How A Screenwriting Book Can Up Your D&D Game: An Interview With Save The Cat’s Jennifer Zhang

Every Dungeons & Dragons player has that one story they tell any chance they get. Chaotic neutral rogues revel in the times they bamboozled an NPC or talked their way out of a fight. That moment when the paladin blurted out his attraction to the tiefling while under a truth spell becomes the group’s forbidden attraction subplot. Or it could be that crucial failed dexterity check, one that caused the mighty dragonborn to meet death by bees. While these events seem random, or like the work of cruel dice, their significance comes from the fact that they’re seeped in storytelling tropes.

That’s the conceit of Save the Cat, a brand built on the idea that any story can be broken down into 15 “beats.” It started with Blake Snyder, a Hollywood screenwriter who sold scripts to the likes of Disney and Steven Spielberg. Snyder collected his thoughts on what makes a successful movie plot in a book called Save the Cat! The book is still cited as essential reading today, and other writers have expanded Snyder’s legacy since his death in 2009. Now they teach courses and apply the Save the Cat method to things like novels and video games. But can it work with something as fluid as D&D?

TheGamer spoke to Jennifer Zhang, a Save the Cat teacher, writer, and content creator. Street Fighter fans will probably recognize her work from this classic video. Zhang told us how Save the Cat can be used to bring an emotional story to your D&D campaign – even when your party makes really stupid and random choices.

TheGamer: So I’ve been told you’re the Master Cat to talk to about gaming stuff – what kind of games do you like and how has it been part of your career?

Zhang: I used to run something called Twin Galaxies Live – we started out as something called L33T Lounge, which was this Big Brother/livestream-style thing. It was almost supposed to be like a successor to G4, because G4 had just gone down around the time that we started it up. Then Jace Hall acquired Twin Galaxies, and we got rebranded to Twin Galaxies Live. So then we started incorporating more arcade-based things into our programming.

As you know, that world starts encompassing like- it’s everything. So if you’re into video gaming you’re at some point going to get sucked into a tabletop game. I played Starfinder, which is a little bit more my speed – I like sci-fi things better than high fantasy. That [is the] one I probably stuck with the longest.

TG: Did you find yourself getting really invested in working on your character’s story? Or were you more into the casual, show-up-and-play style?

Zhang: Very casual, show-up-and-play. I came up with the backstory on the spot. But I have a lot of friends who get very enthusiastic about sharing the characters they’re creating for upcoming games and the elaborate backstories [behind them].

The thing about that process that I really admire is that, as a writer, oftentimes when you’re writing TV pilots you have a show bible – you come up with far more backstory for characters than ever shows up onscreen. Because you understand that having that knowledge really colors and textures a character and will make it really easy to define who they are. It’s easier to write characters that feel like they’ve been through a lot of shit when you know the shit they’ve been through.

TG: So you’d say it makes the characters stronger when players bring all that to the table?

Zhang: Yes, I would definitely say that. This day and age, you really can’t get away with very one-dimensional characters anymore. The bar is so high recently when it comes to television – I think there are a lot of HBO shows that really raise the bar on creating characters that have a lot of gray area and are very nuanced.

I think we’ve seen the rise in recent years of heroes that are very questionable if they’d be considered heroic by modern society standards. You know – Dexter, House, Steve Buscemi’s character in Boardwalk Empire, or even like The Sopranos. We like characters that are very textured and live solidly in the gray area.

TG: Have you noticed this applying to video games? Are we seeing more textured characters there as well? 

Zhang: Yes, very much so in video games. What we’re finding with video games nowadays is that the experiences are far more immersive with the advent and popularization of VR and stuff. The more immersive it gets, the more you identify with the player character, and the less you’re able to identify with them if they don’t have depth.

It’s so interesting that you bring that up, because it really is that everything is converging. Like everything – video games, comic books, tabletop gaming – it’s all part of the same culture now. The trends that you see in complexity of story and the demands of these audiences for more complex stories and more complex characters, it’s all a rising tide that stretches across all forms of media.

TG: In that vein, then, bringing it back to Save the Cat – what about the technique can help with D&D campaign planning?

Zhang: So a video game script for something like The Witcher, it’s funny because those scripts are like 300 pages. I would say that it’s easier to get completely lost and boggled in something that’s that lengthy. So where Save the Cat can really help is – 15 story beats, that’s universal.

The thing about tabletop games, similar to those video game scripts, is that those stories can go on for a very long time. What’s useful for a DM or GM in general is that, if you’ve got 15 moments that you know you’ll want to guide your party to by the end of whatever story you want to tell – whether it lasts a week or a year – if you have 15 very very defined things that altogether tell this story, then the people who leave the game at the end will be able to retell that story. You will have had all those fun little side quests, but if you’ve got 15 solid story beats, at the end it would be very easy to tell someone else what happened in a way that was coherent.

And it would feel that way, too. They’d be like “Oh yeah, in the middle of the game we had this big climactic thing that happened that really picked up the pace all the way to the end.” That’s a standard thing in storytelling, right? Your hero goes along discovering their new powers through the first half of the movie, and by the middle something happens that raises the stakes significantly or introduces a time clock. That’s a very standard storytelling thing that isn’t necessarily intuitive to a lot of people. But if you remember a bunch of movies you’ve watched, you can identify that moment. That obviously has a lot of value for someone who’s writing a complex campaign that has to, at the end, feel like a journey.

TG: How do you keep those 15 moments while adjusting for the fact that D&D players do weird things?

Zhang: The thing that I think is most challenging about applying Save the Cat to D&D is that any story is usually about one main hero’s journey. In tabletop, everyone that comes to the table sees themselves as the hero of the story.

So evolving a character – in a typical story everyone goes through an arc. They become a better person, they learn who they are, they solve their problems. Not every player is going to be aware that they should take their character through an emotional journey. I don’t feel qualified to necessarily advise people on how to create their characters, but it would be interesting to me if a DM/GM instructed their players to be very defined about what their flaws are and what they need to fix before the end of the game. It would really change the way a player plays their character. I think it would make it a more interesting game.

TG: Any final advice for using Save the Cat to enrich a D&D game?

Zhang: You’re really crafting a journey, right? And what the 15 beats are – they are key moments in the story but they’re also something I like to call emotional touchpoints. Each one of the beats will map to your hero changing and transforming.

At one point they’re gonna have a challenge, and it will bring their flaws into the picture. And at this point they’ll think they’ve overcome the challenge because they feel they’ve learned something. But by this beat they realized they haven’t actually completed their emotional journey and that’s stopping them from achieving victory. And that’s why in the finale, when they finally figure it out, it feels so satisfying to see the story conclude.

If a DM or GM knows where they want to take everybody across 15 beats, my instinct tells me that everybody who’s playing the game is going to experience some kind of emotional transformation.

Thanks to Jennifer Zhang for taking the time to speak to us. Her Save the Cat classes, and the book itself, are available on the official website.

NEXT: Exclusive Interview: Five Dates Writer & Director Paul Raschid Talks Filming Remotely & The Best Way To Approach The Game

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Sergio is the Lead News Editor for TheGamer. But usually he asks people to call him “Serg” because he wants to sound cool like the guy from System of a Down. He began as a convention reporter for FLiP Magazine and Albany Radio’s The Shaw Report to get free badges to Comic-Con. Eventually he realized he liked talking to game developers and discovering weird new indie games. Now he brings that love of weird games to TheGamer, where he tries to talk about them in clickable ways so you grow to love them too. When he’s not stressing over how to do that, he’s a DM, Cleric of Bahamut, cosplay boyfriend, and occasional actor.

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