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.