It’s the final showdown. Your party is face-to-face with the ancient dragon. You roll initiative and charge into battle! Spells fire left and right, shattered stone rains down, and the rogue is running across the wall and shouting “PARKOUR!” before landing on the dragon’s head and lassoing it with a chain.
Like anyone else, I love those big bombastic scenes where the “rule of cool” takes a front seat. They’re amazing, they’re memorable, and they’re what we think back to years after the campaign has ended. But they aren’t always the most important scenes in your game.
No; sometimes the most important scenes in your game are much smaller. And much quieter.
They’re the little moments.
Legendary heroes. Vile villains. Epic battles.
These are all part and parcel with the fantasy genre. We experience these things through books, movies, and television. We even see them play out in real time during live play games like Critical Role. Almost every Dungeons & Dragons player who’s been at it for a while has at least one story of something BIG that happened to their merry band of adventurers. So it’s only natural that we seek to experience these things in our own games.
But these larger-than-life events aren’t all that your game needs to be about. Just like any good book or movie has quiet moments in between the action, so too should your game. It’s in these lulls, these “little moments” that we often find the most wondrous things. These little moments give us opportunities to gain insight into who our characters are, establish bonds between party members, engage in worldbuilding, and collaboratively grow the narrative of our game.
Let’s talk about character, for a minute. Not like the fictional characters we portray in our games, but who we are as people. Charles Caleb Coulter said “The true measure of your character is what you do when nobody’s watching.”
What do you do when no one is around, or when no one knows that it’s you? What do your characters do in those instances?
During adventures, our characters might sometimes find themselves alone. Maybe the party is split, or maybe you’re just enjoying some downtime at the end of an adventure. Either way, these are opportunities to explore the true “character” of your character.
If you’re alone in your room at the inn, does your character pray to their deity? Do they meticulously oil their weaponry? Is there a miniature giant space hamster hidden in their backpack that they like to talk to?
If they’re roaming the alleyways of Baldur’s Gate, do they hand out gold to nearby beggars, or do they turn up their collar and ignore the poverty around them?
If they’ve gotten separated from the party inside of a dungeon, do they frantically search for a way back, or calmly search for a way forward?
All of these small details, these small actions, add up to create a big picture of our characters’ inner personalities—who they truly are. And sure, they aren’t really alone; you and the dungeon master are always watching, to say nothing of the other players. But this is a roleplaying game, and we can pretend just a little.
I’m a big fan of Harry Potter; books and movies alike. One of my favorite bits from the whole franchise is a scene in Deathly Hallows Part One.
Harry and Hermione are trekking across the countryside, looking for Horcruxes. They’ve found themselves adrift without their friend, Ron, who up and left earlier in the story. In this scene, they’ve set up camp on a high steppe, and they don’t know what to do next.
The scene starts off quiet and gives us a look at the two characters in their downtime. Hermione’s listening to the radio, Harry’s wandering around, and you can tell that their worries, and the enormity of their task, are weighing on them. But, without prompting, Harry takes Hermione by the hand, takes the horcrux from around her neck, and they begin to dance to a song on the radio.
Their cares fade away, and they have fun. No words are spoken by either character, and the whole scene is over in about two minutes. Nothing about the movie’s plot is changed by this scene—you could remove it, and everything else would work just fine—but it’s such a memorable scene for me. We, as the audience, got to see two people—who were already great friends—grow a bit closer and support each other emotionally. We got to see their bond strengthen and grow.
Similar scenes can play out in your own games. I’m sure more than a few of you out there have had campfire scenes with a bard playing some music. Why not add a little dancing to top off the little moment, eh?
Granted, if you roll a 1 on your performance check, it might become a big moment where you fall into the fire.
So be careful.
Organic Growth of the Narrative
So much of what goes into a campaign isn’t planned ahead of time by a Dungeon Master. A lot of it is organic; made up in response to what the characters do or say—especially if it’s a homebrew game. When you’re all sitting around a campfire, hypothesizing about who or what the Big Bad Evil Guy is, or what they’ll do next, your DM is probably quietly taking notes. Some of what you make up likely never crossed their mind before and might be better than what they had planned! In those cases, there is a good chance that your idea makes it into the campaign, or at least plants a seed for further ideas.
This organic growth and unwitting contribution to a campaign’s narrative can’t happen without these little moments of quiet, where your characters are able to catch their breath and talk. If they’re constantly running from one encounter to another, that breakneck pace prevents any of this from happening.
Big battles and gut-wrenching revelations may define our memories of a campaign, but it’s these little moments that help shape the overall narrative.
If you’re roving across the countryside, moving from point A to point B, you should stop and smell the roses. If there aren’t any roses, stop and see what else there is to smell, see, touch, hear or maybe even taste. Travel can be seen as one of the more boring sides of the game, with distances hand waved over montages and dice rolls. However, travel doesn’t have to be a bad thing, as it can be a great opportunity to explore the world and your characters’ relation to it.
As you travel down the beaten path, what makes this area any different to other locations tied to the world? Our intrepid adventurers wouldn’t be silent for hours and days on end; they’d fill in the silences with delightful—or maybe not so delightful—conversation. They’d talk about things that humor them, things that delight them, and of course talk about the world in which they inhabit.
A lot of Dungeon Masters have crafted worlds with intricate histories and cultures, and you can help that work pay off by exploring it during little moments in your travels.
The next time you find your group sitting around an imaginary campfire or tavern table, don’t be in too much of a hurry to cast off toward the next adventure. Engage in a little downtime. Talk. Chit chat. Ask questions and get to know the other characters. Get to know your own character. Talk to the NPCs that inhabit the world. Allow there to be some non-explosive moments that make the explosive moments shine. See what happens when we sit down and allow for the natural occurrences in the game to truly be natural.
You never know what character- and campaign-defining moments will come to the fore.