Content of the article: "Have you – actually – made the PCs the protagonists of the story, and if so how?"
Recently I read Christopher Booker's "The Seven Basic Plots" and, while there is a LOT about that book I don't agree with (i.e. the author's morals, politics and general worldview), there is one thing that Booker identified that struck a chord with me about DMing.
Booker's seven basic plots (and an example of each) are: Overcoming the Monster (Jaws), Rags to Riches (Cinderella), The Quest (The Odyssey), Voyage and Return (Alice in Wonderland), Comedy ("comedy" here doesn't mean "a funny story" but has to do with a particular structure – War and Peace is one of Booker's examples of a Comedy), Tragedy (Macbeth), and Rebirth (Beauty and the Beast).
What struck me was that Booker also identifies an eighth plot, the Mystery, which doesn't quite qualify as a basic plot. This is because the defining feature of a Mystery is that you have a central character or characters whose role in the story is, fundamentally, to reveal to the reader another story. And that other story always (according to Booker) conforms to one of the seven basic plots.
A "Mystery" plot is therefore sort of a meta-plot. And when I understood this, I realised that this description fits the D&D campaign I've been running for about two years now better than any of the seven basic plots.
The campaign I'm running isn't a "mystery" per se – it's a sandbox political intrigue campaign, with multiple factions vying for control of one small homebrew kingdom. But at the heart of it all, there is a story going on which is central to everything, which I guess you could call "The Tragedy of the BBEG."
The PCs' way of interacting with the world is very much like the investigators in one of Booker's "Mysteries": piece by piece, they reveal that other story. Gradually, they are learning that the shadow that has been cast on the kingdom has a single source: the BBEG's hubris. What they ultimately choose to do about that is up to them, but fundamentally that "central" story is about someone else. And until the moment comes when the party take decisive action to influence that story, they are more or less just taking side-quests while its effects play out around them.
I want to stress this is a post about DMing in general, not about one campaign. I talk to my players a lot and they love how the campaign is going. So I'm not looking to shoehorn my group into the campaign I wish I had run.
My problem is that I am now struggling to imagine a D&D campaign that doesn't somehow look like the kind of "meta-plot" that Booker calls a "Mystery." I'm kind of struggling to imagine a campaign where the PCs really, genuinely are the protagonists. (There's one exception, of course – I can imagine the PCs as the protagonists in an "Overcoming the Monster" story where they have to slay the dragon, etc.)
I'm looking to know from you, my fellow DMs, whether you feel like your party are really, truly, at the heart of the story of your campaign – and if so, how did you achieve that?
My suspicion is that the device of a "BBEG" is so baked into our way of approaching DMing that it may be responsible for this feeling I have that there will always be some character whose story the players are merely revealing for 99 sessions, until they end that character's story in session 100. So I'm also interested to know: has anyone run a campaign without a "BBEG"?
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