30 Fiction Writing Tips That Will Make You A Better DM (part 1)

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In the spring of 2007 I did not work. I wrote. A lot! This was before I started writing for Dungeon Mastering. I was writing a novel (which is still just a draft). Writing fiction is tough, but it’s also fun and rewarding. For me it was also a great learning experience. I polished skills I had only used subconsciously: crafting complex character, creating unique settings, weaving story elements together.

Two and a half years later, my fiction writing projects are on hold. I’m all about gaming nowadays. But my stint as an aspiring novelist made me a better writer and a better storyteller. I thought I’d share a few writing techniques that I learned through books, websites, and experience and how I use them to be a better DM.

30 Fiction Writing Tips That Will Make You A Better DM

This is a three part series:

#1 – Roleplaying games aren’t about roleplaying

Sure, playing a character is a defining feature of roleplaying games. But the real appeal of the game is in the storytelling. The roles we take on are a mean to an end – the goal is to tell a great story. If you’re a player, this means that you should focus less on your character stats and powers, and more on how your character can become a driving force in your campaign. If you’re a game master, this means that you don’t need to overzealously craft every detail of every corner of your game world. A well placed detail, a rich character with its own goals and motives will do the trick.

#2 – Character development

Caring about a character will make you care about a story. As a DM, you want – no, you need – your players to care about their characters. Build your campaign around your PCs. You don’t need to thrust them in an epic adventure that will see them save the world 50 game sessions from now. You need to give your players reasons to care about their characters more than they usually would. Right now. This can be done out-of-character. Ask your players what they would like their characters to ultimately be. Ask them what their PCs care about. Require of them that they work together to weave their backstory together so that the party dynamics are rich and entertaining right from the beginning.

#3 – Keep a notebook

It doesn’t get any easier than this. Just keep a notebook (or a phone on which you can take notes) and jot down ideas when they occur to you. Never waste a good idea.

#4 – Write on a regular basis

Keep your creative muscle, your brain, in game shape. Write regularly. It will keep your writer’s brain alert and quick to expand on campaign ideas.

#5 – Collect stories from everywhere you go and everyone you meet

One of the main challenges we face as game masters is suspension of disbelief. Suspension of disbelief occurs when some element of your story seems artificial. Scenes and encounters crafted from real life situations (even in a fantasy setting) will strike your players as “believable” and they will more readily participate in the game with energy and enthusiasm.

#6 – Settings that tell stories

Oh my, where do I even start? Aren’t all DMs a little anal when they create their own game settings? I know I am. I like to write about irrelevant details that bring the world to life for me. But will it bring the world to life for my players? Probably not. Always keep your players in mind. Why would they care about the culture of this tiny village they’re just walking through? Does your detailed work help you tell a better story? As writers and game masters we should do ourselves a favor and work on setting elements that help us tell a better story. For example, if an NPC tells the PCs about his culture and the 1 day of the year when nobody is allowed to work – not even the guards – well, it has to serve a purpose. It could be a great opportunity to position a villain as ruthless. Who would raid a village on the single holy day of the year?

#7 – Find your voice

Storytellers need to find their own style, their own voice. The surest way to do this is through practice. Write a lot. Run as many games as you can. Pay attention to what you do and which parts of your campaign your players seem to enjoy the most, as well as the parts you liked the most. Build on that. Refine your style.

#8 – Read a how-to book on writing.

I must have read a dozen books on writing fiction – plot, character, beginnings, middles, ends, dialogue, style, technique, mood.  The book that made the biggest difference in my writing was Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy. I highly recommend it.

#9 – Set writing goals

Sitting down to write or work on your campaign is one thing. Achieving your goals is another. What are you trying to accomplish. I like to give myself 1 hour of planning for 4 hours of play. It’s challenging but it forces me to focus on what’s important. I end up planning very little – just the scenes and NPCs that will drive the story forward – and I rely on my players and my improvisation skills if I run out of material.

#10 – Plan in advance but let characters choose their own direction

Your job is to say “yes!” It’s easy to be a game master if you’re willing to allow characters to do anything (as long as it doesn’t contradict or ruin something that was already established in your game). Even when your players seem to willingly avoid your planned material you don’t need to improvise much. Change the name and look of your monsters but keep the same stat blocks – you’ve got a new combat encounter. Your players will not notice – I guarantee it. Throw a riddle or puzzle at your players and adapt while they struggle to find the answer. Use material that you didn’t plan to use right away. There’s always an easy way to improvise by loosely following planned material.

This is a three part series:

If you are an aspiring fiction writer or game designer and want to get published, take a look at the Gamer Lifestyle coaching program that I run with Johnn Four (of RoleplayingTips.com). The program is currently open to new members from November 5th through November 7th. You can download our 70+ pages free e-book on working in the RPG industry to learn more about the Gamer Lifestyle project.

We opened the program to new members for a promotion that we are doing with Men With Pens, a popular blog for freelance writers. The Men With Pens Crew also runs Escaping Reality, a gaming fiction forum, and Capturing Fantasy, where fiction writing meets online gaming.

10 thoughts on “30 Fiction Writing Tips That Will Make You A Better DM (part 1)”

  1. @Jeff Carlsen: I strongly believe RPGs are about collaborative storytelling, not merely interacting with the environment.

    @Jake: We play roleplaying games to entertain the characters??? I thought we played to entertain the players!

  2. The premise that Roleplaying games are not about Roleplaying is slightly misleading, but I understand where the author was going with it. After 25 years of role-playing, the games, adventures and campaigns, the times that were the most memorable had well developed story aspects; granted, the role-playing interactivity contributed to the story aspects. The main difference between a book and a game is the interactivity, so the fact that a player can adjust the story on the fly helps to create new fiction on the fly to create the story.

  3. I agree with Jeff. This is a good article, and lots of useful ideas in here.

    However, roleplaying games don’t make good stories, nor should they have to. Stories arn’t written to entertain the characters in them, they’re writen to entertain outside observers with no stake in the events unfolding either way.

  4. As an avid writer and roleplayer, I agree with you on everything but your very first point. Granted, personal taste and play style always matters, but roleplaying is in no way about the story. It’s about interacting with the environment.

    Just like good storytelling, the thing that matters most is what’s going on at this exact moment. But whereas a story has to hold together with a satisfying structure and come to a great climax, roleplaying doesn’t. Role-playing merely has to engage.

    Presenting challenges, interesting conversations with NPCs, arguments between player characters, and entertaining moments are examples of what matters most.

  5. Great article. I always ask new players how much lore and backround they are willing to work with, then create backstories off of their quotas. No use in palnning something they will not care about.

  6. Hey, great article, Yax.

    I need to improv more and rely on my knowledge of my gaming world to pull me through. Players hate it when I have to look at notes – they feel like their being led by the nose. I think I’m past that now :)

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