How embracing your inner gamer can help balance your world.
To grow up with pen-and-paper RPGs like D&D was to grow up with tables, lists of modifiers, pages and pages of mechanics. You knew how the world worked, but more important than that, you saw how the world’s mechanics could be represented. How it was made to fit together. How coherence was achieved.
So as one of the ‘children of the hit roll’, when it comes to creating your own world, you already know how it’s done. You know that culture, geography and history (narrative) can affect the skills, abilities and overall character of a people. You know that travelling a certain distance requires the consumption of a certain amount of provisions. And even more than that, you know that the agency of the players is what makes the games tick.
D&D was never about plunging into war, with your CO barking orders into your headgear. It was about “hey, so what do you want to do now?” It was about people choosing a path in a living, breathing world full of peril and opportunity. Sure, there was a grand narrative at work, there were scenarios (an undead fiend, a crazed sorcerer, kobolds abound) but the heroes could approach these from any angle they liked. Even when the DM boxed the party into a corner, there was still choice. More choice than there will ever be in video games, even taking Bethesda’s superb output into consideration.
However, I think the most important lesson fantasy writers can learn from pen-and-paper RPGs, and from tabletop gaming in general is the hierarchy of ability.
This is the means by which such games allow us to see the statistics of every agent in the world – players, monsters, NPCs, even terrain features – and measure them against one-another. We can see in clear empirical terms that the rogue doesn’t have the same defensive resilience as the knight, or that the sniper rifle isn’t as good up close as the shotgun, or that the scimitar is less effective against skeletons than the club. We can see it in numbers. We can see it in the language of the game mechanics. It’s right there, in a table, clear as day.
And we know the limits of power. We know that the wizard’s fireball does between 2 and 12 damage, that the healing potion restores between 1 and 6 points of health. So when the wizard and the doctor step out in front of a horde of enemies, we hold our breath – because we know what they can handle and how much damage they can take. The drama comes from the numbers.
So when we read a story in which the wizard suddenly leaps in power-scale, and just at the right time discovers that his fireball can do 48 damage because the plot demands it, the gamer in us twitches suspiciously. When the hero suddenly develops the skill to defeat the villain in a swordfight simply because the villain taunted him about the murder of his bride, we’re sceptical as to why everyone doesn’t get a weaponskill bonus every time they’re irked. We expect consistency from the mechanics of the world, because it’s what we’re used to.
We bring this statistical wisdom to bear when we write. We know that wizard A is more powerful than wizard B, which of our heroes is the better archer, who’s the most charming. We know how every element of the world measures up against the others, because we’re used to thinking that way. Sure, there’s always wriggle-room for mystery and surprise, but mystery and surprise only work when there’s a solid and logical structure that’s able to contain them. We know that characters can’t just suddenly become stronger than they were previously simply because the plot demands it, without some sort of magical explanation… we know how to balance the world.
And this is what can make the stories so exciting! If we have a clear idea of the hierarchy of ability of our characters, then we can communicate this to the reader. And when we place our characters in peril, when they reach the Grey Castle of Unguksradt, and square up to the Dread Prince Vanakul, or whatever, the reader knows what the heroes are capable of, what Vanakul’s capable of, and what the chances are of victory. They can gauge the peril the writer’s dishing out.
The drama’s in the numbers, and nobody gets this more than the children of the hit roll.