I can’t say what came first: my desire to write fantasy or my desire to play Dungeons & Dragons. I just know that they are and always have been inextricably linked in my imagination. I read fantasy from the age of four or five, but the realization that I wanted to tell my own stories in the genre came around eleven, which was roughly the time I discovered games like Dungeons & Dragons. And now, on the cusp of the release of my debut fantasy novel, there are some very specific ways that the two intersect. Building a homebrewed world for a game and building one to set stories can be similar exercises. I begin campaigns with only the vaguest notions of where the story is going to go, and try to make it as much about the characters as possible, and I do the same thing when I start a story. Even The Paladin Trilogy wasn’t planned in any sense; I just kept writing ‘til the story ended. But for me, the clearest place where writing fantasy and running RPGs intersect is in constructing a fight scene.
Naturally, there are going to be some instant differences between your average RPG combat encounter and a fight scene in a story. The outcome in a story (even for someone as dedicated to flying by the seat of his pants as I am) is probably not as much in doubt as it is in a D&D fight. There is probably going to be an awful lot more fighting in your average RPG campaign than in most fantasy novels, which should be a warning for those who, like younger versions of me, think that the campaigns they are running or playing in would make a perfect series of epic fantasy novels if simply transcribed blow-by-blow. When you and your gamer pals are sitting around reliving past glories, you probably don’t recall giant rats and Kobolds at level one, or the Orc cannon fodder that the GM used to peel away some of your resources before a more meaningful fight. What you remember are the big fights: the Ancient Red Dragon, the Lich, the recurring villain illusionist who kept escaping you. And this brings me to the first thing that D&D taught me about writing action or fight scenes in a fantasy novel: something has to be at stake.
The fights that matter are those where everyone involved has something to gain, or something to lose, or both. I believe that the fight scenes in Ordination all carry narrative weight because they advance the narrative, and they teach us things about Allystaire, the Goddess, Idgen Marte, or their enemies, and I strive for the same in gaming. I thought for a while about beginning the book with a fight. But eventually I realized that readers wouldn’t know or care who Allystaire was, why he was fighting, and wouldn’t be invested in the outcome. The first real fight of the book comes in Chapter 8, against the slavers Allystaire has spent days tracking at the behest of Mol. When he goes into the warehouse to take on the slavers, you should know who he is, who they are, and precisely why it’s come to this.
Speaking of that warehouse, it’s the second time the reader sees it, and the physical layout and the number and disposition of slavers inside it has been covered. That’s not an accident, because the second thing D&D taught me about fight scenes is how important space is. Just like a player, the reader needs a clear idea of where everyone is in relation to one another, what the terrain is like, and how much distance the combatants will cover. While I don’t think that any scenes in Ordination can be ruthlessly interpreted via D&D rules, when I crafted the first draft of the warehouse fight, I actually got out my battle-mat grid, a handful of minis, and markers, and blocked it off stage by stage. I wanted the fight to make spatial sense, for the reader to understand how much distance was covered, and where everything and everyone were in relation to one another. Combat in an RPG like D&D absolutely relies on that kind of precision, and I thought it was important to bring just enough of that into the fight scenes of Ordination.
The warehouse fight in Chapter 8 ends with Allystaire dropping into unconsciousness from the wounds he’s taken, and while one immediate problem is solved, a host of unforeseen consequences unfolds over the next several chapters, which is exactly as it should be; a fight should have consequences. As a gamer and GM, this lesson took a long time to learn. When I was playing and running D&D at age seventeen, we went and killed goblins because goblins were evil and that’s what adventurers did. There was no need to examine it or think about it. Now, though, I’m much more likely to try and force my players to think about the ramifications of the violence their characters do. Maybe the Orcs were preying on local settlements, and maybe they were “evil,” but maybe they also inhabited an important role in a local power ecosystem, and were acting as a buffer between the people the players are defending and something much worse. Maybe the Kobolds they just cleared out of a dungeon were simply contractors, building traps for a necromancer’s underground lair because building traps is what Kobolds do, and everybody’s got to earn a copper piece somehow. The fact is that no matter the motivations of the enemies whom our heroes face, their defeat or death is likely to leave someone devastated, destitute, angry, vengeful, or maybe some mixture of all four.
What kinds of consequences does Allystaire meet after he takes on the slavers in the warehouse in Ordination? Find out on June 1.
Daniel M. Ford was born and raised near Baltimore, Maryland. He holds a BA in English from Villanova University, an MA in Irish Literature from Boston College, and an MFA in Creative Writing, concentrating in Poetry, from George Mason University. As a poet, his work has appeared most recently in Soundings Review, as well as Phoebe, Floorboard Review, The Cossack, and Vending Machine Press. He teaches English at a college prep high school in North East, Maryland. Ordination is his first novel. You can find him on Twitter @soundingline and at his website danielmford.com.