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What Dungeons and Dragons Taught Me About Story Conflict

photo by Benny Mazur [1]
photo by Benny Mazur

Today’s guest is aspiring novelist Lancelot Schaubert. Lance has sold work to markets like McSweeney’s, Poker Pro, Scars, Encounter, Brink, and many others. He wrote, produced, and directed Cold Brewed [2] which reinvented the photonovel. Currently, he’s finishing his first novel in between large batches of various soups (today’s soup, for the curious among us, is white chili).

His essay for WU, which draws comparisons between conflict in novels and in the roll-playing game Dungeons and Dragons, will speak to your “inner geek.” (Don’t pretend you don’t have one.) And if you really are questioning why D&D? Consider this: D&D is all about story and conflict.

You can learn more about Lance at lanceschaubert.org [3] and on Twitter [4], or join the guild of renegade imaginations receiving his updates [5].

What Dungeons and Dragons Taught Me About Story Conflict

Confession: I spent way too much money on comic books, D&D dice, and video games in high school. Lucky for me, some of it came in handy for my career as a writer. Actually most of it came in handy, but this isn’t an apologetic for geek stores. It’s an article about conflict.

And conflict is strange. Really strange.

We literary types use the word “conflict” like business people use “synergy” and churchy people use “missional” and politicians use “foreign policy.” We use it so often, we have almost no freaking clue what it means anymore. I know I didn’t at first.

The first time someone told me, “Your story needs more conflict,” I wrote a battle scene into a non-battle story. Think: Matrix-meets-Sleepless-in-Seattle. Frustrated, they tried again to explain what they meant. I didn’t get it.

It’s because conflict has become our nonsensical buzzword. And we’re actually kind of proud of it, even if we’re clueless as to its true meaning. You might think it would be good to try another word, but we’re stuck with the word “conflict.” Dispute limits the topic to arguments. Sexual tension only works for erotica and certain scenes of romance. Fight sounds broader but still only includes interpersonal conflict and some forms of external conflict. Negotiation keeps us in the verbal and economic spheres but limits us where violence, pacifism, and forces of nature are concerned. Voyage takes care of the nature part, but limits us concerning still, small voices.

We’re stuck with the word, so I figured I might as well get to know it.

Robert McKee’s section on conflict in STORY helped me a bit:

Conflict is to storytelling what sound is to music… The music of story is conflict…. Writers who cannot grasp the truth of our transitory existence, who have been mislead by the counterfeit comforts of the modern world, who believe that life is easy once you know how to play the game, give conflict a false inflection. Their [stories] fail for one of two reasons: either a glut of meaninglessness and absurdly violent conflict, or a vacancy of meaningful and honestly expressed conflict.

I started to understand and then I remembered how conflicting dice rolls work in D&D. Now if you’re a women’s lit writer, hang with me – this will apply to you too, I promise.

But first, let’s get one thing out of the way: I’m not talking about the recent versions of D&D the new kids play. I’m talking about version 3.5 or earlier. In the early versions of the game, you create character sheets that are pages long. Everyone has a base set of abilities like “strength” and “wisdom” and then adds those bonuses to various skills. If you’ve ever played any of the Elder Scrolls games (or any fantasy game at all, really), you understand how this works.

How do these things affect a character? Let’s consider Noah from The Notebook.

Noah had a base ability of charisma that was off the charts but his wisdom was… well, let’s just say that wisdom didn’t really come into play when he decided to jump on the outside of that Ferris Wheel cart. Regardless of genre, characters have basic abilities. And then skills. Noah wasn’t wise, but he did have a knack for poetry because that’s where he invested his time. That often made up for his foolishness.

If you want to do something in D&D – speak, discover, flirt – you add three numbers: ability, skill, roll.

photo by Lydia [6]
photo by Lydia

The first is an ability like “strength” or “intelligence,” a measurable potential like IQ or EQ. My character might be an idiot savant and have +3 intelligence but lives in the body of an eight-year-old boy and so has -3 strength. His abilities work like the bones of his character.

To ability, we add skill. Every time your character gains experience in D&D, she gets an allotted amount of skill points to invest. She might have added no skill points to “grappling” but five to “knowledge: history.” These skills come into play on an action-by-action basis. We might call these “quirks” or “talents” or even “vocation” in a story, like Noah’s knack for poetry.

Finally for a given task we add the die roll. Chance factors into stories by way of the author – this is the unknown, the relative efficaciousness of any given action, the question did the action work?

In D&D, you roll for everything. Say another character goes to grapple your character and you’re this eight-year-old boy. They’re the hulking weight-lifting champion of the world. They have +3 strength, you have -3 strength. They’ve invested 3 points in grappling, you’ve invested 0.

Then they roll a 19, you roll a 19.

The final score?

Them: 25; You: 16.

They’ve got you tight in a bear hug and they’re not letting go. You loose that conflict.

Make sense?

Everything you do in the game pits one character’s roll against another character’s roll. If you want to pick a lock, you pit the lock difficulty (25) against your lock-picking ability (1 dexterity + 2 lock picking + 19 roll = 22 fail). Remember Marv in Home Alone? That was a fail at lock picking.

If you want to stay outside during a terrible weather storm you pit the danger of the lightning (20) against your survival skills (2 wisdom + 3 Survival + 15 roll = 20 success… just barely). Remember Katniss in the climax of Catching Fire? That was a skin-of-her-teeth success at surviving a lightning strike.

If you want to persuade a person to let you see a secret document (30), then you’ll use skills you’ve invested in diplomacy (-2 charisma + 7 diplomacy + 17 roll = 25 fail, but try again later). Remember Snape and the Marauder’s Map in Harry Potter? That was a fail at diplomacy and, later, at deciphering the map.

If someone lies to you (20) all you have to do is sense their motives (3 intelligence + 6 sense motive + 12 roll = 21 success like Matt Damon does to Eddie KGB in Rounders) to call their bluff. Works good for poker, eh?

If someone tries to flirt with you (20 for bluff) you can roll to sense their motives (24) and refuse to acknowledge their advances just like Katherina in the beginning of The Taming of the Shrew.

If you fail the roll, though, you might end up like Katherina at the end of The Taming of the Shrew.

In the old Dungeons and Dragons, you roll for everything. You roll to jump over a chasm. You roll to inspire troops. You roll to research various hard, harder, and hardest concepts. You roll to decipher code. You roll to see if your arrow hit the dragon (probably not) or if it missed and hit instead one of the forty guards behind the dragon (probably so). You roll to see if your beer spills down your beard. You roll to find hidden paths. You roll to sneak past watching eyes, make sexual advances, cure cancer, fight demons, uncover mysteries, and wonder at the fate of humanity.

You rolled to see if you got to the bathroom in time. One time, my friend Andy’s character rolled a critical fail on peeing on a dead body. The guy running the game said, “You piss your pants.”

Which was hilarious.

Until we tried to sneak up on these monsters with heightened senses of smell. They smelled the urine and we lost. Terribly. They call it a “party wipe” in DnD because everyone gets murdered by the bad guys. We did, however, learn how to mask smells on that campaign and that came in handy later. Good characters always learn from their mistakes and that’s why we tell one another stories.

When an object or character stands against you in DnD, it rolls a conflicting die (if it’s animate) or starts out with a default number for difficulty (if it’s inanimate). Highest number wins.

That’s goals in conflict: winner moves forward and loser tries to find a new way to struggle through.

Conflicting rolls cover external, interpersonal and internal conflict. Does this cover everything that happens in a given DnD story? Well no, there are Non-Playable Characters in the game that tell you what’s going on. There are also clues and trails and alternate story lines, all of which you can choose to engage or ignore.

However, character action moves the story along. The game wouldn’t be half so addicting if you could just waltz into a dungeon, fill your pockets with treasure, and walk out. Conflict makes the game and moves the story. You could say the conflict — the goals in active opposition that result in a winner and a loser — is the story.

Or, if you prefer, when you find yourself stuck in the middle of writing a screenplay or a book, ask yourself: are there any obstacles?

If not, what can I add?

If so, what’s the conflicting roll and how good is my character at overcoming these sort of things? If they’re terrible, can they get around it somehow?

In DnD you can (1) pick a building’s lock or break the lock or (2) break down the door the lock’s on or (3) try sneaking in through a window or (4) seduce the owner until they open it or (5) bribe someone else to open it or (6) cast a spell to make you walk through it or (7) employ any number of other options to get inside or…

There’s never one way. There are infinite paths.

Interesting stories create that very same environment:

If your main character’s a high school science teacher burdened with the debt of a cancer diagnosis, he can’t cure cancer, but can he make meth [7]?

If he’s a billionaire playboy philanthropist who hates companies that profiteer off of war, he can’t stop profiteering, but can he use a green-energy arc reactor to make a formidable threat to said companies [8]?

If she’s an FBI agent worried about the lives of Ms. America contestants, she can’t go undercover as the prettiest, but can she get in as the most congenial [9]?

Conflicting rolls show us back doors into and out of sticky situations and help us understand that awful literary buzzword: conflict.

Assess the difficulty of every given situation.

Then find a clever way around within the skillset of your character.

That’s a story.

Thoughts to share? The floor is yours.

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About Lance Schaubert [10]

Lancelot Schaubert [11] has sold his written work to markets like The New Haven Review, McSweeney’s, The Poet’s Market, Writer’s Digest (books and magazine), Poker Pro, Encounter, The Misty Review and many other similar markets. He reinvented the photonovel through Cold Brewed and was commissioned by the Missouri Tourism Board to create a second photonovel — The Joplin Undercurrent — that both fictionalizes and enchants the history and culture of Joplin, Missouri.