“I don’t think I could ever play Dungeons & Dragons,” I said. “That seems like crossing a line, maybe going a little too far for me.” My party’s Paladin is fond of reminding me I said that.
About two years ago I crossed the last nerd threshhold and played my first game of Dungeons & Dragons; I haven’t looked back since. Some of the lovable nerds I’ve played the game with enjoy D&D as a war game or combat simulator. Some of them more enjoy the drama of roleplaying a grand adventure. As a career writer and performer, I look at it as an exercise in collaborative storytelling and improv theater. After a few years in the game I noticed it was having a positive effect on my writing. TV writer/producer John Macklin agrees; he used the Fate Core system to guide his writing on the pulp fiction TV show The Librarians.
Here are six ways tabletop roleplaying games like D&D, Fate Core, and The End of the World are one of the best ways writers can improve their craft.
Avoid or subvert worn-out tropes
The Dungeon Master (DM) of my home game will say that D&D is about carefully-managed stereotypes, since the races and classes are balanced toward one or another of these roles. I take this more of a challenge than guideline. It’s easy to think the quick, sneaky Rogue is meant to be the shady one with the criminal past, but what if those same skills were gathered while delivering justice and freedom to enslaved workers? Hulking, lizard-like Dragonborn are an obvious choice for brutish front-line melee fighters, absorbing and dealing vicious damage; what if this Dragonborn was a spindly spellcaster, the runt of the clutch who learned to compensate? After 40 years of D&D the easy choices have all been made. Be a good player and a good writer by filling your five-man band with the hard choices.
Strong, likeable characters are those who make choices that affect the world around them. The hero’s journey begins when the hero chooses to leave the zone of comfort – Skywalker chooses to follow Obi-Wan to Mos Eisley, Frodo chooses to take the Ring to Mordor. In most tabletop RPGs, you play only a single character, often for months at a time. You learn to think deeply about their traumas, what holds them to the world, and what motivates them toward their goals. This is great training for writing the kind of characters that shape the world around them, not the kind of characters whose only function is to move the plot forward or provide exposition.
Most tabletop roleplaying games have in common a mechanic that will kill your character, and once they’re gone, they’re gone. There is no plot armor, no excuse to let your characters return from an ambiguous death like the characters in a Marvel comic (looking at you, Sherlock). Rules that enforce perma-death also enforce a writing style that puts the story above the characters and foster fresh creativity. Look what narrative gymnastics “The Clone Wars” series went through to bring back Darth Maul, and imagine how the universe might have been elevated by introducing someone new.
Game designers are often far more concerned with the relative strength and effectiveness of their characters than writers. For example, Star Wars films often suffer from poorly-explained power sets, leaving viewers no way to know why one backflipping lightsaber guy is better than the other backflipping lightsaber guy. On the other hand, Star Wars games like Knights of the Old Republic and the roleplaying game had to quantify those powers, make them consistent and create a clear progression. Good fiction worlds are consistent unto themselves. Strange as it may seem, the spells and mythic creatures of D&D might be one of the best example of keeping your fictional world grounded in reality.
Good fiction writing owes a lot to the art of storytelling, and tabletop RPGs are one of the best ways to practice this art. Storyteller Jay O’Callahan delivers the solo performance “Pouring the Sun,” the story of an immigrant woman in a Pennsylvania steel town, in a six-foot square with nothing but a table, a chair and a glass of water. A game master’s battle map and painted minis don’t amount to much more than that.
Telling stories this way becomes a gateway to good prose as you gather immediate feedback on what compelling words sound like. You can see this progression in “The Adventure Zone,” a recent D&D podcast by veteran entertainers the McElroy brothers. Early episodes are a theatrical farce, stilted and comedic as the brothers learn the system and create their characters; later episodes are emotionally charged, tightly written, and mythically beautiful. It’s the story of “three brothers and their dad who played D&D so hard they made each other cry.”
When you’re writing for a tabletop game, your next session is a built-in deadline with accountability. That kind of external deadline can help you build the discipline every writer needs to produce good work in a sustainable way.
Writers, step over “the nerd threshhold” and take the plunge into tabletop RPGs. Practice your art around a table with good friends instead of tapping away on a keyboard by yourself. Your setting, your characters, your plot and your prose will be much better for it.
If you’re not sure where to start, check out my one-shot adventure “The Contract” on the DM’s Guild. You can run the adventure with three to five friends in a little less than four hours, making it perfect for introducing new players to the game. Key plot points in the adventure are determined at random by dice roll; with over 1,000 unique combinations, you’ll never play the same adventure twice.