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A Game as Literary Tutorial

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  • Steve Hayes
    A Game as Literary Tutorial Dungeons & Dragons Has Influenced a Generation of Writers By ETHAN GILSDORFJULY 13, 2014 http://tinyurl.com/pms6cev When he was an
    Message 1 of 3 , Aug 1, 2014
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      A Game as Literary Tutorial
      Dungeons & Dragons Has Influenced a Generation of Writers

      By ETHAN GILSDORFJULY 13, 2014

      http://tinyurl.com/pms6cev

      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.”

      http://tinyurl.com/pms6cev
      --
      Steve Hayes
      E-mail: shayes@...
      Web: http://www.khanya.org.za/litmain.htm
      http://www.goodreads.com/hayesstw
    • Steve Hayes
      ... I ve never played Dungeons and Dragons, not do I recall meeting anyone who played it. So the article describes something quite outside my experience. The
      Message 2 of 3 , Aug 1, 2014
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        On 2 Aug 2014 at 4:47, 'Steve Hayes' hayesstw@... [eldi wrote:

        > 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.”

        I've never played Dungeons and Dragons, not do I recall meeting anyone who
        played it. So the article describes something quite outside my experience.
        The nearest I have come to it is the arcade game "Ghosts 'n Goblins", and I
        think I have a version on my computer somewhere. It was the only arcade game
        I really enjoyed.

        The problem with most computer games, however, is that they are not really
        interactive. So they would not give the same kind of experience as playing
        Dungeons & Dragons with other people. Perhaps the nearest I came to that was
        a card game called "Magic: the Gathering".

        This article makes me wonder if I have mist a key that might be vital for
        understanding literature. There was a time when it would have been difficult
        to understand much English literature without familiarity with the English
        Bible. Much of the work of the Inklings is difficult to understand without
        some knowledge of the Bible.

        When I did some research on Christian mission in Russia shortly after the
        fall of Bolshevism many people attributed that fall to a religious revival
        fuelled partly by literature. Much Russian literature had been shaped by the
        Christian faith, and whole the Bolsheviks suppressed much overt religious
        practice, the did not generally suppress the Russian literary classics,
        which, though not overtly "religious", were nonetheless shaped by a Christian
        worldview.

        One could say the same of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. It is hard to find
        "religion" in them. Yet they convey something of a Christian world view.

        I wonder how much games like Dungeons and Dragons have been influenced by the
        works of Tolkien? Several computer games seem to have been inspired by
        Tolkien's world, but that has led to some strange perceptions. In the
        rec.arts.books.tolkien newsgroup many people have asked questions that show
        their perception of the books is shaped by computer games. What are the
        relative "powers" of wizards and balrogs, for example? Which will beat which
        in a fight? When programming a computer game, such things are important, but
        it puts different constraints on Tolkien's story.

        I wonder if Dungeons and Dragons has such constraints of quantifiable
        "powers"?

        And I wonder if the time is coming when, instead of being familiar with the
        Christian scriptures in order to fully appreciate much English literature,
        one might have to be familiar with games like Dungeons and Dragons?

        About 25 years ago I read a book that featured a computer game, "Skallagrigg"
        by William Horwood (who is probably better known for his books about moles).
        If there were ever to be a computer game like the one described in the book,
        perhaps it could be said to be shaped by a Christian worldview, like the
        works of many of the Inklings, because, unlike the games that require
        calculations of "powers", one could only "win" through powerlessness.








        --
        Steve Hayes
        E-mail: shayes@...
        Blog: http://khanya.wordpress.com
        Web: http://www.khanya.org.za/stevesig.htm
        Phone: 083-342-3563 or 012-333-6727
        Fax: 086-548-2525
      • Richard Lyman
        I certainly used to play D&D, and still have the rulebooks in use in the old days, but hadn t seen it for a long time. I still can t write fiction. Richard
        Message 3 of 3 , Aug 2, 2014
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          I certainly used to play D&D, and still have the rulebooks in use in the old days, but hadn't seen it for a long time. I still can't write fiction.
          Richard Sturch.
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