A Writer’s Guide to Dungeons & Dragons

Dungeons and Dragons Dice

Pssst… are you playing Dungeons & Dragons yet? In case you didn’t know, it’s not just for ‘nerds’ any more, hiding in their bedrooms with stacks upon stacks of impenetrable lore. These days, D&D has experienced a massive resurgence — partially thanks to Netflix nostalgia machine Stranger Things — and is now the focus of some of the most watched podcasts on the internet, played by stars like Magic Mike’s Joe Manganiello, Daredevil’s Deborah Ann Woll and action superstar Vin Diesel. Groups across the country are springing up and struggling to make room for massive influxes of players.

That’s because D&D is buckets of fun, but it’s also a fantastic tool for writers, allowing them to sharpen their craft without even thinking about it. I started playing D&D around 18 months ago — first as a player-character, and then embarking on a year-long campaign as the group’s dungeon master. The benefit for writers is present on both sides of the screen, whether you’re taking your Level 5 Fighter for a romp through the Underdark or plotting your players’ demise at the hands of Strahd von Zarovich, so whichever way you’re taking part, there’s plenty of opportunity to learn a thing or two.

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D&D has seen a massive resurgence in recent years, partially thanks to Netflix nostalgia machine Stranger Things

But wait, the treasure’s over this way!

As a player or a dungeon master (DM, if you’re being technical about it), one of the first things you’ll need to get down is improvising, and being quick about it. When there are multiple voices at the table, and dragons have gotta get slain, there’s no time for extensive debate. So, if the DM throws in an assassination attempt on your way back to Waterdeep, or your party’s dwarven warlock decides to hijack the party’s boat, you need to figure out how you’re going to react.

That quick-fire storytelling can be really helpful when it comes to your own writing, especially when you find characters wandering off in their own direction, or a plot thread that seems to be steadily gaining a life of its own. Don’t be afraid to see where the rabbit hole takes you; a little improv can take your story in new and exciting directions.

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As with writing, mastering D&D requires preparation – especially if your DM happens to enjoy curveballs (or, indeed, balls of any description)

Preparation is key

 Playing the role of the DM? You’ll need to make sure you’re prepared for your next session. Even if you’re running a module, also known as a pre-written campaign, you’ll need to read through the sections you’ll be handling before your session. It’s often helpful to draft a few pieces of dialogue or something to set the scene, and having that ‘prep time’ in mind can give you the perfect excuse to carve out time in your weekly schedule to write.

It’s also worth remembering that you’ll probably toss out about 70% of what you had planned for the session, based on how your group react, but that’s okay — after all, that’s what editing is like most of the time.

Accents maketh the monk

D&D is also your opportunity to do really, really silly accents. I’m currently playing a Grave Cleric called Gwendolyn who sounds like she’s from Merthyr Tydfil, and while it may seem like an excuse to play the fool, giving my character an accent is one extra level of separation for me. As soon as I start talking like Gwendolyn, I find it much easier to inhabit her shoes, figure out what her motivations are and make decisions that are wholly within her character, rather than what I would do personally — a handy trick for writing difficult passages. The same goes for DMs; giving non-player characters a distinctive accent that’s different from your own voice can help them become more than just Goon #1, and you might be able to build a compelling story around them.

This is our story, nobody else’s

Perhaps one of D&D’s biggest appeals (besides an excuse to hang out, eat junk food and sink a few beers) is the fact that it’s a story everyone can get involved with. Working with other people to effectively create and tell a story is ridiculously good fun, and especially if you’ve been struggling to find the time to start writing, it can help you satisfy that creative itch. Even if you’re playing a classic module, or a campaign you’ve completed with a different group, the story is different every time.

Bardic inspiration

Once you step away from the table and put the d20s back in your bag, the fun doesn’t end there. When I get back from a session, I’m filled with ideas for what might happen next time, and sometimes that even translates into a new story or something to try out in an existing piece of work. It’s thanks to D&D that I’ve felt more creative in those past 18 months than I have in years, whether I’m devising a new campaign scenario or coming up with a backstory for my latest character.

So, where to start…

While D&D can seem overwhelming to the uninitiated at first, the main thing to remember is that it’s a game, with the primary purpose of having fun with some friends. Creating a new character shouldn’t take hours upon hours (unless you want it to!) but should serve as a springboard for your next adventure. Sit back, relax, pick up a pencil and see where it takes you – whether that’s fighting bandits, sourcing magical ingredients or changing the multiverse as you know it.

 About the author of this post

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Robyn Hardman is a writer, blogger and a PR and marketing consultant based in the Cotswolds. When she’s not writing press releases about silly cars, she’s usually in the pit at your local punk show. She tweets as @twobeatsoff.

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How jiu jitsu helped me become a better writer

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The handshakes, that’s how I first know I’m in trouble.

I’m at a Jiu-Jitsu class. Wednesday. I’m recovering from the usual winter cold, have even opened my email twice that day to compose an excuse.

Sorry, Kev. I’m feeling under the weather – can I rearrange for next week?

Delete. If I send that I won’t ever go.

Down a coffee. Get in the car. Drive to the gym.

Now, the handshakes. There are ten men and each greets me by gripping my hand and telling me their name – I forget the names but remember the grips. I don’t know if it’s the coffee or the panic, but I don’t feel ill any more.

What followed was like a nature documentary, but instead of Attenborough’s voice putting the gazelle’s death into perspective, it was the sweaty grunting of ten men and me making noises like Kermit with tuberculosis. They choke me out, one after the other but are very polite about it.

I learn a few techniques and try to use them, without much success – still, I am getting better, surviving longer before they politely choke me. I start to figure that it’s about strategy, not just muscle and reflex. I have been using all of my strength and “gassing out,” while these men, some in their sixties, are effortlessly squishing me like soft cheese. Then they reacquaint me with their grips. Around my neck this time.

I stay on for the advanced class and start to last a little longer before tapping out. All the while, there is a strange thought in the back of my head: if these were fights to the death, I would be dead twenty-six times.

By the end it’s more like thirty.

I shake Kev’s hand, tell him I’ll be back for the next class, and leave with a smile. I am sore all over, have burns on my fingers and toes, but I keep replaying what I’ve learnt as I drive home, and later, when I’m lying in bed, I can’t sleep because I’m thinking of how I will improve next time, how I will change my game.

Now, I have been to four Jiu-Jitsu classes. I know nothing. But already, I’m noticing how it affects other areas of my life – my writing in particular. So… why?

Failure. Nothing acquaints you with it better than Jiu-Jitsu. You will be choked. But after a while, that becomes not so scary. And then, once failure is accepted as a necessary step for growth, once it is seen that the only way you learn is through doing something wrong in the first place, there is a feeling of freedom. Get choked. Get up. Go again. You know better this time. If you aren’t afraid to fail, you are willing to try new things, to play risky, to be interesting. Same with writing, and everything else worth pursuing, failure is inevitable – bad drafts, abandoned projects, rejections. Every novelist I know has a project-graveyard file on their computer. That is no source of shame. It is a mark of craft. Lose the fear of losing. A winner is someone who never let loss stop them.

Struggle. We as human beings are not built for sitting on beaches with cocktails. That is nice for a while, but only for a while. We need a target. Something with which to contend. Placing happiness as all important is wrong – better to pursue something difficult, something worth the struggle, something with meaning. Often it isn’t pleasant, but in pursuing that target, you are fulfilled. Do something difficult, just to see if you can. You will surprise yourself. Struggle upwards, towards a goal, and you’ll have something better than brief happiness. It’s why we run marathons, why we climb mountains, and it is why we writers choose to sit and write every day when we’d much rather be somewhere else. We turn up, at the desk, ready to contend. It requires an immense amount of work and effort – the trek out into that hinterland of composition. We are grappling with plot, emotions, ideas, and that greater thing, that unconscious current which dictates the direction we pursue, which word follows the previous. Jiu-Jitsu is just a physical manifestation of that which happens every day at the desk. You are willingly contending with something difficult, and it is often painful, but once it is over, you know it was worth it, and you can’t wait to go again, to see if you will be better. To see what you will learn this time.

A piece of writing is just a by-product of this process of struggle. This contention with the unconscious, the constant working and re-working. If something is jarring with the rest of the work, try something different. In doing this, the process itself will become rewarding – the pursuit of the target. The journey becomes what is important, that process of learning. Like Jiu-Jitsu, if something isn’t working, adapt and find the right technique, be satisfied with the journey, the constant reshuffling of set-ups and finishes. Maybe you will be choked in the end. Who cares? A novel is a by-product of the process of contending with the unconscious, of reshuffling and learning. The process is paramount. The pursuit. You don’t make a sandcastle, you abandon the sandpit.

Tenacity. The most important thing. In my last class, Kev, the instructor, rolled with me for the last thirty minutes. My ribcage is still bruised. At one point I think he just sat on me, but I can’t be certain. What I do know is that I didn’t quit. He asked if I wanted to stop but I caught my breath and carried on. And at the end, after my total annihilation, he called me “strong as an ox.” That felt good. Still, I think Kev could easily choke out an ox. I left that class aching, but proud that I had not given up. It’s rare today to encounter that kind of situation, but its good to know that if one were to arise, you have the ability to survive, the tenacity to continue. This directly correlates to writing – 40,000 words into a novel, it will feel like Kev is sitting on your chest. Be an ox. Kev will still sit on you, but the important thing is that you aren’t quitting.

Aggression. Everyone harbours it, no matter what they tell you or themselves. It’s normal. However, it will manifest itself in other, unwanted, parts of life if not acknowledged and integrated. Jiu-Jitsu lets you channel that aggression, and in doing so, gives you the confidence to integrate that assertive side in your life, when people might try to take advantage, when you need to stand up for yourself. It becomes a tool rather than a hindrance. There are circumstances where being nice just isn’t helpful – that isn’t to say that everyone should be an ass all the time. But for those of us who struggle to say no, whose first instinct is to be agreeable, this integration is life-changing. It’s a confidence. A self-belief. Again, an important quality for writers, who are (myself included) some of the most self-critical people around.

Humility. Try enduring a ritual strangling twice a week. It quickly teaches you humility. Appreciate that you will always be learning, that there are others who know more, that cockiness is laziness. If you are humble you are active, always trying to improve the work, but someone who believes they know everything has given up their desire to learn. Inactive. “There are no egos here,” is the phrase they use like a prayer or affirmation. It is a constant reminder that we are all learning, that we are all on the path – as Ursula Le Guin says so perfectly, “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”

I am halfway through writing a novel at the moment. Kev is sitting on my chest, but I am not quitting. So, on Wednesday, I’ll be back for another choking, and when I get home, I will write my 500 words.

Both are painful, but worth it.

 

 

 

 

 

About the author of this post

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Christopher Baker is a writer, published in the Writers of the Future 35th anthology and with theatre work that has won The Stage Award at Edinburgh Fringe. He graduated from the Warwick Writing programme with a First Class BA Hons in English Literature & Creative Writing. He has three dogs and is often covered in their hair. His twitter is @CSBker

Useful resources for the aspiring writer

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Typewriters at the ready, comrades. Here are some priceless resources to help you with your writing!

Filled with creative passion? Determined to make this year the year that you finally finish writing that novel you’ve been working on? We’re here to help. Can we write your novel for you? We would if only we could. Alas, that part is down to you; however, we can provide you with useful tools and resources that will help improve your writing process, and even the quality of the words you put to paper.

Just as a good handyman should have a box for his tools, so too should a good writer have at the ready those tools and resources that help him write. As such, we’ve compiled a list below of writing resources.

All power to your pens, comrades!

First things first – the site that plans your writing schedule

Is there such a thing as the perfect daily routine for writing? There’s certainly no one size fits all formula – you have to find the routine that suits you. But one thing all writers must do is (and this may sound obvious) to find the time to actually write. We work in myriad versions of uncomfortable hours and lead different lifestyles – but Pacemaker.press is a tool that helps you plan your writing schedule, and can make sure you stick to it. Check it out!

Keep track of your daily word counts 

While this article charts the daily word counts of famous authors, keep track of your own daily writing output using wordcounter – a website that not only counts words; but also features different tools that help users meet certain requirements for paragraphs, typing and reading speed, keyword density, and more. In other good news, the website does not collect fees from its users.

Get your vocabulary sorted: get your dictionary

David Foster Wallace claimed that all students of writing should carry a dictionary with them at all times. Save yourself an ounce of weight with OneLook.com, which helps you find, define, and translate words all at one site.

The site that analyses your writing for readability, syllables, word length and more

Introducing wordcounttools.com – the go-to-place to gain an analytical breakdown of your writing. Valuable insights to be found!

Writing tips from a creative writing lecturer

Julia Bell is one of the UK’s foremost authorities on creative writing. Here, she shares with us the top ten pieces of advice she gives her students at the start of each year. Whether you enjoy writing simply for the pleasure it gives you, or if you are looking to develop and improve, these top tips will set you on your way!

Get talking: subscribe to your friendly local subreddit

They don’t call Reddit the front page of the internet for nothing. But while its front page of cat GIFs and interesting and obscure facts is all very well, the real value of the site comes from the users who make its communities (‘subreddits’) great places to share thoughts, ideas, and your own work.

Try some of the best ones specifically curated for and by writers:

r/writing

r/KeepWriting

r/writers

r/writinginsights

General writing skills: Writer’s digest

Writer’s Digest offers information on writing better and getting published. The site also includes community forums, blogs and huge lists of resources for writers.

Avoid the grammar Nazis! A crash course in English punctuation and grammar

A quick and useful crash course in English punctuation.

Grammar Girl

Mignon Fogarty’s quick and dirty tips for better writing. Grammar Girl provides short, friendly tips to improve your writing. Covering the grammar rules and word choice guidelines that can confound even the best writers, Grammar Girl makes complex grammar questions simple with memory tricks to help you recall and apply those troublesome grammar rules.

Vital reading for all writers: The Elements of Style

A freely available online version of the book “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk, Jr., the classic reference book. (Of course, you should also buy the hard copy, too!)

Get your reading hats on: free sites to download literature

While we of course advocate supporting your local independent book store – and independent publishing houses – and would urge you to purchase copies of your books where you can afford to, here you can find a collection of 55 websites where you can download tens of thousands of books, plays and texts for free. Oh, and these sites are also all completely legal, of course!

Further reading: A subscription to Brain Pickings

An inventory of cross-disciplinary interestingness, spanning art, science, design, history, philosophy, and more. If you’re seeking inspiration, you’ll find it here.

A  list of all the writing  competitions that you can submit your work to in the year ahead!

Now that you are armed with the resources you need to take your writing to the next level, consider getting your stories out there. Submit your work to these writing competitions taking place in the coming months.

An in-depth guide to publishing your own e-book

Fancy testing the waters of the publishing world yourself? Here’s a complete guide to creating an e-book, covering every single step from conception through to release and marketing. Self-publishing isn’t for everyone; but it is for some! If you are considering it, make sure you read this guide as a starting point.

And now for the big one: a site that contains the information of thousands of literary agents

You’ve got the schedule down. You’ve done the analytics of your writing. You’ve learned how to rewrite. You’ve done the extra curricular reading. Now, with your finished novel – get an agent!

Finally – advice on how to get one of these literary agents for yourself

Having the contact details of literary agents is all very well; but how do you actually go about getting one? Help reduce the risk of getting those morale-crushing rejection letters by following the sage advice of an author who has been there and done that, Charlotte Salter.

Reading as an art form – how to be a good reader

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“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours,” the character of Alan Bennett says in the award winning play, The History Boys.

It is a vivid and moving description of the connection between human beings and literature – or indeed, art in general. And this connection has been mused upon by countless great artists throughout the ages: “Before writers are writers they are readers, living in books, through books, in the lives of others that are also the heads of others, in that act that is so intimate and yet so alone,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in her extraordinary essay collection, The Faraway Nearby. Meanwhile, Herman Hesse argued that it is possible, when reading, to discover such a powerful imaginative connection to the words on the page that “we really no longer read what is printed on the paper but swim in a stream of impulses and inspirations that reach us from what we are reading.”

This transcendent relationship between human beings and literature has been described by Umberto Eco as almost being driven by some biological impulse as yet undescribed by science. Yet in order to reach the most rewarding of reading experiences – as described by Bennett, Solnit, Hesse et al; there is often a role that we, as readers, must play. Indeed, it is not enough to simply open a book and scan the page – we must do so with effort, dedication; even skill.

The art of reading

This is something that W.H. Auden – one of the most celebrated and successful poets of the 20th century – discusses in his collection of essays, The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays.

One of the most striking observations in this fascinating collection is Auden’s assertion that reading should be regarded as an art in its own right:

“The interests of a writer and the interests of his readers are never the same and if, on occasion, they happen to coincide, this is a lucky accident.

[…]

To read is to translate, for no two persons’ experiences are the same. A bad reader is like a bad translator: he interprets literally when he ought to paraphrase and paraphrases when he ought to interpret literally. In learning to read well, scholarship, valuable as it is, is less important than instinct; some great scholars have been poor translators.”

An intriguing part of Auden’s central argument is that becoming a “good” reader ultimately hinges on our ability to discern for ourselves what we find to be enjoyable. Reading and literature therefore become as much a part of our life-long process of self-discovery as anything else as we traverse the inevitable change that takes place over the course of our lifetimes. Just as David Foster Wallace surmises that we as human beings “get to choose what is and isn’t important […] get to decide what we worship”, Auden argues that it is critical that we do not read something because we think we “should” read it, or because we are told to – but because we want to:

“Good taste is much more a matter of discrimination than of exclusion, and when good taste feels compelled to exclude, it is with regret, not with pleasure.

[…]

Between the ages of twenty and forty we are engaged in the process of discovering who we are, which involves learning the difference between accidental limitations which it is our study to outgrow and the necessary limitations of our nature beyond which we cannot trespass with impunity. Few of us can learn this without making mistakes, without trying to become a little more of a universal man than we are permitted to be. It is during this period that a writer can most easily be led astray by another writer or by some ideology When someone between twenty and forty says, apropos of a work of art, “I know what I like,” he is really saying “I have no taste of my own but accept the taste of my cultural milieu,” because between twenty and forty, the surest sign that a man has genuine taste of his own is that he is uncertain of it. After forty, if we have not lost our authentic selves altogether, pleasure can again become what it was when we were children, the proper guide to what we should read.”

Decide what books you worship

This ability to choose for ourselves what we read – the ability to say clearly that we enjoy certain books and writers but not others, regardless of what others may think – is vital, Auden suggests, not just to reading but also to writing. Because a problem many writers frequently encounter is a feeling that they should be writing for a specific group of readers:

The challenges of being a reader in many ways parallel those of being a writer, particularly when it comes to these tyrannical shoulds — nowhere more so than in the perennially asked, perennially answered with ire question of why a writer writes and for whom. Auden offers the most beautiful answer I have yet encountered, at once utterly grounding and utterly elevating:

“A writer … is always being asked by people who should know better: “Whom do you write for?” The question is, of course, a silly one, but I can give it a silly answer. Occasionally I come across a book which I feel has been written especially for me and for me only. Like a jealous lover, I don’t want anybody else to hear of it. To have a million such readers, unaware of each other’s existence, to be read with passion and never talked about, is the daydream, surely, of every author.”

From the philosophical to the practical

And what of the practical art of reading? While Auden provides fascinating musings on how we decide what we read, and our mental approach to literature, other great writers have examined the art and process of reading in even further detail.

Vladimir Nabokov, for example, writes in his Lectures on Literature that, when it comes to literature, “the mind, the brain, the top of the tingling spine, is the only instrument one should use when reading a book.”

He further adds that reading is not a singular act but part of a long-term cycle or process:

“Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.”

Perhaps some of the finest advice on the subject, however, comes from legendary writer Virginia Woolf, who addressed the issue in an essay rather appropriately titled ‘How to read a book’, found in her essay collection The Second Common Reader.

“The only advice … that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions.”

Perhaps this is the central trick, therefore: in order to be a good reader, it is critical that we are open to all the possibilities in the world.

It seems as though the same advice could be applied to life more generally – as this sort of openness is surely a critical part of what it takes to be a good person.