5 Ways To Darken The Setting Of Your Dungeons and Dragons Adventure
My friends, I must admit something to you: I crave stories of horror that often leaves the heroes in a world with little hope and every victory comes at such a high cost. I’m not sure whether it was stumbling upon H.P. Lovecraft, my love for My Chemical Romance, or just deep seeded issues I have yet to sort out but I need to both read and write misery.
Often times when young geeks are introduced to the realm of fantasy they are shown poor farmers who are destined to save the world from a great evil. Through the power of friendship the hero and his/her friends can overcome the most terrible of villains because they were chosen to do so by the gods. The greatest sorrow they endure extends as far as a side character dying valiantly or someone getting roughed up a bit but ultimately okay. The hero him/herself are a paragon of humanity who never fails to do the right thing and always stands up for what it right and good. First time around these stories are enchanting because we know nothing else, over time however these tales tend to lose their charm because it is just too…safe.
Personally, the journey is not memorable unless there is true risk of life, wealth, or sanity.
Here are five tips to darken the setting of your Dungeons and Dragons adventure!
If you have a decent D&D group or are a decent player you probably have a backstory of some kind. You might hail from a foreign and exotic land and travel in search of riches, women/men, or for glory. A very easy way to make a situation or story more real is to create someone or something that haunts the character. For example, a Paladin might have done something not so honorable during his upbringing that would bring shame upon himself and his family if anyone knew. Something that he would go to incredible lengths to protect.
Bringing out these skeletons from their closets will not only make your adventure more personal but also make the threat real. An arrow might end your life but your loved ones will honor your memory for days to come. However dishonor will shatter the opinion of those you care for and have you live the rest of your life knowing our shame.
Rock and a Hard Place
In life we rarely get to make decisions that are completely black or white. Typically they are okay situations that offer different rewards but it is not uncommon for us to be stuck between two bad options and having to live with it. This is a major reason why we play games, to escape realty but to reintroduce reality into an RPG is to make the world feel more real.
While most player characters in Dungeons and Dragons are above average compared to the many non player characters, they should still be vulnerable. In that vulnerability it leads to bad decisions that requires a sacrifice in order to achieve success. For example a group of adventurers could be on a quest to stop an evil noble but in order to accomplish their goal they would have to allow something terrible to happen to innocents. If the villain gets away he will no doubt cause more terror but could your group stand by and watch men, women, and children die?
Decisions like these will cause the party to stop everything and debate on what the best course of action to take. The longer they think on the issue the more incredible the RP has become because they now consider this an actual threat worthy of their attention. As a DM I assure you that there is no better feeling the world!
Every NPC Matters
It is common knowledge that non player characters in Dungeons and Dragons campaigns always get the short end of the stick. Unless they are some great king, they usually are plagued by evil forces that they can not defend against. They might also be overlooked by the players as they have no information or items to offer. This is a perfect opportunity to test the group and their morals by planting to plot hook NPC.
This NPC will look and act as though they are a burden with no redeeming values. He might encounter the players and request assistance with a task that is either beneath them or no great a risk for the reward. All the while this NPC is a being of great power for good or evil. Should the players mock, betray, or disrespect the players the consequences will come to haunt them immediately or in the future.
Sometimes you don’t even need to make the NPC a powerful being. Often times a scorned woman or man whose family you killed can become just as terrifying if they train to hunt down the player that wronged them. This will show them that their actions will sometimes have dire consequences that will echo throughout their campaign.
Lets all be honest here: The adventures players partake in would drive any normal person insane. Living in a world filled of incredible creatures, magic, and gods would take its toll on the average joe which is why many NPCs stay their entire lives in the safety of kingdoms. For those brave souls who decide to journey out into the unknown, they must encounter stress of the highest caliber which makes it an easy aspect to build upon for your storytelling.
Don’t just inform the group of how horrific a sight is, make them roll a constitution check to see if they can withstand the sight enough to stay vigilant or if they will buckle and vomit in fear. this could even extend to being stunned for an entire turn if they lack the courage. This goes beyond just the moment of battle as you can call upon this trauma when night falls and they attempt to rest. Visions of the situation can continue to haunt them or can even cause phobias until they can get comforted from priests or party members. This would help encourage RP in the group as well which is always a bonus!
There is a saying writing that helps improve world building: “Show, don’t tell.” and I absolutely recommend bringing this to your storytelling. To say “These woods are scary.” and change it into “Decaying trees sway in the wind in an almost unnatural fashion, often smacking you with its dried branches as though it attempts to resist your advance. Out of the corner of your eye you spot eyes of yellow staring at you from the distance but when you turn, there is nothing. This wind, which is far too cold for a summer night, penetrates your armor and chills your bones to the point of making you question if this adventure is truly worth while.” is such a huge difference. Take the time to imagine what about your world would freak out your players.
The absence of animals or unnatural movements can creep out players and have them start to grow suspicious about what lies behind every corner. I have had players even overreact to situations with no planned danger just because I added a few lines describing how the nearby plants had been an unpleasant sight. This led them to murder a harmless NPC because they were convinced the woods wanted to kill them and anything they came across must have been their death dealer. I honestly planned to just give them a creepy experience and then they arrive at the next time but instead they went off on a side adventure and worked with local druids to stop a plague knight which I made up on the fly to their delight.
One piece of advice that goes along with any bit of story telling is to pace yourself. To be stressed out is exhausting for the players so be sure to give them what they want every so often so it inspires them to continue. If they are bombarded non stop with conflict or roadblocks they may believe that there just is no hope for them and will shut down. I speak from personal experience and it will kill you when players just do not care anymore because they expect death so they browse facebook or engage in small talk.
Consider Dark Souls where you know it is hard but you also know victory is within reach if you just try harder. If you do it right, they will instead work to become better players so they can meet the next challenge head on.
I hope you enjoyed our advice on what you can do to darken the setting of your Dungeons and Dragons adventure! I hope your next campaign is filled with stress, paranoia, and enough tension to cause at least one player to flip out over nothing. They might hate you for dragging them through the mud emotionally but they will keep on coming back for more because they have to know how it will end and if they are strong enough to endure!