Dungeons, Dragons, and Unexpected Plot Twists

In almost all the video games I’ve played, there’s been a protagonist (or group of protagonists), a villain, a set puzzle to be solved – basically, there’s been a set plot. Yeah, you can still make your own choices often or, in the case of certain games, end up with a different set of characters or ending based on your choices, but for the most part, you’re still going to end up with the same plot points. You’ll meet this NPC, you’ll fight that horde of enemies, you’ll have to sacrifice at least one of these characters – whatever the game is programmed to do. You’ll still get to that boss battle at the end, even if the outcome of that boss battle has a chance of being uncertain.

For example, the main villain doesn’t suddenly get killed by accident.

I play Dungeons and Dragons with a group of my friends, some of whom are in this class. There’s eight people in our party, plus our DM, and it’s really fun and often really chaotic. And the discussions this class has had about player choice vs narrative in video games made it even funnier when our DM’s plan was basically thrown out the window last session.

There’s this NPC named Ply who was a high-ranking member of an army whose camp we had to travel through to get back to a group of rebels, basically. Ply didn’t like our party very much because of things we did earlier in the game, and one of our characters freaked out when we were caught sneaking through the camp, for a number of reasons including the fact that this guy was the only one in a position of power in this army who knew the character’s (Benjem’s) real name. So, of course, our rogue here decides to roll to see if he can just, like, out of the blue, stab Ply in the face.

My friend then rolls a natural 20, which means he automatically gets a critical success, and Benjem kills Ply. Oops. Turns out Ply was secretly a shapeshifter who had infiltrated the army and has apparently been a number of characters we’ve met along the way. This shapeshifter was supposed to be the final boss battle of the semester.

Sooooo, basically, our DM now has to completely change his plan. It was pretty much the funniest thing ever when it happened, and now, thinking about it, that kind of thing just can’t happen in a video game. Playing Dungeons and Dragons is so much fun because although the narrative is originally structured by the DM, the players generally have final control over it. It’s created around our characters and our story, although the world itself is already built. So whether Benjem stabs the main villain a month before the boss battle, Aidina trips and accidentally sets a cart on fire, or Tym creates a giant illusionary dragon instead of choosing sides, D&D often oversteps the limits of a typical game narrative.

5 thoughts on “Dungeons, Dragons, and Unexpected Plot Twists

  1. While it is true that often in D&D games there is a predetermined plot designed by the DM, this not always the case. There are a few off us out here who view a prefab plot as undesirable, sometimes even as the dreaded railroad, mild though it may be.

    Those of us who have grown dissatisfied with such limitations on player agency have adopted a different model. We focus on creating a world that is believable (though still fantastical) for the players to explore. There are still plots in the world, but the players are free to involve themselves in whichever ones they wish, even none if they desire. Those which the players ignore fade into the background and those which they investigate develop and complicate. And at any time the players may abandon any task they take upon themselves, switch sides, or strike off for parts unknown. There may be consequences for breaking promises, but only those that may be accomplished by the agency of the NPCs.

    It is not as simple to run this kind of game, but complete player agency is our goal, not showing off our story writing skills. It is because that kind of freedom is impossible in video games that we strive for this. D&D can be more, should be more than a low tech video game. The human mind is capable of doing more than running through a maze. Let it run free!

  2. This is one of my favorite posts this semester, because the question of player agency has always been huge in my mind. Most games, I think, can be categorized into “no agency” (those that follow a linear storyline and make you stick to it, with some variations) and “illusion of agency” (when the game can be completed several different ways, but inevitably draw back to the same conclusion). If games want to have a narrative and a (semi-)coherent story, then there has to be less agency on the part of the player, just so they developers can finish their story in peace without it becoming muddled up by endless variation.

  3. Having survived a 7-hour session that can basically be summed up as “natty 1 onslaught” this last Wednesday, I came back to this post. As I was procrastinating really badly on studying for my orgo final, I started writing down my character’s thoughts and realized the importance of your point about how narrative is never *really* predetermined and is often completely unpredictable (some of my character’s mortal enemies became his friends and vice versa), which is what sets D&D apart from most other games.

  4. I totally agree with you on the importance of a creative and flexible DM to an enjoyable game of D&D. They effectively control the pacing of the narrative to always leave you wanting more. (I also picked this post as one of my favorites!)

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