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Roll for Story Building – How D&D Can Improve Your Screenwriting

By June 20, 2019No Comments

Recently I’ve helped a friend create a homebrew Call of Cthulhu campaign, which is a pen and paper roleplay like Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) only in Lovecraft’s world of Elder Gods. She handled most of the story since I don’t have much experience with either H. P. Lovecraft’s work or pen and paper role plays while I helped create props and a cipher-based language for her.

Seeing the behind-the-scenes work of a Dungeon or Game Master intrigued me. The construct of these campaigns doesn’t stray too far from what creating an interactive story like a video game would be. The only difference is that this seems like an incredible resource for writers to use as a tool for creating their own worlds and stories.

Here are just a few things you can improve by approaching your story with the mind of a Dungeon Master:

Character Construction

First off, every story needs characters. Every character gets split up into races, classes, etc. and are awarded points for their attributes (strength, charisma, etc) depending on what the character would realistically have. The specifics aren’t important, what’s important to note is that characters must be completely understood. Think to the strict formula Lajos Egri had for character development (see Building Characters with Lajos Egri). You have to know your character(s) inside and out. It is important to know that they are an entire individual.

While it may be time-consuming to create a complete character from scratch, that’s why there are D&D character sheets that ask the basic questions. You could use Lajos Egri’s formula if you like that better. Try not to let the statistics get to you, after all, this is meant to be a tool, not a game (unless you want to get some buddies together to role play your story idea – which doesn’t sound half bad!). However, think of what questions those statistics may bring to your mind. If this character has low constitution, is this because of a childhood sickness that affected their immune system? What does this mean about how your character reacts to certain problems in the future? 

Character Choice

This brings us to your character’s choices. An important part of being a Dungeon Master (or DM) is that you know that your characters have their own decisions and thought processes, so they most likely will not follow the story you built to the letter. This means, as the story builder, you have to make sure the story follows with the character’s choices. If you force them down a certain path, it will destroy the character’s autonomy and not only make the game less fun, but less interesting. As discussed in another article, character choice is everything.

By having these characters developed in such detail that they have distinct voices and decision-making processes, you will have characters that audiences will believe to be realistic and they will be able to sympathize with them. Do whatever you can to understand every aspect of that character. Make them a playlist, find a voice for them, do some concept art, or even pretend to sit down with your character and talk. Yes, I read about that concept in Jack Heffron’s The Writer’s Idea Book. I’ve never had the imagination to do it, but if it could help you discover that unique voice of your character, then go for it! Making your character a rounded individual who makes choices you may not agree with is all part of the writing process. 

World Building

As a Dungeon Master, you need to keep your characters interested in the world. Like the audience, if they aren’t absorbed in the world, they may not take dangers or events seriously. Building the world is a combination of making the characters intrigued while directing them through your narrative. Sure, they may not even need to know of certain events that took place in the history of your world, but the world that they currently reside in was shaped by these historical events. Think in terms of the butterfly effect. Small details throughout your world shape many current concepts and realities. While your characters may not need to know them, as the world creator and shaper, it helps to have these details in order to make the world a living, breathing, organic being like our own. You never know, maybe your characters go off the scripted path you’ve created for them and that information comes in handy when directing them back to the original story or carving out a new, maybe even better, alternative route. 

Story Flexibility 

There is a plethora of stories online about D&D campaigns where the DM formed this intricate and wonderfully woven story, only for the characters to break it by discovering something early on or by making a decision the DM never foresaw. As a writer using this as a tool for enhancing your writing, this should be an interesting achievement. Making sure your character’s choices come first is important. The story needs to be malleable enough to follow the path the characters choose based on who they are. Especially in the rewrite or brainstorming stage, changes to the story should be embraced. While you should never discard the original story plot (it may come back to be useful), changes, especially if made by a fully-realized character, are incredibly valuable. 

Of course, Dungeons and Dragons isn’t the only pen and paper role-playing game that you can use as an example. In fact, I would highly recommend either talking to a Dungeon Master about how they create their campaigns or be involved in one as a character. This is a tool I hope to use when I reach roadblocks in my writing. 

Have any other suggestions or experiences? Don’t hesitate to share! 

Beverly Peders is a Screenwriting graduate from Drexel University. She loves all visual writing mediums and has experience in writing plays, comic books, screenplays, TV sitcoms, and video games. World building is her favorite and she obsesses over anthropology and linguistics. In her spare time, you may find her trying to get over her fear of heights at a rock wall or adopting yet another plant because she can’t afford an actual pet.

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