As DM’s, it’s easy to fall into the trap of letting the rules handle a lot of the details of our storytelling. Today we’ll look at letting the story explain the rules instead.
Storytelling versus the rules
I’ve been getting back into the DMing swing after lockdown (poor internet preventing online play), and caught myself letting certain key words of the game do some of the heavy lifting of the descriptions. I referred to a character that had never been seen before as “a paladin” rather than “a warrior with religious insignia on his armour”.
While this shortcut is not necessarily a bad thing, and, in fact, is often necessary, it got me thinking about the assumptions we make about how many of the rules translate to the table.
As players, I find there are two camps – those who introduce themselves as their class before they even mention their names, and those who will absolutely never use their class name in terms of themselves. (My 4th level barbarian, Sera, has literally never used the word barbarian in her life). It’s an easy distinction to make as a player, but for a DM, descriptive storytelling can apply to every single aspect of the game.
Characters and skills
Much like how some players don’t refer to themselves as their class, this can apply to NPC’s as well. If you meet the town’s blacksmith while he’s out in the market, do you automatically know he’s a blacksmith? You’d see a man with strong, well-worked arms, possibly covered in soot – perhaps a miner, or a smith, or even a fire fighter? Many players enjoy piecing the puzzle together, and by reaching those conclusions themselves, they may feel more immersed in the world.
With regards to NPC’s that may be opponents, this mode of thinking also gives rise to a great shortcut in worldbuilding. I used to think that every NPC I created needed a full character sheet – with stats, class levels, the works. I’d do a full run through the PHB every time I wanted to have the players run into a merchant. In reality, only a few of those stats are ever needed – a bandit doesn’t need to be a fighter or a rogue or a ranger, he can simply be a bandit – with an AC, one save proficiency, and perhaps a special attack if he’s the group’s leader. With practice, a lot of the extra stats can be made up at the table as well.
Similarly, using skills can be described in a myriad of ways. A smite attack can be described as “the weapon seems to glow with divine energy”, or a sneak attack could be “you barely see from the corner of your eye as they lunge for your back”. In this way, you can also create unique abilities, or use them in ways not described in the DMG or PHB. A smart hydra could use a wolf’s “Pack Tactics” ability to give it’s other heads an advantage on attacks, for example. When you start getting creative with the rules like this, the only rules are consistency, and to be fair to your players. Beyond that, the sky is the limit.
Politics and Economies
One of the biggest aspects of exploration as a player is discovering not the strange wilderness or magical oddities in the world, but the kingdoms and empires they find themselves in between adventures. There are a lot of unspoken tropes that we as DMs often fall into – every town has a tavern, most towns belong to empires with powerful rulers, every city has item shops, that use GP as their currency, and every single shop in the game does, in fact, use currency.
That last one is quite interesting – the game mechanic of characters having wealth and items costing GP implies that all territories in D&D follow a capitalist economic structure. Turning that around could be an interesting twist to your game – players navigating a communist community could be disliked for the amount of wealth adventurers tend to gather. Similarly, differing currencies could be a nice touch of detail to your world – do gold pieces have a name? Are they coins, small grains of gold nuggets, or perhaps silver coins with a gold inlay?
There’s also an interesting point that I saw on a great 3-part entry from Matt Colville – the fact that not all rulers are powerful (China’s youngest emperor took the throne at the age of 8), and the fact that countries are far more likely to be at war than peace.
These combinations of facts can also lead to many unexpected circumstances. Cities can be found in ruins, or large capitols that look like they should be full of wealthy people can be found on the brink of ruin. The point here, is that challenging expectations can surprise players, and get them asking more questions.
Technology and Terrain
A common assumption one makes when reading the rulebooks, and indeed, when one looks at many of the inspirations behind those worlds (*cough Lord of the Rings), is that all D&D games happen in a fairly medieval setting, much like our world’s 1400’s, only with orcs and magic. In truth, more and more settings have come out that illustrate how well varying states of technology fit in. The world that League of Legends occurs in has large sections of the world untouched by technology, while others are run almost completely by geartech. Cloud Atlas shows a time on an island covered with cannibalistic barbarians, where the ruins of ancient (to us, modern) technologies are revered like temples.
Having unusual levels of technology, with either more or even less advancements as the rulebooks seem to assume, can add some depth to your world without impacting the actual rules of gameplay any more than you as a dm allow them to.
Both using the rules, and subverting them, give many opportunities for creating unusual landscapes – as much as these can be influenced by whatever technological advancements (or lack thereof) exist in your world, they can also be influenced by magic, or even normal physics. I’ve seen a fellow dm create an entire nation after following the rabbit hole formed by the question, “would it be possible for a volcano to have green lava?” (Spoiler, it can – it’s a chemistry thing).
Much like viridian volcanoes, normal geographical features can have very unusual traits – rivers can flow from gaps leading to the elemental plane of water instead of from rainfall, mountains can get wider as they get higher, or even fly (a common fantasy trope includes flying cities). By taking a basic assumption and challenging it, you can create truly unusual aspects in your world, for your players to explore. And the deeper they are looking, the more they are finding, the more they’re immersing into the game.
Less than meets the eye
The last handy trick or idea I’ll be sharing today is possibly the most useful tool for a DM in combat – reskinning the rules.
The rulebooks describe perfectly how certain classes, spells, and monsters work on a mechanical level, and often include lore on what these mechanics look like, but as DM’s, we’re not simply allowed to ignore that lore – in some ways, we’re encouraged to.
Much like how an NPC “knight” can be a simple fighter described in a specific way, classes can “be” something completely different while still using the same rulesets. An otherworldly aberration with a series of tentacle attacks and a magical sneeze attack could use a stat block for a dragon of a certain element – several claw/wing/tail/tooth attacks describing the limbs of the creature, with its breath weapon accounting for the sneezes. A class for another game system could be the flavour of any class included in the game. For 3.5’s favoured soul, I’d use a 5e celestial warlock – instead of making a deal with a patron, they’d “steal” power from a deity, resulting in a power set that looked distinctly warlock-esque.
When you use the rules as a tool to augment your storytelling, instead of a method by which you perform your storytelling, the sky really becomes the limit.
I hope I’ve given some good ideas today – if you’ve had any crazy twists to the expectations of the game – be sure to let us know