3 Writing Lessons from Dungeons and Dragons

Tabletop role-playing games (RPGs) have a lot to teach you about writing. You create characters and tell a collaborative story in real time, so of course it’s good practice for your novel! Taking away the setting elements (fantasy, sci-fi, horror), you find lessons that apply to any writer in any genre. Here are the first three that come to mind.

1. Think in Combat Rounds

Whenever an important scene is happening in an RPG (Combat, traps, or any other dangerous encounter) game play is broken down into “rounds.” In each round, every player has an opportunity to take an action. Maybe that action is to hold back and wait, or maybe they’ve been badly injured and their action is “be unconscious,” but everyone has a chance to chime in or check-in every round.

When something important is happening in your story, where are the characters and what are they doing? Too often, the action or conversation narrows down to a couple of characters, and everybody else “disappears” from the scene for several pages. That can be somewhat effective for a romantic dramatic first meeting, where everyone metaphorically disappears from the character’s world for a moment. In most cases, however, every character present will be present and taking some sliver of the narrative awareness. Like in games, they can pass on acting for a round or two, but if three things happen (conversational lines, actions, events) with no reaction from a character in a scene, consider whether they need to be present at all.

Not everybody needs to have a starring role in every scene, mind you. We’re talking about a cough here, a quip there, a brief facial expression a la mode. When you’re having a conversation with other people present, you’re at least somewhat aware of who’s around you and what they’re doing. Your main character should have the same situational awareness. It helps us readers really immerse ourselves in a complete, detailed scene. It makes the scene real.

2. Actions Take Time

In Dungeons and Dragons, a “round” is considered to be about six seconds long. This limits how much you can get done in a single round. Generally, you can move about five to ten feet and then interact once with something or someone (e.g. cast a spell, swing a sword). Things that take very little time or can be done at the same time as moving or interacting, such as dropping an item or a short line of dialogue, are “free actions.” These can be taken in moderation alongside your movement and interaction.

This limitation is a valuable guide for scenes in your book. If Bob fires a gun at Jane, he does not have time to recite a five page monologue and run across a football field before Jane takes some action of her own. Maybe Bob has a killer monologue (pun intended) and you really want to work it in. That’s fine, but not uninterrupted. If he’s holed up in a hiding spot and shouting his fine speech, Jane should be responding, strategizing how to get to him or flush him out, addressing her wounds if she’s bleeding, and maybe taking the occasional pot shot of her own. She shouldn’t disappear from the scene, or stand frozen to give him time to monologue. Would you give him that time if it were you? Bob might not manage to kill Jane, but taking Jane out of the scene for several pages certainly kills the tension.

3. Nobody Enjoys a Railroad

I’m not talking about actual trains, which are pretty fun. I’m talking about a moment in an RPG where the characters are forced to a certain location or action, against their will, because it’s convenient to the overall plot. It’s called “railroading” in game terms, because the plot becomes a fixed path the characters must follow (like the rails for a train). This takes away their agency and ability to create the story collaboratively on their own terms.

“But,” Paladin Jane protests, “there’s no reason for my character to take a job guarding this slaver caravan. It goes against everything she believes.”

“Well, the next encounter in the module happens while you’re guarding the caravan. So if you don’t do it willingly I’m going to have your character arrested on a trumped-up charge and sentenced to guard the caravan. And you can’t free the slaves, because we need them for the last scene in the game.”

At this point, the player isn’t enjoying the game, the DM isn’t enjoying the game, and the reader of this story is side-eyeing the whole operation. This is a particular pitfall for plotters, who set out major events in the story ahead of time, then write to fill in the outline. Yes you need to get the characters to Point 15 in the outline. But make sure Point 15 is someplace your character would naturally want to go. Nothing makes me want to put a book down faster than a character acting contrary to their nature for the convenience of the plot. That kind of deviation needs some selling. It needs consistency. You need to set up their motivation for this decision several chapters in advance, so that it seems like a natural step to take. It needs to make sense, not according to the writer’s perspective, but the character’s. If you can’t do that, you might need a different character, or a different plot.

What character or storytelling lessons do you take from RPGs?