Warning: even for me, this is going to get super nerdy.
As a TV critic, one of the easiest traps to fall into is criticism that takes the form of Monday morning quarterbacking. Nothing’s lazier, and nothing could be more infuriating for a showrunner than to read someone online boldly proclaiming how they would have done it better. That’s rarely the intent, but often the outcome. I’m still not immune to that type of reaction, but I’m (hopefully) at least much better about sensing when I’m doing it. The showrunner is in charge of all decisions, and should be free to do so. As a critic/viewer, I have the right to like or dislike those decisions, but even in a fictional world, those decisions are absolute.
Cut to me cracking my knuckles on original storytelling in the form of my biweekly Dungeons and Dragons game.
I never played D&D until last year, when I realized I had a bunch of friends who were also interested in playing after I professed my love for the podcast The Adventure Zone. I spent the first six or seven months slavishly following along to prewritten modules as they learned to play and I learned how to run campaigns. At the end of the second arc, I decided it would be more fun to try and create my own campaign, based on the types of things I wanted to try and the types of adventures the players had enjoyed to that point.
OK, it’s not an outright mistake, in that I’m having fun and they seem to be enjoying it as well. But holy crap, the amount of effort that goes into crafting a fictional world that’s constantly being picked apart and questioned in real time has not only given me a greater appreciation for those who crafted the official D&D storylines, but also for anyone crafting any type of narrative entertainment that I consume on a weekly basis. It’s not like I didn’t think highly of writers before this: Indeed, if I could, I’d interview only writers and leave others to talk to those in front of the camera. But it’s one thing to passively realize how difficult it must be and actively engage with how hard it really is.
With what should be an obvious caveat that I still know nothing about anything when it comes to writing fictional narratives, here are a few key takeaways I’ve had during my brief time trying to ensure my players don’t completely hose my nightly session fifteen minutes into it…
Planning for the end (without overplanning it) is vital.
Before I spoke a single word about the two separate original arcs that I’ve led, I needed to know where it was going. In the first case, I knew that the end of a four-session campaign based loosely on the Tri-Wizard Tournament from the Harry Potter series would end with reality as the players knew it being ripped asunder. I needed to know who was behind it, and who wasn’t, so I could be honest when portraying the various non-playable characters (NPCs) that I created to interact with the players. Upon retrospect, I knew I wouldn’t have everything air-tight, but I wanted to be as fair as possible. Being fair is vital: Once the “audience” thinks there are no rules, then nothing really matters.
Figuring out the next hour is easier than figuring out the next ten.
We play every other Tuesday for about three hours. There’s literally no way for me to write beyond the next session in any detail. For the first arc, I knew I wanted to have four big arena battles based on the four elements. I did research on who the gods of those elements were, had a basic order for which elements would happen when (culminating in a water-based level I foreshadowed each time), but I legitimately could not worry about micro-details until I had to do so. If the immediate action wasn’t engaging, the players wouldn’t care if it all tied together in the final ten minutes. So I made the next session primary, and let everything else wait.
There’s no way to think of everything.
As with most D&D games, my players love to try and “break” my game. If I have ten NPCs with deep backstories I’ve thought about more than my actual family, they will find the eleventh and interrogate her for two-thirds of the session. The more they know they are messing with my plan, the more they dig in. I think of the Reddit-esque communities that form around TV shows each time this happens: No one person can out-think a crowd, and I feel bad for any show that isn’t prepared to answer questions it didn’t even think it raised. That’s not to say that interpretation can’t or shouldn’t extend beyond authorial intent, but there’s literally no way to know how something you put into the world will be consumed.
When in doubt, callbacks are super fun.
I tried to make a clean break when I started writing my first arc. But when I struggled, I realized that having a familiar face to tie the new actions in made a lot of sense. That feeling of familiarity helped me and the players acclimate to the new setting, and also added to a sense of additional weight to the proceedings. We weren’t just going through four arenas: We were continuing a story that started with the Starter Set, whether or not anyone knew it. That makes each piece like an adventure unto itself while also adding to a larger tapestry. So, if you ever wondered why shows are so loath to kill characters, well, this is why. I’ve kept the original NPC from the original session around because it’s … well, it’s much easier this way. Gundred Rockseeker, you my man.
Not that I have any skill at long-term (or even short-term) planning, but literally nothing I’ve tried to pull off more than two hours in the future has remotely played out the way I intended. Playing D&D is obviously different than writing TV, since the former is far more interactive than the latter. But that first arc had an original ending that the players sniffed out in hour one of twenty, so I had to think about a better way to do it. That not only led me to a better idea, but also let me twist the emotional knife in the characters in a way I hadn’t previously conceived. That in turn led the players to turn against each other in interesting ways, which in turn further honed future plans. Is any of this truly “better”? It’s hard to say, and obviously subjective in execution. But the messiness of the storytelling is a feature, not a bug. Rigidly adhering to the first idea makes this a mechanical exercise instead of a living, breathing, imperfect, perfectly invigorating endeavor.
Am I talking about TV or D&D?