BLOG: Of Dice And Pens; Collaborative Narrative.

Continuing my look at the effects of running a Dungeons and Dragons campaign on my own writing output, today I would like to dig into what is probably my favourite aspect of tabletop RPGs, the collaborative narrative.

Ordinarily as a writer you plot out the story beats and create the character arcs along with character growth throughout the narrative. In D&D you don’t get to create the characters, you have no control over their personality, history or what their goals are in life. That is the responsibility of your players.

The story is what matters most to me when I run a game, and so I find myself in this unique situation where we at the table rely on improv to drive that story forward. The choices made are not always what I would have done. At first, when I first became a DM, that was a problem for me and it almost led me to railroad my players onto a set narrative. There is no fun in being a player who is just a glorified pawn in someone else’s story. The story belongs to everyone at the table, we all contribute.

As the DM I can put down all the story hooks and fleshed out characters I want to, but they are completely open to my players interpretations, or their suspicions. I never like to railroad the people at the table, giving them freedom to add to the story we are all creating with a ‘Yes, and’ mentality that has led to twists and turns I had never expected. As a writer who usually knows every plot beat beforehand, it’s incredibly refreshing.

Sometimes a players choice will cause me to pull details out of thin air as I run the game by the seat of my pants. Your plans as DM usually don’t survive first contact with the players. This sort of improvisation is an incredibly useful creative exercise. It forces you to pick something and stick with it, the choice becomes set in stone and you have to make it work. Given the ability to edit and rewrite your own work, these rapid and permanent choices have taught me that it is ok to go with your instincts and have actually sharpened my creative process.

Other times a players offhand comment has completely changed how I saw an aspect of the story, or what I had planned for the story. One such comment about how a location on the map looked led to a sundered city surrounded by an underground forest. A memorable adventure, and the fallout of that simple comment and the narrative decisions it led to are still being felt in the campaign, and will for a time going forward.

Having to work within the confines of a player’s character choices, their history, flaws and goals can be incredibly challenging. It’s easier for some players than others. Some players are happy to be led, they are new or unsure about the character, so they allow you to draw them in, and over time they begin grow the character on their own. Others have a very defined idea of the character and all its aspects. This is a little more restrictive and can continue to be so should you work in a vacuum, but adding in the other character and story elements gives a DM many opportunities to create a personalised narrative that the player should enjoy and feels is right for their character.

This style of storytelling, fed by the narrative choices of others has led to some of the most exciting, funny and poignant moments in my personal writing experience.

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