Embrace Randomness: Generate Compelling Storylines and Unlock Player Agency

Random Dice I'm going to say something that might shock some DMs: I don't prepare anything for my D&D campaign. There's no planned storyline, no premade dungeons or encounters, and characters are made up on the spot. I know there's plenty of other DMs that do this, but here's the other thing: I suck at improvisation and coming up with stuff on the fly. Like a deer in headlights except the beams are creativity and the car is the awkward tension in the room. The road represents more and more time passing. See, I had to come up with that on the spot, it's terrible.

Yet my games have been much better, the players are much more engaged and invested in the storyline, the plot and decisions much more meaningful. This is specifically because nothing is predetermined, where the players go and what they do is actually up to them. Important characters die, sometimes abruptly, like in the first books of Game of Thrones before SOMEONE lost their nerve. The players never feel railroaded with a BBEG (Big Bad Evil Guy) and they're not cut off from going a certain way or doing something due to it not being ready. It's because I've embraced generators.

Let's set the scene: The players arrive in the village of Redrath Fort. It's a population of just under a thousand with primarily Halflings and Elves. Traditional worship of religious gods has been outlawed by the Halfling ruler who is greatly respected by the populace for his fair and just rulings. Seemingly, everything runs smoothly and the races get along in harmony, yet in truth the ruler is being manipulated by his new adviser. This adviser belongs to a powerful cabal of golem-builders who have threatened to unleash their colossi upon the village and have set the golems up as statues within the village to be worshiped instead.

Medieval Village

The most popular tavern in town that the party stops at is Brottor's Respite, run by a Dwarf named Brottor Trueblood. He's quite visibly scarred, but tries to cover it with nicely tailored suits. He's known by locals to be a bit of a drug addict and recluse, but will engage in friendly conversation with patrons to try and butter them up. If the players try to learn more about him they'll find that he's divorced and trying to regain custody of his son, his wife ran off with a stableman and he may try to get the players to help him. Or maybe he'll just try to score some drugs. The tavern itself is a plaster and wood framed building shaped a bit like an orb, with an orange shingled roof and rough wooden furniture. There are high vaulted ceilings where cured meats and cheese hang. A pot of turnip stew bubbles on the fire, yet curiously there are no other patrons. Outside a traveling carnival is setting up, which has stolen much of the attention. One of the players might recognize one of the performers from a wanted poster they saw earlier...

Seems like a good set up for some adventure, with lots of possible leads for the players to follow or ignore, and several characters that can have their lives changed based on what the players decide to do. As a DM, I just let whatever happens, happen. Maybe they take over the cabal? Maybe they find out Brottor's wife left because he'd get drugged up and beat them and they have to choose a side? Maybe they just leave and go somewhere else. No real skin off my back, because I didn't come up with any of it. The town was created with this town generator which provided the population, demographics, the tavern, and ruler plot hook. Brottor is from this NPC generator which generates motivations and backstories. The rest of the little plot hooks are results from this plot hook generator which I sprinkled in liberally to add some interesting twists. The best part of it is that I generated and wrote all that up in about 5 minutes, if I need a new NPC quickly I just refresh and there it is.

Generators can do a lot of the heavy lifting and split second detail, taking guess work out of the equation so you can focus on player interactions and running the game (which is hard enough as it is). Sometimes they can also make things more engaging and interesting by using rules that you had never considered. How do you handle wilderness travel in your game? Do you just blip there? Do you make sure the players have enough rations and handle foraging? What about navigation? Some biomes are harder to get through than others. There's also things like temperature and weather which can cause fatigue or hamper visibility. Heavy wind or rainfall can put out campfires- a much needed source of warmth when the weather is freezing. What about random encounters? Would you ever put your group of level 1 players up against a CR5 Troll? Maybe he's not hostile and has other motivations. My wilderness travel was a lot less interesting until I started using the wilderness travel generator which does all that. Suddenly players are carefully foraging for watercress, blackberries, and hazelnuts. Making sure they drink enough water to avoid heat stroke as they make their way across a dead magic zone. They stumble upon an angry mob about to attack a peaceful village of orcs. If they side with the mob they'll fight a group of orcs lead by an Eye of Gruumsh. If they side with the orcs they'll fight a group of commoners, guards, and scouts with a bard. To make these groups I set the filters ("orcs" and civil humanoids respectively) in the encounter generator and clicked random. The all-important looting afterwards is handled by the treasure generator.


D&D is also about dungeon crawls of course, and maybe you really enjoy putting together dungeons, or maybe the players stumble upon some ruins and decide to explore them. In those cases there are dungeon generators to keep the action moving.

Even if you're running a more grounded story mainly in the city, maybe it's an evil campaign where the players are robbing someone's house. A stucco home with a heather-thatched roof and finely crafted furniture. They come in through the window into the cottage. It's a single bachelor-style room with a bed and chest, along with a dresser on the far wall. In the middle of the room is a simple cooking pot over an enclosed flame. Cured meats are hung in bundles along the far wall. A few sheep are grazing at a hay bale in the corner. That was all generated, and the map is readily available at the house map generator. The players find what they came for in the chest: an Ale Stine of Minute Seeing, a cursed item that causes the imbiber to have disadvantage on attack rolls which they plan to use on a rival at Brottor's Respite. The stine was generated at the magic item generator. Their rival is a male Gnome named Seebo Ironhide. No, wait, that's not a good name. His name is Fibblen Bafflestone. I got those from the name generator.

What I find interesting about generating content is figuring out how it all fits together. What are the ramifications of slaughtering villagers to protect peaceful orcs? Who will become a new enemy, who will become an ally? The sheriff is another character to generate with his own backstory and motivations. Stephen King said his stories are all about characters with their own objectives and weaknesses all coming into conflict with each other. How does it resolve? Who succeeds, who fails? That engages your players and gives them agency over the story. Even I don't know what will happen, which makes it fun for me. Sometimes it's like I'm watching a show unfold where I never know what will happen next. When any random character you come across can have their own detailed backstory from a backstory generator these are all character arcs waiting to happen. Sometimes an arc ends badly, but it's the possibility of that which creates compelling narratives instead of predictable hero journeys with happy endings. Instead of black and white, embrace the grays.


Hopefully this gives you some ideas on how you can use generators to fill in needed details, give ideas for encounters and plot hooks, or even generate your entire campaign. The point is not that they can do everything for you, but rather give you some great ideas to weave into a greater cohesive whole. When you have to spend hours writing out everything yourself you can often feel trapped by it, or that your players are ignoring all the hard work you've put in. It's a lose-lose situation, they feel like they have no agency over what happens or feel like their choices don't matter in the greater narrative or influence the world in a meaningful way, and you feel restricted to only a small corner and linear path through your world. By focusing your creativity on piecing the parts together and focusing on the reactions and motivations of your characters you still get to craft a world and storyline without necessarily knowing what will happen next. That's exciting for everyone.

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