What Dungeons and Dragons can Teach Us About Storytelling

She let out a guttural bellow. Still stunned, the ogre grunted in return. Watching Sylvan attempt to speak, I thought she must be hexed—or just a fool. I began calculating who could get to her first: me, to save her, or the ogre, to turn her into its next meal. But before I could move, I felt a hand on my shoulder, next to the strap of my quiver. “Don’t."

Illustration by Paul Jarvey

TThe sorceress traipsed gingerly through the castle courtyard, inching closer to the ogre. The stunned hulk towered above her in a motionless daze, its fleshy jowls shaking as it tottered from side to side. She had charmed the beast, but I stayed hidden behind a crumbling stone wall, afraid the thing might haul another boulder at us. We’d heard of spectres and spirits residing within the walls of the long-abandoned keep. We hadn’t heard of ogres.

“Fortune is on our side,” Sylvan declared as she swivelled her head back to us. “I speak ogre.”

She let out a guttural bellow. Still stunned, the ogre grunted in return. Watching Sylvan attempt to speak, I thought she must be hexed—or just a fool. I began calculating who could get to her first: me, to save her, or the ogre, to turn her into its next meal. But before I could move, I felt a hand on my shoulder, next to the strap of my quiver. “Don’t,” the cleric P’Za calmly whispered into my ear, as if reading my mind. We exchanged glances as Sylvan and the ogre continued groan at each other.

“It’s all right,” Sylvan shouted, far too loudly. She and the brute exchanged a few more creaks. “His name is Gormgok,” she told us, breaking into a smile. “And I’m going to ask him to be our friend.”

 

I didn’t exactly write that passage. Rather, I co-created it, seated around a wooden table in a Toronto apartment playing Dungeons and Dragons with three friends: Curtis, as the bold enchantress Sylvan; Paul, as the holy adventurer P’Za; and Benjamin Shaw, as our Dungeon Master (DM). Ben had created the world—and all the castles and ogres in it—but it was up to us, the players, to bring it to life. In this case, by glad-handing a groggy ogre.

Dungeons and Dragons is an exercise in collaborative storytelling. Like any worthwhile narrative, a D&D campaign needs a main conflict, compelling characters and memorable scenes. DMs provide most of those elements, but they let players assume the central role as protagonists. Together, through roleplay and dialogue and countless dice rolls, a DM and his party create a fiction in real time.

Written narratives and D&D rely on many of the same things to be successful: preparation, dedication, imagination. Over the years, Ben has developed and begun to formalize theories about being a Dungeon Master, and they can just as easily be read as writing tips. The art of Dungeon Mastery encompasses character creation, world building, rule following and, occasionally, rule breaking. The job requires big decisions (what’s the main drama to drive your story forward?) and trivial ones (how much does it cost to buy 10 feet of rope?). If you do it right, you suck the player (or reader) in, fill them with wonder and give them a platform to live out fantasy—not just the genre, but their own. “In day-to-day life, people make all sorts of little choices: what to eat for dinner, how to get to work,” says Ben. “As much as we might not like the idea, those choices don’t really matter.” A D&D campaign offers players a rare opportunity to make decisions that change lives, albeit fictional ones. “It’s a chance to make choices that actually do matter.”


Ben has introduced roughly 30 people to Dungeons and Dragons. When I first met him, he seemed excited to teach a few more. Not that there was much “teaching.” Ben’s straight brown hair danced below his shoulders as he unloaded his knapsack: a heavy sack of dice, a box of miniatures, stacks of paper. (Ben’s ’do was not so much Legolas-inspired as apropos of his professional career as an opera singer.) He cued up a medieval soundtrack and asked us each to create a character: Give them a name and gender. Pick a race (e.g., elf, human, halfling), class (barbarian, wizard, rogue) and matching figurine (he brought dozens). Grab a set of dice and roll. That’s your strength. Roll again. That’s your intelligence. Roll again… Roll again… Roll again… Compared to the hours I’d spent creating characters in Skyrim (which I later realized is, in some sense, a digital D&D), it was swift and simple. My elven archer, Ash, was ready within minutes.

“Welcome to the Twilight Coast,” Ben announced. He set the scene: we were seated in a dark, half-filled tavern in the town of Birtash. A waiter with his arm in a sling rushed to a table of rowdy locals with one too many steins balanced in his lone healthy hand. A dishevelled greying man mumbled to himself at one end of the bar. A shadowy ranger nursed a drink at the other.

“What do you want to do?” Ben asked us. Answering that question is essentially what it means to play D&D.


When Sylvan asked the ogre— a grunting, teetering behemoth played by Ben—if he wanted to be our friend, Ben smirked. Without saying anything, he picked up a die and rolled it behind a divider that concealed his notes, maps and rolls. He looked down at the result, chuckled and then, in his best ogre impression, rumbled, “Okay.”

In D&D, dice determine (almost) everything. Want to fire an arrow at a fast-approaching goblin? Roll to see if you hit. Want to haggle for a better price? Roll to determine if you can sweet-talk your way into a discount. Want to ask Gormgok if you can ride his back? Laugh, then roll to find out if the big guy is amenable. Players’ dice control their characters, while the DM’s dice control non-player characters (NPCs) that they interact with, whether it’s a troll or a tailor. Just keep rolling until you slay the dragon, rescue the princess or seize the throne.

It’s the moments between rolls that matter most, though. Through Ben, our party talked to travellers and traders (he acted them out), explored dungeons (he mapped them out) and skimmed tavern menus (he handed them out). Everything we did filtered through him. Though Paul, Curtis and I had never read a D&D rulebook, we played for hours, relying on Ben to know the answer to our ceaseless questions: What was in that locked chest? Which dice should we roll to find out if we could open it? Could we cast a spell to improve our chances?


Dungeons and Dragons’ history is appropriately mythic—a fractured timeline with as many schisms as the Christian church. Officially, it was invented in 1974, when American game designers Gary Gygax and Dave Armeson released the first edition of Dungeons and Dragons, or, at least, three books that taught you how to play it. To oversimplify things immensely, there have been five editions of the game to date, some with strict rules and others with a more laissez-faire approach that gives DMs greater discretion as to how they run the game. Ultimately, D&D is not one cookie-cutter activity, but an umbrella term for a series of games that can feel at times quite similar and at others radically different.

Ben discovered D&D as a grade-schooler. “My dad would have his friends over to play D&D, and I always wanted to play,” he says. “One guy always ran the game. He had, like, 1,000 pewter miniatures, all of them hand-painted. So I grilled him for information. He was more than willing to talk to me about it.”

In Gr. 7, Ben saved up his allowance to buy a series of D&D rulebooks from his local used bookstore; they were locked in a glass cabinet next to the Magic cards at the back off the shop. Tomes in hand, he rounded up his brother and friends (“I was the older one so I could force them to do anything”), and ran his very first campaign. “Everybody, welcome to the game,” he told his inaugural party before launching into a nonsensical scene: “You’re walking through the woods when you’re ambushed by orcs, 20 feet away.”

Ben honed his DM skills over the course of countless campaigns in high school and university, researching the role online along the way. While Ben was studying music in Halifax, a friend named Ricky asked him for pointers on how he might DM a campaign of his own. So Ben wrote Ricky a series of letters (three and counting), which together comprise a sort of starter kit to DM’ing. He takes credit for few of the ideas in it. “When somebody asks for advice,” whether a first-time or veteran DM, says Ben, “I think you can assume that the advice they get is coming from the community as a whole.” Many DMs trade theories, questions and tips online (Ben posts some of his on a blog appropriately titled Wizard Shaw). “No dungeon master is out there claiming to having invented everything about how to be a dungeon master.”

Nonetheless, the “Ricky Letters” are a useful anthology, a sort of ongoing DM’ing for Dummies. They detail how to dole out treasure and experience points, how to structure dungeons and how to draw maps for the players you’re leading. But their most insightful passages are more philosophical than technical.

Ben suggests DMs think of every world they create as a series of rooms. Fill every “room” you create—whether it’s an eerie crypt or entire country—with a look, a feel and things that players can interact with. The biggest room is the world you create as a whole. That world has regions (each their own “room”), every region has towns (also “rooms”), every town has buildings (you get it), every building has actual rooms, every actual room has characters and objects. DMs describe the rooms only as players enter them, as if unveiling a series of Russian dolls. “You don’t have to polish any of it beforehand, because it doesn’t come alive until it hits the table anyway,” says Ben. “I usually give just the first layer of description, something like, ‘There’s a statue with outstretched arms.’ ” If the players walk by without investigating, fine. But if they look in those hands, they’ll find a ruby. And if they find a ruby, they have to decide what to do about it.


Just as important as the world are the NPCs who live in it—and give it life. By sharing news and having their own desires, fears and motivations, they give the impression of a world that exists beyond your party. NPCs can also teach players about themselves (e.g., because people in the Twilight Coast discriminate against elves, NPCs would occasionally slander me).

Ben assigns each NPC five essential elements: 1) a connection to something of greater importance, like the innkeeper’s knowledge about Barrow Deep; 2) a physical mannerism you can act out, like his arm in a sling; 3), a desire and fear, like his concern over a strange noise coming from the tavern chimney; 4) an errand in progress, like serving customers; and 5) a detail that causes players to wonder about the character’s backstory or significance, like how he broke that arm anyway?

These traits not only help players visualize and remember NPCs, they invite players to engage more deeply with the world. “Put in as many things as possible that make players wonder,” says Ben, who takes credit for at least this particular idea of wonder. “The game will go smoothly if what you present immediately brings questions into their minds. They ask questions, you give them answers, those lead to more questions. Really, it’s a back and forth of questions and answers.”

You’ll know you’ve created convincing characters when players have strong feelings about them, whether hatred or admiration. “Sometimes groups just decide, without a word, that they love an NPC. Inevitably, someone starts hitting on them,” says Ben. “It can be an excellent tool for a DM. You can put that NPC in danger, for example, and the players leap on that.”

A practical tip: have a list of names and simple stock characters on hand in case you need to improvise. If a player asks to speak to a blacksmith you haven’t fleshed out, pick one out and wing it. “On a very basic level,” says Ben, “even having a name at the ready is actually super impressive to players.” These details can be used when they’re needed. In other words, wherever players wind upf can become an improvised version of a hyper-detailed setting that Ben has already prepared. The sci-fi structure may differ from fantasy, Ben says, but “I’m finding that if I approach it in entirely the same way, many of the philosophies continue to apply.”


Dreaming up worlds and characters as detailed as these takes time. Ben spent six months creating the Twilight Coast. It has what you might call a central “quest” and a defined ending, but that’s practically a moot point. The most dedicated group to play in it lasted for several months (campaigns can last years) and still covered just five per cent of the world Ben created. They didn’t even start the main quest. “I used to feel bad about players skipping over meticulously detailed content I had created, but now I’m taking more of a Hemingway approach—the iceberg theory,” says Ben. “I’ve stopped trying to guide players to interesting stuff. I let them make their own decisions. Every single group finds different stuff, makes different choices in the same rooms.”

Choices are a dungeon master’s most important tool. “Give the players as many interesting, meaningful choices as possible,” says Ben. That point features prominently in the Ricky Letters, which contain a list Ben created that he refers to, unceremoniously, as “What Players Want.” It’s not long, so here it is: 1) something cool for their character, like a magic sword or spell; 2) choices that affect their game world, like whether to assassinate or side with a wrongful king; 2) deeds to build their character’s legend, like deposing said ruler because he’s corrupt; 4) unique experiences through adventure, like discovering a hidden passageway in the kings’ quarters; and 5) to earn the respect, loyalty and friendship of NPCs, like the rightful king, found imprisoned down that secret passage. Or, if you’re my party, you try to hang out with an ogre.

 

The ogre was hungry. So, back in Birtash, P’Za and I visited the market to purchase a pair of cows. We led the animals down the main street, out the town gates and past the tree line, where we reunited with Sylvan and Gormgok. The innkeeper refused to let him stay on the tavern’s grounds, so this overgrown nook at the edge of town—just out of sight of disapproving villagers—would be his home for the time being.

As Gormgok feasted on the first cow, the fiery late-afternoon sun dipped behind Birtash’s low-lying buildings. I rested my bow against a tree and sat in the tall grass with Sylvan, the only one of us who could speak directly to the ogre. She was smitten with her new companion. He’d helped us wipe out a wave of kobolds, venture deeper into Barrow Deep and return home with the spoils.

Still, Sylvan seemed uneasy, her brow furrowed as she watched the sun set. “What’s wrong?” I asked. 

She was still and silent for a moment and then replied, “My charm spell only lasts two weeks.” When her hold on Gormgok dissolved, she asked, would he still be our friend? 

“What happens if—” I began, but couldn’t bring myself to continue. 

“Well, Ash,” Sylvan said, turning to me, “I guess we’re going to have to make a choice.”

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