Research, Role-Playing, and Running Out of Time: NaNoWriMo 2016

It’s November, which means it’s NaNoWriMo season again. I’ll be just as busy as I was last year, which means I’m having some doubts about my ability to finish, but the month is still young. Having done a series of posts tracking my progress last November, I’m probably not going to subject you to something similar this year. However, I’ll probably still have a lot to talk about in terms of writing because I’m not actually writing a novel this month.

If you read my 24-hour blog post (you brave soul), you probably saw that I was working on a campaign setting for the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons despite the fact that I’m in the midst of playing my very first campaign, which will continue for at least another year. Thankfully, I’m only writing a single story arc and not the entire campaign. But still, how did that happen?

The idea was proposed by one of our college buddies, who got into the game a little before we did and is an avid listener of the podcast The Adventure Zone. Inspired by the podcast, he thought it would be fun if we wrote and played our own campaign in that style. My husband contributed the idea that our group of four could each take a stab at being the Dungeon Master, and this eventually morphed into the more concrete plan of each of us writing the story arc that we would run the other three through.

We also established somewhere in there that my portion of the campaign will be up first. While I don’t have a start date, I figured I would have to get this thing done sooner rather than later. So here I am.

At the time of writing this post, I haven’t actually penned a word of it yet. I have my looseleaf notebook filled with scratches of worldbuilding, research, and ideas, but as far as actually typing it up or doing any more substantial writing, I haven’t done anything yet. What I’ve done is a lot of research and overthinking.

I’ve talked before about my relationship with D&D as a writer in the form of building a character without a world. Now, I’m building a world for outside protagonists that are going to come in. It requires a lot of thinking to construct a world that’s more likely than not going to explode when it touches the player characters. That, and I haven’t done much high fantasy worldbuilding: even my most magical or sci-fi worlds are grounded enough in present-day reality that I don’t need to build from the ground up. Here are some of the things I’ve been worried about in my attempts to balance writing with planning a game.

  1. Railroading

The bane of players everywhere, railroading is the phenomenon of the game master forcing players down a linear, predetermined path in defiance of the inherently collaborative nature of RPG games. As a writer, I need to be cautious about doing that: I don’t write choose your own adventures, after all, and I’m reluctant to let go of ideas. While I’ll need all of the ideas I can get to achieve the 50,000 words required for a NaNoWriMo victory, I have to wonder how many ideas are too many, both in a practical narrative sense and in a railroading sense.

  1. Starting, ending, and the overall plot.

There will be a lot of cooperating with people on this (literal and figurative) adventure, both as player characters and as DMs. While I don’t need to worry too much about how to start my adventure (which will probably happen in the form of “You all meet in a bar”—sure, it’s a cliché, but it works for our purposes), ending it is going to be a challenge: I’ll need to wrap up my story arc, decide when it’s reached an appropriate dénouement, and not only switch out and properly set up the next person’s story but come up with justifications for one player character to leave and get replaced by my player character.

There also may or may not be an overarching plot to the entire universe. This might not get developed until after I wrap up NaNoWriMo. If it exists, I’ll have to wind pieces of it into my story arc, but it’s possible that, as a person that holds a quarter of the entire story, I’ll have to be the one to introduce it.

  1. Mechanics.

One of the people in our group has never played the game before, so I’m sure part of my story will involve organically teaching things like combat, skill checks, and other role-playing staples. On my end, this will involve making sure that I have these details locked down: I’m playing the game now and I feel like I have most everything, but I’ve never had to teach it before.

I’ll also need to crunch some numbers to make sure that my encounters are challenging without turning the players into carbon-based smears on the floor of a dungeon somewhere and that the rewards make sense. While I love lycanthropes thematically and really want to play with them, the wererats we recently encountered in our main campaign made me realize that they are not easy to deal with. That group was a large team of fourth-level characters, and the one I’m about to play with will not only have fewer people but be weaker. I probably won’t focus on the particulars of how to fix that during NaNoWriMo itself, but I’ll need to have an idea of what I’m doing so that I’m not totally clueless when I go back into it.

Speaking of lycanthropes, my researching didn’t lead me to anything substantial about fifth-edition combat rules for player characters infected with lycanthropy. I’m throwing together new rules just in case someone happens to stick their hand in a werewolf’s mouth, and I only just learned the existing rules. The things I do for love.

  1. Locations and environments

Part of the reason I prefer writing things grounded in reality is so that I don’t have to make maps. Geography is not one of my strong suits, I barely have a concept of distances and how long they take to traverse, and I have honestly gotten hopelessly lost in an area 10 minutes from my apartment and needed to be rescued by some very nice neighbors. If I ever encounter you alone and I hurry by you, it’s not as much that I’m scared of you as it is that I’m scared of having to provide directions.

Luckily, I don’t think this group is going to be a bunch of sticklers about geography. I used this method for making my overarching map, which is great if you need to make fantasy maps. Now I need to decide on how the immediate adventuring areas are organized and figure out how to paint beautiful pictures about them with my words.

  1. Myth and folklore

In looking for advice on writing D&D campaigns, there was always the tip to have some backstory, but leave out the specifics or anything beginning with the words “Thousands of years ago”. Have your factions, but don’t give them or their higher-ups names and detailed backgrounds unless that’s specifically and relevantly going to come up in the story. My particular campaign seems to be steeped pretty heavily in folklore that’s been interpreted in different ways by different people, so that’s something I’ll need to consider more than I have before. It’s not something I’m used to as someone whose fantasy is urban in nature (and often relies on existing mythologies), but it’s a thing I’m thinking about now.

  1. Towns

One of the surprises about brainstorming for this is that there are so many things in medieval villages. Granted, my urban setting isn’t a village as much as it is a resort town for the world’s wealthiest rulers, but they’re similar enough that I feel like I can get away with it. Like I mentioned above, I’ll need to actually make a map of this place, come up with the businesses and other areas (housing, that whole sketchy business going on underground, etc.), and know what they look like.

When I first started brainstorming, I decided that the population was similar to that of a few northern Michigan locations I know fairly well: Mackinac Island, which has a population of near 500 year-round, and Glen Arbor, which has around 800 people in it during the high tourist season. Both of these figures fit in with the population information that I could find for medieval villages, which were typically home to between 50 and 300 people but could claim as many as 1,000. Also given my experience with those areas, I kind of figured I would have a few inns at various price points at which the characters can eat, drink, and sleep; all of the summer homes of the wealthy, along with some housing for employees and barracks for security personnel; a bathhouse; some sort of temple or chapel; docks, because it’s a beach town; and a marketplace with a few shops or vendors that sell art and luxury items.

Even though I like that part of the game, this group doesn’t want to deal with rationing food or supplies, so any restaurants are going to be cosmetic and I probably won’t have much of a need for stores that sell arrows. However, I did see in my researching a lot of things that I wouldn’t have thought of: stables, blacksmiths and furriers, aqueducts and cisterns, lighthouses, armor and weapon stores, a town hall (which you think would have been one of the first things that I thought of), and clothiers. I also got an idea of what kinds of things might be considered luxury goods: things like tapestries, candles, wine and beer, spices, paintings, sculptures, and books (some of which were illuminated). Granted, in fantasy villages some of these things might be a little different (the presence of magic in any world would solve a number of issues that typically plagued medieval towns), but it was enlightening to know what kinds of things to consider when I crafted this world for these people.

I still need to stock those shops.

  1. People and politics

I don’t need to populate every square foot of my campaign with characters that have names and backstories. I know that much for sure, and I’m relieved that’s the case. But this also isn’t going to be a place where the player characters just kind of crash in between adventures: major characters and plot points are going to be here. I need to think of the character traits of a few major characters who will either help or hinder them.

I also need to know how the way the town runs could affect the player characters. Would they take kindly to some of the game’s fantasy races more than others? Are they welcoming of, hostile toward, or indifferent to adventurers, and would this change if they do things around town, throw enough money around, or really screw something up? Are these people that the characters would even want to help, and why? What do they know about that forest to the east that they’re really reluctant to go near even during broad daylight and armed to the teeth? And this isn’t even counting that forest and what’s going on over there….


So that’s what I’m up to for the next month in between everything else I have to do. We’ll see how this goes.

Are you doing anything creative this November?