When I started to DM with regularity, I began keeping bulleted summary notes on each gaming session. By my current standards, those first notes were barely adequate. In time, I made some improvements. I also began to incorporate into my summary notes some short lines of text that I used during the session itself. They added a bit of color and flavor. As I did this more, my summary notes became longer and more colorful, but they also became less useful as a quick reference. I was faced with a dilemma. Finally, I stumbled upon a solution that has since worked well for our group.
I now keep my summary notes as simple bullets (they are better than my initial bullets, but that is a discussion for another time). My notes now provide the most important information to players and DM alike without much flourish, making them easy to reference quickly. In addition, I occasionally write up the most exciting part of a session in story form. Into this short story go all the details and flavor that I can muster. This combination of practical summary notes and vivid short stories can really improve your game.
If you’ve never tried writing a short story from a gaming session, don’t worry. It’s not that complicated, and your fellow players will likely appreciate the effort, no matter how good the result. After all, your story is just a retelling of something that already happened—something that you already enjoyed together. Your readers will lose nothing if your story is lacking. Of course, with some effort and attention, you will likely produce increasingly better stories. If you’ve done some creative writing before, some of what you already know will apply. Yet it’s important to note that many creative writing tips do NOT apply, for you do not control the protagonists as the author of a novel does. Whatever your experience, don’t shy away from the effort! If you wish to give this a try, some of the tips below may be of use.
(1) Crop the Session: Very seldom does an entire gaming session make for a good story. There is often a great deal of uninteresting and unimportant discussion, exploration, travel, and even combat. Rather than trying to write about all of this, choose one dramatic event from the session to be the focus of your short story. It may be a large-scale melee, a wizard duel, or the party’s fight with a large monster. It may also be the party navigating a deadly trap or some other non-combat encounter. Choose the most exciting part of the session. If you’re not sure which to feature, ask the players what they think.
(2) Establish the Basic Flow of Events: With my starting and ending points now established (for example, “the assault on the robbers’ hilltop hideout”), I start to jot down rough events as I can recall them, also using my notes taken during the session. I don’t worry about any sort of style or flavor here. The goal is to record basic facts in chronological order. I’ll sometimes send an amended copy of my notes (leaving out DM stuff) to my players to see if I missed anything important. Even better, I ask players immediately after each big battle to name their favorite parts—the scenes that I should definitely include in a later story (if I have time to write one).
(3) Appeal to the Five Senses: With the crude events recorded, I start to make a list for each of the five senses. As I review the chronological record of events, I’ll usually jot down every adjective or detail that the PCs may have witnessed. For example, perhaps my chronological record simply says “PCs attacked by six wolves in forest. Gimlet wounded. Ragnar was deadly with his bow.” Recalling that encounter, I may now jot down the following: “SIGHT: rolling hills, conifers (spruce, fir, and pine), pinecones, dusting of snow on ground, scattered boulders, grey fur, yellow eyes, crimson blood, bared fangs, goosefeather shafts, etc.)” I then move on to “SOUNDS: birds stop chirping, fluttering as flock of birds take flight, growls, screams, grunts, snap of bowstring, thud of arrows hitting targets, etc.” You get the idea. I do this with each of the five senses. Later, when I start writing the actual narrative, I use these sensory lists as checklists, crossing off terms as I go.
I’ll often revisit the sensory lists a few times, adding details that I just remembered or even inserting a few details that never existed. To clarify that last point, I do not change the narrative by adding details. I simply insert some detail that was never made clear. For example, I may note the types of trees in that area, the color of a PC’s horse, or the types of dishes that the NPCs served to the PCs at the feast.
Though it is possible to use too much descriptive detail in the narrative (more on that later), you need not worry about that here. This is simply a list of possibilities. These are tools that you can use later, so fill up the tool box. As I revise my sensory lists, I can see beforehand if I’ll later be hitting all five of the senses equally. I’ll admit that sight still dominates the other senses in my stories, but my attempt to treat the senses equally usually means that I pay much more attention to sound, touch, smell, and taste than I would otherwise.
(4) Choose Focus Characters: There is no wrong way to tell a story, so do whatever works for you. I like to select two or three characters to serve as the lenses through which the scene will unfold. I usually include every PC in my story, of course, but I’ve found that making one or two the stars of the story works well. Why?
Stories seem more real when viewed from one point of view. It is how we experience life. We know what others say and do, but we don’t know for sure what they think. Given this logic, why not tell each story from only one PC’s point of view? I have considered this. However, I found that encounters are often complex, and very often one character, no matter how important or central, does not witness everything. Telling the story from just that one perspective, though realistic, would not provide a summary as clear as I would like. Thus, I have settled on using two or three characters as my lenses.
When considering which characters to choose for your lenses, consider first the players involved. Creative writing requires a bit of artistic license. If a player will object to your inventing some dialogue for his or her PC, choose someone else’s PC. Another option is to work with the player so that he or she becomes comfortable with it. Perhaps you can set some ground rules that will make the player happy. Ultimately, I think the player will enjoy seeing his or her PC as a focus in a story. I tend to choose PCs whose players I know very well. I have a good grasp of the character, how they act, how they think, and how they talk. This familiarity often derives from the player putting in some work to develop the PC early on. For example, contrast these two fighters. Fighter A belongs to a player that never gave you much information about his personality. He doesn’t say much or do anything interesting. Fighter B belongs to a player that describes his character as Val Kilmer playing a cavalier—noble and good, but quick witted and sarcastic. That second PC is far easier to imagine in any given scenario, and you will find writing dialogue for such a character to be easy and fun (assuming that you know who Val Kilmer is!) Even better, the player may like what you wrote and subsequently play up the character’s personality even more.
When choosing a lens, don’t ruin mysteries. This may seem like odd advice, but some players play their characters as enigmatic or erratic. I’m not entirely sure if they do this on purpose or if the characters simply reflect the players’ personalities. In any case, I realized that making an enigmatic or erratic character the lens in a story may actually disrupt the vibe that the character normally gives to the rest of the group. For example, one player in our group runs a female magic-user that is literally insane. She’s functional, but she is definitely not seeing things as others are. Looking to give each PC an equal share of the limelight, I once started to make her the focus of a story. Very quickly, I realized that my narrative would expose too many of her inner thoughts, thereby stripping away much of the mystique that the player had built around her. After struggling to figure out how to deal with that, I decided against making her a lens. She features in every story, but the characters in the spotlight always view her as a mystery. Thus, rather than tearing down the mystique that the player has built, each story reinforces it.
You can also use a trusted NPC as a lens. The main appeal here is that the NPC is yours to control so you need not worry about player objections. Writing from the NPC’s point of view allows you to share more about that NPC—much more that would come out in the game, for you are showing the NPC’s thoughts and emotions. I would not do this with many NPCs, as they should not be open books to the PCs, but doing this with one or two long-term party NPCs can really help players grow fond of the NPCs. Such NPCs are also valuable vehicles for transmitting important information to the players. In one of our monthly games, I often use a very intelligent, if inexperienced, NPC magic-user for this. Kind-hearted and gentle, he also is a cousin to most of the PCs, so they trust him implicitly. I use him in a sage capacity to give the party information in some of my stories.
If possible, use at least one character that is somehow ignorant of the situation at hand, whatever that may be. This is an old writing trick. The reader will naturally have many questions about a setting (in fantasy and science fiction, this is especially true). As the DM and writer, you can answer these questions, but you must do so in an entertaining fashion. Few readers want to read an essay on a certain race, location, or religion before getting on with the story. The writer’s trick is to make one of the main characters ignorant of the topic. When he or she asks his many questions and when knowledgeable characters answer them, it seems like part of the story and not an information dump for the reader. Of course, there are subtle and not-so-subtle ways of doing this. You generally want to avoid long Q&A sessions that are obvious information dumps in the guise of dialogue. Instead, use occasional questions here and there. In my monthly campaign, when I want to point out certain features of Frangian culture (the main culture of most PCs), I have the female elven ranger notice certain things or ask about certain things. They are strange to her, whereas they are normal for most of the party. If you don’t use a character that is unfamiliar with the topic at hand, any explanations will seem really odd and out of place. Imagine two modern characters leaving work to go get lunch. It would be really strange for one character to explain to the other how to start a car. However, if one character had never laid eyes on an automobile before, his or her questions would be natural.
(5) Touch on All Characters: This is basic, but every player likes to see his or her character in the story (assuming that the character was somehow present). Do your best to include everyone. At the very least, try to accurately record each character’s best contributions during that part of the story. Note, however, that there are times that a PC does nothing of note. Plenty of times, a PC may be guarding the horses or guarding the rear. You don’t want to simply skip the character. Equally unsatisfying is an occasional sentence that says, “Meanwhile, Bori continued to guard the horses.” So what to do? First, as the DM, during the session itself, you might get that character involved somehow, even if it turns out to be unimportant. The character guarding the horses may start to see shadows in the forest or to hear strange noises. Maybe the sights and sounds are nothing, but maybe they connect nicely to your planned encounters. For example, if the party is fighting goblins in the woods, perhaps the PC at the bottom of the hill, who you never plan to attack, should see small shadows and hear rustling sounds in the trees around him. Even if no attack materializes, the player is likely to find the encounter far more interesting. It makes sense too. Finally, in the summary, you can mention the poor character’s anxiety as he stands alone in the dark.
On other occasions, a character might be right there in the thick of things, but he might never have an overly dramatic moment worth recording. Rather than ignore such a character, get a little creative with your details. Perhaps Bjorn the barbarian fought for eight rounds in a static line, certainly doing his fair share but accomplishing nothing heroic. You don’t need to describe his fighting that way. Describe him as furiously hacking at his foes, deflecting shots, driving his foe back onto his heels, etc. To some extent, all large RPG battles involve a bit of a grind (the better ones have this to a much smaller extent), but by all means don’t describe it that way!
(6) Story Structure: There are many ways to tell a story. The simplest is to describe events in chronological order. When using this method, I like to back up a bit before the dramatic event begins. I have found that I don’t like to continue the story long after the exciting part ends, for it seems anti-climactic. Yet, if we start with action and stop right afterwards, you get very little time to build tension or to develop characters. Start when the tension is already building, and spend a page or so building it further. Get some dialogue in there. Allow your characters to notice things that they might not notice once all Hell breaks loose. Then, describe your exciting and dramatic event. End soon afterwards, perhaps with a cliffhanger or with an appropriate one-liner.
I used this approach when turning the notes of our monthly AD&D game into a short story called Trial by Combat. The story begins in the Baron’s feast hall, where the rivalry between the party and the Mandrake family results in a scheduled duel. The story continues in the inn later that night as the family considers the duel. Finally, we get to the next morning, when the duel plays out on the fields outside the Keep.
I used this simple approach again when turning the notes of our game into a short story called Terror in the Tower, Part 3. The story began with the party standing outside in the rain, just outside the cloister of an abandoned temple. The party leader gave final instructions as he set off with a smaller group to investigate the library tower that loomed over the site. I tried to build tension as I described their entry into the tower and their ascension to the second floor. Finally, all Hell broke loose when the party encountered a homebrew monster called a Sentinel. After they seemingly ‘kill’ the creature, I briefly describe their hasty retreat and return to the cloister. The last few lines hint at how the group was now in terrible shape, even though they just defeated that horrific monster.
A slightly more complex method, which I often use, involves one or more flashbacks. I try for one, but occasionally I use two. I dislike using more than two because readers may become confused by the frequent jumping about. For this style, I try to start the narrative in media res, meaning in the middle of some action. It need not be a battle though. The party may be galloping across the open countryside on horseback or rowing upriver in a galley. Just give the readers a sense of movement, as this is usually more exciting than sitting in a tavern. I briefly describe the surroundings, trying to give the reader a feel for the scenario. I then flashback briefly to some earlier time, allowing the main character to recall how he came to be in the starting scenario. This is usually where I describe the mission, the adventure, the quest, as well as how it came to be. I keep this short because this part, though important, is low on action. Finally, I flash back to the present and move things along to the dramatic event. As with the above, I try to end with a cliff-hanger or with a memorable one-liner.
I used this approach when turning the notes of our monthly AD&D game into a short story called The Battle of Heinrich’s Horn. The story begins with the PCs crouched on a hillside, waiting for the signal to attack. After describing that scene, I had the main character flash back to an earlier scene, wherein a PC lays out the party’s attack plan. This gives the reader an idea what the characters are planning to do. I then jump back to the present to push the action forward just a bit. I then make one last flashback to tell the story of how some enchantments went wrong just before the party ascended the hill. Finally, I come back to the present once more and describe the attack itself (this was a long and complicated battle). After the fighting stops, I briefly describe the aftermath and finally try to end on a memorable one-liner. I could have told this story in chronological order, but I did not want page upon page of inaction before we got to some action. I could not just skip it, for the reader would be lost. Flashbacks did the trick here. Technically, the battle didn’t come any quicker, but starting with the group in attack position made the action seem imminent.
(7) The Right Amount of Descriptive Detail: Many children and amateur writers naturally focus on what characters do, forgetting to include enough descriptive detail. Stories that lack such detail can seem bland or tough to envision. Stephen King is a master of using details to create memorable and vivid scenes. In his stories, characters do not simply eat cookies, they eat Oreos and get tiny black crumbs all over their flannel shirts. They don’t drive in an old car; they drive in a green 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air Convertible with a dirty white top. Much of fantasy gaming is still ‘theater of the mind’, even with all the maps, figures, and tokens. You need this kind of detail to capture the players’ imagination.
Yet, it is possible to include so much descriptive detail that it painfully bogs down the narrative. Pacing suffers, and readers’ eyes glaze over, despite a genuine interest in the material. Indeed, one of my most beloved fiction writers, who wrote groundbreaking epics about an evil dark lord and his magical ring, was often terribly guilty of this! So how to find the right balance? My first rule is to consider my existing chronological notes (see above in Establishing the Basic Flow of Events) as the bones of my story. Bones help us to stand up. If there were twelve inches of fluff in between our leg bones, we could not stand. Likewise, if we insert whole paragraphs of painstaking description, devoid of action, our narrative will certainly stagnate and even seem to collapse. A trick, therefore, is to add bits of detail (‘fluff’) to the story elements that contain the action (the ‘bones’). For example, if you wish to describe the party riding on horseback through a forest (a bone of the story), do not simply write that and then follow it up with three lengthy paragraphs on the types of trees found in the forest, all the legends of the forest, and all the wildlife found in the forest. The readers likely do not care that much. Instead, look for instances where you used the generic word ‘trees’, and consider writing specific types instead. “Odo led his horse through the trees” might become “Odo led his horse through a stand of birch trees”. Alternatively, find an easy way to insert just a few tree types into the narrative, without changing the focus of the sentences. “Odo led his mare around the bend” might become “Odo led his mare around a stand of birch trees.” The focus remains Odo, or more importantly, his action. You just happen to know that there are birch trees there now. This is very easy to do. In fact, it’s so easy that you must guard against doing it in every sentence.
I make my sensory lists (sights, sounds, smells, etc.) before I write the narrative because they show me all the descriptive details that I hope to include. Seeing them all at a glance helps me to pace myself. Knowing that I can distribute these details over several pages of the story removes the pressure to add them into every single sentence.
(8) Show, Don’t Tell: The DM should use this timeless writer’s tip while running the session in question, not just in writing a story from that session’s notes. However, even in the writing, you can show and not tell. For anyone unfamiliar with this tip, the gist is to allow the reader to see actions that convey a character’s personality/mood instead of just mentioning that the character has that personality/mood. For example, in my monthly campaign, a player’s cavalier named William is deathly afraid of water. When playing William, the player does not say “My character is afraid of water” though he may say in character, “I am not getting on a boat. I would sink like a rock, even without this plate armor.” Showing can go beyond words too. During the game, the player may mention that William, whom the party somehow convinced to get into the boat, is gripping the side of the boat with white-knuckles and moving very little. Other players can easily envision this, and it conveys the emotion of fear. Likewise, when writing your account of the session, remember to add such details, even if the player forgot to stress them during the session. In the case of my game, the player has mentioned his PC’s fear of water very often. If he forgot to do so on this occasion during play, I feel comfortable adding it in. It makes the character that much more believable and the overall scene that much more vivid.
(9) Use Dialogue to Maximum Effect: Dialogue is important for obvious reasons, but it may be even more useful than you think. In addition to telling the reader who said what, it can also flesh out characters. If you wish to highlight the selfish nature of an NPC, let his selfishness come out in dialogue with the PCs or with another NPC (an example of ‘show, don’t tell’).
Furthermore, pay attention to vocabulary to maintain immersion. Nothing ruins the immersive experience of a fantasy game like very modern-sounding words. Some classic offenders are obvious. Dispense with slang words like dude, chick, guy, gal, buddy, etc. Try to avoid modern slang phrases too (“How’s it going?”) We use such phrases so often that identifying them can be somewhat difficult. There are far too many to list here, but if you do a brief search for common slang phrases, you’ll find dozens in common use. Also consider eliminating most modern expletives, as they reek of modernity. As a side note, whether or not to use expletives in your writing is an entirely different discussion. If you plan to include them, I simply suggest that you use words that seem consistent with the setting. This does not mean that you must use Old English swear words, though this can be fun too. The common expletive for poop is pretty basic and pretty old, so using it will not necessarily break the mood. For full transparency, note that there is a school of thought that argues that expletives are expletives and should be written as we use them today. After all, they say, your fantasy characters are not speaking English, but you write in English for the reader’s convenience. It’s a solid logical argument, but it does not take into account that slang breaks the immersion for many players. Thus, I try to avoid it to some extent.
One very effective way to make dialogue feel less modern is to eliminate contractions in your writing. Most contractions are only a few hundred years old. They are so pervasive that we barely notice them…until they are gone. This is one of those small finishing touches that makes the work better. Every now and then, I’ll allow a contraction to remain in the dialogue, usually because I cannot find any other good way to express the thought without losing the emotion. In such cases, I would argue that phrase probably stands out more because it is NOT the norm.
Lastly, you can use vocabulary in your writing to reflect a character’s social class and manners. A cavalier from a noble family should sound entirely different from a son-of-a-peasant fighter. A highly educated magic-user or cleric should sound entirely different from an uneducated street thief from the slums. Ideally, the players running such PCs would try to show this at the table, but regardless of their efforts, you can showcase such subtle differences in your summaries. Of course, this requires you to have a decent vocabulary yourself, as well as a grasp of proper grammar. If you’re rusty, look up a few words and grammar rules. You’ll be better off for it, and if you do this consistently, you’ll easily be able to distinguish between educated and uneducated characters. If you need inspiration, take a look at a few movies that depict the highborn. Though there are probably dozens of good examples, one popular movie that jumps to mind is Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995). Though the movie is an historical abomination, it’s very entertaining, and, more to the point, it features several actors sounding properly noble.
(10) Proofread: I could have left this list at nine, but the teacher in me cannot resist this last famous writer’s tip: ‘Good writing is rewriting’. If you bothered to take the time to write up your short story, finish it properly by proof-reading it three or four (or ten) times. Tweak grammar as best you can (grammar refers to parts of speech and how they properly combine to make sentences). Check your mechanics (mechanics generally refer to rules like spelling, punctuation, and capitalization). Also look for typos. Do not rely on a spelling checker or grammar checker, though they are helpful (Jerrold Zar’s brief and amusing poem Ode to My Spell Checker highlights the reason why).
Try to tighten up your sentences. As a teen, I tried hard to make my writing sound more mature. Unfortunately, without proper guidance, I simply littered my writing with unnecessary words, generic phrases, and passive verbs to make my sentences longer. Much later, it took years to unlearn that bad habit. There are just too many examples of ‘loose, baggy writing’ to list here, but you can go online and find a dozen tutorials on how to tighten up your language if you wish to do so.
Consider sentence types too. Typically, this is one of the most obvious differences between the writing of a child and that of an adult. Children tend to write in simple sentences (“The wizard opened his spell book. The fighter then moved to the edge of the pit”). Adults tend to blend these into compound sentences (“The wizard opened his spellbook, while the fighter moved to the edge of the pit”). Adults also tend to start using dependent clauses to make complex sentences (“As his companions moved into the room, the wizard opened his spell book”) or even compound-complex sentences (“As his companions moved into the room, the wizard opened his spellbook, while the fighter moved to the edge of the pit”). Of course, good writers do not use these longer sentences exclusively. Change the flow of the narrative by mixing up sentence types.
Try also to eliminate repetitive words or phrases. You may discover through practice that your mind selects the same word or phrase for a specific situation or idea. Only by continually re-reading your work will you spot the repetition. When you do, try using a different word or phrase. Also, this may sound silly, but reading your work aloud helps greatly with this (just close the door or people will think that you’re nuts). Often your ears will detect what your eyes miss.
So there you have it: ten tips for writing short stories from your gaming sessions. If you haven’t yet tried your hand at it, go for it. Players will likely appreciate your work, and you may eventually become proud of your growing collection. If nothing else, you will preserve some of your favorite gaming moments for years to come.