Think Like a Role-Playing Game Master

In role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, one person takes on the role of dungeon or game master, who creates world and an adventure for the other players to explore. If you study how game masters work, it’s no different from how screenwriters work.

The basic idea is to create a realistic, consistent world and give the players (audience) a goal to pursue. To make this physical goal more interesting, game masters often give the players an emotional reason to pursue that goal. Few players want to chase after a physical goal just for the sake of chasing after a physical goal, so an emotional goal gives players a reason and motivation. Notice how important this is in story telling as well?

Just like a game master must do, screenwriters must also create an interesting, believable and consistent world for their characters to live in. This world must be consistent and believable. That often means creating rules that define what the players can and cannot do.

In “A Quiet Place,” the realistic, believable world is one where sightless, carnivorous creatures hunt humans by sound. Every scene enhances that realistic world by giving you a different glimpse of how that world works from walking quietly barefoot to being able to talk near a waterfall because the noise masks human speech from the monsters.

The trouble with bad movies is that they don’t establish a consistent world. Instead, they simply throw different actions and ideas at the audience and hope that it will be entertaining by itself. This never works. Scenes can only work when they’re consistent with a much larger world.

In romantic comedies, the world is usually our own world of today while in horror movies, the world is usually our normal world but one one twist such as a monster of some kind or a serial killer. Yet even in horror movies, every scene supports that consistent world of horror that the monster influences.

In “A Quiet Place,” there is no scene that doesn’t reflect the sightless monsters hunting humans. In “It Follows,” the world is today’s normal world except with a relentless ghost that stalks a cursed person. What makes the ghost in “It Follows” so terrifying is that the ghost moves slowly and looks like a normal person.

So the lessons to learn from game master is this:

  • Create a realistic, believable world
  • Give characters a physical goal to pursue
  • Give characters an emotional goal to motivate them to pursue a physical goal
  • At all times, be entertaining
  • At all times, stay consistent in the world you created

Imagine telling your story as an adventure in a role-playing game. Would players find it interesting? Would they find it compelling? Would they find it believable? if not, then rework your story until you could tell it in a way that would work as a game master in a role-playing game because in a way, you are.

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