The Challenge of Telling Great Stories in TTRPGs

I recently played A Visit to San Sibilia for the first time, and I found it to be a really enjoyable solo tabletop role playing experience for crafting an interesting story. It appealed to me as a writer much more than as a gamer. In fact, I think part of the reason why it does so well at making interesting stories is that it’s barely on the edge of being a TTRPG at all. All of this got me thinking about telling great stories in tabletop RPGs, and why it can be so hard to do well.

One of the challenges I inevitably run into when I’m playing these games is the desire to craft a good story. I think this is only natural for writers. The problem is that good stories have certain structures, and the game often fights against that.

TTRPGs have three aspects that often disrupt good story structure:

Mechanics

Especially in rules-heavy games like Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder, the mechanics of combat, spellcasting, or even more esoteric things like politics or detective work can really limit the storytelling. If there is a rule for doing something, players tend to stop telling stories and start plugging values into the equation to get the outputs they want. They go into gameplay mode. Plus, working through these rules often throws pacing out the window. I’ve been in more than one session where the story was really getting good…right up until we got in an hour-long fight.

Too Many Drivers

Imagine going to get lunch with a few friends. Now imagine you all pile into the same car, but it’s a crazy car with pedals and a steering wheel for every seat. Oh, and you all want to go to a different restaurant. That’s what trying to guide the story in a TTRPG can sometimes feel like.

Each player has their own character and their own interests in the game. The only person who can really guide the story more than others is the DM/GM who is running it. But even they can’t really force the story to go in a direction unless the players want it to. If they try to railroad the players in the “correct” direction, the players will feel like they have no agency in the game. If they give the player characters the ability to shape the story, they will inevitably steer it away from whatever long-term plans the GM might have, whether on purpose or by accident.

Even harder to control are real-world intrusions into the game. Maybe a player has to miss a session or two. Maybe they have to stop playing. Suddenly a main character disappears, like a star actor unexpectedly leaving a show.

Randomness

Sometimes you get a couple of lucky hits and the villain dies in the middle of the campaign. Sometimes you get a series of bad rolls and miss all the clues that move the mystery forward. Veteran GMs know that you shouldn’t count on any outcome if there’s any randomness involved.

Randomness can make a story arc drag on too long, or unexpectedly end it outright. It can be responsible for incredible highs when the players get lucky at a vital moment, and incredibly low lows like party wipes.

True randomness means you can’t be sure what’s going to happen next. That can be exciting, but it doesn’t help you to craft a tight story.

Story vs. Game?

So, are TTRPGs destined to have bad stories? Not necessarily. But a good story for a TTRPG has a different structure and a different feel to a good story on the page.

In TTRPGs, it’s important that the story give the player characters agency in the world, give them challenges and opportunities. It’s up to the players what they do with them. Much like video games, the fun comes from experience and participation. The “plot” will sometimes stall or take a ninety-degree turn. Or a session will get bogged down in mechanics, and the story will be mostly ignored. All of that is fine, as long as everyone is having a good time.

That said, there’s a reason why TTRPG logs often translate into boring fiction. Good fiction can’t afford to meander. Good fiction has to have tight character arcs, and the success or failure of the characters can’t be thrown out the window at a die roll.

I personally love writing stories and playing games, but I had to come to grips with these differences when I first started running those games. I had to realize that I don’t want a story outline that goes much beyond the current play session. I had to learn that my job was to build interesting settings and experiences and above all, opportunities, and let the players navigate them however they wanted to. I had to create a collaborative environment, and then I had to collaborate.

So if you’re frustrated or worried that your TTRPG sessions don’t feel like you’re playing a novel, realize that you’re not alone. That’s expected. Leave the books for reading, accept that the story in your game is sometimes going to be a little wonky, and enjoy it for what it is: a collaborative experience; part gameplay, part story.

My First Visit to San Sibilia

The following is my first playthrough of A Visit to San Sibilia, lightly edited.

This is an account of the Brooding Cartographer and her time in the city.

Day 1

To seek San Sibilia is to be destined to never find it. For years I sought in vain. It was only when I gave up searching, gave up everything I cared about, that it found me.

It began as another night out with Raoul and his “artist” friends, and a night ride in the canals of Venice. We crossed under a bridge. For a moment, we were in utter darkness, no sound but the water against the boat. I came out the other side alone, to dock on a decidedly different shore.

I keep thinking about the old map-maker. How he would frown and grumble when I went on about San Sibilia.

“A stupid story,” he would say, “for children with no sense in their heads. If I had known what a stupid girl you were, you’d not be bound to prentice.”

Nevermind it was his stories that first piqued my interest, or rather the look in his eyes when he told them. He had lost a lover there, but his eyes shone brighter when he named that city than when he spoke the name of the man he had loved. The old man had come there by shipwreck and plied the sailor’s trade for a time, before he took to map-making.

I’d have words for the old man now, if he weren’t dead in the ground.

I managed to find a place over a tavern, the sort of place where sailors on leave and locals congregate in equal measure. Hardly a stick of furniture, but the proprietor, Paolo, was willing to let me stay for free. In exchange, I’m to make him some maps of distant cities to liven up his walls. I told him I can’t draw London or Seoul in perfect detail from memory, but he says none of his patrons are likely to know the difference.

I can’t afford to be picky. I have nothing but my clothes, and those have seen better days.

Day 4

There is a plaza just down the street from the Drowned Mermaid. Sometimes the merchants set up their stalls and carpets. Sometimes philosophers orate. Sometimes there are plays or performances. Today there was a juggler.

At first I thought him just a man out for a stroll, but he suddenly threw a ball high into the air, and kept producing them from some hidden pocket while keeping the rest afloat. In moments, he had eight or nine of them aloft, each with its own unique swirls of color.

When the juggler saw me, he gave a wink and smiled, and in that moment he looked familiar, though I could not think of where or when I might have met him.

One of the balls slipped from his grasp and bounced across the uneven cobbles toward me. I picked it up and found it a mesmerizing swirl of green, white and blue. It was a globe, somehow fashioned to move like clouds over land and sea.

It is fascinating. I find it hard to take my eyes away from it, even now.

When I looked up, the juggler had gone.

Day 5

I have been making maps again. It is a deeply engrossing activity, as it had always been for me before the old man died. But I also find myself near-overwhelmed by a manic energy.

Paolo found me an old fountain pen and a set of inks. In turn, I am providing him with his maps: neighborhoods in Paris and London, docks in Hong Kong and Shanghai. I hardly sleep anymore, but my pen has never been more precise.

A scarred old man saw us hanging the maps behind the bar.

He said, “If you like maps, deary, you should visit the Museum on the Blue Boulevard.”

He drew his own crude map on a scrap of paper to guide me. He seemed pleased with himself, but I sensed that Paolo was irritated.

The scrap guided me to a little limestone building only a few blocks away, fronted with weather-stained doric columns and tattered flags. Within, I found a dozen rooms, walls and even ceilings covered with maps of all sizes. Some were of places I recognized, while others were unlabeled, or marked with languages I did not understan. I wandered, fascinated, looking for an attendant, but the place was deserted.

When I returned to the tavern, Paolo waved me over, stone-faced.

“You have to go,” he said. “I need the room.”

I asked him if I had done something wrong. He shrugged and gestured to the wall. “Our business is concluded.”

He let me keep the leather case with pen and inks. Later, inside, I found a yellowed envelope of pastel bank notes.

Day 9

The money from Paolo was enough for a room at the Greenway Hotel, a hulking establishment full of tarnished chandeliers, cracked plaster scrollwork and threadbare velvet cushions. It is so named because of the green lawn across the street, hedged by wild rows of untrimmed trees.

I took a stroll, and found in a back corner of the park a sizable pile of rubble, and a shockingly ancient man puttering around it. He had a long, scraggly beard and wispy moustache, and even his eyebrows hung down, seemingly determined to hide his eyes from view.

“What is this place?” I asked him.

“It was once the ruin of an old temple,” he said, “but it was a bit too ruined. When the rainy season last swept through, the whole thing finally collapsed on itself.”

“And what are you doing?”

“Cleanup,” he said. “I’m the groundskeeper.”

I spent the afternoon helping him. I worried he’d break himself, he was so scant. It felt good to do some proper labor.

Day 14

The hotel basement is used from time to time as a theater. If the hotel itself is genially shabby, the theater space is downright dank. Still, it put me in mind of some of my bohemian friends.

The show I saw didn’t suit me. It was a too-dark stage and a vague story about occult rituals and the summoning of foul demons. I suspect the obelisk they used for their set was a piece of that ruined temple, hauled over from the park.

Day 19

The groundskeeper and I strolled along the river today, although “stroll” is perhaps too generous for his doddering. I told him about my idea for a rock garden in the park, and he said it sounded like a fine idea.

As soon as I returned to my room, I began to draw up plans.

Day 25

The hotel lobby is used as an art gallery, and there was apparently a show going on today when I went down. Nothing but paintings of sailboats.

I tried to shove through the crowd, but I managed to ram myself head-first into a rather exceptionally muscled young man. Not the sort I would normally be interested in, but when he spoke in apology, his voice caught hold of me.

His name is Siegfried, and I found myself roaming the gallery with him and even explaining my plans for the park. He immediately offered to help move the stones.

We made plans to meet again tomorrow.

Day 28

I received a letter today from the governor of the city’s parks. The groundskeeper is dead. How they knew of me or my address, I do not know. Even more perplexing, I was offered the old man’s position. The pay is a pittance, but it comes with a permanent room at the hotel. And I must admit, now that my project is underway, I would be loath to give it up.

I will post my acceptance in the morning.

Day 30

They’ve sent tools! I am now the proud owner of a rake, shovel, two sizes of hammer, and a wheelbarrow. Siegfried and I work during the day, and he takes me to a new café every evening. There is no end to the secret corners and back alleys of the city, and it seems that every one has some hole in the wall where you can get a coffee or a bite.

Soon, our space in the park will be cleared. Then we will begin building.

Day 36

I went to the bookstore today, looking for maps of the city. When I asked the shopkeeper, he seemed incapable of understanding. I’m afraid I may have no choice but to map the city myself.

Day 39

A package came today. An old, heavy tome wrapped in brown paper. It is filled with maps of San Sibilia. There was no note with it, but who else knows of my work? It must be the parks governor. A patron I have never met nor spoken to.

Day 40

The book is perplexing. The maps are from different time periods, in wildly different styles, apparently drawn by different hands. They often disagree with one another, and one or two appear to be completely fabricated.

Yet the biggest shock was the last page. It is blank, except for the faded stamp of the man who compiled it.

It bears the old map-maker’s stamp. My master, long past.

How could one of his books come to be here? How could he have made this book and never told me?

Day 41

Now they’ve taken it all away from me! The governor sent a letter relieving me of my position, my tools, my park. Our rock garden, our living map, has come so far. We’ve measured out many of the roads, but the buildings are so much work. Siegfried managed a fantastic likeness of the Greenway Hotel as the centerpiece, with nothing but a hammer and a chisel and an old piece of temple stonework.

The governor claims I have “stolen illicit materials from the city archives.” What could it possibly be but the old map-maker’s book? If it belongs to anyone, it ought to be mine.

It makes no difference. They cannot stop me from finishing my work.

Day 44

The old man must have compiled the book when he was here, in San Sibilia.

Why did he hate it when I dreamed of the city? What happened to him here?

The one time he sounded honest about it, he was deep in his drink. He said the city existed beyond any maps. He said everyone leaves San Sibilia eventually, and whatever the city gives you of itself, it takes back before you go. It took his lover from him, and I suppose he never forgave it for that.

Day 48

We were so close. Our garden, our tiny city among the rocks. We had nearly filled it to the edges of the map.

This morning, my threadbare sheets had become fine silk. The once worn carpets were thick and soft. The room was no longer faded.

I went down to the dining room, and ate the finest breakfast I have ever had. The silver is spotless; the china, pristine. My fellow bohemians and shabby travelers are all gone, replaced by ladies with jewels and corsets, and men with kid gloves and pocket watches. The hotel is in its prime again, and only I am out of place.

Siegfried is gone. The book is gone. The park is gone. It is now stately rows of graves. In the far corner, lording over this city of the dead, is a single grand mausoleum.

I walked the perimeter of neatly trimmed trees. Did the names on the graves match the names of the city? Thoroughfares and boulevards, markets and mansions? Or did I imagine it?

In any case I came upon a pair of graves, and the names were ones I recognized. One was Gustav the map-maker, my old master. Beside it, one named Paolo.

Day 49

He was right. San Sibilia only loans out happiness, purpose, love. Now it has taken them back.

It is time for me to go. If I am lucky, perhaps, I will return some day and live out what time I have left in this city that has made me love it, and then spurned my love and turned me away.

It is sunset, and my little boat follows the slow currents of the canal. In the shadows beneath one of these bridges I will find that black portal that brought me here, and I will return to the place I came from.

There is one thing I take with me, if the city wills it: a ball that swirls with white cloud, green land, and blue seas.

San Sibilia

I recently purchased the Bundle for Ukraine on Itch.io, which included a number of video games, but also contained an unexpected number of tabletop RPGs and other things. One of those things is called A Visit to San Sibilia.

A Visit to San Sibilia describes itself as

a solo journaling game in which you roleplay a character chronicling their visit to the city of San Sibilia. It is a city not found on any maps—San Sibilia is both part of and distinct from our world. The city manifests itself differently to every visitor.

I wouldn’t exactly call it a solo TTRPG. It’s more like a semi-randomized writing prompt. The game starts with a description of the city. Which continent is it on? What is the time period? It is tantalizingly vague. The city is a mystery, and you are left to answer those questions for yourself.

The Play

The randomness is primarily provided by a shuffled deck of cards. You start by drawing two cards and consulting a simple chart to determine an adjective and a noun. Together, these describe your character. You might be a lonely missionary, an intrepid journalist, or a blasphemous scholar. (If you’ve played Fallen London, this naming scheme will feel very familiar.)

With your character in hand, you begin your journal. The game provides some questions to get you started. How did you get here? Where are you staying? And so on.

For each new entry in your character’s journal, you roll a six-sided die to determine how much time has passed. Then you draw two more cards. The suit of the first card provides an adjective, and the second card provides a location or event. You might have a serendipitous incident at the bookstore, read some sinister news in the broadsheets, or make a mysterious find in the antique store.

Finally, if your two cards had the same suit or the same value, the city changes. As the game describes, “It might be an expected change in season or politics, but it might also be a shift in reality.” Once you have experienced four of these changes, your time in San Sibilia comes to an end. You get one final entry to describe the circumstances of your departure.

My Experience

I’ve played San Sibilia once so far, over a long weekend. Depending on how loquacious you are, how strictly you follow the rules, and your luck, it could range from one hour to perhaps three or four. I spent about two hours across two days.

The initial description of the city, my character, and the starting questions were a great jumping-off point that immediately sucked me in. As I wrote my journal entries, I did choose to skip a single event and draw new cards at one point, but the random elements did pull my story in unexpected directions. I felt that the “same suit or value” mechanic for changing the city could result in some odd pacing, and I decided to force a change at one point when it was a very long time coming.

The game is simple enough that it’s easy to adjust it to your own tastes. The prompts worked well, and I never really had a hard time figuring out what to write next. The writing process was fun, and now that I’ve gone back and re-read it, I like the story that came out of it.

San Sibilia avoids a lot of the challenges that other TTRPGs have in telling a good, structured story by only having one player, having almost no mechanics, and limiting randomness. The one aspect where the game can fall down a little bit is the random number of journal entries between changes to the city. Even that can be easily dealt with by setting a hard minimum and maximum number of entries in each of these “acts.”

Where to Get It

A Visit to San Sibilia is available on Itch.io and Drive Thru RPG for $5.00. It’s also licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY 4.0), which means you can share it and remix it, as long as you provide proper attribution.

Reblog: Accumulations — The Inner Moon

Remember when we talked about William Gibson calling the cyberpunk genre a retro-future on Twitter? Part of the reason cyberpunk can feel stale is that so many of the tropes are already part of our daily lives.

This thoughtful essay from The Inner Moon suggests that cyberpunk is actually a close sibling of post-apocalyptic fiction. An “entropic dystopia.”

In post-apocalyptic stories, the apocalypse strikes in a moment and leaves behind a broken world. A meteor, bio-weapon, zombie plague or nuclear war changes everything overnight.

Meanwhile, the apocalypses of cyberpunk are slow, insidious, and layered. Societal rifts that spread over decades. Dysfunctional governments in thrall to multinational corporations. Greed winning out over community. Tech becoming more and more ubiquitous without solving any of these issues. The problems just keep piling up. The world doesn’t collapse in cyberpunk. It gets steadily worse. It’s society as the frog boiled in the pot.

Check out the whole article over at The Inner Moon…

Writing: The RPG™

In the halcyon days of the mid-2000s, the exploding popularity of alternate reality games got a lot of Silicon Valley types excited about the power of games to motivate people. For a few years, investors were happy to throw money at any product that included the word “gamification.” A handful of useful or interesting products came out of that wave of gamification, like StackOverflow and the StackExchange network it spawned, but a lot of attempts at gamification just slapped points and badges on drudge work in the vain hope that people would suddenly love it. Those products all sucked, and mostly disappeared.

Still, the idea of gamification isn’t completely useless (probably). I’ve browsed the ARG scene in years past, strictly as a casual observer, not a front-line puzzle-solver. In the best cases, it’s an interesting vehicle for storytelling, and it can be pretty amazing how effective a small group of people are at solving a problem when they’re all having a good time and feel like a community. I read Jane McGonigal’s book, Reality is Broken, and while I didn’t exactly come away believing that gamification can fix all the world’s ills, I think it can sometimes be useful as a way to self-motivate.

So anyway, that’s why I sometimes think about treating real-life writing as a role-playing game.

Character Creation

Do you want to play Writing: The RPG™? You can! All you have to do is follow these easy steps that I’m making up on the spot. Get yourself a couple pieces of paper.

  1. Select a character name. This can be your real name, or a pen name, or the name of a friend who has a better name than you.
  2. Select a title. This should be something cool like Iron Pen, Word-o-mancer, or Page Slayer.
  3. Select your starting class. This is a general category of writing or writing-related stuff. Writer, Editor, Blogger, or Reader are all good classes.
  4. Select your starting sub-class. This is more specific than your class: Sci-Fi Writer, Short Story Writer, Fashion Blogger, etc.

Character Growth

Your character levels up by gaining experience points. You start at level 1. To gain a level, you need to get as many experience points as (your next level) x 2. So you need 4 XP to level up to level 2, and 6 XP to level up to level 3.

To gain experience, you have to  do stuff related to your classes.

  • A basic, unexceptional amount of work is worth 1 XP. This might be something like writing 1000 words or a short blog post.
  • Completing a task for the first time gets you a First Time Achievement, worth 2 XP. This is stuff like “First Thousand Words Written,” or “First Blog Post,” or “First Short Story.” You also get an achievement for the 10th time and the 100th time. After that, you’re an expert and you don’t get experience for doing that thing anymore.
  • Completing tasks that are very big or very difficult gets you an experience bonus: 5 XP or 10 XP, depending on how big and monumental you think it is. Finishing a novel or having your favorite author retweet you might fall into this category.

Writing: The RPG™ supports unlimited multi-classing. You can add as many new classes or sub-classes to your character as you want to. To add a class or sub-class, you have to complete a related task. You can’t get the Editor class until you’ve edited something. (Like really edited. Edit a chapter of your novel or something. Just fixing a couple sentences doesn’t count. This is serious business.) If you want the Blogger class, you need to post a blog post, and if you want to subclass into Fashion Blogger, that blog post better be about fashion, dangit.

What’s the Point?

There is none. It’s just a silly game. But maybe it’s a silly game that could actually motivate you to do something you kind of already wanted to do anyway? That’s what gamification is supposed to be good for, after all.

What do you think? Can we come up with more rules? I hearby release Writing: The RPG under a Creative Commons public domain license (no doubt giving up my chance to make millions from a half-assed afternoon blog post). Leave a comment with your additional rules, modifications, complaints, or erotic fanfic mash-ups down below.

Reference Desk #10 — The Story Engine

The Story Engine is a card-based tool to generate endless, semi-random writing prompts. It’s is billed as a tool or multiplayer game to aid in writing fiction, playing tabletop RPGs, or just to be played on its own. It started out in 2019 as one of those Kickstarter projects that caught fire and got fifteen times as much money as they were asking for. Now, the full product is launched, along with myriad add-ons enabled by Kickstarter stretch goals.

As a writer, a TTRPG player, and general lover of boxes of cards with nice art, I decided to try it out.

What’s in the Box

The main box comes with 180 cards. There are also three 60-card “expansions” that can be purchased separately: sci-fi, fantasy, and horror; and six 18-card sub-genre “boosters” for cyberpunk, steampunk, eldritch horror, post-apocalyptic, mythological and dystopian. I went for broke and got the whole collection. The core set is genre-agnostic, but the add-ons are clearly focused on speculative fiction.

The build quality is solid, which I appreciate as someone who has accumulated quite a few board and card games of varying quality. The box is a sturdy, fold-open affair that latches with magnets and has a sleeve. The cards are glossy, nicely weighty paper, and the illustrations are evocative. The cards aren’t plastic-coated, so expect the edges to get roughed up as they’re repeatedly shuffled.

How Does it Work?

The cards are divided into five different types: Agents, Engines, Anchors, Conflicts and Aspects.

  • Agents represent characters
  • Engines represent a goal or desire
  • Anchors represent places, things, and ideas
  • Conflicts are challenges or difficulties
  • Aspects are adjectives

In its simplest form, I can play one card of the first four types, in sequence, to generate a random prompt, such as

A daredevil (agent) wants to enact a secret plan revolving around (engine) an election (anchor), but they will bear the scars for all to see (conflict).

I can then customize that prompt in two ways. First, each card has 2 or 4 prompt phrases depending on type, so it can be turned 90 or 180 degrees to change the “active” phrase facing me to something more inspiring. Secondly, I can add an Aspect. Since aspects are adjectives, they can be applied to the noun cards: agents (characters) and anchors (places, things, ideas).

With those changes, I might transform the first prompt into

A tormented fraud (agent + aspect) wants to unmask the conspiracy of (engine) a rebellion (anchor), but they will bear the scars for all to see (conflict).

The guidebook that comes in the main box also suggests ways to use the cards to generate character concepts, items and settings, as well as several more complex prompts that utilize more cards. These include things like conflicted characters with multiple goals, or two characters in conflict over related goals.

Finally, it includes rules for multi-player storytelling games and some helpful hints toward RPG players as to how the various prompts might be used in building campaigns, settings and scenarios.

Despite all these prescriptive rules for building prompts, The Story Engine is also happy to tell you that this doesn’t have to be rigid, with hard and fast rules. You can use the cards however you’d like.

1. A robot wants to map an obsidian prison, but they will have to try something frightening and new. 2. An archivist wants to pay an old debt with a corrupted tool, but they will have to resist a great temptation.

My Experience

The Story Engine does a good job riding the line between too specific and too vague. I often find writing prompts irritating when they’re little more than a vague topic, but too much detail obviously takes any agency away from the writer.

I filled a few notebook pages using the “simple” writing prompts. Not all of the results were instantly inspiring, but I was able to glean a few ideas that feel promising, and a few more that seem like they could lead somewhere with a bit more time and thought.

The complex prompts include more cards and more structure, and as a result they are less open-ended and more inflexible. These are sometimes too detailed for me, feeling like there’s not enough room for filling in the blanks. However, you can always swap cards or break the rules to get something more to your liking.

The individual cards are also just fine as prompts by themselves. Sometimes a one-word character or setting description is all you need, especially when trying to flesh out an idea in progress. The pictures on the cards also do work as extra inspirational elements that don’t insert more words into the mix.

What about RPGs?

I’m not currently running a campaign, so I haven’t tried incorporating The Story Engine into one. However, I have used the similar dice-and-table-based prompts in The Perilous Wilds to run totally improvised one-shots of Dungeon World. I could definitely see using The Story Engine to do something similar.

If you have a home brew campaign, these prompts are probably going to be more useful than if you’re trying to add to a pre-written one. They might also be fun for generating NPCs on-the-fly when your adventuring party takes an unexpected turn.

Conclusions

So far, I’m pleased with what I’ve gotten out of The Story Engine, and I’ll continue to use it. My only concern is that the prompts might start to feel samey after a while. Even if there are technically billions of combinations, the cards will eventually become familiar. Still, with the core and add-ons, I have quite a few cards to work with. I think I’ll be using these cards as a story brainstorming tool for a long time.

If you’re unsure, the core set is a good starting point, and it’s genre-agnostic. If you’re not writing speculative fiction, the add-ons don’t offer much. If you are writing spec-fic and The Story Engine sounds exciting to you, buying one of the bundles gets you a pretty steep discount vs. buying piecemeal.

Check it out at https://storyenginedeck.myshopify.com/

Writing Lessons from Dungeons and Dragons

I recently wrapped up a Dungeons and Dragons campaign that I’ve been running for over a year. This is the longest that I’ve run a group, and it’s been a fun experience with a lot of lessons learned along the way.

Many of those lessons are specific to D&D and to table-top role-playing games in general, but I think there are a few that apply to writing fiction.

What’s this D&D Thing?

Even if you’ve never played Dungeons and Dragons, you may be at least vaguely familiar with it through the various ways it has popped into the broader cultural consciousness over the years: the 80s cartoon, the references in Stranger Things, or the myriad video games that draw from it directly or indirectly.

If you’re not familiar, D&D may seem obscure and confusing. It’s often portrayed in pop media as the sort of thing that obsessive nerds obsess over (and they certainly can be, on occasion). But these games really aren’t as cryptic or complicated as they’re often made out to be.

Dungeons and Dragons is the most popular table-top RPG. Table-top RPGs (or TTRPGs) are simply games where players collaborate to create a shared fiction, with rules. Depending on the game, the rules may be extremely complex or very simple. They may or may not have some element of chance — usually involving dice. Ultimately, a TTRPG is about creating a story with some friends.

Many TTRPGs have a special position: a player who runs or otherwise facilitates the game. In D&D, she’s called the “Dungeon Master,” in other games it’s often the “Game Master.” It’s often the responsibility of this person to provide the setting and the scenario, while the other players bring characters who will move about and interact in that scenario.

Now that we have a baseline understanding, I want to talk about what I learned playing these games that can be applied to writing fiction.

Lesson #1 — Give Your Audience What They Want

Dungeons and Dragons is typically played in Tolkien-esque high-fantasy settings, but there are other settings you can use, and TTRPGs in pretty much every genre. The campaign I just finished is called “Curse of Strahd,” and it’s based on classic monster horror: vampires, werewolves, witches, ghosts, and even a sort of Frankenstein’s monster.

However, it’s important to realize that genre goes beyond these “which-shelf-is-it-on” kind of classifications. In TTRPGs, many groups focus on combat and the rules-heavy play of slinging spells and swinging swords. But you can also craft scenarios where the players are solving mysteries, or perhaps socializing with the movers and shakers of the world, trying to convince them to take particular action. Some groups may be interested in romance or sex in their fiction (while others will be vehemently uninterested).

Of course, few groups want only one thing, like pure combat or nothing but puzzles or social encounters. Furthermore, each of your players are likely to have different preferences. You have to balance everyone’s needs and provide a variety of experiences to keep everyone happy.

For a game master, talking with your group of players and understanding what they want to get out of the game makes a big difference when trying to craft a setting and scenario that they’ll enjoy playing.

For an author, you have to know your audience. Know what you like, and make sure you’re writing something you enjoy. Beyond that, who are you writing for? Can you imagine an “ideal reader” of your story — the theoretical person for whom the story is perfect? Can you distill a small list of things that you’re trying to give your audience?

Lesson #2 — The World is Always in Motion

An RPG called Dungeon World introduced me to the idea of “fronts.” They’re like the story version of weather fronts — something that blows in periodically and ushers in change. Fronts are a way to keep track of the things that are happening in the background of a game world.

For example, maybe the players are content to hang out in a comfy town for a few days, carousing and spending their treasure. Meanwhile, you know that the northern kingdom is preparing to invade the southern kingdom, and the king of the dragons is awakening from his thousand-year sleep deep under the mountain.

In a TTRPG, you may be the game master, but you do not control the players or their characters. Still, the world around them is a living, breathing thing. Stuff happens, whether they’re involved or not. So when they take their week-long vacation, the northern kingdom may be marching their armies. Perhaps Dragon Peak erupts, and the great dragon king takes flight, turning green valleys and hamlets into scorched wasteland.

There is a cost to inaction. Further, there may be no “right” choice for your characters. If they do one thing, their inaction elsewhere will still have a cost.

In your fiction, your characters may not cooperate, just like those players in your table-top game. Characters have to have agency in the world and make choices in keeping with their personality. If characters are forced into a plot where they have to do things that they don’t “naturally” want to do, you end up with soap-opera plots where the characters are just dolls being shoved around in predestined sequences of events.

Sometimes this can work to your advantage. The character can ignore their noble destiny and go do what they want. The world won’t wait for them though, and those fronts keep on moving. Villains have their own agendas, and aren’t about to accommodate the good guys. Whenever your characters are doing something in the foreground, things should still be happening in the background.

Lesson #3 — Good Ideas Can Come Out of Improv

TTRPGs are, in many ways, improv games. The GM can prepare and plan, but only so long as they can guess what the players might do. Inevitably, players will come up with unexpected and often creative solutions to problems that the GM couldn’t prepare for.

Likewise, the players may know the setting, but they don’t know the scenario like the GM does. They get only the information they can glean from the GM’s description and perhaps some lucky die rolls. Then they have to act on that information as best they can.

Often, the best and most memorable moments will come from a player doing something completely unexpected and off-the wall in a tense situation. As a GM, sometimes you just have to smile and throw away all your plans, because a player thought of something better.

When it comes to writing fiction, I’m an unabashed planner, but even the most organized and prepared of us have to do some improvisation sooner or later. If a scene feels wrong, we sometimes have to stop and ask ourselves, “is this really what that character would do?” Or perhaps we just feel there’s something missing, some spark of life. We may have to try a few different ideas to make something interesting happen, not knowing which will work out.

Lesson #4 — Feedback is Important

When running a TTRPG, it’s important to be excited by the story you’re trying to tell to your players. It’s also important to watch how those players react to that story. Are they invested, working together, trying to overcome impossible odds? Or are they distracted, disinterested, or apparently struggling to figure out how to participate?

Running a good campaign involves bringing in elements that you think your various players will enjoy. It also requires that you gauge whether those things actually worked the way you expected them to. Sometimes this is as simple as watching how they play and reading the room. Sometimes you have to explicitly ask if everyone is getting what they want out of the game.

This is the flip-side of lesson #1. As you’re writing, it helps to think about your “ideal reader,” and what will entertain your audience. Once you’ve got some draft pages, you can actually go out to that audience (at least some small bit of it) and ask what they think.

Family, friends, beta readers, writing groups or critique circles — however you can get it, feedback is vital. A book is a big project, and it’s almost inevitable that each of us will forget something, make mistakes, include a plot hole here or there. Feedback followed by careful editing can turn a good manuscript into a great book.

Interested in TTRPGs?

That’s all for the writing lessons. Perhaps in another year of running sessions I’ll find a few more to share.

If all of this talk about table-top RPGs piqued your interest, now is a great time to get into the hobby. It’s more popular today than it has ever been.