How do you run a story-based Dungeons & Dragons campaign without strapping players to the railroad tracks? My technique is to help the players develop a unified goal for their characters, but then put obstacles in their way.
So what's a goal? It goes beyond what any one character wants. You can certainly weave a fine story based on the desires of each individual character by jumping the focus around. Campaign 2 of Critical Role has largely done this, but I’d still call it more of a sandbox game. For a story-based campaign I think it is preferable to try and wrap these individual motivations into one single goal. The core theme of most tabletop roleplaying games is that you have a united group of player characters facing the world together. So a big responsibility of a game master is to take the motivational strings the players have created and braid them all together.
In D&D, this goal is often to defeat an antagonist. It’s often simple to take the motivations of all the party members and combine them into one villain. For example:
Not all players will have strong motivations for their character, and that’s okay. As a dungeon master, you can work with them to develop these, but focus on the players that did come up with elaborate backstories and motivations. They’re probably the ones who want to take center stage in the story anyway.
The goal isn’t always an antagonist. Sometimes the characters need to travel somewhere, perhaps to destroy an artifact in the fires of Mount Doom. Sometimes the characters just want to stay in one place and maintain the status quo. Look for clues in character creation as to what the players are looking for in a story.
A big part of running the game is determining the pace of the story. Now that you have a goal for the party, you could theoretically make it feasible for them to accomplish that goal in one session. You probably want to stretch it out a bit though. I usually have one major goal for the player characters that will probably take 3-4 levels— around 12 sessions— for them to accomplish. Each session should accomplish some sort of goal on it’s own, with the most significant ones coinciding “level up” sessions. (For more on how I do leveling up, see this post)
The pace is adjusted by throwing obstacles in the party’s way. The villain is attacking the town with demons? Well first the party’s going to have to deal with those demons. Since the demons don’t stop coming, they’re going to have to figure out who’s controlling them. But the villain can only be killed with the magic sword. But the only person who knows where to find the sword is… and so on.
You could do this indefinitely, but I think it’s best to switch goals before they become stale. Varying the level of accomplishment from session to session helps this out.
D&D is also a game that vastly increases its scope as characters level up. A reasonable villain for first-level characters isn’t going to make very much sense even at level 8, and vice versa.
The other trick to this is not planning your obstacles out too far in advance. As always, the players should be your best source for ideas. Listen to what they say, both in and out of character. And try and always end a session by asking them what they want to try to do next. Let me start a new paragraph to make sure you read that.
Always end a session by asking the players what they want to try to do next. Unless you run your games 100% on the fly, this lets you know what to prepare for next time. It’s not railroading if the players decide where the tracks go. You can come up a minor obstacle for them to overcome, which (since this is D&D) will probably involve 6-8 encounters. (Why 6-8? See this post).
Sometimes the players won’t have a clear sense of how to proceed, or you’ll forget to ask them at the end of the session. That’s fine, it just means more work for you. You’ll probably prepare multiple options to try and hook your players and they’ll decide to do something you didn’t expect and have to run a session on the fly. Flexibility and acceptance that sometimes you’ll need to wing it are a big part of this style.
Example Campaign: The Black Lanterns
Session 1 - The players created their characters and I started brainstorming an antagonist for them. I ran one of three adventures I had already prepared, in which the party is captured by pirates, because it already fit in well with some of the motivations of the characters. The session ended with them in control of a ship at an island, so I asked what they wanted to do next: explore the island, go back to town, or go somewhere completely different. They chose the island and leveled up their characters.
Sessions 2 & 3 - At this point, the party didn’t have a unified goal, but I had an idea of the antagonist to introduce. I decided that it would take two sessions to explore the island and discover what’s going on, so I divide it into two sections: the wilderness and the compound. Each of these areas was stocked with 6-8 encounters. At the end of session 3, the party discovered information that gave them a unified goal of defeating the antagonist, and leveled up.
Sessions 4 & 5 - I wasn’t ready for the antagonist to be defeated, so I put a big obstacle in the way: he was out conquering other towns, surrounded by a huge army. I gave the players a story hook in the form of a resistance group they could join and they decided to join up to slowly weaken their antagonist’s power. Each mission they went on, of course, had 6-8 encounters and gave them a minor accomplishment.
Session 6 - According to my plan, this would normally have been a major accomplishment, but I decided to twist things a bit. I led them into thinking they would be able to kill the antagonist this session, but instead planted a traitor in the resistance. The session ended with the traitor killed, but the resistance scattered and the party on their own with the antagonist still at large. They leveled up though.
Session 7 - Oops, I forgot to figure out what they wanted to do ahead of time! So I prepped for a few eventualities and they did something different and I had to improvise. But now they had a clear minor goal of getting into a town the antagonist was laying siege to and using them for allies.
Sessions 8 & 9 - I decided we hadn’t done a dungeon crawl in a while so I gave them a way into the town - a cavern which led into a mine, which led into the town. Guess how many encounters each of these areas had?
And that's where we're at right now. The tenth session will probably be the final one in this story arc, but I haven’t planned anything yet. That's going to depend on what happens next, when the party meets with the leaders of the town and plan some way to defeat their antagonist. I can’t wait to see my players succeed, and finally accomplish their goal that's been months in the making.
Follow these guidelines, and your players will largely write the story for you. All you need to do is take their decisions and decide what could go wrong to create an obstacle in their path. Their characters largely determine the goal and direction of the story, but you control the pacing.