The D&D War Story

Matt Colville posted a wonderful video about Fantasy vs.

Fiction in D&D, contrasting how he runs the narrative of his campaign with

how Matt Mercer runs his. The whole thing is great, and vastly expands the part

I’ve clipped out here, so go watch it and support him (because otherwise I’ll

feel bad for clipping so much and potentially costing him hits).

0:04:55 “The

difference between fantasy and mainstream fiction is that, in fantasy, the world

is a manifestation of the character’s internal conflict. … And I believe that is

true of Matt Mercer’s world. I believe that the story at least, maybe not the

world, but the story that he’s telling, is an externalization of the internal conflicts

of the characters and the cast. … It’s somewhat obvious to say he’s mining his

character’s backstories to create conflict, but what is the purpose of that?

It’s to create a plot, to create a story, to create a campaign, where the story

is a manifestation of the character’s internal conflict. The things that are

happening inside their head become represented in the world…

0:06:32 “…

Stephen R. Donaldson says the difference between fantasy and mainstream

fiction, is that in mainstream fiction, the characters are a manifestation of

the world. The author has something to say about the nature of the world, and

they create a character that represents that, so that they can make their

point, and as a result- I think that is accurate. That also represents my

attitude towards fantasy. Obviously, fantasy can cover a wide variety of topics,

and approaches and attitudes… Whereas in my game, I have a plot already

established that I’ve worked on. I know what’s going to happen. It’s often, but

not always, based on some adventure, or collection of adventures that I’ve

strung together, and my attitude is, ‘This is the world, this is the central

conflict, these are the major players, this is the bad guy, these are the

things that are going to happen if the heroes don’t interfere,’ and then I just

sit back and watch it play out. I am not building a series of adventures to

give the players opportunities to work out their backstories. Often, my players

write elaborate backstories. I don’t always read the whole think immediately.

I’ve got a game to run, is my attitude, and I hope that doesn’t seem

disrespectful. But I will dip into the player’s backstories over the first

couple sessions, and read them slowly over time, and start mining them for

ideas, but, typically, if my players find that something in their backstory has

become relevant to the story that they’re dealing with at that moment, from my

point of view, it’s because it was an attack of opportunity. I saw an opportunity,

and I took it.”

This really got me thinking about my own DM’s narrative style,

which is a blend between fantasy and fiction. He creates a relatively open

world, develops an overarching conflict, and then adds our backstories into

that framework, directly or indirectly, but from the beginning with great

intention. He sets the hooks for the main story, our backstories, and side quests.

Then we as players need to choose which to pursue, with consequences for all.

Our greatest enemy, in this campaign, is time. Two of us

have backstories that have year time limits on them before personal catastrophe

happens. But the major world conflict is unfolding at the same time, and it gets

progressively more dangerous every game session. The essential friction in the

campaign is dealing with our internal conflicts vs. dealing with the external

conflicts of the world.

Many years ago, Driv sold his soul to a demon to save his

dying wife. The balance comes due in a year, and he knows it. His drive to

please Cayden Calian in the work we do is a direct attempt to save himself,

though none of the party know it, yet. When the hourglass runs out, we’ll probably

have to deal with his story immediately or risk losing him for good. How will

the rest of the party react to that revelation, especially Van, paladin of

Pholtus? Will we be able to reconcile Driv’s terrible deed, however well

intentioned, with Van’s stringent beliefs? Nkiru and Dorran may be more

sympathetic, but that could depend entirely on how events play out; both have

their own set of morals they won’t compromise on.

An assassin’s guild is holding Nkiru’s children hostage to guarantee

her reluctant service. She has a year to complete a mission for them, or she’ll

lose her children forever. She already gave up her old life once to save them.

Many of her actions, like building a trade empire around a co-op commune, are

her way of building a safe place to bring her children back to. But she’s also grappling

with whether, if we did rescue her children soon, she could even protect them from

all the enemies we’ve made. However awful the people they’re with may be, they

might still be safer there for now. That’s a hell of an internal conflict.

But the conflict of the larger world doesn’t stop to suit

them. The Dragon Cult of Tiamat is still an increasingly urgent threat to

everything. We know their plan is to destroy the world. Every time we look

away, that conflict gets more desperate, more dangerous, and more difficult to

contain. They’ve also repeatedly attacked the personal projects we’ve tried to


So, which battles do they choose as the clock ticks down on

all of them? What if we only have time to deal with one? Do we choose the

selfless path of immediately dealing with the world threat of the Dragon Cult?

Or do we choose the more selfish path of dealing with our internal conflicts?

What are the psychological ramifications for the characters of making either


I think of this blended approach like a good war novel. Take

Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” The Vietnam War

drives everything about the main narrative. In a D&D campaign, fighting

through the war would be the external conflict. It’s a fight they’re caught up

in, rather than one they chose. A major difference, in D&D, being that the

characters have a direct ability to influence the conflict on a large scale,

whereas O’Brien’s soldiers can only indirectly influence it

, and survive. (It

would be fascinating, to run a campaign where the characters can’t directly influence the world conflict.)

But the backstories of the characters, how they got there, what they left

behind, who they essential are, who they want to be, and every coping mechanism

they develop to reconcile themselves with the war, those are the true

stories of the narrative. The world shapes the characters just as much as the

characters shape their interpretation of the world and their actions in it. The

title story is centered around the letter Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carries from a

girl he loves back home. It unfolds around his internal conflict to reconcile who

he was before the war, what he wants for the future, and the external events he

finds himself in. His internal conflict ultimately shapes the events that are

part of the external conflict shaping him.

I’m not trying to make any pretense that a game of D&D

could ever equate to a real war story. But the dichotomy between the characters

being a manifestation of the world, and

the world being a manifestation of the characters, is yet another way of

crafting a narrative in D&D. My DM and I come from very different

backgrounds with very different beliefs. The wonderful thing about this sort of

narrative is that we’ve both been able to control the events of the worlds in a

way that has created 11 years of productive dialog about the nature of the

world that we could never talk about directly (at least, not without yelling).

Ultimately, any group’s style of play is going to be about

what they need out of the game. Some groups need a space where they can control

and resolve conflicts outside themselves. Some groups need a space where they

can project and explore their internal conflicts, or practice empathy by

working through the internal conflicts of someone very different than

themselves. Some groups need a space where they can have a dialog about conflict

in the world in general. Some groups just need an escape from the mundane into

the absurd. Some groups just need to wreck shit and let off steam. It’s all

fair play. It’s what makes D&D, and roleplaying in general, immensely powerful.

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