On Letting Characters Get Away From You

In addition to writing, I run a regular Dungeons and Dragons game (set in Eberron, if you’re curious). Today, as I was planning my game for tonight, I thought about the dungeonmaster’s relationship to characters as compared to the writer’s relationship to characters.

As a dungeonmaster — the person who creates the world and situations that my players will inhabit — I try to keep a loose grip on things. Each character is being run by a player who has his or her own sense of that character’s goals and reactions. One law of gaming is that, if you think the players will do one of two things, they will actually choose to do the third thing that you didn’t plan for. This happens to me all the time, but what I’ve learned to do is roll with it.

For example, one of the most satisfying sessions I’ve run was supposed to be a dungeon crawl. In other words, I’d planned for the players to spend the entire session exploring ruins, finding treasure, and killing monsters. The only problem was that, in the very first battle of the night, I threw them up against a monster that killed one player and one non-player character who was vital to the story. As I was rolling the dice and scoring unexpectedly large hits on each of them, my blood was rushing through my body from the stress. As I called out the numbers, I thought, “I am killing my game right now. It is all going to be over after this.” But I decided to play out the battle and see what the players wanted to do. What happened was that an incredible gravity came over the party as they sought a way to salvage their mission and self-respect. In the game, there are ways to bring dead players back to life — it just costs a great deal. In the course of the players deciding what to do and deciding how to pay the price of regaining what they had lost, we had one of the most powerful story-based sessions over which I’ve had the honor of presiding. That taught me a lesson: Trust the characters. While not as dramatic as this story, I had another session like that tonight, in which I laid out the world and gave the characters free reign to deal with the problems I’d set out for them. It always seems rewarding to let this happen.

Characters get away from me in my writing all the time. Thinking about my experience with D&D gives me a sense of what to do when that happens. I need to go with it. But my D&D experience also tells me that the better I understand the world and the non-player characters in it, and the better sense I have of what the powers that be in the world want, the better a chance I will have of rolling with it when a character does something unexpected. In the end, I want characters (and players) to behave in unexpected ways, because this is a sign of life, and a sign that I’m not maintaining a control-freak stranglehold on the course of events. But I have to be there to match these signs of life with a world that’s just as alive as the characters are.

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One response to “On Letting Characters Get Away From You

  1. Great post. I’ve had simular experience playing a game (ironically it was Eberron too). The way we play is with two players who each have two characters. Naturally, each player has their “main”. So one night, one of the main characters was badly hurt in a fall. The second main elected to remain with him to protect him. This event forced my players to really focus and role play their secondary characters who needed to scout ahead to find materials for a stretcher and a safe way out of the catacombs … It was gold, those two characters really bloomed under stress–suddenly thurst into the spotlight, they came into their own. It was awesome and completely unexpected.

    So–let me second the motion: rolling with the unexpected … calling down the spotlight … real-life curveballs … can bring out the best

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