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Friday, June 28, 2019

9 Things Dungeons and Dragons Taught Me About How to Write (Part 2)

Return to part 1

This is a continuation of a previous post (and it's been a while), so I'm going to dive straight in without introduction. Head back to see the first part to the intro and the first five.  

5- The characters must be allowed to affect the plot.

The worst games I've ever run? They were either those dungeon crawls that are basically dynamic board games focused on rules and dice results, or they were stories I had in my head with predetermined endings. We once tried to beat Ravenloft five times in a row. By the end, even the sadistic dungeon master who loved killing players was like, "Come on guys. We have to do this" and our final solution involved Dwarven engineers razing the castle during the day with Greek fire shot from engineered trebuchets and ganging up on the survivors as they fled the castle. Honestly it was magical, but we were so fucking sick of that module that it tasted like cold ash.

Or it went the other way, and I was just telling a story with my players and their characters being window dressing. I just kind of put them inside the plot, but their actions didn't really change the directional flow of the story. "Let's storm the castle." "No, I think that's a bad idea." "WE MUST DO IT NOW!!!" Honestly, I pissed my best friend off so hard that he wouldn't let me run the games for a couple of years. ("No, I was thinking I could do a Star Wars game Chris. You just relax. Have a coke.")

The best games? I barely mapped the plot at all.  The players did everything and I just kind of had the world react to their choices. Shit, half the time the stuff they came up with when they were talking about what might be going on was ten times better than what I had planned, and I just went with it. ("Why YES, there is evidence to believe that the Sith are on the brink of a civil war. Should it be the rule of two or the rule of one?" *writes down a note "Civil war. Good idea!!!" and underlines*)

If they got into a bar brawl, the constabulary would want a word with them (maybe a favor for looking the other way that leads to an adventure) and the guys that lost would be out for payback (oh look, another adventure). If they killed a bunch of goblins, the goblin kingdom would put fully-armed pickets on their borders (more adventures). Where they would do one thing and then see the results of it in the plans and reactions of their antagonists. The big bad Troll-demigod wasn't just sending more and more capable minions to kill them, and everything wasn't wrapped up after a single conflict was resolved (with combat or not). The best games reacted to the players––were driven by them. Their decisions had consequences and they could head bad shit off at the pass if they tried....or completely fuck things up worse.

If you're writing a story that is just a railroaded plot which would unfold the same for literally any main character (or several main characters), your story is probably pretty boring. If you could trade out half the characters for the cast of Gilmore Girls or The Muppets, and nothing would fundamentally change, then what is the point? The characters have to be able to move and shape the plot. Remember how if you switched Othello and Hamlet each play would be five minutes?

6- Why are they even doing this?

The most common thing players want to do isn't getting into bar brawls down at the local tavern.

Actually it's nothing.

Players want to do nothing. Oh they'll get bored and eventually go make trouble, and they'll probably chase down a plot if you give them a reason like riches or a dead brother who needs avenging, but their natural state is to wonder why they would do all this wacky shit that should by all rights get them killed.

There's a famous story in my gaming circle about The Tree™. The Dungeon Master described a huge, nasty gnarled tree that towered over this dilapidated forest and looked like it was the source of evil itself.

"We avoid that tree," the party said.

The DM paused. "But it's clearly a huge anomaly in this forest. Obviously something's going on."

"Yeah," the players agreed. "Something bad. Evil tree in an evil forest. We don't want a thing to do with it."

Well, the DM had written the whole adventure around their presumed curiosity and so they walked around the tree only to run into it again.

"We go the other way," the party said.

"No matter which way you go, eventually the tree ends up in front of you."

"We spend hours walking away."

"The tree ends up showing up on the horizon no matter which way you go."

"This is fucking stupid!" one player screamed. "If I wanted to play Zork where I have to do one thing, I would just go play fucking Zork." (Bear in mind that this was a long time ago and not quite such an anachronistic reference at the time.)

"It's magic, okay!" the Dungeon Master said. "The tree is, like, calling you to it."

"Then fuck it," the party said. "We sit down and have lunch. And use our engineering skills to build a trebuchet that will fire a flaming ball of pitch from here so that we can burn down The Tree™ from half a mile away."

"I assist his engineering check."

"I use my bardic power to enhance that engineering roll."

Details get hazy after this point as there was some kind of out-of-character altercation that ended at least one friendship for a couple of months after someone's popsicle-stick Star Destroyer got shattered.

The greatest question you have to ask yourself about a character is "why would they do that." And you have to ask it of every single character every single time their goals shift. If your reader can't relate to what the stakes are, your reader doesn't care if they get their goal or not, and then you've lost them. If Jack Burton didn't want his truck back, there would have only been a moderate amount of trouble in Little China.

7- It's actually the not-that-great characters that are the most interesting.

My entire social circle got their hands on D&D second edition at right about the same time, and started drooling over the attribute bonuses that included god-like stats going all the way up to 25.  We wanted our wizards buff enough to have hit and damage bonuses and our fighters with impossibly high dexterities and our thieves preternaturally clever. ("Of course Lift Nimblefingers can speak Elvish. He speaks eight languages, you know.")

For a while there, it was weirder to see a third- or fourth-level character who hadn't somehow gotten their most important stat up above 20––18 is supposed to be the pinnacle of human limitation. The multi-class everything wasn't unheard of and the world was crawling with Fighter/Mage/Thieves and Cleric/Mage/Fighter/Psionicists. One guy swore to me that the 8 nestled in with nothing but 17's and 18's (on a number generated by rolling three six-sided dice and adding the result) or that basically one average roll proved that the other five were a totally legit one-in-a-billion chance.

The thing was, these characters SUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCKED. They were boring as fuck. They either got killed by overwhelming force or they sashayed through everything they saw without breaking a sweat. They had no weaknesses. They were too awesome.

It's fun to have your crack shot, ace pilot, chosen-one mystic martial artist character, kick ass all over town, but there's a reason Luke is kind of fucking boring until he starts failinating the countryside in Empire Strikes Back. There's a reason Han and Leia are both ten times more interesting from the minute they walk on screen. And even better characters have more flaws.

The best characters you can probably think of usually have flaw lists as long as their merits lists. And that goes for the ones you write too. There's a reason the character I remember the best from that period of time with the god-like badasses was a fighter with a 13 strength and shitty stats all the way down because the DM made me role in front of him. Erik Goblinsbane is still in a folder around here somewhere because he succeeded by being scrappy, wily, careful, and really interesting.

8- Build that fucking world....but introduce it slowly

Two things I learned never to do in D&D. One is not bother to build the world. "Okay so what's beyond the mountains? What do you mean no one's ever been there? We've got three-thousand-year-old elves in the forest next door and we're clearly living on an ancient Dwarven ruin, and in all that time, no one's ever thought to pop over and check?" "Wait, so who's the lord of this Castle? Sir Billy? Wasn't Sir Billy the lord of the last castle?"

The other thing was sitting through endless history lessons by a Dungeon Master who clearly thought our Melatonin supplements needed some back-up. For three hours he told us about every little detail of the wars he had written into his notebook and we didn't get to game because by the time he was done all the energy had been hyper vortexed out of the room and we were like, "Oh....look at the time. 6:30pm. Getting really late. Better head out. Got work tomorrow at noon."

It doesn't matter if you're dotting the shoreline with named fishing villages on your entirely-too-detailed map of Ratacia (the Easternmost continent of Fatlanas on a standard map) or working out the socio-economics of your what-if world that you snootily call "futurism" so you don't get painted with the same genre brush as those sci-fi pleb writers. Your world needs your attention. And the richer you make it the more lush details can come through, but you need to dribble them out. Put them in the mouth of a character, a detail dropped here or there. (As long as it's natural. Nothing worse than that weird exposition dialogue. "I love you, Andrea, even though you once tried to poison my father because my twin brother Daniel convinced you that he was me, impregnated you, and told you that your child would be a threat to my mother who is secretly the heir to Valacia..." or the dreaded system explaining line "As you know....")  Just drizzle out enough exposition to get you to the next scene. Let your readers delight in putting the details together like a jigsaw puzzle instead of crapping out some brick of exposition dump on them in the first chapter that screams "Hi, this is my first novel" more than if you'd written it on the front page in crayon, or describing a person because they see themselves in a mirror.

There's a reason people laugh at this line.

9- The best antagonists are never just orcs.

They might be orcs, but they're never JUST orcs. But usually, they're not even orcs at all.

The best antagonists have a few things in common.

They are often a lot like the protagonists––maybe even a LOT like the protagonists. If you're familiar with the concept of a foil, you already understand this, but if not, let me just say that the best antagonists remind the protagonists disturbingly of themselves. Maybe they have the same skill set (like being able to use The Force) but are using it nefariously. Or maybe they are just as clever but are trying to stay a step ahead of the characters. Or maybe they want the same thing but are going about it in ways the protagonist wouldn't. They make the protagonist uncomfortable because they force them to confront something about themselves.

They often exist (after some fashion) because of something the protagonist did. Might have been a mistake or maybe something they would do again in the same circumstances, but on that day they created a problem for themselves.

They often want something that is at least somewhat understandable.  Orcs are just evil (unless you're trying to play a "what IS evil" type game*). Orcs just want to pillage the village, steal the sillage and cause spillage. They are irredeemably bad. What they want goes against everything you stand for or believe in, so you either fight them or people die. Saron and Vader are great bad guys, but they're not great bad guys because they made you think about the nature of the human condition. They're not great bad guys because they express complicated motivations that you can really get behind. they are great bad guys because they personify the human desire for domination––something that we all recognize is bad, yet all can relate to a little as well. They have run with their most base impulse. They're great because they are memorable paragons of evil, but they don't just want to fuck shit up randomly; they want to rule the world/galaxy.

*As a GM, I pull this shit on the regular.

With orcs––just orcs––there's no indecision. There's no nuance. There's no complexity. It's kill or be killed. Great for a fight or two or just to raise the stakes of the emotional struggle, but it gets boring if you're not mixing it up or that's all there is. The best antagonists have a goal that is relatable, possibly even understandable. And the best antagonists? They're the ones you find yourself arguing online that they might have been right.

I'm so right, they have to kill me off and have a mercenary take my place for the final reel.
Image credit:  Hollywood Pictures Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer Films

The best villain I ever made for D&D––one that still gets talked about today by the players of the game––was literally a dark mirror version of the paladin who had been created as a balance for a divine intervention. He was just as cocksure and manipulative as the character that he was "created" from (except evil), and he was just as convinced of his own infallibility. And ironically, he wanted pretty much the same thing the other characters in the game. He just thought the best way to get it was to kill everything in his path, and to corrupt the souls of the other members of the party to being unwilling to stand against him, and get rid of the paladin.

When I wrote this, it was originally titled as "15 things D&D taught me......" So if I come up with another five there may be a part three (and some title editing). 

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