Patterns in Dungeons and Dragons

When we build our worlds and craft our games, we regularly want to shock and impress our players and their characters with dramatic battles, unforeseen twists, and flamboyant personalities. We yearn to see them reel back in their chairs in dismay as the true villain is revealed, shout out in terror as their orc ally decapitates a prisoner, or let out hearty laughs as the stocky halfling innkeeper tosses yet another rude vagrant to the street. Surprising moments are important in D&D, and they are made possible with patterns, something many of us probably utilize without realizing it—and our games are better for it.

Understanding what patterns we use allows us to change them up to make our games better and more exciting.

First and foremost, patterns help us feel comfortable. After DMing for awhile, we tend to design things in a certain way: dungeons, boss battles, NPCs, etc. The patterns we create allow us to easily improvise at the table, one of the most important skills for DMs.

Let’s dig a bit deeper.

Story Structure

D&D is all about telling a story with friends. Whether our game spans many months & years as a down-on-their-luck adventuring party evolves from hunting giant rats in a dank sewer to knocking down fiery citadels in the Nine Hells, or a single day with a brief battle between rampaging goblins and hearty dwarves, a clear beginning, middle, and end are defined. Almost everyone follows this pattern, flowing seamlessly from one section to the next. Players expect it. They are comfortable with it because it’s familiar and accepted, but we can always improve on it.

Once we’ve mastered this pattern, we can manipulate it to greaten our games or just experiment.

In the beginning, players expect relatively simple villains and lesser stakes. Shake it up! 

Don’t begin in a village with a bandit problem, start in a hamlet terrorized by a portal to the Plane of Fire—and the PCs are the only ones capable enough of somehow closing it or driving off the fire newts and magmin who emerge!

Here are a few more ideas of how to change up a story’s start.
  • Reveal the primary antagonist immediately, instead of placing subtle hints at their presence and plans
  • Draw from A Song of Ice and Fire and begin each adventure or campaign with a brief story with characters of brief mortality to set the stage
  • Begin with a flash forward, then whizz back to the present; somehow the story reaches the flash forward scene, it can make for some interesting play
Much of the same can be done for middles and endings, though they’re a bit more difficult to tinker with. Starts have little build up behind them, while middles and endings might have dozens of hours and a few adventures of foundation. Twists work during these points—they’re expected—but be careful to not invalidate the groundwork placed beforehand.

Orderly Dungeons

Lots of advice I’ve read over the years advocates for the creation of dungeons in a very specific manner, and I’ve come to adapt much of it for my own campaigns. And while this dungeon design pattern might be good for us, it’s not for our players. If our players realize every dungeon has the potential for 2 combats, 1 social interaction, 2 exploration rooms, 1 secret passage, and a boss battle, they might begin to meta-game, or, even worse, become bored.

Thus, once we’ve established a pattern we’re comfortable with, we need to mix it up, not remain complacent.

Let your dungeons flow together. 

They might begin rigid: a room with false floor traps and a goblin archer, a prison with an exhausted but sassy ranger, and a pit filled with grey ooze. What we might see at first is a combat encounter, a social encounter, and an exploration/combat encounter, but we can mold them together to make something new.

What happens if the goblin is absent, feeding her grey ooze “pets?” Perhaps the ranger freed herself earlier in the day, and tries to escape as the party engages the skilled goblin archer! Maybe the goblin forgot to feed her pets and they turned not only on her, but the prisoner too and have spread across the tiny cavern complex, tapping into a magical spring in it, becoming sentient.

We want to build living worlds for our players to explore. We can build them using familiar patterns, lots of times on the fly, and because of our comfort with these patterns, twist them to surprise, impress, and invest our players in the game and world.

Silly Coincidences or Mysterious Plans?

When worldbuilding, it’s a fun, maybe meaningless practice to place patterns across our worlds. Keith Baker’s Eberron, for example, constantly shows off thirteen minus one: 13 planes, 13 dragonmarks, 13 moons, etc. My own world, Eldar, has a recurring pattern of eight: the Champion Octet, the Dark Eight, originally eight moons, etc. While we don’t necessarily need to have reasons for these patterns, it’s fun to think about why this might be. Think about what your world’s pattern could be and why it exists. If nothing else, it adds a bit of mystery for our players; perhaps they’ll think up an amazing idea and leave it ripe for picking and placing.

Lessons Learned

Patterns in D&D are powerful and we use them constantly.
  1. We develop patterns as DMs that help us improvise as we grow wiser at the table.
  2. Players notice patterns often and that allows us to pick the perfect moment to surprise them!
  3. Sometimes patterns don’t need to mean anything, they’re just a fun addition to our worlds.
Until the next encounter, farewell!

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