Dungeons & Dragons: Improvised Storytelling

Dungeons and Dragons

The talk I went to last weekend, the one with the two Bioware writers, talked about using Dungeons and Dragons as a pathway to understanding how writing for video games work. What they meant, as I understand it, is that writing adventures and acting as Dungeon Master in a game of D&D is very much akin to writing a plot and dialogue for a video game because you need to account for choices that player’s can make, choices that don’t necessarily follow a rigid structure.

For example, you might ASSUME that a player would walk through a mundane alleyway without stopping to examine anything, but the reality is that they MIGHT, and you need to be prepared for something like that. In a way, I suppose writing for video games might actually be EASIER than writing a D&D adventure, if only because video games tend to hand you a set of choices to pick from in any given situation whereas D&D players can pretty much do whatever the hell they want. And when players do whatever the hell they want, you better be prepared for it as a DM or else the illusion of the story will be completely broken.

dnd screen

Behind the mysterious Dungeon Master’s screen.

About a year ago, a group of friends and I decided to try to play D&D. I, being the only one in the group with any formal training in story-telling, was voluntold to be the DM. Thankfully, a generous friend gifted my a Player’s Handbook, Monster Vault, and a few other key pieces of literature. The Monster Vault came with a pre-made adventure so I decided that we might as well start with that. The adventure was pretty straightforward, for the most part, but it seemed complicated just because I had to learn all the ins and outs of how the basic game worked in the first place. Things like rolling for hit and rolling for damage were new to me, although they made perfect sense one you get the hang of it. Accounting for size, noise, lighting, traps, NPC (non-player character) behaviour, key items, environmental factors, treasure: these were the things I was having a hard time with. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have tried so hard to learn it all so fast. Instead, I should have just jumped right into the game, making up my own rules. Ah well, it’s over and done with now.

To set the scene: there were about nine of us total, which ended up being a terrible idea. We should really have picked a smaller group because literally no one had ever played a full game of D&D before so the learning curve was extremely steep. Honestly, it wasn’t that great. I was constantly trying desperately to refresh myself on what was coming up next while the players who weren’t currently playing their turn were chatting among themselves, making it hard to keep track of the progression of battles. Overall, I would say the experience, while annoying and drawn-out, did yield some learning opportunities.

For example, I had to learn to let go of any pre-conceived notion about how the game’s story was going to progress. Oh sure, it was obvious, given the background info that I read to the team, that they HAD to get in the dragon ship in order to get to the mountain so they could figure out what was causing the endless winter. But even within that first choice, there were some curveballs thrown. First of all, there was an NPC that the group was supposed to be able to have join the team, but I opted out of that at the last second, claiming that he ran away scared and abandoned them. This was literally just because I was seeing how long it took to finish one small battle and I really didn’t want to have to deal with adding an NPC (that I was going to have to control) to the mix. Silent sigh of relief when he left the picture.

dnd dice

Standard set of dice required to play Dungeons & Dragons

Another curveball was when the group reached a room full of traps and never once stepped on the spot that would activate the traps. It might have SEEMED like a boring empty room to them, but I knew from looking at my map behind the screen that it was RIDDLED with awesome stuff. That was disappointing, but it really makes me think about all the work a writer puts into crafting some intricate dialogue chain that the player just never sees. There’s hundreds of thousands of words that probably only reach 5% of a game’s audience. That is definitely a sobering thought.

However, despite pretty much HAVING to be over-prepared for an adventure, there’s a lot of room in D&D to just make up whatever you want and, IF you’re a good storyteller, no one will ever know! I was in a concert band for a long time (brass and winds, no strings), and the best piece of advice I ever got from my conductor was “If you screw up, pretend you meant to do it and no one will ever notice.” This is actually pretty terrible advice for almost every other area in your life, but it applies pretty well to D&D. The best example I can think of is when my party encountered a sleeping dragon. The adventure guide explained pretty precisely what would happen if they talked to it or attacked it, but my party just tiptoed out of the room. WHAT. There’s a DRAGON there and you’re just gonna LEAVE? I won’t lie, I was pretty disappointed because I had a voice worked out for the dragon and everything.

So: what to do? At the time, I just left it alone, let everyone continue on their quest. But it kept nagging at me that the dragon was just gonna be ignored for the rest of the game. Finally, it hit me. After my party had just finished a fairly straightforward battle with some gnomes or something, I woke the dragon up. This was probably the most improvised section of the whole thing because I literally had not planned anything of the sort. I invented some angry dialogue for the dragon, claiming that the noise of the battle had woken him and what the hell are you mortals doing and some such. Then he went crashing through a door. Not just any door, but the door that my party hadn’t been able to get through previously because they had walked right by the key in the trap room I mentioned earlier. Also, the door was the only way to the throne room where the final battle would happen. All of a sudden, we’re back on track and everyone got to experience a cool event that, unbeknownst to them, actually came as a saving grace.

I won’t lie, I was proud of myself in that moment. It made me realize that, given a little thought and some imagination, you can steer players any which way you want and still make them think that they’re in control. THIS IS LITERALLY WHAT ALL VIDEO GAMES ARE. All in all, I’m glad I got to spend those few hectic nights leading some elves and halflings around a dirty dungeon. Even with all the setbacks and chatting, I learned a lot about what it’s like to tell a good story.

 

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6 comments
  1. My group and I play Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder (an updated better version of D&D 3.5) fairly consistently and on a weekly basis. I know the ends and outs of DMing and being a player. I’ve played in premise modules and entirely improved campaigns. I got some tips for you if you’re ever interested in trying D&D again, just because I’ve been there before and had no one to reference and help me.

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    • Yeah I’ll definitely take you up on that offer. I’ve been thinking about writing my own adventure for a while but just haven’t found the time to flush it all out yet.

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      • Well first of all you have to figure out what type of players are your friends. Typically 6 players and a DM is the highest you’d ever want to go and even that would be chaotic. I think 5 players is a good amount if everyone has their stuff in order. Figuring out what type of players you’ll be working with means figuring out what they are there to play for. Some players are there for the story and to play a role, some are there to play a game and will focus on mechanics, and some players are there to socialize and will thrive on unique experiences and get bogged down with a lot of stats and role playing.

        The players need to know their class and what the party intends for them to do. Using Pathfinder rules, a rogue should be “taking 20” on their Perception check to look for traps every room they enter. ((Taking 20 means you spend twenty times the normal amount of time (normally 2 minutes) to do an action, but it’s assumed you rolled a 20. You can do this so long as their is no chance of failure and Perception can’t trigger traps, but Disable Device can.)) Also let them know about “taking 10”.

        Let each player look up guides for their class. There is one for every race on the internet.

        And this article is completely right about player curveballs. My group almost takes pride in the fact that they can derail a story.

        Keep the players CR in mind, and adjust enemies accordingly. You can follow the rule of “When traveling, there is a 20% chance of encounters 3 times per 24 hours. Twice during the day, one at night.”

        There is plenty of generators online that can calculate dungeons and monsters based on the party CR.

        Just ask me if you have any questions.

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        • It’s funny, figuring out what kind of players your team is was actually the first piece of advice in the Dungeon Master’s guide my friend lent me. It’s a bit tricky because I’ve got one friend who just wants everyone to be friends, one who wants to do things in as funny a way as possible, and one friend who wants to do the adventure but has no experience with the systems of a game like this. It’s a very beginner table.

          Which is probably why I’ll dumb down the rules a bit and maybe even be a jerk and ask people to learn their characters/actions before they even get to the table.

          I do like the rule with the 20% encounter rate and I’ll for sure check out the monster generators when I’ve got some time. I DO like picking my own baddies from the books though; that’s just something that makes the whole thing seem more personalized. Can be daunting at times, I guess.

          What is CR?

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          • CR is the Challenge Rating of the party. It’s typically what you use to determine the monsters you use, trap difficulty, ect ect. If your party is level 1 and under 5 people then the CR is I believe just 1. Having 6 or more increases the CR of everything by 1.

            Just be careful with pulling monsters, because some monsters starting at CR 6 get stupid damage reduction (DR) against everything save for cold iron, adamantine, ect. Plus their full round attacks can do serious damage, so unless you’re going to reduce both the damage AND health of the monster, then things can get really unfair.

            But yeah, it’s all a learning experience, and it sounds like you don’t have any “only interested in the game mechanics” players so feel free to fudge rules. Google can tell you anything you’re unsure of, and I can help with anything else.

            And don’t play D&D 4.0. People will laugh at you if you tell them you play 4.0. Play D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder (I cannot recommend pathfinder enough. Base 10 stats, and listen, spot, and search skills rolled into one nice Perception skill make life so much easier).

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      • What’s wrong with D&D 4? I’m pretty sure those are the rules I was working with but I had no idea it has a reputation.

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