Monday, January 27, 2014

A Writer's Sandbox: Dungeons and Dragons Turns 40 and Keeps on Rolling

Where it all started
Twenty years ago, I began playing Dungeons and Dragons. For the longest time, I had almost no interest in Fantasy as a genre, preferring Tom Clancy or Able Team or some dog-eared Vietnam memoir. But my friend Joey loaned me the first three Dragonlance novels, and I was weirdly hooked.

That of course is a real signifier as to the fact that I'm not an "old school" D&D gamer. many of them consider the mid-80's advent of the Dragonlance media tie-in fantasy novels, and the game setting they're based on, to be the game's true death-knell. To many, taking the game away from the small, grubby stories of treasure hunters and scoundrelous tomb-robbers and featuring epic, save-the-world style quests with Good and Evil standing against each other was anathema to what the game was all about.

Unfortunately for these grumbly grognards, this newer kind of gameplay not only became popular, it became, in a way, the de facto sort of game played by D&D groups. A ragtag band of heroes - a fellowship, if you will - comes together to take on a quest to defeat some ancient evil that threatens the land. As the characters grow in experience and become more badass, the threats they encounter likewise become more terrible, almost as if some higher power were making sure they were challenged, but not too challenged, in their adventures...

But that's a whole other article for another day.

Let's be honest. This is badass.
The summer of 1993, Joey and our friend Josh both brought over the "Big Black Box" version of the Basic D&D game, and my life changed forever. Although looking back on it we didn't actually game that much, I was immediately captivated by this thing, this systematic framework around which you could create characters and worlds and adventures. My interest in D&D quickly outstripped theirs, and within two years I'd bought almost every rule book and supplement published for what was then the second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (D&D would drop the "Advanced" after this edition, as by this time there was no real Basic vs. Advanced rules breakdown). I also bought a ridiculous amount of D&D media tie-in novels, most of which I've not cracked again in almost two decades (mostly because, frankly, a lot of them weren't that great).

For years before this, I'd been an amateur writer, penning or typing stories, usually (okay, always) of a violent nature. It was a perfectly healthy reflection of all the violent crap I read at the time, and when I started getting into D&D, I started writing fantasy stories as well. A lot of people take potshots at gaming fiction, painting those who play the game and build adventures as frustrated writers who can't actually commit to writing their own original material. While there is no doubt some merit to this, I actually think that gaming and writing can go hand in hand and be mutually supportive.

This is some epic-level shit going down.

I realize now, engaging in the world-building of creating a campaign setting, the D&D player is learning the same tools that writers need in order to flesh out the "worlds" they write, even if those worlds are historical or contemporary to the writer. You learn how to build characters, give them motivations, connect story lines and look back at the origin of a conflict, as well as forward to the inevitable resolution. You think of infrastructures and consequences, creating mood and drama, finding themes and setting tone.  You learn how to challenge your protagonists, and to make sure that the scale of the challenges they face falls within the sweet spot of tough enough to make things exciting and worthwhile, but not so hard that everyone gets slaughtered, or some deus ex machina is needed to pull everyone's bacon out of the fire. You learn that when a character dies, all the player (aka, reader) asks is that they die well, with a bloody sword in hand and a pile of foes all around. And when the bad guy gets his comeuppance, it's satisfying and worth all the trials and tribulations that came before.

So here's to you, Dungeons and Dragons. Forty years and still going strong, the grandfather of all role-playing games - including most modern video games - and the sandbox where so many writers created their first stories.


BISH said...

Great post ... Enjoyed it ...

Justin Aucoin said...

So when's our next gaming day, dude? :)

Gallowglas said...

Yes, when? :)

Anonymous said...

Never played D&D — my gaming hours were spent on Avalon Hill war-games like Gettysburg and Caesar Alesia.

Nonetheless, I can appreciate the creativity and investment, and can readily see how RPG could hone world-building and other creative skills that would translate well into writing. I tend to dismiss snobbishness wherever it's found.

Jim Cornelius

Sean McLachlan said...

This grumbly Grognard started in 1978 and carried on through for some time. Never got into Dragonlance or Forgotten Realms. I preferred designing my own worlds and yes, that did lay the foundations for my writing career years later. Happy 40th, D&D!