411A Game as Literary Tutorial
- Aug 1, 2014A 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 games 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, Its been a formative narrative media for all sorts
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-
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 groups Dungeon Master, the games 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 thats 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 dont 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. Its 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&Ds arcane
pleasures and feels its legacy is still with him: Im not sure I would have
been able to transition from reader to writer so easily if it had not been
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