“Good artists copy, great artists steal.” ~ Pablo Picasso… supposedly…
I’m what you might call an “improv DM.” Others might depend heavily on fully-realized storylines, but not me–I like to fly by the seat of my pants, writing only a bare-bones outline of a story and seeing where the PCs take me. My groups have had some great results doing this, because it allows the PCs to choose their own path with very little interference from me in the way of denial and railroading. However, telling a really loose story takes even MORE preparation than a very tight story, because I have to account for any situation that might arise. And they have arisen! I’ve had players take other players hostage, random orgies, oxygen tanks filled with gravy, and, once, in a D20 Modern campaign, I had a player jump off a building and land chest-first on to a fire hydrant.
Nothing unifies characters behind a common goal like great storytelling. A vast world with compelling characters and terrifying monsters… there’s nothing like it! But sometimes it feels like the greatest stories are formulaically told and retold and rehashed and rebooted until they don’t mean anything anymore. This is why I, as a vigilant DM, am always on the lookout for fresh story elements to throw into campaigns where they’re called for. I could just make them up out of my head, but why bother? Many brilliant, creative minds are out there in the world today. They make art or direct movies or write stories that endure for longer than they could ever imagine. It is from this wealth of knowledge–from the dawn of time until now–that I draw exciting and interesting story elements for D&D campaigns. This way, I don’t get tired of writing, and my plots don’t go stale because there’s always something for my characters to do and see if they get tired of their current undertaking.
In this article, and others like it, we’re going to take a look at a common fantasy plot point from TV, pop culture, or wherever. Then, we’ll examine where it might have been used before, and consider ways to alter them to make them useful to our own campaigns.
Let’s use a practical example. Better, let’s use an example that we’re all probably familiar with in some capacity or another: the epic poem, Beowulf.
Beowulf is a story about an ancient badass who only knew how to be awesome. Essentially, he was the Dos Equis spokesman; except, instead of beer, the bottles were filled with basilisk blood spiced to perfection with rare herbs and powdered swords. He didn’t think weapons were sporting to use against an unarmed man-eating troll-beast. He let his own men get eaten so he could sneak up on a monster. His bathing suit was full plate, and his birthday suit was studded leather. And, when he died, he ordered that a dragon’s hoard be buried with him rather than given to the people he ruled. AND THEY DID IT. Because he was just as scary dead as he was when he was alive. Beowulf is the quintessential warrior-king.
VARIATIONS ON THE THEME
Grom Hellscream, Warcraft series. Enslaved by demons, freed of demons, re-enslaved by demons, and, in a battle witnessed by the next Warchief of the whole Orcish nation, sacrificed himself to destroy the demon prince who held his people captive. Totally badass, but so much more! A historical figure with in-game locations dedicated to him–the armor of Mannoroth in Orgrimmar and his tomb in Ashenvale, to name a few. He’s the subject of gorgeous in-game cinematics, and his demon-slaying ax drops in a dungeon! But best of all, his son is the new Warchief of all orcs. History, myth, AND legacy. You can’t ask for more in an epic hero, except for maybe a kick-ass hat. Speaking of which…
Robin Hood, English history and lore. A crusader turned rebel, he used guerrilla tactics to fight his way into and out of trouble in order to restore his family property and land. Along the way, he finds time to romance his true love (a fair maiden, of course), attract an army to fight with him, and free his people from the yoke of tyranny. As a bonus, he lives happily ever after… according to most sources. The strength of this type of hero must be tremendous, given that the story is constantly retold, changed, and rewritten by every culture on earth. Also, kick-ass hat. William Wallace was also a hero, but he had no hat to speak of. Is it any wonder he was martyred while Robin Hood lived?
Of course, I can’t rip off an idea like Beowulf or use his story exactly as it happens in the poem. Most people know it, and bringing his story into your campaign runs the risk of making Beowulf the focus instead of the players. If the players aren’t the focus, the whole campaign falls flat.
But there IS something to be said about using the archetype of a strong, powerful hero in a position of authority. They can be quest givers, sure, but for a savvy DM, they’re capable of so much more!
They can be a historical plot point in the story, where the characters delve into his or her past to unravel a current mystery. “My old nemesis lives?! Adventurers, I am on in years now, and can no longer fight him. For the good of the Empire, you must find a way to reforge my spear and take up my quest!”
If the PCs act rashly and get themselves in a jam, heroes can swoop in on white horses and save the day (and your campaign, too). “I thought you might get yourselves into trouble, and what do you know? Looks like someone got their stupid asses captured by gnolls! Rough Riders… ATTAAAACK!”
And, in the right situation, they can be used as the ultimate betrayers, unexpectedly forcing the PCs to make very tough, very scary decisions. “Don’t you see?! With the spear reforged, we can use its power to clear the entire valley of gnolls! You’d risk the safety of the continent for one border town?! THEY ARE ALREADY CASUALTIES OF WAR!”
If your current story doesn’t really use a powerful NPC in this fashion, the presence and absence of one can serve smaller purposes. A DM who wants to put their players on track might put an evil champion on their tail. That might scare them enough to get in gear, or (after a sound thrashing) make them realize that they need to get stronger to survive. The DM might also use a good hero for the same reason, except the hero is placed where the character should be heading. That might give them incentive to follow their paragon with the intention of meeting him or her. Of course, the quickest way to intercept said hero is through the Swamp of Unholy Blight (or whatever locale suits your campaign best). Jus’ sayin’.
If the group makes it out of the swamp, you can decide if their hero was worth the trouble it took to meet him. He could be everything the legends say (if he’s tall, sexy, wise, etc.), or the stories might be exaggerations or complete lies (if he’s alcoholic, womanizing, vain, etc.). These set-ups can be used later on in our story, too. Over the course of the campaign, the mighty might fall, and the low may rise up to their former glory.
WORDS OF WARNING
Powerful characters, whether they offer assistance or hindrance, are great to have around. My favorite way to use them is as giants on whose shoulders the PCs might stand until they start to forge their own way in my world. Some people like using anti-heroes, but something about the purity of a genuine hero appeals to me. Either way, the Beowulf type is used to its fullest for me when they’re seen for what they are–EPIC. They should have a long history, many successful campaigns, a regiment of true and loyal friends, and a cabal of enemies who can and should crop up to take bloody vengeance on the wards of their old foe.
And the PCs should never ever know the hero’s whole story! Heroes start out as mere mortals, after all, and are prone to having tragic flaws that run the gamut from greed to pride to just being too damn good. Let the PCs take on the legacy of a champion and see if they can separate the myth from the man.