7 Things Dungeons & Dragons Taught Me About Storytelling

Once upon a time (in high school), a classmate bashed on what was then my preferred hobby: Dungeons and Dragons. His main argument was that, while not harmful, playing D&D was ultimately a waste of time. He challenged me to tell him how I benefited in any practical way, and the best response I could make was that enjoyment was an end of its own.

Well, it's a belated addendum, but I want to expand on that now. My years of experience as a Dungeon Master have taught me many valuable lessons, and many of those lessons are specifically applicable to my writing. Here are the seven most significant storytelling lessons I learned from playing Dungeons and Dragons.

A Few Quick Words About D&D

For those of you unfamiliar with D&D, the concept is simple: It's a tabletop role-playing game where people roll dice and adopt the persona/abilities of a fantasy character. The players' characters form a "party" that goes on adventures, defeats bad guys, and casts magic missile at the darkness.

I played my first official game of D&D when I was eleven years old. In the 15 years since then I've played with dozens of groups, served as Dungeon Master (DM) for many, and explored a variety of tabletop role-playing systems. The game is fun, social, creates problem-solving challenges, and becomes an exercise in group creativity.  And I'm not the only one to argue that D&D can make you a more effective person. Now, on to the lessons.

1: Characters are more interesting when they're flawed.

Like most D&D nerds, I cheated when I started playing. I fudged rolls. I had a character with three stats at 18 (the maximum), which I later calculated had a roughly 1 in 40,000 chance of happening without the aforementioned cheating. When I bought a character generator for my computer, though, I "accidentally" made a character named Crystal.

Crystal was in most ways an unexceptional person: a bit charming and graceful in her way, but frail, less than bright, and lacking in common sense. Rather than following any traditional path, Crystal was a fighter wielding a quarterstaff—a fundamental tactical mistake, especially given that this was back in the days of 2nd-edition D&D (THAC0 for the win).

I loved playing that character. Part of it was the challenge, part of it was a protective feeling for my own frail character, but the major draw was something more significant. I came to realize: The best heroic journey is not the story of an incredible person doing incredible things. It is the story of a flawed, ordinary person who—when called upon—rises to an incredible challenge and finds within themselves something truly extraordinary.

2: You can build a world through "random encounters."

The best example I can give in brief isn't from my DMing experience, but from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. On my most recent re-visitation of that work, I noticed something that was supported by my D&D playing: It's not just the final stage of the adventure that puts characters at risk, nor is plot-relevance the only significant element of any given encounter.

In The Hobbit, the entire group is brought to the brink of death repeatedly. The intermixing of encounters that don't have direct bearing on the plot helped expand Tolkien's world and created the foundation for his monumental Lord of the Rings trilogy. You can use similar encounters to explore new territories of your story. These encounters, while "random," aren't useless: They serve to create a persistent sense of danger, showcase the setting, and explore characters.

3: Reminding people of the goal keeps them interested.

Despite this advice for having random encounters, the basic laws of role-playing physics should apply: Avoid having more than one "random encounter" between story points. Story points don't have to be complex or substantial: They simply have to remind the readers or characters that the goal still exists, consequences still weigh heavily on the horizon, and the group is making progress—however slight—toward reaching that goal.

Returning to The Hobbit, remember that despite the heroes' varied challenges and recoveries we are given the repeated image of the Misty Mountains in the background. It is not only the reminder of that goal but the fact that it is getting ever nearer that keeps Bilbo and the readers from giving up.

4: Let characters lose something.

I let Aurias die. That was why she was yelling at me. Aurias wasn't her character, but her character had such a sense of connection with him that losing him felt deeply personal. When she started crying, we couldn't tell her it was "just a game" any more than you can tell someone reading the end of the sixth Harry Potter book that it's "just a story." The fictional nature doesn't make the losses insignificant. 

In the scenario mentioned above, we eventually had to take the crying player aside and let her know that Aurias wasn't actually dead: His teleport spell had succeeded in the last moments. What he lost wasn't his life: It was his arm. But there have been situations where characters have simply died. And there have been even greater losses: Where the villain wasn't defeated, the family wasn't rescued, where things fell apart.

Whatever the loss, allowing characters to lose something dear to them does not destroy the story. In makes it deeper, richer, and more real. Stories can become a way of learning how to face situations we can't control, grapple with loss, and become resilient.

5: For the sake of brevity....

One thing players like about my campaigns is that they're rich in detail. I take time to pause and talk about the appearance of non-player characters, the sensory details of a setting, or the physical sensations of casting a spell. However, there's also a time to simply skip ahead. Players get used to me saying, "For the sake of brevity...." Then I sum up what happens to the characters over the course of a few hours, days, weeks, or even months.

Giving enough detail that the world feels real and players feel like they are active participants is crucial, but once you've laid the groundwork you need to move forward: One of the most important jobs of a storyteller is to prevent their audience from getting bored.

6: Intimacy creates villainy.

The longest campaign I ever ran saw roughly 160 hours of play before it concluded. The most hated villain in that campaign was not the deceitful wizard who placed a powerful enslavement curse on the group. It wasn't the Witch Queen of Zeraska who hired assassins and was summoning a demon army to wage a war. No, the most hated villain was the ex-husband of a non-player character.

That non-player character, named Selifirra, had a basic reason for traveling with the group: She wanted to earn enough money to return home and claim custody of her child. As a woman, she was only able to do so legally if she could prove she was independently wealthy. Her ex-husband was a predictably sexist character, neither malicious nor bloodthirsty. And I don't think I've ever created a character that people wanted to murder so much.

The Witch Queen, the deceitful wizard, the cultists, the bandits: These were "bad guys" in the abstract. However, Selifirra's ex-husband was a bad guy. While the group had previously taken a stand for survival, for the end of a war, for a magical elixir that could save a plague-ridden city, this was the first time they could take a stand directly for someone they felt intimately connected to. It is not the degree of the atrocity committed that incites the emotions of your audience; it is the intimacy with which they experience those wrongs and their sense that the heroic actions stand up not just for an abstract something but a tangible someone.

7: Practice will improve anything.

The core argument of my master's thesis (what will, in the future, be my dissertation) is that we can teach people how to be creative. D&D is part of what taught me this. I gathered groups with members as diverse as you can imagine, but regardless of how creative or intelligent people seemed at first, repeatedly putting them in a situation where they had to use their creativity got results. I saw people adopting new personas, thinking from new angles, and coming up with ingenious ideas that nearly broke the entire campaign.

Maybe it's because the game demonstrates a world where "getting experience" is the key to becoming a more powerful and capable person. For storytellers, this is most applicable in the realm of confidence. Many writers believe they are just "not good" at certain things. Many face periods of doubt where they believe they are "not good" at writing. But writing, like anything, can be improved with practice. If you are not "good" (in whatever parameters you've set for yourself, given how fluid a term like "good" can be), this doesn't mean there's something essentially wrong with you. Failure is part of the process, not an indicator that you've chosen the wrong dream. Maybe you just need to gain a level or two.

While I don't get much time to play these days, I'm grateful for the experiences D&D has given me. I feel I'm more creative, social, witty, and organized than I otherwise would have been. Even more applicable for my career path, the game gave me an actively engaged audience for countless hours of experimental storytelling. Hopefully this essay has given you some insights into storytelling—and if it's also made you curious enough to pick up your first d20, all the better.

Robbie Blair

Column by Robbie Blair

Robbie Blair is a world-wandering author and poet who blogs about his adventures, the writing craft, and more. He was doomed to write when, at just three years old, his English-professor father taught him the "To be or not to be" soliloquy. Robbie has since published more than a dozen creative pieces in literary journals (including Touchstones, Enormous Rooms, Warp + Weave, and V Magazine). Robbie Blair's website is loaded with travel narratives; original creative work;  writerly humor; pretty pictures; writing games, lessons, tips, and exercises; and other uber-nifty™ content.

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Comments

Thomas Garland's picture
Thomas Garland July 3, 2013 - 1:08pm

I couldn't agree more with this article.  Thank you so much for writing this and showing others in our writing community that D&D (and Role-Playing Games in general) isn't just for nerdy high school students to do on a Saturday night in their parents basement.

markarayner's picture
markarayner from Canada is reading Stand on Zanzibar July 3, 2013 - 2:26pm

Great article Rob! 

The other aspect of storytelling that I've learned from DND is the idea that sometimes the story doesn't go where you THINK it's going. I've always enjoyed it when the players (or characters, in my own fiction) take up some of the slack and decide what they want to do. It's often the richest part of a story, when a character suddenly takes your carefully constructed narrative in a new, entirely more interesting direction.

Furyous's picture
Furyous July 3, 2013 - 3:27pm

I've been playing D&D for years, although, as I got older, I found it was harder to maintain this great hobby. Currently, I'm DMing a campaign, and although sometimes I find it hard to organize the group to actually meet up and play, I have to say I agree with you, Rob.

This was an encouraging article, for I'm currently looking into ways to improve my writing for some stories that I have been sitting on for years. Ironically enough, I discussed this recently with one of my other friends (who is also a DM), and revealed that I've had more motivation to write. A lot of the writing blocks I used to have are now more managable, and it's helped me to think on the spot (which is something you do often in D&D). D&D is one of those things that most people don't understand, that is until they pick up that dice, build their character and get swept into a grand adventure.

Ruben R Diaz's picture
Ruben R Diaz July 3, 2013 - 3:55pm

 Loved it. 

I'm a writer and I credit D&D as one of the best influences ever in my life, not only for writing, but many things. I recently directed my first play and when my best friend asked me how it's going I said, "It's kinda like being dungeon master." It really was, except there were no rolls or "random encounters" but it involved so many similar qualities: social interaction, setting a mode/place, etc., leading a story and characters through a newly created universe.  

I play Dungeons and Dragons Online now to get my fix since playing a tabletop game takes more planning, and time doesn't permit it, but nothing beats the real thing, the enjoyment of creating a world together with people, laughing, occassionally handing the story over to fate with each roll. 

On of my pet projects (and dreams) for the last few years has been to write my own D&D/RPG. Later this year, or possibly earlier next year, I'm putting out of a Kickstarter for a game I created and some investors are investing in. 

I was also fortunate enough to meet Dave Arneson a few years before he passed. 

Again, awesome write-up. D&D rules. 

-Ruben (@RMartian)

Jeff Lee's picture
Jeff Lee July 3, 2013 - 4:36pm

Great article. As a fellow writer I can say that roleplaying games have done nothing but enhance the skills I need for the craft. The boost to the vocabulary alone is recommendation enough, but you've hit on some excellent lessons to be learned. I have friends that have been gaming with me for years, and there are always stories of great adventures, adversaries, and antics that still make the rounds both among our own group and when we're relating the tales to new friends. Thanks for a fine read, Rob.

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words July 3, 2013 - 4:58pm

I always thought of D&D (or RPGs) as a communal storytelling exercise, although the DM sets the stage, the players and NPCs do push the story in unexpected directions.

Steven Erikson, the nom-de-plume of a prolific fantasy writer, developed the world for his stories with friends while playing  a modified version of D&D. They played for a decade or so before he finally embarked on writing the 3.5 million words of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series. Some of it is well designed (he's an archaeologist, so his cultures are rich in detail and authenticity), although occasionally that "randomness" seeps into the story. It happens because Erikson and his friends play out some scenes, and let the dice decide who lives and who dies.

RPGs are an excellent tool in the writers workshop.

thanks Rob.

David Welsh's picture
David Welsh from New Hampshire is reading The Shining July 3, 2013 - 7:02pm

I learned a lot about collaborative story telling from D&D, and your notes about brevity are spot on. RPGs are also where I practiced three act structure the most.

Eventually though, I realized I was only gaming because I wanted to tell stories, so I kicked off the training wheels and decided to write for real. Gaming and my group's adventures will always mean a lot to me.

SammyB's picture
SammyB from Las Vegas is reading terribly written student essays July 4, 2013 - 1:28am

This article has revived my interest in D&D. I've wanted to play it since I saw the characters on Freak and Geeks playing. Never got the chance though, as I've never met anyone who plays it. As nerdy as it is, I used to do online RPs. My close friend and I used to moderate different RP forums, when we were teenagers, where we would write these lengthy stories with a group of other people, based around a general story outline. It was a lot of fun, and I personally think it helped me grow as a writer. Our stories used to progress and build over a period of months.

You cover a lot of great points. Number 4, in particular, stands out to me. It brought up all of the times, as a reader, that I felt devastated when a character lost someone important. If a book, movie, or game can create that kind of connection then it is golden. Lacking a connection with characters is one of the biggest complaints I see on 1 and 2 star reviews (I read them as a guilty pleasure). This has given me a little boost to write.

Robbie Blair's picture
Robbie Blair from lots of places is reading a whole stack of books July 4, 2013 - 5:14pm

Wow, guys, I'm astounded by the positive response to this article. Thank you.

@Thomas: You're welcome. One of the great benefits of having an open-ended game like a tabletop RPG is that it can evolve as the players mature. The same is not nearly as true for, say, Super Mario Brothers.

@Mark: I honestly considered including that lesson in the list, but the article was already getting pretty long. I remember the first campaign I ran. I put in so much prep time! I had such a good plan! And, of course, the players had no interest in following it. I exhausted myself and my players by trying to get them back onto the originally intended path. I became a good DM when I abandoned this concept and viewed my role in the game as creating a world of possibilities that the characters could engage with.

@Furyous: The biggest challenge for me as a grown-up is that all my friends have different schedules. I tried to run a campaign a few months back and we got about 7 weeks out of it. Then there were just too many scheduling conflicts, and none of us could really justify D&D as a higher priority than work, school, and family. I hope to get back to it soon, though. Any thoughts on how to balance a game that demands some consistency with an adult life?

@Ruben: I mentioned in the article that D&D taught me "many lessons." The one I was most surprised at is how similar DMing is to being in middle management. A few years back when I was still working in web development, I was in put in charge of my first team—and all the organization skills, group-work, group-think, etc., came spilling back from my time as a DM. You wouldn't think that D&D would be the right course of study for a kid hoping to one day be in management, but it certainly worked well for me.

@Jeff: You're welcome. Another item I didn't mention that is brought to mind by the word "antics" is the importance of humor for getting your audience engaged. Even—maybe especially—in dark stories, that bit of humor adds a human element that shouldn't be underestimated.

@Postpomo: First, I also consider myself to be post-post-modern. A friend of mine is starting to go by "p-cubed" for post-post-post-modern. Second, it's definitely true that the actual stories of a D&D campaign are sometimes worthy of publication. I have at least two of the campaigns I've run that I'd love to write up and publish. Of the rest, there are still many story seeds or scenes that I hope to work into my future writing.

@David: For me, the continued value of D&D is the social element; otherwise I would just focus on writing whenever I felt that D&D-esque urge. But to gather with a group, creative communally, and laugh consistently has a benefit of its own.

@Sammy: Good! I'm glad I'm getting at least some people's d20 fire re-ignited. Also glad it gave you a motivation boost.

Write on,

Rob

Furyous's picture
Furyous July 5, 2013 - 9:38am

Hey Rob,

That's definitely a challenging problem, and just like you, we had to go on a hiatus for almost a year. After some talks with my friends, we decided to try again, so I did some research. I'm writing my entire campaign out and created a player's journal that kept up to date their objectives and general information. This way, they were never lost and could remember important NPCs, villains, and the like. We also subscribed to an app on our phones in which we created a chatroom, and as the DM I would keep them frisky and excited about the next match.

I had all the players write a background, and throughout the week I would engage with some of the players and talk it over, so that they felt like the game was still going, even if we haven't played in a month due to conflicts. And the biggest advantage you have with that much time to play with, is writing better content for the players, so when the game finally does come around, they can easily immerse into the game that is well-prepared.

The idea, basically, is to keep the players engaged even on off days and that there is something to leave them with. Cliff hangers are the best way to draw interest, just like a show.

Hope that helps! Hope you guys had a great 4th!

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Lexington, Kentucky is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated July 10, 2013 - 3:53pm

Me and my group do them online. Much easier, and much wider pool. 

http://www.epicwords.com/ is great for book keeping.

https://roll20.net/home is great for maps.

Stacy Turner's picture
Stacy Turner February 25, 2014 - 11:00am

Great job.  Management, Sales and Recruiting even firing an emotional player... werelearned, but we had that we were doing thopse things....but great idea and you should add to that.   Also, the history of the Dieties and Demigods as well as the legends of the FF and MMI and II were well researched and I owe more than one beer to Mr. Gygax for knowing random facts like what was a  Baba Yaga and other shit an Oklahoman would never know.
 

Alex Underschultz's picture
Alex Underschultz October 30, 2014 - 9:14am

Great read! I have had a game on the go with some friends that is still on going and has lasted 7 or 8 years now. None of us have time in our lives. Between kids and work we get 2 or 3 games in a year. Marathon games of 12 or more hour. This artical just got me needing to go play again. Thatnk you!