Okay, okay, yeah I get it: I talk a little too much about video games for my own good. But have you seen my nightstand? It’s full of books! Full of really, really expensive books ($25 for The Lost Metal in book form is worth every penny, but it’s less cost effective than Guild Wars 2, which is an MMORPG. Ah, I love books and video games). So please, I love books just as much as I do video games.
But video games are a completely different story: while they may have a coherent narrative that the player can follow, the player is, for the most part, making their own story. In chapter seventeen, did Bluemagicdoll run through the Ascalonian Catacombs for the umpteenth time or did she head back to Lion’s Arch to spend all the Tales of Dungeon Delving she amassed? That’s up to you, the player, to decide.
But, as with every good story, all games have rules. There are limitations on your character’s ability: if they’re not experienced enough, they can’t go in a Level 80 area. Paladins can’t use Pyromancy. If this character hasn’t completed their training (or in this sense, hasn’t gotten enough ABP), they can’t learn the skills of another job. Harder enemies require greater skill or experience.
What’s fascinating is that these rules easily tie into a developing story: Osvald, through all his struggle, is undergoing a character arc that sees him become a better man through it all. Gameplay-wise, he’s gaining enough experience to face the next challenge, and once he’s gained enough in-game EXP, you can take on the final boss–a narrative sign that Osvald’s grown skilled enough to take on his archnemesis.
That’s why games like Dungeons and Dragons are so genius. Gameplay and story weave so seamlessly together, it’s barely one or the other. Players can take literally any course of action in conflict, but with a catch: it’s at the Dungeon Master’s discretion to set limitations on powers. In other words, the DM’s job is to enforce the rules of the world, leading sometimes to unintended consequences.
Wonder why so many people in fanfics live while so many D&D characters die? It’s because every monster has a number value assigned to it, and if that number value far exceeds your character, odds are said character’s dead meat. The outcomes of encounters in D&D are decided based on luck, ability, and quick decision-making–just like in a story.
But the problem in the story is that you have to be your own DM and simulate your characters. This means that you reserve the right to cheat on rules by fudging a monster’s hit points to make a fight easier, adding a vulnerability to lightning where there wasn’t one before, or granting an additional +2 to every strike Volin McHatten makes.
Trust me, when writers write themselves into a corner, you’d be surprised on how many resort to subtle cheating on the rules to get themselves out. If Dawn Winters is clearly too inexperienced with the fight against the Legendary Sand Demon, readers will question when she fells it in a single strike from a hidden blade. Now, this would make for a nice plot twist with the correct setup, but if she was just a simple scribe/fantasy reporter for a newspaper or something, this would be really weird.
Whenever you get feedback that states, “Since X character/event/detail is Y, then shouldn’t Z be the outcome instead?” you’ve fudged the rules. It doesn’t make sense that Rey, who doesn’t have a lick of Force or lightsaber training, would be able to defeat Kylo Ren, who has a lot of both. I guess she bribed the DM or something.
If I gamify the Force Awakens scenario, Kylo Ren would be a Level 12 Human Warlock, equipped with Trashy Lightsaber (+4) and possessing only one Level-4 Spell Slot (plus a few lower-level ones). He has 207 HP. Rey, on the other hand, is a Level 4 Human Rogue equipped with Luke’s Lightsaber (+4) and no spell slots. She has 63 HP.
How did I figure all that out? I just imagined the confrontation in the film The Force Awakens as a D&D session. I took into account classes, equipment, level (determined by narrative skill or experience) hit points, and spell slots. I took the more vague elements of the story and put numbers on them in what seems to be a realistic combat experience.
If I pit this one character against the other in a D&D game, any honest DM would be forced to give the victory to Kylo unless the dice rolled Rey to be extremely lucky. On all accounts, the outcome would be realistic given the rules that we’ve set out for the two characters. But if you’ve seen the movie, you know that’s exactly what doesn’t happen, and it’s a major point of contention for why The Force Awakens sucks as a movie.
Now, you may not be into D&D or any games (video or otherwise) in general, but adding tangible game-like rules to the outcome of a story can help you out a lot. As a writer, you’ve got to make the tough judgement calls as to the outcome of a tale. Adding number values can really help that out.
For example, if the villain at the end of the story requires max level to defeat, confronting him beforehand will almost certainly result in defeat. Therefore, if Evilguy McNefarious fights Goodgirl Worthiness before she has completed her training, and she doesn’t make a move to escape, the rules of the story dictate that she must be defeated–or worse, killed.
The trick here is to not set yourself up for failure. If the hero can’t defeat the villain until he’s completed his training, avoid a confrontation before then. Resist the urge to add in a surprise jumpscare that he’s logically not prepared for. Add a mentor character who’s already made it to max level who makes it his duty to protect the hero at all costs.
Remember, as the writer, you are allowed to set the rules but not break them: you can set all the elements in place for an explosion but you can’t just go blowing things up without said setup. Adhere to your own rules or not even your own reader will respect you.
Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Plus, I mean, it wouldn’t hurt to check out the Resources tab. It’s full of super helpful material and I promise it will help you out. Until then, writers!