Weeks ago, I spoke of how much I enjoy storytelling and my love for being a dungeon master. I do really love creating and playing in fantasy worlds and taking players through perils and adventures.
But even though I consider myself a storyteller first, writer second, the art of storytelling, specifically being a Dungeon Master—or any kind of RPG narrator, again just using one of the most popular titles—has had a profound impact on my writing, as I’ve learned many things in taking people through the theatre of the mind.
Know Your Audience
One of the recurring phrases when looking for writing advice is “know your audience,” and it doesn’t just mean know what the people who’ll read your work like and dislike, but to know everything about the prospective audience, from what kind of story is appropriate, to the themes you can explore in your work. A successful Young Adult author will know the kind of stories and content he can and should tell to engage his audience and the stuff he needs to avoid alienating them.
As a dungeon master, you will tell stories to different people friends and strangers alike, and in doing so you’ll understand the pitfalls of the various genres you play in, the challenges of telling compelling stories to different people, each with unique tastes and interests—clichés, tired tropes and overdependence on certain descriptions or phrases are some of the most dangerous pitfalls. If you’re like some of my friends and have children you bring into your games, you’ll learn to make your stories right for their age—and very quickly learn if you’re underestimating, or mollycoddling your young ones, they’ll let you know,
Dungeon Mastering will give you insights into the minds of your players and get a firm grip on their tastes, interests and the subjects they consider taboo. So when you’re ready to sit down and hammer out that novel you’ve been writing in your mind—don’t worry, we all do that and I can tell you that even while writing this, I’m thinking of other stories in the background of my skull—all those collective experiences will help you nail down the audience you want for your stories, and in doing so you will already have a strong grasp on what is important to include or exclude in your work to properly tell a story to your audience.
If you decide that your story, written or Dungeon Mastered, will touch on delicate or taboo subjects, as mentioned above, storytelling for different people or even your regular group will teach you the best way to do so. Everyone has different tolerance levels for certain ideas and content after all.
You’ll learn how to tell these stories with the necessary tact to avoid shocking people too much. Perhaps you want to have the gruesome details to get that visceral reaction from your players, but remember that there’s a very fine line between that reaction and just plain disgust, and crossing the line is all too easy.
“Knowing your audience,” might sound like something you can study and while every genre or age-group might have published works that give you an idea of what’s expected, it’s only experience and wisdom that really tell you what you need to know about the audience. And since acquiring that experience through writing is often very difficult, why not do it through the joyful art of Dungeon Mastering?
Engage the Senses
Dungeons & Dragons, Shadowrun, Vampire and Scion have an incredible variety of locales, from corporate offices to necropolises and your run of the mill dungeon and castle. But what makes the offices of Aztechnology and the Castle of Baron Strahd Von Zarovich memorable aren’t just the stories countless players have seen in them, but the fact they’re more than just rooms.
The Castle walls are derelict, the rooms musty, the offices gleaming with modern cold metallic furniture, all function and no style. The library is waterlogged and the tomes smell of stagnant water, the pages damp and dissolving with the merest touch. The hallway leading to the VP’s office smells of bleach and reminds you of a clinical space, completely sterile.
What every description in the paragraph above has in common is that they’re all engaging one of your senses. Sight, sound, smell, taste and touch bring locations and people to life. In a role-playing game, the Dungeon Master plays in the theatre of the mind, and detailing what the senses perceive helps build that complete picture.
I can tell you about Massimo, the merchant in the magical city of Almun, how he trades in magic items but not with just anybody. He has a name and a profession but that doesn’t bring him to life, that doesn’t make him memorable or interesting. But if I tell you about him and speak as him with a thick Italian accent, with a confident, almost bombastic tone and tell you of the doublet he wears, the intricate finery and the smell of peppermint that permeates his shop, coming from the back, where his companion, sweet Anabelle, brews tea for his guests, then he becomes a bit more real in your mind doesn’t he?
It’s not just the complete description of the character but the different pieces let you see him in your mind, you know what the fabric would feel like, you might even know what the smell is like. And you have seen and heard enough bombastic Italians in film that I don’t even have to give him a face, you already have. In fact, you already see his store in your mind and as I describe it, you hang those details on the walls like decorations.
It’s the same in a novel. You must engage the senses to engage the reader. A room isn’t interesting, but a room with decorations, the smell of an air freshener, with a leather couch so soft you think you’re melting into it, and with a view of the lake through its back window tells another story entirely, it becomes at least intriguing, and so when I tell you of the blood pooling near the closet door, your mind will race at the possibilities of what’s behind door number one.
If you now hear a sorrowful moan from the lake or gunshots piercing the door, sending bits of wood and dust flying, you know you’re in for a mystery or an action scene depending on the case. And all it took was a bit of sensory information to spark your attention, to make the place and the events believable. Now for every other bit of information I give, your mind will fill in the blanks.
As a writer, you can opt to tell a reader everything—Tolkien does that a lot and I’m not a fan—or you can tell them just enough for their minds to do the rest of the work. Tell them enough to ignite that spark, and they’ll fill out the world and be more attentive to the story you’re trying to tell.
That’s all for this week, we’ll continue with a couple more lessons learned from Dungeon Mastering next week. As always, hope this was informative and enlightening–and entertaining.