Writing Lore as an Unreliable Narrator

As I've written my new setting's bible, titled On Golgifell, I've scribed nearly everything inside from the perspective of someone in the world, literally. Their perspective isn't omniscient or final, they are but another adventurer on the vast planet who yearns to share their experience with others who would like to follow in their footsteps.

It has been enjoyable.

Never before have I sat down and done what I'm doing with On Golgifell. For years, I've written various pieces of lore, many in character, and portrayed a cast of a thousand or more characters in D&D campaigns. Yet, when sitting down to write, I've never talked aloud in character and wrote what I muttered onto the page.

For the first few minutes, I felt ridiculous. It was the same feeling I always get when playing a larger-than-life character in D&D with a wild accent or flamboyant personality. However, after that short stretch of time, I accepted and thrived while doing it. Handil Dalamissent came alive and his perspective on the world felt so real. He was me and his thoughts appeared on the page, not mine.

As I said, it has been quite enjoyable. However, it's not speaking aloud and writing Handil's thoughts that I'm primarily concerned about. It's how those who read it shall interpret his words.

I'm not sure if this is a success or not, though. Time will tell. This is the first time I'm writing a campaign guide in-character and it may crash and burn. I view it as an experiment in establishing the unreliable narrator as king even outside of the game. Usually, content outside of the game is cement; true, unchanging, and rigid. With On Golgifell and all the knowledge available to players outside of the game, that's not the case. The words of On Golgifell's author are his opinions and findings: biased, mysterious, perhaps entirely false!

This allows the reader plenty of room for interpretation: is Handil lying? Why? What could be wrong about his opinion? Why is it swayed in this direction? What is the truth? For those who do read the book, when they discover Handil is wrong or proven correct in his assessments, they'll have a moment of reflection or clarity at the least, or a moment of victory and the need to correct the loremaster of Golgifell at the most!

To further encourage moments such as the ones I just described, I ensured Handil Dalamissent included this passage in On Golgifell, tying the lore written by him to the story created in the campaign by the player characters:

Before our journey begins, let me lay out a set of facts:

  1. Everything written in here is fact polished with opinion; believe it as fact.
  2. This handbook keeps updating thanks to a recovered artifact from the Empire; it’s always being revised.
  3. I take pride in my work and take suggestions; if you notice something incorrect, please send a missive my way. A reward may follow!
  4. Golgifell is a huge, uncharted, dangerous world. I may never finish this; refrain from worrying about me. Someone will carry on.

I shall reiterate points 2 and 3: my handbook is ever changing. If I discover something new, it shall be added! If something needs to be corrected, it shall be done. If I receive a contribution from an avid reader who also happens to be an adventurer with a worthy opinion, that opinion shall be added and credited in my handbook. Yes, dear reader, this means you may contribute to this timeless tome. Please send all queries and ideas to “The Dalamissent Estate” in any capital city of Farloth. Your note will always find its way to me—in time. You might even be rewarded for your assistance.

Note the bolded sections. Here's me furthering my experiment. Will the players who read this reach out to Handil Dalamissent? Will they try to help write the lore in On Golgifell? Well, that's my hope. I want them to feel more invested in the world than ever before, to give stature to their discoveries. In addition to being firmly set in our minds forever, they'll also be written in this fascinating novel.

It's an experiment, a bold and likely silly one, but I'm eager to see where it goes! As always, I'll keep you updated.

Fare thee well!

Read Christopher Perkins's The Dungeon Master Experience

The inspiration to begin RJD20 came from one of my favorite collections of Dungeons & Dragons advice out there: The Dungeon Master Experience by Christopher Perkins. This set of columns from 2011 explore the stories told at this beloved DM's table during his Iomandra campaign, gifting DMs everywhere with spectacular advice with the backdrop of a mystifying campaign.

For the past few days, I've been rereading the columns gathered inside the linked PDF. The quality and relevancy of the work hasn't faded with the years. If you've not read it before, or even if you have, give it another glance. Any DM, old or new, can gleam a few ideas from Mr. Perkins's musings.

If you're short on time or don't want to read through the entire history of the column, these are my favorites:

  • Constellation of Madness. An exploration of how to radically alter a campaign's story, even if only for a short period of time (page 32).
  • The Wyrmworn Experiment. A master class on interweaving character backstories and secrets into the primary questline (page 40).
  • What's in a Name? A discussion on the importance of names in your world and campaign and how to create them (page 52).

There's no easy way to link each of these directly, so simply CTRL + F the PDF with their names or navigate to the outlined page.

If you do decide to read a few of these columns or have read them in the past, let me know which is your favorite in the comments. I've found myself returning to them every few years to read the teachings of the DM great Christopher Perkins, and finally realized I could share his advice with all of you as well.