I admit I am late to the D&D scene, having only started playing and running games for my kids about 18 months ago. My previous experience was limited to reading Forgotten Realms books as a teenager and playing computer-based roleplaying games like Diablo, Baldur’s Gate and Betrayal at Krondor.
There is a lot of overlap between writing a fantasy story and running a D&D game. D&D involves characters, world-building and story-telling, just like writing a novel. Still, while the subject matter is the same, the execution differs.
D&D is both a game and an interactive story that’s collaboratively created in a unique exchange between the players and the dungeon master within the broad guidelines of a rule set to govern the three pillars of gameplay: combat, interaction and exploration. Rulesets range from the complex, emphasis a more simulation style of play emphasising tactical combat, to simpler systems designed intended for more streamlined play with more emphasis on story and character.
My favourite rulesets are D&D 5th edition, Index Card RPG and the very light-weight Maze Rats. Maze Rats, I’ve discovered, is a delight to play as a solo game, but more about that in another post.
Regardless of the ruleset and style of play employed, the player-DM dynamic is thrilling. Setting the scene as a DM and then adapting the story on the fly as your players interact with your world and non-player characters give you instant feedback in a way I’ll never experience with a reader of my books. In D&D, the player is an active part of the story. A reader merely consumes the story as one does a movie or television show.
By contrast, writing a novel isn’t collaborative, or at best, minimally collaborative when you bring in beta readers and your editor. In either case, beta readers and editors don’t shape your story as it is created; they offer suggestions and fix mistakes after the fact. There’s a distance between a reader, and the author that is hard to bridge as the book is read long after the act of creation has occurred, and the author’s moved on with their life.
I’m not saying this is bad, but I sometimes wonder if it is better to share creativity here and now, with friends and family, rather than toiling away for years in my study on a book only to garner a few reviews and the occasional email from a kindly reader. The notion has certainly given me pause for thought.
Another thing that impresses me about D&D dungeon masters is their skill in building worlds and stories on the fly or improvise NPCs for their players to interact with as they explore their world. Most authors are familiar with random name generators (Scrivener has one built-in), but imagine the cognitive freedom of generating characters with a matrix of traits and a few dice rolls.
Many DM’s build their world just in time, usually spiralling out from a single location and building only what their story needs. To do this, they rely on a vast body of material, freely shared in the spirit of cooperation, not unlike the open-source software movement. There’s a dizzying array of roll-table and software-based generators for maps, settings, NPCs, quests, names, factions, treasure hordes, spells…
Unlike the novelist, a DM doesn’t have the luxury of time. I can easily spend a month on a chapter, endlessly writing and rewriting this monument to my thoughts. DMs don’t have that luxury; instead, they must meet the game’s schedule and keep their players engaged during play. Deadlines do have an amazing way of making or breaking you!
Although D&D is different from writing a novel, it’s the similarities that attract me. I am intrigued both by the experience of playing and running a game and can’t help but think that partaking in this hobby can make me a better writer and world builder.
D&D also gives me a much-needed break from the tedium and solitude of writing novels while still offering a creative outlet in the genre I write. It’s something I can share with friends and family now, and with a lot less effort than what it takes me to write a book.