Storytelling in D&D: Plot vs. Story
With a background in creative writing and English academia, I’ve read a lot about creating and understanding stories. And while it is debatable if I actually learned much from all that reading, I cannot deny that I have picked up a few things. And one of those things is directly applicable to storytelling in D&D.
In a set of famous lectures given by acclaimed writer E. M. Forster, he answered a question often posed to him by students and critics: what is the difference between plot and story? His answer is now famous and oft-quoted in Introduction to Creative Writing classes the world over. ‘The king died, and then the queen died,’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief,’ is a plot.
In the world of fiction, this example gets to the root of the issue in a simple and sublime way. “What happens?” is the story. “How” and “why” and all those other pesky questions are the plot. If I look at the question from an RPG perspective—and D&D in particular—the questions get a little trickier.
Let’s say that I picked up the old adventure The Village of Hommlet and gave it a quick read. If someone came to me and asked me what the plot was, I would talk about some of the relationships between the NPCs, some of the adventure hooks the PCs might find, and then I would talk about all the goings-on at the moathouse. If someone asked me what the story was, I would have to admit that I don’t know the story yet, because I need the characters involved before I could know the story.
If you notice, this is a bit of a reversal from Forster’s definition. This is simply because in D&D, one of the most integral parts of the adventure is missing for the DM: the main characters. Even in a fairly linear adventure, where the “what happens?” is limited by the words on the page and with the strictures placed on the scope of the adventure, the characters can bring an incredible amount of variation to the story that ends up being told. If the characters have deep and interesting backgrounds and relevant motivations—and the players are willing to let their characters change and grow in response to the adventure—then the story will be very different from one group to the next, even playing the same linear adventure. If not, then the plot will end up being the whole story.
It is that degree to which the players want to involve their characters’ backgrounds and motivations in the adventure that gauges how much “storytelling” is done by the players, versus how much is left on the shoulders of the DM. Some DMs relish the role of storyteller, for better or worse. Some players prefer to be told a story rather than engage as active participants in the telling—again, for better or for worse.
But on either side of the DM’s screen, and regardless of the level of storytelling involved by those parties, there are some ways that both DMs and players can facilitate storytelling at the table.