In the six months since I’ve started playing Dungeons and Dragons, I have learned to my delight how almost every aspect of the game fits perfectly into every weak point I have as a writer. As much as I can recommend playing the game for its own merits, I am continuously surprised by how each session can be a valuable writing lesson.
Of course, the nature of every campaign depends on the people playing. My campaign happens to have three writers (one of which knows almost nothing about fantasy), two psychologists, and one soldier who based his character on Solomon Grundy. Our current Dungeon Master is one of the psychologists who is adept at world building and figuring out all the rules and reasons for Things™. It’s a nice mix of people and it’s also an even split between men and women. When we first started, two of us were brand new to the game and one was still learning the changes of the newest edition. So we even have a mix of experience levels with the game.
All of these factors have really helped make D&D a learning tool for my craft. In fact, I’m surprised that it’s not touted as a writing exercise within the writing blogosphere. There are several aspects of the game that all writers can learn from, especially those writing fantasy.
Slow it down like ten notches.
D&D is a slow game. It requires you to react, in character, to other players’ thoughts and decisions in a way that not even video games can replicate. You can’t convince a character in a video game to change their mind about something, but in D&D, you essentially have the ability to pause the action and propose anything. You could theoretically make a long speech or argue with a non-player character until they finally relent. In a video game, you’re usually stuck with whatever your character is programmed to say or you’re made to choose from a few options.
This isn’t to say that video games aren’t awesome or full of realistic storytelling, but they are still pretty different from the face-to-face interaction that D&D provides. Many times, you’re basically selling an idea you have to another person. Players act and react as their characters, creating situations and conversations that aren’t always convenient for the plot or move things along. Characters in a novel are the same way. They don’t always agree on everything and two characters that know a lot about a particular situation might have completely different ideas, leading to conversations that can last for the majority of a chapter whether you narrate it or show it all in dialogue. D&D’s slow role-play can give writers a sense of how people really think and act because real people are playing the characters.
Ironically, encounters are even slower than the role-playing parts. We generally think of battles as these exciting, fast-paced scenes that last maybe a couple minutes on the screen. By contrast, a single D&D encounter can last for hours. While the extremely slow pace is due to the game’s rules and the huge focus on strategy, what it can really show us is how to take our time writing battles.
Sometimes in D&D, you have a really awesome attack plan. One of your character’s powers could set off another power that deals additional damage or helps an ally. One time, my party was facing a huge queen ant and her swarms of children in an abandoned tower. My character has psychic abilities, so what I planned on doing was binding her mind and continuously throwing her at the other ants for the rest of the battle. However, I missed and all I could do was shift her around a little. Disappointing.
But this is where storytelling tension comes from. It happens when your characters have plans to use their really awesome powers and then fail, giving the enemies an edge. Your characters need to miss. Horribly. The battles in your novel need to make readers question if your characters will be okay, just as battles in D&D make players wonder if they’ll be okay.
I used to write battles that would maybe last one chapter and then be over, mostly because I had no clue how to stretch them out. My only sources for battle scenes were from anime and movies, so the battles I studied were either wrapped up in 10 minutes or they stretched on for several episodes without having any real substance. So, I always opted for the shorter option since I hate filler content.
Now, however, I’m on my third full chapter about the same battle and none of it feels stale. D&D encounters have shown me that enemies can retreat without it seeming like a narrative cop-out and that sudden environmental changes can affect the tides of the battle. One character can take several huge blows all at once, which may change how another character uses their turn. All of these are factors that elongate the narrative of the battle and make it feel more realistic.
The main lesson here is slow down. Nine times out of ten, adding more details or events in a fantasy novel isn’t infodumping, but rather giving readers enough context for them to understand the world, the mechanics of your magic system, and who your characters are.
Paint the picture; or paint by numbers. Whatever floats your magically enhanced boat.
I’m a writer who tends to skirt the details, especially on first drafts. I try to avoid filler almost to a fault because I don’t want to write that book where nothing happens after 50 fifty pages. My settings suffer the most because sometimes, I have nothing more to say than “they were in the forest.”
But in D&D, the description of the setting is so integral to the experience that players often need details to help them figure out what they want to do. Players don’t have the description written out in front of them like in a book. They only have the DM’s oral description and their own imaginations to help them imagine the scene. The DM has to make sure that the players understand what the DM envisions, which results in descriptive, oral details.
Sometimes, I zone out a little when I’m reading and just don’t picture the words on the page, but when I’m in a D&D session listening to the description of a new place, I’m basically forced to pay attention to every word and constantly imagine the scene. My brain is more actively participating in the fictional dream because I don’t have the luxury to just reread a paragraph or sentence. This translates into my writing as specific details on the page.
Not only can the DM’s description of the scene help players imagine the world, but so do the players’ questions about what they might see around them or what their character might know about the vegetation in the area, the creatures that live there, or the area’s history. These different questions can give writers several angles to describe the settings in our own books. They are questions that your characters may have and questions that your readers would be interested in knowing the answers to.
You don’t need to describe the history of every stone, but if you imagine that someone else will be playing as a character in your world, anticipate the kinds of questions they would have no matter how ridiculous they seem.
DMs are masters of world building and they will find the loopholes in your world
I recently ended up at my DM’s house after not getting the memo about a cancelled session, so we hung out in his living room and got to talking about how I felt about the campaign. He’s new to DMing, so he always asks us for feedback after each session. I told him how the basic premise of our campaign is actually similar to what my book is about: characters traveling between different worlds. I was explaining to him one of the fundamental rules of my created universe: those few who can travel between dimensions can only do so through blue fabric (or the stuff that holds each world together).
“So, what’s stopping someone from just popping out of someone’s blue jeans?” he asked at last.
I laughed and whole-heartedly admitted that I hadn’t figured that out yet. That is, I hadn’t figured out how to limit this rule in a way that would make sense. Without some sort of limitation, people could travel to another world through anything blue no matter what it was. But I didn’t want that.
So then my DM shared his ideas. As someone who’s now built several worlds for our campaign, he’s used to running through the logical processes of making all of his ideas make sense to us. Therefore, he not only found a weak spot in my rules, but he also thought of several ways to make it all work. When I got home, I suddenly had a bunch of revelations that made the concept way cooler than I thought it would be.
For the fast-paced writer like me, talking to world builders like my DM reminds me just how much I have left to figure out. D&D itself reminds me to slow down, let characters delay the action, and fill in the details.
Dungeons and Dragons combines many elements of storytelling into one medium. Many times, it’s like sitting in a circle and just telling a group story. Sometimes, you’re convincing someone that an idea of yours works and other times you’re explaining an important place to your character to all the other players. The game follows the natural rhythm that the players set it to and copying that rhythm can show fast-paced writers how to let their stories breathe.