How to design a story: Game and narrative in Dungeons and Dragons

Tabletop roleplaying games are not just sets of rules or patterns of cliches. They are a narrative form in and of themselves.

Art by Altay Hagrebet

The farmboy stands at the edge of the world he knows. A wide vista stretches before him. He turns for a last look at home. He could be safe there, happy even — but that is not what he was made for. He gulps and takes the step.

Dungeons and Dragons (or D&D) has occupied a number of positions in the public imagination since it was first published in 1974. At times, it has been a source of moral panic, the supernatural elements of the game at odds with the insurgent Reaganite evangelical conservatism of the 1980s. Seeming to represent a manifestation of the various forms of moral dissolution feared by suburbanites at the time, D&D was described by Patricia Pulling, the founder of Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons as “a fantasy role-playing game which uses demonology, witchcraft, voodoo, murder, rape, blasphemy, suicide, assassination, insanity, sex perversion, homosexuality, prostitution, satanic type rituals, gambling, barbarism, cannibalism, sadism, desecration, demon summoning, necromantics, divination and other teachings.” More recently, it has operated as a useful punchline, acting as a signifier of a certain type of person: a 35-year-old with pallid skin and gamer spine, putting on a wizard hat and talking about trolls in their mother’s basement. 

Today, D&D enjoys a relatively good run in terms of public image. Likely aided by popular media such as Critical Role, tabletop roleplaying games have grown more mainstream, with the CEO of Wizards of the Coast (the company behind D&D) estimating current tabletop player numbers of its 5th edition at 9.5 million worldwide.

The farmboy sidesteps the ogre’s hammer, as three fletched arrows fly into the beast’s thick hide. He turns to see the ranger, cape flowing in the wind. They grin at each other, and the farmboy returns to the fray.

While these periods in the public imagination are all indicative of Dungeons and Dragons’ social, cultural, and even political impact, they are secondary to what it is. Attempts to describe D&D can struggle to do it justice: describing it as a fantasy roleplaying game captures the narrative feel, but ignores the rules and processes that make up the game. Describing in detail the game’s rules and procedures may provide a better idea of what it entails, but can fail to capture the spirit of the game. 

At its most basic element, D&D — like all other tabletop roleplaying games — is a group of people working together to tell a story. That process is mediated by the rules of the game, and refereed by the Dungeon Master (or Game Master, or Keeper, or Master of Ceremonies, or Big Mack Daddy — it seems almost like a requirement now that independent games come up with their own twist on the DM). At the core of any good tabletop roleplaying game, however, is the story. Whether it’s a search for answers in a city shrouded by mist, a quest to slay a dragon, or the passage of a ship through dangerous waters, the mechanics of gameplay exist to service the story. 

They enter the tavern, full of old smoke and creaking floorboards. The dwarf makes his way to the bar. The ranger makes her way to a man in the corner with a face worn soft by age. The farmboy follows.

In one campaign I played, we were tasked with killing a giant snake that resided in a nearby cave. Soon into the combat we found that giant snakes are less easy to kill than advertised, but collapsing a cave on a snake is actually rather simple. So we did that. 

Every D&D player will have some story like this: an eventful adventure or a particularly memorable character. What can be striking is just how similar many of the stories are — if not in content, then in the form the stories follow. This is because tabletop roleplaying games are not just sets of rules or patterns of cliches. They are a narrative form in and of themselves. It would be easy to dismiss this out of hand, to claim that tabletop RPGs, acting as the dumping ground of every trope imaginable, are simply the detritus of fantasy literature. This fundamentally misunderstands the nature of narrative form. Narrative form is not determined by substance (that is, the story that is told) but rather by means through which that substance is created and conveyed. Examined through this lens, we can see that tabletop roleplaying games are a unique narrative form — as distinct as poetry, or prose (though admittedly less developed). The stories developed in a tabletop roleplaying game are done so collaboratively, improvisationally, and are mediated by a set of rules. None of these are unique features to the form on their own. Virtually any form of film or theatre requires the creative collaboration of a number of artists, improvisational theatre and comedy are widespread narrative forms, and video games are also mediated by a set of rules — albeit digitally. Taken as a whole, however, these aspects make up the unique narrative form of tabletop roleplaying games.

They creep through the echoing halls of the tomb. The old man had told them of treasure hidden in its depths — treasure guarded by a lich. The dwarf carries a torch and leads the band, forcing its light into every nook and cranny as if to edge out any spirits hiding there. The farmboy stays back, and keeps his hand on his sword.

These distinct aspects make up a type of story that can be exceptionally thrilling. The improvisational, collaborative nature of tabletop roleplaying games means that the beats of their plot are genuinely unpredictable. Player characters apparently have a universal desire to seduce and/or kill every creature they come across, which usually tends to interfere with the game’s story structure. While the Game Master may have an idea of where the story will go, the influence of the players and the referee nature of the game’s rules means that the actual direction of the plot is impossible to determine. Through the outcome of a die roll, a player can change the direction of a campaign entirely. This creates stories that are unlike those of any other narrative form — yet often similar to each other. 

Like any distinct narrative form, tabletop roleplaying games contain tropes, like that of ‘Chaotic Stupid,’ a character whose Chaotic Neutral alignment expresses itself in tedious wacky hijinks (in my first session of D&D I tried to set fire to another character’s hair for this reason). Most of these tropes emerge from the collaborative nature of the storytelling. With advancing the plot the responsibility of every participant in the game, it’s easy for the story to get bogged down by players’ impulse to pursue the freedom that a tabletop roleplaying game provides. This can lead to the habit affectionately known as murderhoboing — where player characters devolve into itinerant criminals who kill, maim, and thieve their way across the game world with little regard for the story, setting, or NPCs they come across. While some people see this as a predictable outcome of any tabletop RPG system’s design, others have aspired to design RPGs differently.

The lich bats the dwarf to the side with a casual drift of its hand. The ranger nocks an arrow, letting it fly into the lich’s wretched frame. The lich turns to the ranger with a hiss cut short by a wild swing of the farmboy’s sword.

The Forge was an online community of tabletop RPG creators and players, focused on creating ‘narrativist’ games. Narrativist systems are tabletop games where the fun of the game emerges from telling a shared story. These are distinct from gamist systems — based on the fun of competition with other players and the DM— and simulationist systems — based on the fun of following a game world’s internal logic. While these may seem like small distinctions that can be tweaked within the existing processes of a game’s system, the structure of a game’s rules provides an important framework to emphasise or de-emphasise certain aspects of play. 

The game systems created by the Forge community reflect this attempt to centre narrative in game design. Forge games have a wide range of genres, themes, and mechanics, but have some common characteristics: methods of conflict resolution that rely on the logic of the game’s story, not external dice rolls; a greater degree of narrative control afforded to players; and an emphasis of improvisation and collaboration in gameplay. Much like a piece of improvisational theatre,  Forge games build on offers between players and GM to build the game’s story.

From a narrativist standpoint, the resulting game is exceptional. Players are incentivised to lean into their character’s emotions and arcs, and the aim of the game seems to shift from let’s-see-who-can-kill-the-most-goblins to coaxing a sincere, moving story out of the minds of a few people and some dice. Some of the stories these games create can rival serious works of fiction for their complexity and depth. If you were trying to assess tabletop games based on their ability to facilitate quality art, narrativist games would certainly be the most successful. The question remains, however, as to whether that is how we should measure a game’s success.

The farmboy sidesteps the sickly beam of light that has burst forth from the lich’s fingertips, seeing the ground it hits start to rot. The elf and dwarf lie on the ground dying.The farmboy summons his last reserve of strength. It is now or never. He steps forward, darting his sword to the lich’s gleaming phylactery, the blade travelling true and straight towards the amulet.

He rolls a 1, trips, and falls.

The truth is, much of the charm of tabletop roleplaying games come from how hackneyed they are. Murderhoboing may be an easy pattern of play to fall into, but that’s because it’s fun. I won’t pretend that compelling, emotional, and thoughtful stories usually come from a game that largely centres around dick jokes and carnage — but I also won’t pretend that playing that type of game isn’t a joyful experience. 

One of my fondest memories in my time playing D&D comes from one dungeon that caused every member of my party to die, several sessions in a row. In terms of narrative, this was obviously not ideal. The repeated strain on both the players’ patience and the suspension of disbelief required to justify all of our new characters meeting again each week began to wear the story thin. But despite this, there was some satisfaction in coming back each week with a ridiculous new character, raising the stakes on what was acceptable. 

One week, I came back with a foppish rogue; the next, with a barely disguised expy of a hardboiled detective. Finally, the party agreed to play only wizards (mine was a gnome illusionist). From the perspective of a Forge designer, with the emphasis they place on quickly between important moments in the story, this weeks-long stalling on a perpetual meat grinder of a dungeon was not what a tabletop game should be. But it was fun.

The farmboy lies bleeding out on the dungeon floor. Thoughts go through his head — of his ma and pa, his dreams of glory, and how far he made it from the world he once knew. His eyes glaze over, and he breathes his last.

This tension, between the desire for a quality narrative and a quality game, is difficult to resolve. This is not to say that either of these aims is correct, or even that they are mutually exclusive — great joy can be found in a narrativist game, and a moving story can be found in any game. But the question of which gets emphasised — the story or the game — is central to the game design process. 

Realistically, the question comes down to that of the audience. The vast majority of games’ audience will be contained to the people that play them. This puts tabletop RPG players in the unique position of being both the creators of a story, and its primary audience — and critic. In a way, this means there is a pretty simple answer: play the way you and your friends agree is fun. But I can’t help but feel like tabletop games can aspire to be better, to make the most of a unique form of storytelling and create beautiful art that’s also fun to play. Playing Dungeons & Dragons for the first time as a pale, sweaty teen was the first time I had a captive audience to my imagination. It was the first time I really felt like I had the agency to create a story that moved, that entertained myself and others. Having that experience mattered to me. I hope it could matter to others as well.

A new farmboy stands at the edge of the world again. Many more have stood where he stands. Many will again. In a way, it offers him comfort, that there will always be another one. He smiles at the thought and takes the step into a new story.