My Dungeon, Your Dragon
Pen & Paper RPGs as a Path to Cooperative Storytelling
Despite the weathering of time, there are still people who look at you askance when you say that you’re a D&D player. I’m not sure why this still happens, especially since it clearly moved into the mainstream several years ago. It’s like there are still people out there who believe the old late-70s early 80-s “devil worship” vibe, and think that because you like to gather with your friends, drink, and tell stories that you’re some kind of “weirdo”.
Well, here it is: I’m a D&D player.
In fact, I have not one, but two weekly gaming sessions going on right now. One with a group of friends who are primarily actors (let me tell you, they’re a lot of fun around the gaming table) and another group that I met at the local comic shop who invited me to join them – a great honor if ever there was one, to be drafted by near-strangers, who have since become great friends.
As a bit of backgrounder, I’ve been playing D&D since I was 6. That’s 20 years now, off and on, that I’ve spent time sitting around a table with drinks (first soft, then harder as the years go on) and friends, rolling dice and either telling a Dungeon Master just what it is that I’m planning on doing; or, far more likely, actually being that Dungeon Master myself. I’m pretty sure that playing cooperative social games since childhood is the reason that I have trouble trying to play a video game on my own. There’s got to be something really compelling to pull me through to the end, which is why I’ve finished Heavenly Sword, Mass Effect, Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age, but not much else in recent years.
So, why do I play D&D? Is it because I’m a devil-worshipper? Is it because I like to dress up in costume and pretend to be a barbarian under the black lights? (I do own a sword.) Is it because I’m a total nerd and love to do nerdy things?
Well… that last one is kind of true, but the real reason is because I love stories. That’s all D&D really is. It’s a way for a group of people to get together and all have influence on the outcome of a story.
During my most recent session with Group 1 (the actors), we had been sent to a forest grove to discover the source of the mysterious battenwulfen (quasi-intelligent wolves that can transform themselves into bats) which were plaguing the nearby lord’s castle and his closest people. During the course of the investigation, it turned out that these creatures were not bothering the peasants of the nearby villages, but only the lord himself. We forged into the forest, fighting off the largest of the creatures we’d so far encountered, and found ourselves in a glade with a huge druidic-style standing stone in the center.
The leader of the battenwulfen, a disaffected, angry dryad, came down to meet us (and begin the wholesale slaughter of the lord’s mooks which had accompanied us) as the DM prepared for a fight. Believing us to be terribly outclassed (and he was probably right), our group’s paladin called out to talk to the dryad, to try and determine what the reason behind the slaughter was.
Our DM hadn’t been expecting that. He’d expected us to simply dive into combat when the dryad began slaughtering the mooks, but the paladin had seen something which had been hinted at, perhaps inadvertently – that perhaps there was another side of the story, something else which could be told. Suddenly, there was a new branch to the tale, and it was because of one of the players.
This is the key difference between writing a short story or a novel on your own, and engaging in a game like D&D. When writing a story or novel, the characters and plot twists are all limited by your own imagination. It’s more difficult to come up with something truly unexpected, because to the writer, it always seems expected. I have written a few stories which relied on a twist at the end, usually one which I know from the beginning, and it always seems hackneyed and impossible for it to truly surprise the reader – although it sometimes does end up doing so, in the end. It’s much more difficult to tell whether the story will truly surprise the reader or not, because you’ve already known the answer, the twist, the unexpected turn since the beginning.
Now, that’s not to say that the average D&D game is fit to be turned into a great novel. Due to the inherent nature of getting a bunch of fun-loving humans into the same room means there is bound to be silliness (our paladin in the actor’s group has a tendency to suddenly start sounding an awful lot like Bill Cosby), jokes, laughter and general ridiculousness – but that’s all part of the fun of the moment.
For me, it’s much less likely to be that I would simply try to turn a D&D campaign into a novel, and more that you can learn something, as a writer, from that cooperative experience. Being given the outside perspectives of other characters, or the unexpected turns delivered by the dice (when one of your players, with one lucky shot, manages to kill that villain you’ve spent the last three nights working out motivations and backgrounds for; or when another uses the vorpal sword rolled on the treasure table a few sessions back to single-handledly behead a large black dragon) gives you strength as a writer, because you have a greater understanding of random chance and how things can go terribly wrong.
One of the most dangerous traps that a writer can fall into is making things too easy for their characters. If there’s no challenge, no difficulty, there’s no story. Characters can’t simply waltz through the events, having everything go their way, if you want your story to be compelling. It’s a cliche at this point, but a story thrives on conflict. Conflict between characters and other characters; between characters and their environment; between characters and the villain; characters and themselves. Those are the events that draw us in to a story, and if everything is just easy, there’s nothing there to interest us.
Somehow, one must learn that the world is random; that things rarely if ever work out just the way they’re supposed to – and in a story, things need to almost actively conspire against the main characters to make everything go wrong.
By attempting to tell a story with others, via an RPG, free-form roleplaying, or any other method which involves more than one mind, we learn about the unpredictability of the world (via the dice) and of people (via the other players).
You fancy yourself a storyteller? See if you can successfully keep up with a group of five players; all of whom have developed characters that you know very little about, who all have different ideas about what they want the story to be, and who have the randomness of dice both for them and against them. Can you tell a coherent story that’s both engaging and fun?
It’s more difficult than it sounds.