Within in the Dungeons & Dragons community, there are a great number of people that have set themselves up for very specific expectations of a Dungeons & Dragons game. In terms of narrative and character, those expectations are set up by the typical expectations of fantasy as a genre. The fantasy genre is wide and varied, the formula for which was created by The Lord of the Rings, the Discworld saga, and a great number of other titles and pieces of folklore. Those books set up the expectations for the fantasy genre and the game itself was influenced by those very things, creating mechanics that adhere to those expectations. The problem is, those expectations get very boring very quickly. People rarely venture out of the influence of the structure that those titles have created. So, the question is, what does it mean to subvert narrative expectations in a game where the expectations are laid out for you on the page?
The pre-written content published by Wizards of the Coast is fairly limited in terms of concept and narrative but there is so much potential in D&D as a narrative form, not just a game. Novels (and even some animated shows and movies) are still a superior vehicle for narrative-driven experiences because those pieces of media don’t limit themselves to the fantasy structure of something like Lord of the Rings to tell a fantasy story. Because of that, those shows, books, and movies have the ability to introduce more concepts and worldbuilding within the context of its own identity. A beautiful example of this is The Magicians by Lev Grossman. Although I haven’t read the entire series yet (I’m partially into the second book so far), I can tell you that the concepts of magic and worldbuilding are incredibly diverse for a fantasy novel. That, and the story is wildly different than what you expect of the genre it comes from. There are plenty of examples of shows and movies introducing different concepts that you don’t expect from the genre. Winx Club, the show that I talked about in my article about creating a homebrew race, is a surprisingly good example of molding the fantasy genre into something unexpected and equally just as surprisingly well-thought out. Yes, it is a children’s cartoon. However, it is a refreshing and bizarre take on the lore of fae creatures, something that isn’t often changed or modified in fantasy worlds. That is precisely why I used it as a base for the homebrew race I created.
One of the best versions of subverting narrative expectations is The Adventure Zone: Balance Arc. Now, some people might not like The Adventure Zone because of how loose the hosts are with the rules of the game. I believe someone once said that learning the rules of D&D from the McElroy Brothers was like going to clown college. And they have a point. But that doesn’t change the fact that Griffin McElroy’s performance and writing in this portion of the series is a master class in mutating the narrative form of Dungeons & Dragons into a touching, beautiful, and awe-inspiring narrative. More than the fact that the show is hilarious, beautiful, and intense all in the same breath, it also has some of the most incredible variation in narrative style I’ve seen in any Dungeons & Dragons show or podcast. The first arc starts as a simple dungeon crawl using the starter kit for 5th Edition but arcs after that change drastically into something that’s unexpected from the game itself. Griffin does a wonderful job of seamlessly creating a unique and interesting world that bleeds the concepts he uses into a surprisingly coherent narrative. You wouldn’t expect to hear about an old “Cowboy Western” town stuck in a time loop or a Mad Max-esque style battle wagon race or an organization whose homebase is on a false moon all within the context of the same D&D podcast, but, alas, here we are. Griffin somehow has the ability to have all of these things exist within the same world and exist in peace with one another. If you’re looking to make your campaign weird, The Adventure Zone is where to go to get some pointers.
Another really good example of using the game to a weird potential is CollegeHumor’s D&D show, Dimension 20, specifically Fantasy High. Fantasy High, a D&D show about a bunch of high school students attending a school for adventurers, is truly a surreal experience. It combines Dungeons & Dragons with the feel of an afterschool sitcom, cellphones, automobiles, arcades, and prom invitations included. Brennan Lee Mulligan, the DM for the show, does an absolutely wonderful job of blending high fantasy and the politics of D&D with a modern, suburban high school setting. There certainly wasn’t a precedent for it that I had seen before watching the series. This is a great example of making what seems out of place seem perfectly normal.
For me, it means taking what my players expect from a D&D game or a typical fantasy narrative and twisting those expectations in ways that they don’t expect. This could include homebrew mechanics or changes to the mechanics or aesthetics of the games style to create something you wouldn’t typically get out of regular dungeon crawl. It really is just a matter of using ideas that you don’t typically think of as being a part of this world and giving them a place. I’ve run a murder mystery in game and not that long ago, I started an adventure arc where the players go ghost hunting (with a group that one of my guest players named, literally, The Ghost Busters). In a secondary campaign for the podcast I talked about in my last article, the player characters start off by waking up after dying tragic deaths. Within the world, I’ve created a setting that fuses some different concepts that aren’t typically seen. One of the towns in this world is in the midst of an industrial revolution, meaning much of the town is populated with steampunk technology. The flying ships in my game aren’t powered by elementals but by large pieces of elementally infused magic crystals that keep it afloat. Outside of my active campaigns, I’m developing a homebrew campaign guide where the fantasy elements take place in a fantasy MMORPG (with meta game mechanics included).
If you have enough creativity, you can do pretty much whatever you want. You can create homebrew items and storylines that are weird and unusual. You can make the game take the form you want it to, to tell the stories you want to tell. You want your campaign to be weird and meta with hints of warped reality? Go for it. You want your campaign to be set in a modern setting? Go ahead and do that. You want your campaign to follow a similar plot to the one in Jurassic Park? There are dinosaurs in the game. You don’t even have to work that hard for that one.
As I once said to a player of mine, forget the mechanics of the game for a second.
What story do you want to tell?