I was all of ten years old when I discovered the fantasy role playing game, Dungeons & Dragons. My step mother had bought it, for reasons I don’t recall, and after looking over it a bit, decided it wasn’t to her liking, passing it off to me. This was back around 1983, so what she gave me was the now classic Red Box Set. The books were little more than pamphlets, and it came with a white crayon so you could color in the numbers on the dice.
It was also the doorway to the limitless possibilities of the imagination. One I didn’t so much enter, as fling myself through with wild abandon. I was a very imaginative child, with no real outlet for it. Within the pages of those barely even booklets, decorated with the art of Larry Elmore, I found exactly what I didn’t even know I was looking for.
Dungeons & Dragons didn’t just ignite my love of the fantasy genre, it inspired me to be a writer. To take my dreams, and mold them into tales, both epic and mundane. Though, to be honest, it was only part of the equation. There’s a greater thing that Dungeons & Dragons can do for writers than just inspire them.
It can make them think.
In those early days, adventuring was all about fighting monsters and looting dungeons. It was as I got older that I started to notice a whole different world underneath the adventuring. A myriad number of matters that went beyond just fighting this or that beast for the glory of doing it. You could even say that it was playing Dungeons & Dragons that opened my eyes to all the things fantasy, in particular, offered.
Not just fantasy, either. Any genre, every genre, can be bettered by a writer who has spent some time roaming about with a group of friends in a world composed entirely of make believe. Especially in the hands of skilled Dungeon Master, who knows how to handle not just the success of the players, but their failures as well.
That is the first thing D&D taught me about writing a good story. That sometimes, the heroes fail. They don’t always emerge victorious from every battle, or for that matter, even make a very good impression on the people they meet. That it’s okay when that happens, because failure opens up new possibilities, and can change not only how the characters view the events they are part of, but the direction the story takes, how the characters see themselves, and the people around them. Failure is not the end of the world.
Well, usually. If Frodo had failed in his quest, there’s no argument it would have been bad.
As I said earlier, I was a very imaginative child. The truth is, I was always more at home in my head than I was anywhere else, and it was often hard for me to connect with others. I had a difficult time making friends, because I was quiet, and something of an introvert. Once again, it was D&D that helped me get past that, as well as teach me an important lesson that I would later come to see as a valuable tool for being a writer.
Learning how to listen to others, and put myself in their shoes. This is another thing that D&D can add to any writers arsenal, because you play as literally anyone you want. Try walking a mythical world as the opposite gender, or no gender, for a while, or a someone of a different ethnic background. Trust me, it’s a very eye opening experience. Often as not, even the group you are playing with will treat your character differently than they treat you. Pay attention to that, learn from it, and use it to really see the world you write from the perspective of your characters.
After all, seeing the world, real or make believe, from another point of view is what we writers are suppose to be doing. It never hurts to get a little practice in on actually doing it.
Eventually, I moved from being a player, to being a Dungeon Master myself. Planning out not just adventures, but entire campaigns is a lot of the reason it’s so hard for me to write a stand alone novel now. I learned, many years ago, how to see beyond the events of what’s happening right now in a story, and how to adjust according to the unexpected actions of the players.
Now, I’ll grant you, I’m the sort of writer who doesn’t plan everything out. Most of the time, I just start writing, and let the story come to me as I go along. However, a little trick I learned from not just playing D&D, but running D&D, was how to start fleshing things out as I went. Most of the time, we’d just start with a group of characters who fell in together and had an adventure. As things went along, however, I was learning more about those characters, building plots around those things, and laying out story ideas for months down the road, all while we played.
Which is yet another great skill playing D&D can give any writer. How to adjust on the fly. Fellow writers, we’ve all been there. That time a plot point just isn’t working. For some reason, between the time you envisioned the story and when you started writing it, something changed, and that plot point that use to be crucial just doesn’t fit in anymore. We all struggle with it, trying to figure out what to do, and how to fix it.
The answer, often, is that you don’t. Things have changed, and you need to change the story with it. That ability to adapt as you go is a skill, and spending a little time rolling dice with some friends is a great way to hone it. Because you learn to see that sometimes, the best laid plans just don’t go the way you want, and you need to change course, for the good of the story.
Or occasionally, because half way through writing the story, you realize that the villain is one of your main characters. Gotta roll with the punches when that kinda idea pops into your head.
Perhaps the greatest fun I’ve ever had playing D&D was the times when the characters were just hanging out. Not adventuring, or doing anything at all, really. Sitting around, talking, laughing, or arguing. With a good group of players, those can all be times that really draw you into your character, sometimes enough so that the entire exchange will happen with no one breaking character.
It’s a great way to learn about finding a characters voice. Be it the main character, a supporting character, or even just one with a bit part. Finding their voice, making them distinct, unique, and real, is important. When playing D&D, and especially when running a game, you begin to realize how each player speaks as their character, how they bring them to life, from not just the way they talk, to how they hold themselves. As the Dungeon Master, you start finding ways to make everyone they meet seem like a person with a life and history, even if they only know that person for five minutes.
Characters are what drive a story. As writers, we need them to be people that the reader can empathize with, loath, or at the very least, understand. They are what engage a reader, make them care about the story, and finish the book. Without that, no matter how good the plot, you’re not likely to hold their attention for long.
These are all things I learned from playing Dungeons & Dragons, tools that I acquired from sitting around a table with some friends, and honed while rolling some dice. Like I said, it isn’t just fantasy that can benefit from this. Any author, of any genre, can become a better writer, just from playing a game that is based entirely in using your imagination.
So go, grab those books, some dice, and a handful of friends. Have an adventure. Then look at your manuscript again with fresh eyes. You might just be surprised at all the possibilities you didn’t see there before.