What Roleplaying Taught Me About Writing Fantasy

Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love the Game

While it’s definitely not a universal perspective, it’s been my personal experience that writing and D&D go together about as well as oil and vinegar.

Experienced writers who take their craft very seriously and later come to the table as a dungeon master tend to leave like a furious diva exiting an opera, because the players haven’t found their beautiful plots, or they aren’t reacting how they’d imagined the characters would (leading to bickering on whether or not the players are being “in character”), or they aren’t grasping themes or elements that the writer worked really hard on, or the experience isn’t creating the story they want. Most writers struggle to write in a partnership, let alone a team. (Unless they work in TV. In which … good luck, God speed.)

Whereas experienced roleplayers who come to take writing seriously later tend to focus far too much on the worldbuilding – building encounters rather than plots, creating finished character sheets rather than organic, real-seeming characters, and creating creatures, languages, towns, and world-stuff that has nothing to do with the core story.

And typically their characters suffer – why wouldn’t they? The players bring that to the table after all. If they don’t feel cookie-cutter, they probably are an amalgamation of a bunch of cool roleplaying stories and experiences mushed together; they suffer from either being boring or they’re victims of being a weird celluoid hypercool. Roleplayers-turned-novice-writers are not focused on creating characters that echo real people, but archetypes of what they and their players think are cool characters. Is that bad? Well, it’s the difference between learning to draw anime via doing still lifes of real people or imitating other anime.

I’m not trying to shit on role-players-turned-writers. They tend to get over those growing pains after only a little bit of experience, maybe a novel or two. But roleplaying people new to the craft of writing stick out in specific ways compared to other writing newbies. It’s not a problem – just something to work on, just as experienced writers really need to work in order to learn how to be good DMs.

Experienced writers have a lot to learn from D&D, and roleplayers have a lot to learn in order to become good writers. In other words, fantasy based on roleplaying is at least somewhat like a sexy emulsion.

So, what could writers learn from tabletop roleplaying that they couldn’t figure out on their own? Get your salads ready, because I’m going to create a vinaigrette of weird life experience.

Now, it should be said that I’m NOT coming at this combo as a person who played 2nd edition D&D in the 1980s when he was fifteen. I’m coming at this having first played as a twenty-something trying to impress a boyfriend by attempting to quickly come up with the most badass 4th edition swordmage possible over pizza and Stewarts orange soda. My experience of D&D more often resembles parodies (“WHERE’S THE MOUNTAIN DEW?!”) more than the epics that I’ve been heralded with. But I’ve also had a really great time with it, and I’ve come to enjoy tabletop a lot, well after breaking up with the aforementioned person.

And this life experience has taught me a ton about writing fantasy.

So here’s some tips on writing fantasy that everyone should learn and no one wants to.

1. No one remembers your impossible-to-pronounce names.

No one.

“Hello, I am Ai’W’ether’aRtharac’Wrama of Theramintheianai from the clan of Ur’ethntheam!”

I guarantee you within the session everyone is calling them “bard” or “elf” or “elf guy” or “quill guy” or some other clever nickname. If they don’t “accidentally” get him killed.

Very rarely do players have the patience for this kind of thing, and neither will readers.

And this doesn’t just apply to character names – how often do the players forget your main antagonist’s name? Do their eyes gloss over whenever your town name is pronounced badly and corrected and pronounced again and asked to be spelled out in someone’s notes which they then lose and then everyone is like “Where are we again? What town is this?” and Jimmy tells us confidently the name of the town three towns ago over corn chips and french onion dip? Do they lean into their diet cokes over their pizza and sigh when elf guy sucks in a breath to say his whole formal name properly for the third time in a session? Do they create nicknames for your NPCs?

While fantasy fans might have more patience for weird names than the average Joe, most people want a phonetic name while reading a book. If you cannot hear it in your mind, quickly, then it doesn’t stick in memory nearly as easily. If you cannot pronounce at least a version of it in English, comprehension will lower and the reader will be slowed.

You’re taking basic phonetic comprehension and hitting it with a sledgehammer for no real reason.

There’s a reason why Star Wars is so successful at this. The names are based on American Western and Japanese sounds (mostly), which both contain sounds that are easily pronounceable: Jabba, C3PO, Leia, Han, Jango, Kylo, and Thane. And typically they’re less than three syllables. Major characters are one or two syllables. The weirdest names tend to be the most minor of characters, but even they are limited to about five total syllables, all of which are simple, practically baby sounds.

But Steph, my main character’s name is U’ther!ane of the Thesoooth Sea because I’m basing it off of X culture. Screw your Western European crap. Are you saying that all non-England-based stories are illegitimate?

Of course not. It’s not wrong or bad. It’s just making your life a little bit harder. And you should know about it.

It’s easy to keep your weird names without confusing or boring people. Just create situations to help the reader out.

Can you simplify the names so that Greg’s girlfriend who’s worked 12 hours of retail today and is being kept alive with store-brand energy drink that tastes like nickles will remember that town, main character, or person? It’s okay if the name is “Arathoneean” and she calls him “Arath Guy” or just “Arrrr”; she still remembered him! But she won’t remember him if you have three characters that start with “Aratho.” (For instance, if you have a cast that includes Arathoneean, Arathonarrack, and Arathontheya, that’s a fucking disaster.) Be careful with names that rhyme, have the same vowels, or are – again – too many syllables.

But unless you’re setting out to build cool, non-Western cultures, why would you limit your audience in this way?

Such a small amount of our population reads. A smaller population reads fantasy. An even smaller population is willing to memorize your glossary of terms and odd names.

Find your tribe and all, but keep in mind that you’ll turn people away. Just how people are impatient to learn the name and will assign nicknames at the table, they’ll mentally do that reading your book too.

I once picked up a novel who’s main character’s name was so long (about seven syllables) that it had to be shortened to an acronym (which was a bizarre Americanism, and not very cute). I couldn’t read more than five pages in; it was so unpleasant. And I love fantasy. And I love elves. And I love weird stories.

Don’t shoot yourself in the foot. Don’t let your elf become “bard guy.”

2. If the conflict has nothing to do with the characters’ backstories or arcs, why would the players care?

And ergo, why would a reader care?

They wouldn’t and they don’t.

Conflicts that block or entice the characters’ wants, morals, wishes, and hopes are just more interesting. Players are likely to have a good time and remember the experience beyond the “experience points” they gained. In general, pay attention to what players do and do not remember, as well as what they do and do not lean forward in their chairs for. See what they have to consult their notes for, and what they tell their friends about later. It’s all important feedback for a novel.

Yes, a team will get together to play and kill goblins even if the setup is dumb, but the difference between a bored party and an excited party is conflict. The DM has not only convinced the players, but the characters themselves, to be invested. That’s what a fun session is.

If the answer to “why is your character here?” is not answered, it’s much harder to rationalize in a novel.

“But this is partially on the players,” you say. Yeah, it is. But when you’re a writer, it’s all on you. Build and find ways to relate the characters and conflict together.

Does it still sound like an alien concept? Some roleplaying systems actually build in mechanics to do this. A great example that I love is (yes, okay, I’m a Star Wars fan) the Fantasy Flight Star Wars Roleplaying Game. In it, you need to create “obligations” as a player, and the GM will role a d100 to see who’s cool awesome backstory is actually going to come up as a side-plot during the “episode.” FATE and Savage Worlds are also systems that encourage players to create backstories, flaws, or at the very least things that the DM can work into the main story.

No, you don’t have to make every encounter or conflict 100% related to each character, but each major arcing conflict should result in personal growth of at least one of the characters.

Think about your favorite shows about roleplaying; they all do this. HarmonQuest is a masterpiece for this reason. Critical Role, Doraleus and Associates, and The Adventure Zone do this too. These are all shows about people playing D&D, essentially, but they’re successful because they’re more about the characters, their relationships, and their emotional growth more than the greater world.

2.a. A hint of a terrible, lazy character backstory is still 100x better than no backstory.

In D&D there’s a saying, “Don’t be a murder hobo.”

Don’t make murder hobo characters who have no backstory and nothing to drive them forward. They just hack things. Don’t make a character who feels like a bored person playing the character because they want to “win” at D&D.

Throw in just a tiny hint of the laziest, lamest, most “ugh, whatever” backstory (“My brother’s killer is still out there.” “I don’t want to talk about where I’m from. They kicked me out.” “He’s more machine, now, than man.” “Oh, God! I don’t remember who I am! Except for this thing…”) and it’s still better than a major character that we spend time with who’s a completely blank slate.

No one is a blank slate. Characters need to feel real, even if they’re a 6ft 7inch Dragonborn mage.

Of course, take this with a grain of salt and don’t get indulgent. Just know that something is better than nothing and less is more.

3. “Rico Yafuego” it; make actions – even small, stupid ones – inform character.

I played with someone who had a particular character: Rico Yafuego, perhaps you’ve heard of him?

And he wouldn’t just fight; he’d twirl and parry. He wouldn’t just distract the orc; he’d cut down the chandelier on him because he’d heard a bard sing about that once. He wouldn’t just hustle down the stairs to help his friends; he’d try to slide down the railing, vault, and land with his blades in the man’s head. He did this flourishing of actions so much that it annoyed many of the other players.

But you know what? I did remember him.

Rico Yafuego went about things certain ways, and your characters should too. Don’t just walk; float, slide, sashay, march, hustle. Use cool verbs, yes, but also make every action just so … them.

Use those minor minutes between big actions too – the way they drink their glass or goblet, the way they slouch when they’re tired, the way the ask for a room at the inn. All of these are little character-building moments.

4. “Why can’t I just shoot him while he’s monologuing?”

Well, shit. You can, can’t you?

(Watch as the DM scrambles for twenty minutes to try and convey what the evil guy was going to say in a different scene.)

And yeah we’ve all heard and seen this, but it goes so much further beyond that one situation.

One of the great things about D&D pushing experienced writers out of that comfort zone is that players will come up with stuff for your characters to do that you’d never have thought of.

As human beings, we’re limited to our one mind and experience. As a writer, you need to juggle the thoughts, arcs, and motivation of dozens of people. Sometimes, you forget stuff. Sometimes, there’s no reason why your characters wouldn’t just shoot the bad guy when giving his grand speech. Sometimes, your rogue might run off with a new boyfriend he was never supposed to flirt with. Sometimes, players will talk their way out of a problem that almost required physical force.

Weird notion: All characters are doing and thinking about interesting stuff in your novel whether or not you show it. D&D is an excellent and sometimes jarring reminder of that.

And, yeah, as an experienced diva writer who thinks she knows everything, that can be infuriating. But it can also be a super important mental exercise. When your players are being the most annoying is usually when they’re being the most informative about the nature of your storytelling. 

What are your blind spots? Which character did you forget? What story arc did you not think through enough?

5. Scene descriptions are never as cool as the DM imagines.

Players zone out during setting description and perk up at blocking, action, dialogue. So do most readers, especially young or inexperienced ones. Sorry, Faulkners of the world.

That doesn’t mean you can’t go to town (literally and figuratively) with your flowery scene descriptions. It just means you shouldn’t linger – or if you do linger, give them interesting tips and rewards for listening and paying attention.

J.K. Rowling is a goddess at this – even her most flippant and seemingly unnecessary descriptions have drops of foreshadowing or hints. You don’t need to be writing a fantasy mystery to do that, however. Pique a specific character’s interest, or mention a cool history piece without going into an info-dump. (It’s strange to think about, but info-dumps in D&D are optional. In books, they’re not.)

Give each scene and setting description purpose. Imagine a DM stuttering through your scene description and see if you should keep it.

Also, if players have questions about blocking at the end of that scene description, that’s typically a bad scene description.

“So, where are we?” is a bad question to hear. In a novel, that means confusing prose. Make sure each word is doing its job.

In sum, what’s happening at the table is just as interesting as what’s happening in Faerun.

This is a very “this is not a pipe” way to think about tabletop roleplaying, but sometimes it’s important to see the people themselves.

In other words, the person arguing about whether Mountain Dew or the Stewarts generic brand is better while trying to convince the DM that their rogue can use acrobatics to climb over that castle wall and picking out the right, pink-and-yellow-colored die (because it’s luckier and “my other dice are in time out”) is more important to understand deeply than the rogue character herself. You must understand what is, in addition to what is cool.

If you want to appeal to this audience, you must know what they say they like, and what they actually like, and understand that there is a difference in order to build a thing they would like. 

For a writer, a tabletop RPG is a field day of information – how people behave, how they want to behave, how they’re seen, how they want to be seen, what they project, what they think they know, what they’d rather be, who they really are, who they think would be funny to be, how they solve problems, and how they think they should solve problems.

This is, of course, a deeper topic on escapism for another time (perhaps when I’m fully ready to talk about my giant epic fantasy project). But, for now, I’ll say that writers should open their minds to study people as they are, not just as they want to be.

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