Both my children have requested that I start dungeons and dragons groups for them and their friends this fall. While I’ve relied on customizing pre-made content for them in the past, I’ve started to use all original stuff for this year. In the process, I’ve founded it to be very beneficial to my writing. Here are seven reasons why I think that being a dungeon master is good practice for writing:
1. You have to outline.
When I go into a D&D adventure, I need to have maps prepared, monster statistics at hand, and a storyline ready to go. While I’m sure that some D&D adventures can work perfectly well when flying by the seat of your pants, I find that the best ones are where I’ve taken the time to prepare the setting, NPCs, and major storyline ahead of time.
2.You have to let the characters drive the story.
When I start an adventure, I know where I want the characters go. They have a quest and a purpose all leading to a climactic encounter. But the great thing is that the characters have to get there themselves. I can drop hints and give clues, but any good D&D adventure is ultimately driven by the characters. I have to let them go where they want and engage with the world I’ve created naturally rather than force them down a path. A lot of times, this means adjusting the story as I go, but it’s great. I find the same thing when I am writing. Even though I may have a series of scenes planned, it doesn’t always survive when I start trying to live it out in words. If I let the characters progress naturally, the result is often better.
3. You have to deliver an experience.
The oldest kid in the D&D groups I run is 14. That means limited attention. They aren’t there to here about the world I’ve created for them or do listen to a story. They are there to experience it. They want to live out the story through the eyes of their character. I find myself having to balance description, tension, dialogue, and action in order to maintain their interest. When I see their eyes light up or hear them scream in excitement, I know I’ve done my job correctly. When I write scenes in my novels, I look to capture the same thing. I don’t want to delivery a story to them, I want to deliver an experience.
4. You have to let the characters personally progress.
If you want the most boring D&D campaign of all time, make all the characters level one and never let them gain levels, items, or money. Why do they need to? Isn’t participating in the story enough? No! They don’t want to see them stay the same. They want to see the grow in power. More than that, they want them to grow in personality. One of the things I make sure to arrange for the players is to give them opportunity to have their characters develop and progress personally. The same transfers to my writing. While I understand that certain characters like Columbo or Hercule Perot can remain relatively constant, most characters need to experience a personal journey to accompany the adventure of the book.
5. You have to allow failure.
One of the greatest sources of tension in a D&D game is the chance for a character to die. And the first time it happens to a party member, especially if they’ve been adventuring for several sessions, it is a deeply emotional event. I don’t want the party to fail. My role as dungeon master isn’t to punish them. But, they have to know that their decisions matter. There are real consequences to their actions, and sometimes the dice just don’t go their way. As an author, I love my characters just as much if not more. My hope is that my readers will love them too. And nothing expresses that love more than the real possibility of failure and death.
6. You have to prioritize pacing.
Another pack of goblins? One of the issues I’ve had with the classic dungeon crawl is it can quickly become tedious. A series of choppy, disconnected, and minor battles is a quick way to lose attention and put your players to sleep. When running an adventure, I try to escalate the tension. Chances for rest become fewer. Characters have to fight while wounded or with out their most powerful spells. Maybe there are time constraints. The portal will close. The evil lich will perform the ceremony at the full moon. One thing I do not want is for the characters to kill a monster, go back to town and rest, return and kill another monster, and then repeat. It is boring, uncreative, and repetitive. Usually, by the end of an adventure, I stop making the encounters discreet. If the characters are getting slowed down or hurt too much, I discard planned encounters and monsters to get them to the goal quicker. One challenge or group of monsters flows into the next until the heroes have powered through an epic battle, defeated the foe, and retrieved the loot—or died trying. When looking back over my novel drafts, I view it in the same way as an adventure. Rest periods become shorter, tension increases, and events start stacking together very quickly.
7. You have to sacrifice, bend the rules, and cheat, for the sake of the story.
Sometimes adventures just hit a wall. Things won’t work and are about to fall apart. The players are rolling horribly and the monsters are scoring critical hits every turn. Your carefully planned map leading to the top of a tower is thwarted by a player that reminds you he has a flying carpet. The great thing about being a dungeon master is that the rules and the world are completely under your control. The solution to any problem is only limited by your creativity. The story must, in all cases, come first. If it means throwing out scenes, killing things, or creating new complications, do it. If you do it well, your players, or your readers, won’t even notice.