Back in 2015 a movie called Seventh Son flopped its way through theatres. As soon as I saw the trailer, I remarked loudly that it looked like somebody turned their Dungeons & Dragons campaign into a screenplay. I said this with scorn, and I did not go to see the film. This seems to have worked in my favor, as one reviewer from the Chicago Reader called it “a loud, joyless mess.”
I read slush for a poetry quarterly called Goblin Fruit, and, being that our submission guidelines request poems of the fantastic, we get occasional submissions that smack slightly of D&D. These pieces often feel like they were written in-game by someone’s half-elf bard character, probably while drunk off his ass at Ye Olde Inn and Taverna.
I obviously can’t share any examples from the slush. However, it is not unethical to make fun of myself, so here is a verse of terrible balladry written by my last half-elf bard character while he was drunk of his ass. I may have also been in my cups: the whole epic is scrawled in the margins of my character sheet.
The Silver Flame belies its name
And makes its bed with evil
Its honey baths are full of shame
Its basement makes men feeble
With a hey nonny nonny woe
I kind of wish I could submit this under a nom de plume and then make fun of it. There are a lot more verses.
But enough about honey baths, it’s time for true confessions.
My first ever published poem—the first piece of writing that I ever sold to anyone—is a poem about the backstory of a character I played in a D20 Modern Cthulhu campaign. It was purchased by Goblin Fruit, yes, the very publication where I’m now an editor, and to date it is the only piece of mine that has been nominated for an award.
So what is the moral of this story, besides the fact that when it comes to this topic, I am clearly a raging hypocrite? What side am I on—do or don’t?
The truth is, we are all on a quest for inspiration, and we must take it where we can find it. If that inspiration dwells in the smarmy back room of Ye Olde Inn and Taverna, I’m in no position to judge.
However, I do have a few suggestions for how to avoid submitting the piece that makes an unsuspecting editor snort-laugh her tea.
- Deploy rhyming couplets with extreme caution. This is just good advice in general.
- Keep it original. RPG settings tend to be derivative, whether your GM is taking her cues from Tolkien, Lovecraft, or Anne Rice. And that is totally fine for a game, but when it comes to your own work, it needs to feel fresh.
- Avoid “you had to be there” humor. Read it to your aunt who has never even seen a D20. Is she smiling?
- Don’t let the worldbuilding overwhelm the emotional core of your piece. The history, religion, and socioeconomics of the world are only interesting if we care about the narrative and characters.
- Keep in mind that your reader hasn’t spent ages hanging out with your character and getting to know her. I’ve played the same character in campaigns that lasted years, and by the end, everything that happened to her felt significant and like part of a lifetime of character arc. Your reader isn’t going to have that kind of time, and just because you care doesn’t mean your reader will. You have to earn the payoff.
Ultimately, the point is that if you’re going to do this thing, you’d best take steps to ensure that the editor can’t tell what you’re doing. In other words: bluff like crazy and hope they critically fail their sense motive check. Then maybe you’ll have a newly published piece to brag about next time you’re trolling for quests at the Taverna.
This article was originally published in March 2015.
Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and storyteller. She has pursued studies in writing, folklore, and performance in the United States, Canada, England, Scotland and France. Past jobs include being an artistic director of storytelling performances, a fiber arts consultant, a legal document and poetry transcriber, and a shepherdess. She is an editor at Goblin Fruit, can sometimes be found discussing folklore and pop culture on the Fakelore Podcast and performing with the Banjo Apocalypse Crinoline Troubadours. Her hair defies gravity, and she once tricked a group of tourists into thinking she was a Scottish ghost.