by Mike Shea on 24 August 2015
Note: This article has been updated since the original published in September 2013.*
In a D&D Next playtest video from July 2013, Mike Mearls ran the D&D R&D team through the classic adventure Slave Pits of Undercity. At one point, after a spectacular explosion, Mike turns to James Wyatt and asks "what happened to your character?"
This is a familiar idea for anyone who has run the story-focused RPG Dungeon World. For other DMs, this might be a foreign idea. One of the core concepts of a game like Dungeon World is to "play to see what happens". The DM doesn't control the story, the whole group does. The more the DM sits back and watches it unfold, the more interesting it may be for everyone. Player-driven storytelling is a key concept in The Lazy Dungeon Master. We have a lot of brains around a table. Let's use them to build a fantastic story in a fantastic world.
Core to the concept of empowering player-driven storytelling is helping players to think outside of their character sheet. Many players play as though their part in the story starts and ends with their own character. It doesn't occur to them that they might be able to altar other parts of the story. We can explain this idea to them but there are other specific tricks we can pull to give more ownership and agency of the story over to the players. Here are a few.
Whenever a group of players comes back to a game after a week or more, DMs will often summarize where everyone left off. Taking on this job makes a lot of sense for a DM. We're often the ones who spend the most time considering the campaign between sessions. We're also the ones leading the session and, many times, we are the one putting the energy into keeping the game going.
What if, instead of summarizing it ourselves, we asked our players to summarize it?
Let's consider some of the advantages when we hand over the question "what happened last week?" to our players. First, it offloads some work to the group. This is always a good idea for us lazy dungeon masters who hate doing work. That's probably the least useful reason, though.
Asking this question also lets you see what the players remember and what they think is important. You might have written a George R.R. Martin's worth of story for your game but your players might have only picked up enough story to drive an episode of Knight Rider. That's an important thing to learn. The more you understand what your players are absorbing, the more you can tune the story to fit the level of their attention.
This question also helps you steer the game in the direction they find the most interesting. Listening to the players discuss the previous week's exploits gives you clues into what they're thinking and feeling about the campaign. It gives you the opportunity to refocus your own attention to the elements that drives the story in their minds instead of your own.
This question is a great way to start letting go of the story and let your game get wonderfully out of control.
"You just rolled a 1 attempting to disarm the explosive barrels on the ballistae cart. What happened to your character?"
Let's return to the question Mearls asked Wyatt in the playtest video mentioned earlier. After a particularly good or bad roll, asking the question "what happened to your character?" is a wonderfully empowering question for players. It helps pull them out of their character sheet and start to put their imaginations into action. It gives them a sphere of control in the world.
If your players aren't ready to jump right outside of their PC and starting describing their own little pocket universes, you might go with something easier to digest. Asking them to describe their killing blow takes them away from the +5 on their sheet and the 21 attack roll and gets them to really think about what's going on. For players new to RPGs, this starter question helps break past the mechanics of the game and begin to think of the game as an evolving story.
For the advanced storytelling group, the DM can hand off even more. If the PCs enter a bar and a player asks what the bar looks like, try handing the mental construction of the bar over to them. If the PCs buy a ship or acquire a new headquarters, let them build it out how they wish. Pay attention to what they build and figure out how to use it to further drive the story. Be careful not to use it against them. They didn't build out a bar in their minds just so you could use that information to box them into a tight spot. Careful DMs will note when players begin to add in their own details as off-hand remarks. Instead of ignoring them, incorporate them and watch the eyes of the player light up as they realize their zany idea just became canon.
It's hard to let go. As DMs, we put a lot of time and energy into our stories. Releasing our grasp and letting the players start to build out the world and the story pulls us out of a well-worn groove. Start small. Ask questions like "describe your killing blow" or "did that monster die?" or "what does the bar's interior look like?" are good ways to begin to let the world evolve outside the minds of any single person. Work hard not to shut down these ideas. Say "yes".
Letting go isn't a skill one can pick up in a single session. Give it time, try the questions out, and take your game in whatever direction you and your players find the most fun.