniture on fire to draw out the undead fire demons. Does that work?"
DM: "What do you want to accomplish? Do you want to drive them out or suffocate them?"
Player: "I want to drive them out."
DM: "What do undead fire demons fear or what damages them?"
Player: "I know, I'll flood the area with low-level holy water. Does that work?"
DM: "Yes, and they come running out."

Listen to the players during the session and write down any ideas.
The feedback I get helps me on many levels and lets me focus on things the players like.

Delegating Responsibilities makes things easier for DMs and places some of the decision making in the hands of the players.
This can be done for rule disputes, role playing minor NPCs and building parts of the world.

Communicate about the sort of game, style, setting, monsters attack dying PCs, etc.
This is best done before starting an adventure.


The story is the focus and it's important to make it interesting so that players are engaged.

No railroading: The final outcome of the story shouldn't be set in stone. Avoid railroading and set up situations, not the outcomes.
I setup encounters with preparing opponents, their motivations and goals. At a larger scale I setup factions and a setting for conflict to take place.
Without any direction the players may feel lost and without enough information to make choices. This leads to encounters in which the PCs have no interest in being.

Actions have consequences: All actions the PCs take have consequences.
Situations that give PCs choices that matters. And enough information to make those choices.
I show consequences on the setting from PCs actions.

Immersive world: I create an immersive world with things happening not immediate to PCs. The world doesn't wait for the PCs to come along, NPCs do their thing regardless of the PCs.

Interesting NPCs:  Friendly NPCs that are liked by PCs, players or both.
If the PCs have a background this is easier.
Antagonists that PCs or players really dislike also draw in players.
NPCs offer a more diverse set of goals than mindless monsters.

Alternatives to PC death: a PCs death can be disruptive to the story.
So instead of a character death the plot gets complicated.


DMs controls the world and all NPCs in it, but shouldn't be solely responsible for the story.

Interesting character background:
When players create interesting character background, the DM has more material to build a story.
And the story is more interesting to the players.
Even if they don't, they still have a race and class.

Players run minor NPCs: PCs get to know recurring NPCs. If they know them for a long time, I let the players role play them. It's less work for me and it gets the players more involved.

Give PCs responsibilities
: I give the PCs things that they are responsible for like land, followers, house, business, castle, etc. If these things are in trouble, the PCs will quickly react. I build story lines about these responsibilities so that they aren't just a liability.

Players build world
: players can build parts of the world, this is for players that really want to invest the time and effort to do so.This can be an extension of their character's background. It can be general ideas or minor things like street names, inn names, etc. If taken far enough, a DM might not be necessary.

Do you know other ways to enhance cooperative storytelling?
Do you have examples of the techniques in your adventures?


  1. Great post. I'm tweeting this.

  2. Hi, thanks for your comment on my blog. I just thought I'd come over and check out yours. I fully agree with your points here, but I'd say that cooperative storytelling is half of my approach. The other side of the approach is providing entertainment for my friends. For me, hosting a game is a bit like hosting a dinner or other entertainment and inviting people over. I want to present an experience for them to enjoy, while also engaging them in a cooperative endeavor.

    1. Thanks for your comment.
      You're right, cooperative storytelling comes after having fun.
      There are a lot of aspects to playing D&D, storytelling is one of them.


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