Friday, June 28, 2019

7 Writing Lessons Learned from Dungeons & Dragons

Heyyyyy. So. Before we get started, I thought you'd want to know: Sounds of Deceit is now available for pre-order! YAY!!! 

Okay. You can read the rest of the post now. 

I started playing Dungeons & Dragons in January. I had no idea what I was doing...and was also playing with two other newbies who also didn't know what they were doing.

Fast-forward to now and, well. I'm still pretty bad at the game. Maybe? I don't know how to tell whether I'm good or bad at it, but my character dies quite often, so I'm assuming that's bad. 

But I've learned a lot. I love the game and, even though I'm not the Dungeon Master, I've still learned a lot about storytelling. Whether or not you play D&D, you'll want to stick around for the treasure trove of writing information I've picked up in various dungeons and zombie-peep-infested villages (yeah, you read that right). Most of these tips pertain to fantasy novels, but several of them are useful for any type of writer:

7 Writing Lessons Learned from Dungeons & Dragons

1. Let your characters mess up. For anyone who isn't familiar with D&D, the basic concept is this: The character you're role-playing as decides to do something. You roll dice to see whether you succeed or fail at the task. So you may have a character who decides to do something badass only to roll badly and have them fall on their face. For instance: My character once tried to heroically save a group of people from zombie peeps only to get infected and almost die. There was also a time when we tried to make it into a city by throwing one of our team members over the wall....Only to have him face plant into brick.

Think of how much more interesting and dynamic a story would be if you let your characters fail at things. Maybe they try to do something badass and instead end up making a fool of themselves. Or maybe they mess up an important fight and get badly injured. This keeps your readers on their toes and also humanizes your characters.

2. Get creative with races. Most fantasy stories have three races: Men, elves, and dwarves. But D&D doesn't follow this constraint.

Gif from Stranger Things: Mike slamming down the figure of a Demogorgon onto their Dungeons and Dragons table.

We've got humanoid vagabond birds (Kenku), evil snake dudes (Yuan-ti), epic dragon-esque beings (Dragonborn), genie-type people (genasi), and horrifying spider people that I wish I'd never seen (Driders). And that's just the tip of the iceburg. So I ask you: WHY do none of these show up in fantasy novels? Why don't we have all sorts of cool races populating our speculative fiction stories? It makes me sad. Be more creative, people. 

3. Let your characters be different from you. D&D is played as a group, so it's always interesting to see the choices other characters make. Often times my fellow players' characters will make choices I would never have considers. Usually they're pretty creative. Sometimes they're horrifying (James, you know what you did). Regardless, it reminds me of how important it is to work to get out of your head when you're writing characters. While it is fine to have characters who are similar to you, it can also get a bit predictable and boring (both for yourself and your readers). Make an effort to have your characters behave in ways that you wouldn't.

4. Use alllll the weapons. Wanna see all the weapons available in D&D? Here's a picture of the selection in the 5th edition player's handbook:

Glorious, right? And all you did was give your fantasy character a sword and a bow. For shame.

5. Let your characters get hurt (or die). It is very rare for my character to escape a battle without losing a decent amount of hit points (translationg: Without getting wounded pretty badly). And, yet, a lot of stories allow their characters to walk away from fights with only a scratch or two. Don't do this. It lowers the stakes of the story. If a character is going to fight, they're probably going to get hurt. That's okay. Let them.

Gif of Leslie Knope from Parks and Rec: "Everything hurts and I'm dying."

And you know what? You need to kill off characters every once in a while (unless you're going for a fluffy kind of a story, which is fine). People die in battle. People die of infection. People die of old age. Don't ignore these things in your stories. 

6. Go bold with the world-building. I touched on this a bit with the races point, but I'm going to drive this home: If you're building a world, then build a world. Flesh out the politics, the geographical features, the magic system, the currency, etc. Sure, it's possible that not all of that will make it into the forefront of you story, but mentioning some of it in passing lends a depth and richness to your world. D&D works in all sort of cool world-building: Social systems, religions, politics, geography, magic, money. Take a cue from them.

7. Collaborate. When making decisions in D&D, players will often talk with each other to make sure they're making the right call. After all, if one player forges ahead and then triggers a bunch of smiling, murderous statues and gets all their friends killed, then that's kind of sucky. Making solid choices is easier if you get input from others. When you're stuck on a story, remember to reach out to fellow writers and ask for opinions and suggestions. It'll jumpstart your brain and help you move in the right direction.

Bonus: If you play as one of your own characters from a story you're writing, you can come to better understand your character. It's pretty epic.

Do you play D&D? What have you learned from the game? Also: What character do you play? I must know. I alternate between a Dragonborn cleric named Norberta (I couldn't help myself) and a half-elf sorcerer (who is actually the D&D version of Jayel. It's pretty awesome).

Related articles:
7 Writing Lessons Learned from Stranger Things
Why Writers Should Strive to be More Like Batman

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  1. LOL, the mistakes and misadventures always seem to become the best part.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. That’s so cool that you play D&D! My wife and I have been playing for almost 2 years together, and had our first campaign end about a month ago. I was a Dragonborn Berserker Barbarian named Pinfonnac, and my wife was a Moon Elf Evocation Wizard named Induri Shar. We got inescapably trapped by a Succubus, so while we didn’t technically die, our characters’ stories ended. 😟

      Now, my wife is the DM!!! I’m so proud of her for getting out there and actually running the game for our group now. I’m playing a Drow Wild Magic Sorcerer named Izztar Kront’toryn, and we’re playing in Eberron. If you haven’t read any of the Eberron novels, you should definitely check them out. Our favorite so far were the Dreaming Dark series by Keith Baker. That may have something to do with the fact that he created the entire setting! 👍

      Sorry about the double post! 🤦‍♂️🤯🤓


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