Telling a story in D&D through your campaign has a number of crucial differences from storytelling in other mediums, but the basics still very much apply.
Every Session a Story
It's very useful to think about every session as a self-contained story, a single part in the winding, epic tale of the campaign, with its own beginning, middle, and end. When you frame each session of your campaign this way, your party should catch on too, and they can participate in storytelling along with you, helping each session flow in a more natural way.
You can even weave themes and motifs into each session, writing the outline of a session as a hard-boiled murder mystery, or a character-centric session, focusing on the issues or past of a single player character. A single session might focus on revenge, or dreams, or finding love. When done subtly, this can have a more profound effect in a single session by simply keeping it contained and using it to motivate a just one day of gaming.
To help frame each session this way, you can begin with a recap of the last session, and try your best to end on a strong note with the closing of the third act. It's better to have a shorter, more poignant session than one that gets too long in the tooth, and, without fail, this leads to more memorable D&D experiences.
Inciting Incidents Matter
Every story, ever, begins with an inciting incident, and your sessions should be no different.
Make sure you merge the inciting incident with the all-important plot hook. Plan this incident carefully to drag your players in, make them ask questions, and give them motivation to drive the story themselves. If you kick things off strong, you can usually keep the momentum going for the entire session.
However, the inciting incident need not be the first thing the players hear when you begin, it just needs to start the main action and focus of the session. Normally, a few minutes for the party to gather themselves, purchase new equipment, and do some preliminary interactions helps to keep the momentum higher later. This period is normally referred to as the First Act, and should be kept as short as possible, provided your players have enough time to prepare.
Every story should have a Beginning, Middle, and End. Understanding this Three-Act Structure is the crucial to telling your session's story.
We've already touched on the First Act, the Exposition, which in most narratives is meant to establish the characters and setting. Often, this can be kept as minimal as possible, as the party should already be familiar with each other and the main NPCs of the campaign. Special attention should be paid to the first session of the campaign, when this isn't true, and more time must be dedicated to introducing everyone. Stereotypically, this act takes place in a tavern, where the party can mingle, meet NPCs, and be given a quest to motivate the session, but there's no reason for it to be this generic. There's perhaps an entire article worth of material in planning alternatives to the classic, and overused, tavern opening.
The majority of the session will be the Second Act, the Rising Action, which addresses the inciting incident and the events which spiral out from it. It's very important to keep the momentum as high as possible during this section, while also giving the party large swaths of control over its direction. You can do a lot in this section, and it can be composed of multiple smaller quests, but its wise to keep a consistent theme and goal across the entire Second Act, which can be addressed in the Climax, the big finisher of the session.
Following the climax is the Third Act, the Falling Action. This is where you quickly wrap up the session, distribute a little bit of treasure and put the dice away. A short Third Act is important to clinching a strong session into a great experience for everyone involved. End on a strong note.
Planning for Chaos
You might be thinking 'That's all well and good, but what if my party has other ideas?' It's not too hard to plan your campaign accordingly.
It's wiser to write an 'outline' for your sessions, rather than a hard-and-fast script, with events locked in a tight order. Additionally, you can set up a number of plot hooks and a number of short quests, and give the players the chance to choose the direction the session goes. Take a look at the Job-Posting Board for a practical example of what I'm talking about.
Lastly, a little suggestion can go a long way. If you set up a routine for each session that your players can understand, you can indicate when the session properly starts and when it's coming to a close. You might even be able to outright announce the acts as they happen, if your party is fine with a little meta-gaming.
- - -
As always, if you have any questions, DMing-related or otherwise, feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And of course, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.