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Jaleigh Johnson: Improving Your Writing With Dungeons & Dragons

For New York Times-bestselling fantasy novelist Jaleigh Johnson, Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) is more than just a role playing game, it's a writing tool.

For New York Times-bestselling fantasy novelist Jaleigh Johnson—author of The Mark of the DragonflyThe Secrets of Solace and 2018's The Door to the Lost, among others—Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) is more than just a role-playing game. It's a writing tool. Her experience as a Dungeon Master has helped her create intriguing characters, unique worlds and well-paced storylines for her novels.

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If you're not familiar with D&D, it's a fantasy role-playing game (RPG) where players become fictional characters and then embark on imaginary adventures where they interact with a story and each other along the way. These adventures can take days, months or even years. The Dungeon Master’s role is that of storyteller and referee.

Jaleigh has been a gamer for a long time, and she blames her brother, who is 11 years older than her, for enticing her into the gaming world. When she was five, her brother would play D&D with his friends in the garage. "Being the younger sister, I of course wanted to tag along and play," she said. "I was made to sit on the sidelines and watch instead."

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As she watched them play the game, she watched the stories unfold. “I’d fall asleep listening to them just like a bedtime story. Gaming and stories became intertwined in my head from a young age, and eventually led me to reading fantasy novels. I was lost from that point on.”

It was then she knew she wanted to be a storyteller and create the worlds she got lost in as a reader and as a gamer.

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Fast forward to adulthood after Jaleigh had a few published novels under her belt. She gathered a group of friends and family to start playing D&D. Because she likes storytelling, she stepped into the role of Dungeon Master (DM) where she was in charge of the base story and guiding the game.

“I present the characters, the story and a lose set of choices as to how the story can play out," she said. "Then the players take control and make decisions about what their characters will do, what they want to accomplish, how they want to achieve their goals.”

She is not there to work against the players, but part of her role is to put obstacles and challenges in the players' path to see how they deal with them. “When confronted with a monster, do they attack immediately, do they try to negotiate? Do they sneak around. There are infinite possibilities for how a character might approach an obstacle in an adventure.”

It didn’t take long for her to begin seeing the similarities between writing novels and being a DM. “I immediately noticed that my approach to the game was not so different from my approach to writing a novel," she said. "I was thinking about how to engage the players, how to hook them from the start of the campaign, just as much as I was thinking about rules, questions and the logistics of the adventure.”

Character Development

Sometimes the characters in Jaleigh's novels are as unruly as the players in her D&D game. “I think, Of course they are going to go down this path, but no—they veer in a totally different direction, something I didn’t expect, and suddenly my adventure or my outline is blown, and I have to adapt.”

Jaleigh outlines her novels in order to give herself a roadmap of the story, but she doesn’t always stick to it. She takes the same approach with her D&D games. “At the beginning of a gaming session I outline how far I think things are going to go, what I think the players are going to do, and I sketch out a rough outline. Then at the end of the night I see whether or not we stuck pretty close to that or whether we veered off completely.”

Even though she has her outlines, not everything is planned out in her novels or her games. “Your players and characters will surprise you, and that can be amazing. I don’t necessarily want to know how things are going to play out. I want to be surprised.”

In each game, the DM weaves non-player characters (NPCs) into the storyline. At the beginning of one game, her players were trapped in a prison camp with a group of NPCs, and they had to try to escape.

“I looked at these NPCs as supporting characters in the story I was trying to tell," Jaleigh said. "They had goals and motivations, just like the characters in my novels. So, I wanted to develop a distinct personality and voice for each of them, making them as compelling as possible for the players. I felt that if they cared about these people, it would not only immerse them more fully in the experience, but also maybe encourage them to roleplay—even the reluctant ones.” It worked. By the end of the night, her players had made it their mission to ensure each prisoner escaped that camp.

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Building an intriguing world makes a story more interesting. Jaleigh said D&D helps her when it comes to world-building in her novels. Even though she uses pre-created campaigns when she is a DM, Jaleigh uses storytelling to immerse the players in the game.

In high school, her brother created his own campaigns. “He had designed the whole world, and I remember the idea of getting lost in those worlds. At the same time, I was reading fantasy novels and it was the same experience. The more richly detailed these worlds were, and the more it seemed like there were secrets to discover, the more these worlds felt real to me and the more I wanted to explore.”

This spilled over into the world-building for her novels. “What I tried to do with the Solace world that I built was make it as rich and full of wonder as I could so that people would want to explore and keep coming back to it. D&D was a huge influence with that.”

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Plot and Pacing

Jaleigh said being a DM and running an adventure for a group of players is an incredible way to put her storytelling skills to the test. She gets to see their reactions and discover what they find important about in the adventure based on the decisions they make.

She works in collaboration with the players, but it’s also her job to move things along and make sure everyone, including her, is enjoying the story experience. “If things start to get boring, I can immediately tell by my players’ body language. They sneak glances at their phones, get fidgety, or take restroom breaks, etc. Time for some action. Bring on the combat! Or maybe the players have just finished an epic, hours-long dungeon crawl, and the tension has them so wound up they can’t focus. Time to ease off and send them to the local tavern.”

She finds it interesting to watch how players deal with the obstacles she puts in their path and believes it is something you can apply to writing. “You can take a plot point and consider more than one option when dealing with the villain, or when dealing with the other characters.”

Getting this kind of immediate feedback is not something she typically gets to experience with her readers. “I’m not looking over their shoulders while they have my book open to see where their eyes start to glaze over at a boring part, or where the action has them so tense they simply can’t put the book down. But I believe gaming can help teach writers about things like pacing, or how to set a scene for readers and make it come alive so they don’t want to stop for the night.”

Whether for a novel or for a D&D adventure, creating intriguing stories, characters and worlds is important in order to resonate with the reader or player. For Jaleigh, gaming and storytelling are intertwined. “Being a writer made me a better DM, and being a DM keeps teaching me more about creating a story.”

She encourages any writers interested in expanding their storytelling skills to find or create a D&D gaming group and go for it.

Join us for this revised and expanded online course: 

World Building in Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing with Phil Athans

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