Mentioning D&D will garner a variety of reactions: gamers will fondly sigh, literary types will snort, and conservatives who neither read nor think will still decry it as Satanism. But I trust that those of you who read and write speculative fiction will understand.
So how does the grandfather of role-playing games (RPGs) pertain to my fiction writing? Aside from the obvious—that I write speculative fiction, which includes high fantasy and sword & sorcery, the idioms of D&D—running and playing all those adventures, modules, and boxed sets taught me several things about plot, character, and how (not) to please an audience. Useful things for any writer, regardless of genre.
Yes, useful even if you write Bizarro fiction. And if you played with my old gaming friends…especially if you write Bizarro fiction.
My first real experience with D&D was as the Dungeon Master (DM), the player who controls the monsters, tells the story, and acts as rules arbitrator. That can be quite a bit of work, and let me tell you, creating a world for an RPG and peopling it with characters is the same thing I do as a writer when I compose a new story. The main difference is, with D&D, I worry about game balance and how a character will affect it. With fiction, a character also has to entertain a reader, tug at their emotions, and be accessible in some way. Plus you don’t have to create a set of RPG stats for a fictional character…well, unless you really want to. ;-)
As far as world-building, I started during my D&D days. I’m sure many other authors who were/are gamers have done the same thing. And just like me, I’ll bet many have mined their old RPG data for character and place names, and setting details. For example, much of the material in my Scion science fiction setting (Aldaakians, Sarrhdtuu, the Vim, etc.) came from an RPG I had written myself. I called it ‘The Last Eternity’. Yeah, cue the sarcastic ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’. Of course, the game mechanics didn’t function, but years later all that work still paid off. People who’ve read my Scion material have enjoyed those elements, without ever knowing their origin.
Many editors will advise fantasy writers not to submit a story about their ‘D&D game’. That’s understandable, but it’s also not entirely fair: several of my published pieces used material I had created for an old RPG character or setting. The idea is not to try to market a contrived tale of your D&D adventures, but rather to draw inspiration from what drove you to play an RPG to begin with. If, like me, you have a trunk load of unused material that can feed a setting, so much the better.
Now about characters. Yes, I too practiced what all DMs do in the early stages of their gaming: create invincible, cool characters that have all the powerful magical items and kick-ass stats that would make one of the Knights of the Dinner Table blush. These characters are more like avatars of that DM’s self-empowerment, and are usually abused in game play. My old gaming friends still roll their eyes at the mention of Drake Steele or Victor Drago, as well they should. But in time I realized that awesome stats do not make a character—it’s how the players interacted with a character that mattered.
So in a story, crafting a hero or heroine that is a master of swordplay, or a formidable magician, or any other extraordinary vocation, is never enough. While everyone likes to root for a winner, I often find the best characters, the ones people really relate to, are the ones who aren’t cool, popular, or the strongest. The ones who don’t possess 24-inch biceps or 38-24-36 measurements.
Then there’s pleasing your audience. Here, D&D and fiction writing are far different on the surface: in an RPG, the Dungeon Master has to cater to the players. After all, the players, not the DM, are the focus and heroes of the story. Sometimes that means babysitting the less mature players (and yes, I’m referring to adults here—you wouldn’t believe some of my gaming experiences), and sometimes it means thinking on your feet. These things contribute to the energy of face-to-face, table-top RPGs, and wouldn’t be the same without them. In fiction writing, none of these concerns exist. At the onset, as an author, I’m out to please myself by writing a story I myself would like to read.
That might sound self-indulgent, but it isn’t. A novel is a massive undertaking, and you must be dedicated to it at every stage—from first draft to polish pass. Yet in this process, a writer must cut out self-indulgences (as Stephen King dubs it, ‘kill your darlings’). The novel should still be something you’d want to read yourself, but revised so that the story has taken point of place over the author’s ego. In this regard, writing and gaming are related.
Oh, I could list many examples, but here are two that bear mentioning. In one RPG session, where I was the player and not the DM, the guy running the game seemed dead-set against the players enjoying his campaign. Strict on rules, stingy with rewards, lacking charisma, and describing an unimaginative plot—it was agony playing this guy’s D&D campaign. Not everyone’s cut out to do this sort of thing—much like writing. But the problem was, the guy knew he was antagonizing his players, knew we loathed his game…but refused to change it. Needless to say, we finally stopped playing it and moved on.
The same is true with a story: if you’re unwilling to heed constructive criticism, are too lazy (or arrogant?) to revise your work, or know that you need to hone your craft but refuse—then readers won’t read or enjoy your work. Just like we didn’t enjoy that guy’s campaign. Don’t be that guy.
The second example is from one of my own D&D campaigns. On the other side of the spectrum, I gave in to the players far too much. It was my fault—give them an inch, and they’ll take the kingdom. I allowed a certain player to use a wraithform spell to turn himself to mist, enter an opponent’s body via their ear, then re-materialize inside that opponent’s body—thus killing that opponent. If I’d been a smarter DM at the time, I’d have ruled that the resulting effect also killed the player’s character. But I didn’t, because I wanted to please my players. Something similar like this happened in another of my campaigns, and with the same player. Again, I allowed it, and the campaign suffered for it.
The lesson? Never budge when it means compromise will ruin your vision. Don’t water down a character or a scene in your story just to be politically correct, or to please a few critics. Maintain what you want your story to be. Not every agent or editor knows what’s best for your work. Resist making changes that detract from or distort what your original vision was. That doesn’t mean ignoring spot-on criticism, but once you’ve been writing long enough, you’ll know the difference. And never make changes for appeasement.
The challenges of running a D&D game, and writing a story, share key similarities. Though in execution and content they are different platforms of entertainment and expression, both are united in the need to maintain a balance. A badly-run campaign and a poorly-written novel can both be avoided, if one does the work, develops a thick skin, and isn’t afraid to stand their ground.
Now, one of these days I might tell you about all those awful, tedious gaming sessions, the dirt on players who went too far, a particular elven ranger everyone hated (who killed the villain before we got there), the blue inked d20 that never rolled a single frigging 20, the real alcoholic content of Dragon Piss, a dwarf thief who liked to accessorize everything in alligator leather (too much), or certain Donjoned gnomes that copulated with ogres…but only after I’ve regaled you with the many good times I had, and how those remain with me as I continue to write new stories.