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Pretend to be a Dungeon Master and Level Up Your Storytelling

I think it’s a safe bet that many Fantasy-Faction readers have at some point played Dungeons & Dragons. I’m also willing to bet that many readers, myself included, have packed away our dice and minifigs and left them to collect dust in a forgotten drawer or in our parents’ attic. But there are a proud few who still play. And they include, among others, such writers as Patrick Rothfuss, Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch, Elizabeth Bear, Myke Cole, Peter V. Brett, Saladin Ahmed, and Mary Robinette Kowal. Now I’m not saying that you need to play D&D to become a bestselling author. What I am saying is that designing a campaign for your fictional world is a great vehicle for fleshing out a story idea.

Advanced Dungeons and Lawyers by tegehelBut before I begin, a word of warning. I would not suggest writing about a D&D campaign you have participated in. Yes, it was fun, surprising, and exciting when you and your friends played it, but that’s because you know each other and have years of inside jokes. The odds of strangers finding it as engrossing are about as thin as the graph-paper map of a dungeon. Use your D&D skills as a tool for, not as an example of, good storytelling.

With that out of the way, let’s begin thinking like a Dungeon Master (DM). The first step is to consider your campaign’s setting. Although you might think that D&D storylines only occur in places like Middle Earth, there are many role-playing games that use steampunk or urban fantasy settings. The point is to know your setting well.

If you were leading a real game, players would expect you to specifically answer questions about the world. Saying, “Um, let me check” just wouldn’t cut it. I’m not saying you would need to give a retelling of you world’s geological history, but you would need enough details to paint a vivid image.

LAND OF THE WESTERN by Paolo BarbieriSo sketch a few maps (on graph paper or otherwise). Heck, a map of modern Chicago could serve in a campaign about, say, a duster-wearing Wizard. Be familiar with your terrain, and use details to both inspire and constrain your campaign. So far, this is pretty much like any sort of world building you’d perform as a writer.

Next, you would consider the characters taking part in the campaign. In D&D, each character is defined by a character sheet, on which a myriad of strengths, weaknesses, and abilities are listed. At the beginning of a campaign, many characters are weak and have limited abilities, but over the course of a campaign, the characters will learn and grow. This should remind you of a character arc.

Now, normally a DM wouldn’t have to fill out these sheets. But in this case, you will have to play on both sides of the table. Think about your characters. Give some thought to their back-stories. Study their flaws. What would bring them together? What might drive them apart? What sort of campaign, or story, could take advantage of these attributes?

Third, start designing your campaign. In other words, plot your story. Where are your characters going? To do what? Is your Fellowship off to destroy the One Ring? Or perhaps, like in Fortress Frontier, they are crossing hundreds of miles of unknown territory to make contact with a distant base. Although most D&D campaigns are quest or adventure stories, just about any plot can be game-ified. But remember, a good campaign, like a good book, will use a good hook to start the action quickly. And a great campaign will provide several reasons to keep the characters moving forward.

Barfight! by Todd Lockwood

Finally, time to think about all your non-player characters (NPCs). This includes everyone else in your campaign: from the big baddie, to the level 1 orcs the players fight in the first 30 seconds, to the innkeeper behind the bar. Will they help or hinder your players? Why? How? Some DMs will go so far as to provide voices for some NPCs. Similarly, you should give some thought to the cast of your story, not just the heroes. For example, what are your antagonist’s motivations, and how will he or she grow and change over the course of the story?

In most campaigns, enemies start small, like the characters. As the campaign progresses, enemies become stronger, more challenging. Many players will get hurt, and some may even die before the quest has been completed. This is the try-fail cycle in another form. Design your story like a good campaign: make the challenges harder at subsequent stages. Finding Orcrist, +10 sword of goblin-cleaving, is sweeter if you’ve struggled for it.

Dragons Lair by IronshodFor those writers who ignore outlines and write by the seat of their pants, I’m sure you are squirming and bristling at this list of instructions. But let me say that many DMs spend hours creating dungeons that never go explored, booby traps that are never sprung, and colorful characters that never interact with your players. A DM must be flexible, able to adjust when a player does something bizarre or when the dice go cold. If you know your setting and your NPCs well enough, your characters should be able to roam freely. If you have properly prepared, you should be fine. And for you outliners out there, build in contingency plans and redundant systems. You never know when a character might roll a 20.

There are many ways to flesh out story ideas: free writing, brainstorming, mind mapping, and now game-ification. I find changing up my writing patterns to be very useful because new methodologies often produce new spurts of creativity. Perhaps thinking of your idea not as a novel, but as a campaign or game, will work for you. See where it, and your Level 1 chaotic good rogue, will take you.

Title image by Todd Lockwood.



  1. Avatar Overlord says:

    Great article! I know authors like Peter Brett and Myke Cole played a lot of D&D and I’m sure I read that Mark Lawrence put a lot of his story telling abilities down to text based RPGs he used to play/write too 🙂

  2. Avatar Ryan Howse says:

    I agree a lot with this article! When I was a new DM, I often tried to plot out novels in D&D form, and it didn’t work. Novels tend to have slower beginnings than the players were willing to put up with. Nowadays, I try to make it more like a serialized TV show, and my players seem to enjoy it. (Also, there’s the pleasure of being able to end a game on a cliffhanger without the several-year long wait or sweeps week.)

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