Often, when you run a game with the same people for a long time, you start to fall in a certain routine. Slaying those monsters, pilfering those ruins, carousing in that inn, etc. The group starts to make jokes and meta-jokes, and their dialogs are half rewrite of old lines. In short, the game has become a parody of itself while trying to stay true to itself. Kitsch. And some tables enjoy that, especially that kind of fast-paced game sprinkled with funny banters and explosive deaths. But there is also plenty of room for tables more focused on a world that feels real. A world-story that has characters that feel as if they can feel, and not just the most happy feelings. Tears for the departure of a dear character, anger towards the magnificent bastard that ruins the party’s day, etc.
That is why in this article I have decided focus on the narrative technique of scope. With it, you can make your world feels more vivid, more interconnected, and thus a better experience.
Actions have consequences
One of the simplest example of the scope is Actions have Consequences. Indeed, it is the same as zooming out from the PCs and say: “look, the world isn’t just about you and your antics”. Or “look, your deeds have a positive effect on the world”.
Fire does not mix well with wood
A classic. Party is going to a bar for reasons. Fight happens because reasons. A party member throws a fireball. And of course, they are careful to put the area of effect to not kill any friendlies. Yet…
The fire spreads around corners. It ignites flammable objects in the area that aren’t being worn or carried.
— Fireball’s description
The furniture, often the building, catch fire, alcohol flasks add to the destruction, some explode. In the ensuing panic, the immediate fire and smoke injure or even kill a few customers. There might even be a lethal stampede as people flee the scene.
Good job heroes, you are now to be jailed or executed — and that would be justice! Of course, there are many ways for the heroes to get out of that conundrum. But this is a classic example of Actions Have Consequences. Now, since most stories’ engine rely on conflicts, this can be good for your game. It is a great opportunity for the duke to make them an offer they can’t refuse. Or should they compromise with their values and bribe the judges? Maybe they even want to flee and become outlaws.
It breaks the routine of the heroic life. The other side of the coin is that it can become a habit. The risk of stagnation becomes real once more.
Repeat Ad nauseam
Have you ever been part of a game where a player’s motto was “when things happen, bad or good, it’s fun”? They step on an obvious trap that triggers a fireball on the party, that is fun. While the party tries to elaborate a sneaking plan, they break the door, that is fun. While the party considers how to interrogate a bound prisoner, they behead her, that is fun. And it is fun for certain groups, remember that d&d group fun is always valid. But I tend to prefer games where, as you guessed, actions have consequence, and that focuses on role-playing characters.
Now, even in a serious game where everyone tries to do so, the scenario above can happen somewhat naturally. If you enforce Actions have Consequences, it is also your job as the DM to give outs to the party, or at least to make failures fun. But if failures are fun, then would you not want to fail more? Your only tool now is to escalate consequences, ultimately to the point of character death. Moreover, it can create some tension at the table that can turn badly. The players might tell you they are fine with consequences, be wary though. When things happen to their characters, with whom they have bonded emotionally, they might start to feel very differently. Hence, it is a hard balancing act that is tiring.
Thankfully, there are other ways to immerse your players. A passive one that almost all DMs do is through world building.
A way to use scope when you build your world is to keep the Zoom metaphor in mind. Choose the scope at which the campaign happens. Is it a village? A city? The wilderness? A duchy? The Kingdom? Caverns? The Planes? And so on. Then, realize that by zooming in or out, you can build a world that feels real to your players. Almost in a fractal way.
Build a general outline that is barely bigger than the scope of the action. For instance, if you write a murder-mystery that happens in a hamlet, you do not need to consider the war for succession. Fleshing out the priest of Aphrodite, that old dwarven woman that lives retired in her mansion, considering who won the blue ribbon at the last fair, all of those are more important than what happens to the Kingdom. Then include some tidbits about some nearby woods, or a neighboring lake.
Then, add a few details considering all kind of scales, and, that is very important, some unreachable places, to give a sense of wonder to your world. E.g., you can still mention the Succession, that Princess Lena and Archduke Albert are the favorites to succeed to the dying queen. Maybe some villagers have taken sides, and it’s a subject of drunken brawl! Or they don’t care at all, it does not affect them. No doubt however they care about the baron taxes. You could also mention that the smith’s son died in the war against the troglodytes, or that the baker used to be an opera singer in Baldur’s Gate. Things are happening everywhere. Your world is full of connections for the player’s mind to seize, and full of interconnections that gives it some thickness.
Doing all of this, you make your world feel alive, and immerse the players in it. And the best of it all? You can improvise a lot. And put your players to work, ask them to fill the blanks — except names, players are terrible at that!
Beyond the Zoom, the Scope of Tone and Theme
But those variations of scopes deal with scales (the hamlet, the barony, the kingdom, the war). You can do even better by varying tone and theme. Let us explore a few examples that speak volumes.
The Avengers, Hawkeye comes back to his wife
In Age of Ultron, the Avengers are defeated by a sudden attack by Ultron, and retreat with their stealth plane. Everyone is tired, demoralized, but Hawkeye seems solid as a rock. He is flying towards a safehouse he says, when asked. The safehouse turns out to be his own house, where his wife is currently living. They have a family, and they all look happy together; she is a sturdy pillar that supports him. Most of the other avengers feel uncomfortable here, if not outright leave as soon as possible. This is a great example of scope change, in scale, but especially tone.
Not only do we connect to Hawkeye — he is a regular bloke, just doing a 24/24 7/7 job —, but by contrast, we can tell the other Avengers lack a house where they could feel safe. Most of them are, frankly, miserable individuals.
Buffy’s Mother Death
Joss Whedon often commits the sin of meta-reference. He loves to find refuge into self-parody, it just makes popping lines so much easier. He was one of the poster-child of post-modernism in pop culture. That still didn’t stop me from enjoy Buffy, a TV show about an American high school teen, that is also the Slayer (of vampires and other monstrosities). In Buffy, most of the crew — aptly named the Scooby Gang — makes jokes about them saving the world or failing to die yet again. They sarcastically take quips at each other, mentioning their past misdeeds and failures, because everyone sucks (remember, post-modernism). Buffy herself does not make for a very good Slayer, but she is kind of stuck into it, and she mostly enjoys it.
There is one episode in particular that feels desperately normal in a good way, The Body (S05E16). Lauded by the show’s fans and some critics as one of the best TV episodes ever, it shows Buffy discovering the lifeless body of her mother, and the aftermath. It is also particular, in that it uses no soundtrack at all, where other episodes do intensively.
This is a good example of a change of scope, not in scale, but just in tone. We have exited the supernatural violent world of Buffy to the normal world of normal Buffy, with her normal limits. Her mother died of natural causes. And she can’t do anything to bring her back. And now she must cope, like anyone else would. Mourning is a fact of life too, in the world of Buffy Summers.
Now on to some great classics.
Lord of the Rings
After a great prologue, Lord of the Rings begins with a sort of desperate rush to get rid of the One Ring. From Bag End to the Old Forest, from the Old Forest to Bree, from Bree to Rivendell, and then from Rivendell to the Mines of Moria, the party travels from one trouble to another. Then Gandalf the Grey falls, and the fellowship is scattered. Half of the story then focuses on the heroic travel of Frodo and Sam, and the other half on the hopeless war against Sauron.
Peregrin “Pippin” Took, curious as he ever was, makes the grave mistake of looking into the Palantari. Gandalf then decides to take him to Minas Tirith, propelling him directly at the center of the war with Sauron. There, as an attempt to prove that not all Took are fools, he enlists in the army of Gondor. A choice that Gandalf tell him to take very seriously. And after all, he would not be the first youth to make such a decision.
When the battle breaks out, Pippin finds himself utterly useless; he starts to despair. Gandalf even tells him to sod off, as he has more pressing matters to attend to. Yet, Pippin do indeed end up growing as an individual, and he prevents the death of Faramir at the hand of his mad father. The same is true to a lesser extent of Meriadoc “Merry” Brandybuck, who helps Eowyn defeat the Witch-king of Angmar.
The scope of the action has changed. The fellowship must stand on the front-lines of the global war waged by Sauron. One consequence of this scope is that it shows us how Merry&Pippin aren’t just jokers, pranksters, but courageous warriors ready to defend the light and fight for their friends. And how could they be? War is no time for jokes and tricks, Tolkien knew that very well.
This practical example can be applied to your d&d games. Making the players part of a large scale conflict give them a chance to shine as heroes, but also make them feel the weight of the world. You can extend Pippin’s lesson even further. Try to put lighthearted characters into more responsible roles. Confront them with NPCs that take them seriously and rely on them. The results could surprise you.
The Godfather has a few excellent examples, I shall include two.
The Red Wedding
When Michael hides in Sicile, he finds there some respite from the mafia. Yet, he stays eager to see the whole business being resolved. That is until he falls in love with a beautiful Sicilian woman. After a blunt and daring courtship, and a successful wedding, he lives a few days of bliss in the midst of the savage Sicile — one of lemons, great wines and cheeses, and gunpowder too. But the Mafia is not one to let sleeping dogs lie. One of Michael’s bodyguards betrayed him, his wife is caught in a bomb explosion meant for him; there is nothing more left to assuage his heart. He returns to America, wed Kay Adams for her nice genetics, and decides to never trust anyone ever again. Later, he enacts a terrible revenge against his enemies, and take control of the mafia.
This change of scope give us some great insight into Michael’s character. He is not simply his father’s successor and the future godfather. If Michael avenged the attempt on his father out of love, the death of his wife extinguished forever his humanity. We learn why he seeks power so much, and why he goes beyond revenge: he wants perfect and absolute control of those around him, so that nothing can ruin his plans, nothing can ever again go wrong in his life, so that no one can stand in his way and get away with their life. The Godfather II pursue this line of thought to its logical conclusion, where the Family betrays itself.
The peaceful death of Vito Corleone
One of the most famous scenes of the Godfather, and according to the little story, the one that landed Marlon Brando the role, is when Vito Corleone plays with his grandson. He uses some orange peel that he sticks on his gums, to mimic a monster. Then he laughs and runs with the boy; he looks happy, fulfilled.
This is a very powerful change of scope: for the first time, we see a family, not the Family. No crime ties, no threat, no violence. Just a grandfather and his grandson, happily playing together. And because Coppola loves symbolism, Vito Corleone dies at the end of the scene, happy, having passed his mantle of godfather — the protector of the Family, but also his family. The contrast between Michael and Vito could not be more striking. Where one did what he did for his family as a way to gain wealth and social status, the other does it only for power and control. The Godfather 2 exemplifies further the difference when it shows Vito’s arrival and debut in New York City, while Michael continues to descend on his diabolical path.
Suggestions for your D&D game
The party triumphs once more, time to party! This is a nice change of pace, but too often reduced to a few cut-scenes. Such boisterous romps are part of the imagery of adventuring, and are part of the well-studied cycle of kill-loot-drink. They are so ingrained in our d&d imagination that they might not be enough to break the monotony. Hence, do not hesitate to make carousing a more unique experience, by making it feel truly separate from adventuring. High-stake gambling, songs and stupid contests are ideas you could explore.
Once in a blue moon, a player will feel comfortable enough to flirt with a NPC, for instance a shopkeeper. And a ring lead to another one, and soon enough the two lovebirds are having dinner. A date with your favorite PC is certainly a change of pace. This creates opportunities for interesting dynamics between characters, as well as story development. However, try to not kill the new love interest! You should reward that kind of play, not make it more challenging.
In general, downtime activities are some very fertile grounds to change the scope. That bard who just helped slay a lich? Well in her free time, she likes to carve wooden statues of idols and parrots. The warrior wants to own a restaurant one day, but cooking is not that easy. Managing is even worse — the nine Hells have nothing on the tenth one, the realm of administrations. Have you heard about this fey festival held every ninety-three months? It has the best sweets of the land! And don’t forget about reading, which is also the best occasion to rain some crucial lore on the party.
Through those, the players can breath in the setting. There is a world outside the adventure, and that is also very much the world, perhaps even more so.
Death, Love, Birth, are all part of life. Why not the party’s life too? Let’s look at Funerals for instance.
Hold a funeral for your memorable npcs. Your pcs, and through them, your players, will be able to mourn them easier that way. It also helps the table to register the impact of death. Resurrection magic is costly and limited, and every character that died in the game, including the party’s enemies, had their own story, their own life. Funerals are not held for the dead, but for the living, and that is still true in d&d.
When the story takes a turn for the worse
With a wicked smile, the masked brute took the rusted pliers from the wall. “Time to pull some nails”, he says, before starting to whistle a merry tune. You try to move, but the chains are tight, and the gag blocks your mouth. There will be no scream. Only pain.
One thing that I did not cover is a brutal change of theme. Enough stories have done such things, that we have no trouble drawing from those ideas. Most often, the brutal change of theme is a descent into darkness; the reverse is less dramatic, hence less employed by great stories.
I once had a PC abducted to hell. The party went to recover her soul, for we are very desperate people. I made sure to check with everyone beforehand that limited descriptions of torture would be fine. To convey the controlled violence of the place, I used psychological tricks, and what I would call suggestive descriptions. Show the aftermath of the torture, suggest what has happened, narrate either the beginning or the end. Do not describe the act itself, it does not make for a better story.
It is of course possible in a d&d game to pull a sudden turn for the better. Unlike most fictions, d&d campaigns are played over the course of hours and hours, and a light interlude of many hours is perfectly conceivable.
I have decided to move Article Day to Monday. In hindsight, it is obvious that Thursday was a bad choice, as it left me little time for writing and editing. Every second Monday of the month, the day Unearthed Arcana is out, I might not write an article, or review the UA. Hence, I plan to write three to four articles a month.
Follow me on twitter for updates and new content on the site.