Dungeons & Dragons

Cinematic Stories

This post is part of a series on cinematic combat in Dungeons & Dragons 4E. You can see the other posts in the series here.

When I started this series of posts 9 months ago, my focus was on making combat more cinematic, but since then its expanded in scope to ideas for getting a cinematic feel throughout an entire campaign rather than just individual combats. I’ve already touched on campaign planning a bit with the posts on pacing and villains, but for this post I wanted to give a few more tips for planning a cinematic campaign.

Have an End in Mind

First, I think it is important to know where the story is going to end. If your campaign has a major villain, then it only makes sense that the campaign’s climax will be a final fight against that opponent. You can think about the circumstances of the fight, but I’d avoid going into too much detail. For example, since starting my current campaign, I’ve known I wanted its heroic tier to end with a fight against Lord Tibus in the demon-infested ruins of Kalgir to stop him from unleashing an ancient ritual to destroy the kingdom of Capasia.

Know How to Get There

Once you have an ending in mind, you should think of a few touchstone points in the story. Think of these touchstones as the dots that the characters need to connect in order to uncover and eventually stop the villain’s plans. Each one should be significant not only as a challenging encounter (or series of encounters), but also as a revelation about the villain’s plans that will encourage the players to have their characters continue on the trail of their enemy. Planning these main plot points should help you figure out

In my campaign, I originally had the following touchstones:

  1. Recover a piece of ritual tablet for Lord Tibus
  2. Discover that a Vecnite cult is also looking for the tablet pieces
  3. Research the tablet in Talara and learn its purpose
  4. Get to Timanna’s Tower too late to stop Lord Tibus from getting another fragment
  5. Recover the key to Ordovan’s sanctum from a dragon’s lair
  6. Learn that Ordovan already gave his fragment of the tablet to Lord Tibus

Adapt to Unexpected Turns

As with any campaign, your players will do unexpected things. They might latch onto a detail you meant to be insignificant, or in my campaign’s case, when a gang ambushes them, they’ll flee halfway across the world rather than try to figure out why they were targeted.

When this happens, you’ll probably need to abandon some of the prep work that you’ve done, but there’s no reason to abandon all of it. If you want to get the characters back on track for the campaign’s planned story, then the ideas you came up with for touchstones can be a huge help. Since you know what stepping stones are important to the story, you just need to figure out a way to have the characters uncover the next touchstone’s plot information from their new trajectory.

For example, because my players had their characters flee the region rather than looking into why some thugs ambushed them, they never learned that the thugs were hired by a cult that was interested in the tablet fragment. Instead, they ended up fighting in a siege halfway across the world. To get them back on track, I decided to drop one of the ritual tablet pieces into the city they were defending and have thieves steal it. Since the characters were already involved with the city’s watchmen, they were asked to search for the thieves and eventually discovered that they had also been hired by Lord Tibus’s henchman Arik Graeme. Unfortunately, they didn’t catch up with the thieves until after they had handed over the fragment to Arik.

Skip to the Good Parts

Finally, to lend the campaign a cinematic feel, you should focus on the most exciting parts of the story. If an encounter isn’t significant to the plot, don’t waste 45 minutes on it. If the journey isn’t an important part of the story, skip over it and just have the characters arrive at their destination. This applies even within adventures and dungeons. For example, even if the narrative says that the villain’s lair is teeming with guards, let the characters get past them quickly with either a few Stealth and Athletics checks or a quick minions-only fight so that you all can focus on the more meaningful and exciting showdown with the villain.

By Scott Boehmer

A game enthusiast and software engineer.

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