Dungeons & Dragons and the Art of Taking Risks

In this ongoing series, we ask SF/F authors to describe a specialty in their lives that has nothing (or very little) to do with writing. Join us as we discover what draws authors to their various hobbies, how they fit into their daily lives, and how and they inform the author’s literary identity!

I played my first D&D game at age 37. Unlike most of the people I know who are deep into the world of role-playing games, I’d never wandered into the dungeon as a kid. I’d never even been invited! A colleague of mine at the children’s book publisher where I work was starting up a group with her husband, and asked me if I was interested. My own husband James and I had a nearly one-year-old son, which had severely limited our ability to socialize, and this was the perfect opportunity to hang out with friends at our house, no babysitter required. Our campaign formed together of several other coworkers and significant others and friends—a children’s publishing D&D group!

A few had played many times before, while myself and one other member were newbies. It was explained to me how the game was basically a combination of creative choices and editorial framework with dice rolls and interactive/live storytelling. A fascinating blend of acting and writing.

Our DM (Dungeon master—the leader/storyteller who creates the world and story of the game) began by having us read up on all the races and classes in a dense book packed with information, in order to determine who our characters would be. Elf? Human? Dwarf? Wizard? Rogue? Cleric? I decided that “Jane” would be an Elven Cleric, a reformed assassin. The DM even let me create my own deity for Jane, and so of course she worshipped “the Bat” in honor of my own passion for Batman. Then we filled out character sheets to determine our characters’ strengths and weaknesses.

The math and questions seemed a bit endless and at first, I was intimidated by all of the detail. I worried that playing D&D might feel a little too close to my day job, where I edit fiction for tweens and teens—including many fantasy series. I love my job, but I also need some separation from it, like anyone.

But as soon as we started playing, the worries vanished. I discovered that D&D returned me to the core of what first led me to become an editor—the passion for story and character. Concerns about sales distribution, marketing budgets, P&Ls were all stripped away. Developing a rich backstory for Jane was just plain fun, no pressure. Short version—she was kidnapped by evil Drow as a baby and raised to believe she’d been abandoned by her Elven parents and that Elves were evil, so she became an assassin who murdered many of her own people before learning the truth. Then she turned in horror to the church of the Bat, where she learned about the distinction between justice and vengeance, and how to employ restraint. She has devoted herself to healing others in a quest for redemption in the hopes that when she one day finds her birth parents, she can face them without shame. (But she can still kick ass when needed!)

Our DM masterfully built upon the foundation of the decisions we made for our characters, and I delighted in seeing the story payoffs in the game that would follow months after Jane took a seemingly minor action. I learned about “inspiration points,” where the DM rewarded us with extra turns for making choices in character, especially when the choices were risky or harmful, but made sense for what our characters would do. Over time, the more I got to know Jane, the more I absorbed her traits. I began asking myself “What would Jane do?” in my daily life. Suddenly I was auditioning for community theater after a twenty year absence from acting—and got the part! “There’s more Jane in you than you think,” my friends told me.

Much as we tried to be true to our characters, our group was definitely prone to over-analysis. It would take us hours to move through a scene, obsessing about every tiny thing. One session in particular, we were in a room that we knew was covered in traps. We came up with elaborate acrobatic and logistical strategies for how to avoid the traps and make it to the door. Turn after turn, we got nowhere. Finally, my husband became frustrated, and knew that his character, R’lyeh, would also be frustrated—his character who had a defining feature of being reckless and impulsive.

“R’lyeh steps on the traps!” James declared.

We all panicked and started clamoring for him to change his mind. All except for the DM, who grinned. Because of course, this was what made the game interesting.

Stepping on the traps unleashed a curse that made both Ryleh and another character whose only mistake was standing too close to him fall prey to temporary madness. Wild and entertaining action ensued!

The following week, I was on a phone call with an author of one of those fantasy series I edit, discussing my revision notes for him. His latest book had all the right beats and elements, but what I was missing was the depth of character motivation. The plot seemed to be happening to the characters rather than because of them.

This author, I knew, also played D&D and suddenly it hit me how to explain the issue. “Think about when you’re playing D&D,” I said, “and you have to choose what your character would do based on his character profile.” I told him about James having R’lyeh step on the traps, and how that choice created consequences and emotional engagement for all the players.

If everyone plays it safe, there’s no excitement—in D&D, and in writing.

It was a lightbulb moment for the author, drawing that connection and thinking about which of his characters in the fantasy series “would totally step on the traps” and make mistakes that would lead to richer narrative.

Soon that became a shorthand I used with many of my authors, reminding them to make sure their characters are stepping on the traps—that they’re acting like themselves, flawed and authentic.

My other coworkers heard so much about our group’s D&D antics that they decided they wanted to play, too. Now the entire editorial staff of the imprint I oversee, Simon Pulse, are playing their own campaign—led by the designer whose husband leads ours! I love walking into the editors’ offices and seeing their dice and Player Handbooks, knowing that they’re enjoying some time together and honing key skills that are crucial for any author or editor.

So D&D did bleed into my job after all, but only in the best way: as a reminder of the pure joy in creating great story.

Superhero AnthologyBy day, Liesa Mignogna is VP, Editorial Director of Simon Pulse, an imprint of Simon and Schuster Children’s Books, where she edits novels for teens and tweens including the #1 New York Times bestselling Dork Diaries series. By night, Liesa is a passionate comics fan and lover of all things Batman. Most recently, Liesa edited the anthology collection, Last Night, A Superhero Saved My Life which features essays from Neil Gaiman, Brad Meltzer, Jodi Picoult and more on how they connect with their favorite superheroes.

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