What playing Dungeons & Dragons taught me about writing.

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I was planning to write this post a while ago, but work got in the middle (it still does, but I just ignored it for a bit). Then, that dastardly Leo McBride got his take out first at his blog Altered Instinct *shakes fist*. I recommend reading his entry as well *shakes fist once more*.

Unlike Leo, I have played fewer systems, basically just D&D 3erd Ed. BESM, Bureau 13 and Exalted. Of those, most of my gaming hours were dedicated to D&D or a homebrew modification my best friend, our local GM, concocted before passing away a few years ago. It was actually his main D&D campaign that taught me how to play and in a fun twist of fate, taught me a few lessons on writing, lessons I’m sharing now, in no order of importance. For context, my friend had the patience of a saint as most of the party was composed of unruly players (we came to blows at least once) and liked to bounce ideas with me as it was around the time I wrote my first story ‘Silver Horn’ (that, *shameless plug* you can read here) and I was plotting the first iterations of Tempest Blades.

Said that and without further ado, here is my take.

Characters are people.

It sounds obvious but it makes a whole world of difference to understanding it. See, each Playing Characters (PC) was in some way a reflection of who we were at the time of playing. Fionn, my main character in Tempest Blades had his origins in that game. However, the version of Fionn on the game is widely different from the version of the novel (even if they share similarities) because there is a decade of my personal experiences between them. Each player, knowingly or not put their emotional and psychological baggage in their character and that colored their interactions within the game. The fact that our GM asked us before playing and creating our characters to write detailed background history of our PCs added to that in-game personality as to play in character all the time. In a story or a book, we meet the characters at a particular point in their lives, but, if they are well written, had a life before the story’s plot. Understanding that allows you as a reader and even more as the writer to create the motivations and possible reactions of a character to a determined plot point. Not everyone reacts the same to an event, but every character reacts accordingly to their life story up to that point. Getting that is what helps you to develop fully fleshed characters instead of serviceable pawns for moving the plot. When you write your characters, create a small bio of them, so you learn to see them as persons rather than just words and thus their actions will become organic within your plot.

The story is about the characters, not the plot.

Many people focus on the plot of a story, like many players focus on just hacking and slashing their way to epic levels. But what makes a D&D campaign, or any RPG game for that matter, satisfactory is the character’s growth. And I’m not referring to stats. I’m talking about who they are as a person. Have they overcome their fears? Their need for vengeance? Have they found their place in the world? Let’s be honest, most plots in most novels are serviceable. Even ASOIAF has a pretty straightforward plot, split in two (the Game of Thrones and the Long Night, good vs. evil) that is a simple as the one in LOTR. What makes ASOIAF so enthralling to fans is the layers of complexity and nuisance the smaller plots bring to those larger ones thanks to each individuals character’s story. You may have a serviceable plot, but what will make or break your story is the characters. You might have the best plot of the world with unexpected twists and subversions, but if your characters are two-dimensional, your plot will be boring.

No one knows everything, Jon Snow.

This is a temptation many writers, including me, fall for frequently: who knows what. When you play an RPG, you as a player might know the stats of each weapon in the land, every bit of lore of the world, every nook of the rules to get ahead. GM frown at that and readers as well for one reason: your character is not you and it is inside the world, so they shouldn’t know everything because they take the magic away, derail the plot and breaks suspension of disbelief. As writers, we tend to find a character that knows everything and acts as Mr. Expository. Every writer falls into that trap at some point: Yoda, Bran Stark, that random lady of the corner store. However and unless your character is a deity (and even then there must be some restraint). Aside from the fact that know-it-all characters are annoying as hell, we experience the world where our characters dwell through their eyes and like in real life, no one can know everything. Part of any respectable quest is to find the piece of lore that solves the quest, even if the world is large enough to have more lore lying around. You as the writer might know how everything fits, and from time to time a bit of infodump can be useful. But remember, characters know only what they have learned, nothing more. Keeping them in the dark helps the reader to relate to them and share their struggles wonder with the world you have created (which incidentally explains as well why 3rd. person omniscient narration has fallen into disuse. Brent A. Harris will mock me when he reads this admission).

Each act has a consequence.

As I mentioned, my party members were unruly and that was a source of frustration for our GM (I was the min-maxer, another guy was so annoying that I punched him in the face because he derailed the plot to do really stupid things just for the lulz, etc). Our GM then found the way to reign over us: each stupid thing we as a player did, had a dire consequence for our characters. My character? Lost his family sword and had to go on a quest to get it back (I will talk about this point later). The annoying rogue? Got tortured for pissing off the wrong person, to the point his stats were permanently reduced. Our paladin that had become way too violent? Lost his paladin powers and had to retire from the party to regain them (this one, in particular, was a way our GM found to help a player that had grown bored with the restrictions of the paladin class, he retired the character and created a new one that later joined the party, without killing the paladin). Unlike certain video games and as in real life, each character’s action must have a consequence logical to their action and personality and that has to mesh with the overall plot: did they saved the world in front of thousands of people? Now they are famous, which hinder their abilities to help others and put a target on their backs for the bad guys to use them. Killed someone in battle? Maybe a family member of the deceased has sworn vengeance. A character lost a limb during the fight? Show him/her learning how to overcome that (see Jaime Lannister).

Each character’s improvement must be earned.

I mentioned in the point before how my PC lost his family sword and had to go on a quest to get it back. Well, aside from the fact that he had to do most of that naked (he lost his clothes as well), he never recovered said sword, it was destroyed. However, the experience helped me to make my character learn how to fight bare fisted and after all ended, found a more powerful sword. But the quest, more importantly, changed his personality, making him more mature and thoughtful, it helped him to become a better hero (and me a better player). Even if your character is born with special powers, he must learn how to use them effectively. Every ability that your character has, every weapon he possesses and used must feel earned. Otherwise, he or she becomes a Gary Stu/ Mary Sue and loses any depth might have had before. Like in real life, things cost money, effort, practice. You don’t need to show in detail all of that, but you need to mention at some point how the character learned what he knows or who taught him. Otherwise becomes Batman in bat-god mode, and no one likes bat-god mode (I say this as a Batman fan).

Each arc must have a payoff.

In an age where franchises are the rage and people write multiple book sagas, trying to go for a trilogy like LOTR (which for starters was never a trilogy, it was just printed that way due the limitations of the time), it’s easy to leave the payoff for the next book and keep postponing it till the reader loses interest and there are so many plots ends that you get strangled with them (which is what I think is happening to G.R.R. Martin). It is what kills franchise movies and it is what kills your books.

I have a friend that reads on average 30 books per year, but she never, ever buys, with the exception of ASOIAF, sagas that are not finished. She hates having to wait for years for a resolution that may never come. If she buys a book of a saga, odds are she will buy and read the whole saga. It is like an RPG campaign, you can string the players along for your overall arc, but if you don’t give them some sense of closure and achievement now and then, they will lose motivation to keep playing. Split your story in arcs that can get a payoff that impacts on the overall plot. Terry Pratchett was a master of this. He wrote 40+ books of Discworld, each one can be read individually (with the exception of the very first two) and each book has a conclusion. And yet they are part of the same continuity and when read all together you can see the overall arcs in each individual group, be it the Night’s Watch, Death, and Susan, The Witches or the Wizards. I’m actually following this scheme: each one of the proposed Tempest Blades books will be an adventure with a conclusion, but that conclusion impacts the overall plot and there is a progression. However, the reader will get a payoff to that particular story.

Escalation is a problem.

Things escalate powers, wars, abilities. But unless you are prepared to write or play an epic campaign where the characters challenge deities, keep their powers in check, make that escalation slow, earned. Don’t make your character to physically powerful, keep them grounded so when they let loose all their powers it feels epic and not another Tuesday. Otherwise, it will become as ridiculous as Dragon Ball or the old EU of Star Wars.

Good dialogues.

This is short, the best memories of a gaming session I have are not limited to badass fighting scenes, they include the banter, the jokes, the sarcasm and the ‘drop the mic’ moments that made us laugh or clap. Good, fast paced, fun dialogue can make wonders for your characterization and your plot pace. It can even be used to drop key pieces of information and even lampshade the situation. Good dialogue is what keeps a reader engaged.

World building vs. monocultures.

The world is a large place. Each place has a distinct culture, different religions (and approaches to them), different myths, different legendary weapons, social mores, taboos, geography. The best sessions I had playing where with homebrew worlds that allowed for that world building diversity. I rarely play in official settings because of the monoculture pitfall -like in Star Trek- gets boring and is very limited. Have fun creating, have fun to develop seemingly contradictory facts. In ASOIAF, there are like 6 different legends regarding the Long Night that contradict each other (Azor Ahai, The Prince that was Promised, The Last Hero, The lady with the monkey tail, etc). Not all of them have to make total sense, they just need to feel coherent with the culture and the world the characters live in. Like in the real world. Think how many creation myths the ancient cultures had. They had similarities, but they had as well contradictory facts. What is a weapon of mass destruction for a culture, can be an object of worship for another.

Diversity is good, it is a fact of the universe. Don’t fall into the trap of the monocultures because not even modern societies are the same all over the planet. Embrace the wackiness of diversity, for there are hidden treasures that may come into play with your overall plot and make it richer.

As long as every element seems to be coherent (when it comes to myths there is some leeway) and adds to the sense of wonder and mystery of your world, the more the reader will be hooked into the story. I mean in ASOIAF I want to know what the hell lies in Sothoryos even if I know Martin will never explore that piece of his world. But the fact that it has been referenced means that it exists and thus makes the world more solid.

A mixed approach to writing, to keep your sanity intact.

If I learned something of my GM was to plan on the fly. He worked diligently in his plot for weeks and when the session came, the players ruined everything. However, he came always prepared with a menu of options (think those ‘Choose your own adventure’ books) that helped move his plot, while taking into account what his players might do, leaving him leeway. And even when something came out of the field, he learned to incorporate that into the tapestry of the story he was weaving. This takes me to the often heard dichotomy of a writer of being a ‘more pants’ or a ‘planner’. Personally, and based on my own experience, this is a false dichotomy. You can be both. Like my GM what I do when I’m plotting a story is that I create the overall arc, with the key scenes I need to get things done, but no more than that. The in-betweens of those key scenes are ideas I write on the fly, letting my characters guide me through them. I tried to be a ‘pantser’ and I lost a decade of writing, I tried to be a planner and got bored easily due to my lack of attention span. But being both, while having the end game of the story at hand and the characters well developed has helped me to write faster and better.

Keep it Simple. Have fun.

RPGs are meant to be fun, social experiences. The same should apply to writing a book or a short story. If you are not having fun with the overall process, then the story will suffer and your reader will notice. Granted, we all have bad days, bad gaming sessions and tough-to-write scenes and chapters, but they shouldn’t detract from the general experience. Play the games you want to play. My advice for this is: write the book you would like to buy and read. The one that brings you the most fun. Then you will be proud of it. And with some work, even create your own RPG rulebook.

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4 thoughts on “What playing Dungeons & Dragons taught me about writing.

    • BESM is fun to play if you are an anime fan, but oh boy the escalation problem is a serious issue. It’s hard to get a balanced game there, unless you are using one of the established settings. Exhalted is fun if you like the White Wolf systems, but the ability tree for each character is something to keep in mind due how complex it can be and you can stiffle your character if you are not careful. Personally of that system I prefer Scion.

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  1. I found Scion suffers terribly from the escalation problem, but at the lower end its good fun.
    Exalted is still my go to game, but I’ve been exploring systems that aim more for drama and character development recently. I heartily recommend writers take a look at RPGs – getting inside a characters head is a really core part of both gaming and writing, and doing it live frees you from the inner editor and all that second guessing.

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  2. Pingback: What Playing D&D Taught Me About Writing | Diane Morrison

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