Storytelling in D&D

This past Friday evening, I and my two players completed a level 1 to 20 fifth edition D&D campaign.  We had started the campaign in October of 2015, and the past two and a half years of nearly-weekly D&D has been fantastic.  In celebration of the end of my campaign, I decided to talk about the storytelling elements of RPG games.

Dungeons and Dragons contains a lot of elements like strategy, luck, improvisation, and storytelling.  Some groups focus on different aspects more than others, but  my group focused on telling a collaborative story using D&D’s ground rules.

DMs and Authors Both Need to Know How to Treat Main Characters

I have learned a lot about writing and planning stories through Dungeons and Dragons, and this latest campaign was no exception.  One of the unique things about this recent campaign was how few players were involved: me, as the DM and controller of a silent character to balance out the party mechanics, and two players.

In other campaigns I’ve DM’d, I’ve had a larger group of people – usually between four and six regular players – and the balance is much different.  You tend to have sessions focused on an individual player, and it’s much harder to have all players engaged simultaneously at the same interest level.

In both types of play, I find that it’s necessary to select one of the player characters to be the main driver of the overall story.  It’s easiest to do so if every player is at least somewhat interested in this ‘main’ story, and extremely hard to do if there are no common threads between player characters.

In writing, as well, the number of main characters drastically changes the feel.  In my novel posted here, I have a single main character with only a single secondary character.  In one of my other works not seen here, I have three point of view characters.  They feel impressively different; I got much deeper into the single character’s head, much more quickly.  With the additional characters in the unpublished work, I had to have a much longer story to convey each of their motivations equally well.  If I shared the air time correctly between my main characters, they will each seem just as exciting.  If I allow each of my players to have a similar time in the spotlight, they should all have the same amount of fun.

My experience with a very small party has taught me to consider not just how well each character is portrayed but how many characters there are and if any should be eliminated altogether.  With only two players, I got to feel like their characters were so much more important than some of the characters in a larger campaign.  How deeply you want your readers to care about each character is, at least somewhat, dependent on how much time you can spend on them.

RPG’s Increase Your Awareness of World Details

When either playing or DMing for a campaign, you make use of a world and its culture to bring about action.  Tiny details can be caught and used by players to wreak havoc on a campaign.

But true havoc only happens if you want to look at it that way (or if it destroys a player’s fun).  Sometimes your players are taking the most sensible route forward even if you, as a DM, didn’t think of it.  At a point, I stopped making solutions for my players to follow at all and just built the problem that their solutions (if judged reasonable) would be eligible to solve.

In writing, you’re usually the only one coming up with a solution, but RPGs can still help you see through the logic of others.  By watching how your friends play a game and write a story, you begin to wonder how your solutions could be superceded.  Let your characters solve the book’s main problem, not you.

Roleplay Can Help Make Dialogue More Natural

I talked about it in an earlier post, but D&D can contain a lot of improv – both in problem solving and in character representation.  I don’t think I’m altogether asocial, but D&D is still great to both consume and, without even realizing it, study social relationships.  With both your characters’ and your players’ input on display, you also get the opportunity to think and voice your thoughts through another’s mouth.

In writing, you have to do this a lot.  You have to speak through many characters, and what makes one different from another? What can you do to emphasize through mere action and sentence structure what those characters are like?  D&D is a great place to practice, and it gas a built in audience to help!

Feel free to comment with your own experiences playing RPGs or insights about how gaming and storytelling intersect!  I’d love to connect with other people who play D&D to create a collaborative story.

Thanks especially to my players, both near and far, current and old, as well as my DMs for the excellent times and the friendship.  Cheers!

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