Over the past few weeks, I’ve become well acquainted with a gnome barbarian by the name of Ozric.
That could prove to be my first mistake: choosing a gnome barbarian for my first foray into Dungeons & Dragons. Even an uninitiated noob like myself knows there are more suitable combinations of race and class—a halfling rogue, an elf wizard, a dwarf barbarian—but I couldn’t resist. A gnome who aspires to be a badass warrior is too fascinating to ignore.
As a newcomer to the game, I know I should prioritize winning, but the writer in me craves a good story.
Even if that story means little Ozric will have to defy the odds to survive.
An inauspicious origin
Now I’m no stranger to fantasy. My first series, The Renegade Chronicles, falls firmly in the sword-and-sorcery genre.
But I’ve never played D&D, not properly. Oh, my cousin and I bought a reduced-price starter kit decades ago. Alas, we were too young to puzzle it out, and so I was left to get my fantasy fix from 8-bit Nintendo RPG games inspired by their tabletop counterparts.
Years later, I discovered DragonLance books—novels that served as companions to the D&D modules (campaigns?) by the same name. By that point, Magic: The Gathering was gaining in popularity, so I tried my hand at that card game.
Any hope of finding a group with whom to play D&D fizzled like a fireball with insufficient mana. Or so it seemed.
You wouldn’t think a man in his late thirties could come across so many disparate conversations about D&D at the same time. Jake Weiss, the cover artist for the The Renegade Chronicles offhandedly mentioned he was interested in starting a D&D club. Then a fellow Cub Scouts leader told me he was creating a campaign to play with his sons.
Finally, my sister was invited by some of her work friends to give tabletop gaming a try. She enjoyed it so much, she helped my kids roll their own characters and has, to date, DMed a couple of sessions for not only them, but also my mom. It didn’t take much coaxing to talk my wife and me into creating characters of our own.
And here I thought D&D was dead, along with any chance for me to experience it.
Full disclosure: as of writing this, I still haven’t actually played D&D, but after taking the first step—discovering Ozric’s stats and selecting his abilities—I’m awfully eager for my first session. Meanwhile, the writer and world-builder in me can’t sit idle.
How does a fantasy writer prepare for a story-based game? In a word, research.
Quest for knowledge
Like any adventurer worth his d12, I first sought out a tome containing what I needed to prepare. Over the course of a couple of weeks, I read the D&D Player’s Handbook from cover to cover. (OK, so I skimmed through the chapter on spells. Sue me.)
Now I know the rules, more or less, but reading about an alternate reality and actually visiting one are two very different things. I asked around for the best way to familiarize myself with D&D and received a unanimous answer.
“Watch Critical Role.”
A handful of episodes into their second campaign, and I have to admit I’m feeling more comfortable with the nuances of the game—though my sister warned me not to expect a Matt Mercer level of quality from her dungeon master experience.
Equipped with an idea of how a story might unfold as well as the rules of the world, I was ready to turn to one of my favorite exercises as an author: characterization.
A gnome by any other name
Creating characters has always been the best part of storytelling for me. Even the most exciting adventure is doomed to fail if the cast falls flat. That’s why I’m a firm believer of getting to know my characters extremely well before putting pen to paper.
For my major characters in both The Renegade Chronicles and my new series, The Soul Sleep Cycle, I slogged through fifty or more questions, forcing myself to invent/discover details about the people populating my story.
I did the same for my gnome barbarian, and one of the first things I learned was “Ozric” isn’t even his real name.
Over the course of four hours—and 7,000 words—I ascertained plenty more about Ozric’s personality, motivations, and backstory. He’s probably more complex than the average barbarian, but if I’m going to give voice to a character, I have to know him. That goes for novels and D&D alike.
A writer typically lives within his story for months and maybe even years before it goes out into the world. Even after beta readers have provided feedback on a manuscript—even after a publication date has been decided upon—nothing makes a book feel more real than seeing the cover for the first time.
Similarly, I had the privilege of seeing Ozric in three dimensions, thanks to the painted miniature my sister produced for me. That same night, she texted me a note containing secret information only he knows.
The game is afoot!
Very soon Ozric will meet Phoebe (a dwarven cleric played by my daughter), Johnny (an elf rogue played by my son), Cordelia (my wife’s half-elf ranger) and Saphira (my mom’s halfing cleric). We’ve even convinced my step-father to join us as a half-orc fighter named Spencer.
Like any good storyteller, my mind is already running amok with ideas of how Ozric will relate to the members of his motely party and how he might approach the problems likely to arise.
You might be asking yourself why the fantasy writer isn’t the one DMing the campaign. For one thing, it’s incredibly intimidating to jump into that role without any prior D&D experience. For another, I’m afraid I’ll enjoy it too much.
It took four hours to flesh out Ozric; I can only imagine how long it would take to plot out a campaign. If I’m going to wrap up The Soul Sleep Cycle next spring, I can’t afford to get too distracted.
Crafting Ozric’s story in real time will have to suffice—assuming my little gnome berserker survives his first battle.