Honestly, if I saw this post out there by anyone else I’d be the first person to start throwing rotten vegetables at it. Of course you can’t randomly generate a novel—a work of art—using some computer program or set of charts. That’s crazy talk! Everything has to be a part of an organic whole, a pure representation of the author’s innermost thoughts, feelings, desires, fears…
But wait… could you?
I’ve actually been thinking about this for a while now and I wonder if this might be worth trying.
So, okay, everybody knows I’ve been playing D&D and other role-playing games since 1978 and I’ve got a swell collection of classic RPGs still on my shelf. I have a particular nerd love for the classic Judges Guild D&D game products—the enormous world, the hyper-detailed cities, the crazy weird dungeon adventures… all of it. And I have the same nerd love for all the random tables in various Judges Guild books and in the original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide—one of which I even quoted in my book Writing Monsters.
But even then, it wasn’t easy to use these even back in the first years of the RPG hobby. They tended to be presented as aids for DMs who find themselves stuck, who need a little quick inspiration when a player asks them something they didn’t realize they’d need an answer for, or the party wandered a bit off the map, or insisted on searching every empty corner of the dungeon…
And they all assumed that there were characters, created by the players, who had some sort of goal in mind, were travelling from here to there for a bigger reason, and all that good stuff. This is where the idea of a randomly generated fantasy novel breaks down. I couldn’t imagine going in with random characters. I need to know who this story is about, what the hero’s goals are, what the villain is trying to accomplish, and why. I need to know that everyone has a personal connection to the plot—a reason for characters to do what they do.
But then how to start that process? Is sitting down and thinking a version of “random character generation?”
What if you start by literally rolling up a few characters: the hero, the villain, the archetype, the other archetype, and so on. Now you know things like what they can and can’t do—what their jobs are, and there are random charts to tell you how tall they are, what color eyes they have… if any of that even matters.
I think you could do it—at least to start with.
Here’s one I rolled up at random using the very old, very simple Basic D&D “blue book”:
Okay, my hero is a really dumb cleric.
But then I can’t just write a D&D tie-in story, and I feel weird assuming my “clerics” function like they do in D&D, so let’s say he’s street-savvy but uneducated thief from the tough streets of (rolled a 10 then a 17 on 1d20 on the NAMING VILLAGES prefix chart in Judges Guild’s Village Book 1, then an even number then a 6 then a 20 for the suffix) Honorpause. Even male, odd female and he stays a he with a roll of 2 on 1d6. According to the charts in the AD&D DMG he’s 22 years old (18+1d4). I’m going to use the Rift random name generator and choose Bahmi because the guy in the picture looks kinda like a thief and so let’s meet…
Otgonbataar, a twenty-two year old petty street thief from the hard streets of the cruel city of Honorpause, the city where honor goes for a pause.
Will need some more work on that, but that’s the whole idea. I have a start for a character and about 99.99% of the rest will be me actually writing.
Okay, but I need a reason for the story to start. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:
The villain starts the story, the hero ends it.
Could you randomly assign a goal for a villain? There are sites all over the place that provide writing prompts. Try one. Seventh Sanctum’s Story Generator gave me ten choices so I rolled a ten-sided die and got four:
The story is about a tired treasure-hunter, an ambitious scribe, a fortune-teller, and a peasant. It starts in a magical dimension. The story begins with an inheritance, climaxes with an infiltration, and ends with a surgery. The end of one era and the beginning of another is a major element of the story.
Now I have an ill-defined beginning of a goal: the villain wants to find a thing that will start the process that will achieve the goal. Maybe the hero has inherited the thing, and I guess I’ll have to come up with a reason not to give it up.
Or maybe the villain knows where the thing is and hires Otgonbataar (who sounds like “a peasant” to me) and his three random friends to go get it. Along the way, Otgonbataar realizes what this thing means and how bad it will be if the villain gets it, so then starts trying to keep it away from the villain, who might just be the “tired treasure hunter.”
What these people are looking for is called a McGuffin, and a McGuffin can be anything: the Arc of the Covenant or the Maltese Falcon or the One Ring. The story itself is really about the effect the search for that thing has on the characters. So the McGuffin could certainly be randomly generated by rolling on one of the lists in the AD&D DMG, Appendix I: Dungeon Dressing, like the one for Religious Articles and Furnishings (47): incense burner, which when coupled with a random name narrowed down by the criteria “Outsider Names” and “Fiendish Names” becomes the Incense Burner of Gadya.
Sounds like a story.
Granted, it’s a painfully simple story, devoid of depth or theme or pathos… or anything like detail. But the same could be said of any story before it’s actually written, can’t it?
If we concentrate on character first—who are these people, what do they want, what are they willing to do and/or sacrifice to get…?—maybe the plot points that build out the story could be random. Otgonbataar and Company actually could journey through a randomly generated dungeon, kicking down doors to reveal rooms inhabited by random monsters.
The AD&D DMG has tons of charts for random monster encounters. Let’s start them out at MONSTER LEVEL III and roll 50 on percentile dice to encounter 1-3 giant lizards—make that two giant lizards. Good one! Generic enough that you can now go nuts creating your own weird-ass giant lizard.
The giant lizards are protecting a random treasure, which the AD&D Monster Manual says is impossible since the treasure type for giant lizards is “Nil.” But if you want a treasure there, say it’s Treasure Type I because… why not I? There will be a 30% chance of their finding 300-1800 platinum pieces, a 55% chance of 2-20 gems (and Judges Guild’s Ready Ref Sheets will help you randomly generate what kinds of gems those are), and a 15% chance of one magic item that you should create on your own so as not to be boring and derivative.
You know what all these are?
Random worldbuilding prompts.
Now you know you need to do some worldbuilding about this particular monster, money in general, and magic items, whatever form they might take.
The heart of any story is the relationships that develop along the way. The characters have to live beyond their “stats,” and beyond their backstories, and come together or pull apart in the moment. And couldn’t a random monster encounter do that? Does it really matter how much money they find, or if their way is blocked by two giant lizards or five bugbears or an ochre jelly or an ogre (all from the same table)?
I’ve said in Writing Monsters and elsewhere that some monsters, like zombie hordes, are really a version of a natural disaster. They aren’t trying to do something—they have no plan or goal or agenda. Like a hurricane they just happen, destroying everything in their path. It’s the effect that disaster has on the characters in the story that matters, how some will find hitherto unknown reserves of heroism while others crumble into paralyzed terror and others see this New World Order as a way to manipulate and profit off of others. Random monsters, like zombie hordes and hurricanes, can bring out the good and evil in people.
Plot points are obstacles to throw in front of your characters on their way to where they’re trying to go. A trap might as well be random, too. Would you know the magical statue that asks for a location (whatever you decide that means) came from the table Startling Statues in Ready Ref Sheets if I didn’t tell you? If the statue stops your characters, complicates things, gets them arguing with each other, or even kills one of them like it might if you had rolled “Casts Spell of Lightning Bolt”…it has served its purpose. The real art is in the relationships, not in the trap, the McGuffin, or the monster.
Great fiction, in any genre, is about relationships.
If you put your art into that, specifics could just as easily be a set of random writing prompts along the way—fleshed out and made real, made personal, made unique, by your imagination and powers of description.
I’ve written short stories based on a simple, random writing prompt. Why not a novel based on a series of the same?
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In Writing Monsters, best-selling author Philip Athans uses classic examples from books, films, and the world around us to explore what makes monsters memorable—and terrifying.
You’ll learn what monsters can (and should) represent in your story and how to create monsters from the ground up.