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Why Every Writer Should Play Dungeons & Dragons

What can a writer learn from the classic fantasy board game? Author Katharine Schellman makes a case for why every writer should play Dungeons & Dragons.

The first time I was invited to play Dungeons & Dragons, my husband and some mutual friends were starting a weekly virtual game. I didn’t give it much thought before saying no. My days were spent on one job, and my evenings were dedicated to writing. My first book was on submission. I was trying to write another book, which felt like an impossible slog. I was busy, anxious, and focused. And wasn’t D&D for awkward middle schoolers, or maybe those kids from Stranger Things?

(Making Your Fiction a Place You Want To Be)

But after a few months overhearing their weekly Zoom call, I wanted to know what my friends were always laughing about. What was the story here? Finally, I asked if I could join.

Dungeons & Dragons is, in many ways, a game of collaborative storytelling. A Dungeon Master, or DM, runs the game. They create a world, the people in it, and a starting plot. The players each make a character, and how you do that gives you certain “stats.” Maybe you make a character who worked in a circus and lived in a city, so your Acrobatics is a +4 and your Nature gets -2. Maybe your character is a strong fighter who wears loud, heavy armor, so your Athletics has +5 while your Stealth is -1. If your characters use weapons or magic, you get stats for those too.

I barely knew any of that when I started playing. But I came up with a backstory and filled in the stats on my character sheet. Feeling awkward, I jumped into the game.

And I loved it.

The game itself was fun. I loved the storytelling part of Dungeons & Dragons, no surprise. It was creative and silly and energizing. Most of all, I loved playing.

As someone raising kids, I know the benefits of a play-filled childhood. But I hadn’t really considered that everyone needs playtime without pressure. Adults don't often get it. We’re busy with the things we need to manage, like our work, families, health, and homes. Even hobbies and activities we pick up—training for a marathon, doing yoga, redecorating a room—often have an end goal. They’re “productive.” They aren’t play. Playtime is for kids.

But adults need breaks, too. We need time to be with friends that isn’t just venting about our work, families, health, and homes. We need time to play.

Why Every Writer Should Play Dungeons & Dragons

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When I started playing D&D, I was suddenly dedicating one night a week to a different kind of storytelling—the kind of fun, no-pressure improvisation with friends that I hadn’t done since I was a kid playing make believe. And an amazing thing happened in my writing.

The weekly playtime gave me the mental break I hadn’t known I needed. I felt more creative. Instead of struggling to write, I had more ideas than I knew what to do with. The book I was writing flowed more smoothly. I didn’t spend my time worrying about the one on submission.

With my new mental energy, I finished the second book. The first book sold. I sold another, and then another.

The D&D game kept going, sometimes weekly, sometimes monthly. When I had planned out my character, I had a pretty good idea of what would happen in their arc. I’m a writer after all; planning out stories is what I do. I had ideas.

But a strange thing happened: None of those ideas happened. The story we were telling went in a completely different direction.

In D&D, the Dungeon Master gives the players a starting plot and a few points of conflict. You play by making decisions in character. At any moment, you can decide what action your character will take. The DM will ask you to roll a “check” for one of your stats, often with D&D’s infamous 20-sided die. If you roll well or have a big bonus to that stat, you succeed in what you want to do. But if you roll poorly or have a negative number in that stat, you might fail the check. With a single roll, the plot can change in all sorts of unexpected ways.

Why Every Writer Should Play Dungeons & Dragons

It was a new experience for me. I was used to controlling a story. Sure, surprises or ideas would always pop up as I wrote. I’d realize it was better if this character found that clue instead of the other one. I’d discover that I needed to add another scene to make getting from point B to point K more interesting. But I knew my characters and where they needed to go. I decided how to get there.

That didn’t happen in a D&D game. I could decide what my character would do, but I couldn’t control what the other players did. And I certainly couldn’t control the dice. The fight we thought was coming didn’t happen when one player cast a well-timed fog cloud spell that hid us from view. The townsperson we thought would help us said no when someone rolled poorly on a Persuasion check. The big character moment I expected got completely lost when the group decided to travel north instead of south. Because the story was improvised and occasionally random, the plot that ended up happening was unexpected and often more interesting than one person could have come up with on their own.

I kept playing and kept having fun. And then one day, my writing got stuck.

I was plotting a new scene without too much trouble: My Regency sleuth would sneak into a suspect’s lodgings, looking for clues. A maid would discover her, but the sleuth would persuade her that everything was fine… until the suspect’s landlady appeared.

And then I didn’t know what should happen. Should my sleuth fool the landlady too? Which was the better choice? How was she getting out of there? I couldn’t decide. So, to my surprise, I reached for a 20-sided die. If I rolled 11-20, I decided, she’d succeed at deceiving the landlady. If I rolled 1-10, she’d fail.

I rolled a 7. The landlady wasn’t fooled. And suddenly, my scene wasn’t stuck anymore. I started writing again, confident in what needed to happen next.

Playtime. Creativity. Improvisation. Storytelling. Turns out, a little Dungeons & Dragons was exactly what my writing and I needed. I’d recommend it for any writer. Even if you don’t join a regular game, you can always keep a set of dice on your desk. You never know when you’ll need to roll to find out what happens next.

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If you aspire to be a professional writer, you must know the basics of communication. When you take this business writing workshop, you'll develop the skills necessary to survive in the business world as a writer. You will study Wilma Davidson's Business Writing: What Works, What Won't and discover practical advice for writing memos, business letters, reports, and other kinds of business documents. Enroll in Essentials of Business Writing today and get business writing tips that will help you succeed.

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