I’m writing this post today from my desk, a place I have struggled to write from in the past. And which is often filled with non-essentials, like bills, notes, and, most recently, Dungeons & Dragons things.
I am a Fifth Edition Dungeon Master for a group of local friends who have split up and now live all over the country. Having done this since 2019, my already-cluttered desk now contains character sheets, battle maps, miniatures, source books, and dice.
I’m not just saying this to demonstrate my nerdiness. Well, I am, sort of. But this pertains to writing, I swear. Here are three ways you can use Dungeons & Dragons as a construct for helping out your work in progress.
Roll a d20.
One day, while struggling to rewrite a fight scene for a battle that in previous versions had been in a much different location, I took out a d20 which was hanging out on my desk for no particular reason.
I asked myself, what would my character do if this were a battle encounter in D & D? What is the next logical step she can take? I wrote that down.
Then, playing the character’s actions out, I rolled a d20, and meted out her actions accordingly:
Character tries to escape. Rolls a 3. Welp, looks like the dwarves have thrown one of their own at you, and he’s tackled you to the ground. You are currently prone and grappled.
Character wants to throw him off. Okay, you rolled a 16 against what I decided previously was his 12 AC. I think you manage that successfully, but dwarves are heavy, and this one didn’t go very far.
Character wants to move up the staircase. Well, you used a lot of your speed to get up from prone, so you can’t get very far. This ends your turn.
The dwarves move in quickly. They are trying to surround you.
Character takes out her daggers. Crit 1? She reaches for them but they were stolen by a dwarf across the hall who looks much taller than the rest. (Screw these dice, am I right?)
I roll my d20 for every action my character wants to take, and assign an appropriate reaction depending on how the dice falls.
What this does for me, as a writer, is it frees my brain up to not figuring out an entire battle sequence, but taking only the next logical step. In writing terms, this is called the try-fail cycle.
Also called the “yes, but”/“no, and” cycle, the character’s story must complicate naturally and organically by attempting an action and either succeeding at it, but having something go wrong anyway, or failing at it, and the worst happens.
In other words, if a character wants to get into a room with a locked door, ask yourself, do they succeed?
- Yes, but the thing he was searching for isn’t in the bedroom he’s in.
- No, and the homeowner comes home and finds the character in his daughter’s bedroom.
A try/fail cycle is important for keeping the narrative going. If a character succeeds at everything they do, the reader isn’t surprised, gets bored, and puts down the book. If the character fails at everything they do, the reader isn’t surprised, gets depressed, then puts down the book.
The try/fail cycle that D & D is known for makes the character instantly more proactive instead of reactive. The character has to actively make choices that affect how their story goes, and the additional consequences are extremely important for keeping the reader surprised and engaged.
Use a Character Sheet.
Having problems coming up with something your character might do? Try filling out a D&D character creation sheet. Give your character a class, a history, some background patron gods or goddesses, fill out their magics and cantrips.
If, in the example above, my character is an assassin class, and she has lost the use of her daggers, what other weapons, skills, and items can she use instead? Can she look around and do an arcana check on something in the area, and glean special knowledge from it? Did they find all of her weapons, including both the other shortswords she had hidden in her boots?
Doing a character buildout can be an excellent thought experiment for your writing, and it is more engaging than taking character surveys, questionnaires, or writing detailed descriptions of your whole character’s life story.
Hey, I’m not knocking it if your process requires those things. Mine doesn’t, and that’s okay too.
Use a Battle Map.
A last trick is to treat your setting as you would a legitimate battle map. Can you find a top-down image of your setting, or a place similar, which you could throw a simple grid over? The 1=5 foot square grid can tell you a lot about your location, how far something is, and what obstacles you might find.
Is there difficult terrain? Does the surrounding area move up or down? Is there something in that room that your character can attempt to interact with?
Maybe you aren’t even engaging in battle. What kind of trees, bushes, and high grass might one lose their golf ball in? If you take a top-down picture of your entire golf course, and toss a grid over it, you might know that in advance.
Dungeons & Dragons has become super popular in recent years, and it is because of its newfound popularity that people are coming back to it, and discovering this wonderful game for themselves.
Do you use Dungeons & Dragons for your own novel writing? Let me know in the comments below!