Friday, October 23, 2020

D&D's Worth for a Writer

 Happy Friday, everyone! So, everyone probably has figured out by now that I am a pretty big fan of D&D and tabletop roleplaying games in general. I play in two games, I run another, and I'm in the process of writing two campaigns, which between them get roughly the same amount of time, energy, and excitement as my actual novels. Some of my best memories of the last couple of years come from D&D sessions, and weekly D&D games have helped me keep some of my college friendships not only alive but thriving. So, yeah. Whatever its reputation, D&D can bring about a lot of good things.

But I'm not here to talk about the pros of D&D for people in general (though I totally will write that post if anyone wants to read it). I'm here to talk about how D&D can help writers specifically. And I'm not just looking at people who write and run a full homebrewed campaign; these points apply to players and DMs alike, whether they're working with a pre-written campaign and world or a completely original story and storyworld. Some will apply more to certain situations, but I think they're all pretty universal.

D&D's Worth for a Writer

  1. It teaches you how to hold your stories with a loose hand. For many writers, it can be difficult to see past your particular plans for your story, whether it's a full outline you've built or the way you think a character is or a scene you really want to have happen. We get caught up on these things and, as a result, get stuck because we didn't see the better option. But if there is one truly universal constant in D&D, it's that you can never get too attached to a particular way you want a story to go. Sometimes things will work out how you planned. But there are a lot of factors to consider — the DM, the (other) players, your own ability to speak, and, of course, the dice — and sometimes . . . it doesn't happen. Your players take out the long-term boss after only two encounters. Your DM throws a whole flight of blue dragons at a city you thought was safe. A fellow player turns on the party or decides his character is going to have a mental breakdown. The story you thought you were going to tell isn't going to work, so you have to be willing to improvise — but the story as a whole ends up better for it. The same is true in writing. Maybe the story isn't going to go the way you thought it was going to go. Or maybe your beta readers say that scene you love needs to go. It's not fun. But a willingness to improvise, to hold your story loosely, will bring a better result.
  2. It helps you learn how to tell a story with others. This is related to my previous point, but still somewhat different. D&D is a game in which four or five different people are trying to tell at least that many stories at the same time and interwoven with one another. You have to learn how to share the spotlight and how to build off each other. You have to learn each others' strengths and your own strengths and play off of each other. And these are the same skills you need (in a more intense form) if you want to do any form of collaborative writing, whether that's coauthoring a book, sharing a storyworld, or any other type of collaborative formalized storytelling.
  3. It's a good testing ground for new ideas. This one does apply more to DMs than players, since it's hard for players to bring something in for the short term and then drop it if it doesn't work out. But if you have that freedom (or if you don't mind doing some long-term testing), D&D can be a great way to see how people react to a particular character, dynamic, concept, or so on. You just have to keep in mind that your creations may not come off like you imagined them in your head . . . and they're always at the mercy of the dice. (And that is why a particular NPC, who was supposed to be thoroughly epic and mysterious, instead became the subject of many a joke . . . but it's fine. He works better in written form.)
  4. It allows you to tell stories you can't tell in a traditional form. I am never one to disparage the written word. But some stories, characters, and concepts can be better explored in other media (which is also one of the big reasons I think certain types of anime, graphic novels, and webcomics are super cool . . . but that's a topic for another post). You can take the story of a D&D campaign and write it down as a book, and it may or may not work depending on how you go about it and how much editing you do. But, in many cases, you couldn't have written that story first because you wouldn't have thought to write it the way it happened. The funny thing is, though, that telling those stories helps you write the other stories better because it gives you another perspective and thoughtspace to work from.
  5. It teaches you a lot about worldbuilding. This is the most DM-centric point here. Worldbuilding is key in any fantasy story, but it's especially important in D&D. Why? Because your players need to, in a certain sense, live in the world you're building, more so than readers need to live in a book's storyworld. And you have both less time to introduce setting elements than you would in a book (after all, as a DM, you can only talk for so long before your players start getting annoyed) and fewer opportunities to reinforce those elements. So, you have to make the most of what space you can use, which means making sure you can attach important details to things people remember — which usually means backstory or people. It's a challenge. But once you've done it for a while, or once you watch a DM do it well for a while, you can pick up ways to give your written worldbuilding a little more oomph.

Do you play D&D, or are you interested in playing D&D? What other benefits do you think roleplaying might have for writers? Or, if you're not into roleplaying, what's something you've learned about writing from a not-explicitly-writing hobby? Please tell me in the comments!
Thanks for reading!

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