What I Learned about World-Building and Writing from Dungeons and Dragons

Earth as seen from spaceWhen I was a young lad, I dreamed of playing Dungeons and Dragons. I would sit for hours on the basement floor making up adventures with a starter set I got for Christmas, moving goblins and characters of my creation through the same dungeon over and over. Yeah, of course, I had a few nerdy friends who I could have tried to talk to about it, but I didn’t dare. Attending a Christian school meant that the mere mention of Dungeons and Dragons could get me sent to the principal’s office, where at the very least I’d have to write an essay about demonic possession and ritual suicide. Since I’m a grown-up now, with only a moderate fear of Lucifer’s machinations, I recently dove right in to run my very first D & D game with real people. Here are three awesome things that I learned about writing through my experience.


Plug-n-Play World Building

I DMed (played the role of the dungeon master) a module called “Curse of Strahd,” which placed the players in a pseudo-Transylvania type realm full of vampires, werewolves, and other nasties. Obviously, this meant that the D&D writers and game designers had done most of the legwork for me. But, as a DM, I was still free to add stuff of my own. This reminded me a lot of world-building in novel writing. You create a world with a theme (or, in this case, a world full of lugubrious people and angry undead was created for me), and, if your theme is solid, you can add stuff to flesh it out. I added a fighting pit, for example, but I made it a dreary, bleak fighting pit, full of desperate fighters, captive monsters, crude pine benches, and tattered heraldry. If you’re writing a novel, you can add things that fit with your theme, even if it feels a bit piecemeal, until you have a fully fleshed-out world.

Chekhov’s Quasit

The principle of setting up a character or an idea for a grand slam later is an old one in writing. I saw this in action when I created a side quest for the players to explore involving a warehouse of tea leaves that were being fermented with demon blood. A quasit (a tiny demon, basically a chaotic-aligned version of an imp) was playing henchman to the big bad. I did this funny voice and everything, but I couldn’t get the party’s warlock to take the quasit as a familiar. So I had him vanish for a few weeks and brought him back in a big way. It turned out the quasit had made himself busy whispering to an evil noblewoman, urging her to plan a grand ritual for the sole purpose of impressing the party’s warlock. It was a huge success, and the players loved it—the little quasit was part of the party, too! This illustrated the power of introducing something and then bringing it back later in a big way.

The Little Things

This is one of my favorite points to write about it. The little things really, really matter; this is true in Dungeons and Dragons and in writing your novel. I have been amazed at the close attention that players pay to detail. Of course, most of the time it’s because they’re searching for treasure, but they don’t miss anything. The players will remember a monster’s last words, or what kind of sword was mounted on the wall in the villain’s sitting room, or what spells the crazy wizard cast when he showed up unexpectedly to lend a hand. This created perfect opportunities to set up Chekhov’s Quasits in Dungeons and Dragons, but it also translates to world-building in your novel, because you need to pay attention to these details—your readers definitely will.

One day soon I’d like to create my own D&D game instead of using a module, even though the Curse of Strahd has been tons of fun. I’ll report back on if creating a world from scratch for a group of gamers helped my writing. If you’re not a fan of games like D&D, perhaps there are other venues to practice world-building outside of writing? I’ll have to think about that, too.

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