How to Use Dungeons and Dragons to Improve Your Writing
Playing a TTRPG by yourself might just help you hone your skills as a writer
When you think of writing a story, what does your mind go to? Maybe someone working for years on a story based on their own lived experiences, pouring many a soulful hour into their prized work? Maybe a fast-paced, middle-of-the-night, rush-of-inspiration, I've-had-six-coffees-and-I'm-running-on-fumes fanfiction session? Maybe an author typing away on a sticker-bedecked laptop in a cafe, sipping a latte and researching murder (calling myself out with that one)?
I think of people sitting around a table, laughing over massive books and rolling dice. Dungeons and Dragons is a fun game to play when you've got all of your friends coming along for the journey, but I believe that the system can also be a great way to exercise your solo creative writing muscles. In a game that relies heavily on building up complex characters, worlds, and scenarios, why couldn't those campaigns simply be written up as books?
I'm hardly the first to have this idea - litRPG exists for a reason, you know - but I think that the basic principles of the game can be applied to regular fantasy and larger fiction writing if you're willing to explore it a bit. Here are some tips for using D&D rules to improve your writing.
Randomize for Creativity
The fun thing about D&D is that it's based on random events and improvisation - both things that make for excellent writing challenges. If you're stuck for a story prompt, consider looking at D&D campaign setups and tables for inspiration. They're designed to help DMs plot out their sessions, so you can definitely use them to help you set up your stories.
Say I want to write a story about a cool hero, but I don't have a plan for the villain. I go to the Dungeon Master's Guide, to the Villains section (Chapter 4: Creating Nonplayer Characters), and roll up a character using their charts.
My villain's main objective is (8 on a d8) wealth. Specifically, he wants to (3 on a d4) plunder ancient, sacred ruins for the hidden treasures they contain. To do that, he'll (7 on a d20) have to duel the landowner for the right to "explore" and take all of the treasures for himself, and given that he's a powerful combatant, the landowner doesn't stand much chance. His only weakness is (1 on a d8) that his soul is held outside of his body, in an object. If the heroes can get to the soul first, they can use it as leverage to save the landowner and the ruins from destruction!
That's a whole story right there! And it was all rolled up in a few minutes from a set of tables. If you don't like the answer you roll, you can always roll a new one or create your own. Role-playing games are all about creativity and taking the rules as inspiration - at the very least, it's a great way to get around writer's block.
Write Better Characters with a Character Sheet
The whole point of a character sheet in Dungeons and Dragons is to create a quick-reference guide for players to look at while interacting with other characters and their environment. As a writer, you can definitely use this to your advantage! Having character references makes it easier to keep consistency across the entire length of a work, and the D&D character sheet just happens to be one really well-organized reference.
Beyond that, having the basic ability scores of your character can help you see what they are and aren't likely to succeed in doing in a given situation. If you can't decide whether they should succeed or fail, it gives you a way to make that decision by letting you roll for it! Does a strong, dumb character need to solve a puzzle? It's unlikely, but if you roll well, you can write that perhaps they stumbled into the answer by sheer force of will. Brilliant weakling trying to escape a prison cell? If they roll well, maybe the bars had a hidden flaw that they just so happened to figure out how to exploit.
Additionally, if you're using a builder like DnDBeyond (or if you're pulling directly from the book), there are rolling tables for character traits, motivations, values, and secrets. This can make it just as easy to create an interesting backstory for your heroes as for the villains.
Write Better Combat with Initiative
It's a common trope that writing combat is hard. This is the case because the reality is...well, writing combat is hard! It's hard to keep track of multiple characters when they're just sitting in a room together, let alone when they're flailing around trying to murder each other. I know that for me, at least, if I try to write combat without a reference, people end up with extra limbs and teleported halfway across the room.
Luckily, D&D's built-in combat mechanics are designed specifically for keeping track of when and where everyone is moving, what they're doing, and exactly how that affects them. Running a combat scenario can help you see how much it takes for an enemy to go down and how many hits your characters can take before you have to write a dramatic death scene, which helps you improve your pacing dramatically.
Take for example this passage from a short story I wrote where I had my Dragonborn Sorcerer face off against a small horde of goblins on his own:
"Erdin didn’t think this time. His hand almost reached on its own, crackling with power as the goblin came close. He noticed too late and couldn’t stop himself from colliding with the fist, convulsing as he did and crumpling to the ground. Another came forward, but Erdin pointed his finger and watched as that one stumbled, clutching its head and screaming out in agony. A third came at him, but by this time he’d pulled his staff from his back, and swung it in a wide arc, thumping it soundly into the head of the goblin as it came close, sending it flying back.
The first goblin recovered enough to stand again and lunged at him. This time, Erdin wasn’t quick enough, and its dagger found purchase through his thin trouser leg. Erdin grunted in pain, his leg threatening to buckle under him, but he rounded on his goblin and grabbed it again, using the same spell as before to shock it again, chucking the now limp body away from him as another two tried to tackle him to the ground. A good swing with his staff took one down, but the other hung from the hood that’d fallen down and was now cutting into his throat.
Pointing his hand behind him as he swung around, Erdin concentrated, and a flash of brilliant fire sprouted from his fingertips, blasting directly into the face of the creature on his hood, who dropped to the ground, screaming as its flesh bubbled off. Lit in the flames of the spell, the other goblins finally saw what they were facing, and the ones that could still move sprinted into the darkness, giving up the fight completely."
D&D players will recognize the spells I used and the various attacks, but even those who don't play the game will get a kick out of a badass magic fight! You don't have to go strictly by the book, using initiative order or anything. You can just use the guidelines to help you remember the flow of action.
It may just be that I find TTRPGs incredibly fun and exciting. Regardless, I think Dungeons and Dragons is a great tool that all authors should try at least once, if for no other reason than to sate your curiosity and never look at the game again.
It can, however, be exciting to watch a story come together from nothing but a few rolls of dice. The whole point of these games is storytelling; why shouldn't you be able to tell yourself a story?
So, why not give it a go? All you have to lose is a few hours of time.
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