1.) Every character should have a voice.
I guess I don't mean this literally. If the character goes to a restaurant and the only thing the server does is refill their cup, then the server shouldn't have anything to say. Any character that is a big part of your story should have a reason to be there and something to say though. Yes, I know that in many D+D groups, and this goes for other RPGs too, the healer is there because you needed him and you invited your dumb friend to play one because you needed one. He still gets a say in what happens to the group.
This works in a book or movie too. There is often one side character who just seems to go along with the group. That's fine. Not everyone has a world-ending super powerful personality. They should still have something to say about what's going on, even if it's just to agree. How many people hear are Kevin Smith fans? Silent Bob doesn't usually have a lot to say but when he says things, people listen. If you have a character that is around a lot and doesn't say much it needs to matter more when they do. Leonard Nimoy refused to do Star Trek: Generations because his character had no voice and no purpose. He was an actor, author and director. I figure he knew what he was doing.
Remember when the rogue (or thief depending on your edition) gouged the jewels out of the statues eyes and the paladin lost his mind? Both were doing what would benefit them: The rogue wanted to get rich and the paladin wanted to stay in good graces with his deity. Neither could be expected to act any other way. They both did what they perceived as benefitting them. That's not to say that characters won't help each other out, but how many times has everything gone to crap because a character did what was best for them? Whether it was Peter in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or Boromir trying to steal the ring in Lord of the Rings at some point someone is going to do something to benefit themselves.
2.) Characters act in their own best interest.
If I'm reading a long story with a core group and nobody goes off the reservation it loses something. Keep this in mind if for no other reason than that a good story stays good when things go awry and this is a good way to MAKE them go awry.
3.) Failure is sometimes necessary to a good story.A good way to ratchet up the tension is for something to go horrendously wrong. When your engineer is fixing the whatchamacallit and his thingambabobber gets stuck and tears it loose just as the bad guys are about to launch the gravity bomb and blow up the ship things get INTERESTING. When your main character is about to fight a kobold and the head of his warhammer pops off everyone starts to worry. (At least I like to think so. I actually used this one.)
Seriously. Things don't always go well. Luke Skywalker doesn't save his aunt and uncle. Kirk can't save his own son from the Klingons. Spock can't save Vulcan in the Trek reboots. The list goes on.
4.) Villains are often as intelligent as heroes.
This is important. I watched the GI Joe cartoon when I was a wee little Jimbo. I enjoyed it when I was nine. GI Joe always found the obvious hole in Cobra Commander's plan and then they kicked his ass. It was great! My heroes won and it was easy. But here's the thing: I'm thirty-nine now. I don't necessarily get caught up in that crap anymore. It's much better to see my heroes sweat.
In the Dragonlance Chronicles, Tanis Half-Elven finds himself face to face with Queen Takhisis, that universe's version of Satan. He knows that if he can't honestly worship her he won't survive. She can see into his soul and knows what he is thinking and feeling. He manages to pull it off but just barely. In the same series, Sturm Brightblade faces a determined enemy that it as smart as he is, and he watches two thirds of the Knights of Solamnia butchered when the good guys get suckered. That's an oh shit moment that I'll never forget. Weis and Hickman got this one right even if I am still bitter about what eventually happened to Sturm.
5.) The unexpected can be awesome.And furthermore, it usually is. Something that MAKES SENSE but is unexpected can make a story. Seriously. Going back to the Dragonlance Chronicles, no one saw Tasslehoff Burrfoot breaking a Dragon Orb the way he did. No one expected Gollum to bite Frodo's finger off at the end of Return of the King. And, well, when Darth Vader looked at Luke Skywalker and said "No, I am your father" the whole world stopped and we all pooped our pants. See what I mean?
If you drop something in from seemingly out of left field and make it work your whole story can benefit greatly. That includes when the group in your D+D campaign finds itself trapped in a fairy ring, or popping up in Ravenloft, or wearing a really neat cloak and then the ship lifts out of the sea...
And yeah, your fiction can be made better with this as well.
6.) Never promise something and fail to deliver.You remember that one time when your DM told you that the Grand Duke Whatshisname was supposed to award you the Awesome Thing of Coolness and a pile of gold when you completed your quest. Do you remember how badly you wanted to murder him when you found out that the town had been sacked and the Grand Duke beheaded while you were off risking your life to achieve the objective? Do you? I do. Any reader is going to feel the same if you screw the hero in the book. There are good reasons to do this sometimes but even then it should be more of a temporary setback than "Never, never gonna get it." I like En Vogue's music but I've never bought a book written by one of them.
If any of you are World of Warcraft players, think about the Lich King fight. You spent the entire expansion chasing this guy and defeating his minions. You found your way to his castle, Icecrown Citadel. You fought your way up to him by defeating waves of mobs, only God knows how many bosses, fighting a battle with another airship and killing dragons along the way. You finally get to his throne high atop ICC where you battle him... and watch someone else (Tirion Fording) kill him. Talk about ripped off. I get the fact that they wanted to match the book but COME ON. I spent the whole raid wanting to take this guy out. Why take that away from me and every other damn player that made it that far?
7.) The Law of Unintended Consequences applies in fiction as well as in fact.
Yay! The adventure is complete. You've rescued the princess, stolen the Orb of Ouchness and returned safely from the caper. You think everything is awesome. It's time to sun your buns, spend your gold and research your new spell. There's only one problem: That door you opened that didn't have anything behind it? It was a portal to The Sucky Place of Suckiness and now all of the evil Suckmonsters are here to suck the life out of everything. It's all your fault. That same guy who paid you to rescue his daughter and steal the Orb of Ouchness is now pissed at you because the Suckmonsters have consumed three villages worth of farmers and livestock. You're the one at fault because they're all coming from the place you just left and everyone knows it. Your life as you know it is about to be over and all because you opened a door... and had NO CLUE that any of this would happen.
It's a lot like when the Event Horizon (in the movie of the same name) tried to travel to another solar system... and went to hell. Apparently, folding space doesn't do what everyone thinks it should. In Robotech when the SDF III takes the Robotech Expeditionary Force to the other side of the universe, they left the Earth vulnerable to an enemy that they knew nothing about. They never meant to do that, but it spawned an entire part of a series. Stuff like this just works.
So that's my version of how to tell a good story as taught by playing RPGs. What isn't here that should be? What's here that should not be?
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