Wanna Write for D&D? Answer These Five Questions First.

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Wizards of the Coast announced in conjunction with DriveThruRPG that you (yes, you!) can start writing for Dungeons & Dragons through the  Dungeon Master’s Guild, and sell what you write. There is nothing stopping you from making money from your game writing except for the fact that you haven’t written any material for D&D yet. (You can read more about the details from Teri Litorco  here.)

Let’s say you have an idea for a monster, villain, setting, or side trek. Maybe you’re running a campaign at home right now with enough setting to fill Pangea and more villains than Hydra. You’ve got the material, but how do you take it and use some strange alchemy and polishing to turn it into gold? How do you know that it’s worth asking other gamers to plunk down their hard-won coin for?

These questions will help you shape any idea, mold it, and make it better.

Can You Describe Your Story In Two Sentences?

Imagine you had to write the back-of-the-book description of your module/adventure/setting/encounter right now. What would you write? Get someone excited about the game in two sentences or less. It helps if you think about being on an elevator and the person who can greenlight your story steps in. They punch the button for the next floor up. You have only seconds to explain the world, the story, and what makes it all so amazing. This is the idea behind the elevator pitch, delivering only the essential elements of your story in a short amount of time.

Even if you talk to no one but your cat about this project, summarizing it in two punchy sentences helps organize your thinking, and reminds you of what is cool about your product.

What Is Your Design Goal?

When game designers sit down to create, they should consider how they intend the rules they create to impact the experience of gamers at the table. Everything written for D&D should feature, twist, riff on, change, or make new some feature of the game. Adventures have been written to highlight cool rules, expand certain settings, or spotlight cool monsters that hadn’t yet had their due. Think encumbrance rules are cool, but don’t get any love? Write an adventure where the player characters find a ton of gold, but are then chased by a monster. How much will they be willing to drop to survive? (See  The God that Crawls for just such an example.)

The Ravenloft setting for Dungeons & Dragons came about because authors Tracy and Laura Hickman believed that a vampire shouldn’t be just another encounter in a dungeon. A vampire required a backstory in a way that a gelatinous cube does not. How did he become a vampire and why? The Hickmans’ vampire, Strahd Von Zarovich, became a vampire to impress the woman he loved, who happened to be married to his brother. Strahd killed his brother, and his love killed herself in horror. Strahd ruled the land of Barovia in immortal sadness at the loss, except for when he lured adventurers to his land to toy with before dinner.

This story became the nugget of the Ravenloft campaign setting. The Hickmans set the design goal of making the vampire a compelling villain, and not just another random encounter. They put a spotlight on the vampire, and let him shine. When you sit down to write, you should have a goal in mind for how the rules, setting, or monsters you create will impact the game.

What Will the Player Characters Do?

Game writing is a strange beast.

Like playwrights and screenwriters, game designers write something for performance beyond the page. But it is all too easy for the first time designer to remember that what they write is not a short story or novel. What they write must provide actionable material for the gaming table.

Will player characters kill a monster? Explore a setting? Discover secrets and make decisions? Your design should intersect with the players at some point, and this question is designed to make you think about that point’s cutting edge.

Even with monsters and settings you should give this question some thought. The incredible tension between the young queen and her domineering mother will do your player characters little good if set in a theocracy where no one is allowed to see the queen because she is considered a living goddess.

Monsters that are nothing but wandering and howling meat-grinders are similarly un-fun. A monster should present a challenge, and the most interesting ones are not just about how much damage they can take.

How Is This Different?

D&D is a child of the 70s. It has over four decades of traps, dungeons, opponents, and whole worlds to explore. If you are going to add something to its canon, it should be something that hasn’t been done before.

You can’t just sit down and design another level of a dungeon. Even if your idea is a level of a dungeon, it had better have some twist that makes it different from any dungeon level every written before.

A look at the Ennie-award winning Red & Pleasant Land, for example, introduces readers to the curious country of Voivodja, which is home to a mad vampire war fought with the logic of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. It was certainly new territory for the game, and finding new territory is exactly what writers and game-designers must do to write successfully for Dungeons & Dragons.

What Are You Going to Call It?

Half owl, half bear, all bad news. Image courtesy Wizards of the Coast.

What is the so-cool-it-hurts name of your setting/monster/side trek/character? D&D has some of the all-time great names of all times ( Tomb of Horrors? Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords anyone?) and you can’t let Gary Gygax down on this. The name should grab readers by the throat and begin putting dreams of high adventure in their mind. Consider the Umber Hulk and the Owlbear. Their names alone suggest that if you lose a fight with them, there won’t be enough left of your character to fill a doggie bag.

So what are you waiting for?

Now is the time to put pen to paper, mine your mind, give birth on the keyboard, and hew worlds out of nothingness.

We would love to know what you’re thinking about writing! Why not mosey on over to our forums to discuss ideas, brainstorm, snowball, make metaphorical mud pies and think together about what you might like to write for D&D.

Speical thanks to game designer Clinton J. Boomer for looking over these questions. Check out his work here!

Feature image courtesy Wizards of the Coast.

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