The two broad jobs of the DM are to act as interpreter of the rules, and facilitate the players’ movements and actions within the world. The job of rule interpreter is more likely to get you into trouble with a certain type of player, it’s relatively straightforward. Where the real trouble of DMing occurs is in creating a playable story that spans not only from the beginning to end of a session, but beginning and end of a campaign. This means paying attention to player and enemy motivations, plotting a path, and adapting as your players exclusively avoid that path. So in the name of keeping a campaign fun and comprehensive for its entire length, here are 4 tips for improvising a longform narrative.
Plan something. You can and maybe even should improvise heavily on a session to session basis, because it allows you to build characters and plots around what your players are enjoying rather than railroading them into what you’ve written ahead of time. But when it comes to long-term, end-game motivations plan something, anything. If you don’t, your players will emerge from a combat or quest at some point and say “now what?”, which is a dreaded question. This happened to me in one of my campaigns, I set up a classic “rescue the princess” first quest which went well, only to have no greater motivation following the party returning with said princess. It created unwanted downtime while I developed the next plot point. Players should always feel motivated, and one way of achieving that is our second tip.
2. Try out lots of stuff
If you are planning to have your players level up and eventually free a city, or kill a god, or reclaim an ancient relic, you need to find a way to motivate your players to want to do that. Telling them that this is their goal is no fun, and will probably be ignored, which means creating want from a different source. First of all, don’t show your hand too early. Hinting at the relic or evil puppetmaster or mentioning there’s a cure for the plague without saying what it is or where to get it creates curiosity, and when the players decide to satisfy that curiosity it feels natural and earned. Then, since the players feel as though they’ve found their goal on their own, you can point to all the different times the goal was mentioned and call it great foreshadowing, when in reality you were offering hooks to them until they found one they liked. In my current campaign I have set up three different plotlines, one with Tiamat as the BBEG, one with the god of trickery (I’m using Shar) as the BBEG, and one with a mysterious and powerful couple called the Briars as the BBEGs. Currently my players are sticking to the Shar plotline, which has been going great, but if they complete it before their done with the campaign or lose interest, then I have backups and follow ups to keep the adventure fresh.
3. Lean into growth
As your players learn their characters and explore the world around them they will inevitably change a great deal. Sometimes it’s as tangible as a character completing the quest that motivated them to leave their hometown in the first place, sometimes it’s simply that they’ve grown tired of killing shopkeepers and want to try bargaining instead. Reward growth. Oftentimes the most interesting thing to a player is their specific character, and the more interesting and investing their character is the better the rest of the campaign will seem regardless of where it goes. If you reward growth and change, so long as it does not stray into metagaming or wild inconsistency, both you and the players will get to understand the party motivations better, which makes crafting interesting plot points and tensions easier. One of my players started with a classic horny bard, attempted to romance the ladies and sought out blondes. Due to a series of (un)fortunate rolls, he was never able to get lucky, and disclosed to the group that he had actually never made sweet, sweet love. After a harrowing quest said bard found faith, and decided to forgo his hunt for the opposite sex in favor of maintaining his virtue. Now as a DM, I can not only treat him as a devout preacher of the faith, I can also challenge him with instances where he once would have taken a flirtatious, seductive route instead. This opens up more in-depth roleplay and more personalized quests.
Being original is not only very difficult, it’s almost impossible. That’s why it’s important to remember this principle: copying one thing is plagiarism, copying many things is inspirational. It’s easier to create an NPC or a questline based on a plot you read in a book or saw in a movie, it’ll be better fleshed out and easier for you to remember. If you’re players have heard of it or recognize it, then the reference can be fun so long as you inject other elements into the narrative. If you’re players don’t recognize it, then you look like a brilliant storyteller. At various times I’ve borrowed from The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, Critical Role Campaign 1, The Six-Gun Tarot by R.S. Belcher, Hustlers directed by Lorene Scafaria, and the beliefs of the Heaven’s Gate cult (which was a dark storyline). You should not feel like a piece of media must be fantasy, or even fiction, to borrow from it. Many of the most fascinating stories and people were real, and making a city leader based off of Winston Churchill may yield better results than if they were another indistinguishable Denethor-type.
Making a story interesting to follow for potentially hundreds of sessions is obviously very hard. It is impossible to get right all the time, which is why a tiny bit of planning and some backups are very helpful. More than anything don’t forget to lean into what is making your players happy, and don’t be afraid to look around for inspiration. If you’re looking to chat about ideas, or think we can inspire you in some way, reach out! In the meantime, good luck and enjoy the beauty of the world’s greatest role playing game.