D&D's always been designed around a party of characters overcoming combat (sprinkled with non-combat) challenges. I'm not going to argue against that; I think it's a great design goal. And I'm certainly not asking D&D to turn into some other game. I just wonder, what happened to telling a story during the game? Here's how I'd design it in:
Getting Story Into Your D&D
Combat encounters are the focus for D&D. Every single character comes equipped with an array of daily, encounter and at-will powers. All these powers are geared towards manipulation of pieces on the gaming table -- 4e without miniatures would ignore most of the system. So rather than work against the system by writing up some kind of narrative subsystem or penalizing the players for wanting to get in fights, you oughta mash the story right into the encounters!
It's Not Just Your Story
The first thing to drop out the window is a pre-planned, encounter 1 through 10, adventure. That's merely pushing the characters along a theme park ride with story amounting to what you, as DM, mete out. Sure, that's a story, but it's not your group's story. As in, a ripping yarn driven by decisions made by everyone at the table.
So then, how do you create situations that produce a story? You want the player characters to have a meaningful impact on the story; the players should move the story in directions that interest everyone. D&D 4e is all about the encounter; whether it's a fight, a skill challenge, or a mix of the two. This means you need to tie the decisions directly into a current encounter (Story During) or allow for decisions to determine the encounters to come (Story Between). Ideally, you'd mix the two together with non-story situations (i.e., "breathers" or "let's stomp some gnolls!") for maximum effect.
How to put the story into the encounter? If an encounter is just a way to get from A to B, you don't have much player control. Sure, they get to witness the story happening around them, but that's hardly the way great epics are made. Who ever heard of a quest that didn't involve some choice? In plain vanilla D&D, your choices tend to be: Best the encounter or not. So what if an encounter presents you with a choice; a way to get from A to maybe B or C, and just maybe something else? You've got to make sure player decisions during the encounter shape the results beyond just "kill 'em all." Some examples:
Story During Examples
- The party bursts in on a band of kobolds defending themselves against a dire bear. The kobolds haven't yet noticed the party.
- The orcs are attacking three villagers: The mayor, the local priest and a known criminal. It's not likely the characters can save them all, but they can certainly save at least one.
- A small band of bandits approaches the party with a peace offering; they'd like to defect from the Bloody Hands, but need protection to do so. If negotiations begin, the entire group is attacked by the Bloody Hands!
See how it works? The party can defend the kobolds, help the bear, or kill them all; perhaps the kobolds would aid such powerful benefactors? Whoever the players decide to save from the orcs has definite ramifications. What if the criminal holds information vital to the quest? And lastly, does the party choose to aid the defectors or fight them all?
Another way to inject story would be to give a choice between two or more encounters. Again, make sure that any choice has ramifications on the story.
Story Between Examples
- The enemy is consolidating power at the Tower of Baneful Shadow and the Crystalline Tombs; one will give the enemy power over shadow, the other power over the undead. Which does the party assault, knowing that the other grows in power daily?
- During a banquet at the local Duke's, the party is asked by two competing temples for the donation of a recovered holy relic. Does the party select a temple? Do they refuse to either? Do they make it a gift to the Duke?
- While the party has been adventuring in Sinkmire, their agents at Meerwall have discovered a high-ranking enemy's secret outpost within the city. War has yet to be declared, and an open battle would cost thousands of lives. But if the party lets the enemy be, they will gather vital information. What do they do?
If you tie the situations into skill challenges, you suddenly get system-driven story! In D&D! Here's a fleshed out example:
Skill Challenge: The Regent's Council
The Inquisitrix Flagg glowers at Lord Vinters across the table. "We have before our Council a decision," begins His Regency. He eyes each member in turn, then rests a scowl on the party. "These mercenaries offer us the experience and means to push our fight directly into Basileus Benaid's unhallowed realm. How do we put them to use?"
This skill challenge allows the PCs to influence the Regent's Council's decision.
- Inquisitrix Flagg would enjoy using them to ferret out traitors within the nobility.
- Lord Vinters wishes for allies in an honorable (and accolade-earning) battle.
- The Regent distrusts the adventurers, but recognizes their value; he would prefer them to destroy the Basileus' undead vizier.
- Of the other five council members, two side with Flagg, four with Vinters, and one with the Regent.
Setup: With each roll, the player should tell the DM how their PC is trying to sway the council. The failure condition is Vinters' plan, a direction confrontation that would prove calamitous. Flagg, Vinters and the Regent are unswerving in their opinions; the other five
Level: Equal to the level of the party.
Complexity: 1 (requires 4 successes before 2 failures).
Primary Skills: Diplomacy, History, Insight
Bluff (DC 25 or DC 20): Flagg is very aware, through her network of "Eyes" (a secretive quasi-police force), of the party's abilities and knowledge; any attempt to bluff against her cause is at DC 25. She will remain quiet, however, if the PCs mislead the Council in her favor, she remains quiet; use DC 20.
Diplomacy (DC 15): Diplomacy is the best tactic, something everyone at the table respects.
Intimidate (DC 20): Intimidate will only work to sway people towards Flagg or the Regent; trying to intimidate a vote for Vinters is an automatic failure.
Religion (DC 15): It is easy to appeal to the horror the Basileus has made of once-holy ground. You can only gain one success in this manner.
Success: Once four successes have been made, the Regent ends discussion. The votes are tallied and a decision is made.
Failure: After two failures, the Regent feels he has misjudged the party. He switches his vote for whichever option the party least desired. Tally votes as per a success to determine the actual decision.
This all looks great in theory, but how do we actually hook the players into helping to create the story? The most important thing is to get the players interested in what's going on. They need to feel ownership of the experience you're all working to create. Unfortunately, the 3e character sheet doesn't do much to help this (and I haven't seen a full 4e sheet). You've got all sorts of skills and powers and such letting you decide what kind of challenges to put them up against (there's a cleric? Throw some undead at 'em! No rogues? Better keep the trap count low). But nothing that indicates the kind of story they want to tell.
New rules? That wouldn't be very nice; your players signed up for some D&D, not some namby-pamby storytelling game! You've got to get them hooked without any new rules or long character generation overhead. All you really need to do is to a) firmly plant the PCs into the world, and b) get the players invested in their relationship with that world. The PCs weren't created in a vacuum, they have friends and family. Try having each player give you a name and relationship. Percival Longtop, my older brother and Captain of the Eagle Guard. Shericant, my mother, in exile for summoning demons. Nothing fancy. Tie them into the story and bam! There you go. I'll tackle this sort of thing in more detail in the future.
So there you have it. Two ways to inject story into your gaming, within the rules of D&D 4e and without any house rules short of front-loading minor backstory during character generation. My hope is that with the emphasis on ease of DM prep, 4e will make this sort of play much easier.