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  • 09.02.15

4 Lessons In Storytelling From a Screenwriter Who’s Also a D&D Dungeon Master

Filmmaker and D&D devotee Matthew Robinson talks about what screenwriting and the fantasy roleplaying game have in common.

4 Lessons In Storytelling From a Screenwriter Who’s Also a D&D Dungeon Master
[Photo: Flickr user Dagny Mol]

They say writers shouldn’t hesitate to kill their darlings. It’s not an invitation to actual homicide, but a plea for the willingness to jettison any element of a story, even if you love it like a friend. That’s just one of the many work-hazards writers share with those in charge of Dungeons and Dragons games–a dungeon master has to kill off his or her friends all the time.

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Consider pouring out a flagon of mead, in that case, for poor Matthew Robinson. As a pro screenwriter and a recent convert to the world of Dungeons and Dragons, he is constantly deluged with decisions about character arcs and turns of phrase by day, and also responsible for the fate of those fellow D&D-ers whose weekly quests he architects. Naturally, he has found that there is some serious overlap between the skill sets of screenwriting and overseeing fantasy roleplaying games.

Photo: Flickr user William Tung

Robinson kicked his career off by writing and directing Ricky Gervais’s best film, The Invention Of Lying. Since then he’s had a hand in TV shows such as Black Box, and the upcoming film Monster Trucks, and he’s also co-host of the trendsetting pop culture podcast Get Up On This, with Jensen Karp. Considering that he’s an avid gamer whose closets groan beneath the weight of a hundred different games and expansion packs, it’s kind of a surprise that he just began playing D&D about 18 months ago.

After becoming interested in trying it out, Robinson found that gaming stores across the country have Wednesday night league events where anyone can find a group, join in, and keep track of his or her character’s fantastical conquests digitally. As a storyteller by trade, he quickly gravitated toward the role of dungeon master, the person in charge of planning out each week’s adventure, and executing it based on the roll of the dice. It’s his experience in creating movies and shows, though, that keep his gang of adventurers in a state of agitation as they await some kind of resolution.

Co.Create talked with Robinson recently about what he’s learned from both ways he regularly casts an enchantment spell over an audience.

The Invention Of Lying, 2009Photo: Sam Urdank, courtesy of Truth Productions

Don’t Be Boring

Dreaming up scenarios and envisioning outcomes is a helpful skill in the world of D&D–and any time you have an audience, really. But those scenarios better keep people’s attention.

“What D&D does best creatively is it puts the focus on being entertaining,” Robinson says. “It’s almost like having an audience in your house. I have five players, and I have to entertain them. You can’t just throw monsters at them and expect them to fight because they’re gonna get bored of monsters, they’re gonna get bored of fighting and they’re gonna want some interaction. But if you have only interactions, they’re gonna get bored of that and they’re gonna want to start fighting again. It really takes you back to the basic, bare bones storytelling concept of, like: is my audience bored right now? If so, what are they craving and at what point after I give them what they want, do I need to then give them something else?”

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Photo: Flickr user rwhannan

Storytellers Are Puppetmasters

Controlling the pace of a D&D game means manipulating how and when details are revealed. Sometimes your audience wants to be deceived, even if they don’t know it.

“You play with what’s called a DM screen in front of you, so it blocks what you’re doing behind it–mostly your dice rolls and what you’re looking at in the books,” Robinson says. “So I can lie in order to make the story even better. If somebody dies to a monster, they don’t know that they just died to that monster until I tell them. And if I think that them dying right now is going to be a real bummer for the group and like not be the most fun thing to happen I can then say they barely survived and they’re at death’s door and they must be rushed quickly to get a healing potion. I can turn that, what would’ve been death, into an exciting last ditch effort to save this person’s life. Or vise versa.”

Photo: Flickr user Kristin “Shoe” Shoemaker

Anticipate Audience Reactions

With D&D, you’re playing a game, but the game is really just a means to create the best possible experience for your audience. In order to do that, you have to know who your audience is and use that information to play off their expectations.

“Most DMs work off a campaign book, which I do too. It gives you the guidelines of the story but you never want your players to feel like they are in a story that has a beginning, middle and end,” Robinson says. “You want them to feel like they’re telling the story and you’re just improv-ing wherever they go. If you play with the same group every week, you start to really know what kind of stuff they dig, and what they get bored with. My group likes combat where they feel like they’re not gonna necessarily win unless they really play it right. Also strange occurrences and weird mysteries–like, they’re just walking down the road and all of a sudden I’ll describe something shimmering off in the distance. They love just going off the path and seeing what will happen. You want to give them the illusion that the story isn’t on rails, when for the most part it is.”

Photo: Flickr user Scott Ogle

Turn The Script On Its Head And Improvise

Remaining rigid to your original vision is just as much a problem in writing as it is to D&D. Ideas evolve–sometime over ages and sometimes just after mulling it over for a bit, or starting a third draft. In either gameplay or writing, never feel beholden to the course you originally set out on.

“Like most writers, I struggle against my outline,” Robinson says. “At first I try not to outline at all until about page 60. Then I’ll outline the whole movie and even outline retroactively as well and rewrite parts of the first 60. But it’s really important for me that I don’t feel like I have to stick to that outline and that I’m able to go kick in that sort of improv vibe when my outline says that this is the next beat but I’m not actually feeling like it is. Giving yourself permission to explore where the story goes is a real D&D thing. You could have an end game in mind at the beginning and then little improvisations will change part of it by the time you get there. Allowing even the endgame to change, allowing the story to tell itself, and then knowing that what’s right for the story–that’s always the best choice. A story doesn’t necessarily end up being what you thought it was going to be.”

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About the author

Joe Berkowitz is a writer and staff editor at Fast Company. His next book, Away with Words, is available June 13th from Harper Perennial.

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