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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Poetry Publication

My poetry is being published this fall!

Check out the new Exploits in the Adirondacks anthology. It’s written by local authors about the world-famous Adirondack aesthetic. These mountains hold cultural, spiritual, and mystical beauty, and this book explores our awe and underlying dread of these wild places.

My poems, “Thirsty,” “The New World,” “The Supermoon in Speculator,” “Cold Fingers in Seneca Falls,” and “The Prospects” were inspired from different aspects of living in the foothills of the Adirondacks for more than twenty years, and all the contradictions therein, touching on subjects from feminism to fracking.

The book is available for pre-order right now on Kindle. Print copies will be available mid-September. The 518 Publishing Company was wonderful to work with. (See their updates on Facebook and Twitter!)

The Illusion of Progress

I’ve been thinking very intensely about time – a necessary result of writing a time-travel novel – and though I’ve been gathering thoughts on the subject since stumbling in off-campus attics as a freshman in college, discussing seconds passing while slobbering over solo cups of mysterious blue liquids, interrupting myself with “man” and “like” and “whoa” as much as a 90s rad dude stereotype, I’ve come to no firm conclusions on the topic. But it has never failed to fascinate me, and continues to completely boggle me while staring at vistas or sitting in my car alone or staring at blank walls. In popular culture, in the public eye, it’s a topic sidelined to either enthusiastic, poofy-haired physicists drawing maps at CERN or open-minded surfers who are “spiritual, not religious, man.” It’s regulated to the far corners of society, but it touches all of us: What is more ubiquitous than experiencing the strange sensation of time passing along our bodies like the current in a pool?

Some academic-minded English and Psychology majors would say that fear of mortality is a primary motivation for most things, if not everything, from creating a pyramid to writing stories.

I would argue, however, that fear of time and fear of mortality are separate from each other. Death is an event, either desired or feared; time passing is constant. Its motions never stop. It continuously drops on our foreheads as we’re waterboarded by minutes, to the point that, as a thirty-year-old, it’s both blindingly fast and hard to notice.

This latest project, which I have decided to name The Madonna, demands something impossible of me: to imagine an existence outside of time, independent of it. It goes against the whole narrative of our world. There is a beginning, middle, and end.

Of course there is. Indeed, it goes against the whole idea of narrative in the first place.

Something happens, then something else happens. Existence is this. If you’re reading this, you’ve patiently read down the page and are now further along than you were before.

Some who meditate or enjoy illegal substances might claim to tap into the world of the timeless, to let go of ego enough to not feel its weight and float above the waters of time like a buoy.

I believe them; however, no matter what temporary (temporary, temporary) experience you might have with the timeless, you’re always dragged back under.

It’s something I struggle with a great deal. My mother’s illness makes me very uncertain events in the past at times. Guilt and memories can be crushing, and the lack of them is even more terrifying.

And it’s impossible to see the future – but that doesn’t stop me from having ruminations so terrible that they stun me to a catatonic state as I struggle to control, to see, to master the possibilities, trapped between choices like a child between two walls.

And the now? What is now?

Until very recently, I felt a victim of time, as a climber feels the victim of a mountain. It’s taken me many years to realize that, really, now is the only time that not only matters but exists; everything else is a fiction we tell ourselves to make sense of things.

Yes, actions have consequences, and we – as time-based Earthlings – need our consequences to form our moralities, else life would be very difficult. But there’s a reason why AA members tend to “offer up” their past sins to a higher power at the beginning of their programs. Carrying all the weight of it all is too much for them. It cripples them from all action, positive or negative. And if you walk around trying to anticipate a thousand of the most negative and positive possibilities, you will never do anything. For many years, I’ve been frozen by looking up and down the long tunnel we’re all in, petrified by the two mirrors on either side of me showing a row of an infinite amount of objects that that don’t exist.

The past and future are full of distractions, and real meaning is only found when one burrows their eyes into the depths of the present.

To be present. To see. If you cannot see, you cannot create art. If you cannot observe, you cannot judge. If you cannot be present, you cannot be happy.

Perhaps my new book will only be enjoyed by trip junkies and very angry physicists (I’m OK with that), but I want to bring readers to a place where their imaginations can fill in a world in which time exists, surely, but is irrelevant in every sense, powerless next to greater forces. Just because we are trapped in time, that doesn’t mean timelessness can’t exist. We’re not its master, and it’s not a master of us.

Wish me luck, friends!

A Man Has Dreams: On Updates and Becoming Bert

After Banks goes on to blame a strong, level-headed woman for everything that’s wrong in his life (typical), Bert gives him an important insight in addition to his healthy helping of guilt, a shift in perspective…

I have a lot of feelings about Mary Poppins. I have a lot of strong feelings about the weird apology note that is Saving Mr. Banks. Some feelings have been more eloquently put by dear miss Lindsay Ellis: the practice of historical revisionism, the refusal to see its own flaws (or deal in “gravitas” according to the main character of Saving Mr. Banks), and selling out while still having an in-depth emotional message told through a well-done story. I have weird feelings about Disney’s conquest of Broadway and the bizarre Mary Poppins musical. And I don’t even want to talk about the apprehension I feel at the notion of a Mary Poppins remake/sequel.

But there’s a character who’s often glossed over in these deeper discussions about Mary Poppins, one who’s seen as dumb comic relief: Bert.

Maybe it’s the accent.

(Yes, it is terrible and much the hatred of many a British person I’ve met.)

Bert serves the purpose of a dramatic foil to Mr. Banks. He’s very unsuccessful. A wacky artist. A musician. A blue-collar man. Happy-go-lucky. A damn hippie. Haphazard. Boyish/childish.

Mr. Banks is responsible. Respectable. Strict. Manly. Capitalist. White collar. Successful. A man/adult.

They are – and bear with me, here – essentially two representations of the forces within a single person, two archetypes roiling and doing battle inside all of us.

The Artist

Bert is an artist to almost Williamsburg hipster levels. He’s irresponsible. He starts projects, then stops them. He’s constantly doing odd jobs, learning new skills. He doesn’t seem to care how much money he has in any given moment; he almost seems homeless in certain scenes.

Bert is the personification of the artist, someone who doesn’t really care about capitalistic success, embodied by the term: “I does what I likes and I likes what I do.”

There is an artist in all of us that wants to be as free and roaming as Bert, to just do what we like. To do something for the joy of it, to give to people some enjoyment before moving on.

For some, that’s financially viable, but for most we need to reign in our individual Berts to live in the real world.

The Salesman

Where Bert has flown off the wheel of progress, Mr. Banks is the axis. He works at a bank, upholds the systems in place, ignores the poor, and works hard to make rich richer. He’s not working for the joy of it, but working for the terrible purpose of it.

Salesmen don’t really work in real, tangible things, but being able to convince people of things. Her or his success relates to that almost uncomfortable level of forwardness, an interpersonal currency. What is money, really, besides a string of false promises?

As artists, we’re taught that salesmen are bad. Yes, they’re not really trustworthy. But you need these skills to make it in our modern society.

Even for the modern author, poet, painter, or creator: you can’t lock yourself in a cabin in the woods, create, and not network with people.

More often than not, we’re forced to be salesman. We need to be salesman to feed ourselves. We’re forced into working for the system that needs us to function, to work at the great machine in Metropolis, to manipulate, grind, power through, conquer, conquest.

We need to be grown ups.

There’s a lot of contempt, but it is a contempt for the reality of our nature and our situation.

(Conversely, though, there is a predatory side of the Salesman, one relating more to films like Wallstreet, but perhaps I’ll write more about that at a later time.)

Balancing the Salesman and the Artist Inside All of Us

In terms of archetypes, the Salesman is the absolute opposite of the Artist.

  • The Artist is inward-facing; the Salesman is outward-facing.
  • The Artist is producing-oriented; the Salesman is getting-oriented.
  • The Artist takes integrity seriously; the Salesman doesn’t.
  • The Artist believes in community; the Salesman believes in individuals.
  • The Artist believes in doing things for the love of it; the Salesman believes in working hard.
  • The Artist spends hours perfecting things; the Salesman believes time is money.
  • The Artist loves base pay; the Salesman loves meritocracy.
  • The Artist needs a great deal of training; the Salesman is replaceable.
  • The Artist is irresponsible with his own resources; the Salesman is irresponsible with others’ resources.
  • The Artist, in his view, is only worth what he creates; the Salesman, in his view, is only worth what he’s convinced others.
  • The Artist is self-obsessed; the Salesman is selfish.

It’s not “good versus bad.” You need both for a good company to function. And it’s not easy for us to balance these too extremes: Webcomic artists need to be active on Patreon and attend conventions. Authors need to review each other on Goodreads and print free bookmarks to give out at libraries. A marketer needs better slogans and artfully crafted graphics to sell their clients’ products. More and more, since the 50s, this line between them had blurred.

At one time, there were probably people one side of the fence and the other. People like Bert and Banks really existed. But today, we’re all Bert. We’re all Banks.

A Man Has Dreams and the Giving Solution

Let’s get back to Marry Poppins. The interaction between Banks and Bert is what I consider to be the turning point of the film. It’s pretty simplistic and straightforward as far as literary devices go, but there is so much power in this interaction if we dig a little bit deeper.

A man has dreams of walking with giants,
To carve his niche in the edifice of time.
Before the mortar of his zeal has a chance to congeal…
the cup is dashed from his lips,
the flame is snuffed a-borning,
he’s brought to rack and ruin in his prime.”
Richard and Robert Sherman

This is the cry of the everyman to try and accomplish things before the march of time brings his goals to a mortal end, especially one caught in a capitalistic society.

Mr. Banks has dreams that he is slowly realizing are unreasonable, that he’s out of time. That he will never reach them, that the sweet, sweet story and the promise of success is actually impossible except for a few, and always has been. I think we all can relate to that. Whatever dream we’ve had – publish a novel, win the lottery, reach the top of a company, own your own business – is likely too much to accomplish in one lifetime. As a salesman, we’re told a lot of things that won’t come true. We’re constantly fed fantasies from a young age, and as an adult we need to come to terms that they’re not going to happen, at least not for us. I’ve been relating a lot to this feeling lately. Life is too short.

And as he says, “It’s quite a bitter pill to take.”

After Banks goes on to blame a strong, level-headed woman for everything that’s wrong in his life (typical), Bert gives him an important insight in addition to his healthy helping of guilt sugar, a shift in perspective:

You’ve got to grind, grind, grind at that grindstone,
though childhood slips like sand through a sieve,
and all too soon they’ve up and grown,
and then they’ve flown,
and it’s too late for you to give.”
Richard and Robert Sherman

Bert puts it in perspective, that if you “grind, grind, grind at the grindstone,” you’re doing it for a system that won’t notice your individual life or death, something that’s ultimately useless in the grand scheme of things. Bert’s hippie perspective reinforces beautiful ideals: Yes! Life is too short! Do something you like! Do something (like being with your children) that you love! Don’t commit to the daily grind!

It is a joyous affirmation that life can be so much more than the failure to reach the impossible goals of the salesman, that doing things that you “likes” can bring happiness in itself. That success is comparative and irrelevant.

When balancing the line between the Artist and the Salesman, it’s important to take the time out to allow ourselves to be Bert. Do things for the joy of them, rather than that doing what society wants or needs you to do.

I’ve been hard at the grindstone lately. After a while, I came back to writing a new travel story, and I’ve felt so much joy for the process again. While I might be stressed about nearly everything in my life, it’s a relief to know that my work is my joy.

I hope everyone can be so lucky.