I’m going to let you in on a secret. When I was in high school, I really really wanted to play Dungeons & Dragons, but I didn’t think I was cool enough. I’m not kidding. I genuinely thought this game, with its complex rules and cool dice and performative creativity, was something only the most clever, inventive, and confident people could play. Those were the real Cool Kids, in my opinion.
Ever since I was little, I’ve been enamored by the act of creation. People who could write or draw or make music or perform on stage or anything like that were gods to me. This fascination fed my own creativity. I tried my hand at all types of art over the years, but writing was the only thing I was passably good at. Fast forward a couple decades, and I was finally good enough to carve out a decent career with my writing. It was only after I had two books out on shelves that I started to wonder if maybe, just maybe, I was cool enough to play Dungeons & Dragons now.
So I teamed up with my writing critique group, got some help with rolling a character (an Elvish wizard, in tribute to Taako of The Adventure Zone fame), and never looked back.
Obviously, I’m now aware that playing D&D is not reserved for the creative elite. In fact, the fun thing about roleplaying games in general is that they meet you where you are. On one end of the spectrum you have professionals in their field creating content beloved by the masses, such as the aforementioned The Adventure Zone, which is headed by the McElroys: comedians and podcasters extraordinaire, or Critical Role, which is comprised entirely of talented voice actors. On the other end you have my teacher friend who DMs a game for her students that regularly devolves into incomprehensible memes and inside jokes only half the table understands. (For the yet-uninitiated, “DM” stands for Dungeon Master—the leader and arbitrator of the game.) Dungeons & Dragons is the epitome of “fun for all ages.”
I don’t think this accessibility negates the Promethean virtue of the game. If anything, the game’s flexible rules and limitless customizability makes it ideal for anyone who loves the act of creation as much as I do. As a player and occasional DM, I have learned how my skills as an author improve my gameplay—and vice versa. Whether you enjoy casual one-shot sessions or sprawling, epic campaigns—or even if you’re a newbie wondering if you’re cool enough to play—here are three ways that D&D (and other fantasy roleplaying games) can bolster and hone your creativity.
I: Character Creation
Creating a D&D character is a little like baking a cake—if baking a cake involved dice-rolling. There’s a recipe to follow, but there’s also plenty of room to make it special. You’ve got a set number of races and classes to choose from, with six different ability scores to encompass the character’s physical and mental prowess. Just like any good recipe, these basics are enhanced by more nuanced additions such as modifiers, proficiencies, feats, and multi-classing. On top of the nitty gritty, your character also needs a backstory and a personality, including flaws, ideals, bonds, and an alignment (lawful good, chaotic neutral, etc.).
If you’re a writer, I’ll bet the above is sounding awfully familiar by now. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a wizard Elf or a California party girl, all character creation involves some variation of this recipe. Brittany from Beverly Hills in your contemporary rom-com isn’t going to need a spellcasting ability, but if you skip out on her flaws or ideals, she’s going to be flat and boring. In fact, if you took the time to build Brittany a character sheet the same way you would for your roleplaying character, you might find that she becomes more multi-dimensional than she was to begin with.
The concept of moral alignments can be an especially useful tool for writers when it comes to giving your characters agency. The decisions that Brittany makes in your novel are going to look different if she’s lawful good versus chaotic neutral, but while these guidelines are helpful, it’s worth pushing the envelope a little further when you’re digging into the meat of a character. It’s easy to call someone lawful good and leave it at that. What makes a character dynamic and interesting are the Why and the What If…
In a D&D game, you get to the Why with the character’s backstory, bonds, and ideals. Their history, connections, convictions, and desires are what take a character from a flat product of dice rolls into a living, breathing creation. The What If is what happens when the DM (or in the case of a novel, the author) throws a curveball. What does lawful good look like in the face of tragedy or a full-on Kobayashi Maru no-win scenario? Is a character’s moral alignment too deeply entrenched to ever change?
Once you start answering these questions, you can kick your character up a notch.
II: Improvisation and Collaboration
The intersection between creative disciplines is a critical aspect of art. When it comes to tabletop roleplaying, the same skills that make for an epic game can also help produce a powerful novel. When I was a baby writer, I disliked collaborating on stories, because I wanted complete control over every tiny little detail. The thought of having to fit my ideas in with someone else’s, or—god forbid—compromise, was anathema to me. But as I started playing D&D, I learned the beauty of teamwork when it comes to creativity. Not only is the end result of collaboration usually greater than the sum of its parts, but working with other people, especially in tabletop roleplaying, is a prime opportunity for brushing up on your improv skills.
You’d be amazed how much your work will benefit from just spending time bouncing ideas back and forth with someone, even if those ideas don’t have anything to do with your work-in-progress. If you’re suffering creative block, then collaboration can open up new pathways in your brain and jumpstart your imagination. And bonus: you get all the benefits of teamwork without having to give up any control of your own story.
In her book Improv for Writers, Jorjeana Marie writes that “…there is a real power behind letting go of control as a creative person and trusting your imagination and ability to create.” Marie’s whole book is based on the premise that the art of improv, such as the dedication to always responding to your fellow players’ ideas with “Yes, and…” is incredibly useful for writers. I often find myself deciding to “Yes, and…” with my own characters when they go off the rails in a manuscript. Sometimes they lead me to incredible places.
If you think that letting your characters off the reins might help your work-in-progress, but you have trouble giving up control, then can I suggest that you give DMing a try? Creating a world full of monsters and NPCs along with an adventure for your party members to embark upon is half the work of writing a novel. Even if you decide to use a pre-made campaign, you can trust that your players’ characters and decisions are going to keep you on your toes. One of my favorite sessions with my D&D group started off in a town where a festival was happening. Our group was being followed through the street by some sketchy-looking ruffians. My no-nonsense wizard confronted them directly and was ready for a smackdown, but I was overruled by my more…shall we say, peaceable party members who want to give these shady characters a fair chance to prove they aren’t trying to stalk and murder us.
Five minutes later we’re in a tavern where our rogue is having a drinking contest with the ruffians, and five minutes after that, the members of our party trusting enough to drink the ale have all been poisoned. (I’d like to take this opportunity to point out that I told them so.) All hell broke loose. We ended up in a fight that nearly destroyed the tavern and killed us all, but it also involved brilliantly theatrical action and devastatingly witty banter. Real novel material. Honestly, it was probably my favorite session we’ve ever had.
It wasn’t until after the session had ended that our long-suffering DM informed us that the ruffians were supposed to be a quick, easy fight and the bulk of campaign she had written was in the festival, where we never even set foot. Our dumbass decisions took us hilariously off-base, but I didn’t regret it in the least. Without a doubt, our poor DM was the real star of the evening, because she rolled with the punches. When it comes to being a game master, one of the cardinal sins you can commit is steamrolling your players and the decisions they are making to fit your own vision. A good DM knows how to create a world and guide a story without completely boxing in the players. The party needs to be able to make their decisions—which, yes, often leads to dumbassery, but it can also lead to incredible stories. That’s a skill you can apply to your writing, with equally incredible results.
III: The Art of Storytelling
Running a D&D campaign is storytelling. Participating in a D&D campaign is storytelling. Art is storytelling. Life is storytelling.
Are you sensing the pattern here?
If you want to tell a great story, you need to be able to draw from life—however that looks for you as a writer. The great thing about Dungeons & Dragons is that it’s an entire alternate universe to play in. During a campaign, you get to live an entirely different life, not just in your own mind, but with a group of other people. You’ve got a mix of strategy, rules, and pure chance—all of which you’ll find in real life, albeit in different forms. (Can you imagine if at a job interview you could pull out your trusty D20 and roll for success?)
When you dive into the adventure of tabletop roleplaying, you’re giving yourself access to a whole new world of ideas and perspectives. If you’re willing, you can use these experiences to make yourself a stronger and more empathetic writer. A good example is the recent change regarding moral alignments. In June, Wizards of the Coast announced that as part of an attempt to make the game more inclusive and diverse, they are doing away with the concept of purely “evil” races. Instead, races such as drows and orcs will be just as morally complex as any other race.
This recognition of how dangerous it is to identify entire groups or ethnicities of people as either good or evil is a necessary function of art in society. Creators have a responsibility, whether it’s their intention to make art that is reflective or prescriptive, to constantly interrogate their own prejudices and preconceived notions. Harmful, reductive tropes and stereotypes are not a product of creativity, but the death of it. Whether it’s a Nobel Prize-winning novel or an amateur D&D campaign, the stories we tell have power; try to use yours for good.
As you (hopefully) dive into the wonderful world of Dungeons & Dragons—either for the first time, or as a seasoned pro—let me encourage you to not only draw inspiration from the magic, monsters, and your fellow players, but to take that inspiration and really sink your teeth into it. If I could go back in time, I’d tell my teenage self to not be intimidated by the cool kids or the fear that the skills I possess aren’t good enough. I have the same advice for you: Have fun, go wild, make some dumbass decisions, and most importantly, push yourself into new and uncomfortable creative places. I promise it will be worth it.
Originally published September 2020
Destiny Soria writes novels featuring magic, mystery, and an excess of witty banter. Her latest YA fantasy is Fire with Fire. She lives in Birmingham, AL, where she spends her time trying to come up with bios that make her sound kind of cool. She has yet to succeed.