Written by Scotty Villhard
After a hard-fought battle, the five companions share a moment for their fallen friend, Usk, a lizard-folk who once roamed the swamplands. Roska, the half-dwarf-half-orc freedom fighter, says a prayer to the gods of her fathers. Od, a fishman exiled from his home, remembers the night his family went missing, while Marleen, the cat-person archer, thinks back to her own father’s death at the hands of a blood-curse. Horven, the tale-telling halfling who left home for a life of adventure, marks the event in his notebook, while the devil-woman Violet simply waits.
Dark pillars burst from the earth. The group watches the Shadowfell, a plane of undeath, rise forth and form a being of undulating necrotic energy hundreds of feet tall. Antimatter incarnate. The Negative God. Then another figure rises from the dark, joining the companions: Usk, brought back to unlife by waves of necrotic energy that roll off of the Negative God. The six, bonds forged in their scars, stand together for what might be the last fight of their lives.
“Roll for initiative.”
It would be a waste of time to explain Dungeons & Dragons in detail. Maybe twenty years ago the world’s oldest tabletop role-playing game confined itself to basements and convention halls, but today it’s a well-known cultural phenomenon, thanks to the popularity of actual play podcasts like The Adventure Zone and Critical Role. That’s how I discovered the game. For the sake of clarity to those unfamiliar with the game, though, Dungeons & Dragons is a game played in the mind and with dice— a fantasy story directed by a dungeon master, acted out by the players, and filtered through the rules of the game. Success comes down to a roll of the dice. The appeal of Dungeons & Dragons and similar tabletop RPGs seems obvious: you get to play out a fantasy life as a halfling wizard, orc fighter, or any number of other possibilities. You can become a paranormal investigator in Call of Cthulhu, or a tortured bloodsucker in Vampire: The Masquerade. But for many of the people who play, it’s not the fantasy that lures them in. It’s the opportunities for storytelling. Tabletop role-playing games are communal, improvised, randomized, and call back to that oldest of oral storytelling traditions.
These games are the natural extension of oral storytelling, evolving as they are told, improvised and personalized to suit the table. The grandest adventure narratives have been spoken in the moment and then lost to all except in memory. But memory is where myths are made.
Oral storytelling predates recorded history, going back to the earliest days of humanity. Even as mainstream storytelling has shifted to the written word, we see the oral tradition all around us: every time a parent tells their child a bedtime story, or a group of old friends recount their youthful misadventures. But for many, tabletop RPGs carry a special sort of magic. Many writers, from essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates to HBO Chernobyl creator Craig Mazin, profess their love of Dungeons & Dragons and other tabletop RPGs. At their tables, and at hundreds of thousands of tables across the world, stories are formed, without writing or record, from play. Fantasy epics and ghost stories, mysteries and power trips, all take shape under a rulebook, dice, and imagination. These games are the natural extension of oral storytelling, evolving as they are told, improvised and personalized to suit the table. The grandest adventure narratives have been spoken in the moment and then lost to all except in memory. But memory is where myths are made.
If you look on any tabletop RPG forum, you’ll find threads dedicated to stories from play, epic successes and hilarious disasters alike. Within a group, a certain character might become famous or infamous, referenced as an in-joke for years after the character’s “death.” These stories spread between groups, influencing the official rules of the game itself. For example, Dungeons & Dragons 1st Edition is essentially a modified war game with an emphasis on tactical combat. But Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition is a storytelling game built around roleplay and social and environmental interaction. Player characters are no longer restricted to archetypes (like the elven wizard or dwarven cleric) because the game-makers understood that the appeal of tabletop RPGs had become the freedom to create.
These moments of play were surprising, funny, tragic, or all of those at once, and progressed the story forward in ways none of the “authors” had intended. Chance adds the spark that keeps the story interesting and keeps a player in the same mindset as a reader who wants to turn the page of their favorite book to see what happens next.
Tabletop role-playing games also added a new element to the oral storytelling formula: chance. Because tabletop RPGs are told by multiple players (and the game master) at once, sometimes their desires for where the narrative should go conflict. Often this occurs when the players are going “against” the game master, or against each other. In these cases, the only solution is a roll of the dice. Roll high, you win. Roll low, you lose. The rules are there to contextualize the rolls of the dice, but it’s chance that makes the story. In the Call of Cthulhu campaign I run, a bad stealth roll resulted in a player learning the mysterious faith healer was not only their old mentor in disguise, but the serial-killing vampire they had been chasing. At another time, a player tried to assassinate a famous scientist at a party, failing every roll until a critical success (in this case a 01 on a percentile die) led to the would-be victim running to the bathroom with food poisoning — the same bathroom where the assassin was trying to clear their head. And during a session of Dungeons & Dragons, a critical failure (rolling a one on a twenty-sided die) resulted in a character death that fueled the entire next campaign, as the party travelled to Shadowfell to rescue his soul from damnation. These moments of play were surprising, funny, tragic, or all of those at once, and progressed the story forward in ways none of the “authors” had intended. Chance adds the spark that keeps the story interesting and keeps a player in the same mindset as a reader who wants to turn the page of their favorite book to see what happens next.
Fiction writers have a lot to learn from tabletop RPGs. If you count yourself as a writer, find a group of friends who are interested. Go to your local gaming store. Join an organization through your school. Nothing makes good writing versus bad more evident than when you have to keep a group of over-caffeinated role-players engaged in your story. Strip away all your fancy prose, all your literary tricks. Run a game. If you don’t like epic fantasy, there is a whole world of role-playing games out there across a hundred genres, from vampires to teen social drama, created by the largest companies to the smallest indie creators. Here are some things I’ve learned as a writer from running tabletop RPGs for over the years. Roll a 20-sided dice, if you have one, and see where you land.
1. Discover what characters people latch onto, what scenarios they find the most fascinating. Another necromancer terrorizing the local villagers isn’t interesting. Maybe the village is terrorizing a local necromancer. Maybe the necromancer is a misunderstood archaeologist. These ideas might be awful, but you won’t know until you put them in play.
2. Bring your characters to life. Player characters are the truest version of this, living characters incarnate. They’re unpredictable, out of your control, and often a mash of contradictions. And yet it is still these characters that pull the story forward.
3. Explore not just the how but the why of building a world. You’ll quickly learn that players don’t care about history for its own sake, but for what it means to them. The same is true with readers. Keep the world engaging and keep the lore relevant. No one cares about the tax policies of the third lord of the realm a century and a half ago.
4. Realize that yet another secret-parent reveal is old hat at this point. In general, realize that using tropes as major plot points will cause your audience (the players) to lose interest in future mysteries.
5. Orcs aren’t inherently evil. Racial coding runs rampant through genre fiction, and this includes Dungeons & Dragons. It makes for offensive and lazy fiction. Examine your prejudices and presuppositions and write with them in mind.
6. Setting makes a story come to life. Even the simplest of courthouses or shacks can become rich miniature worlds with the right words and evocative details.
7. Don’t overburden your narrative. If you try to make every story happen at once, the climax will become a series of confrontations and revelations that flow into each other and render themselves mundane.
8. If a villain should be redeemable, don’t make them irredeemable. That might be obvious, and the moral frontier differs for everyone, but taking a character too far will make them unlikable and no one will ever be convinced that actually, now, they’re totally chill.
9. If something doesn’t work, learn from it and move on. Don’t dwell on a rough chapter or a bad session. Revise if possible, improve always. You learn the most from the failures.
10. Chance and unpredictability add spice to a story, but don’t base major plot points completely on coincidence. Even in the examples cited earlier, there was context and buildup towards those rolls. You want the reader to guess the twist right after it happens.
11. Let the characters win sometimes. If you’re not careful, a story can become a series of bummers, neither entertaining nor engaging. Even in the saddest of stories, characters need to win every once in a while so it at least seems like there might have been a chance, once, for it to happen another way.
12. Let the characters lose. A character who gets everything they want all the time is a boring character. Even the mightiest hero has setbacks, and the greatest victories come when all seems lost.
13. It’s far more fun to watch your hero foil themselves than to be foiled.
14. Character arcs should be driven by the characters, not by external influence. We call that, as well as the plot version, “railroading,” where the game master essentially puts the characters on a train and forces them along a story and an arc. Let the characters develop in reaction to the world, not as the world moves them.
15. If a subplot feels forced or unnecessary, let it go. Write it out completely if you have to. Even if it’s an idea you love, if it’s crowding the narrative or doesn’t fit thematically with the rest of the story, get rid of it.
16. Good heroes come in all sizes. They don’t need to be galactic saviors or genius sleuths. There are game systems built entirely around the idea that your characters are ordinary. Ordinary people are always fascinating, because they are the ones with the furthest to go.
17. Good villains… (see above)
18. The best conflicts don’t have a right answer. Be mean to the heroes. Force them to make tough decisions not on the basis of objective definitions of right and wrong, but on what those words mean to them.
19. Take a chance, literally. If you’re stuck in a story, or don’t know where to begin, add a random element to your writing. Find a list of prompts and roll a die. Incorporate whatever you land on. It might be awful. You might cut it out completely later, or reduce it significantly. But it gets you to write. It overcomes that hurdle, however large or small, and keeps the story moving. And you might even find that this random element was exactly what you needed to make everything work.
20. Use tropes. Yeah, I know what I said earlier. But you can’t reinvent everything. Tropes exist for a reason; they are characters and concepts that audiences (and players) want to see over and over again, because a trope is a promise. Build onto your archetypes. Add to the clichés . That’s the grand legacy of oral storytelling, and of all stories — community. Everything works in conversation with each other. Each novel exists in the context of all novels that have come before it. Write your ancient wizards, your trigger-happy mafiosos, your found families. But bring them to life. Add something new, something that someday, someone else might take for themself, inserting it into their own story before adding something of their own. Storytelling is communal. So, commune.