A challenge for me while running sessions of Dungeons & Dragons is efficiently detailing important story details to the players at the table. There are standard ways to accomplish this, and the most common is the text box in a published adventure. The text box highlights the information that the players should be told when they enter a specific area. The design of adventures force the DM to notice this text with the equivalent of a neon sign that flashes, “Stop! Read this!” Another option for DMs to deliver vital plot details is to use a NPC to convey information to the players through some conversation. While I use these methods often, I’m always experimenting to do something creative at the table that gives important details about a character, a location, or a quest that doesn’t involve me reading a block of text or speaking through a NPC.
I detailed last article how I collaborated with other DMs to build NPCs for the initial session of a Tales From the Yawning Portal campaign. During the second session, I had three primary goals that I wanted to accomplish with the players. First, I wanted them to have some interactions with the rival adventuring group they agreed to partner with in Undermountain. Second, I wanted something to split the adventuring groups up so, third, the party could explore a ruined stronghold in a session or two without assistance.
I knew the first goal would happen organically at the table, and I was confident I could find a clean place during the session to have the vain leader of the rival party abandon the partnership with the party. The third goal required me to create a stronghold for the party to explore. The players had previously purchased a map from a NPC at the Yawning Portal to “an abandoned stronghold that is rumored to house great treasures.” Now I had to figure out what was on the map!
I used the Dungeon Master’s Guide to build a random dungeon for the players. Other than knowing it was a stronghold, I had no other ideas for what the dungeon would be like. I used tables in the DMG to figure out who created the dungeon and what was inside. I posted some tweets about my design process during that night.
The results from rolls on tables in the DMG (p. 100) followed by selecting random names from the Player’s Handbook resulted in the dungeon being created by a female dwarf, Falkrunn Dankil. (DM Tip: Say the names of locations and NPCs you create out loud to make sure it doesn’t sound like expletive world salad to your players) As one of my players asked after I announced her name, “Wait. Is her name F**k Run Then Kill?”
Unfortunate names aside, I enjoyed brainstorming and rolling for the types of rooms that are inside the stronghold. I decided to keep the following results from the Dungeon: Stronghold table in the DMG (p. 294): banquet, cistern, bath, barracks, antechamber, gallery, game room, pantry, storage, and a strong room/vault. I was inspired by a map in the back of the DMG (p. 315) so I planned to have most of the stronghold caved in with rubble or lost into a deep chasm. I used the Monster Manual to fill the dungeon with some early-level threats, and sketched a map for myself.
Throughout my design process, I developed a backstory for why this stronghold existed and why it was ultimately destroyed. Returning to my first point in this article, the challenge for me was how to convey this information to the players in an interesting way. I noted that one of the rooms I created was a Game Room, and the original designers of the dungeon were dwarves. I considered how the Game Room could be unique, and recalled an encounter in the 4th Edition Tomb of Horrors that featured a Game Room. I imagined that dwarves would likely enjoy playing a game that forced them to rely on their keen sense of structural design.
I imagined the dwarves played Jenga.
Now my brain was working! I know Dread is a horror RPG that uses Jenga to advance the narrative and resolve actions, so I realized I was not reinventing the wheel. When the players entered the Game Room, I planned to set up a partially played Jenga tower, and just see how the players react.
Would they knock it over? Would they start playing the game? Would they reset the pieces? Would they ignore it?
I had no idea how the players at the table would respond though I assumed they would interact with the Jenga pieces in some way. I figured if the players interacted with the Jenga pieces, then I could use that to trigger an event that provides more history about the stronghold and its former inhabitants. And if the players ignored it – then I’d just have to figure something else out!
The players explored Undermountain with the adventuring party they met at the Yawning Portal, and found that the map had inaccuracies. By the time they arrived to a clearly demolished stronghold entrance, the other party decided not to risk climbing across a chasm to risk entrance and retreated. Meanwhile, the party pressed on and entered the stronghold I had created with the DMG. Near the end of the session, the party entered the Game Room, and the moment of truth arrived as I left the room and returned to drop the partially played Jenga blocks on the table.
Thankfully, one of my players did not hesitate, and started moving pieces from the tower and setting them on top. Whenever she successfully moved a piece, I described a scene that played out as an illusion in the room. I made it clear that successfully moving the Jenga blocks resulted in advancing the illusion in the room, which relayed more story about the stronghold – so she continued.
Other players joined in and as the Jenga blocks kept stacking up, they learned that Falkrunn used the stronghold as a base of operations in honor of Tyr, and she was eventually betrayed by another member of her council, Darrak, who had become a necromancer in secret. Darrak was exiled for crimes against Tyr only to return with a horde of undead dwarves at his command. The final scene of the illusion showed Falkrunn praying and sacrificing her life to Tyr while the stronghold was being overrun by Darrak’s undead. Tyr must have heard her plea as the stronghold and everything in it was swallowed and shattered by the earth. I informed the players that the illusion ended and the room settled back to its ruined appearance.
I did it!
I found a new way to deliver some exposition during a gaming session that did not require me to read from a wall of text or speak through an NPC. And the players seemed to enjoy the interaction with the Jenga tower as it increased the tension at the table. I could have read a text box or created a torn page or two from Falkrunn’s diary that detailed the history of the stronghold and Darrak’s betrayal. I was pleased with how this gambit functioned at the table because it allowed me to present some exposition in a unique way. If you want to follow along in real-time during that session, then you can see my tweet thread from that evening:
The endeavor to find a new way to provide plot and story details reminded me of the hilarious Honest Trailer for Frozen, which inspired the title for this article.
- Consider alternative methods for providing exposition during sessions
- Use props when possible to tell a story
- Consider how pieces/portions of other games could be featured to advance the story
- Give your next dungeon a Game Room, and give your players a chance to interact with it; their reactions and ideas may spark something wonderfully fun!