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Building a Narrative in D&D

In the last installment of this column, I fretted over the question, “Is D&D a Storytelling Game?” I looked at that question in terms of establishing semantics and defining terms. Now I have to start to work on answering those questions. For the seminar I will be presenting at Origins and Gen Con, the main question is going to be this: How can the Dungeon Master (DM) manage the narrative when running a game of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D)?

To answer those questions, we have to start with some assumptions:

  • D&D is a game that produces a narrative
  • The narrative is created through play, not independent of play
  • The DM and the players each have a role in the creation of the narrative
  • The creation of the narrative is an important and valuable part of the play experience

Someone may try to argue those points, and that is fine. I am going to move forward with my evaluation using them as valid and true points.

A bigger question that we can start to answer now is, “What is a narrative?

At a most fundamental level, a narrative answers the question “What happens?” Between “once upon a time” and “happily ever after,” the story is a series of statements about what is happening to the characters in the story. It doesn’t matter if the story is an epic saga or a short pulp action story—there is always an implied “and then?” on the part of the reader. That means, in D&D terms, that everything from the longest and most intricate campaigns to the shortest of linear dungeon delves, narratives flow throughout.

In addition to the “what happens” answers, other questions are answered by narratives, either explicitly or implicitly. “How?” and “When?” and “Why?” are also questions from the audience. That is why we see stories that start by telling us the ending first. Even though we know what happens, we are no less intrigued—because we want to know how the ending that we already know came to be. And that is why even published adventures with a very linear plot are still narratively relevant. What happened may be predetermined (or at least be a pass/fail situation), but how and why the events happened, and how the characters moved through the narrative are equally important.

Even more important can be what the characters learned, and how they changed because of the events of the narrative. But that is a topic for another time!

Shawn Merwin

Shawn's professional design and editing work in the roleplaying game industry has spanned 20 years and over 4 million words of content. His Dungeons & Dragons work has ranged from 3rd to 5th edition, showing up in sourcebooks, adventures, articles, and Organized Play administration. He has been a driving force in several Organized Play programs, and has written material for Wizards of the Coast (Dungeon Delve, Assault on Nightwyrm Fortress, Halls of Undermountain), Pelgrane Press (Dracula Dossier), Modiphius Entertainment (Star Trek Adventures), Baldman Games (as Content Manager), Kobold Press (Creature Codex, Book of Lairs), and countless others. Find his adventures here:


  • ImaginaryfriendApril 22, 2015

    Turning the script (i.e. adventure) into a narrative together with the actors (i.e. players) has always been one of the most enjoyable parts of DMing for me. But it does not always work out that way. Looking forward to picking up things that may increase my success rate 🙂

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