Three years ago a friend of mine invited me to come play Dungeons & Dragons. It’s been an incredible experience. I’d heard of D&D, and having played Baldur’s Gate and D&D-like games such as Dragon Age: Origins I was familiar with some of the mechanics of it. Yet I never realized the potential storytelling abilities of the game.
Much like D&D based video games, our dungeon master (the guy telling the story), created the world our party lives in and there’s a one big objective we’re trying to achieve. However, unlike in video games, where the scope of the story and a character’s possible actions are limited, in table top the character can do anything. Or perhaps more accurately, at least attempt to do anything.
Our DM comes up with an outline of what he expects us to do, but there have been times our party has gone in completely different directions to what was expected. What this has allowed for is collaborative storytelling. Every player is telling a story from their character’s perspective, and the DM weaves it together into a coherent narrative. It’s truly remarkable how well developed our story has become.
Now I know my experience won’t be universal because I lucked out and rolled a natural 20 on my D&D group. We’re all actors, writers, and musicians; we’re all storytellers. So when you get a bunch of storytellers in a D&D game, it’s magic, because we’re all dedicated to telling a compelling and emotional story. If my first D&D game had been with a bunch of gamers, people more interested in gaming the mechanics to make the most powerful character and hunting for epic loot, I would not have continued playing. Not because that’s not a legitimate way to play the game, but simply because that’s not what interests me. So if have one piece of advice to give, it’s this: if you want to play D&D, play it with a group that shares your interests.
Over the course of these past three years, playing this game has taught me more about storytelling, characters, and narrative pacing than I would have thought possible outside a classroom.
Here’s how Dungeons & Dragons has made me a better writer.
I’ve Learned How to See Things From My Character’s Perspective
So let me introduce you to my character Krael, a human Dragon Shaman. Due to some unfortunate dice rolls when generating my stats, he ended up with 7 wisdom; whenever I have to roll for something that uses Wisdom (to notice important details, for instance), I have to subtract 2 from whatever I roll. Worse than that though, is the Krael is Chaotic Good.
Without going too much in the mechanics of D&D, Chaotic Good means that Krael is driven by a desire to do good but he hates following the rules. If he has to break the law to help someone, he’s perfectly okay with that; in fact, if he has to break a law to do it, so much the better. If he has to murder someone for the greater good, that’s fine too. With his low wisdom, I decided Krael would probably always decide he knew what was best, and almost always be wrong. Being the disciple of a dragon, whom he viewed as a god, would also make Krael arrogant and convinced that no matter what he did, he was fulfilling the divine will of his master.
This is all to say that Krael is just a huge dick.
As my friends have pointed out, that’s a complete opposite of who I am (for which I’m quite grateful). I’ve been writing all my life, and I always thought I did a good job writing the characters as they would actually act. Which I did, but here’s the thing: they were all just me in a fictional world. Mary Sue is the term for this and no, it’s not just a derogatory word for a female character you don’t like. It’s the author inserting themselves as a character, knowingly or not. So of course I was great at writing characters before, they were all just me, so I knew exactly how I would act.
Coming at things from Krael’s perspective, however, has meant I often end up doing things I don’t want to do but Krael must do. For instance one time Krael and the rest of the party were trapped in a hallway with only one way out, and an unseen foe was hurling fireballs down the hallway at us. Now me, the constantly worried John who hates taking any kind of risks, wanted to hunker down and wait for one of the other characters to do something. Our party had an archer that could shift into the ethereal plane, who could probably take the attacker out at range or at the very least shift into the ethereal to avoid detection and flank the attacker.
But then I thought about Krael: a man who possesses that special arrogance of youth that makes us think we’re invincible combined with a self-righteousness and desire to protect his friends. So headstrong and arrogant that he believes he’s the only capable fighter in the group, and it’s his responsibility to act. Which meant there was only one, inevitable conclusion to this scenario:
“I charge down the hallway at the enemy.” I told our DM, facepalming so hard I left a handprint on my face. To my surprise Krael did actually make it out of the hallway, but only just. As he stepped across the threshold into the chamber beyond the hall, a fireball hit him square in the chest, exploding with enough force to slam him into the wall. I can’t remember the exact amount of damage it did, but Krael was barely alive following that. Yet that was the inevitable conclusion of Krael’s actions, and he couldn’t have done anything else because that’s simply who he is.
I don’t always succeed at this however. There was one night it was late, it had been a long day at work, and Krael was trapped in the middle of a fire. He was low on health, and he could either retreat to the other side of it, to keep it between him and his enemies, or charge through it to attack them. I knew what Krael would do, but for some reason decided that I had to save Krael from himself on this day. Yet I instantly regretted it, because I knew that isn’t what Krael would have done. Yet that failure to consider Krael’s character was one of my greatest learning experiences.
Now when I’m writing, and a scene doesn’t feel right, I go back and think: are the characters acting true to themselves, or am I forcing them to act the way I want for the sake of the plot? Or worse yet, afraid of what the consequences for the character might be? 90% of the time, if the scene doesn’t feel right it’s because I made the characters act in a way contrary to their nature.
Yet I’ve also learned that sometimes there’s a rare occasion, that you do have to bend your character’s to your will to keep a story on track.
I’ve Learned Your Character Can’t Direct Everything
There was a moment when our main quest was going to take us off course for rescuing Krael’s dragon, who’s been missing the majority of the game. This was an interesting dilemma for me. On the one hand, in-character, Krael’s most important goal is to locate his dragon and would not brook any interruption to that quest. After all, as a Dragon Shaman, so for Krael his dragon is literally a god in his eyes and inspires the same fanaticism as any other zealot.
On the other hand, out-of-character, I didn’t want to break up the party. For one, I didn’t want to put our DM through that, making him write a seperate story for me. And secondly, half the fun is the interactions with the other characters, a solo D&D story just wouldn’t be as much fun. My friend BJ was able to jump in and give my character an out with a convincing argument that Krael couldn’t rescue his dragon alone. Did Krael capitulate a little too easily? Maybe, but that’s also a small price to pay for the story staying on track.
If you write a story to be entirely character-driven then you can derail your own story. If you have a character like Krael, given to impulsiveness and recklessness, you can’t always stay true to the character, or the story might go off on a tangent. Game of Thrones has a good example of this in the Dorne plot. Is it in character that the Dornish would seek to avenge Oberon’s death at the hands of the Mountain, and seek revenge on the Lannisters? It absolutely is. Did it completely screw up the pacing of A Feast for Crows and a couple of the later seasons of Game of Thrones? Yes it did, and thus should have been left on the cutting room floor for the good of the story.
Character driven stories are great, but you have to have some limitations on that or risk your story becoming unmanageable. It’s also important to make sure that your main character doesn’t overshadow everyone else.
I’ve Learned Every Character Has To Be Allowed to Experience Their Story
You have to let other people experience their own character’s stories. Not only is this the polite thing to do when you’re playing a group, but also improves the story by allowing complex characterization. Just recently our party returned to the home of our dwarf paladin character, and he had his own storylines to pursue about reuniting with his family. All of our characters had their own adventures while we were there of course, but this was Ivan’s story, and even though I had so many ideas for how Krael could get into trouble in this city, it was important to let Ivan (and more importantly, the man playing him) to have his moment. In doing so, we had a better idea of where Ivan had come from and the events that had shaped who he’d become.
This is important, and something you’ll find in every good story. The Harry Potter series is obviously centered on Harry Potter, but it also allows its other characters their moment to shine. If Harry was the only one allowed to shine, it wouldn’t have survived that first book; it was Hermione, Ron, Dumbledore, Snape, Hagrid and countless others that brought that book to life. You can’t have Harry Potter without everyone else.
I give our DM a lot of credit, because he’s given every character in our party their chance to shine. We all have our own personal quests, something at stake for all of our characters, and most importantly, the possibility of failure looming over us. In fact in the coming weeks, it may be Krael’s turn again as his dragon dies from an incurable disease and only a crazy magical experiment might save her. There’s a good chance that both Krael and his dragon die in the attempt.
In which case, I’ll be back with a new character and a new opportunity to learn how to see things from a different character’s perspective. Who knows, I might even learn new things about myself as well.
Unexpectedly, I Learned To Be A Better Person
Where did Krael come from?
That’s what my friend BJ asked a couple days ago. After all, he’s the polar opposite of who I am.
Krael came from the parts of my personality that I was terrified to express. The man who leaps first and asks questions later, always up for adventure, who says yes to even the craziest ideas no matter the danger. Krael is the adventurer, the warrior, that I’d carefully hidden away from the world. Krael was a dick, because that’s how I was afraid the world would perceive me if I ever let that warrior out.
And this how D&D made me a better person: it was therapeutic. It gave me a safe place to express parts of my personality that I was afraid to show.
When I finally decided to try ballroom dancing, I was terrified, but I was able to say to myself “this is no where near as stupid as charging into a dragon’s lair.” When I decided to ask a girl out on a date, as much as I feared I would come across as pushy and threatening, I reminded myself that Krael is a far bigger dick than I am.
Maybe this won’t make sense to anyone else, after all it’s just a game, obviously the consequences for Krael aren’t real. The possible consequences for me are. Yet because the consequences for Krael aren’t real, it allowed me to practice. Being confident, I’ve learned, is a skill like any other. I’m still learning, and still practicing. Now my practice extends to doing ballroom dance competitions, going on international trips with my best friend, and even attempting to date again after three years of hiding.
Yet none of that would have been possible without that first tiny step of pretending to be Krael once a week. It’s the small steps I’ve learned, that lead to the biggest changes.