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  • Writer's pictureChristopher Phillips

They Write Themselves

Dungeons and Dragons map with character standees name Mort and Xanfa contemplate a purplish potato.
Xanfa contemplates a potato

This week, I’ve been thinking of the times when authors or screenwriters will describe creating stories with characters that ‘write themselves’ as though the characters they make can come to life through their written words. Some characters, when following a predetermined path of predictable tropes and all-too-familiar situations, can certainly seem to write themselves but knowing what a character will say or do is not always a good thing. Conversely, characters that become real to the author, fully formed in the mind of their creator can subvert expectations and make decisions based on their own needs. These characters can be more relatable since we don’t always fall into the expected roles laid out for us, do we?

Stacey and I have been doing a late night rewatch of Supernatural and eight seasons in, Sam and Dean are as predictable as can be. Several times in an episode, I can say the next line before they do as though I had a hand in writing the show. Even supposing they are dependable characters, the writing of the show has also allowed for a solid, complicated relationship between the two. Thus far, the characters Sam and Dean have had eight seasons to develop so we know who they are, how they'll react and how they communicate with each other. Therefore they are well-developed and we can understand why they make the decisions they do, which also makes them a little predictable. It's an enjoyable, problematic watch that works while I’m in the kitchen doing dishes and Stacey is watching simultaneously from another room while both of us are on the phone with each other. The unsurprising nature of the story makes it an easy side-watch as I wash my vegan cheez out of the stainless steel saucepan.

“Hold on a minute, I thought this was a D&D blog,

not some alliterative Supernatural fanboy blog!” Says you.

I knew you would say that… Depending on how Dungeons and Dragons is played, the roles of writer, producer and director are fungible and create a more unpredictable story, even if the characters being played follow well-known archetypes. Establishing the dynamic rules of the world, with a well-formed environment and history allows the DM to give more leeway to the characters as they develop.

“He’ll probably throw in a plant metaphor here.” You continue.

I knew you'd say that too! If the world building is done with nurturing care, it becomes the fertile soil, gently parted to plant the seeds of each character, bathed in the bright sunlight of brilliant backstories, watered with the essence of hopes and dreams and warmed by the tumbling of dice that add an unpredictability to the story. In this carefully tended environment sprout the heroes of tomorrow, all the potential and grandeur that was contained in that tiny seed of imagination, bursting forth to become exactly what they’re meant to be.

As players develop their characters in the established story of the world, they are the writers and directors of their creations. Take the neophyte wizard Xanfa, for example. Magic in this world is muted, it’s not commonplace to see any displays of the arcane arts. It’s been this way for as long as anyone can remember, powerful sorcery is the stuff of legend, cautionary tales to tell rambunctious children at bedtime. When that power began to manifest in the novice wizard, there was no mentor, no one to guide his development and without warning, a tragic backstory formed in a burst of uncontrolled magic. We were able to collaborate on a character born into this land, with consideration of all the forces at play, to bring Xanfa to life. This character will be an outlier, since there aren’t magic users all over the place, with a constant curiosity to delve the depths of arcane lore and question why he has this predilection for prestidigitation that few others possess. Maybe eight seasons in we’ll be able to predict what the wizard will do next, but I have a feeling he’ll continue to surprise us.

In many ways, RPG’s subvert tropes just by telling these tales for the sake of a shared story, adding the randomization of dice rolls that determine fateful outcomes and a Game Master who tries to bring it all together. For me, the game is at its best when it’s unpredictable and subverting expectations. Sometimes a potato is just a potato. Sometimes it’s an interdimensional being with the unique power to grant wishes. If only you hadn’t just killed it by throwing it into the stewpot. Oh well, I guess we’ll never know.

“I knew he was going to say that!”

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