Dungeons and Dragons. Given a current cultural context that has seen D&D references in shows like Stranger Things and Community, and an a recent explosion of actual-play podcast and shows like Critical Role and The Adventure Zone, Dungeons and Dragons hardly needs an introduction.
As a TTRPG (tabletop role playing game), it has offered players countless hours of entertainment, but it’s also served as inspiration for sci-fi and fantasy writers since its introduction in 1974. The first (unauthorized) novel inspired by D&D was written by Andre Norton and published in 1978, with authorized novels (currently numbering in the hundreds, and that’s not including novellas, novelettes, and short fiction) first seeing publication in the 1980s. Talk about your points of inspiration!
But what about when you’re stuck? When those moments of inspiration just don’t come? Here are six things Dungeons and Dragons taught me about combatting writer’s block. Let’s roll initiative.
Leveling up happens through regular, consistent play.
One of the fun parts of Dungeons & Dragons—or really, any game with leveling mechanics—is leveling up. Leveling up means that certain challenges become easier; a level one party facing a young green dragon is likely going to get burnt to a crisp, but a party at level ten? Piece of cake!
It’s not a perfect metaphor, of course. The Behemoth Blank Page doesn’t have hit points and a challenge rating. Writer’s block is a sly, ever-changing creature whose face may be different each time we see it. But, as with D&D, the more regularly you can manage to at least sit down at the (writing) table, the more strategies you have for defeating it.
But sometimes you roll with disadvantage.
One of the core mechanics of Dungeons and Dragons is dice rolls. Players describe a thing they want their characters to do to their Dungeon Master (DM), and the DM tells them what kind of a roll to make to see whether that thing happens. If the player rolls at or above a particular number, then the thing happens! Great! If the player rolls below that number, though, the roll fails, and usually, what happens is… not great. Sometimes, for whatever reason, a DM will ask a player to roll with disadvantage. That means they roll twice and take the lower of the two rolls. This increases the likelihood that the player fails the roll.
Sometimes, with writing, you’re rolling with disadvantage. One of the most memorable pieces of writing advice I have ever heard was at a panel at a sci-fi and fantasy convention where the topic was writing and mental health. One audience member asked how the panelists with depression managed to keep writing through a major depressive episode. And one of the panelists essentially said, “I didn’t.” Once he found the an antidepressant that worked for him, he was able to get into a productive writing routine, but during that depressive episode, no number of nifty tricks and tips could help him put words on a page.
And you know what? Sometimes that happens. And it sucks. Like, really sucks, and not just because it keeps you from writing. But it doesn’t make you a bad writer. Here’s a great, but longer series of posts from writer and Writing about Writing Facebook page admin Chris Breechen about the truth about writing routines that says a lot more about this issue than I have the space to say here .
Gather yourself a party.
Most D&D games consist of a smallish party of 3 – 6 people. Maybe some parties are bigger, and I’ve DMed sessions with only a single player. But the three main components of D&D—exploration, social interaction, and combat—are easiest when they’re done in a group. And believe it or not, the same goes for writing.
I have taught writing classes of various types for eight years. And I was a writing tutor for five years before that. If there’s one thing I know about writing, it’s that sharing it—scary as it may be—is one of your best tools for moving past writing difficulties, and that includes writer’s block. Even just talking through a scene with someone can help you shape it more firmly in your mind.
Whether you’re part of a formal writing group, or you join a site like Scribophile to trade works with other writers, or you just hand your writing off to a friend or family member for a quick read-through, finding a regular, trustworthy writing party can help you slice through that writing block like a +1 Luck Blade slicing through a Gelatinous Cube.
But learn your party members’ strengths, and be clear in what you ask of them.
Here’s the thing, though. One of the great things about Dungeons and Dragons is that each player’s character has their own strengths; on the flip side, each has their own weaknesses, too. And the same likely goes for your writing party.
Just like you wouldn’t ask your lawful-good paladin to use thieves’ tools to break into a locked treasure chest (that’s your rogue’s job), you don’t necessarily want to talk to your Plot Hole Detector when you’re staring down a Behemoth Blank Page. Now, if you’re actively trying to find those plot holes so you can fill them up—of course, call that Detector over. But for a Behemoth Blank Page, you likely want someone you can bounce ideas off instead.
Now, that’s not to say the same person can’t do both of those things, and that’s why it’s so important to clarify what you’re looking for when you’re asking someone to help you work through a writing difficulty. When you ask for help, be sure you ask precisely.
Rests are good….
In D&D, after several grueling rounds of combat, a party might elect to take a short or long rest to recover some or all of their hit points before they move to the next room in the dungeon. And if you’ve been staring at the same blank page for the last twenty minutes, maybe you do, too. Get up; stretch your legs; make some coffee or tea; meditate. Recover some hit points, and then try tackling that Behemoth Blank Page once more.
…in the proper environment.
In the wrong environment, though, a short rest can prove dangerous. If you don’t properly barricade that door, a wandering Bugbear may burst through and foil your attempt to regain that HP. And most writers know how easy it is for a five-minutes social media break to turn into a whole hour of scrolling. I’m not saying never use social media to break up your writing; I’m saying be honest with yourself about what kind of break will be most useful in any given moment.
What do you think? Do you play D&D? What other lessons does it have for writers? What about other TTRPGs? Let me know in the comments!
: The McElroys have described it as explicitly not an actual-play podcast, because their goal is not so much actual play as it is comedy and storytelling. But, still.
: Incidentally, as I was scrolling through the Facebook page trying to find that post, I also found a post he wrote titled, “9 Thinks Dungeons & Dragons Taught Me about How to Write.” I didn’t read it until after I wrote this post, but there’s a chance I saw the link on Facebook and it gave me the idea for this post. #nowriterisanisland
: Full disclosure: these classes have been of many types (first-year writing, tech writing, professional writing, digital writing, stem writing, etc), but not of the fiction writing type.