My recent adventures into the solo RPG space have really opened my eyes to some new and innovative methods of storytelling, and naturally, I wanted to see how much crossover could be made with regular fiction writing. You’re still creating a story after all, even if the dressings are a little different.
Brainstorming has always been a miasma of possibilities for me, and while I sometimes love to lose myself in that narrative mire, it can also be extremely daunting. Especially for a perfectionist like myself who has more than a few problems with committing to a decision. It was while I was researching how exactly to go about playing a tabletop RPG all by myself that I discovered the oracle tables, and realized what an interesting tool they could become for any brainstorming session.
This idea was also inspired by Clare C. Marshall’s worldbuilding series on Youtube, and I’ve inserted the first video below if you want to check it out. In this series, she is crafting the history of her world using the Story Engine Deck, Microscope RPG and an oracle (specifically Mythic Variations II), using a roll of the dice to help guide her decision-making. It really is an unusual and creative way to world-build and write fiction, and one I want to continue to explore.
Can You Really Use Dice to Brainstorm?
What makes brainstorming potentially daunting is how nebulous it is – you can come up with anything so where do you start? Where do you finish? When I sit down to brainstorm, at least, it takes me a bit of time to really get into it, not unlike when I’m actually drafting. I have to build momentum, and as someone who is patently indecisive, it can sometimes feel as though I’m going around in circles, unwilling to commit to a decision and get the ball rolling.
And that’s where using some dice can actually help.
Next time you sit down to write, if you find yourself getting stuck, ask yourself a question, roll some dice, and see what answers you come up with.
Maybe it’s the gamer in me, but there is something really appealing about leaving a decision up to the roll of a die. And I think it can be fun (and a good creative exercise) to go with the flow and see what sort of unexpected narrative you might create.
And remember, nothing you (or the dice) decide is set in stone. In fact, if you’re in the brainstorming phase, I’m willing to bet you’re still in the earlier stages. Things are going to change.
As an aside, story and character prompts can serve much the same purpose – and I have a big list here that you can check out if you want to give these a try as well!
What is an Oracle and How Do You Use It?
I first learned about oracle tables through solo RPGs – after all, how can you play a game where you are both the dungeon master and the player?
That’s where the oracle comes in. An oracle is simply a roll table, not unlike the many you find in your Pathfinder or Dungeons and Dragons handbook. It will match a particular type of die, and list all possible numbers along the left. To the right, you have your outcomes, which are usually simple answers to a yes or no question.
When you need to get information or move the narrative forward in a solo RPG, you ask the oracle a question and interpret from there. Some oracles will also include conjunctions, or allow the use of modifiers depending on how likely (or unlikely) an outcome might appear to be.
For brainstorming, the same applies. Create a list of questions, or start with something you want to know more about and ask a series of questions to delve deeper. I would also suggest keeping a notebook handy to write down any questions you ask, as well as the results you get. Based on each answer, explore what the answer might mean, and let new questions pop up as a result. You can answer these new questions yourself, or continue to let the dice do their thing. Rinse and repeat until you are satisfied.
If you find you are still getting stuck, consider breaking down the problem into smaller yes or no questions, or tackling the problem from a different angle. The key to getting this brainstorming method to work for you is in the questions you ask.
Next time you sit down to write, if you find yourself getting stuck, ask yourself a question, roll some dice, and see what answers you come up with.Tweet
Asking the Right Questions
It can feel a little bit like you are trading away some narrative control by leaving it up to the roll of the dice, but the things you want to keep you do not have to compromise on. The point of the dice is to facilitate the process when you get stuck. You are the one asking the questions, and the questions are the real power behind this method.
By choosing the right questions, you are still the guiding hand behind the brainstorming. Your imagination doesn’t get a free ride, it simply takes a different path than normal to arrive at some answers. Rolling a d6 is not going to derail your entire story unless you ask a question that would.
For example, if you ask the oracle if there is something in a character’s backpack that can help them fight their pursuers, that is going to create a very different narrative thread than asking if they were spotted running into that darkened building to escape said pursuers. See what I mean? Two questions, two dice rolls, but the questions are driving the narrative in specific ways.
And I don’t know about you, but when I’m in the middle of a brainstorming session, it seems all I can do is come up with questions. Having the dice serve some answers may take you down some fun and unexpected paths.
No matter what a dice roll determines, you are the one in control, and you are the one who will be interpreting the results.
Here’s another example: Saran’s village is under attack by a group of wyverns. What sort of questions might you come up with?
- Is their family safe?
- Is it their fault the wyverns are attacking?
- Does this attack have a purpose?
- Is there someone they can go to for help?
All of these are easily answered with a yes or a no, and you can see immediately how it might guide the next part of the story. If Saran’s family isn’t safe, they would probably want to find them and make sure that they are. If it is their fault the wyverns are attacking, they might feel obligated to help out of feelings of guilt. Or if they aren’t responsible, they might want to discover who is.
Let’s be honest – you don’t have to do what the dice may tell you to do. It’s your world, your story, your characters – you are the one who will decide what happens, but the dice might help get you started. What’s really important is that you get started, make decisions, and build momentum.
There may be times that the roll of a die will make for a great tiebreaker, or will help you realize which idea you truly want to work with. Or it might take you down a path you might not have considered before – it might not be a bad idea to go against the grain every once and a while, and explore ideas and situations outside of what you normally gravitate towards.
Where Do You Get Oracle Tables?
There are many several different kinds of oracles, just as there are many DM-free game engines that allow everyone at the table to become a player. Ultimately, the one you decide to use is entirely up to you. You might want something very basic, or you might want something more complex to serve you more nuanced answers. It might take some experimentation and don’t be afraid to make adjustments to better suit your needs.
A quick google search will help you find an oracle table to get you started., Do keep in mind, that while many are free, some of these engines are paid. The important part is the Yes/No oracle, and you can easily set something up yourself.
Below is a basic oracle I whipped up that uses a d4, and that I think would be particularly helpful for writing fiction:
If you’re interested in exploring the idea a little further, you can check out some of the more popular engines:
The oracle tables, while I think they can be a very useful tool, are not going to create an expertly crafted story for you. At the end of the day, it’s going to be you, the writer, the questions you ask, and the interpretations you make based on those results that are going to connect the narrative in a meaningful and interesting way. You will still be the one to put together the big picture, it’s just that having some dice handy when you sit down to brainstorm might make the process a little easier.
You may have realized it by this point, but this method is pretty tricky. In a way, the dice are not making the decisions at all – you are, though it might seem otherwise. You are the one asking the questions. You are the one who guides and interprets the results. The dice and the oracle tables just help guide the process. And I think that can be a fun and invaluable tool.
How Do You Like to Brainstorm?
Everyone’s writing style is unique to them and the project they are working on. What sort of methods have you come up with to brainstorm more effectively? What do you do when you get stuck? Would you ever consider using dice and oracles to help guide the process? Let me know in the comments below!