Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Challenge Your Darlings! (Game Master - not murderer)

"Murder your darlings" is something that I've heard is common advice for writers. "Every scene should end in disaster" is another, more recent, phrase I've heard. Whether this is supposed to mean "don't play favorites", " cut unnecessary things regardless of how much you like them", or  "add continuous hardship for the sake of drama", I feel like it misses the point. After reading about the role of dungeon masters in Dungeons and Dragons, and listening to tips on being a dungeon master, I feel that "challenge your darlings" is a more accurate phrase.

The role of a dungeon master/game master, fundamentally speaking, is to make sure that the players have fun. That is what everyone gathers around the table for. Part of this means making sure they are challenged.  If one were to apply "Murder your darlings" to writing a game campaign instead of writing a novel, the result is a brief game session, frustrated players, and an empty table. 

Thus, game masters are supposed to prevent things being too easy or too hard. If the campaign is too easy, the encounters are boring and the players don't feel a sense of achievement or victory. If the campaign is too hard, the encounters can't be overcome and the players don't get to progress through the story, collect loot, gain levels etc.  This can be translated for authors.

Events should be difficult for characters. Enemies should be challenging to overcome. Emotionally harrowing, physically taxing, mentally puzzling; all of these things are good. They are what lead to the sense of satisfaction in victory and sense of sorrow in defeat.  They create page-turning tension. However, one shouldn't go too far.

A game master who wants their players to have fun doesn't throw a trio of beholders at their 1st level characters. It would be decided in a round, game over. Likewise, twisting the story so every victory makes the situation worse creates Darkness Induced Apathy (and likely causes a bag of chips to be thrown at the game master's head). A series of sufficiently powerful threats that are just powerful enough to make failure a real possibility (there's no plot armor in a D&D game) and a progression of events where the adventurers make progress towards a goal but the enemy's victory is always possible, lead to excitement, tension, and thus fun. Similarly, an author doesn't pit their main characters against threats that are too much for them to handle. Naturally, there are exceptions.

A setting and story where life is cheap and the cast of characters is an ensemble rather than a division between main/supporting can lead to continuously new characters, each with their own quirks and point of view on events and the setting. It can compliment an omniscient viewpoint for the narrator, or some other character, who watches these failures and has a plan of some kind that involves them.  If those are the kinds of stories you want to write, go for it. The point is to use the lack-of-challenge deliberately. (There's no challenge if it's impossible).

Instead of being "murdered", the darlings should be challenged. It is challenge that leads to excitement and suspense, and thus to a sense of satisfaction in both victory and defeat, for both readers and players.

I'm still reading the Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Master's Manual, so I don't have a review for it yet. However, I have reviews for three other books if you are interested. All of them are from Version 3.5.

Complete Divine -  a guide to using game elements related to the divine (magic, classes, gods themselves etc.)

Heroes of Battle -  a supplement to the Dungeon Master's guide. Yes, I read this one before the main one. It's basically about war campaigns and related elements.

 Player's Manual -  the basics of gameplay and the point of view of the player.

Brian Wilkerson is a freelance book reviewer, writing advice blogger and independent novelist. He studied at the University of Minnesota and came away with bachelor degrees in English Literature and History (Classical Mediterranean Period concentration).

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