Central Tension in a D&D Game

Jungle Waterfall Cliffs (UE4), by Tyler Smith. My players and I used this beautiful 3D render as a way to visualize the environment of Hyperion.

Warband’s Divide, chapter 8 of my long-running tabletop D&D campaign, was entirely built around one concept: exploring central conflict and tension.

The Warband was a tribe of warmongering orcs, nothing unusual. They inhabited an enormous, fantastically tall plateau named Hyperion — home to highly vertical landscapes, untamed jungles, and dangerous predatory fauna.

Hyperion provided enough for the entire Warband to survive, even if dinner had to be beaten into submission before eaten. But, much like in classical fantasy, the Warband’s orcs didn’t just want to survive. They wanted to live! And, for an orc, to live is to war!

From the Driving Force

The unrelated death of the previous Khan gave way to new leadership. A renewed sense of pride grew over the khanate, a desire to strike back. The new leaders were distinctly more capable than their predecessors. Better, stronger armies rose, superior strategies were implemented.

One of the first who would taste this renewed strength and focus would be the Warband. The orc’s raids began to fail more often. Over time, the power dynamic shifted entirely — the orcs would see themselves on the defensive side, just barely getting by.

Emerges the Central Tension

He made a simple offer: pledge yourself to my service, and I shall grant you power. The orcs who took his offer became known as the Given — soulless creatures of vastly superior agility, strength, and brutality.
With Io’s presence known throughout the Warband, a divide had grown.

There were two factions: Those who believed Io’s proposal was a tremendous and nefarious evil, and those who were simply not willing to see their people and heritage die.

What I Intended to Happen

Some Given looked at their newfound power with admiration and accepted Io’s offer eagerly. Others looked at it with horror, rationalizing it merely as ‘what must be done, a sacrifice of sorts to protect the Warband.

The regular orcs stared at the Given as they would look upon someone who has betrayed their own family. They believed that if the circumstances dictated it, the Warband would stand and die in battle, not resort to some nefarious power.

The regular orcs did not cherish their own position either — it was not some grandstand of honor. It was a tragic end, never meant to happen. They enjoyed battle, not death.

What Actually Happened

No plan survives first contact with the players.

I never truly understood what that meant more than as I was DMing this chapter in my campaign. Unfortunately, the conflict simply devolved into a binary of good and evil.

My players acted brutishly through the story, caring singularly about going from goal to goal. They lashed out in anger at the Given, with no regard, or in this case, empathy for their cause or reasoning.

They didn’t really bother to understand the other side either — it wasn’t even necessary; the Given were the evil guys anyway.

Are you stupid? Dealing with a devil?

What I’ve Learned

I failed to play up several factors during play. Firstly, I let them play brutishly, with no regard or empathy. They never asked anyone what they thought, and I never indeed showed them that things weren’t as black and white or as simple as they imagined.

I never really played up the khanate as an overwhelming foe either. The driving force was weak. The players didn’t really grasp the situation at hand because they never really understood that fighting the khanate was hardly an option.

At one point, a large-scale battle took place where the Warband defended its ground. It was a Pyrrhic victory, but in truth, it should have been a devastating loss. I should have made encounters against the khanate invaders deadly and overwhelming. Unwinnable, even.

I should have taken more inspiration from actual conflicts, too. The Cold War had two sides, but it was hardly a battle of good versus evil. The American Civil War and the Colonial Period would have been, perhaps, even better inspirations.

Yes, the South fought to kept slavery. Still, to southern soldiers, the overwhelming majority of which never owned any slaves, it wasn’t about slavery. It was about defending their land and culture against invaders. Reducing them to simply ‘evil’ is naive.

Wrapping Up

You’ve surely noticed, too, that this is less of a guide on building central tension than it is a note on a personal experience I had.

If you want to try something similar, and I strongly encourage you to do so, central tension, when well-executed, can step up a story dramatically. Avoid the failings I’ve had. Don’t expect it to go perfectly the first time you try it. And remember, if it doesn’t work, don’t worry. You’ll learn and become a better DM next time.

Game Programmer, Digital Cartographer, AI Enthusiast, Pentesting Hobbyist and passionate storywriter!

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