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  • Writer's pictureLiz Hudson

How I levelled up my writing by playing Dungeons and Dragons

That title isn’t actually accurate. Dungeons and Dragons hasn’t made me a better ‘writer’. Being good at constructing sentences and inserting interesting words isn’t quite enough to create a compelling piece of content, is it? I’ve read plenty of poorly written short stories and books that, once I’d gotten my head around the challenging language, I couldn’t put down. And I’ve put down a lot of prize-winningly well written books that bored me to absolute tears.


What’s the secret ingredient? Storycraft.

While playing Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) has taught me absolutely nothing about creating well crafted sentences, it has been a gift from the gods when it comes to learning about narrative, engaging and immersing an audience, having fun with tropes, creating great (and terrible) characters, foreshadowing, and revelling in controlled chaos.


With the success of shows like The Big Bang Theory and Stranger Things, the new box office release of Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, and well thought-of celebrities flocking out of their geek closets to announce that they really enjoy playing RPGs and Warhammer, suddenly all that nerd stuff you used to get a shoeing for liking in high school has become both socially acceptable and much, much more accessible. I’ve always been a nerd, but my later-life gateway into D&D was a ‘Let’s Play’ podcast run by a group of published authors (Authors and Dragons - if you don’t enjoy puerile humour this podcast is NOT for you), which I found out about via one of those authors’ email newsletters.


I’m certainly not an experienced or prolific D&D player, although I know a few. I enjoy observing D&D just as much as I like playing; watching an experienced and skilled dungeon master (DM) guide players through a narrative, quietly letting the party / cast believe they’re forging an independent path but, in reality, constantly pulling subtle strings designed to delight / confuse / challenge / frustrate / reward / enlighten / confound / entertain their players (sound familiar?) is fascinating and a joy to watch. My first dungeon master used to refer to getting a look at the ‘man behind the curtain’ if he ever went into the mechanics of what he was doing, and that’s such a great analogy. Whether DM, writer, or the Wizard of fricking Oz, our job as storytellers is to orchestrate and guide our players / characters / readers on a journey, keeping them entertained and engaged along the way.


As a player, you’re going to rapidly realise what makes your character interesting to play (or read) and what makes other characters absolutely insufferable to spend time with. You’re going to get a feel for how long you can expose a real brain to a challenging personality before you run out of patience and no longer want to engage with that character. You’re going to start to feel the balance between when journey roadblocks add to an eventual sense of achievement, making your journey more interesting and fulfilling along the way, and when they go too far, frustrating the absolute living daylights out of you. You’re going to start to appreciate when your DM lets you fast forward through the boring bits. You’ll laugh in startled recognition the first time a DM says to you: “a four hour walk takes 10 minutes and a 10 minute fight takes 4 hours”. In my admittedly limited experience of the game, ‘bear with me while I explain the backstory and history of the world during these first three really boring chapters and then it gets good after that’ just will not be tolerated. It’s generally not tolerated by readers either, but an author doesn’t get the benefit (yes, benefit) of personally experiencing their readers giving up on the story and walking out.


I’ve heard more than once the caveat that a game of D&D is not and should never be dungeon master vs players. This resonated quite strongly with me. A good DM should always be mindful of their players and how their players are engaging with, enjoying and experiencing the story. In my opinion, so should an author. To write with little to no thought for your reader is arrogant; to write in an attempt to deliberately thwart and condescend readers is unforgivable.


I could go on a good bit longer, but no one wants that. Following is a bit more detail on some of the main things I’ve learned, plus a few things you can try, and then I’ll let you get back to enjoying your brew in peace.


Characters

Group of barbarians relaxing
Image by István Károly Bőcs from Pixabay

D&D offers a surprisingly supportive framework for character creation. You can be as basic or as intricate as you like, from simply choosing your character features and proficiencies, right the way through to creating an intricate backstory, character motivations and custom inventory. While D&D character builders are very much geared towards creating playable characters, they really help you to think through the dimensions of your characters if you’re motivated enough to go into detail.


The levelling system also has a lot to teach you about character growth, and the dice gods are always ready to knock you off your pedestal, regardless of how well you’ve prepared or how thoroughly you’ve attempted to pre-engineer your success. All this adds immense flavour to your plot and character arcs.


Humans are fascinating creatures. Give people the chance to be someone else with no real-life repercussions for a while and all of a sudden you’re running around with some very interesting (and sometimes extreme) personalities. While there’s a whole spectrum of grey-shaded characters, plenty of people choose to become someone very, very virtuous or very, very obnoxious. D&D is cathartic, it lets you try on the skin of someone you’re not. Now, both virtuous and obnoxious characters can still be very enjoyable but it really comes down to balance. I think D&D gives you the opportunity to figure out how far you can push virtuous before it becomes boring and predictable, or how far you can push obnoxious and unpredictable before it ceases to be quirky and amusing and starts to become extremely annoying.


Three dimensional characters with flaws are interesting, however there is a likeable vs useful paradigm to bear in mind. Challenging characters can get away with being challenging as long as they’re also useful to the party. The more difficult the character, the more useful they have to be to remain both acceptable and accepted. If you can’t find a redeeming feature for a character then it’s probably not suitable for a regular party-member; it’s NPC material, and probably one that isn’t going to survive for very long after encountering your party-members.


At the other end of the spectrum, perfect characters who are good at everything are just as fun-killing as non-useful obnoxious characters. All of your main cast need to bring something to the table that no one else can (or at least not to the same standard), otherwise they become redundant. Most people are not going to enjoy playing a redundant character next to a Mary-Sue, and readers aren’t going to enjoy that in a story either. Mary / Gary-Sues invalidate other characters. It’s got to be an ensemble effort, or you lack the cast / party balance that makes for a really good, really satisfying narrative. Authors are advised to remove redundancy from their manuscripts, and people playing redundant characters end up leaving campaigns. There’s a lot of synergy to learn from there.


Image by GioeleFazzeri via Pixabay

On party / cast balance, there are three main encounter types in D&D: combat, social and exploration. Character classes are usually very well suited to being great at one of those encounter types, good at a second, and poor at another, for example: Barbarians are good at soaking up and dealing out damage (combat); bards are excellent at performance, persuasion and deception (social); and rogues are good at finding secret doors, disarming traps and jemmying locks (exploration). The race / species you choose to play can help you double down on the things you’re good at or try to slightly improve one of the things you’re not good at; however, basic class + race will never make you an all-round Superman. Many parties confer during the character creation stage before a campaign begins to ensure they end up with a balanced party that can collaboratively work together to cover all their narrative bases. Think about your basic caper narrative, which makes this principle very transparent; you tend to have roles like the ‘fixer’, the ‘roper’, the ‘hacker’ or ‘safecracker’, the ‘wheelman’, the ‘muscle’, and the ‘inside man’. My point is, everyone has a role, everyone must contribute. Build your literary cast using this basic principle and you’re rarely going to go wrong.


Tropes

I don’t know what it is about tropes, but some fresher aspiring writers seem to really take against them. Tropes aren’t good or bad, they’re just a tool that you can bust out to help tell your story and guide your reader. There’s a lot of entertainment mileage in tropes as well, as you’re going to learn if you play or observe D&D. I think when it comes to tropes, regardless of whether you honour the trope or subvert it, it essentially boils down to timing.


Playing with tropes is a whole topic in and of itself, but what you’ll absorb from Dungeons and Dragons is how to use a trope as a narrative signpost, when to play it straight or subvert, and how to time the punchline for maximum effect / groans. Dungeons and Dragons is absolutely rife with tropes and stereotypes, which makes it easier than ever to do something funny, completely unexpected or (if you get your timing and beats right) very memorable.


Foreshadowing, breadcrumbs and red herrings

I’m going to come clean here and admit that my partner is a dungeon master. While I’ve played in games with him and in games run by him, I also get to watch him run games for other parties. And that’s how I know that DMs drop clues and foreshadowing (and yes, red herrings, generally with some accompanying cackling off-mic) into adventures sometimes years in advance. While I’m not a prolifically detailed plotter myself, this is the great advantage of knowing what the entire main arc of your narrative looks like.


Signposts pointing in different directions
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

This is also the benefit of having players over readers. When your audience gets to be at least partially autonomous and non-linear, able to make decisions and take action which can derail your session plan (chapter) and send your narrative meandering in the wrong direction, it becomes essential to drip feed plot points, clues and story signposts throughout your storyline. In the strictest sense, authors don’t need to do this because the reader doesn’t have the luxury of choice, they are on a pre-set linear narrative path, turning one page after another. You're never going to have to solve the problem of your readers sitting in a fictional tavern for three hours arm-wrestling NPCs instead of getting on the with the main plot. However, on a qualitative level, authors absolutely do need to pay some thought to story pathing; if you aren’t driving your plot forward and scattering those breadcrumbs for the reader, you have a narrative which is likely to lack panache, pace and engagement. And most importantly, you’re depriving your reader of those revelatory moments where everything comes together, and that additional layer of context upon the second read-through.


When it goes right vs When it goes wrong

I think it has a lot to do with the element of random chance involved in D&D, but things go wrong a lot. Of course, the natural talents and affinities of different races / species and character classes (plus your own character skill choices and proficiency paths) can make you much more likely to succeed with the dice by adding bonuses to help mitigate bad rolls, but you can always roll a natural one, and the party member that is least likely to succeed in a given action can always roll a natural twenty in a pinch. These moments are usually either hilarious or absolutely blinding. Or both. Sometimes the plan comes off perfectly, which is very satisfying. Sometimes you improvise wildly around curveballs and pull off the impossible, which feels fantastic (usually to much party cheering and jubilation), and sometimes it all goes completely down the toilet, which can, honestly, be just as entertaining. Like that time when my level four party bravely sallied forth to fight / rob a dragon, and then, once we’d got a look at it, turned around and ran the hell away.


Dragon breathing fire
Image by KazuN from Pixabay

My point here is that you’ll get a visceral feel for the sorts of emotions and responses you can evoke by playing with wins, losses and close calls in your narrative. You will learn how to make a journey interesting, and how to mete out small sustaining wins, moments of triumph, hair curling close calls and epic fails (which, by the way, only build the energy around the big win when you finally get it). If this balance wasn’t so crucial, DMs wouldn’t occasionally fudge the results of their rolls…


Shoehorning in some creative writing (yes, it’s absolutely possible)

There are plenty of opportunities to maneuver a bit of actual writing into a game as a player or dungeon master, depending on how much you engage with the game, starting with writing out your character’s backstory and bio. There are always in-game opportunities for players to write within the context of the game; a bard might, for example, write a performance piece and work with the DM to integrate this into the story. Or you might choose to keep a quest diary. You might even enjoy writing short stories about your character or party; however, tread cautiously when writing about other player’s characters - those characters don’t belong to you.


As a DM, there are endless opportunities to write and world-build, even when running a pre-written adventure. Letters, prophecies, diary entries, poems, invitations, riddles, dialogue - these are all options (plus many more) for flexing your writing muscles as a DM. Fill your world with clues and colour; have NPCs correspond with your players’ characters during downtime; craft and add your own side quests, NPCs and items to the adventure. The options are practically endless, and it’s a great exercise for learning to write with the correct tone or voice, lest you spoil the immersion for your players.


It's also entirely possible to write collaboratively in this sort of context. For example, during my first campaign I wrote a brief origin story and bio for my character. I had to miss several games due to travelling for work, so the DM used my origin story to create a single player personally-themed sidequest for my character. We then ran that sidequest as a text-based adventure, Zork style. It was a lot of fun and a fantastic exercise in writing around voice and character.


And, of course, there’s always the biggie: Write your own D&D adventure…


That’s a good note to leave you on.


So, there you have it. You came here for writing craft and possibly culture, and you got Dungeons and Dragons. Sincerely, lucky you! And well done for sticking it out to the end of the article and maybe gaining a few more authoring XP along the journey. If you want to further level up your storytelling by inserting some D&D into your life, you have a few options:

  • Option 1: Join a game. You might be surprised by how locally you find something like a Geek Retreat, where you can play in person. Alternatively, lots of groups run online using software like D&D Beyond coupled with Discord or Teams.

  • Option 2: Listen to a Let’s Play podcast or watch D&D on YouTube. And then probably circle back to option 1. This is a pretty well known channel to start with.

  • Option 3: Check out creators like this one on YouTube. This vlog has nothing to do with writing and everything to do with running a game of D&D storytelling.


That’s enough, we'll leave it there for today. Definitely don’t go and read this epic bloody awful narrative poem I wrote for my Bard to perform while our Rogue went pocket shopping in the crowd...


Red dungeons and Dragons dice
Image by Pic_Panther via Pixabay
 

Liz has been waging a cunning campaign of procrastination for, well, her entire life. Her most recent schemes for avoiding completing a full length manuscript were a mid-life crisis Masters degree in Creative Writing and starting the Writing Voices website. She is now busy entertaining new strategies for continuing the cold war against her writing career... keep reading.


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