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411A Game as Literary Tutorial

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  • Steve Hayes
    Aug 1 7:47 PM
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      A Game as Literary Tutorial
      Dungeons & Dragons Has Influenced a Generation of Writers

      By ETHAN GILSDORFJULY 13, 2014


      When he was an immigrant boy growing up in New Jersey, the writer Junot Díaz
      said he felt marginalized. But that feeling was dispelled somewhat in 1981
      when he was in sixth grade. He and his buddies, adventuring pals with roots
      in distant realms — Egypt, Ireland, Cuba and the Dominican Republic — became
      “totally sucked in,” he said, by a “completely radical concept: role-
      playing,” in the form of Dungeons & Dragons.

      Playing D&D and spinning tales of heroic quests, “we welfare kids could
      travel,” Mr. Díaz, 45, said in an email interview, “have adventures, succeed,
      be powerful, triumph, fail and be in ways that would have been impossible in
      the larger real world.”

      “For nerds like us, D&D hit like an extra horizon,” he added. The game
      functioned as “a sort of storytelling apprenticeship.”

      Now the much-played and much-mocked Dungeons & Dragons, the first
      commercially available role-playing game, has turned 40. In D&D players
      gather around a table, not a video screen. Together they use low-tech tools
      like hand-drawn maps and miniature figurines to tell stories of brave and
      cunning protagonists such as elfish wizards and dwarfish warriors who explore
      dungeons and battle orcs, trolls and mind flayers. Sacks of dice and vast
      rule books determine the outcome of the game’s ongoing, free-form story.

      For certain writers, especially those raised in the 1970s and ’80s, all that
      time spent in basements has paid off. D&D helped jump-start their creative
      lives. As Mr. Díaz said, “It’s been a formative narrative media for all sorts
      of writers.”

      The league of ex-gamer writers also includes the “weird fiction” author China
      Miéville (“The City & the City”); Brent Hartinger (author of “Geography
      Club,” a novel about gay and bisexual teenagers); the sci-fi and young adult
      author Cory Doctorow; the poet and fiction writer Sherman Alexie; the
      comedian Stephen Colbert; George R. R. Martin, author of the “A Song of Ice
      and Fire” series (who still enjoys role-playing games). Others who have been
      influenced are television and film storytellers and entertainers like Robin
      Williams, Matt Groening (“The Simpsons”), Dan Harmon (“Community”) and Chris
      Weitz (“American Pie”).

      With the release of the rebooted Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set on Tuesday,
      and more advanced D&D rule books throughout the summer, another generation of
      once-and-future wordsmiths may find inspiration in the scribbled dungeon map
      and the secret behind Queen of the Demonweb Pits.

      Mr. Díaz, who teaches writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
      said his first novel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Brief Wondrous Life of
      Oscar Wao,” was written “in honor of my gaming years.” Oscar, its
      protagonist, is “a role-playing-game fanatic.” Wanting to become the
      Dominican J. R. R. Tolkien, he cranks out “10, 15, 20 pages a day” of fantasy-
      inspired fiction.

      Though Mr. Díaz never became a fantasy writer, he attributes his literary
      success, in part, to his “early years profoundly embedded and invested in
      fantastic narratives.” From D&D, he said, he “learned a lot of important
      essentials about storytelling, about giving the reader enough room to play.”

      And, he said, he was typically his group’s Dungeon Master, the game’s quasi-
      narrator, rules referee and fate giver.

      The Dungeon Master must create a believable world with a back story,
      adventures the players might encounter and options for plot twists. That
      requires skills as varied as a theater director, researcher and psychologist
      — all traits integral to writing. (Mr. Díaz said his boyhood gaming group was
      “more like an improv group with some dice.”)

      Sharyn McCrumb, 66, who writes the Ballad Novels series set in Appalachia,
      was similarly influenced, and in her comic novel “Bimbos of the Death Sun”
      D&D even helps solve a murder.

      “I always, always wanted to be the Dungeon Master because that’s where the
      creativity lies — in thinking up places, characters and situations,” Ms.
      McCrumb said. “If done well, a game can be a novel in itself.”

      What makes a D&D story different from novels and other narratives is its
      improvisational and responsive nature. Plotlines are decided as a group. As a
      D&D player, “you have to convince other players that your version of the
      story is interesting and valid,” said Jennifer Grouling, an assistant
      professor of English at Ball State University who studied D&D players for her
      book, “The Creation of Narrative in Tabletop Role-Playing Games.”

      If a Dungeon Master creates “a boring world with an uninteresting plot,” she
      said, players can go in a completely different direction; likewise, the
      referee can veto the action of player. “I think D&D can help build the skills
      to work collaboratively and to write collaboratively,” she added. (Mr. Díaz
      called this the “social collaborative component” of D&D.)

      Ms. Grouling also cited “a sense of control over stories” as a primary reason
      people like role-playing games. “D&D is completely in the imagination and the
      rules are flexible — you don’t have the same limitations” of fiction, or even
      of a programmed video game, she said. A novel is ultimately a finished thing,
      written, edited and published, its story set in stone. In D&D, the plot is
      always fluid; anything can happen.

      The playwright and screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire, 44, who wrote the
      Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Rabbit Hole,” said D&D “harkens back to an
      incredibly primitive mode of storytelling,” one that was both “immersive and
      interactive.” The Dungeon Master resembles “the tribal storyteller who
      gathers everyone around the fire to tell stories about heroes and gods and
      monsters,” he said. “It’s a live, communal event, where anything can happen
      in the moment.”

      Mr. Lindsay-Abaire said planning D&D adventures was “some of the very first
      writing that I did.” And the game taught him not just about plot but also
      about character development.

      Playing D&D has also benefited nonfiction writers. “Serving as Dungeon Master
      helped me develop a knack for taking the existing elements laid out by the
      game and weaving them into a coherent narrative,” said Scott Stossel, editor
      of The Atlantic and author of “My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the
      Search for Peace of Mind.” “And yet you were constrained by the rules of the
      D&D universe, which in journalism translates into being constrained by the
      available, knowable facts.”

      Mr. Lindsay-Abaire agreed that fictional worlds need rules. “For a story to
      be satisfying, an audience needs to understand how the world works,” he said.
      “ ‘The Hunger Games’ is a perfect example of: ‘O.K., these are the rules of
      this world, now go! Go play in that world.’ ”

      Over and over again, Ms. Grouling said, tabletop role players in her survey
      compared their gaming experience to “starring in their own movies or writing
      their own novels.”

      As for Mr. Díaz, “Once girls entered the equation in a serious way,” he said,
      “gaming went right out the window.” But he said he still misses D&D’s arcane
      pleasures and feels its legacy is still with him: “I’m not sure I would have
      been able to transition from reader to writer so easily if it had not been
      for gaming.”

      Steve Hayes
      E-mail: shayes@...
      Web: http://www.khanya.org.za/litmain.htm
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