The Power of a Sincere Story


pencil and pencil shavings on a blank notebook

R.A. Salvatore is an author best known for his many fantasy novels. In particular, his legacy will likely be tied to the creation of Drizzt Do’Urden (and related characters) in the Forgotten Realms universe, which is the primary setting for Dungeons & Dragons.

Drizzt has been many things: a hero, a symbol against racism and a paragon in the fight against it, a pseudo-philosopher that acts as a proxy for Salvatore’s musings on the state of the world, and more.

This article is mostly in praise of Salvatore and Drizzt, in the service of making an overarching point. But I do first want to acknowledge some of the critiques that surround the IP.

Criticism of R.A. Salvatore’s Work

It has become popular to sort of drag on Drizzt in subsequent years. Part of this is how popular dual-wielding rangers became for a time after Drizzt’s rise to popularity, to the point of becoming cliche. This archetype has precedent in D&D before Drizzt, but his story certainly popularized it.

I can relate. I had a couple dowel rods as a kid that I’d “practice” sword-fighting with. It was amusing fun, and I’m sure I imagined myself as an analog of Drizzt at the time. For some, though, it became tiresome.

This is the most easily dismissed criticism to me, because being tiresome to one person doesn’t invalidate the excitement or passion another brings to the role. Find your niche, certainly, but don’t hate on the fun of others, however cliche it may seem.

Various other critiques have followed Salvatore’s writing, and before I praise his work, I want to talk about some of them.

Detractors will say that too little in his work has consequences. If you’re used to the gritty reality of some worlds where protagonists routinely die, you generally won’t find that here. In fact, some long-dead characters found seemingly impossible ways to return to his pages, to the point where it strains credulity.

This, so goes the argument, removes the implied stakes from the drama. If you can be sure that no one will die or face lasting consequences, where is the tension?

I can agree here to some extent. I don’t need gritty realism in my high fantasy, but there were some “wait, really?!” moments even for me as I absorbed just how low the stakes seemed to be for any character in the main cast. This doesn’t kill the books for me, but I did have to recalibrate my expectations at some point to account for what I was reading.

There are also grumblings – ostensibly refuted by Salvatore’s own words – that the resurrections and character paths are in service of D&D’s larger storylines, and dictated by its corporate overlords, not driven by Salvatore himself.

He’s done a nice job presenting the case that his vision for the characters isn’t at odds with D&D’s evolution through the years, but it seems at least somewhat obvious to me that some of these characters would have trended differently or been retired from literature entirely if it weren’t tied to an IP that’s not of Salvatore’s making. After all, King Bruenor (or whoever) can’t show up as easily in a video game or licensed D&D adventure book if he’s canonically been dead for hundreds of years.

Being in a perpetual state of existence is awkward for storytelling, but it sure helps when you have recognizable characters to license into various media. Comic franchises have been doing this for decades, for instance, even well before the current boom of superhero movies. These criticisms follow comic characters as well, but it’s proven to be commercially successful, and often creatively successful as well.

If these things rankle too much for you to follow the IP, though, I won’t try to argue. They’re valid criticisms in my opinion.

However, I want to turn to the other side of the coin to look at what Salvatore does exceedingly well, and why that is, and what it means for aspiring storytellers in any medium.

Modernism in Storytelling

I consider this a companion piece to an article I previously wrote: Modernism, Postmodernism and Meta-Modernism in Roleplaying

I’d recommend reading it before going any further, but if you’d prefer not to: in brief, one of the main ideas is that storytelling that follows a roughly linear path without twists is increasingly rare. These are the stories with a strong, resolute protagonist who stands for certain ideals, is presented with a challenge to those ideals, and overcomes the challenges through an adherence to the ideals.

It’s uncomplicated storytelling, but it can be extremely powerful. One example I used in the article was Top Gun: Maverick, a movie that garnered a ton of praise for feeling like it was made in a previous era, because it lacked the meta-level introspection of itself of many popular franchises, and didn’t aspire to subvert the expectations of the audience based on its initial premise. It delivered powerfully on its immediately-established premise, and this was enough to win over lots of fans.

The Storytelling of Drizzt

I’d argue that story arcs in the Drizzt saga follow a similar linear arc. Drizzt himself usually bookends sections with journal-style entries that lay out some internal conflict within himself.

The story’s outward-facing conflicts mirror this internal struggle in some ways, and generally juxtapose disparate ideas or ideals against one another. Generally, Drizzt sees his ideals justified, or comes to a new understanding of them as a result.

That’s glossing over a lot of nuance, but is more-or-less the structure Salvatore has followed for over 30 novels in the Forgotten Realms, most of them featuring Drizzt!

Of course, that also makes the novels seem overly similar, when they’re not. The variance in plot, characters, and moral dilemmas is all over the map, so it’s enough to keep many readers interested (it doesn’t hurt that he’s an assured writer in general). But it’s also not incorrect to say that there’s an overarching formula to how those adventures are pieced together at the macro level.

It’s one that rarely involves a bunch of unexpected twists, and in which the opposed ideologies of the novel – leading to various conflicts – are immediately discernible.

The Power of a Sincere Story

Again, I don’t want to paint the novels as overly similar. The moral dilemmas are at their best when there aren’t clear protagonists and antagonists, when the decisions involve tension between characters who aren’t morally opposed. Or when it’s less about identifying the good/evil conflict but in seeing how it unfolds and what decisions are made to resolve the conflict(s).

But it’s never complicated. The storytelling is direct. Character actions are direct extensions of their explicitly held ideals, and there’s a certain momentum to that which can drive storytelling.

There’s also a sincerity in it. A sincerity between author and reader, and also between the characters and their actions. There’s rarely, if ever, a “gotcha” moment for the readership. There might be for the characters, for clarity. A villain in disguise, for example. But we, the readers, tend to know this. Actions that seem odd to characters make perfect sense to us. The opposite would be pulling the rug out from under us and expecting us to enjoy the deception.

That can work too, but how much more often do a villain’s actions not make much sense in retrospect because the writer had to hide their true nature from us as well as the characters in the story?

Plot dissections aside, the chief area I appreciate Drizzt novels is in how they deliver on their premise in grand, sweeping ways.

A simple story, confidently told, can be a powerful thing.

Why do I keep reading Drizzt novels, long after I’ve identified the various tropes and literary formulas at work in them? Because they’re satisfying. I can’t tell you they’re works of literature on par with the greatest novels, or even that they’ll be everyone’s cup of tea who enjoys fantasy adventure stories. But they’re extremely self-assured in the stories they want to tell, and rarely waver from that conviction.

That self-assurance, that quiet passion, translates to the consumers of stories. We enjoy it because we sense that conviction, and it resonates with us. It worked for Top Gun: Maverick, an almost laughably straightforward story. And it works here.

Not always, and not in every respect. But in ways that matter.

Adapting and Telling Stories in Roleplaying Games

We get too into our own heads sometimes. At least I do, and I know I’m not alone.

How will I surprise my players? What epic twist can I include? How will this be different from the hundreds of adventures I’ve either played through or seen in various media forms?

These questions are worth considering, but sometimes they may not be necessary. Instead, I might frame it like this:

  • What excites me about bringing this story to life?
  • How will I fulfill the initial promise of the campaign with a satisfying payoff?
  • If I had to describe the campaign in terms of a single theme, what would it be?

These are questions that will focus your campaign and give it powerful moments at key points.

In my RPG group, we’ll have “pitch sessions” as a campaign is close to ending, so that we can plan for the next one. My friends (and I) often want to know what campaign concepts the others are most interested in.

Want to know what my truthful answer is a lot of the time: whatever campaign they’re most passionate about bringing to life.

It speaks to that sincerity in storytelling that this is the answer that has come to ring truest for me over the years. And it’s because that sort of conviction and sincerity and passion is contagious.

So I hope this helps you to perhaps reframe your own campaign preparation efforts in some tangible ways. It’s easy to get lost in the minutiae of preparing a roleplaying game, or to worry about how you’ll make it unique in some way. “Unique” will happen because it’s you and your group and not another group. It’s good to have something unique, but just as good to have something that you believe can powerfully fulfill its thematic promise to players.

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