The tales of an unapologetic nerd
A few months ago, I published a blog post over at Random Encounter Productions about the art of storytelling, and how it relates to roleplaying in Dungeons & Dragons. I have always believed in the power of storytelling. It is so much more than simply words on a page or on a screen. The art of storytelling celebrates such a grand and ever-shifting piece of magic within all of us. Even as children, we want to tell our parents EVERYTHING that happened to us each day, as if it were some grand adventure. I have often said, if I could create my own major in school, I would absolutely try and earn a Masters in Storytelling. After all, I've spent my life checking all the boxes:
That last one is what I'm most eager to discuss, as my aforementioned post on the REP blog made me realize just how much of Dungeons and Dragons has seeped into the way I tell my own stories today.
BUILDING REAL CHARACTERS
Let's start with the most basic building block of any story, OR any good D&D campaign: the CHARACTERS. Without good, interesting characters, even the most epic stories would fall flat. Without characters we care about in our fiction, we have no real reason to continue caring about the world. Without Frodo's worry over The Shire, he has no reason to take the ring to Mordor. Evil may continue to roam the countryside in the form of the Nazgul, but why would we ever become involved? The same holds true with any good D&D game: without our heroes, the world would not matter. We choose to play as these rangers and rogues and barbarians, in order to see the world through their eyes.
But the glorious thing about D&D character creation (if you're doing it right ... power players need not apply) is that all of the classes are inherently flawed. By nature, a Warlock has made a pact for their soul. Backstory is written in, because what sort of person would sell themselves for power? Clerics and Paladins are often torn between doing what is right and doing what is best. Rogues cannot be sneaky AND heavily-armored. Now, there are ways around every rule, and there will always be players who stat their characters in such a way that they have NO WEAKNESSES. That is perfectly fine, and I do not fault those players. Sometimes, you just want to be a demigod in your escapist tabletop fantasy. More power to you! However, I would argue that there's power in a "dump stat." There is built-in creativity and roleplay in embracing something your character is NOT good at!
Too often in our own stories, we forget to give our main characters flaws. And, whether at the table or on the page, those flaws are usually the thing that has the chance to make them the most interesting. The most relate-able. The most real. The moment I started thinking of my book characters as playable D&D classes, they became much easier to write, and so much better to read. They were no longer epic warriors who could just do anything, they were Human Fighters, with a low Charisma stat: getting the job done, but maybe a little harsh with people. Because when you play D&D for long enough, you stop being afraid of the flaws. So stop being afraid to give your book characters real flaws and weaknesses! They don't always need to have flawless skin, perfect teeth, or thick and flowing hair. The princes don't always need to be charming, and not every damsel in distress is a golden-haired, corset-waisted goddess. Your hunters can be bad at simple household tasks. Your roguish charmers can be terrible at actual fighting, just really sweet talkers. Give us reasons to care, and reasons to relate.
OUR PLACE IN THE WORLD
In a D&D campaign, it's easy to feel like your actions don't have consequences. This often leads to the "murder hobo" mentality of "HEY I can do anything I want! LET'S KILL PEOPLE AND TAKE THEIR STUFF!" I don't know about the other players out there, but for me? That's the LAZIEST approach to a campaign ever. And a lot of Dungeon Masters agree. So, a GOOD one will take those instincts and fold in real consequences in-game. Very quickly, players learn that yes, they CAN burn down the village and rob everybody, but they'll spend several game sessions after that running from the law, breaking out of prison, or being executed and having to roll up a new character.
It's an idea we need to remember for our writing as well: YOUR CHARACTERS ARE NOT ALONE! Nobody exists entirely in a vacuum, or if they do it's VERY difficult to make an interesting story about them. For those of you planning on bringing up classics such as I Am Legend or famous episodes of The Twilight Zone, sit down and be quiet. There are exceptions to EVERY rule, and it is your choice if you wish to pursue them in your own art. Clearly, I'm discussing other things, so let's just let those go for now :)
Layering the world around your characters is vital for keeping any long-running tabletop campaign going. Who is in charge? Who do you shop from? Do they turn you away or raise the prices on you if you're a troublemaker? If your adventuring party become criminals instead of heroes, how much does it change how townsfolk react to your presence? Are they excited to see you, or terrified? All of these things can be applied to our fiction in much the same way. Take time to think about every action your characters take. Every choice, every possible consequence. Maybe while they're saving the world, they are fairly destructive. Yes, they are doing a good thing, but how will the people react?
This example is perfectly executed in Disney's The Incredibles: superheroes being pushed into hiding because their exploits are, while good, very dangerous. In fact, many of the best superhero stories center around the main character having to hide because of society. Whether they think it will make them a target, endanger the people they love, or they simply aren't allowed to reveal themselves because of some social or political reason, that external influence from the rest of the world is crucial to the survival of their story.
Remember the people as you write your own. Stop and think how your main character's actions are going to ripple out and change the lives of citizens they may never even meet. This mentality allows the world to grow into something much larger, more complicated, and more engaging to read about.
For those of you who aren't familiar, there is a moment in any D&D game that can make or break your character: rolling a Natural 1. Natural 1, at most tables, is a critical failure. You have made a mistake. Your blade misses. You fall. You lose a body part. All of these things can help shape your character's story from then on, in a way you couldn't have possibly imagined because these things aren't planned. The great thing about rolling the dice and letting them decide your fate is reacting to it. Will my character learn how to go on without a leg? Will they still adventure? Or is it time to retire them into a life of barkeeping somewhere, and roll up somebody new?
While our books are generally not as chaotic and unplanned as a D&D campaign (I say "generally" because many of us out here are writers of pure improvisation) there's still something lovely to be gleaned from this: my character doesn't always have to succeed. In fact, it is often so much more interesting if they don't. It may feel catastrophic to lose the person you were trying to save. To be scarred. To fail. But here's the beautiful thing about in-game failures: we get to build new quests around them. Lost a leg? Let's find a wizard who can make me a new one of wood. Castle burned down in the midst of war? The King is now a refugee, and we have to find a new home for an entire ruling family. Not to mention, there's that whole war thing going on ...
Our books are allowed to follow failures. Sure, we usually want the hero to win in the end, at least in my genre. But how they get there can be twisted and unclear. They may lose the love of their life to somebody else, and that love story may not untangle itself for several books. They might fail to save one of their companions, and deal with the loss. Heroes are not only heroes because they win. Their heroism is bigger than that, or it should be. They are heroes because they keep trying. They get back up. They learn to walk again. They fight when the odds are against them. So, set something against them! Even if they are eventually meant to come out on top, reminding the readers that there's a chance they could fail is never a bad thing. The failures make the successes that much richer.
EXHAUSTION, ILLNESS, AND THE RULES OF MAGIC
Fantasy authors have heard for YEARS about finding a "price" or "rules" of magic. It is a topic I could attempt to tackle in an entire SERIES of posts, and I'm sure I will someday, but today is not THAT day. There are plenty of other people who have explained it better, and discussing the exact nuances of the prices of magic is a complicated topic. However, the great news is that D&D has already BUILT IN rules of magic! Not only that, but the rules shift and change depending on what type of magic you studied. Which, if you think about it, is so much better than just one set rule for all magic everywhere.
In Dungeons & Dragons, if I play a Wizard, I have studied from books. I am a normal person, who simply went to school to learn. As a Sorcerer, however, something inside me simply has that spark of magical power and potential. There are different flavors of magic, just like there are different flavors of art, music, woodworking, and writing in the real world. Why should magic be confined to one set of rules, if people are using it differently? Not only that, but each class has a built-in chart explaining how much magic they can use in a day, and how strong of a spell they would be capable of.
This tabletop way of looking at not just magic, but all talents, opened my eyes as a writer. For instance: my hunter, learning to shoot his weapon in the woods to feed his family, is going to learn to handle a bow and arrow differently than a soldier learning to shoot target practice in combat training. Same ultimate end, but very different ways of getting there.
The rules in D&D don't only address magic and skills, but sleep. Eating. Sickness. The day-to-day routine things we often don't stop to think about when we write. We want our characters to run off into the sunset with their bags packed and adventure in their hearts.
But has your character ever had to run off with such a bag hanging off their shoulders? Camping equipment is very heavy. Swords are heavy. Food, bedding, clothes ... if your main character isn't a seasoned adventurer, all of these things may be more exhausting than you think about. And that's where D&D comes back into the picture: they also have rules for ALL OF IT. Any condition that might befall someone on a quest, and the repercussions associated with it.
There is something almost Homeric about sitting down with your friends and telling an epic, improvised story. I like to imagine Homer sat his friends around a fire while he spun tales of Odysseus and his quest. But you can circle yourselves around a tabletop, some paper, and a set of dice with much the same end in mind. And, if you don't have a group of fellow storytellers right now? Don't fret. The art of storytelling is bigger than all of us, and the rules of roleplay are adaptable even by yourself. It's time to start looking at your book like a game. So pick up a die, and roll.
Kaitlin Bellamy is a freelance actor, indie author, and all-around nerd. Welcome to her world, adventurer. It's gonna get weird.