Today I want to talk about what I would say is one of your most powerful tools as a DM. In order to do that, I need to lay out what I call the Three Layers of Storytelling. I’ll be discussing what these layers are, how they combine to make a cohesive narrative, and how you can utilise those layers that you as a DM control to shape that narrative.
Let’s not waste any time!
Storytelling in DnD
At this point it goes without saying that DnD is inherently collaborative storytelling. It’s not one person selecting a narrative then relaying the events that occur within it. The players and the DM work together to shape a cohesive, satisfying story.
But what often isn’t thought about as much is that this is not a collaboration of equal parts. The pieces of the story that the DM gets to shape are very different to those that the players shape, and that’s to say nothing of the fact that the player’s portion is actually made up of multiple individual contributions while the DM’s part is just one person’s contributions.
The model I use to define the different pieces of the story that each group (players and DMs) shapes is ‘The Three Layers of Storytelling’.
The First Two Layers
I saw something a while ago, I think it was a tweet, that described the nature of storytelling in DnD so perfectly.
“The DM decides that the session is going to be a heist. The players decide whether the theme music for the heist will be Mission Impossible, The Pink Panther, or Benny Hill.”
This explains so succinctly how the actual session-to-session storytelling works in DnD. The DM lays out a situation, but the player’s actions (and the world’s immediate reactions) are what actually make up the meat-and-potatoes of the story. In a sense, the DM sets the scene while the players act out the scene.
These are the first two layers of my three layers model.
Layer 1 is what I call ‘The Circumstances’. This is the DM laying out the structures around whatever is about to take place. If the party is on their way to meet an important person the DM lays out the location within which they meet the person, what the person’s initial attitude toward the party is, and any other pieces that may need to be in play.
This is the DM deciding the session will be a heist.
Layer 2 is what I call ‘The Events’. This is the players doing player things. As soon as they start talking to the person they’re meeting, The Events have begun and the players are entirely in control. From here on the DM is simply reacting to the players’ actions. This movement of player action->DM reaction continues until the scene reaches a natural conclusion.
This is the players deciding the heist’s theme music is The Pink Panther.
Layer 3 is then what I call ‘The Context’. This piece happens after-the-fact as the DM takes whatever events just took place and assesses the wider implications of them. This one is a very powerful layer to understand, but we’ll get to that later.
Laying out The Circumstance is very straightforward, but understanding how much we can do with this layer expands our ability to vary our narrative to a significant degree.
Since what we’re doing with this layer is setting out the pre-existing status of the world and the people within it we have control over a surprising amount. Let’s take our example of the party meeting an important NPC. Naturally the party will already know roughly who this person is (perhaps they received an invitation from a Baron). Now that they’re arriving at their destination we start to lay out the following things:
– What is the NPC’s personality like?
– What is their disposition toward the party?
– Where precisely is this taking place?
– Are there other people present? If so, who are they and what are their personalities and stake in the scene?
– Are there other events happening concurrently which may affect this scene?
– How much of each of these things is the party aware of?
That last one is extremely powerful, and in my opinion the one within which our potential for drama is contained. We’ll cover it in detail soon. First though, let’s answer each of those questions to help illustrate exactly how much bandwidth we have as a DM here.
What is the NPC’s personality like?
The NPC’s personality is proud and haughty, but ultimately respectful of the party. He has heard of them by reputation and invited them here after all, and in polite society one must treat their guests with a certain decorum.
But imagine now if instead the party had heard all about this Baron. He’s handsome, rich, kind, well-liked, magnanimous. What they meet instead is a crude, snarky and slightly dim-witted man. It becomes immediately apparent that the Baron’s reputation is not based on any amount of fact.
See how each of those things is going to create a wildly different scene? No party would act exactly the same way in both of those circumstances.
What is their disposition toward the party?
The Baron is bound by decorum. They are polite and reasonably forthcoming, though the party are still strangers to him so there is a layer of personability missing. There are no jokes and all conversation is had with a strict purpose in mind. No frivolous banter.
Imagine instead now the Baron is guarded. He resents the fact that he has been forced to call for aid. He’s afraid of embarrassment, so he has had the party meet him in secret. He can’t help but be a little rude, looking down on the gruff work adventurers do, but is also desperate enough that he will swallow his pride if necessary.
Where precisely is this taking place?
Perhaps we are in the Baron’s well-appointed manor. We’re in his lounge, in fact, where he often holds counsel with his friends.
Or maybe we’re in his bedchambers because the Baron is deathly ill and bedridden.
Or maybe it’s the Baron’s armoury. He wishes to impress upon the party his family’s proud military tradition.
Or perhaps we’re not in his manor at all. Maybe we’re meeting him at a tournament he is hosting. Maybe he’s in a pub, soaked in gin and disgracing himself before his people. Maybe he’s in the wilderness, hiding from his advisers and responsibilities of station.
Every single one of these settings implies a very different scene, and once again the actions that follow will be vastly different.
Are there other people present?
This one is self-explanatory, but naturally we can imagine that a conversation with an NPC in private will be vastly different to one held with a public audience.
We’re more interested here in those other questions about the personalities and interest in the scene of these other present NPCs. The reason we’re interested in them ties directly into our last 2 questions.
Are there other events happening concurrently which may affect this scene?
That one-on-one conversation with the Baron is very different to the same conversation had with the Baron’s advisers present, but then add to that an active plot to have the Baron assassinated and the party framed for it.
The advisers present are there because they are the conspirators of the assassination plot. The concurrent event is that in the kitchens a changeling has posed as a manservant and slipped a poison into the tea the Baron requested be served for him and his guests.
Again two wildly different scenes and the differences can expand outward further by answering our final question.
How much of each of these things is the party aware of?
Let’s start with the obvious. The assassination plot above proceeds very differently if the players are aware of the dispositions of the Baron’s advisers, or if they’re aware that a shapeshifting assassin has infiltrated the Baron’s kitchens, or if they’re aware wholesale of the plot and its conspirators.
But there’s more subtle things that they may or may not be aware of. Let’s take the Baron’s personality. If the Baron is aware that his advisers are conspiring against him, and is also bound by propriety, then he may seem stiff, cold and distant to the party. If the party is aware that this is not his true personality then these actions may tip the party off. If they’re not aware then they may think the Baron confusingly rude.
All of the above is a fancy way of exploring that which we already largely know. The reason I bring it up though is being consciously aware of it is what empowers us as DMs. The reason it empowers us is each of those hypothetical situations would see the party behaving differently in response. This means that as we lay out The Circumstances, we can ever so slightly affect the upcoming Events.
Now the party begins to react to the Circumstance, and this action then informs the NPC responses. We enter the familiar cycle of action/reaction that informs all scenes. This is part-and-parcel for anyone who’s ever played DnD so it doesn’t really require much examination.
We’re more interested in that notion of the Circumstances influencing the subsequent Events. In that way we as DMs can have a slight effect on the layer of storytelling that otherwise belongs entirely to the players. This is what we’ve been discussing entirely in the previous section. If we want to create a particular scene that might challenge the way the party usually behaves then we can do so by altering the Circumstances. If they are usually rude to nobility then changing the Baron’s personality to be more downtrodden and desperate, with the setting being him drunk in the town’s inn, the party may well just change their behaviour toward nobles for once. The Events will play out differently.
Now naturally the players may choose to not react the more expected way. Just as we can choose to subvert expectations in how we lay out the Circumstances the players can in turn subvert our expectations in how they carry out the Events. Perhaps the players, being fully aware of the conspiracy to assassinate the Baron, choose to kill him themselves and frame the advisers rather than try to save the Baron and arrest the advisers.
So as much as we must understand the subtle way in which we can affect this layer we must also understand that ultimately we have no control if the players decide as much. They can choose to ignore any piece of the Circumstances and what it might imply if they so please. Now, naturally there may be consequences to ignoring certain known portions of the Circumstances, and that brings us to Layer 3.
Thus far we’ve covered off a lot of what we as DMs already know intuitively. All I’ve really done is formalised and categorised something we long since learned how to do (if not by name). This layer also pertains to something we often, to some extent, already know how to do. What is less appreciated is just how much power lies in how we choose to Contextualise the player’s actions.
I’d like to take us back to that earlier maxim about the heist, only now I’ll adjust it to include Layer 3.
“The DM decides that the session is going to be a heist. The players decide whether the theme music for the heist will be Mission Impossible, The Pink Panther, or Benny Hill. The DM then decides whether it was a comedy or a tragedy.”
Let’s say we lay out our heist. The party needs to steal a document from that Baron because they suspect he’s not on the up-and-up. The Events then go the ‘Benny Hill’ route. The party fumbles and blunders their way through the Baron’s manor. A farcical comedy of errors unfolds during which the Baron’s butler is knocked unconscious, the sheets in the guest bedroom are set alight, and the document is found and promptly torn from the Rogue’s hands by a strong gust of wind.
Now we as a DM Contextualise this sequence of Events, which certainly during their unfolding were a comedy. But we decide that’s not what the Context is going to be…
The burning sheets begin to spread through the whole room, engulfing the entire north wing of the manor. The butler, who was rendered unconscious, is unable to flee and dies of smoke inhalation before the fire can be put out. The incriminating document is picked up by the Baron’s alchemist-in-residence who doctors it to debase any future accusations laid on the Baron by the party.
The comedic romp is over. The heist was actually a Tragedy.
And now in reverse
The party flawlessly steals their way through the manor. At every creak of the floorboards they duck into nooks and crannies, avoiding detection at the last second, and recover the document without leaving a trace.
Later, they’re sat in the town’s inn and overhear someone talking about how the Baron’s butler snores loudly and that his snoring sounds a lot like creaking floorboards. The party reveals to a trusted confidant the contents of the document, believing that they have the Baron dead-to-rights. The confidant laughs, “Oh yeah, everyone knows he’s having an affair. The women in town gossip about it all the time.”.
This is what’s known as bathos. It’s an undercutting of dramatic tension. Suddenly the party’s actions seem silly in context, even a little embarrassing. They spent the whole time in the Baron’s manor jumping at shadows to recover something they could have found out by asking anybody.
That ‘Mission Impossible’ heist? Now it’s a comedy.
The way we choose to Contextualise the actions the party takes can completely change the tone and direction of a story. See, when the players take control of the Events they don’t only react to the Circumstances we present, they also react to the Context of their last actions. Because this sequence turned into a Tragedy the party will behave very differently during their next encounter with an untrustworthy Baron. This then becomes another tool we can use as DMs to shape the narrative.
Because the party made a right cock-up of that last encounter with nobility we might now choose to present them with a similar situation so that they can take lessons from the last incident and do it better this time. We can give them the opportunity to be heroic.
Or we could put them in a narrative trap wherein they recognise they actually can’t do anything about this new crooked noble without risking too much. Their failure now carries forward into a great shame the party carries. Redeeming themselves may now become a key driver of their ambitions moving forward.
See how each of these options again feed into wildly different overarching stories?
This is how we shape the story as the DM. This is how we create themes, stakes, gravity and pathos from the simple moment-to-moment actions of our players. This is how we deliver them an unforgettable campaign.
My players don’t rant and rave about single sessions or standalone sequences. They talk about how incredibly interlinked everything felt, how the story felt like it progressed naturally from moment to moment, how cool it was when that thing they did right at the start stayed relevant all campaign long.
To summarise our Layers, we have:
– The Circumstances, which the DM controls and can ever so slightly influence the subsequent layer.
– The Events, which the players ultimately control, though will be informed by the current Circumstances and Context of previous actions.
– The Context, which the DM again controls and is what links the party’s actions directly back to the overarching story and its themes.
This, at least at my tables, is the formula that really levelled up my games. This is what took me from session-to-session, scene-to-scene, moment-to-moment gameplay to something more narratively whole. Instead of one session following on from the last because that’s what we assume a session does, a session follows on because of the natural consequences of the previous one, and player actions are similar natural consequences.
This is more than a cascade of cause-and-effect. It’s something done more consciously, more purposefully. We choose how we will Contextualise a scene based on how we want the future narrative to be informed by it. We lay out our Circumstances based on how we want our players to meet them with their body of experience from prior end results.
The narrative and the player’s actions within it are being informed by the same body of previous outcomes.
In all that, this approach may not work for you. I think no matter what this structure of who controls what piece of the narrative exists in all DnD and being conscious of it is worthwhile. Even so, you may have a different way of generating pathos and thematic continuity.
If you do then I’d love to hear about it, and if this has been of any help to you then I’d love to hear about that too!
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