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What Writers can learn from Role-Playing Games

by Willy Doehring, River co-editor

The “Writer’s Workshop” blog posts are meant to be a collage of writer’s tips, tricks, and strategies, including the first steps to publishing, writing prompts, strategies for writer’s block, and a general jumble of ideas to help you in your quest to create and publish.


When I tell people that I play Dungeons and Dragons, I never really know what to expect because there’s a lot of different ideas about what playing actually entails. For some, the mention of D&D conjures images of grand fantasy adventures and dangerous monsters… for others, it brings to mind a bunch of nerds sitting in one player’s basement rolling dice. Regardless, after playing D&D and similar role-playing games for years I can firmly say that these games have helped make my writing stronger— so for this installment of Writer’s Workshop, I’d like to tell you how!

But first— what are role-playing games?  To over-simplify, games like Dungeons and Dragons are an exercise in communal storytelling. One member of the group, usually called the Dungeon Master (or DM for short) creates a world and a scenario, while the rest of the group creates characters that will inhabit this world and drive the story forward. Sure, once you get into it there are rulebooks that help run things and dice rolls that determine certain outcomes, but at the core of any roll-playing game is a story.

The unique part of D&D’s storytelling is that, unlike when we write stories on our own, no one person is in control of where the plot moves next. The DM is in charge of the setting and rules of the world and can plant the seeds of a story, but it’s the players who decide how to approach the challenges that the DM puts forward and ultimately drive the plot forward. This adds an improvisational element to the storytelling, as the DM and the players are constantly reacting to what the other does.

Alright, but how does all this help my writing? You might be thinking. As you might have guessed, it varies a bit on whether you’re playing a character or DM’ing:

As a player, you can think of D&D as one big exercise in character development. You not only create a character as you would for any fiction story, but you then embody that character as they face various trials and tribulations set up by the DM. This pushes the writer much closer to the character than they usually would be, or at least creates a different kind of closeness between writer and character.

The most interesting part of developing a character in the confines of a game is that your influence on the world can’t exceed the influence that your character has. You control that character’s decisions, but you can’t control what the other characters do or what situations the DM puts you in. This often leads to your character developing in ways that you weren’t anticipating— a phenomenon that I’ve found can be rare and fleeting in solo writing, but a common occurrence in roll-playing games.

As the DM (the role that I’m more comfortable in personally), you very quickly learn about managing plotlines and creating engaging settings. In some ways you have more control than the players when it comes to the world of the story, but ultimately the progression of the story is in the hands of the players (who really are the main characters). To make sure that the players have a compelling world to explore, the DM must manage multiple potential and often parallel subplots while making sure that the elements of the world act and react according to what the players decide to do.

If being a player means that you get to discover how your character might react to certain situations, being a DM means that you learn how different elements of setting and certain story hooks can illicit different responses from players; these responses may not be what you were expecting, which can provide valuable perspective that you can utilize in your own writing.

At the end of the day, the communal storytelling experience that comes with games like D&D is a unique writing experience— at least, it has been for me. I hope that if you ever have played or ever do in the future that it helps you grow as a writer and storyteller. And even if you don’t think role-playing games would be your cup of tea, always be looking for chances to improve your writing even in places you might not expect!

As an aside, I promise that Writer’s Workshop will return to form next week— but until then, happy writing!

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