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So I've gone around on the web, trying to figure out exactly how D&D works, and still I'm befuddled. Let me first start by stating what exactly it is I'm trying to achieve.

So, I'm an aspiring video game developer. I'm a big fan of games like Final Fantasy (especially the classics), Persona, Chrono Trigger, etc. Basically, I'm a sucker for narrative-driven games that end in a giant climax with the final boss, whom you must beat to save the world. I'm currently in the planning stages of developing my own game that follows a similar narrative structure, which drew me to D&D.

You see, I've already got a bare bones story created.

The heroes and villains have been developed and fleshed out, the overarching plot has been established, and the setting has more or less been set in stone. Naturally, since the narrative component of my hypothetical video game is where 90% of my focus is going to be, I want it to be as engaging as possible. I'm trying to create an epic tale that wows the player at every twist. However, I've run into what people call "writer's block", and I'm having a lot of trouble getting my characters from the call to action to the climax. If I'm trying to write an epic tale, then I should have a ton of trials and tribulations to fill in that massive blank between the call to action and the climax.

What I have learned about D&D is that the DM can create scenarios on the fly, like when a player takes an unexpected action, the DM must react accordingly. I see this as an opportunity to answer questions about my characters' journey that I otherwise would not have asked myself, thus overcoming writer's block and the story basically writes itself at that point.

My question is:

How feasible is this? I basically want to use D&D to not only have fun with a bunch of my friends, but I also want to use it as a tool to flesh out my own world and give it life. The thing is, my question probably sounds stupid, because I don't know the exact parameters that D&D operates within. For example, I don't know how customizable the setting, classes, and races are. My story is not set in classical high fantasy like D&D apparently is, so I don't know to what extent the foundation of D&D can be redefined to suit my needs. I'm perfectly content with keeping the gameplay mechanics of D&D the same, as I'm mostly focusing on story first and gameplay mechanics second. I'd love to hear your thoughts about this.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; now that the question's form has settled down a bit this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Apr 13 '18 at 0:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ You may be interested in looking at the Dragonlance novels, by margaret weis and tracy hickman. They are essentially a novelisation of a game of dungeons and dragons. You should also consider asking this on writing.stackexchange.com, as it's not really a question about RPGs specifically. \$\endgroup\$ – Benubird Apr 13 '18 at 10:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ Not an answer - but the games you mention are built by Square, or tailored for consoles. If you want a good feel for older versions of D&D in a computer game, look up Baldurs Gate (very cheap on app stores now). They play very differently. \$\endgroup\$ – Paul Johnson Apr 13 '18 at 13:18
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Yes...

D&D is a game of heroic fantasy. It's about fighting monsters, becoming more powerful, and looting cool stuff. If you see it through, you'll get a pretty cool story by the end. It's also collaborative, in that the protagonists are each played by a real person. As a result, you get several points of view on any situation, and writer's block is rarely a problem because any interesting enough situation will be (or can be) discussed between the players, and it's much harder to stump 5-6 people than one author.

You may also be somewhat interested to know that it's had several editions over the years. They focus on different things, but mostly combat. They also offer a variety of different settings. These range from standard Tolkien-style fantasy to a god-forsaken desert planet of psionicists to wizards on spaceships.

More importantly, D&D gives the Dungeon Master something called Rule 0, which says the DM can change literally anything in the world or rule book at their discretion.

...But there are better options

I'd like to make some observations.

First, your stated goal is creating an interesting narrative. The vast majority of rules for D&D (any edition) focus on how to engage in physical combat, which doesn't make for an engaging story. Relationships do.

Second, you keep referring to D&D as if it's synonymous with tabletop RPGs. In point of fact, there are thousands of options. If you have a friendly local gaming store, I recommend you stop by and peruse the RPG books for a while, and ask the employees some questions about them.

I strongly urge you to do some research about different RPGs to find one that might be more suited to your stated goal. Below, I offer a few highlights from different games that you may find of interest. These are not by any stretch full descriptions of these systems.

Dungeon World - D&D is turn-based. DW is narrative based. The action moves from one player to another in a more flowing fashion, rather than round-robin style. This feels more like the narrative in a book; you follow one character for a bit, then switch to another. This system also features a very useful list in the DM rules for making a situation more intersting; check out Dungeon Master moves.

Mage - Modern setting, point buy system. One main feature is a nine-school magic system (ten in the revised edition). You don't have fixed spells, you have rough guidelines on what you can do with varying numbers of points. This has led to very creative uses of spells, and turned plots on a dime.

Fate Core - Any setting. You have aspects that are literally English phrases about you. They can be used both for you and against you to increase drama in a situation. "Made of fire" - handy if you need to burn something, detrimental if you need to jump into a lake. "Daddy's money" - greases some wheels, but draws ire from the blue collar kid.

Bubblegumshoe - Teenage detectives. (I admit I haven't played this system, only read about it). The setup is always a tricky social situation where you know what happened, but there's no clear right answer. For example, you know early who stole someone's car. But they did it to take someone to the hospital. How do you find justice for the person with the damaged car who missed work? The key feature is your character is defined by like/love/hate relationships, and how you stress them to get people to do things.

Once Upon a Time - Not even an RPG, this is a card game. You make up stories with friends based on cards with nouns and verbs on them. Good practice for creating stories on the fly.

In summary, you should do a bunch more research on RPGs in general before deciding that D&D is really your best bet for finishing a narrative.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Expertly answered. I said this in a previous comment, but it is as you say. I always thought D&D was just its own thing, that it was the only tabletop RPG. I didn't realize there were thousands more, since I've never heard of them. This was absolutely helpful. Thank you. \$\endgroup\$ – Negiman4 Apr 12 '18 at 4:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ You make a good point about the rules of combat getting in the way of the narrative. You could mention Swords and Scrolls, which has such a narrow rule-set that everything comes down to a die roll and the ingenuity of the players. This might help to develop the world without all the 'grind' in working out the results. \$\endgroup\$ – AJFaraday Apr 12 '18 at 13:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ I would have posted this as a separate answer if I could log in from work but DW also has this thing where you make questions to players in order to shape the world, which looks like a good feature for the querent. \$\endgroup\$ – Zachiel Apr 12 '18 at 20:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Zachiel I tried to keep it to highlights, so one feature per system for as many systems as I could fit into a half hour of writing. And yes, I skipped over a bunch of cool stuff, like Fate's social-mental-physical combat system, and its Compel economy. I am simply trying to give a feel for what's out there, without writing a whole book on it. \$\endgroup\$ – Joel Harmon Apr 12 '18 at 21:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ One of the downsides of D&D for this sort of thing is that its magic system is really well thought-out and ingrained in the DNA of the system. It's very hard to fit settings that use magic in a different way (Lord of the Rings, for instance) into D&D. \$\endgroup\$ – chif-ii Apr 13 '18 at 13:18
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It's Not Completely Infeasible

It's not the same thing, of course, but many authors of science fiction or fantasy novels have also been gamers, including but certainly not limited to China Miéville, Raymond Feist, and George R R Martin. At least one series of books, purely off the top of my head, sprang originally from an RPG campaign, without even stopping to consider intentionally crafted media tie-in novels like the Dragonlance novels. I have absolutely no doubt there are others.

If a tabletop RPG can inspire or affect a written novel, there is no obvious reason it can't do the same for a computer RPG. It's simplistic, but they are similar art forms laying at different points along a continuum of agency. And along that continuum, tabletop RPGs (most agency) are closer to computer RPGs (less agency) than they are to novels (no agency.)

It May Not Work Like You Intend

I mentioned agency, just above, which is something of a term of art in gaming, although the term of art meaning is very close to its ordinary meaning. (It's a term of art not because it's jargon, but because it is important.)

The players and characters in a tabletop RPG have vastly more agency-- more freedom to make choices at every scale from the very short range (sword or arrow? Fight or run?) to the very long range (betray that ally? Support that faction? Cut that deal?)

The players of a computer RPG don't have that kind of scope. As I'm sure you are aware, much of the craft of developing a good computer RPG is providing as much agency as possible, and creating the illusion of even more, but at the end of the day-- this day, in 2018-- no computer can rival the creativity, adaptability and flexibility of human GM. (Maybe some day. But today is not that day.)

One very obvious pitfall that sits before you is this possibility: That your desire to explore a certain section of plot-space that hews closely to your desired plot arc will be at odds with your players' desire to do other things. At best, this may simply mean that although everyone has fun, you don't get what you want out of the exercise. At worst, it may result in something generally not fun.

This is not a guarantee that either of these will happen. Nor, if the latter one does occur, would it be unique to you. These are the other edge of the sword of creativity.

Advice

I don't think it's doomed, or necessarily a bad idea. I do think you should go in, if you do this, with two general approaches:

  • Be up front and honest with your players what you want to get out of this
  • Be ready, because you are taking your players' time in this endeavor, to put their enjoyment as players at least at the same level as your desire to get material for the game
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  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for the point that players have agency, and that they might use it in ways a GM doesn't expect. Being unexpectedly forced to collaborate is a thing that can catch newbie GMs who come from writing backgrounds by surprise. \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Apr 13 '18 at 23:02
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Don't use a formal roleplaying system for this.

It's rare that I can bring an example in my professional life directly to bear here on RPG.SE, but I'm glad to do it.

I work in the games industry, and I was recently on a heavily narrative-based game called Susurrus, Season of Tides that incorporated lots of player agency and options. Just like you, occasionally the writers would come to a situation and want to know what players would want to do. When they came to this point, they'd ask the company, and use the answers to inform their writing.

The writer would give the situation in broad terms, and give whatever context was needed: "You're marching down the road on your horse, and you see an injured acquaintance on the road. What do you do?"1 Then the company would read it and tell the writer the kinds of things that we think would be interesting to do. This would get all sorts of answers: Kick him, search his body, try to help, go find someone to help him, etc. The writer would take this feedback and use it to help inform the choices that players would actually be making in the game.

An important note here is that the writer was looking for help with a specific situation, and not the game world at large. tabletop RPGs are good for a lot of things, but they are spectacularly bad at giving answers to specific questions like this. If you're trying to find out more information about your game world in general by setting a group of players loose and seeing what they do, then tabletop RPGs can help you. If you want to know what a particular character might do in a particular situation, then it's going to be difficult to find that information from a tabletop RPG. 

In a game like D&D, you can't even be sure that the players will ever run into that injured acquaintance, since there's so much more freedom of action for the players. I can't count the number of times that I've planned for and hinted at and nudged my players in one direction only for them to suddenly be uninterested in the main plot and head off in another direction. It takes a lot of time, effort, buy-in, and careful planning to get players to answer questions for you, even questions as broad as "what kind of trouble would you get into here".

With all that in mind, here's what I would suggest doing, based on my experiences with narrative game design:

 1. Find a group of friends who are interested in your game idea, and tell them all about your world.

 2. Ask them questions about that world. This could be as specific as the "what would you do here" I posed above, or as general as "what kind of person would you want to be in this world" or "what kind of organization do you think might be cool in this city".

 3. Take their answers and convert them into something usable for your game. To call back to the example above; maybe you don't want your players to be able to kick their acquaintance, but you'd be fine with them insulting or doing another, less violent negative act.

You might even try acting out a longer roleplay with that group of friends, but I would generally suggest against using a formal system for this. There are some other games that would be better suited toward the sort of exploration you're looking for, like Dungeon World or Fate Core, but even that sort of game would have you spend a lot of time on things that aren't going to be directly helpful to your game's development.

1: I've changed the specific details of the story described, since NDAs are forever and I'd rather not break a contract.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Good to have a games industry experience based answer. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Apr 14 '18 at 0:37
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IF you do DM your own story, make it a prequel or epilogue, so that the slate is clean and players choose their own path. This will help broaden your universe without derailing your story.

I would prescribe however, you don't DM your own story. just be a player in an instance, or a sit in on a quest. Let whatever happen, happen. Take good notes of everyone's decision and consequence. When the session is over, start asking "what-ifs" of the session. compare player motive to the hindsight of the bigger picture. What if i went left instead of right? what if I failed that persuasion? how would that have changed the end goal? Go home and play it out in your head, prince of Persia style.

build the world the audience doesn't see, and you'll be writing brilliantly for the one that they do.

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No. Well, yes, but with a big "but..."

First of all, there is the legal mine field. Wizards of the Coast considers certain things, including the game mechanics, as part of what they publish as Open Game Content, without explicitly and exactly specifying what. The license states that derived work is Open Game Content, too, so you have to pay attention to fulfil some maybe not immediately obvious conditions.

Further, Wizards of the Coast considers certain things, again without telling exactly what, being Product Identity1. You agree (by using anything licensed under OGL, such as the SRD) not to use Product Identity. What they do tell, however, as a non-conclusive list, is things like "characters, plots, thematic elements, names and descriptions of spells, places and locations, likenesses, special abilities...", among others. So that's not just about using their logo and the famous Beholder, but indeed very wide, and insofar problematic.

If you accidentially do use what they consider Product Identity, and if Wizards of the Coast sues you (and they will, they've done that in the past!), you have a very weak defense position because not only did you use their intellectual property without being allowed to, you did it knowing and having accepted that you weren't allowed to. Read as: It's probably going to end catastrophically.

Lastly, at least the earlier revisions (5e might actually be not that bad) are utterly unsuitable for a computer simulation. It's not like you couldn't do it, but the system most definitively wasn't designed with the idea "use for computer games" in mind.

You can most probably come up with a system of your own which is easier to implement, works better, and does not risk infringing rights and being sued.


1 The same applies to "anything Tolkien", by the way, be very wary about using anything from these works. The Tolkien Consortium has been filing lawsuits (incidentially also against TSR, the former owner of D&D) about Tolkin words like "hobbit" (which, as it happens, is not a Tolkien invention at all).

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think this answer only applies if OP intends to post his adventures online, which it sounds (to me) like he does not. Otherwise a great answer to have on hand for anyone who is looking to try to duplicate Critical Roll et al. \$\endgroup\$ – Ifusaso Apr 12 '18 at 12:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ Using the OGL isn't automatic, nor required. Regular copyright law is more relevant to the question… and only barely, at that. This answer substantially misunderstands how the OGL works and when it applies. Browsing our [ogl] tag may be helpful. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Apr 12 '18 at 14:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ You point about computer simulation is badly wrong. Neverwinter Nights has a huge modding community and making new campaigns and stuff via that engine is not super hard. It's 3.x D&D. \$\endgroup\$ – the dark wanderer Apr 13 '18 at 0:08

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