The essential writer's virtue that isn't usually mentioned

There are people in these forums who are making their own content with the toolset, which eventually always leads to the issue of storytelling. The more experienced here will probably already know everything I’m about to say, so this is more for those who are new to storytelling. So here goes.

In crafting worlds, characters and plots, there is one major element that makes all the difference between worthless rubbish and a timeless masterpiece. This is also the element that made Tolkien’s work so incredibly good that to this day, no one has been able to outdo his work on the Lord of the Rings. The story that was the father of all fantasy is still funnily enough pretty much the most competent example of the genre. What made Tolkien so good, what is the secret trait he had that pretty much every single fantasy writer that came after him has lacked (excluding a few exceptions)? It wasn’t his creativity, although he was creative.

Tolkien had an extensive lifelong collection of KNOWLEDGE about history, mythology, theology, and overall insight into the inner workings of man, society and nature he could draw upon to craft his masterpiece. Knowledge is your single greatest asset when telling stories. Knowing how things work, understanding human society, how history develops, what sort of events cause which sort of consequences. That’s the most important asset you can ever have as a storyteller, even creativity comes second to that. So if you want to improve as a storyteller, especially when it comes to world building and plot developing plots, you should start reading non-fiction extensively. Get a good grasp on history to get very real examples of how things can develop.

Research your subject matter. Get a DETAILED understanding of how your world works from a practical standpoint. A very surface level example can be found in the iron shortage storyline in Baldur’s Gate. Iron is essential for making medieval tools and weapons, and thus access to iron is of paramount importance to any society. Add in a little basic economic knowledge and you come to the natural goal of the bad guys of attaining a very lucrative iron monopoly with their scheme that would grant them no only massive profits, but also a great measure of power on the region. It’s a very shallow example, but there it is. The more detailed your understanding is, the easier it is for you to come up with elements to use in your own story and plot. Basic resources are a really easy source of major political shifts and can thus easily serve as a basis for the conflicts in your story.

Another major aspect is that basic knowledge can allow you to avoid the most basic of plunders in world building, such as having major coastal cities without any harbor or other nonsense. Or simple stuff like realizing that there’s actually no sound in the vacuum of space before describing “ear shattering explosions” if you are even pretending to go for any sort of scientific accuracy. The space example doesn’t really help with module building but I’m tired and couldn’t come up with a better example, use your imagination. In the context of D&D, reading up basic stuff about the forgotten realms and such is obviously beneficial, considering you’re essentially writing for a pre-existing setting, but basic understanding of the practical realities and limits of medieval technology will help you just as much, if for nothing else than to not inflate every single plot point with magic and “a wizard did it” explanations.

So if you’re at all concerned about the quality of your storytelling and if you have a long term passion for it, then it is a lot better to spend your time reading non-fiction than it is to spend it reading another fantasy novel that only makes sense to people who don’t know anything about anything. Knowledge and understanding are your ticket to better quality storytelling, so start cultivating those traits now.


An example, and a truth:

Don’t have people stumble into a centuries locked tomb and find living animals in a single locked room with no water, food, egress, or air.

Truth: All effects have a cause. The world you create is an effect (well, a huge number of effects). Work back to the cause of those effects. Why was a fortress built here? Why was it abandoned? Why does the bad guy even want to do whatever it is he/she wants to do? Where’d that come from?


But don’t necessarily tell the players. Let their imaginations run riot.



I find it easier to actually not work back to why the fortress was built, but instead work forwards from earlier starting points so that it is easy for me to know where the fortresses are and then I already know why they were built, as the whole context of whys is already there. It also helps a lot with keeping the details of the fortress consistent with the backstory. The fortress is obviously just an example, but the more groundwork you do with your worldbuilding BEFORE you start to actually tell your story, the more you’ll find out that the groundwork you did allows your story to progress really organically without that much of a hassle in trying to figure out the details and what happens next; your well prepared groundwork will inform your every step and the story practically tells itself. In theory that is. In practice, life happens and your genius doesn’t always cooperate.

EDIT: and obviously, Tarot’s point is so important that I’d like to emphasize it as well. Keep some things secret from the player and explain others to give them both an enhanced insight into your world and a mystery to keep them hooked and fuel their own imagination.

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