Writing for Tabletop: How to Create Setting, Tension, and Collaboration With Fellow Storytellers Par
Many people are embracing the game Dungeons and Dragons. Social Media, and streaming services have resurrected the concept of the tabletop craze that swept the eighties and nineties. The fascination with fantasy worlds, dragons, monsters, and camaraderie, along with creating memes, and building a world that seems to mirror our own, people of all ages have gotten into gathering at houses, and roleplaying. With the effects of Covid-19, the entertainment industry has slowed to such a crawl, theaters may never truly recover, and with the desire to escape the platitudes of the media, and the ever-constant hammering of disease and peril, many seek writing fun-filled adventures to the loneliness of online gaming, or an arm-chair popcorn superhero flick.
Instead, they want to let-loose their own creativity, and do-so through the mannerisms of RPG, tabletop roleplaying, which comes in many forms: From Dungeons and Dragons, to Pathfinders, to even Star Wars, and Elder Scrolls themed games, tabletop has come back hard-hitting with a unique factor of limitless gameplay, and unique aspects not always found in other media.
It is also very inexpensive in-comparison to the new gaming consoles launching next month. For $700, you could buy all the core rulebooks, about ten custom miniatures for your group, a ton of extra miniatures (these are like action figures used for board placement, and distance. Not necessary for the game, but good visual cues.) and the most expensive maps, and have a bit left over for a cheap laptop for writing. Well...maybe not a laptop, but you’d have enough paper to last a lifetime. All it really requires are pencils, friends, and some idea of the lore, but if you’re not familiar with fantasy campaigns, you could run a science fiction game, even do a roleplay of Bayside High meets a zombie apocalypse...that is; if the Game Master allows.
So writing a campaign isn’t the same as writing a full-fledged story, it requires some open-endedness, as really your players decide the story, you just show them the consequences. The Game Master’s job is really just to make sure nobody does something that is outside of the realm of their character's own limitations, because even in the imaginary realms of tabletop, there are limits that create the game’s rules. Rule Number One is the Game Master is the first, last, and eternal authority on all things in their world.
I’ll give an example of writing perfect setting for a tabletop campaign:
“On the continent Roebeckingar, Along the shores of the Castiling Sea, the small continent of Microphagia is plagued by a scourge of undead. The travelers have been searching for hallowed grounds for weeks now. Together they are: a freed Jinn named Robie Winston, a dark-elf known as Kashisst, and a bard by the stage name of Debonair Hot Trousers. Together, they fight off the face of evil,a s the undead amass the shoreline, for what purpose? To what end? Something is drawing them towards the sea, a bubbling, boiling mess as if the Gods have damned it, and all who are left behind. How do you proceed?”
So that is an extremely basic premise for a story, but it can go anywhere, as the Game Master who has created the scenario, the world, and placed the player characters in the situation, you now find out just how they expect to survive. You may know what’s coming next, but even you may be shocked by how the players react, going in directions you may have never seen coming.
Maybe the characters are cowards, and refuse to leave their sanctum, or decide to build a boat to escape the island continent in the above scenario. Maybe they all go down a beaten path further into the island, and discover a means of escape, depending on rolls and check successes/fails, the entire campaign may not even play out how it was originally started. That is the beauty of the game systems themselves, they allow for a many great details to be worked in, and suddenly, they’re gone for good, never to be used, perhaps recycled later into another campaign down-the-road. It is both an art and a talent to be a good Game Master, as the known is still unknown, as you cannot control how the players react in your world.
Still, there’s a great deal of knowledge to writing up scenarios, more than what could be provided in one simple post. So I will be breaking down the posts into three main components:
-Writing encounters properly
-Developing Non Player Characters to interact with your Player Character’s backstories
In this post, I will quickly discuss the fundamentals of writing the correct game. The first thing one should get is a player’s handbook to the particular game they want to play. The most popular currently is Dungeons and Dragons, however Pathfinder is one that really has become a staple in the tabletop community. SO once the rules are understood, a Gaming Master can typically take a game off the shelf, or develop their own story. Buying a campaign book is the easiest way to get started, but doesn’t reward the creative individual with their own backstory, game, and world. So for the most laymen who want to learn the games thoroughly, it is always best to start with a campaign book first, then learn from gaming to develop your own story.
The first aspect of writing a tabletop adventure comes from knowing who is going to play, and how to incorporate them into the story. Learn your Player Character’s, and see how they mesh in your world. Learn what challenges they can take, play to their strengths, remind them of their weaknesses, and appeal to the lore of your world to as great of an extent as the players want to know. Most want to know what’s going on in the world they inhabit, and some just want to do battles, and strategize. A great campaign placates to the best of these elements, and keep the story fluid, and players wanting to come back for more.
The next is knowing how much is too much, as most players will be discovering your world, and deciding on what they really truly want to do, as a great example to the campaign I’ve been a player character in: we had just beaten a banshee, and discovered a giant crab named Crabito, the DM of our group allowed us to keep the crab, so my tiefling (demoness character) decided it would be a good idea to put a cannon on it, and use it like a living tank. This was never the idea of the DM, and at first limited us to just a ballista on the back, as we didn’t really have the money to afford a cannon, but now we’ve built up enough that we literally have a crab tank to fight whatever comes at us. There are limitations however, like taking an action to load a cannon with the proper amount of gunpowder, and another to actually aim and light the fuse. So it is a difficult weapon to use mid-match, best to use in the beginning and end of a battle, hence a balance.
Rules are what they are but the Dungeon Master has the final say on rules, and how characters can go about the world, and what personal limitations each race, class, and background has to balance out the game so no one character can truly have too much power too early on. Writing the campaign of a tabletop game isn’t really difficult, it’s just not the common writing one expects, especially when it comes to straight storytelling. In the next post, I will devise several ways to properly write a bold adventure, and make it so it’s easier for newcomers to the game, as it seems to be growing exponentially due to Critical Role, influencers, and over-all need of being together in times that push us apart.