How RPGs can improve your storytelling ability

In the midst of a global pandemic, I played my first ever game of Dungeons & Dragons. A friend of mine, Nick, suggested it and, being a nerd anyway, I agreed and together we created my character – a wizard named Venebor. We distributed my stat points and, over a Thai curry, he ran a solo quest for me and my character. Several hours later, I’d levelled up, acquired a hawk familiar I named Lyka, and came face to face with a necromancer who had the power of invisibility. Sneaky bastard! Several hours later, I also realised how valuable playing RPG games such as DnD could be to a storyteller.

The precise moment I realised what a valuable tool it could be was when Venebor, under my control obviously, was naively wandering around the sewers by himself. At night. Without decent weapons. Or armour. A rookie mistake. After taking a left turn at a fork in the tunnels, I was almost killed by a skeleton – one of the weakest creatures within DnD. In fact, I think I did actually die, but Nick took pity on my wizard and adjusted the quest so I was still alive. Barely. The point is though, is that my one little decision changed everything. Suddenly, the whole story was forced into a completely new direction even Nick wasn’t expecting but, arguably, made the story better. I learnt a valuable lesson and the consequences of my decision added a new dimension to the story. 

This is a fundamental part of storytelling. The character makes a choice, the consequences of this choice take the story in a new direction, the character learns something from the experience both internally and externally, and eventually they’re faced with another choice. The cycle repeats, the character evolves, until eventually both the plot and their arc reaches its destination.

Living through the character and making those decisions for them and ultimately being unaware of how these choices will affect the story provides a unique perspective on the process. Usually, screenplays are linear with a series of beats you want the character to arrive at. These beats are often mapped out in advance, so you know where you need them to be and when. This then determines what actions they need to take in order for them to arrive at each beat roughly around the right page number. I, as the writer, orchestrate the events to push the character (as surreptitiously as I can) into situations that feel like he has been led there by his choices. 

With DnD it’s different. Nick had a story in mind, a bullet pointed list of beats as it were, a rough outline of characters I could meet, places I could go, and situations I could find myself in. Whilst he can direct me and occasionally do a “cut scene” to ensure I learn necessary exposition, or to effectively give me a clue, ultimately, however, what I get Venebor to do and when is my decision and mine alone. 

The difference is that, in DnD, the story reacts to the character’s choices. It doesn’t really have an option. Keeping this in mind when writing any story could make the whole thing feel more character driven because, well, it is. 

Most beat sheets I’ve seen all plot the beats more as things that happen to the protagonist. They meet new characters, they have fun and games, the bad guys close in, and they feel like all is lost. I think simply the language used encourages a story where events happen to our characters, not that are happening because of our characters. This applies more to character driven stories, but even characters in plot driven stories have choices to make that affect the world around them. Perhaps an alternative beat sheet would be useful, that focuses more on where key decisions are made, and worded as questions so it’s obvious that a choice is required. Food for thought at the very least. 

I’ve since ran my own campaign for Nick and learnt just how hard it actually is to constantly adapt to Nick’s decisions. What I wanted him to do, because I’d planned some set pieces, he often didn’t, so I tried to force him down certain avenues. In a DnD campaign, as in any story, this isn’t necessarily a problem – characters frequently find themselves in “corridors”, where you have no choice but to keep going. What is a problem though, is the audience (or player in DnD) feeling like the character only has the illusion of choice – they don’t have the option of not entering the corridor in the first place. If Nick reaches a fork in the road, and when he tries to go left, I say “the left road is blocked”, his immediate thought is “then why give me a choice?”. The other thing I found interesting as I ran the campaign was, Nick, a veteran of RPGs, frequently said of his characters “it’s not what I want them to do, it’s what I think they would do”. 

Applying this to a film, the audience should never feel like the protagonist is only making certain decisions because the plot demands it. Every choice the hero makes should make sense to the audience. They might not agree with the decision, but they should, at the very least, feel like it is the decision this character would make at that moment in time. It’s a choice that reveals something about the character, even in a plot driven story. The internal and external world should change with every decision made. 

Having both played and ran a campaign, I think RPGs could be a really valuable tool in a writer’s arsenal. It really highlights how every choice has a consequence and how little control the writer should feel like they have. They should feel at the mercy of their creation, constantly having to adapt the story as their characters make choices their character would make. Yes, a writer creates the world and all the creatures within it, but after this, they should be merely documenting the events as they unfold. 

“If there’s one thing the history of evolution has taught us, it’s that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, it expands to new territories, and crashes through barriers painfully, maybe even dangerously, but, uh, well, there it is.”

dr. Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park (1993)