What DM-ing Taught Me About Writing

Thanks to Benji for motivating me to write on here again. May it be the first of many for us both.

I’ve spent the latter half of my lockdown experience designing and running a Dungeons and Dragons campaign for a group of old Sixth-Form friends, using Roll20.net and Discord to play entirely online. (for those interested; 5e, completely homebrew, based on a combination of Forgotten Realms and Eberron) In doing this for about three months, I’ve realised that the spark of writing my own fiction, which I had lost somewhat after burning out over my second-year final hand-in, has returned. But more than that, it’s returned with a morphed outlook on the world of my own fiction, and how the characters interact with it.

Now, I’m not suggesting this is new ground I’m treading, I know very well that other writers over the past three decades will have experienced much the same revelation. The point of this article is to try and verbalise, or at least set down in writing, exactly what has changed for me and why I find it so fascinating.

Storytelling is an inherently oral tradition, something inescapable even for those with deathly fears of performing their work publicly. There’s a reason reading aloud to yourself while writing – sounding out that dialogue, feeling the words roll around in your mouth as you speak them – is an incredibly useful way of self-editing and drafting your work. In DnD, you are tapping into that oral tradition in a very satisfying way, engaging your players in a visceral storytelling experience where they themselves get to act and watch the world around them react. What might be a fantastic fantasy novel after five years of drafting, editing, world-building and test reading is spun out over the course of 3-hour evening sessions, messy and unpredictable and real.

Telling that story in such a way removes your ability to self edit, instead committing everything you say to the canon lore of your game world and your players. (unless of course you misspeak to such a degree that you have to break character and retcon things – don’t run a session at midnight with no caffeine, folks) That messy narrative is made all the more so by improvised shopkeepers that the players fall in love with, dice rolls killing off important characters moments before their big reveal, or player disagreements that end with a split party and no clear way to bring them together again. And y’know what? I utterly adore it.

It’s so endlessly freeing to not be held to the standards of written prose fiction, to those expectations writers place on themselves to draw coherent narratives from the very first page and have the entire world of their story intricately planned out. It’s okay not to know exactly how long the party spends at the tavern, or whether they kill, capture or completely ignore the main villain. Those things all come secondary to the main goal of having fun telling the story, enjoying the time spent working things through in a haphazard and totally ludicrous way.

This is, finally, the point I want to make. My writing has become more and more driven by that goal – having fun with the stories I tell and letting the characters take on lives of their own – than anything more quality driven. It doesn’t matter whether everything makes total sense as I write it, since I do still have the luxury of editing in this case. Writing as if I’m running a DnD session means I stop getting bogged down in whether details line up perfectly and start focusing on whether it feels good to read. And at the end of all that, I find that I come away with stories that feel much more real, much more present and active and engaging, than anything I can come up with after five hours of intense preparation and storyboarding.

Please don’t get me wrong, all of that planning has its place in every writer’s toolbox. Spending time designing your narrative, especially the world surrounding any individual story, is precisely what I want to spend my life doing if I can get away with it. I love it more than I love writing normally, and that’s the point. Separating the two, and treating the latter far more casually and fluidly, is allowing me to get just as much love and enjoyment from writing as I do from designing and plotting.

Rant over. I apologise if my thoughts are somewhat disparate here, I may write this up again in more detail as I get to grips with what I’m trying to say.

DnD is amazing, and if you ever get the chance to play it, do it – even if you end up not enjoying it, it’s worth the try. And if you’re a writer, or even if you’re not or especially if you’re not, try your hand at running the game as the Dungeon Master and see if you feel the same as I do.

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