I think the best way to start a story for your dungeons and dragons game is to find out what the players want and integrate their backstories into your plot.
This gives you a great foundation to build on. This way you aren't totally starting from scratch and it lets the players be involved in the process.
The DM isn't the only one who wants to be creative, so let your players give you ideas and goals for their characters.
Use MacGuffins. A MacGuffin is an artifact or a goal that the players are trying to find or fight for. The term was created by Alfred Hitchcock for his style of storytelling.
The best part is, a MacGuffin can be anything, including characters.
The best examples are; the plans to the death star, the lost ark, the wizard of oz, or the infinity stones.
In Wizard of Oz, the characters goal was to make it back home.
The MacGuffin was getting the wizards help.
A MacGuffin is a means to an end.
A driving force to keep the characters motivated to do something and the plot to move forward.
In a mystery story, every lead or clue, that the detective finds is a MacGuffin.
A suspect or missing character can be a MacGuffin too.
Like Will Byers in the first season of stranger things. The characters were all motivated to find Will and they wind up getting caught up in the their own stories.
Making Up a MacGuffin.
Use a treasure the party needs to find, or a magic item that needs to be sought out to complete their quest.
Do you have a wizard who wants to learn new or obscure magic? Give them a hidden staff or an ancient spell book to find.
Do you have a character with a missing family member or a bad guy that the player wants to bring to justice?
These can be MacGuffins too.
Have a mission where players have to protect a caravan or cargo ship from bandits or pirates.
Maybe a cult or a mafia organization is terrorizing a city and the players need kill all the bad guys who are hiding underground.
Don't worry about being original.
Yes, these stories are simple. Yes, they have been done before. That's okay. Do it. Have fun with it.
It's OK to have stories and ideas prepared for just a couple play sessions.
Don't overwhelm yourself by trying to create a grand epic like Game of Thrones. The epic is slowly built one session/session at a time.
Keep it simple. One session at a time.
Of course you can plant seeds and foreshadow your ideas for things to come. Let those seeds grow over time instead of trying to cram a ton of story, lore, and exposition into one session.
Keep the end goal simple.
Dorothy just wanted to get home.
The avengers needed to stop and invasion and close a portal above New York.
Indie wanted to find the Ark.
The goal can always be simple, and it's more memorable that way.
The obstacles and conflicts makes up the story.
Characters in movies always need to find or protect nuclear launch codes, simple idea.
In The Girl in the Spiders Web movie, the kid who knows the launch code is the MacGuffin. The story in that movie is Lizbeths' relationship with her sister and the conflict between them.
A simple goal will always work.
Especially when you have obstacles and conflict that are in the heroes way.
A simple goal could be that the players want the treasure that is behind a locked door.
The obstacle is to find pieces of a magic key that can open the door. Now you can add as many obstacles you want.
- A thief that has a piece of the key needs to be tracked down.
- A monster needs to be killed in order to get a key piece.
- A grumpy swamp witch won't give up her piece until you fetch some herbs in for her.
The goal is still the same, but the quest now has multiple parts.
This simple quest could take as long as you want it to take.
Let's say one of your players is a wizard who wants to learn a forgotten spell on a magic scroll. Simple story with the scroll as the MacGuffin.
Now, let's add some obstacles. First problem may be finding the location of the scroll.
The players could ask around town, meet NPC's that might be important later.
Players get info from some ancient myths or local legends about a hidden temple or crypt. Maybe they have to seek out a NPC who is lost in the woods somewhere before they get the right information.
The temple can be your "dungeon" where players will have to fight through different monsters, riddles, and traps in order to find the scroll.
All these are obstacles in your players way.
You can even add obstacles on the way to the dungeon. Add a gorge in the forest that needs crossing and the old rope bridge there has fallen apart.
The players fight their way through the dungeon, solve some puzzles, and obtain the scroll.
A boss or some bandits steal the scroll for their own goals, and now the players have to track down the enemy.
One of the enemies could be introduced in the starting town, and she hears about the players looking for the scroll. This big bad wants the scroll for herself.
The enemies can be anything, vampires, orcs, bandits of any race and class, and a character or two relating to a players backstory.
Make it personal by adding a bad guy from a players backstory, a guy who killed Uncle Ben, or an orc from a tribe that killed a players parents.
This gives the players more motivation to find the bad guys and it makes the story personal to the characters.
The players still have the same goal of retrieving the scroll, but now it's personal.
The players might want revenge.
After the enemies steal the scroll, they hide it in one of their hideouts, which could be the next "dungeon" location the players have to get through.
Same MacGuffin, new obstacles.
The next location can be anything that is part of the PC's or enemies stories. A warehouse, a thieves guild or a valley hidden in the mountains.
Same formula, the players have to fight enemies and get past traps in the second location.
After fighting through the dungeon and defeating a mini boss at this second location, The players could finally get the scroll.
The story setup with the scroll is now paid off and a players got what he wanted.
But now the adventuring party is involved in a plot with the bad guys!
The big bad evil guy continues her evil plans without the MacGuffin scroll.
The players find out that the baddies are going to enslave, take over, or destroy the town where the players live.
Lives are at stake!
The players have family that lives in this town.
The Players have to stop them!
Stopping the enemy and saving the town is the new MacGuffin.
The enemy is now the goal and the obstacle.
The villains could send out mercenaries or assassins to try to get rid of the players before the players even get back to town.
The bad guys are now consciously putting obstacles in the player way.
Once our heroes arrive in town, they have more problems and obstacles.
Treat the town itself as a "dungeon" location.
The bad guys have barricaded the roads and buildings, lighting houses on fire, creating obstacles for our players.
Add new goals.
An NPC runs up to the players and tells them that the players family is locked up or are about to be sacrificed to an evil god.
Make sure you have some NPC or another story device that lets the players know what their new goals are and what is at stake.
The villain doesn't need to know that it's the family, they just needed sacrifices and the family just happened to be there.
If you want the villain to be extra evil, she would know about the family in order to make the players suffer.
Not only do the players have to fight through enemies and defeat the villain, they have the new goal of saving the family and townspeople people as well.
The enemies will use as many obstacles as they can in order to slow down the heroes so they can achieve their goal.
Remember to Start Simple
What started out as a simple fetch quest to find a scroll is now an epic story line that spans multiple sessions and game nights.
The first night of playing, you might just be searching the town for clues, fighting a monster and getting across a broken bridge.
So don't worry right away about specific details and obstacles in your second and third locations.
Plan only one or two sessions at a time so you don't overwhelm yourself.
Plant clues about what you think might come next.
The story comes from the obstacles in the way of the players goals.
Use details and characters from players backstories to make it personal.
Make the obstacles, enemies, and puzzles interesting instead of a really complicated plot and obscure goals.
Making the enemies create obstacles can be really fun and it specifically involves the players.
Use whatever ideas that inspires you and make them your own!
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