An Actual D&D Effect: Inspiring Kids To Become Writers

from the let-me-tell-you-a-story dept

It’s funny, but despite the stories we occasionally write involving the classic roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons, some of which I’ve written myself, I’ve never actually played the game. Maybe that’s why, according to the folks who have tried to ban the game, I’m not a satanic axe-wielding, uber-murderer. Who knows; could be possible. And, truth be told, outside of the more broadly-accepted video game habit I have, I’ve never delved into much of the so-called nerd gaming culture, other than being completely addicted to Wil Wheaton’s Table Top YouTube series. And, despite all of the historical controversy over these kinds of games, I really wish I’d gotten into them more now that some literary authors are claiming what a huge influence D&D-style games have had on their abilities as story-tellers.

For certain writers, especially those raised in the 1970s and ’80s, all that time spent in basements has paid off. D&D helped jump-start their creative lives. As [writer Junot] Díaz said, “It’s been a formative narrative media for all sorts of writers.”

The league of ex-gamer writers also includes the “weird fiction” author China Miéville (“The City & the City”); Brent Hartinger (author of “Geography Club,” a novel about gay and bisexual teenagers); the sci-fi and young adult author Cory Doctorow; the poet and fiction writer Sherman Alexie; the comedian Stephen Colbert; George R. R. Martin, author of the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series (who still enjoys role-playing games). Others who have been influenced are television and film storytellers and entertainers like Robin Williams, Matt Groening (“The Simpsons”), Dan Harmon (“Community”) and Chris Weitz (“American Pie”).

It’s an impressive list, but it also makes a certain kind of sense. There’s a certain sandbox-esque element to creating a low-tech story-based gaming environment centered around roleplaying with friends. As someone who has written fiction, I can tell you that one of the most important aspects of telling a story is being able to get inside the heads of the characters in your tale. That’s essentially roleplaying, no matter how you look at it. The other half of the story equation is the setting, which is something roleplaying players also must engage in creatively.

The Dungeon Master must create a believable world with a back story, adventures the players might encounter and options for plot twists. That requires skills as varied as a theater director, researcher and psychologist — all traits integral to writing. (Mr. Díaz said his boyhood gaming group was “more like an improv group with some dice.”)

Sharyn McCrumb, 66, who writes the Ballad Novels series set in Appalachia, was similarly influenced, and in her comic novel “Bimbos of the Death Sun” D&D even helps solve a murder.

“I always, always wanted to be the Dungeon Master because that’s where the creativity lies — in thinking up places, characters and situations,” Ms. McCrumb said. “If done well, a game can be a novel in itself.”

Now, some of this might read like an advertisement for pen-and-paper or tabletop games as a creativity booster such that the modern-day video games can’t match, but that’s almost certainly a mistake. You can make that argument against some of the mindless games out there, but you could do likewise with poorly constructed D&D games as set up by the people playing them. As games become more story-driven, as they are able to portray plot and characters with more granularity than ever before, and as player choice becomes interwoven into the story, the player is creating their own story to some degree, just like they do in a classic roleplaying game.

The larger lesson, of course, is that all the moral panics we hear tend to focus on an overblown fear and ignore any net-positive that might exist. Generations of speculative fiction authors and other creative folks were influenced positively by Dungeons & Dragons, despite the fervor by some against the games themselves. I’d lay money down that we’ll hear similar stories about modern-day gaming as well.

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Comments on “An Actual D&D Effect: Inspiring Kids To Become Writers”

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CK20XX (profile) says:

Online roleplaying and MUSHing are similarly healthy. I only ever roleplayed on two places, Videoland MUSH and Multiverse Crisis MUSH, but I met a lot of interesting characters, saw many silly and serious ideas for plots, and being forced to contribute story paragraphs on the fly (called “posing” in the community) has helped me learn how to bust through writers’ blocks as a novelist.

Heck, check out this free-to-download story and tell me if you think I’m any good.

CK20XX (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Aw c’mon. I’ll have you know that I wrote that story specifically so I could give it away at every opportunity, and it’s not like all I ever do is post links to my work in stories that have nothing to do with writing. Could you save your snobbery for the Writer’s Guild or someone else who’s really asking for it?

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

But but but creativity is wrong!
They talk about following OTHER GODS!!!

Someone takes a kernel and spins a tale around it, and suddenly everyone who picks up a d20 has sold their soul to Satan.

Keeping children wrapped in nerf has been a growing thing.
We no longer allow them to dream, except approved dreams to fulfill parents wishes.
There will be no wasting time fighting monsters in your mind, learning how to work in a group and solve problems.
We can’t have them going to another kids house, bad things could be there. We can’t be bothered to get to know these neighbors unless we think they can exploit knowing them to move up in some way.

People couldn’t see how these silly games could lead to anything good… and now we have tons of examples… but turning the ship of roleplaying is devil worship will take far to long. How many Doctrows will we miss because a dreamer was denied the dream and instead was shoveled into a path that will slowly kill their soul and leave them numb and unhappy like everyone else.

PaulT (profile) says:

“The larger lesson, of course, is that all the moral panics we hear tend to focus on an overblown fear and ignore any net-positive that might exist”

Yep. I’ve met many creative people of my generation who were initially inspired by the “video nasties” of the early 80s, the heavy metal of the mid 80s or the gangster rap of the late 80s/early 90s. Some of these people followed their dream and produced content within those genres. Even more simply used the content they were fans of to channel early creative urges, and eventually moved into something totally different. Some (like myself) merely remained fans and support the new content being created by those people, and thus help inspire new generations of fan.

The only negative to any of this are the people who try to blame the ills of society on a convenient scapegoat, and distract people from dealing with the real causes of those problems. A politician diverting funds away from programs to deal with crime, poverty, education, etc. for their pet morality project is causing more harm than a game or movie ever could.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re:

well the scapegoating has been growing in scope this whole time. A large reason they scapegoat things is to get a good soundbite out there to show they care. If you can keep people afraid of something, you have more power over them and well we get molested to fly on a plane and take it willingly rather than force them to stop the insanity. We reelect them to stop some great moral issue that distracts from the serious problems.

There was once a list of things in a warehouse, all of the things people thought the government was hiding like water powered engines… on the list IIRC…
Proof that Religion was created to keep the populace under control.
Proof that the Mafia was created to keep the populace under control.
Proof that the Government was created to keep the populace under control.

They are all pretty much the same thing now.
Do what we want, or something horrible will happen to you.
something something groping the unwilling because no one will take the report seriously…

Anonymous Coward says:

I’m very happy this demon-worship idea never caught on ’round these parts. But I have to really, really disagree with the sentiment that modern day computer games can match old school tabletop games. If we except the situations in which we don’t actually talk about a game per se but more about a framework, that is simply not true. Because, as Ms. McCrumb said, the main part for those effects is the game mastering – the position of the storyteller and world creator in those games.

Admittedly, you can – to some limited extent – use some games for this. Neverwinter Nights 1 & 2 could be used to create your own stories as a GM more or less, and you are able to create world and stories completely different from the usual content in the later Elder Scrolls single player games and similar, but to do this you need lots of technical skills and a huge buttload of work, most of it again technical, not world building. And with all that you are STILL way more limited in your storytelling than you would ever be in a tabletop game.

We are still very, very much in a technical state where computers get a rigid set of rules and follow these rules, even if we have way more flexibility than a few years back. But until we are in a place where – without lots of technical skills – you can describe a scene, an environment, a character to a computer and it is generated and you can use it to tell a story, until we are able to completely freely adjust such scenes and plots as a gamemaster in a matter of seconds if our players surprise us (as a your group *always* will sooner rahter than later, no matter how good your preparation), we will remain unable to match the tabletop storytelling with modern media.

I use computers constantly professionally and for recreation, I really neither dislike them nor want to dismiss them. But in this case, modern technology just is not good enough yet. I hope we’ll still get there in my lifetime, but it’s still far out.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Yep, where I’m from we tended to laugh and roll our eyes at people couching things in purely religious terms like demons and such.

Sadly, religious morons like Mary Whitehouse still managed to get some people to support their causes, but only because she managed to get Daily Mail reading idiots to go with stories that focussed on “for the children” rather than “the devil made them do it!”

Leigh Beadon (profile) says:

Re: Re:

But until we are in a place where – without lots of technical skills – you can describe a scene, an environment, a character to a computer and it is generated and you can use it to tell a story, until we are able to completely freely adjust such scenes and plots as a gamemaster in a matter of seconds if our players surprise us (as a your group always will sooner rahter than later, no matter how good your preparation), we will remain unable to match the tabletop storytelling with modern media.

I think you are perhaps looking through too narrow a lens of what creativity and storymaking looks like — because this is very much happening in games. One of the best examples is the ascendancy of Minecraft — a game where the core engagement is one of creation and construction, not one of reflexes or action. Now I’m not saying people are creating deeply moving literary stories on the fly in Minecraft — they are mostly just building castles and cities and crazy structures. But the fact that this is the CORE of that game, and that game has been massively adopted by kids and that will change the future of the industry, is just one of many signs pointing towards the expansion of video games into whole new realms.

This is an excellent video on that specific example:

There are also things like the huge visual novel trend in Japan that is starting to take hold in the west — mechanically simple games that are easy to create, often using a large amount of stock imagery and settings put together in original ways with all original dialogue (much like a D&D campaign), being churned out (at varying levels of quality, to be sure) by amateurs and professionals alike, with nearly as many people making them as playing them.

There’s stuff like the new, excellent adventure games from Telltale (most notably the Walking Dead game), which are exploring the role of the player in storytelling. I think any D&D fan would agree that in a good campaign, everything doesn’t just play out linearly the way a DM envisioned — it branches and changes according to the player choices, so the player has a huge impact on the story. The degree to which that happens in a game like Walking Dead is still limited, but Telltale is aggressively and creatively working on ways to grow that type of meaningful player-as-storyteller interaction (their new The Wolf Among Us series, which just concluded its first season, has introduced substantial new choice mechanics, and there are two more major properties — Borderlands and Game of Thrones — being adapted into Telltale games with big resources behind them as we speak).

Lots of interesting storymaking happens in the metagame too. Head over to the Taleworlds Mount & Blade forums, or the Paradox Crusader Kings forums, or the reddits for either of those games. You’ll find players who have written extensive tails of their exploits, taking the basic mechanics of play and weaving them into a detailed narrative with all sorts of colour and creativity. Crusader Kings may not let me instantly describe and create any scene I can imagine — but as I play a dynasty game, guiding a line of rulers through four centuries of European history, forging marriage alliances and staging assassinations and declaring holy wars, I’m writing a story in my head (not to mention being spurred to learn a whole lot about some of the greatest true stories from history).

Obviously I can’t debate that storytelling within a computer game is “more limited” than simply “anything you can imagine” the way it ostensibly is with a tabletop game. Though, I played D&D for a while at one point, always as DM, and it is by no means simple or easy — there’s a huge amount of mechanical knowledge and technical skill that goes into creating and running a D&D campaign. If you want to invent your own world or even your own town, you need to spend a lot of time doing calculations and writing down numbers and preparing contingencies and making notes for yourself, all based on information spread throughout multiple long (and expensive) books. And to today’s younger pure-digital generation, the barrier of learning some basic LUA scripting, or similar, to expand and mod one of the many games that make modding easy is probably much lower than the barrier of starting to pore through book indices and plot out monster stats on scraps of graph paper.

So while videogame storytelling is still certainly more limited on the surface, I think you might find that what’s happening there is more exciting and much further along than you expect.

Seegras (profile) says:

D&D always sucked

Complicated, unrealistic and basically a collection of special case law.

That’s why just a few years later, RuneQuest came out. Done by people who a) understood that game mechanics have to be simple and consistent and b) knew how a melee weapons really work and that they don’t have a weight of 5kg.

Anyway, I stopped playing pen & paper roleplaying games, when I realized I could run around in armour and hit people with a boffer halberd. Which I still do
(yes, that is totally not the same kind of LARP as is played in the USA).

Rich says:

Re: D&D always sucked

People always like the bash who was first. You ever stop and think it has issues BECAUSE it was first? If not for D&D, you may very well not have had RuneQuest. Besides, complaining that game mechanics are unrealistic is idiotic. Truly realistic game mechanics would be boring as hell to play. One hit with a sword and you’d most likely be dead or dying.

Anonymous Coward says:

I’ve never actually played the game. Maybe that’s why, according to the folks who have tried to ban the game, I’m not a satanic axe-wielding, uber-murderer.

On the basis of what you write, I thought you were. Just goes to show that you don’t have to play these games to be this.


In reality there are more “satanic axe-wielding, uber-murderers” in the banking sector and legal profession than elsewhere.

vegetaman (profile) says:

Having played quite a bit of D&D 3.5 in my day (and some Shadowrun 3.0), I thought it was a great creative outlet as well as a nice social experience. Say what you want about it, but sitting in a room with a half dozen buddies for several hours, snacking and playing, is actually quite fun. “Game Night” was one of my favorite weeknights, even if I didn’t go to bed until after 4AM because of it (just to get back up for 8AM class).

Ninja (profile) says:

RPG is simply awesome.I’m not fit to be a master because I simply don’t have this creative vein. Maybe that’s why I went engineering heh. But the times I played, and unfortunately they weren’t many, were awesome, gratifying and and exercise to the mind.

Those saying it creates bloodthirsty monsters are simply afraid because they can’t separate fantasy from reality and believe the rest must be like that. That and they also don’t know what they are talking about (much like some trolls around here).

TestPilotDummy says:

Writing is NOT for EVERYONE

neither is electronics.

Look I started writing cause I READ a lot, then finally had something to say.

I mean hell who among your friends would let you know that hotels/motels have wired their rooms up for surveillance?

HOW do I know, cause I ripped up a room to find out. And they absolutely conspire with local cops. Then the intimidation, Fear, and terms of service small print come into play. But you didn’t hear this shit from SNOWDEN.. Ya heard the shit from ME motherfucker.

Jay Lahto (profile) says:


Nothing like a group of fringe kids staggering to 7-Eleven at 3am to refuel on caffeine and carbs. Challenging ourselves to play 24 or even 36 hours straight during summer vacations. Going through PTSD because you rolled 00 on 2×20 sided dice when you only need a 4 or more to save.

And having to hide the whole thing because several of you were members of an evangelical church youth group.

You just can’t do those things now with mmorgs or even lan parties.

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