Friday, August 31, 2012

The D and D School for Aspiring Authors

An elderly, one-armed dwarf asks, “Will you help hunt down the blood-thirsty allosaurus that took my arm?”
            “Yes,” I say. 
Wouldn’t you?

As a parent there are those moments when you wonder if you should feel proud that your child is following in your footsteps or horrified that you’ve created a monster. My recent moment like this occurred last weekend, when my son asked, “Dad, can you help me create a dungeon adventure?”
Yeah, you heard right, a dungeon, as in Dungeons & Dragons®.
As a kid in my household it is easy to find out about D&D, especially if you wander into my den (aka, The Fortress of Solitude). Even though I haven’t done much role-playing in years all the DM and players guides, the multi-colored/multi-sided dice and scads of metal figures (enough to give you lead poisoning if you hang out long enough, according to some of my friends) are all there waiting, tempting.
I agreed to help my son come up with his adventure, as long as I could do other things while he worked. As he rolled dice, drew maps and selected monsters I was reminded how once upon a time D&D was one of the first places that I (a teen who liked to write) got to experiment with elements of story and character to entertain others and myself.
In some ways I see role-playing games as a kind of school for aspiring writers.
·      If you are a dungeon-master, it’s up to the DM to create a world—the setting and backstory
·      If you are a player running a character, you have to decide on their strengths, weaknesses, what they look like, wear and carry—characterization
·      The characters end up being heroes (or villains) who hopefully have goals and obstacles to overcome—motivation and conflict
·      To be satisfying a gaming adventure, like any other story, needs to have a “triggering event” (in this case a dwarf offering adventure), a beginning, middle, ending and a “climax” (the point in the adventure when the dinosaur was found and tried to eat our group). In other words, structure.
·      Hopefully there are also some twists and surprises along the way, as well as character growth. One surprise in our adventure: We learned the person hiring our group was my dwarf-cleric’s grandfather.
So when my son’s adventure was ready, we talked his mom into playing too, and the three of us spent an afternoon exploring a broad countryside killing monsters and dinosaurs—which I’m sure for any 9-year old is really the appeal of the game.
            Overall, my son did great running the adventure. His story was fast moving and entertaining and he didn’t get flustered by difficult players (that would be me). As we played there were a few moments I had to remind my son that he, as the game master, didn’t get to decide what my characters did—just like in a good story where the author shouldn’t be too heavy-handed making the characters do things that don’t fit the character. The DM also had to remind me to stop on a few occasions, where I tried to fit things into his world that didn’t belong. When cooking velociraptor flambé over an open fire I was corrected that I had only a clay pot—not the aluminum pan my fighter/chef wanted to pull from his backpack.
            It was fun for me to see my son using his great imagination, reading, using mathematic tables, rolling dice to add things up, when the distractions of TV, the Internet and video games are all easier and so readily available. Does he want to be a writer when he grows up? That remains to be seen. But, for the time being he is having fun playing with the tools of writing whether he knows it or not.
            My proudest moment: When our group went to find the one armed dwarf who had hired us to get our reward, we found our gold, but the one armed man was missing—leaving only a few clues to where we’d find him next—a cliffhanger my son had included, and a lead-in to a future adventure. (What we authors would call the sequel, or maybe book 2 in a trilogy, maybe.)
            So did we kill the marauding allosaurus? Yes, but we were much worse for the wear after the fight, all hanging on the verge of death.
A word of advice: When using a dwarf covered in rotten meat as bait to lure a dinosaur into your trap, first verify how fast an allosaurus can run.

Wishing you adventures in dungeons deep,


Side note: In the book Thirty Years of Adventure: A Celebration of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D Retrospective) there are stories by some interesting people about how role playing influenced them: Stephen Colbert, Vin Diesel, and Wil Wheaton. One interview in it I really enjoyed was that of author, Laurel K. Hamilton.  In this book she talks about her writing role-playing adventures and how it influenced her skills as a writer. She says:
“It was interesting to watch people go through something I had created. It showed flaws I hadn’t seen; it showed pitfalls and things that worked. That was very interesting, to allow live people to go through part of my made-up world.
It was also very enlightening…. So having real people going through an imaginary world probably did have an influence on me and made me more open to listening to my imaginary characters as well.”


Shawn Enderlin said...

That is so awesome! I gamed like crazy back "in the day" and I would agree with all your points. Except for me it was far less about character than world building- which should come as no surprise to anyone who's read early versions of my book! I created a whole world, mapped out planes of Hell, a bazillion dungeons and castles, and made my own Jedi Knight character class. Good times!

Jon said...

Awesome, Mark. I'm jealous I missed the game. And I love the fact that he included the cliffhanger. Looking back, I feel a bit bad for our DM as the games would often go off the rails. He would often just sigh and shut his notebook and start making up stuff on the fly because we had wandered so far afield. I remember one game where my friend's somewhat out-of-control Halfling decided he was going to punch the bar maid just as we got into town and he just laid her out... and we got run out of town. It was kind of hard to start the quest after that. Good times indeed.

Qlaudie said...

I love it! My favorite part of gaming these days is character creation and the actual role playing. That's the actor in me talking... also a great training ground for improvisational performance.

Qlaudie said...

I love it! My favorite part of gaming these days is character creation and the actual role playing. That's the actor in me talking... also a great training ground for improvisational performance.