What is a D&D Story about?
A story in D&D is about people, usually, but also often has themes of an overarching struggle. This struggle may be to find yourself, to save yourself, to save others, to find family, or any number of blended themes in between. In one campaign I played the story was really the meaty plot of the fantasy world: there are powers in this world that could destroy everyone, and someone has to stop those powers from falling into the wrong hands.
There are definitely campaigns whose stories are an epic fantasy quest. These stories often do a good job of blending combat with roleplay, as there are times when battling major villains are necessary and there are other times when it’s key to investigate and draw out the answers from an NPC. There are also other stories that include epic quests, but are more about the personal growth enjoyed by the players and their characters throughout the quest.
What do the players do?
To a certain extent, this depends on how the table decides they want the story to work if they decide that together. At a perfect table, the DM and the players would have an idea of what their preferences are (roleplay to combat ratio, storytelling aspects, depth of character backstories, etc.). From there, the DM would be able to craft a campaign that allows the players to explore the world how they please.
In a specific, quest-based campaign in which the characters all have one major goal that dictates to them how they proceed in the world, the players are largely in charge of making sure their characters still fit in the story. If your character grows out of the plot of the main campaign and simply wouldn’t stay with the party, it can feel awkward trying to justify why you even want to be there. Some players resolve this by finding an in-game way to get rid of their first character with the DM and introduce a new character. In the show Critical Role, one of the players exited with his primary character–an action that at first seemed to indicate he was leaving the game as a whole–but then introduced a new character during that same session.
When playing a looser campaign, the players take on more of the responsibility of storytelling. Instead of simply including their characters’ reactions to what is going on in the story around them, in a story based or character based campaign the players have to craft the direction their characters want to go rather than conform their characters’ wishes to the story as it proceeds. This is more like the campaign I currently run, where any quest the characters end up undertaking is based on choices they make, not a quest that exists separately from them.
What does the DM do?
The DM is many things. In the case of the story, a DM is both a storyteller and a facilitator. Sandbox style stories and stories that are driven purely by the choices the character’s make and chance are more free flowing. The DM needs to be able to describe things and explain what’s happening sure, but the majority of the story’s content is a collaborative effort. The DM reacts to the players, the players react to the DM, and it becomes a great back and forth.
Much like in other forms of writing, there are planners and pantsers when it comes to DMs. Some DMs plan out the entire world with intricate details written down in organized notes, and have pre-made characters and towns and plots everywhere for the characters to potentially stumble into. Others have a loose idea of what they’re trying to make happen, and make everything else up on the go.
I’ve dabbled in the planned out DMing style but so far that hasn’t really panned out. As much as I would like to have a firm world in place with its own history and characters scattered throughout it, I just didn’t have time to put all that together before embarking on my current campaign. Sometimes things do come back around and make the story tie up loose ends, but often that’s due to the players seeking out those answers. In this case, I am less the primary storyteller–I have one overarching plot I’d like to resolve but more out of a desire to see how my players react to it–and more a facilitator.
But how does this all work together?
Yes, it can be difficult as both a player and a DM to get in sync with the table. Sometimes tables are perfectly in sync, playing off one another in a way that totally entertains everyone. Other times stress, external factors, mental health, physical health, etc. etc. can interfere with one or more players’ abilities to read the rest of the table. This is why communication is so important for the overall story! It’s crucial that players check in with one another and share motivations, backstory details, and even have private conversations and roleplay moments when appropriate. Keeping the DM up to date with your character motivations is also good, because if you change something about your character and don’t tell the DM they might not be able to change the story appropriately to suit your new goals.
Regardless of the type of campaign you’re engaged in communication and storytelling are collaborative efforts. The DM may be telling a story, but the players are autonomous actors within that story and cannot be snowballed into doing what the DM expects and wants. The players are also responsible for keeping the story moving rather than stopping everything in its tracks. Everyone at the table must work together and communicate with one another.