There are lots of ways to write books. There are lots of ways to run games. I listen to a lot of actual play podcasts, well three, but it’s a lot of hours: Critical Role, The Adventure Zone, and Friends at the Table. All three of them provide such radically different models of how to run a game. To be clear, I enjoy all three of these shows very much and I think they’re all varying degrees of brilliant in different ways. That said, I’m going all in so, if you’re a huge critter or love those good good boys or just believe in interaction between good friends, then remember this is gentle criticism and analysis given with love for the purposes of instruction.
I’m going to walk through these and talk about some lessons you can pull from them.
The DM to Guide You
Matt Mercer works in the classic mode of dungeon mastering. He spends hundreds of hours setting up intricate worlds, inventing reams of NPCs, scenarios, building battle maps, all for the purposes of making a world that feels rich, textured, and lived in. He’s describing a world with the goal of convincing his players that the world actually exists and is populated by an infinite variety of sentient beings with personality, voices, and distinctive characteristics. He’s making sure that at every point a player can walk up to a guard and ask a question and a character will appear, fully formed, with a sense of history, place and purpose. It’s an incredible feat that’s equal parts careful preparation and in the moment improvisation.
But, for me, it always feels a little flat. The world feels like a brilliant clockwork mechanism, the plot ticking forward bit by bit as the players make their way down a well defined track. There are major decision points that will be influenced by the players, for sure, but once you’ve built a three tiered wooden pirate ship, a fight is going to happen on that ship.
More to the point, it’s Mercer’s call what the world looks like. What the religions are. What the cultures are. There are certainly conversations that are happening behind the scenes where the players are collaborating with Mercer on the cultures the PCs come from and of course there’s improvisation in the moment. Sam or Laura (them in particular it seems) zag when everyone was expecting a zig and suddenly Matt’s spinning whole new sections out on the fly.
And this, really, is where the writing insights really come in. There’s a way to approach your novel that relies on this rigid backbone. This is the outliner’s comfort zone. Build out the structure. Have a worldbuilding bible. These are the tools that will save you and give you the path to walk as you hit your daily wordcount.
But don’t forget that these are tools that will let you run into the wildlands of your novel when the moment calls for it. The pre-writing work is a guide, it’s the thing that shapes the world, it’s Mercer’s voice in your ear reminding you that you know what the church hierarchy looks like and you have a document with titles and possible names somewhere in that one folder in Scrivener. And that gives you the freedom to make unexpected choices, knowing that you have that safety net to catch you.
Pre-writing is writing. Outlines are doing the work. Worldbuilding is doing the work. But remember that those elements aren’t the thing itself. You can make different choices depending on how that die role goes. Listen to your characters when they say, actually fuck this, I’m quitting the party.
Next time: Those good good lads and the power of the rule of cool