Monday, August 22, 2016

10 Things I Learned about Writing from Dungeons and Dragons

Dungeons and Dragons has been an obsession of mine ever since I actually got more than one friend. The unfortunate thing about the game is that it’s the sort of thing a player has to learn by doing. Doing, furthermore, with people who already know what they’re doing. It’s hard to sit down and just read the book, the rules being way too complicated to really fathom in a theoretical form.

In my late group, I had my complaints, as I’m sure all do. But towards the end, the experience was overwhelmed by grievances with little positives to make up for it. Part of the problem was our Dungeon Master, a man with the body of a stereotypical thirty-year-old nerd and the mind of a stereotypical ten-year-old boy.

Now, I must clarify right here and now that I am judging him. I judge him because I’m bitter, but
I do not necessarily judge others for what I judge him. It is that special brand of judging that we do when we want to be judgmental and does not always apply to others. Certainly not ourselves.

Anyway, needless to say, the game had its problems. And part of the problem stemmed from his refusal to let anyone else DM. Of course, he was far too passive-aggressive for an actual argument, so instead he’d intentionally mess with the game as much as he could under the guise of “playing his character.”

Which meant that for six hours once a week for over three years, I was face level with this man’s improv’d psyche. But I have a lot to thank him for; it was a direct view into the writer’s mind, uncensored, unedited, too quick (and egotistical) for there to be any room to hide motivation.

Over the years, from his mistakes, I learned several important things about how to deal with an audience.

1. Treating readers like they’ll be hostile will make them hostile.

His games were successful because no one tried to make them fail. The group pandered to his fantasizes, accepted what he threw at them, and hardly ever attempted to fight against the grievous wrongs he deliberately punished them with.

Once upon a time a fellow member attempted to DM a game. Not only did she have to contend with Mr. Dungeon Master himself, but the rest of the group, because unlike their respect for our Long Living King, they thought she was an idiot.

The story began with everyone in the town disappearing. Mr. DM robs a bank. The game lasted only a few weeks.

After the woman quit, Mr. DM took charge again. He started it off with everyone from the town disappearing. No one robbed a bank.

Now, of course, if called on it, he would claim it was a matter of skill, not the power of a friendly versus hostile audience.

 Yet, he seemed terrified of what would happen if we did, in fact, become hostile. He would make super powerful NPCs to stop and lecture people from doing what they wanted, his fear that they would destroy the game by, oh say, robbing a bank. When he didn’t understand a the player’s motivation in doing something like taking a useless but entertaining object from a treasure split, he would assume it was sabotage and punish them.

The more afraid he became of his own medicine, the worse he got. People started abandoning the game. After years and years of playing together (the group having formed long before I got there), these childhood friends started to hate each other.

They didn’t quit when there were just overbearing Christian overtones or unbalanced power gaming or favoritism or passive-aggressive punishments. Those were there since I first came. The real issue came from the “narrator’s” defensive hostility towards his audience.


Of course, being treated like a traitor as a player is much different than being looked at like an idiot as a reader. Yet, there are things that we can take from it.

A narrator behaving like the audience is the enemy could be funny—as long as the audience perceives it as intentional. However, sincerely treating the reader she’s trying to hate the story will lead to an undesirable conflict, that the reader will, of course, side with herself on.

If the writer constantly explains the joke, or prematurely rationalizes a character’s actions, or gives the attitude that he doesn’t trust the reader to understand, be patient, or see the world like he does, she’s not going to enjoy herself. Over-explanation or an insecure condescension never reads well.

2. The need for a balance of satisfaction and frustration.

The players had to walk for a “year”. Our town’s wizard was dead, we were low level, and even when we came up with ways to teleport, Mr. DM told us it wouldn’t work. There were no towns in between ours and the next, and, for some reason, we had absolutely no way of contacting anyone outside of that singular wizard. So, when the inevitable disaster happened, we lynched the town leaders for not thinking ahead and left.

It was pretty boring. We were being controlled by bossy NPCs, we couldn’t buy any items, the game balance was so skewed that bonuses from leveling up meant nothing, and the only goals we could make for ourselves was to get to where we were headed. About three months of real time later, we arrived.

And a giant beast walked by and destroyed the whole town.

What was strange is the actual joy that seeing the city’s skyline had for us. The players were actually rejoicing. We truly, honestly felt the accomplishment. We were proud and relieved. There was a catharsis, there was an end. And before we could even see the fruits of our labor, he tore it away from us.

I stopped playing that very game.


Like regular stories, this frustration directly created that sudden joy. For such a long time we didn’t get what we wanted that we it actually came, it was a greater pleasure than it ever would have been if it’d been easy. Refusing to give people what they want—the lovers together, an answer to a question, the crap beaten out the villain—will make it all the sweeter when you give them what they want.

That is, unless you don’t give them what they want.

It is important to note that many great books have ended this way. There is a place for it. But it is also something that needs to be used wisely.

In the case of the town crushing giant, it was a mistake. The benefit of the year long walk was that feeling of relief at the end, but it, in itself, had no merit. He taught us quickly that if we worked really hard, dealt with the agony (of boredom) and kept working towards our goals, we would get… huge disappointment.

If the rest of the story had been enjoyable—the reader’s frustrated because the characters aren’t together, but there’s a hell of a lot of action sequences and humor to keep us entertained—it might have been okay. We would have still had something left to “live for.” But when our only life was about the goal, and he established that he was never going to give us what we wanted, there was no point in playing.

Having a good balance of satisfying and frustrating the audience leads to the widest variety of feelings, having a bad balance of being too giving or too withholding makes no one care.

3. Metagame physics.

Sometimes it makes sense to split treasure loot outside of the game. Sometimes it can be the best way to avoid arguments if we discuss plans with players whose characters are technically in another room. Sometimes looking up items to buy instead of asking what the shop keep has saves time and the DM’s mind. Yet, on the whole, metagaming is no fun.

The Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbook describes metagaming as the players making decisions with knowledge that they are playing a game. The example it uses is something like, the characters come to a portion of the dungeon where there is no clear path to go onward. Metagaming is where the players say, “Well, there has to be a lever somewhere because the DM wouldn’t have this end as a dead end,” versus saying, “There has to be a lever because the gnomes who made this wouldn’t have it as a dead end.”

Metagaming takes out the imagination of the world, and it was something that not only did the DM do, but encouraged. Mostly when it benefitted him. When a player would try to explain his actions by saying, “But my character doesn’t know that,” he would respond with, “But you do.”


There’s a lot of ways that metagaming (metareading or metathinking) can affect a book, the most obvious being the narrator talking like it’s a fiction book.

“I can’t die! I’m the main character and we’re only two pages in!”

It can also be in the way a character makes decisions. If we were to take, for example, the ending scene from Captain American, we would see him careening down to the Arctic, about to crash land into a pile of ice where he will be frozen in time until he can be brought back in the future (i.e. today) for the purpose of being a part of The Avengers.

Of course, he knew nothing of this. All he knew was that the plane would blow up, possibly killing millions, and his only plan was for it crash in an uninhabited area. After setting all of this up, he sat there and had a sad conversation with his girlfriend on the other side.

My problem? He behaved like he knew it was hopeless.

In any other hero movie in which the writer, the audience, and the fans don’t know that the character is fated to die, or rather, know he isn’t going to die, the ending is very similar with one little difference: when all looks hopeless, they keep trying to fix it. Until the last minute they are rushing around, ignoring the ticking clock, pulling out wires and jumping in refrigerators, and finding some way to survive.

Captain America was not going to survive. Or, at least, he had to be frozen. And he acted like he knew it.

When the author knows what is going to happen, he will often telegraph it through the character’s behavior. Characters who are going to die suddenly get mean. The character is going to succeed, so he keeps trying. The character is going to fail, so he doesn’t try. The characters are going to end up together, so they get into a fight, etc.

It’s hard to prevent this because we often aren’t aware we’re doing it. Yet, like Dungeons and Dragons, metagaming is not as much fun as playing pretend, and, though there are benefits to knowing how things are going to turn out, it is much more believable if the characters don’t project it without their knowledge.

4. Reader’s goals are important.

As in the scenario with the year-long walk, players have goals of their own. The more goals they have, the better and the more fun it is for them.

In my late group, each time we came up with a goal, the DM would actively try to destroy it. We’d want to get vengeance, he’d have an NPC kill the villain instead. We’d want to be a thief, he’d have NPCs magically know when we stole and decide to give money to the other players. We’d want to build a house, he’d hand us one. Or destroy it. But, as with the walk, if we don’t have a goal that we don’t think we’re going to get, we don’t care.


Readers have goals too. Yes, they are different than a player’s, being that they have no real control over what happens, but they do want certain events to transpire.

They’re usually very simple. In Twilight we want Edward and Bella to get together, in a Mousetrap we want to find out who is the murderer (and we want it to be the person that we thought it to be), in Taken we want to see the evil kidnappers butchered—as well as some sort of punishment for the idiotic friend—and in The Pursuit of Happyness we want to see Will Smith becomes successful.

Now whether or not a singular individual actually cares about any of those things is a different matter. Why someone does or doesn’t care about the high school love story of a sparkling vampire and his klutz is an important and interesting matter for the writer, but irrelevant on this point. The important thing is that people who don’t care—who don’t have any personal goals—don’t like the book. Those who do, do.

5. The importance of basic knowledge.

To describe Mr. DM as ignorant would be an insult to anyone who’s ever lived under a rock.

There are several instances that makes his naivety laughable (how voting works) and more that are just plain scary (how conception happens), but, for the sake of time, I’m only going to elaborate on one.

Everything quantifiable was “the biggest thing ever.”

In the normal DnD (3.5) you’re not supposed to surpass level 30. In fact, in some versions, as soon as a character hits level 30, he becomes godlike and ascends to heaven.

The last game I played I was level 93. My then boyfriend who had “double-class” was considered level 188.

This need for “big” (which I believe resides precisely in Freudian rational) affected every aspect of his stories, including the size of the planet we were on.

The planet had a circumference of 1 billion miles. To just illustrate this picture, the earth is 25,000 miles around. Let’s put that into numbers.

Earth-                    25,000
Sun-                     435,000

So of course the question of gravity came up.

Now it took a while because no one was trying to hurt the game, but it was a really big problem. Not just because he was making a hostile audience out of us, but because it was completely hard to believe and conceive.

And when we finally asked about gravity, he just ignored it, saying it didn’t matter. But it did matter, because the whole thing reeked of a child stating the biggest number he could think of.

His games had a hell of a lot of continuity breaks because he was completely na├»ve when it came to biology, physics, and life in general. He always wanted things to be the amazing and didn’t care for any ramifications or research.


His naivety is not that unusual. I had to look up how big earth was; I didn’t even have enough of a clue to guess. When it comes to a lot of aspects of life, we don’t know much. But the writer needs to know what he’s talking about if he wants the reader to feel safe in his hands. People do not need to know the answer to know if you are wrong. Your only real job is to look like you’re not making things up.

Now, again, in Dungeons and Dragons he had a little bit of leeway because it is mostly improvisation, yet he didn’t have to tell us how big the world it was; he decided it. He didn’t think it was important to know the actually size of earth because he just wanted it bigger than Earth.

And hey, it’s fiction, an author can make whatever he wants as long as he sticks to his rules.

Except a good book is a convincing book. It might be completely irrelevant that the planet is big and has no additional gravitational force, but it’s still going to bother the hell out of the readers. Something like that sounds like a child telling a story, saying, “He’s the strongest man in the universe! He’s a gazillion times stronger than Hercules!”

One of the things a writer has to deal with is that readers will reject something without knowing why. They don’t always give the benefit of the doubt, even if they want to. It is very common for them to not believe something and yet not be able to say what is wrong with it.

Details are extremely important in being convincing, and being convincing is extremely important in drawing people into your world. They may be able to get passed the fact that you didn’t consider your giant planet would crush people with the gravitational force, but it still doesn’t mean they won’t think you’re an idiot.

6. Moderating the death toll.

On this same point, moderation is everything. It was typical for him to claim wars had killed trillions of people.

Not only is this unconceivable (there’s only seven billion people on Earth right now), but unfathomable. It sounds made up, and the more it sounds made up, the less people take it seriously.


Having large numbers like this has the same problem of telling instead of showing. Instead of making us feel something by word choice and events, he’d just express the horrors in the most obvious way possible. “A lot of people are dead. You should care.”

There’s a psychological theory that the more people there are in a tragedy, the less it influences us. Sure we care when a war slaughtered two trillion people, but, to us, it’s the same as a billion people, or a million people, or even 1,528 people. Not, of course, when I am comparing them side by side, but if I were to write a story about a battle that took the lives of 2,000 warriors, the picture is the same as if I said 4,000.

Moderation of death makes death more meaningful. Proximity also helps. The death of Spock is more horrible then the death of five redshirts.

Trying to get people to care takes talent outside of plain events. Authors (or DMs) will try to play our heartstrings by murdering people, but doing so more often reads as trying too hard.

7. Moderating powers.

Mr. DM tried to make us happy. But, unfortunately, he tried to make us happy in a way that would prevent us from actually having control in the game. He did so by giving us ridiculous powers, calling it “power gaming,” and then finding elaborate ways to make those powers mean nothing.

Why were we three times the level we were supposed to be? Because every time we got disheartened, he gave us Experience Points. He combated that by making every NPC five times the level they were supposed to be.

This immediately became an issue. Items stopped meaning anything, so people started hording their money, which made story conflicts too easily solved. “We have to sail across this sea? Well, I have a million gold. I’ll buy a boat.” He gave us powers like teleporting, but then had to deal with us teleporting. He solved these problems by having a huge shift in economy (“Well the only boats they have cost a billion gold.”) and just removing the ability to teleport where ever we went, which meant the power was completely useless.


If your character can teleport, how do you stop them from just teleporting away when crisis arises? Of course, the author can take a card from Mr. DM, but that’s rarely the best solution. Just saying, “You can’t,” is irritating and frustrating, not to mention a cop out.

It can be used to the author’s advantage, having the character not able to teleport until he finally smashes the item that stops him, leading to that satisfaction that we discussed earlier. But, the author can only do it a few times before readers catch on.

I can’t imagine writing for Superman for this very reason. He is practically invincible until he’s practically dead. Giving the character too much power makes it hard to have a reasonable challenge, and removing all his power still doesn’t solve the problem.

8. Falling in love with the wrong character.

Mr. DM had a hard time separating characters from players. Whenever we actually did “play our characters,” such as pretending to go through a grieving period, getting mad at someone, or picking an inane trait (I was a pixie obsessed with shiny things), he did not understand that we were playing and thought that we were metagaming. He’d wonder why we were really mad, wondered how we were trying to manipulate him, and do his best to get us to stop doing anything that might ruin his game.

It was worse, however, with him. As I said before, his “playing the character,” meant “having no self-control.” Because he did not fully understand the pretending part (possibly because it didn’t want to), he could not separate himself from his characters. He was his character, there was no pretend about it. This is a problem when he is controlling every NPC in sight.

The majority (and by majority, I mean all but a few accidents) we tied every battle. He would, abiding by his “big” demands, have a battle with an infinite number of orcs, and several high level NPCs on each side. We would fight until he got bored and then one side (or both) would run away, nothing changing.

See, no one could win, because either way he was losing. If we beat the villains, we beat the DM. If the villains beat us, the DM beat the DM. He fell in love with each of his characters which made it a problem every time they were a useless jackass.


Falling in love with any character is a problem in itself. However, the reason why I say “wrong” is that DnD specifically taught me the downfalls of siding with the character your audience isn’t.

Now, I’m not talking about motivation and understanding unlikable characters. Seeing the point of view of the enemy is an important part of a well-rounded story. When I say fall in love, I mean when the author is obsessive about a character the readers don’t root for.

Like actually being in love, writers tend to give gifts to the characters they admire, whether it be in the form of actual items, abilities, or luck. And it reads like that’s what they’re doing. We can get away with it better when it’s the protagonist. When the audience likes the character, they don’t mind as much. (Although, too much favoritism will become obvious and unconvincing. It is helpful to notice when falling in love with a character that the others aren’t because they will immediately turn on him.)

9. Maintaining house rules.

The worst part of the game was the constant rule bending. One minute we could spend three million gold without ramification, the next be asked, “How are you carrying that?”

Now we could give him the benefit of the doubt and say he just forgot, but remember, there is a specific pattern here. He constantly changed the rules to tell the players they couldn’t do something.

“House rules” or what I’m now calling “anything that the DM thinks he can change” are rules that vary from group to group. Constantly changing them when it suits destroys the believability of the world, especially when someone changes them to fit his needs.


In fiction, there are universal rules for things, whether it be the law of gravity or that vampires can’t come out in the day. By universal, I don’t mean absolute. There are just general rules and assumptions that people (at least those who know anything about the topic) just default to unless told otherwise.

These universal rules are up for breaking. If the characters were to, say, explain that they didn’t need air in outer space because they had special implants in their lungs, then fine. Most people would accept that.

The house rules, however, are not so easily changeable. These rules, being anything that the house has decided is a rule, cannot be broken without good cause. An assumed, pre-existing rule might change to make your world different or to fit in with your vision of the world, not necessarily to benefit you. But if you’ve established that’s how your world is to change it, it ruins the reality of things and makes you untrustworthy.

10. Stealing ideas is introducing competition for yourself.

Mr. DM introduced a detective. He smoked a pipe and looked like Robert Downy Jr. In the act of trying to describe him, he spent a long moment “thinking” as to what actor would be most similar in appearance. “But not like in Tropic Thunder,” he said pointedly.

The most innocent of us then turned and said, “Sort of like Sherlock Holmes?”

And he pretended to be surprised at the perfection of it.

We met Sherlock Holmes, Hercules, most of the X-Men (all by different names of course), the Greek gods, and pretty much anyone from a movie he’d seen recently.

One of Mr. DM’s talents was characterization. And I say that sincerely. Though he had trouble getting into the minds of his characters, he had no problem getting into their bodies. He was a good actor, and fun to watch. Except, and here comes the underlying problem, he was no Robert Downy Jr.

Not only did stealing ideas from other places make believing in his world even harder, but it also made him “follow their act.” Little problems with atmosphere and details became a hell of a lot more apparent. Even perfectly fine choices were wrong when they were trying to embody a previous idea.

Now I’m not entirely booing the use of other ideas. It is not only impossible to be completely original, but unnecessary. If an author writes for fun (and all authors who actually manage to write write for fun) then to refuse the use of ideas that inspired him diminishes the enjoyment he can actually have.

But there is a difference between using another idea and stealing it.

If Mr. DM loved Sherlock Holmes so much, he could have easily figured out the why, kept the basics, fix the mistakes, and made it his own. We love how Holmes is cocky, passionate about his work, and does not care about the means so long as he gets the ends he wants. We might even like the time period or the career. But even if you were to take a whole lot of things you could end up with a whole new story. House is a great television show for a reason.


I’d argue stealing ideas is much more tolerable in DnD than it is in a novel because Dungeons and Dragons is just for fun and on the spot. However, blatant character and concept snatching is something that takes an expert to pull off.

For regular writing, you want to be much more careful of plagiarism, not just because people hold you to a higher standard when you’re holding their hearts in your hands, but because when people know exactly what you’re trying to do, it’ll become much more obvious that you’re not doing it.

Dungeons and Dragons is a great game for any writer to try out, especially when interested in fantasy. That sort of unrestricted improv allows for the author to really sort through his ideas fast, thoroughly, and get reaction from readers without having to deal with any sort of agent.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you’ll be free of angry critics, but you do learn a lot.

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