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.
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