Using TTRPGs to Worldbuild a Fantasy Novel pt 2
by Camryn Flowers
Hello and welcome back to the Worldbuilding Tavern! I hope you’ve got your ale and are settled in with some of the cook’s suspicious meat pie, because we’ve got a lot to cover! Last time we met, we talked about the basics of a TTRPG, quests, magic, and enemies. If you need a refresher, here is the link to that post. But I’m all for jumping straight into the action, so let’s dive headfirst into today’s topic of the DM, player characters, and the most important part, worldbuilding!
Characters are the heart of every TTRPG and novel (fantasy and otherwise). They are everything, really. In novels, all the characters are the product of the author’s imagination. In TTRPGs however, it’s a bit different. There are player characters (PCs) and non-player characters (NPCs). NPCs are typically controlled by the Dungeon Master (or “DM” for short), or if the party happens to have an animal companion, that NPC would be controlled by the players.
On average, a TTRPG campaign has one DM and around 4-6 players. Each of these players has their own PC that they write backstories for, create character sheets for (we’ll get into this later), and role-play. The DM creates the world for the players to interact with as they play.
So how does the interaction work, you ask? Roll an investigation check for me real quick.
You rolled a 17? Nice! Allow me to tell you how it works!
Every TTRPG starts with a DM (and a story, of course). This DM is the person narrating the story, voicing NPCs, building maps, and tirelessly herding the players toward the story when all they want to do is visit a music shop while a city is on fire (true story!).
Think of a TTRPG as a lump of clay. The DM is the potter at the wheel, molding and shaping the clay into a beautiful vase. The lore and the story are the designs carved into it. But it’s not done yet, it’s not detailed enough. That’s where the players come in. With their characters’ stories, they are adding details to the world, creating interactions with NPCs that can be both chaotic or endearing. They create intricate designs on a vase that was beautiful at first, but is now outstanding.
As a writer, you are that potter. The only difference is, you have no one else adding designs. All those characters are solely in your head. Those intricacies are carved by your hands. You can force your characters to do what you want, railroading them toward the plot and thus limiting their potential, creating a world that is flat and dull like a piece of pottery with no glaze.
Or you can let your characters decide their own fate, allowing them to explore and develop their personalities as the story unfolds. Obviously, this doesn’t mean write them going on an unrelated side-quest for ten chapters. Ask yourself questions. Would it make sense for the party to enter a random cave that looks abandoned? If the party is being attacked, would they try to reason with the attackers or just dive straight into battle? In the event of a bar brawl, how would they react?
Taking it a step further, allow me to introduce you to the D20. The D20 is a 20-sided die, (as the name implies). It is the basis for everything in most TTRPGs. Every action you could possibly think of is at the mercy of the dice. If that’s too broad, here are a few examples!
A player and DM can roll to:
- Impersonate a guard and break out of jail
- Charm a dragon so that it doesn’t eat you
- Convince someone you are invisible when you are, in fact, very visible
- Attempt to read a book in a language you can’t understand (success rates vary)
- Dodge a fireball
- Investigate a murder
- Set traps to capture your enemies
The better you roll, the more likely your success. A 20, to most, is a critical success. If you roll that 20, you are excelling at whatever you rolled for. Your guard impersonation is spectacular, and not a single person questions you for the rest of the encounter. If you rolled a 1, however, you better pray you survive. Ones are called critical failures. For example, when you tried to dodge that fireball, you tripped over your own feet directly into the flaming sphere.
For all those questions I posed before, the D20 can be used to influence those decisions. If your party is being attacked, they could attempt to persuade the attackers to stop. The number on the rolled dice influences your persuasion success. Was the abandoned cave actually abandoned? Roll investigation to check for signs of life. How well does your party hold their own in the bar brawl? Roll for their attacks! When it comes to the flexibility of the dice, the world really is your oyster.
Finding that balance between nudging your characters and letting them evolve on their own is tricky, but the reward is a rich and deep world. Using a D20 to determine the reactions of your characters could add a bit of flavor as well. But with great creative freedom comes a great amount of rules. (They’re more like guidelines, as game rules tend to be).
If none of what I’ve just told you made any sense, or if you’d like to read further about TTRPGs, below are some helpful links. There are so many different ones that use different systems, but for ease, the system I’ve used in this post is based on Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition. The resources below are also in the same system, with the exception of the TTRPG Compendium.
- Official Tabletop Resources for D&D
- D&D Compendium’s Newbie Guide
- The Kind DM’s Compilation of Misc Resources
- A Misc List of Various D&D Resources from NerdSourced
- Roll20’s TTRPG Compendium
- D&D 5e Player Handbook
And if you’d like to read a novel inspired by TTRPG’s, then check out They Met in a Tavern by Elijah Menchaca!