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.
“No plan survives first contact with the enemy,” is a famous saying, meaning that for all the careful planning in the world, the moment ideas meet reality, something will happen that forces you to act and make decisions on the spot.
You must adapt when things go awry or just not according to plan and in role-playing games, being a dungeon master is all about the adaptation. You can plan everything down to the smallest encounter, but your players will often find a hidden third door that throws all your plans into disarray.
What will you do then? Will you tell your players “oh sorry, didn’t plan for that?” Nope, you make it up on the spot, improvise, just as you would in any other scenario. Adaptability is the Dungeons Master’s greatest tool but also their biggest responsibility. If a dungeon master is incapable of adapting, they will quickly lose their players’ interests, who will see that their storyteller can only follow a script.
Learning to adapt a story (or improvise in general) to new ideas and circumstances is of paramount importance for a writer as well. You may have planned your story and even written an outline, but ideas will always bounce inside your head, and what you thought was a good idea yesterday will probably fall to second place to the brilliant idea you had today, on the spot.
Will you stay with the idea you already wrote an outline for or will you give yourself the chance of a better story with that stroke of genius you had but a minute ago? If you choose the latter, you’ll need to adapt your story to figure the new elements in without breaking anything, and if it changes too much, well, you’ll need that Dungeon Master adaptation practice!
But let’s say you don’t have that new idea and write the entire novel in one go. It’s tight, it works, it’s solid as far as you know, but then you send it to your proofreaders and editors and they tear it apart, showing you all the holes in the plot, the characterisation and pacing issues. You’re going to have to do a few rewrites to fix what’s wrong and that’s all adaptation.
For every single edit you make to your work, for every single little draft, you must be open to change, to take what doesn’t work, throw it out the window and bring in the new good stuff. In many ways, you’ll be doing the same thing as you would with players, taking a trip down the rabbit hole of that hidden third door.
Oh so many Characters
I’ve already mentioned the great Massimo and his shop of magical wares, but that is only one of hundreds of characters I will play during a campaign. Major villains and allies, friends and enemies, shopkeepers, innkeepers, merchants, mercenaries, shadowrunners, dragons and princesses, they’re all examples of the many characters I will create, and each must have their own voice.
By voice I mean not just the voice I’ll use when acting their parts—with frankly offensive accents, but that’s the only kind I can sadly do—but every detail of their personality, their quirks, wants and desires. Quirky, bookish, lecherous, funny, kind, miserable and many more I’ll use to describe these characters and act out in ways that resonate with these traits.
As a Dungeon Master it’s my responsibility to bring all characters to life, and my challenge is to make them all unique. They must all have different body builds and physical, mental and emotional traits. Beyond that are character histories, backstories that colour those personalities and behaviours, and most importantly, how those feed the world’s overall story and the campaign.
Creating one NPC, one the players will have constant interaction with is not difficult, but as campaigns advance and the characters explore more of the setting of the adventure, the number of of NPCs to keep track of increases, to the point where if the characters are in a scene with multiple NPCs, you’ll have to play them all and keep those character traits consistent.
And that’s where being a Dungeon Master will help the most in your writing, the characters and their creation and management. Without characters there is no story, only a description. Characters are the life of a story, they’re the ones that experience the events of the story, they’re the ones in the thick of it, and the people around them help them through, impede their path but inevitably all help them grow.
But to keep things believable and engaging, they must all be unique individuals, they must all feel like people you could meet down the street, even the most bombastic, over the top or outlandish of them all. And as the stories grow, the number of chapters or even novels increase, those characters must remain consistent to their traits but also to their own personal growth.
Characters in a novel are as alive as the characters you play as a Dungeon Master or those your players roleplay as. They grow, they experience things, their wisdom, skill and knowledge increases and perhaps trauma they experience cause changes to happen in them, but they must always be alive, they must always feel like living human beings—or whatever kind of creature they are.
Being a Dungeon Master gives you ample practice not only in characterisation but in coming up with them on the spot, on knowing the traits of your existing characters at all times so that new ones aren’t carbon copies.