We’re three months into the latest pandemic lockdown, which has been a bad time to do anything creative but a good time to engage with media.
This weekend I finished two such pieces of media – the second season of Ted Lasso and the Telltale Batman video game. And weirdly, I think they have something in common.
I’ll dig into that in a moment, but first, SPOILER WARNING! This post will contain spoilers for a TV show that came out like three days ago, and a video game that came out in 2016. Continue at your own risk – and find out which is better!
(Here’s the first SPOILER – it’s Ted Lasso, that show’s brilliant, the Batman game is pretty ordinary.)
Choose your fighter
Who is the Batman: Batman: The Telltale Series (aka BTTS) is a 2016 video game from, unsurprisingly, Telltale Games, a studio known for their branching-narrative games/visual novels. You get to investigate crime scenes, bang Catwoman, fight Two-Face/sexy Penguin and slowly realise that most of your choices don’t have any effect on the story.
Who is the Ted Lasso: Ted Lasso is – are we doing this? really? ugh fine – a 2020/2021 show on Apple TV+ about an American football coach working with a British soccer team. It’s really fuckin’ good, y’all: a show about hope & positivity that is also about the cost of hope & positivity, and is far smarter than any of us expected in these dark times.
What they have in common
Well, first of all, they’re both stories set in action-oriented genres (sports/superheroics) that preference character interaction scenes over expensive/hard-to-animate action scenes.
That aside, the main thing they have in common is plot. Or, more accurately, how they use plot in relation to character. Both Ted Lasso and BTTS rely largely on external plots, with character scenes triggered by plot beats, and okay let’s unpack these concepts.
There’s an old maxim, ‘plot is character’, which generally means that plot is what emerges from the actions and decisions of characters, and is usually stated by someone tedious in your first-year writing class.
In many stories, though, plot is external and acts upon characters – the story throws up events and characters respond to them. (This is most common in genre fiction, but you see it in other spaces too.) A lot of folks refer to these events and moments as plot or character beats, and while I think that language is overused, ‘beats’ feel appropriate for this approach to plot, like pounding on a drum to mark the next thing happening to the characters, rather than because of the characters.
Meaty beaty big and bouncy (I’m sorry)
In a story primarily based around an external plot, plot beats provide opportunities for character interaction, with two major functions:
catalysts for character change
catalysts for character reinforcement.
In a change beat, characters react in ways that, well, change them and redirect their course for the next phase of the story. Reinforcement beats are opportunities for characters (or rather writers) to restate their identity, creating conflicts and causing drama.
Reinforcement beats are particularly common in genre fiction, especially serial fiction (comics, soap operas, cinematic universes etc) where characters need to experience events and overcome conflicts without being so changed by them that they can’t be used in the next instalment/episode/issue.
Tell a Bat-Tale
BTTS is primarily based in reinforcement beats, which is unsurprising for a genre story but nonetheless disappointing. The game sells itself as an interactive story guided by player choices, but ultimately you’re responding to plot events to enforce your own take on how Batman should act and how he should feel.
Does it have character beats? Yes, but they’re badly handled. Characters change, but that change often doesn’t feel earned or genuine. Fail to protect Harvey Dent and he becomes the psychotic, maimed villain Two-Face – but if you do protect him, he becomes a psychotic non-maimed villain that does the exact same thing. Catwoman will always leave you, Alfred will always be saved, and while your choices may mean they say different things, their words don’t change the story.
Also, the action scenes are pretty dull.
The big risk (and big achievement) of Ted Lasso is that the second season is overwhelmingly composed of character beats, with little time spent on reinforcement beats or even on maintaining a continuous plot. Rather than being used as a ‘story engine’ (another term popular in writing classes), events come and go without many situational repercussions, but they kickstart character growth and development.
Take the thread involving the soccer club’s sponsorship. When Sam questions the ethics of the club’s sponsor, they pull out, and this leads to… a new sponsor already in place by the next episode. This show doesn’t care about the drama that might emerge from the search for a new sponsor, or dealing with financial struggles – it cares about Rebecca realising she deserves happiness, Sam finding the confidence to forge his own path, and the two of them shagging like rabbits after hooking up on the dating app that now sponsors the club.
Or consider the Roy-vs-Jamie conflict that powered a lot of Season 1. It would have been easy to draw that conflict into Season 2, but it fades away largely offscreen, replaced by Jamie and Roy learning to show emotional vulnerability and to support others. Wholesome, yes, but also an arc that focuses hard on how and why characters change, rather than the circumstances foregrounding that change.
Also, I got very emotional when they hugged. Ain’t gonna lie.
Who wore it better?
Stories that rely on internal plot, that rise from characters’ action, attract labels like ‘organic’ or ‘authentic’. Stories that rely on external plot, on the other hand, are often criticised as shallow, with beats that just exist to move characters from situation to situation.
Here’s the thing – it doesn’t matter if you do it well. Moving characters into position is just fine in a story, so long as the characters change and grow in interesting and engaging ways in the process. Character conflict helps with that, but it’s not essential.
Both Ted Lasso and BTTS promise character change, but one does it well, in ways that feel genuine, and one only delivers the illusion of change. It’s a shame, ‘cos all of you know how much I like Batman, but the lesson here is to be like the Moustache, not like the Bat.
Plus, only Ted Lasso gave us ‘Beard After Hours’, and that episode was a goddamn cinematic masterpiece.
I can’t wait to see how all of this pans out in Season 3 – and ugh, fine, I guess I’ll play the BTTS sequel, I hear it’s better.
Here’s the table I showed off last time, with all of the characters/gimmicks I’ve brainstormed (and stuck on corkboards) for my YA wrestling novel-in-not-really-progress-yet Piledriver.
Hardcore veteran at age 18
Management’s golden boy
Edgelord ‘Sliding into your DMs’
Internet TikTok daredevil
One true master of submission holds
Guardian of the mask
Pasifika wrestling royalty
Video essay guy
K-pop star stan
The Smiling Assassin
Real freakin’ strong
Nasty Freaky goth
‘Fire in the belly’
‘Big cash money’
Just as the novel is in the germination stages, so are these gimmicks (hell, none of these characters have names yet). As you can see from the strikethroughs, my ideas are still in flux and getting updated dailyweekly sporadically. Gimmicks are surface-level concepts but they can nonetheless be surprisingly nuanced, and you can tinker with them for ages before getting them right.
In fact, I think some roughness here makes sense for the novel, which focuses (in part) on the creation and launch of a new, all-teenagers wrestling promotion. Ideas are going to be rough at the start, and there’s good story material in showing the development, refinement, testing and rejection of gimmicks in the early days.
That said, these are all good gimmicks, and I can tell you why. Because I am the King of Gimmicks.
What makes a good gimmick?
An effective gimmick should be…
Easy to summarise, hard to explain: What is a ‘video essay guy’ or a ‘trash panda’ – or, to pick a real wrestler, Mr Perfect? I could tell you in detail but I don’t have to; you already (I hope) have an image in your mind. A gimmick is all high concept, a phrase that unpacks itself in the audience’s imagination; it’s only later, once the hooks are in, that it needs to be fleshed out and coloured in.
Able to hold your attention: But you do need to get those hooks in, and that means holding the audience’s attention. A character is called ‘The Smiling Assassin’ – why? Does he smile (yes)? Does he murder people (no)? How does his ‘sneering killer’ concept flavour his fighting, his promos, his backstage scenes? If a gimmick is just a name or a look, it’s not going to keep audiences interested; it has to have some substance and nuance to inform what happens next.
Adaptable and extendable: Some gimmicks are face gimmicks, some are heel gimmicks, but the best can be pointed in either direction. Similarly, a strong gimmick can morph over time, add to itself, even contradict itself and still remain identifiable. Looking to WWE, Kane and Sean Michaels (‘The Heartbreak Kid’) were a dozen different things over the decades, but were still definitely the same characters and concepts each time. Flexible gimmicks like ‘Guardian of the Mask’ or ‘Pasifika wrestling royalty’ could have the same adaptability and longevity (unless romance and drama get in the way, which they will).
Expressed in multiple ways: A great gimmick is more than a look, a concept, a finishing move. It’s a catchphrase, an attitude, a vignette, an ethos; it’s something that can be packaged a dozen different ways, all of them available from the merch table. Maybe no-one defines this better than Stone Cold Steve Austin, who turned a ‘tough guy who hates his boss’ gimmick into a dozen catchphrases, a million T-shirts, a presence in pop culture strong enough that someone who’s never seen a moment of wrestling might still understand and enjoy a 3:16 reference.
Deadpan: The Undertaker is a zombie. Kairi Sane is a wrestling pirate. Half the roster of Chikara were various types of humanoid ants. The key to making ideas like that pop is to take them… not seriously, perhaps, but at face value, rather than deconstructing or questioning them. Because when you undercut one wrestling concept, you undercut the very notion that it’s real or a sport or that it makes sense to settle personal disputes by suplexing someone through a table rather than talking to a small claims lawyer. Treat your gimmicks with respect and never wink at the camera – not openly, anyway.
Okay, that’s a lot of talk about gimmicks and how to craft them.
It’s time I knuckle down on applying my own advice to my character roster, fill out these index cards, finish the outline and start writing this book.
…unless I get distracted by a new puppy. But that would never –
It feels a bit grubby just to type the word. Gimmicks are cheap, nasty things – foil covers and decoder rings and celebrity endorsements, things of that nature, I think we can all agree.
Don’t take my word for it – let’s see what the Collins Online Dictionary (which I’ve chosen because I’m not giving my home email to Oxford or Macquarie just for one bloody screenshot) has to say:
This is an interesting definition, because it’s loaded with this weird, classist subtext. How dreadful it would be to attract attention to something! What an unnecessary thing to do, when you could simply win the approval of your peers by working quietly on your dictionary for two hours a day from the comfort of your family’s estate before snooker with the chaps from the fox hunting lodge.
Am I reading too much into this? Almost certainly, but I don’t see why that should stop me. Because I come not to praise the definition but to bury it. Folks, here’s the skinny, the straight dope, the 411, the truth that Mr/Ms/Mx/Viscount Collins can’t handle:
Gimmicks are good, actually.
Especially when creating fictional characters.
The Disney silhouette
Team Collins makes one solid point – a gimmick is a feature designed to attract attention. As fiction writers/creators, we crave attention like a Coalition politician craves government funds illegitimately rorted from community programs. I don’t mean for ourselves (although hello yes here I am notice me love me validate me) but for our books, games, shows, Bayeux Tapestries etc. – and even more importantly, for the characters within those stories and give them life.
The silhouette principle is just as important in text. If your characters don’t have an immediate point of distinction from everyone around them, if they don’t have a unique conceptual hook to catch readers’ attention – a gimmick – then most readers will move on and never discover the complex character depths you struggled to write.
Yes, gimmicks are surface elements, but you don’t get to have depths without surfaces to hold them together and squish them down. That’s just science.
Only wrestling is real
Why am I bringing this concept up right now, and being so weirdly insistent and borderline preachy about it? Because I’m writing a novel set within the world of professional wrestling, the King of Sports, and wrestling has always acknowledged the power of the gimmick – the immediate conceptual hook that makes the audience think, ‘yeah, I wanna watch this guy/girl fight someone’.
Which is not to say that every gimmick is good or effective – a cursory review of wrestling history reveals a lot of bad creative decisions. In the ’80s, everyone was defined by their job (Isaac Yankem, wrestling dentist), an ethnic stereotype (The Iron Sheik) or just some fuckin’ bullshit (the Gobbledy Gooker, obviously). But still, I think that was better than the ’90s, when most wrestlers were just variations on ‘edgy dude in jorts’ and the few exceptions got over simply through a sense of relief.
This is the difficult aspect of gimmicks – you need them to attract attention, but it needs to be the right kind of attention. They can be funny, they can attract a little ridicule, but they still need to get folks watching matches and appreciating the performer inside the gimmick, rather than driving folks away.
So with that in mind, here are the gimmicks I’ve developed for the 24 teenage wrestlers on the roster for Piledriver.
Hardcore veteran at age 18
Management’s golden boy
True master of submission holds
Guardian of the mask
Pasifika wrestling royalty
Video essay guy
K-pop star stan
The Smiling Assassin
Real freakin’ strong
Fire in the belly
‘Big Cash Money’
Bit of a mixed bag, I know – almost as if significant thought went into some of them, while others are tissue-thin nonsense based primarily on early morning free association and whim.
What can I say? I have my methods, and for this book, my methods involve writing down ideas as I get them and then fleshing them out down the track, rather than spending months fussing over each individual concept until it’s perfect and no-one cares any more. Plus, I have the advantage of these being in-fiction concepts – if some are weak, then characters can address and improve them as part of the story, when they’re not fighting monsters or making out with their co-workers.
(Also, go to hell, ‘video essay guy’ is a brilliant gimmick.)
Not all of us are writing stories about professional wrestlers – which is probably for the best, ‘cos I want to sell this book – but almost every work of genre fiction can benefit from the writer thinking about distinct, engaging hooks for their characters.
(It’s not as big a deal outside of genre fiction; I don’t think readers are attracted to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich for his distinctive character silhouette.)
You can call it something else if you want – high concept, character premise, archetype – but a gimmick is what it is, and it’s something readers need and enjoy. Accept it. Embrace it. Live it.
I’ve got mine – well, I’ve got them for the in-ring personas, but I still need to work them out for the actual characters. What are yours? How would you sum up your main character’s whole deal in one easy-to-digest phrase? And how long could they last against the Gobbledy Gooker?
Let’s talk more about this next month. I still have opinions.
We lost a titan of writing today, friends, one of the greatest wordsmiths the world has ever known.
We lost Jim Steinman, whose songs have been the backbone of my life for more than 30 years. As a teen I played Bat Out of Hell over and over until the cassette broke. As a 20-something goth I flailed on dance floors to the bangers he produced with the Sisters of Mercy (‘This Corrosion’ and ‘Dominion/Mother Russia’, holy shit). As a 30/40-something… look, anyone who’s ever been in a karaoke bar with me knows that I will drop ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ at each and any and every opportunity, because that song fucking rules.
Some people think Steinman’s work is kitsch, or cheesy, or silly, or just over-the-top hair rock. Those people are cynical fools. His songs were a portal into an alternate world of operatic bombast, 80s excess, muscular melodrama, heroic fantasy, motorcycle culture, 1950s’ juvenile delinquent movies, American cliches, comic books, bodice-tearing romance, hair spray, leather jackets, puffy shirts, soap opera, Gothic novels, horror, camp, groin-watering sexual desire and a pure, absolute and never-ending love of rock n’ roll.
They were great works of narrative and emotive fiction, sonic movies full of romance, action, drama, wind machines and tight black jeans compressed into 4 (or 7) (or 12) minutes, and they were genius.
(Fortunately, most of his collaborators understood this. We’ve all seen the ‘Total Eclipse’ video, but if you’ve never seen the clip for ‘I Would Do Anything For Love (‘But I Won’t Do That)’, watch it now and get right with your God.)
Sure, there were stronger lyricists, cleverer lyricists, more polished lyricists, more personally meaningful lyricists; I mean, I have a tattoo of a Mountain Goats lyric, but I don’t have a ‘Bat Out of Hell’ tattoo. (Hmm. I should probably get one.) But Steinman’s lyrics had true power in their sincerity and imagery, in his ability to infuse cultural and pop cultural touchstones with bold, bright and immediate emotional weight. And damn, the man could write a killer line when he wanted.
You’ll never find your gold on a sandy beach You’ll never drill for oil on a city street I know you’re looking for a ruby in a mountain of rocks But there ain’t no Coup de Ville hiding at the bottom Of a Cracker Jack box
‘Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad’
Tom Waits and John Darnielle are great, but they can keep their nuanced, contained examinations of the human condition – Jim Steinman demanded and delivered more, more, MORE.
Everything in a Steinman song is the most dramatic thing – the greatest, the worst, the most uplifting, the most devastating. No-one has ever loved with the heart-stopping intensity of a Steinman protagonist, no-one has ever needed to have sex with their partner so badly as a Steinman protagonist, and no-one else could be as miserable as a Steinman protagonist when his heart is broken. Everything in a Steinman song is louder than everything else.
And now he is gone. And we are the lesser for it.
But his songs remain, his lyrics remain; his legacy remains, towering over music, pop culture and literature like a monolith of Marshal speakers pounding out 40-minute guitar riffs during the biggest thunderstorm in history. I won’t ever forget Jim Steinman’s passion, his sincerity, his drama, his power, his words.
I would do anything for love. But I won’t do that.
I think I’m finally letting go of my hopes of being a child prodigy.
But I’m still here, still giving it a go, and that’ll do.
So what am I doing in my fifty-first year?
For one thing, I’m still trying to learn new tricks, even when it comes to writing. I’m in the prep-and-research phase of a new novel project, and I’m doing something I’ve never done before – planning.
…okay, I haven’t actually planned the book’s title yet, but let’s called it Piledriver as a shorthand for now.
Raven’s Blood and the Obituarist novellas were all written the same way – I sat down with a premise, an opening scene, a finale to aim towards and some ideas for bits in the middle, and then haphazardly wrote my way into the story until I got to the end, which may or may not have resembled the ending I’d originally envisioned. I’m not going to abandon that approach, ‘cos it aligns nicely with my laziness creative instincts, but it’s high time I gave the whole plotting and outlining business a try.
But first, characters. Piledriver has an ensemble cast of, mighty fuck, twenty-four characters, all of whom need to be unique and clearly distinct from the others. How am I going to manage this Herculean task and (frankly, stupidly over-large) cast?
With a character stack.
The stack contains 24 index cards, each showing the core information of a specific character. Let’s zoom in on the most complete one, which is for the book/series’ main protagonist.
The important points you can immediately tell:
this is a book about professional wrestlers
yes, I’ve named the main character Jack Fetch
yes, he’s Jack the Giantkiller, wrestling is not a world of subtlety
my handwriting is fucking atrocious
I haven’t worked out some of the details yet
(Why is there a B in the top right corner? I’m gonna keep that detail under wraps for the moment.)
Other cards are sketchier still – no-one else has a name yet, and things like gimmicks, style and persona are mostly vacant. But the joy of the stack is that I can just grab a card and fill in a detail when it occurs to me. Some of those will get nailed down during the outlining, others as I write, and this will help me keep things consistent. Another positive of using physical cards is that I can also pin them to a corkboard to map out relationships, group them into factions, spot who needs some screen time and (eventually) array them for a big ol’ tournament.
I might have so much fun doing that that I don’t bother writing the book. We’ll see.
Anyway, that’s how I’m kicking things off in my life as an Official Old Dude. Check back in occasionally over the next 365 days to see how the planning (or indeed writing) of Piledriver is progressing.
For now, though, bugger doing any more work tonight. Come on, it’s my birthday.
I’m not going to spend any time talking about how or why it was shit, because we all know the answer, and we’re all going to see a thousand retrospectives and thinkpieces about it over the next few months. I got through it in fairly good shape, many people got through it in much worse shape, and far, far too many people didn’t get through it at all.
But even if I don’t want to write about it now, that doesn’t mean I – or indeed any creator – won’t want to write about it in the future. When we write fiction set in the modern day, we use contemporary shared knowledges, references and experiences as touchstones to anchor the fiction, and there ain’t nothing modern humanity has shared more than <gestures around helplessly> all of this.
So how can we do that? How do we reflect this year – this bloodstained mass grave fuckpig of a year – into our modern-day fiction in engaging and meaningful ways that aren’t just 20 pages of wordless keening?
(I should clarify that I’m speaking mostly of the pandemic and its related impacts. Bushfires, Black Lives Matter, presidential elections, government fuckery, JK Rowling preaching hate, Fast & Furious 9 being delayed – they all happened in 2020 as well, but the pandemic was more universal, and there’s only so much I can cover in one blog post.)
What are the options?
I can think of four distinct ways to cover the impact of the pandemic, in all its rich and shitty variety, in more-or-less-modern day stories:
Make it the focus: Alright, sure, let’s start on hard mode. Do you have something unique and powerful to say about the pandemic? Something that will help others to read/hear/watch – or that at least will feel real to them in ways that matter? If so, a) respect, you’re better at this than I am, and b) sure thing, go for it you mad bastard.
Treat it as a backdrop: However, I think this will be the more common approach – stories that acknowledge the pandemic is ongoing, but it’s an element that informs the story in some way rather than being what it’s about. These stories are already being created on TV – see recent Law & Order: I Dunno I Don’t Watch It episodes, with Cops 1 & 2 wearing masks and complaining about the ‘rona before solving this week’s appalling celebrity sex crime.
Make it part of the backstory: Or we can take a step further back and put the pandemic in the recent past (which will be a bit easier when it is in the recent past, amirite). That shared experience can shape story or character in interesting ways. ‘I’m like this because of 2020,’ the hero can say, and every reader will nod and feel a blast of sympathy as they go on a mass defenestration spree or whatevs.
Eh, just ignore it: Yeah, the pandemic is a touchstone for modern life, but so are, I dunno, Diet Coke and systemic racism. Use those instead, and set your story in an alternate world that avoided this particular bullet. (This is both Marvel and DC Comics did; the publishers just went, ‘yeah, it can’t happen here’ rather than get artists to draw superheroes wearing 2-4 masks at once.)
Me, I’m an options 3&4 guy; I got nothin’ to say about life during lockdown, or indeed life with background lockdown. While The Obituarist 3 came out last year, I wrote most of it before 2020, and very deliberately threw in a few 2019 markers to make it super-obvious that this is a story from The Before Times. As for my next novel project, a YA urban fantasy about teenage professional wrestlers (currently called The Squared Circle, even though I’m sure that won’t stick), the pandemic becomes a backstory element for almost every character, as well as an inciting incident – the impact of shutdowns and sickness on the pro wrestling industry opens up space for a new promotion to appear and try something different.
That’s my angle – what’s yours? How are you going to write your way through this?
Update your metaphors, folks
You may say, ‘I don’t have to, because my fiction is set in the distant past/far future/an Animal Crossing/Terminator crossover AU in which Arnold Schwarzenegger fights and then makes out with Hot Robot Tom Nook’, and friend, I am here for your choices.
Still, every story we write is about our world, our time, our lives, even if we use tropes and metaphors to disguise that to readers and/or ourselves. When we write about fictional disasters, we’re really writing about the stresses and dangers we see around us, and what we know of how things fall apart.
And we’ve all learned more lately about things fall apart.
When I think about the pandemic/disaster/apocalypse stories I’ve read, watched or written – such as LEVIATHAN, the science-horror pandemic-prevention campaign I co-created with Greg Stolze for the second edition of his Reign RPG, which should be out within a few months plug plug plug – I’m struck now by the ways in which some assumptions and metaphors might be flawed.
Disasters doesn’t have to be dramatic: Plague stories tend to have bodies in the street, and fictional apocalypses send firestorms into the sky. But you only need a 1% fatality rate, or a 2-3 degree increase in global temperatures, for the shit to hit the fan.
Or fast: Another aspect of drama is speed; stories shoot from normal to disaster within days or weeks. Back in March – fuckin’ March! – I called this a slowpocalypse, and nearly 9 months later we’re still in the thick of it. Our realities collapse slowly, like a punctured lung.
Some people are just fucked in the head: If your zombie apocalypse story doesn’t include Pete Evans telling libertarian QAnon cultists to collect 10 undead bite marks on their bleached anuses to protect them from George Soros’ 5G ghosts then you are an inauthentic scribe and I judge you.
But not all people: The notion that we’ll all accept the danger is just as flawed as the notion that everyone will turn on each other when things go south. 2020 has been a year of so many people doing what they can to help others in their families, communities, countries, anyone they can. There is kindness in humanity, more than perhaps we can bring ourselves to believe, and it brings light to the darkness.
Are there other ways we need to update our disaster stories? Leave a comment and tell me.
At last, the 2021 show
‘Years’ are a fake idea. Pope Gregory can try to impose whatever structure he wants on time, but time – and in this essay, ‘time’ is a metaphor for <gestures around helplessly> all of this – don’t give a shit. It may not be 2020 anymore, but we’re still in the middle of a disaster that’s only maybe starting to turn around.
But ‘maybe’ is enough to work with.
For the last few years, I’ve written a post about how the year was tough and my mental health wasn’t great, but I was optimistic that next year would be better. Well, I’m out of optimism – 2021 won’t be the same shitshow, but it’ll still be a shitshow, and it’s going to be a long time before the world recovers.
But at the same time, my mental health, creative energy and willingness to waste my life writing shit no-one will read are better today than they’ve been since, fuck, 2015 or so. I can’t explain it, except maybe to say that I made it through <gestures round helplessly> all of that in one piece. And I’m ready to push my luck to try another round.
I’m still here. We’re still here. And right now, maybe that’s enough.
At last we’ve come to the end of this series of articles – a little later than planned, yes, but y’all know I’m lousy at meeting (self-imposed) deadlines. So far we’ve talked about what D&D is, the basic elements of a ‘D&D story’, how different games can fine-tune some of those building blocks, and how to bring those ideas together into a narrative. Now for the hardest bit – running a game of D&D (or whatever)!
So let’s start with a home truth – it’s not that hard. Running a game – being the one who facilitates play and presents ideas – is easy. I started doing it when I was 12 years old, and trust me, I was not capable of anything too complicated when I was a kid. (And perhaps not even now.) The hardest part is deciding to do it – after that, it’s just another kind of play.
That said, I’ve got some advice on how to do it well; things that should help everyone in the game – including you – have a good time. Let’s start with the second-most important thing.
The Triangle of Power
Ugh, that’s a dumb name, but I haven’t come up with a better one because I only recently had this realisation – that there are three qualities/principles/watchwords to follow in order to foster a great gaming environment. And they apply to both GMs and players!
Generosity: The game is there for everyone, not just the GM or a specific player. Look for opportunities to help others have a good time, knowing that they will do the same for you. Be generous with your time, your attention and your support.
Patience: Don’t rush people or put pressure on them to play right now. Everyone needs to process information, to make decisions, to enjoy themselves. And this applies to you as well – take the time you need, ask questions and work things out.
Enthusiasm: Everyone in the game should want to be there, with these players, with these rules, with this premise. If someone isn’t that into it, ask what they need to make the game work; if you’re not that into it, don’t force yourself to play/run!
These three, uh… attributes?… are vital to every session, group and game; hell, they’re pretty vital for almost any kind of shared activity. Everything else I have to say is basically a specific iteration of these ideas; hold to them during play, during life, and it’ll be swell.
Hold your ideas lightly
In the last article I said that D&D stories are created in play in collaboration with your players. Part of that process is incorporating their ideas – and sometimes, that means your ideas need to be put aside.
The most obvious and drastic place this can happen is in the plot – you prepared an adventure about exploring the Dread Crypt of Murder Ghosts, but the players want to put on a musical about their exploits instead. Honestly, this is pretty rare (although more D&D games should have musical episodes); engaged players almost always want to play with the toys the GM brings to the table. It’s much more likely that they’ll want to introduce story elements like being the son of the King, or decide that a throwaway NPC is vital to the plot – and, of course, they’ll make choices about how to play with the story elements you’ve provided, skipping over sections of plots or dungeon rooms to get to what they think is important.
When this happens, don’t try to push them back towards your ideas; not only does that reduce their agency, it makes the game less varied and rich because it only reflects your ideas. Learn to let go of your ideas and embrace theirs, working with players to make those a fun and engaging part of the game. In the last post I also talked about brainstorming ideas – beats – to use as the building blocks of your story. Taking that approach to plotting makes it easier in the moment to replace one of your beats with a player idea – and you can always reuse or re-purpose that idea in a later session with a bit of tweaking.
Provide direction for their ideas
All of that said – not all player ideas are created equal. Not only are some more interesting than others, some just won’t fit, like when you have a player who wants to play a Warhammer 40K armoured space marine in your 12th century low-fantasy game. Sometimes those are a signal that a player isn’t genuinely enthusiastic about the game and wants to disrupt things for ‘fun’. More often (hopefully) it’s a disconnect of vision, a misunderstanding of what the game is all about.
The easiest way to direct players’ ideas in directions that (eventually) align with yours is just to talk with them – an obvious solution, but one some GMs avoid because it smacks of ‘metagaming’ or ‘breaking character’ or some such nonsense. Don’t worry about such guff – openly and honestly say to players, ‘I don’t think that idea fits in the game right now, so can we fine-tune it until it does?’ or the like. A game is a conversation, not a contest – compromise until everyone wins.
Want to go further? Develop and implement specific areas of the game that need player input, but shape that in a way that get results. Say you want characters to stay in a tavern for a while, but want the players to develop it. Don’t just say ‘hey, what’s this tavern like?’; that’s too broad and doesn’t give hooks for ideas. Instead, decide on some types of features you want it to have – a signature drink, some contraband stored in the basement, a secret kept by the owner – and then ask players to pick/develop those specific points. Directing their creativity like this makes for a fun mini-game, puts useful boundaries around their ideas and increases player engagement. Try it.
Rules are tools
Watch a few D&D streams, or listen to a few podcasts, and you may come away thinking either that GMs must know the rules back to front and apply them perfectly, or that rules don’t matter and should just be ignored in favour of talking and having fun.
Me, I think the truth is in the middle. Rules have value in games, because they’re a language that everyone can communicate in – but there’s no need for a GM to have rules mastery, or to haul out the rulebook whenever something happens, in order to run a fun game.
As a GM, your job is not to ‘follow the rules’; it’s to facilitate everyone in the group having fun and creating a story together. Sometimes rules will help with that, sometimes they won’t – so use them when they enhance the experience, and skip over or downplay them when they don’t. You’re not obliged to break out the combat system for every bar brawl, or the complex negotiation system for haggling over a hat – unless you think that would make it fun.
Treat the rules as a way to reflect the story, not direct it, and don’t sweat the details. And when in doubt, follow the Air Bud principle: say ‘there’s nothing in the rules that says you can’t do X’ rather than ‘there’s nothing that says you can do X’.
If nothing else, you’ll find out if the druid’s animal companion can dunk.
I said the three principles are the second-most important thing, so here is the first – listen. Pay attention to both what your players are saying and what they’re not saying. Don’t assume that they’re all in agreement, that they all have the same understanding of the story/rules/group dynamic, that they all want the same things – or that they’re all having fun. Talk to them; ask them questions and then act upon the answers.
Every time a game of mine has failed – either with a bang or a whimper – it’s because I haven’t paid attention to my players, haven’t acknowledged that something wasn’t working. And every time a game has succeeded, it’s because I’ve paid attention, asked questions, and modified things to increase their enjoyment and remove/reduce things that were getting in the way.
Listen. It makes all the difference in the world.
And we’re done
I could go on about this even more than I already have, but it’s best I get off the stage before I wear out my welcome even further.
If you’ve enjoyed this series of posts, or found them useful, I’m incredibly glad. Leave some comments! Tell me about your games! Ask me for advice if you’re desperate!
If you know someone who might enjoy this series – someone interested in creating shared stories, but struggling to get started – then please send them this way! To make it a bit easier, I’ve created a do a D&D category on the blog – just share the link and they’ll find all posts in the series.
And if all this D&D talk has left you cold – well, it’s over now, I promise. Now I’ll get back to the serious business of posting a rant about semicolon misuse every 6-8 weeks or whatever.
Okay, we’re in the home stretch now; sorry about the delays, but I drifted into writing these posts on about the same schedule as my own D&D game (13th Age, whatever) and that basically fills up my brainspace for the whole day.
Alright, let’s assume you’ve picked a game, you’ve got a setting in mind and you’ve assembled a group of players. You’ve got the tools you need to start writing your first D&D story.
The next step is doing that. So what tips and advice do I have?
Well, let’s start with this moment of Zen.
Don’t write a D&D story
You don’t write a D&D story – because you aren’t the author. The GM is just one contributor to the story that occurs at the table (or over video chat right now), not on paper; the players are your collaborators, and without their input that story will never be crafted. You’re vital to this process, but so are they.
So don’t think of creating a D&D story (or adventure) as ‘writing’; that puts you in the wrong mindset, and suggests that your job is to create a finished text that is your pure vision. Instead, think of it as pitching a concept to a team of writers, or of developing a plot that someone else will flesh out into a story. You’re a showrunner, not an author.
This also means that your adventure plan won’t look like a finished story, or maybe even a coherent document; mine are just chunks of bullet points and notes to myself like ‘insert magical bullshit here’. It’ll probably be more like a compartmentalised outline – brief plans and options that become looser, sketchier and more disconnected the further you go into it. Get comfortable with that, and don’t waste time trying to pretty up your notes so that they read well to other people.
Bring that beat back
I don’t love the notion of ‘beats’ that has drifted from screenwriting to permeate most writing discussion. It’s a model of plotting that focuses on isolated intellectual/emotional payoff scenes, rather than developing an overall coherent and effecting narrative.
But it turns out beats are a perfect tool for creating the bones of a D&D adventure, because that story is assembled by the players experiencing those isolated payoff scenes. Hell, dungeons – the granddaddy of all this fantasy adventuring – are little more than a collection of self-contained or loosely connected beats; each room of goblins, traps, puzzles and/or general fantasy nonsense is its own payoff.
Once you have an adventure concept, resist the urge to come up with a linear storyline that characters must complete to finish the tale. Instead, brainstorm a collection of beats/scenes that could be part of that story, then implement one if/when the decisions of the players and characters make it relevant for the story. This technique requires a little work up front, but less than planning out a complete linear storyline, and pays off with its flexibility during play.
Keep it simple, keep it short
Let’s be real – we love big stories, we love fat books, we love EPICS. When folks listen to a D&D podcast, or watch an actual play stream, they love the long, intricate plots that many of them present – and if they’re new to all this, might come away thinking that the job of a GM is to create a 60-session epic tale.
DO NOT TRY TO CREATE A 60-SESSION EPIC TALE
Don’t try to create one as your first ever D&D story; hell, don’t try to create one after you’ve been doing it for years. Grand plans are a trap; they force you to start thinking linearly, they rob players of agency and they rely on everyone sticking with you from start to finish, which will not happen because life gets in the way.
A short, simple story is the best place to start with D&D, and frankly it’s the best way to continue. You can get a lot of player engagement from something accessible and punchy, and you can keep it by following it up with another story the same length, and another, and then another. Those can build on each other and escalate, making something like an episodic TV series with an emergent arc, or they can stay self-contained like a anthology of fantasy stories ala Conan or Thieves’ World.
How short and simple? There’s a model called the Five-Room Dungeon that is the perfect foundation for a D&D adventure. Those rooms are:
an entrance with a guardian that must be overcome
a puzzle or roleplaying challenge
a trick or setback
a big climax
a reward, revelation and/or plot twist
The model refers to dungeons, but these ‘rooms’ could be any kind of scene. If you’ve brainstormed a bunch of beats, choose five ahead of time, or in the moment, and keep the rest for the next adventure.
It’s easy to come up with a (short, simple) D&D story concept in a vacuum, have players come up with characters, then run that story as (not) written. It’s easy, and it can be fun, but the game won’t be as compelling or engaging as it could be because the characters aren’t connected to the story in meaningful ways.
The single most important and effective way to engage players is to centre stories around their characters. It’s not a generic magic sword they’re sent to find – it’s the ancestral sword of the wizard’s family, stolen generations ago. It’s not a random villager who’s gone missing, but the kindly innkeeper who gave the rogue a job when she got out of prison. The villain isn’t just some mystery dude in black armour, but the corrupted father of one of the heroes, someone he thought long dead, DO YOU SEE WHAT I DID THERE
The best tool you have for this is the players themselves. Don’t come up with a story idea until after they make characters. Be part of that process, asking them questions about their heroes and seeing what ideas they want to explore. Work one or two of those ideas into each story, involving different characters each time, so that there are always personal stakes for someone in the group. You can make each player feel like their character is the central hero, and all it takes is a couple of simple plot connections in each story.
Stuff it, just buy one
Does this all sound too much like work? It is – it’s not hard work, and if you’re anything like me it’s work you’ll enjoy, but the world is a fuck and maybe you don’t have time for that. Fortunately, there is a solution – you can just use someone else’s story instead!
No matter what game you run, you’re certain to find pre-written adventures out there – some cheap, some free, some bloody expensive. If you run D&D, you’ll find vast quantities of them at the DM’s Guild site; for every other game, you’ll probably find some at DriveThruRPG. Those are both PDF sites; if you prefer print, your options will be a lot more limited and a lot more expensive, but see how you go.
The thing about pre-written adventures is that they go against all the advice I just gave you: they tend to be long, they tend to be linear, and they’re generic rather than being tailored for your character group. It’s not hard to simplify, open up and personalise them – but now you’re doing the work you were trying to avoid!
I’m honestly not trying to rag on pre-written adventures – trust me, I have literally hundreds of them on file and I buy more all the time. But they’re a starting point, not an end point; the best of them are the ones that know that and give you tools to make them your own.
If you want to read some adventures and get ideas, start with free ones, maybe splurge on a couple that cost 2-3 bucks. Don’t drop $60 on a deluxe hardcover, or a series of booklets that promise you a year-long epic campaign, not until you’re sure that you actually like this whole roleplaying thing.
If you’re sold on running actual D&Dand want something that can sustain you for a while, my advice is to avoid the official campaigns as they’re expensive and kind of shallow. Instead, check out Ruins of the Grendleroot, an independent product with an evocative premise, lots of personalisation advice and a variety of short, simple adventures that build into something bigger, just like I suggested earlier.
…no, I didn’t write it.
I am capable of recommending things I didn’t write, you know.
And we’re back(!), with more talk for newcomers about what’s involved in crafting ‘D&D stories’ (i.e. playing D&D and games like it), and more evidence that I’m really shit at maintaining a regular schedule.
Before we get started, let’s revisit my definition of D&D stories:
action-adventure fantasy stories about larger-than-life characters solving problems by going to dangerous locations and defeating antagonists
The last few posts have drilled down into the first half of that description, looking at how different games alter those parameters. Now it’s time to look at the second half, and it’s here that we leave different game rules behind to investigate something else – game settings.
Why setting matters
Tedious people in creative writing classes often say ‘plot is character’ in self-satisfied voices, and if I was one of them I might respond with ‘setting is story’ before steepling my fingers and peering over my glasses.
Fantasy worlds (which I’m just gonna call ‘settings’ from now on) provide the vital context needed to both create and interpret fantasy stories. A fantasy story needs to make sense – logical sense, narrative sense, emotional sense, all the senses – within the rules of its setting, and the more defined and specific that setting, the less likely it is that that story would make sense within a different setting. The Lord of the Rings doesn’t work as a World of Warcraft story. A Wizard of Earthsea doesn’t work as a Witcher story. And the first Dungeons & Dragons movie doesn’t work as… well, much of anything.
That said, game settings tend to be a little more flexible than film/novel settings, as the folks playing can choose to make room for new concepts. Within a game, setting is most important as a theatre for establishing and communicating tone, which is emerging through these posts as a pivotal aspect of game stories.
Setting impacts tone in three major ways:
Environment: What physical locations and problems does the setting present to the characters? Do characters explore castles and catacombs, or are they delving into fairie grottoes and elemental demiplanes? Is the world verdant and green, or blackened by centuries of magical warfare?
Opposition: What antagonists do characters confront? Are they fighting humans (or human-ish people) and wild animals, with the moral quandaries that could imply? Are there dragons and demons and tentacle monsters, the dangers of a magical world? Is it time to smash some robots and zombies without feeling any guilt?
Uhh… I guess Fantasticalness?: How strange, magical and fantastic is the world in general? Does it closely resemble our own history, except with elves and magic, or does it drastically diverge into new territory? Are there gods, prophecies, mecha, talking stones, whimsy, 18 different kinds of elf etc., and how do folks feel about this?
By establishing these points, and communicating a tone that everyone (hopefully) accepts and understands, your game’s setting becomes its shared imaginative space, the place within which story happens.
Given that – what setting should you use?
The one in the book
The simplest option, and the one that’s genuinely the best option for the vast majority of games, is to use the setting that comes packaged with the game you’re playing.
If your preferred D&D is actual D&D, the setting roughly sketched in the 5E books is The Forgotten Realms, a big kitchen sink full of all the fantasy stuff you could want, a bunch more stuff you don’t want and can ignore, and characters with names full of apostrophes and excess Z’s. There’s also a horny wizard who’s very important.
If you’re playing a different game, such as one of the manyI suggested earlier, most have a chapter or two about their own setting, as well as a bunch of implied detail throughout the book – enough to get everyone in the right imaginative space. However, others have very small setting bits (e.g. Journey Away and Tiny Dungeon), or just frameworks for building your own setting (e.g. Quest and Beyond the Wall) – if you’re playing one of these games, you may need to put in more work.
The advantage of using the offered setting is that it’s easy, and yes, easy is a good thing. Don’t ever feel bad for taking the easy option, especially since what will really shape the game/story is the energy players bring to the setting, not vice versa.
Established settings also give you the change to go deep into established lore – usually by buying more books – and that might be a thing you enjoy. However, this can also be a downside; a big setting can make GMs and players feel like they have to master a world of knowledge and use all of it, which is a) wrong and b) intimidating (even though wrong). Don’t let the setting call the shots!
One from a different book
What if you like the game system/conceits but not the setting, because you find it too big/dull/commercial/full of horny wizards? Junk it and use a different one! The world is waist-deep in fantasy RPG settings just waiting for someone to take them out for a spin. Start here if you like – more than 5000 setting books (in PDF) for various games and systems. Most of these don’t have the lore-filled, supplement-laded settings of major game lines, so they lack that intimidation factor.
If you’re playing 5E D&D then you have an immediate advantage – a great many of these settings are written (or rewritten) with that system in mind, so you don’t need to do any rules work in order to use them in your game. Easy! Which we already established is good! The downside is the homogeneity that comes with fitting everything to the same framework; a lot of these settings feel pretty much the same, with the same tropes and conceits. Of course, that’s more a problem for the future, once you’re experienced and jaded, rather than right now.
If you’re playing a different system, you still have all the same options but it’s going to be much harder to find a setting book that uses that same system. If you find a setting for a different system, or that doesn’t use a system at all (if you like Lovecraft and pirates and fantasy, I can think of one systemless setting you might really dig, just saying), you’ll need to do a lot of work to convert it to your chosen rules. Although do some Googling before you start – others may have done the work and put their notes online. Gamers like to share.
A third option here, by the way, is to eschew pre-written game settings in favour of established media settings – playing in the world of The Dark Crystal, or She-Ra, or look those are the only two fantasy TV shows I know about, I’m bad at pop culture. Grab the setting bible or Wikipedia profile of your favourite property, give everything game stats (and again, Google first in case someone else did the work already) and off you go! It won’t be an original game world, but originality is drastically overrated in roleplaying, and at least you know you (and hopefully your players) are already invested in this setting.
Create your own world!
But if you don’t want to play in someone else’s world, then go ahead and create your own! This is fun – for some people! It’s not fun for others, and it’s okay to admit it if that’s you! There’s often an attitude of ‘you have to make your own games/settings/adventures to be a real gamer’ in some old and shitty corners of this hobby, and it can get in the fucking bin. Anyone who likes games is a gamer, full stop.
That said, if you do like world-building, then crack open your favourite set of rules and welcome to the most fun you’ll ever have on your own. You can build the fantasy world of your dreams and then make it concrete (in a way) by translating those dreams into game rules – by writing them down in an objective language that another person (with the same rule set) can understand without ambiguity or confusion. The High Elk King has +12 in Diplomacy, you write, and the reader nods with understanding, knowing exactly what that means, and is also impressed that your world has High Elks.
Building your own setting doesn’t have to mean doing a huge amount of work, or that you don’t have support. There are a lot of RPG world-building tools and resources out there, including books, blogs, videos and communities; there are also many sites, books and files with random tables for creating details, which can prompt your own ideas or help you flesh out the creative space. There’s no minimum – or maximum – amount of detail you need to create for your own game world. The right level is the amount that you find enjoyable to create.
That said, don’t make deep knowledge of your world a requirement for enjoyable play, because your players will never want to go as deep into your creation as you do. Let exploring lore be an optional treat for those who enjoy it, rather than a barrier for entry that prevents players from collaborating on story creation.
…look, I shouldn’t do this, but I’m going to share a secret with you.
**leans in close**
Setting doesn’t matter.
I mean, it can – if you want it to. But if you don’t care too much about it, and your players don’t care too much about it, and you all just want to get into this whole D&D-or-whatever thing right now, then setting is mostly just background colour and a bunch of irrelevant details.
Instead, you can create a shared imaginative space in the moment – one that’s directly relevant to the game you play.
Here’s what you do before/during your first session:
Come up with a village/town, 2-3 locations and 2-3 characters in it, then name them in ways that seem evocative and interesting to you.
Come up with an ongoing problem and link it to a location or character. Do the same with a smaller, more local problem.
Whenever your players ask a question like ‘how many moons are there?’, ‘where do dwarves come from?’ or ‘is there a socialist worker’s union in town?’, ask them to answer that question for you.
If your players want you to answer the question, fine. Connect it to one of your established elements, then leave some fuzziness or ambiguity so that the players want to learn more.
Jot these details down as you go so that you don’t accidentally contradict yourself. (Deliberately contradicting yourself is fine.)
Now just keep doing this, session to session.
BOOM DONE THAT’S IT YOU HAVE A SETTING NOW
Is this a shallow setting? I’d argue that it’s as deep as it needs to be, and there’s always the opportunity to focus and go deeper. More importantly, this is a setting that’s based in what you and your players found interesting during play, and that leverages everyone’s ideas, which means the buy-in from players will be stronger because they find those ideas more meaningful than something they skimmed in a book.
(Another quick tip – download the free World Profile worksheet for the Quest RPG. It’s a wonderfully short and simple document that prompts just the right amount of setting detail, and it works for any game.)
This approach doesn’t work for everyone, obviously. Some GMs (that’s you, you’re a Game Master now, fuck yeah) need to pin down more detail before they can feel confident communicating a setting. And some players don’t want to help shape the world, because their enjoyment comes from the feeling that they’re exploring something outside themselves. That’s fine and fair – we all like different things. But if your group enjoys the shared part of ‘shared creative space’, this quick-and-dirty approach can yield amazing and fun results.
…good lord, that’s a lot of words. I should stop now.
Come back in two weeks (ish) when we start digging into how to write a D&D story with all these tools – in which the first piece of wisdom is that you shouldn’t try to write a D&D story.