6 Ways Being a Dungeon Master Developed My Writing Style

Some following my social life may know that I am in the midst of writing my first fantasy novel. When I was in high school, I was very much not a writer or reader in any capacity. My focus was on math, physics, and technology. Any of my classmates could have told you that I was one of the least likely of folks to get into writing fantasy novels. I was completely gung-ho about getting into video game development and the wonderful narrative ways that game mechanics could tell stories.

When I graduated college I got a job at an Insurance company doing programming, hoping to one day get into video games. I found an old box of Warhammer Fantasy Tomb Kings minis and decided for some reason that I wanted to investigate this box, learn more, and maybe play a little to kill some free time.

Haha, well let’s just say that led me down the long and expensive path to painting minis and playing more Dungeons & Dragons. However, that was not my first experience with the game. In high school, it popped onto my radar when I went to a local gaming tournament/expo event. Someone had set up a table that you could walk up and try D&D (it was 3.5e for those curious). I later did play tabletop games in college and playing mostly non-D&D roleplaying games. At this time, I had only been a player, doing it for fun and using my imagination. When I was done with college I was without a group, leading me back to the Warhammer Fantasy addiction.

A group of my Warhammer friends were interested in D&D, but no one really wanted to Dungeon Master. I took up the mantle, having had my first game as a Game Master for a small game called Everyone Is John. I thought, how hard could it be? My first attempt was anxiety-inducing, but I pulled through and noticed small areas that I could improve. This happened over the next several years as I ran a group of college friends online through a year-and-a-half-long campaign of my own making. I learned a ton during that time, becoming nearly a full-time devotee to the game, which eventually led me to write articles about DMing.

Once I was fully into the world building of my world of Ifiron, playing games weren’t enough. I had more stories to tell, but also didn’t want to put the focus on NPC’s that shaped the world. The game, after all, is about the players, not my NPCs. There is a joke online of how a DM wishes they could also play all the characters in their D&D game and someone points out that it’s called writing a book. That joke gave me the epiphany to learn to write since most of my DMing was just setting up stories anyway. I had this world that I was fleshing out, after all. Why not just write the stories of my NPC’s as novels and share that with players/readers of my world?

I wanted to cover my history with D&D and writing for a specific reason. To date, I know very few people that have aimed at becoming an author in the same way I have. Most I know knew they wanted to become authors early and had the aptitude to write to boot (really I know they just write a lot). I want to explain the ways that D&D has made me a better writer and the important things I learned from it. For those that are interested in becoming DMs but are writers, these tips will help with learning your DMing.

Plotter vs Pantser

Prepping the elements of the story is one of the important discussions of storytelling. It sounds very black and white where you either prep, or you fly by the seat of your pants. If you can’t tell if I’m talking about D&D or writing a novel, then you will understand the connection. Prepping for a D&D session is a lot like prepping to write a book. Some people go on absolutely nothing and just write, discovering the story as it’s being told. Some construct outlines and write up character sheets for each NPC and what plot points they want to hit. You can equate sitting at the table and actually performing the rolls and roleplay of a D&D session to that of sitting down and typing out the content of a novel. The only difference is often the number of people involved and the fact you can’t go back and edit (sort of) a session of a D&D game.

It is not hard defined if you are a plotter or a pantser. Over the years, I have developed a specific way of planning because of how my players act. I know, generally, that they can be unpredictable, as people often are, and so the amount of actual planning I do tends to be highly minimal. However, I found that having a few bullet points of items, characters, and where they exist in the world, along with a few notes of potential story hooks, helps me create more conclusive stories with solid endings. I get moments where characters see the consequences I had planned and places where I give them hooks to try and solve it. There is a spectrum of plotting and pantsing, and I think every author and DM should spend trying to develop where they lie on it. Where you lie on that spectrum also doesn’t always work for every new set of characters. With players their tendencies can be different, more passive players may need more structure and to be told what needs to be done while active players simply need a carrot and they accidentally make a deal with the devil.

Always Winning/Losing Is Boring

The heroes win some, and they lose some. This can be a trap that some vindictive DM’s get into and where some early writers also mess up. If you as the villains, as the DMs often are. are always winning and your players are always losing, they are going to give up hope that they can win. Having success means the characters are gaining ground and not just spinning their wheels. As a writer, you can equate player happiness with reader happiness. Your readers will insert themselves into the lives of the characters they enjoy, this can be super effective if you manage to do this with your villains too. There always has to be a sense of progress.

It's possible to go too far in the opposite direction. The concept of the Mary Sue is usually where this comes into play as the character with absolutely no flaws and does everything right forever. The stories where the heroes always win is a power fantasy for a select group of people, and, even then, it’s still boring. There are no stakes and no way for characters to grow. The characters need flaws for them to make dumb decisions, making the wrong choice can be incredibly engaging not just for a reader but for players too. In my personal opinion, the best losses are those that the players choose to make for themselves. Raise the stakes and have consequences. Give the characters something to overcome.

Your Readers/Players are Not the Enemy

This is a bit of a play off of the previous section, but there are some horror stories that I have heard where the players say that their DM is out to kill them. They pull cheap tricks that are technically “by the rules” and make everything “technically” beatable but are absolutely out to destroy the players day. DO. NOT. DO. THIS. As the author/DM your readers/players are not your enemy. Trust that they can understand what is put in front of them, your role is to create an enjoyable experience. As a writer, this can be when you pull shenanigans with your story that “technically” makes sense in the world but up until that point would not have come up. I’m not saying not to write twists, but at least foreshadow it to some degree. Don’t go using a ghost as a sudden MacGuffin guide when you never explained that ghosts exist in your world. It becomes cheap and contrived. Create moments where your players/readers go “OH! I forgot that could happen!” not “Wait, when could they do that?”

Be Ready to Kill Your Babies

Don’t actually kill your real children. My favorite saying from DMs is that your outline will not survive first contact with the players. Honestly, the same could be said for the characters in your novel. Often as a writer, you don’t actually know who your characters are until you get really into their story, it's why pantsing is a thing. Even if you have a wonderful outline, be prepared for your characters to wreck it. Rewrite your outline to accommodate for this new change and continue from there. Your outline, if you have one, should not be written in stone. This is the major benefit of learning to improvise.

The benefit of writing a novel over DMing is that you can go back and edit. The last section I mentioned how not to make things contrived, well with editing you can make sure your impromptu changes don’t feel that way.

Worldbuilders Disease

J. R.R. Tolkien had a chronic case of worldbuilder’s disease that he took to his grave. If you haven’t heard the term before, it’s where a writer just keeps worldbuilding and doesn’t focus on writing. In reality, I have a kind of worldbuilder’s disease, but I have managed to keep the symptoms of it fairly contained. While I’m always thinking about things to add to my world, I usually just keep a note on them and set it aside. I have a small journal dedicated to just ideas for the world. However, I don’t write anything concrete until I’m in the thick of running an adventure or writing a story focused on that area.

The idea behind worldbuilding in writing and games is to allude that there is far more than is visible. I like Brandon Sanderson’s analogy of an iceberg. The top is what the reader/players see and the rest of the world is what is beneath the water. However, you really can’t build the whole iceberg so you have to make a shell so the readers/players think there is more to the world. If my players asked me about the intricacies of how the Conclave of Races governing body functions, I might be taken completely by surprise. Of course I don’t know exactly how they run, but in my worldbuilding I have constructed enough to make them believe there is more to it than I currently have written down.

They Always Push the Big Red Button

Here is a fundamental truth behind every D&D player I have ever encountered: if you describe something in a room, the players will focus on that element until it’s dead. If you mention that there is a big red button, even if you have absolutely nothing to it, the players will draw their own conclusions and think that it is absolutely the most important thing of all time. If you don’t tell them what it does or let their characters use logic to deduce what it does, nine times out of ten they will push it. Even if the button kills everyone in the room, you described it so they will focus on it.

My point here is to be sparing with what descriptions you give to your readers/players. When describing a person or a room, describe what you have to in order to get the point across or to forcibly inject questions into their minds. “Why does that door have glowing runes and why won’t it open?”, “That woman has bottles of multicolored fluid on her, maybe she’s an alchemist!”. Don’t try to show how awesome you are at describing things and use flowery words. If you start to detail every little detail, even the ones that have no bearing on the story, then your readers/players are going to get mentally bogged down and won’t know what to focus on. You will exhaust them. You don’t need to describe what every single person’s shoes are unless the POV character is a shoe thief.

Conclusion

It is hard for me to emphasize just how much being a Dungeon Master has influenced the way that I have become a writer. In some of my early drafts, my editing friend even told me how some of the fights sounded “too much like someone describing a D&D battle”, something I have been working very hard to avoid. I can’t say that becoming a Dungeon Master yourself is a sure-fire way to be a better writer, but learning how to DM certainly comes with challenges that help you learn in a more immediate environment. Looking up advice on how to become a better DM might bear fruit to becoming a better writer.

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Feature Image Credit: Wizards of the Coast