I was doing some (much-needed) organizing of my desk and bookshelf today when I came across a stash of old notebooks.
The next thing I knew, I was completely absorbed in flipping through the pages of each and every one of them. It was kind of like unearthing a time capsule!
Of the lot, the most exciting was my notebook from a creative writing course I took several years ago. The professor was one of the most undeniably brilliant people I’ve ever met!
Skimming through the pages of notes, I stumbled upon a section that directly inspired this article.
Whether you’re trying to write the next Game of Thrones or are working hard on prepping for your next D&D campaign, you might want to keep some red thread with you!
What do I mean by that?
Well, let’s talk about the Red Thread and why it belongs in every DM’s toolkit!
What is the Red Thread
As it was taught to me, the Red Thread is the element of a story that is present throughout the work. It might sometimes be very direct and impossible to miss, but it could also be much more subtle from time to time.
Ultimately, the Red Thread is the common denominator that ties everything together in a story. It’s what creates a sense of consistency in uniting a collection of scenes or elements in a story.
You might also know this as a throughline or common thread. For me at least, thinking of it as a Red Thread helps make it seem more tangible and significant.
The professor that taught the creative writing class also taught a German literature class. Naturally, there was quite a bit of spillover between the two classes. She said that the Red Thread (or roter Faden in German) was particularly a key element of classical German and Northern European literature.
(If I have any German or Northern European readers, I’d love to know if this is something you’re taught in school!)
But, frankly, I don’t think it’s limited to just that.
Elements of this Red Thread have been used all over the world for storytelling. Used properly, it lets the storyteller seamlessly bring in elements of foreshadowing, dramatic irony, mystery, curiosity, and more.
Do you see where this is going?
For the same reason that this is such a powerful tool for storytelling, it can be used to hit those same beats at the D&D table!
How to Use the Red Thread as a DM
In many ways, planning a D&D adventure is like writing a book.
However, you also have no control over what the
chaotic gremlins… I mean… players… will do next. (Otherwise, you risk turning into a railroading DM and that is NOT a good thing in a game that’s all about choices…)
But beyond the fact that you have virtually no control over what the characters in this story will do, you have a huge level of creative freedom. You can influence the characters of the story, but you can’t control them.
So how do you do that?
You create those feelings that we talked about: curiosity, mystery, foreshadowing, excitement…
In your game, Players will go where the fun is. Assuming you’ve set the stage well (describing what’s ahead and how it relates to the party’s objectives), that’s the direction they’re going to go.
After all, having fun is why everyone is at the table to begin with!
So, imagine these quests, objectives, and/or locations as “scenes.”
In some, the Red Thread may be a huge and impossible to miss presence. For example, the party is storming a fort to take out the BBEG’s loyal lieutenant and send a message. That’s a clear and obvious connection between the scene and the overarching story against the BBEG.
Other times, the Red Thread might be more subdued. The party is taking out a gang of bandits that have been terrorizing the area. While in the base, they notice crates of supplies stamped with the same logo they saw in that evil cult’s lair.
Who is providing supplies to these evil factions? We should investigate…
Rather than trying to shoehorn your campaign’s themes, a Red Thread in each scene that leads to the next event will help you tie it all together. Run the dungeon however you’d like, just add in a bit of Red Thread!
The Red Thread and the MacGuffin
The real “one-two punch” as it relates to crafting your D&D campaign relies on mixing the Red Thread with the MacGuffin.
I’ve already written about the MacGuffin and how to use it. You can read that article here!
The short version is that the MacGuffin is the “thing” that the party wants. This “thing” may or may not be a thing. It could be a person, an object, an outcome, or a state of being.
But whatever it is, the party wants it and is attempting to get it.
So the MacGuffin is what moves the story along as the party goes after it. The Red Thread is what ties the elements of the story together. This means that the Red Thread further connects both the party and the MacGuffin together.
How long is the Red Thread? Is it straight in some places while knotted up in others?
Who knows?! That’s up to you, your players, and the luck of dice to determine!
The point is that the Red Thread keeps a connection between the players and the MacGuffin. No matter what happens in between those two points, it will all stay connected.
Trust me when I say that it will also make you as a DM seem BEYOND CLEVER to your players if you can get this “one-two punch” down.
I’ve had to improvise months-long questlines based on my players’ actions and interests. By making it a point to keep that Red Thread throughout our little diversion, they never once felt they were working against the story.
When our Curse of Strahd game ended, they couldn’t believe how much of it was homebrewed and improvised. We even ended up with a Thelma & Louise-esque subplot in Barovia!
Even up to the final confrontation with Strahd (as the MacGuffin), the Red Thread kept the campaign from derailing and preserved the feeling that the party was accomplishing things while moving towards their goal.
Putting This All Together
So now that we’ve gone over what the Red Thread is as a storytelling device, let’s put this all together.
Hopefully, you and your group have had a Session Zero to figure out what kind of D&D campaign you’re playing. If you need help with that, check out my article covering Session Zero here!
Phase 1: Measure Your Thread
You should walk away from Session Zero knowing what kind of key themes your campaign is going to explore. Ideally, you can also pretty quickly answer some important questions:
- WHERE is the party starting?
- WHERE do they need to go?
- WHY do they need to go there and/or WHAT do they need? (MacGuffin)
Think of this as measuring your thread. You know where the central theme or throughline begins and where it ends.
So, the esteemed Dungeon Master J.R.R. Tolkien might say:
- The party is starting in The Shire.
- They need to go to Rivendell…
- To deliver the One Ring to Elrond.
The theme is set: the Shire is in grave danger because of the One Ring. To save their home, the party must deliver the Ring to safety away from the Shire.
But Tolkien’s group is having too much fun. They want to keep playing. So Tolkien extends the Red Thread of the One Ring and the dangers that it presents to continue the story.
What was a one-shot with a few encounters is now turning into a full-blown campaign!
Thankfully, it’s easy enough to measure more thread and simply tie it to where the previous one ended. After a quick little knot/decision point about the One Ring in which the party (plus some new group members) volunteers for the quest.
The next leg of the adventure begins…
- The party begins in Rivendell.
- They need to go to Mordor…
- To cast the One Ring into the fires of Mount Doom.
The thread is now measured. We see the starting and ending points for the core theme and have established the reason the story is being driven forward.
Phase 2: Connect the Dots!
When we measured the thread, we established the key events we needed for the story.
Keep in mind, the players will likely only know the starting point for the adventure and what they are going after.
In the Tolkien example, the party initially thought they needed to head to the town of Bree. But the Red Thread was there as well in the form of the Ringwraiths who were hunting the party. While the party expected to meet Gandalf, they instead encountered a new ally: Aragorn.
We now have a continuation of the theme as well as a complication: the party needs to travel even farther.
Tolkien knew that he needed the party to head to Rivendell, but it would take a few stops (and brushes with danger in Bree and at Weathertop) to reinforce the Red Thread and guide the party to Rivendell. There, they were finally safe for a time despite now being farther away than they had expected.
In this example, Bree and Weathertop were “dots” or scenes in the story. In a D&D game, these could have been either planned or random encounters.
Brought into the story, they become significant occurrences that are still connected by the same Red Thread pulling the party towards their ultimate goal.
The theme stays consistent as the urgency of the situation pushes the party forward.
If the “dots” or scenes were just entirely random and had no connection to the overall story, it could create confusion and weaken the sense of urgency needed for this campaign premise to work as Tolkien is hoping.
That’s how you end up with D&D campaigns that start as “stop the evil wizard” and three sessions later turn into “LOL, we’re pirates now!”
What about the evil wizard?!?!?
Phase 3: Tying Multiple Threads Together
So Tolkien runs into a pretty severe DM problem: he’s got too many players. The game table is simply too crowded!
So half of the group are now playing on a different day but within the same story. Scheduling conflicts arise with a couple of the other members, so Tolkien says “why not” and starts a third game just for them.
The Red Thread of the One Ring, the rise of the Dark Lord Sauron, and the destruction that this will all create still exist in this story. However, that primary Red Thread exists to guide the scope of the smaller threads meant for each party.
One group is following the direct thread of taking the Ring to Mordor. This is the single main thread of the story being told by the groups and has its own challenges, twists, and turns.
The second group latches on to an important sub-thread of defending the kingdom of Rohan, reuniting with the third group, and (eventually) rallying Gondor to aid by getting Aragorn on the throne. While group 1 is focusing on the primary goal (destroying the Ring), group 2 wanted a more combat-centric campaign where they can hold back Sauron’s advances.
The two players who make up Group 3 make friends with the Ents. Their sub-thread sees them rising against Saruman, the evil Wizard, by rallying the Ents to war. The schedule conflicts are finally resolved as Group 2 meets up with Group 3 to resolve the Saruman sub-thread. Group 3’s thread is now joined with Group 2’s objectives.
The threads of various groups/characters/situations can (and should!) be ultimately rooted in the guiding Red Thread of the story. It may be direct (like Group 1) or indirect (like Groups 2 and 3.)
If the core Red Thread of the story is present in each scene, it serves as a reminder that the party is furthering the bigger picture. It should all be weaved together and allow for character choices to clearly affect the story.
In Group 3, Merry and Pippin still had the Red Thread that informed WHY they had to convince the Ents to rise against Saruman as an agent of the Dark Lord Sauron. Their direct focus was the sub-thread of rallying their new tree friends and reuniting with their group. They knew the stakes and urgency of how it tied into the overall theme (Red Thread) of the story.
The #1 Book That Changed How I Prepare Campaign Ideas
I mentioned before in my Top 6 Books That All DM’s Need To Read article that some of the best DM-ing insights come from outside the TTRPG space.
One such example is Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder.
Snyder is a screenwriter and that’s who the primary audience of this book is. However, the guidelines and storytelling techniques he covers in this book translate PERFECTLY from Hollywood to the D&D table.
So while you, as the DM, may not be able to control the characters in the story that’s being told, you can still set them up to tell an amazing story as a group!
Snyder writes heavily about how to tie characters into the “big idea” of the world that’s being created. He gives guidelines for laying out the kind of “beats” that a compelling story should hit and storytelling devices to keep the audience (or players, in this case) guessing and engaged.
If you’re looking for truly A+ advice on creating engaging plotlines that keep players excited for more and the Hollywood secrets of what goes into creating perfect character arcs, I can’t recommend this book enough.
It’s truly become my secret weapon and my games have dramatically improved as a result!
Conclusion – The Red Thread
I hope this article has helped you generate ideas for how to create and maintain themes within your own campaigns.
The biggest trick is keeping that Red Thread at least slightly visible in each “scene” of your story. When you do this and use the Thread to tie scenes into the overarching story, your games will become much more deep and engaging.
After all, players want to know that the story is moving forward BECAUSE of their actions and not IN SPITE of them!
Also, don’t confuse this device with the “Red Threat of Fate” from Asian mythology. That one is more relating to the idea of “soul mates” than it is a storytelling device. Though, one could draw inspiration from the Red Thread of Fate as well! (That’s just a bit outside of the scope of this article.)
Want more DM tips, guides, reviews, and ramblings? Sign up for my newsletter below!
Got a story from your own campaign’s Red Thread you want to share? Say hi in the comments!