D&D 101: Planting Your Plot Seeds and Letting Them Grow

Flexibility and understanding your players are two of the biggest keys to building a plot that your players care about. Welcome to D&D 101, a column that answers reader questions about Dungeons & Dragons (and other tabletop games.) We'll cover everything from game management skills, character builds, and creating memorable campaigns to some of the trickier "social" aspects of the game. If you have a question that you'd like to see answered in a future column, leave us a comment or find me on Twitter at @CHofferCbus and ask me on there!

This week's question comes from @Will_Knight3 on Twitter, who asked about how to plant plot seeds and lore ideas early that can come into play later in a campaign. Foreshadowing is one of the most powerful tools in a DM's pocket, as they make for great "Aha!" moments when pulled off right. Players love to see pieces of the puzzle come together, but it usually requires some longterm planning and a ton of patience to not spill the secrets.

However, foreshadowing can be difficult to pull off in a D&D campaign, mainly because you're collaboratively telling a story with other people. Unless you're a DM that railroads your players from one plot point to the next, there's never a guarantee that the story will go the way you want it too. You might foreshadow a villain that never comes into play into your campaign, or your party will just never be interested in those rumors of a lost city hidden under a mountain. So how do you foreshadow and plan ahead when there's no guarantee of a payoff?

I've noted in a previous column that DMs shouldn't focus too much on the future of their campaign, but that doesn't mean that you can't create the illusion of foreshadowing in your story. One trick that I use to create a sense of foreshadowing is to plant "plot seeds" during sessions, even when I'm not sure what they'll lead to. Official Dungeons & Dragons adventures do this all the time - they build in dangling plot hooks that don't necessarily tie into the main plotline so that DMs can either customize the campaign or use those hooks to further a character's backstory. DMs can easily toss little plot seeds into their campaign that they can use in the story later. After all, the players won't know that you have no idea about what those strange symbols on a dungeon wall means, but you'll look like a genius when you tie them into some villain a few months later.

When planting plot seeds to use later, it's important to pay attention to what the players take interest in, what they acknowledge, and what they completely ignore. Once you understand what your player is interested in, the easier it is to draw them into a plot by laying bread crumbs for them to follow. Pay attention to what sort of plot hooks players are attracted to - do they care about ancient lore, or are they more attracted to strange magic phenomena? Figuring out what sort of NPCs do the players like to interact with and what sort of quests they like make it a lot easier to dangle mysteries in front of them that they'll want to solve without making them feel like you're forcing them down a particular path.

DMs can also make use of dangling plot hooks that your party acknowledges but doesn't follow up on. Remember that your Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting is a living one, and that the various forces of that world don't stop moving simply because your players aren't interested in them. If players choose not to investigate that mysterious cloaked figure lurking about a town, that cloaked figure probably succeeded in their plot and could play a bigger role in the story moving forward. Maybe that cloaked figure becomes a major threat to the party, or maybe they work for the campaign's eventual big bad. If players choose not to follow a particular plot, you can modify it to fit into your story later. Remember that nothing in your D&D campaign is canon until it actually happens in the campaign - so feel free to retcon those dangling plot hooks to craft a bigger story.

So - how does a DM keep track of all that foreshadowing or loose plot hooks? Personally, I keep good notes that list what story hooks players have followed and what story hooks are still lingering without answers. Whenever I'm building a story session, I look back at my list and see if there's any plot points or story hooks that can be tied back into the main storyline. I also have a corkboard filled with notecards that I bring out at every D&D session so the players can see what sort of questions are currently lingering over the campaign. While I initially worried that having a "Jeopardy Board" was a bit heavyhanded, players have really enjoyed having a visual representation of the various plot lines and it helps me tie things back to the stories they seem to be interested in.

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The key to foreshadowing in Dungeons & Dragons is remembering that your story should be very malleable. Don't be afraid to drop plot hooks that the players aren't interested in, or repurpose them later. Nothing in Dungeons & Dragons is set in stone and the best DMs recycle unused material all the time. Being flexible and paying attention to the needs and desires of a player will help you effortlessly plant foreshadowing in your story that you can use to great effect later.

If you have a question for D&D 101, leave it in the comment section or find me on Twitter at @CHofferCbus to tell me what you want to see in a future column!