The Writing Game
It’s not exactly a secret that I’m a huge nerd. But recently, I feel like I crossed a rubicon into deeper, obsessive nerdery than ever before: I started playing a lot of Dungeons and Dragons.
I played a little growing up with my older brother — weird little homebrew games where we ended up abandoning the dice systems and most of the rule set so we could play in the car on long road trips or sitting in an airport waiting to get on a plane or, memorably, on ski lifts with soft flurries drifting down around us. It was a game of improvised storytelling with a little random chance thrown in and neither one of us remember a single detail from any of those sessions.
We played a little when my nephews were younger and we’d go over to my cousin’s house and run games for them. Mostly frustrating experiences trying to wrangle two easily distracted children into paying attention to the fussy, wargaming rules of D&D 4th edition. Those games ended when the older one turned into a disaffected teen who wears all black everything and gels his hair straight up in the air and started reading philosophy and hanging out with other pretentious dirtbag ne’erdowells. We all miss those games but the older one is in college and the younger one is entering his own days of being a dirtbag teen in the big city.
But recently I had a hankering to play again. This is probably because I started listening to The Adventure Zone and then found my true love, Friends at the Table* (start with season 2, COUNTERWeight if you like giant robots and feelings. Start with Marielda if you like fantasy crime and dying gods and feelings. Always feelings.) But those podcasts unlocked a deep yearning in me to play games. To sit around a table with friends and loved ones and tell a story together. And roll some dice. And kill some monsters. And yes, have some feelings about the worlds we make and the people who inhabit it.
So I started a game with my brother and his girlfriend and every few weeks, when he can get a break from his high powered corporate law gig or she can make time from her public interest work or I’m actually in town on a weekend, we sit down and roll some dice and do some crime and fight the power and try to find a way to live in a fallen world. It’s the best and if you can’t tell I really love it.
It’s also the first time I’ve acted as the dungeon master. I built the world, play all the NPCs, arbitrate the rules, and steer the story. And so, in doing all this, I feel like I’ve learned some new things about story and writing and craft. It’s not the same as sitting down and writing a novel, but it is building a world and inhabiting it with characters. And because my brain works the way it does, I can’t help but think about what it shows me about the meat and bones of storytelling.
This is going to be an occasional series about gaming and the craft of writing novels and how they intertwine. How to write compelling characters. How to use your worldbuilding to critique and question. How to have a plot when all your protagonist wants to do is sit on a dock and eat some spicy shrimp (the answer is make the shrimp seller part of a secret seditious group looking to destabilize the existing power structures). Hopefully you won’t need to understand D&D or other tabletop games to glean something from these ruminations. But I want to learn to tell better stories and maybe you do too and we can figure that out together.
* full disclosure I represent the Friends at the Table team now and the GM, Austin Walker. I love my job.