Collaborative storytelling: 3 Do’s & Dont’s… from Dungeons & Dragons?


I’m Matt.

I’m 35.

And I love Dungeons & Dragons.

Luckily, I am far from alone. Sitting in a packed Wembley Arena, with 12,500 people there to watch 8 other people play the game, I got to thinking – what really brought this large and immensely diverse crowd here?

They love the storytelling.

For those that don’t know (or worse, are somehow stuck in the Satanic Panic of the ‘80s), that’s what Dungeons & Dragons actually is at its core: collaborative storytelling. A game master (Dungeon Master) facilitates the ‘rules’, while players bring their imagined characters (quirks, flaws, and all) to decide what they will do from one situation to the next.

Whether in one session or a hundred, you’ll have a unique story that’s influenced by everyone – with brilliant outcomes at the end, and along the way. And of course, collaborative storytelling is everywhere in our working lives too. It’s how agencies and clients get from facts, figures and observations to inspiring, useful insights – together.

D&D has given me a whole new perspective on narrative and writing, so here’s a few do’s and don’ts reflecting on story collaboration which I hope might inspire you.

The right context isn’t important – it’s everything

In D&D, a key part of the game-master’s job is to create (and bring to life) a fictional world for the players to interact and make decisions within.

The clearer the word-picture you paint, the easier it is for the characters to interact or make decisions (and often more innovative ones). By way of a simple D&D example, if you don’t explain that there’s a waterfall nearby, no-one is going to think to look behind it (or swan-dive off it).

At the same time, too much detail in context loses engagement fast; don’t wax lyrical about the mountain range in the distance unless it has relevance that soon becomes clear.

So, what does this mean outside of the fun of fantasy fiction?

Do: Make sure you’ve taken enough time to step back to look at the bigger picture. An insight is much weaker without a ‘world’ to live in.

Don’t: Go the opposite direction and overload on details that don’t actually help the narrative.

Build the team mindfully, then let people own their roles

Mentioning the word ‘role-play’ to people usually results in some kind of cringe response (or even a blush) as well as a burst of uncannily urgent emails or meetings to attend to – but it’s a big part of creating stories collaboratively.

Every ‘character’ brings a different background, set of skills, and personality to the story, and the different dynamics or combination of these is what makes every collaborated story unique. D&D generally shies away from the idea of a single protagonist, preferring instead to think about combinations, balances and even conflicts across the group, all while embracing shared ownership of the story’s evolution.

So, if you’re working with others on building a story:

Do: Understand the varying strengths you have in the team, and keep a sense of what everyone brings. Let conflicts and complements between these be used in equal measure, to really test the boundaries of where your narrative can go (but keep them both equally constructive). Consider even bringing a new ‘character’ in, for a new perspective or skillset if you’re stuck for a resolution.

Don’t: Forget who brought the key moments to the story. If someone beyond the nominated ‘group leader’ did the proverbial dragon-slaying, ensure they get their moment of heroic recognition, one way or another.

Things that don’t work are sometimes as important (if not more) than the things that do

A very big part of D&D is rolling a variety of different dice to determine the outcome of an event, or a character’s attempt at something. Want to pick a lock and sneak into some dark mage’s tower? High roll – you sneak in to find a critical clue. Low roll – the lock explodes and your character is magically compelled to dance the Macarena for an hour – a clear fork in where the story can go from there!

Success or failure, the idea is to come up with both practical and creative ideas that reveal some aspect of what happens next. So:

Do: Embrace things that don’t go as planned. Maybe an analysis or source comes up with nothing useful for the story – is it perhaps one of those ‘insight in itself’ moments, or is the learning simply that a different approach is required (ie it still helps move the story forward)?

Don’t: Force fit things that evidently aren’t working.

Obviously, there is a clear limit to any analogy; D&D has the freedom to go almost anywhere with the story, whereas day-to-day we need to focus on a set objective, delivered with the right tone for the audience.

Nobody wants to ‘roll the dice’ when telling a commercial story. We want clarity and certainty about the success of our next steps, or at least strong confidence over the element of chance.

I’m also yet to see the Macarena in a meeting room (there’s still time!).

Nonetheless, some of these collaborative storytelling principles can really help to stretch your thinking and elevate the effort to bring it all together in a way that’s memorable and engaging (and ideally: fun!).

I hope this has given at least a slightly different perspective on working collaboratively to build a story, or perhaps just reminds you of things you’d like to do more of. If there’s a challenging story you think we might collaborate on – get in touch!