Content of the article: "Using four-stage story structure and japanese storytelling to design more immersive NPCs on top of story plots"
Many DMs in here are already familiar with building stories and settings following the japanese structure: 1. introduction -> 2. development -> 3. twist -> 4. resolution
I want to invite you to take one step further and also apply that to the NPCs that are a core part of these stories, as well as their functions. The end result is a more interactive world, where players constantly change the state of reality and everything reacts and transforms accordingly.
Let's start by picturing a simple story:
The adventurers slept on a tavern, and by the morning they sit with the innkeeper at breakfast to have a small conversation about what's hot in town. The innkeeper says that the Earl's wife has been offering good coin for those who manage to bring back a close relative who has been kidnapped.
The adventurers meet with the Earl's wife and she confirms what the innkeeper said, saying that her cousin was last seen in the Lost Woods.
After investigating the Lost Woods and finding evidence of rituals being performed there, with some broken spell components, twigs, blood and animal bits, the group eventually meets a group of hybsils with long antelope horns, all carrying spears and portraying blood-red war paint.
The hybsils are hunting creatures of the shadow that invaded the feywild and took form of pale barkskin elves with no hair, branch-like horns and pitch-black eyes. They say these creatures are responsible for the disappearance of several fae that were very dear to their kin.
After delving deeper into the woods, alongside the hybsils or not, the adventurers end up finding a group of said creatures of the shadows midway through their ritual, with some prisoners in wooden, thorny cages. One of them, a somewhat noble-like person.
The adventurers manage to stop the ritual, defeat the shadow creatures and rescue the noble… just before hearing the sound of countless hooves on steadfast gallop, as the leader of the hybsils snatches the noble and takes him with them.
One of the hybsils, last of their pack, mentions before parting, that the noble was the one responsible for all of that.
That's when the party decides if they want to follow the hybsils into the feywild and rescue the noble, or to return to town and get some good explanation from the Earl's wife.
The four components of this story go as follows:
Introduction: the Earl's wife is offering a hefty reward for those who rescue a close relative of hers
Development: that relative was last seen in the Lost Woods. The group investigates the woods and finds evidence of rituals there. On doing so, they meet a group of combat-ready hybsils.
Twist: the hybsils aren't enemies of the adventurers. They are also looking for their relatives who have been taken by creatures of shadow. On a further search, they find the creatures amidst a ritual, and save the noble. The noble, however, is taken away by the hybsils, as being responsible for the occurrences.
Resolution: the adventurers either follow the hybsils into the Feywild, dissolving the conflict through either negotiation or direct combat, or they return to town and demand answers from the Earl's wife.
As much as this story can be even somewhat interesting, there's a big issue here: the players aren't transforming the surroundings. They are being taken from point A, to point B, to point C, having very small impact to everything (and everyone) they interact with.
Let's solve that starting by identifying key actors:
The Earl's wife
The hybsil leader
Each of them has a clear-cut role, that can be summarized in a very short sentence. For instance:
- The Earl's wife
- Give the players the quest to rescue their relative
This key actor would become way more interesting if they also had their own four-stage structure. Let's change this a bit:
- The Earl's wife
Introduction: Give the players the quest to rescue their relative
Development: Upon being questioned about her relative's participation in the disappearances, she says that her relative indeed was very curious about rituals and studied a certain grimoire a lot. She gives the players the quest to investigate her relative's barkskin grimoire of rituals.
Twist: She says she is a former denizen of the Feywild and fled to marry a human. She was once promised to a Hybsil leader of the hunt and wishes the group would journey into there and return a gift that was given to her: the barkskin grimoire of rituals.
Resolution: In the fourth time the adventurers and her meet, she explains how her fleeing her old life is intrinsically connected to her relative being kidnapped.
Each of these functions (actually designed as quests), only show up once every time the group and the Earl's wife meet. So her state regarding the story, and thus her role changes as the group progresses. Now let's apply the same logic to the other three key actors:
- The innkeeper
Introduction: Give the players the quest to help the Earl's wife in finding her missing relative
Development: All his life he has heard rumors about people who meddled with rituals and the fae. He tells the players who these people are and where they can be found.
Twist: The Innkeeper is in truth a legendary blacksmith who was once met by two opposing factions in a giant war over control of the Feywild. All his blacksmithing knowledge and magical prowess were stripped away from him as a curse by an infuriated Archfey as they found out the Innkeeper forged a magic weapon that could bring ultimate ruin to the fae. His only chance at having his life spared was by crafting an even stronger weapon for the Archfey, so that they would ultimately overcome the looming threat from the shadows. Even so, the blacksmith was condemned to the most torturing fate for him: losing all his skill on crafts and only being able to survive by serving drunkards at a tavern. The Innkeeper then gives the group a quest to retrieve the magic weapon forged for the Archfey, as that was his final masterpiece.
Resolution: In the fourth time the adventurers and the innkeeper meet, he tells them that he did everything he could to find people able to retrieve his final weapon. Even telling the missing noble the possibility of conquering the fey.
- The hybsil leader
Introduction: He and his band meets the adventurers in the woods. He gives the quest to find the pale barkskin creatures of the shadows that are threatening the fae.
Development: Upon defeating the creatures and stopping the ritual, the leader and his band take the missing noble captive saying he has to answer for the occurences. This gives the players the quest to follow the hybsil into the Feywild.
Twist: The hybsil leader is a centuries-old seasoned veteran, and was the one who led the armies of the fae in the war against the creatures of the shadows, also being the chosen one to carry the Archfey's weapon in combat. As he was deeply in love with the Earl's wife, as she was promised to him while she lived in the Feywild, he promises to use the fact of being in the Archfey's favor as his champion to request the return of the magical weapon… If the adventurers bring him a life-lasting memento from the Earl's wife, with her blessing.
Resolution: The Archfey says he will give in to the wish, in exchange of the magical weapon that was forged for the armies of shadow and a ceremonial duel between two champions: the hybsil and one among the adventurers.
- The missing noble
Introduction: The Earl's wife's relative was kidnapped and later found by the adventurers among prisoners of pale barkskin creatures with no hair, branch-like horns and pitch-black eyes. Then, he is once again taken captive, this time by a band of hybsils.
Development: By investigating in town, the group is able to find that the missing noble was deeply involved in rituals that gave strength to the creatures of the shadows and thus allowed them to creep into the Feywild. There, they were responsible for disappearances and kidnapping.
Twist: The missing noble actually wanted to rule, and he was going to start with an incursion on the Feywild with the help of creatures of shadow. Those creatures, however, only wanted revenge for the war they lost long ago, and were kidnapping humans and fae alike to provide for their rituals which would bring about more of their kind from the shadows.
Resolution: The missing noble's plan was originally to return to town with an army of darkness, seize power, and then expand all the way to the heart of the kingdom. The adventurers, upon knowing this, have the option to make the noble's desires and wishes publicly known by all people of both realms.
The story has undeniably transformed. Even if we take the above characters, each with their own four quests, and just stop at the point that the noble is taken into the Feywild, even at that point there's an increased amount of transformations in the Innkeeper and the Earl's wife. They are no longer just decoration or furniture that stand still in place, only serving a specific function. Now they have roles, and every time the players meet them, things are different.
If we were to rewrite the entire story from beginning to end, it wouldn't even be possible without a flowchart from so many possibilities that can be taken from each of these routes.
And to be honest, it was easier to write the NPC's quests than the big intertwined overarching story itself. You just have to look at that NPC, start with a quest (introduction) and think: how can I make a follow-up quest? What kind of quest would be a twist in how this character is perceived? And in what way does all of this wrap up in a way that sounds fun for the players?
I hope this inspires you and helps you create deeper settings and campaigns way more easily. Feel free to use all that's written here, copying and sharing alike. Since I'm not used to writing settings and quests in English, I'm certain that you can see lots of room for improvement in the choice of words and phrasing.
Thanks for reading, and stay safe!
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