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Friday, March 9, 2018

15(?) Things Dungeons and Dragons Taught Me About How to Write (Part 1)

More like Dungeons and Dentists, amirite?
Image description: Badass fighter about to cut a red
dragon in the teeth.
[The title may change as I continue this work in progress (and what's in brackets will disappear), but this is probably almost certainly maybe part one of three.]

Ah the sweet nostalgic nerdery of Dungeons and Dragons.

Dodecahedrons. Thac0s. Saving throw charts. Mountain Dew. And the tension building question: "What did you say your armor class was?" The hours and hours (and hours and hours.....and hours) we used to take for granted that are now just so fucking hard to coordinate. ("You can only do every other Monday, but only maybe? What the fuck is that even???")

It's not just Dungeons and Dragons either. It's Ninjas and Superspies, Rifts, Robotech, Nightbane, After the Bomb, Beyond the Supernatural, Pathfinder, Twilight 2000, Call of Cthulhu, Champions, Star Trek: The RPG, Elfquest, Paranoia, Star Wars RPG (West End, WoC, and Fantasy Flight), Mechwarrior, GURPS, Vampire, Werewolf, Mage, Wraith, Changeling, Hunter, Aberrant, (plus I've Live Action Role played a Vampire, Werewolf, Mage, Changeling, and Hunter) and at least half a dozen one shots that I can't even remember what we were playing. However, for the sake of not listing all that out, I'll mostly use D&D for short.

1- Character is absolutely everything. Character is the story.

There's a reason every one of those games starts with how to create a character. Not magical items or monsters or how to adjudicate the rules for a fight. Building a character. The character is the throbbing pulsing core of the story. Without a character you have nothing, and the character makes all the difference.

When I first became a little D&D nerdling in the late 70s the game was far more focused on a character as a collection of stats and abilities and the series of encounters that gave experience points and treasure which enabled the characters to get into bigger encounters so they could get more experience and bigger treasure. It played a lot more like a very involved and intricate board game. Modules were painstaking descriptions of rooms, monsters, treasure and, if your Dungeon Master was playing hardcore mode, random encounters, things that could catch you off guard and end the evening.

"What happens if we get past the city walls and then take this
caravan we're supposed to be protecting for ourselves?"
Image description: Voldemort as my party's wizard.
Then people, as people are wont to do, began to break out of the mold of playing modules like DLC for a video game. They started caring about the character as more than a collection of stats and numbers and vague abilities and started wondering what they were like. Were they good? Evil? Selfish? Did they care about law and order?

"Why are we here?" they began to ask. "Why are we in the same party? Why would we work together? Do I even like you? Why do we ever leave the tavern in the first place?" People started investing in who their characters were and what they wanted and suddenly you had a very different experience when six evil thieves were told they could make some money by leaving the city's portcullis up on Thursday night than the party of paladins.

In the mid to late eighties role playing games exploded in several directions. The pen and paper heavy versions with the calculators and the hit points for your left arm were still around, but there were versions that were practically improv theater, focusing much more on the drama. There were versions where your entire character was comprised of 1-10 stats in the four elementals. Even live action role playing came into ascendence during this time.

The point is the character always always ALWAYS became the story. A story about a dude with 45 hit points in his left arm was about as interesting of a narrative as you might expect, and mostly became a board game in terms of interest, but a war torn vet who wants to rest but is drawn into a local conflict became intensely interesting. A group of scoundrels and gamblers with nary a brash pilot among them defanged the Death Star by running a heist that took out all the Kyber crystals and blew up the hangar bays–it was still floating around a very intact Alderaan, completely defenseless, when the rebel fleet showed up–having been signaled by the character who (disguised as an officer) won three minutes on the long range transceiver from the radio guy in a poker game and persuaded everyone to give her some privacy because she was calling her girlfriend on Nar Shada.

2- Whatever the rules are, they actually change the story. 

For a while there everything was trying to do gothic horror, and even Palladium got in on the action with Nightbane. Nightbane was neither particularly gothic nor horrific, but they tried to reproduce those elements and even had a pretty compelling backstory filled with cultists, corruption, a mysterious day of total darkness, and things that go bump in the night.

The problem was, they tried to be gothic horror in the same rules universe where a sonic speed hero with Muay Thai Kickboxing could attack 15 times in a fifteen second round. A universe where basically every character you ever played took boxing "for the extra attack" rather than for some sort of exploration of the human psyche. Everyone was just...boxers.

Plus they had these weird charts of characteristics that weren't exactly.....horrific. Some of them were reasonably grotesque, but in typical Palladium style, they made massive random charts and threw in the kitchen sink. It was kind of like Nightbreed (you knew Nightbane sounded familiar, right?) characteristics but there were a few that were just...well....they were just absurd. Leading of course to the biomechanical and automobile Nightbane's lament song:

I was a motorcycle centaur.
I had a TV for a face.
I had hedge-clippers, not a left arm.
I was a Nightbane disgraaeeaaeeeace.
But as bad as I was, I wasn't bad as I could be.
At least I didn't roll and get tank tread feet.

Well...you get the idea. Not exactly overwhelming gothic horror. Plus you know I'm going to need a year of therapy and some really good MDMA to embarrass myself like this again....ever. (Holy fuck what was I thinking.)

And if your story has overpowered yahoos running around with hedge clipper arms and getting into fights that level small neighborhoods, you're probably not going to strike the gothic horror tone you wanted.

The system in place–the rules that governed the ambient universe–prevented any actual game of Nightbane from being horrific. They quickly became combat-fests with vaguely more gore and spiny monsters than an average Heroes Unlimited or Ninjas and Superspies game because the game wasn't designed to make players weak. Whether the initial attempt was survival horror or political intrigue or an origin story, eventually someone picked up a car, stood up from getting shot multiple times, or did a "Shadow blast" that did enough damage to vaporize a cop in full riot gear. And then things were less gothic horror and more you-got-your-S&M-gear-in-my-overpowered-superheroes-game.

Not that heroes in S&M gear is all bad you understand....

Writers have to realize that when they lay out the rules of their universe, they are freeing and constraining themselves simultaneously. A medieval fantasy with spectacular magical power levels is going to be implausible if the villagers one town over are worried about easily fixable shit like a couple of bandits with swords or this season's rainfall. You can't scare people with a creaking door or mysteriously returning ball once the ghost definitively IS a ghost and you've lost your what-ever-could-THAT-be? element. And if your pulp detective's entire interest as a character is based on the audience joining them in their slowly trying to piece together the mystery of the psychic aliens that ride corpses and try to determine the difference between nature and nurture, you probably don't want a voice over (or a prologue in the case of writing) that says exactly what's going on at the beginning.

Old school.
3- How to describe things.

In a role playing game it's the DM's (or GM's) words and the player's imaginations. That's all you get. You don't have spectacular CGI animation. You don't have Ian McKellen to voice your lines. If you don't take yourself too seriously and have practiced making noises you can maybe do some "Shiiiing" sounds when swords are drawn or "Pkshhooooo!" of explosions and some decent Sean-Connery-as-the-dragon impressions, but mostly you have to describe things.

You can't just say "You see a dragon" because the first question will be "What else is around me?" You can't just say Canebries is a dwarf because someone will want to know what Canebries LOOKS like. You don't get to just say, "It's an elven city," because people will want to know if they're looking at the Ewok wood elf village from Kelethin or the stonework of Rivendell or the some crystal palace shit with 300 yard vaulted arches.

Like so old school, the school has been torn down
for having asbestos and radon.
And it takes about two minutes to realize that the players will fall asleep at the most clinical descriptions of distance and space. No one cares how big the room is according to a tape measure, (and the only people who do care about that level of detail are about to throw a fireball and mostly just want to check that they're not going to pan fry the cleric in the backwash). No one cares how tall every dwarf is or what color their facial hair is or how it's braided (unless they're big for a dwarf or their meticulously braided beard reveals something about their character). No one cares about the circumference of a buckler shield or if it is folded steel or bronze unless those details are somehow meaningful.

This method of description serves writers well. What an audience wants are the significant details. And just a few of them. They can be precise and quantitative (if, say, your main character is a ship's computer in a body who would notice that sort of thing), but what a character first sees creates a significance of its own. And they still serve to quickly form a bridge with the audience.

Combat as a broad sword stroke (see how I cleverly avoided a mixed metaphor?) rather than described with every painstaking weight shift or riposte. Sex in terms of a few intimate details rather than a meticulous recount of every thrust and moan. Disaster told through the eyes of a few horrible details rather than a list of every terrible effect. From either side of the DM's screen, there is a sharp but valuable learning curve on how much is not enough, how much is too much, and the Goldilocks zone of significant details.

This covers the basics but you can google "Hero's journey" and
see how variations on the theme can get more complex.
4- The hero's journey.  

With a few exceptions (survival horror one shots come to mind where everyone ends up dying eventually–whether it's knifed by a cultist or gouging your own eyes out at the sight of an old one), when you play a role playing game, the characters gathered around the table are the heroes of the story. The more you fundamentally edge away from Very Complicated Board Game™ and approach something more like collaborative storytelling, the more each player sees their character as the hero of their own story and each will come to work for an arc that looks like the hero's journey–sometimes called the Monomyth.

At first there's a lot of resistance to the hero's journey as a template because people think it's literal and actually can't believe that human storytelling with all its infinite complexity could boil down to anything so simple. (How dare you suggest that it's all been done before!) They have trouble with the literal vs. figurative elements. Like there will not always literally be a call to adventure. Literally a supernatural aid. Literally a threshold guardian. In some stories there certainly is (Star Wars) and many even come out directly and use this LANGUAGE to describe these characters (The Matrix), but in many, these aspects are more figurative.

Want to continue on your journey? You have to get past us.
Hope you can fence, wrestle, and win a land war in Asia.

There are other stories. (You've heard there are only seven stories, right? Well The Hero's Journey really only matches up with two of them....maaaaybe three).  There are stories of tragedy, romance (comedy), rags to riches and rebirth that are just not as common in most role playing games. But things like "The Quest" or "Overcoming the Monster" are the stuff of RPG's. And so they're filled with hero's journeys. ("The Voyage and Return" is kind of on the edge there.)

And so your games have to be an infinite recombination of the hero's journeys. Players will want to fail. They'll want to be tempted. They'll try to refuse the call. All of this is straight out of our most primal storytelling archtypes and as a player and a dungeon master, you'll quickly learn both how to bend the rules of the hero's journey into infinite recombinations and to bring the familiar elements to those stories.


  1. I had pretty much the same experiences. You really get a feel for story flow and it becomes almost second nature. Sometimes I'm asked how I pace things so well and I say, "Years of DM'in dumb ass players who bore easily".