Dungeons and Dragons + Creativity

It would be hard to overstate how badly I got sucked into Dungeons & Dragons. I mean, I spent nearly $200 on books, dice, crafting supplies, and supplements. I subscribed to the D&D subreddit and created accounts on Roll20 and Obsidian Portal. I rushed headlong into podcasts like One Shot and Critical Role.

All of this happened before I even played my first session.

Like many (I assume), I had been interested in the game for a long time. And like many (I assume), after watching Stranger Things I decided I was tired of waiting and wanted to jump in. But it didn’t explain what had so utterly captivated me about D&D, what had drawn me in so deep that I immersed myself up to the neck. Now that I’ve taken the time to really think about why that might be, it doesn’t feel like a surprise.

From the Dungeon Master side, the game combines all of my creative loves. I can create worlds with infinite possibilities. I can write intense, complex story arcs with loads of potential plothooks. I can develop characters that range anywhere from fun archetypes to three dimensional motivated people. I can weave narrative descriptions of places, action, and events to bring all of these things to life--and most importantly, I must improvise to accommodate the players’ choices and bring the characters of the world to life. No amount of preparation will cover ALL the possible bases that a group of four or five people will try to sprint to in a session. So there are my three great loves: group mind creativity, writing, and improvisation. All rolled up into a single experience.

The game is, at its core, all about creativity. It’s a group of people creating a narrative as they go, where actions can have intense, world-shaking consequences. There’s things that have happened in game that have allowed me to draw on my experience as a writer, improviser, and player of games. But I think that, more importantly, perhaps, there have been things that I’m learning from the game that I can apply the other way around.

For starters,  honoring my choices. In revising my work or rereading something, I often stumble over sentences I’ve written that no longer work or that may not pay off. The typical thing to do would be to remove or rework these pieces to better fit the puzzle as it is. My D&D example: my players left an enemy unconscious and went off to investigate something. Then they forgot to come back for him. Rather than let this slide, I am going to have this character return with a vengeance later on. In my writing, this might mean turning a one-off joke from an early version of a sketch into a recurring callback. It could mean paying off an offhand comment later on in a short story, or making the decision to make some small bit of my writing important later. This is something that’s already done by great improvisers--finding opportunities to bring back and give weight to choices that have already been made by players earlier in the piece.

Another thing I’m interested to translate from the game into my creative pursuits is overabundance. In D&D, it’s impossible to predict exactly where your players will want to go in your world, who they’ll want to talk to, or how they’ll attempt to solve the problems you throw at them. As a result, I often end up with pages of prepared material that they may never see. This is fine. In fact, it’s allowed me to imagine events that are occurring that the characters aren’t aware of that may become important to them later. In terms of translating this to my writing, this may mean that I create a bunch of possibilities that may never actually appear in the finished work. Creating a macro-level foundation for the piece before I even start writing it will give me options. It may also provide a baseline of “rules” that will help me develop characters that fit into a larger world. I anticipate this also helping in a revision process--if something needs to be replaced, tightened, or expanded upon, I can return to and draw from the ideas that I used before to flesh out my piece.

A final concept I’m hoping to translate is a little bit of the unpredictability of Dungeons and Dragons. Whether it’s from outside-the-box player choice or as a result of dice rolls (or a bit of both), one of the great joys of the game is watching the ripple effects of insane, unforeseen, or random effects. It can force everyone involved to develop the creative reflex of making things work and often can take the narrative in new directions. I feel like oftentimes in my writing I am either following logically from point A to point B or I have an end goal in mind before I even start. I am curious to see what new directions I can push myself into by asking myself “what can happen here?” as opposed to “what should happen here?” Undoubtedly a lot of these bold choices won’t work and will disappear in revision. But they will at least open doors to paths in my pieces that I normally would never think to go down. This piece that you’re reading right now is a result of an impulse I went with that ended up kind of being all over the place -- I cut about a page and half out and replaced it. But it wouldn’t exist without following that urge and throwing structure and logic to the wind.

Playing the game has been a great source of joy and entertainment for me, and I recommend it as a combination social, gameplay, and entertainment experience. I look forward to seeing how else my worlds, characters, and players will develop, and to see how my creative endeavors and gameplay goals can create opportunities for growth in each other.

Especially now that I can professionally justify all the time it eats up

-Alan Linic