What I Learned from D&D: First One-Shot

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It started with Critical Role, a twitch livestream/youtube webseries in which voice actor Matthew Mercer and other voice actors play a game of Dungeons & Dragons that’s been going on for about four years now. When I first heard about the show, I thought it sounded fun, but…Dungeons & Dragons isn’t my thing. Still, it was fun to read my friends’ reactions and look at some of the fan art. Inevitably, my curiosity got the better of me and decided to watch it. But…it’s probably just going to make me want to play D&D and I’m really no good at oral storytelling.

I tried to watch it and just enjoy the story, despite the temptation to jump into a game when I saw how much fun the players had. Meanwhile, a couple of my friends started talking about playing a one-shot. A more experienced friend offered to DM for them. But…I don’t know, it just sounds so complicated.

Inevitably, my curiosity got the better of me.

For our one-shot, I created Fenoise, a high elf bard who had debilitating stage fright and one leg four inches shorter than the other. Fenoise’s parents were librarians and she spent most of her youth pouring over adventure tales and folklore.  Finally, her curiosity got the better of her and she left home to become an adventuring bard herself, despite the fact that she couldn’t bring herself to get on a stage and perform anything. Fenoise was a good channel for my own writing insecurities, as well as my nervousness about my first game. I thought that I did a pretty good job of plotting out who she was as a person. Her motivations, her desires, her flaws. She was critically self-conscious, defensive and proud, a little unintentionally racist, but sympathetic and brave and she tried.  And then, once I felt like I had her personality and my character sheet was all finished, I stopped. All I had to do was wait, I figured. And maybe for some that would be true. It wasn’t quite for me, however.

The game was a lot of fun and I left it energized and wanting more. But it didn’t go quite the way I wanted it to. As content as I was with my characterization beforehand, I felt like I lost sight of my character through the game. She wasn’t coming off like I imagined. She’s not supposed to be this awkward–she is a bard, after all–and she should feel less comfortable with this character. And it wasn’t just the character. When we started the game, all four characters were in a waiting room, waiting for our employer to see us, and I didn’t know what to say or do. We asked the townspeople questions and I found myself at a loss when I tried to think of helpful questions. Witty one-liners became a far-off dream. At one point towards the end of the game, we were face to face with a small red dragon, and when my turn came, I was at a loss.

“I don’t know what to do,” I thought aloud. “I wasn’t prepared for a dragon.”

“In a game called Dungeons & Dragons?” the DM quipped, and we laughed.

I eventually just shot the dragon with a crossbow, and because they were already weakened by another player’s attacks, the DM borrowed a line from Critical Role and asked me, “How do you want to do this?” For those who don’t watch the show, it’s the same as, say, “Make it flashy.” I can describe, in dramatic detail, how my limping, insecure little bard slayed a fucking dragon. It was a swelling underdog moment worthy of an animated Disney movie with a killer soundtrack.

“Bard kills are the best kills,” the DM added as I hesitated. Except…

I blanked. I just couldn’t think of anything. She offered to give me a minute, but in my panic and utter lack of ideas, I just asked one of my other friends to take over and describe it for me.  And then it was over, and it was more good than awkward, and I don’t think anyone really cared except my anxiety.

But I decided there are lessons to take from this, lessons that can be put to use in my writing. Dungeons & Dragons is, after all, just another form of storytelling. I could say that I learned how awkward I am at oral storytelling, but I already knew that. Here’s what I did learn:

I am not a pantser.

I’ve seen this debate for a few years amongst writers: plotting vs. pantsing. Plotting means you prepare for your story, you outline, you plan; pantsing is diving in and “writing by the seat of your pants.” When I was a teenager, I only ever pantsed. To outline was to kill the story for me. But as I got older, I found that sometimes it helped me to have a sense of what I was writing and not get stuck if I wrote an outline first. In the past couple years, I’ve done a bit of a mix. Sometimes I plot; sometimes I pants; sometimes I start to plot and just end up pantsing. It depends on the story, I tell myself. Except it doesn’t. I always, always feel better about my story when I first take the time to figure out what story I’m trying to tell.

In D&D, you have to be able to play “by the seat of your pants,” and I was nervous about that going in. I am, after all, the girl who messed up an improv group exercise by bursting into giggles at everyone else, saved only by a much more talented improv actor who claimed I was drunk. Sure enough, it was an awkward experience for me. There’s only so much that can be done about that, but I think there are some things I can do to help it. I can spend a little time with my character before each game. I can write little snippets so I can get used to their voice and the way they respond to things. I can write out hypothetical scenarios, like killing a monster or questioning townspeople. And in my personal writing, I can accept that I am officially not a pantser. If I need to plot for a D&D game, I need to plot that much more when I’m trying to write a novel.

There was a time that I thought I would be less creative if I couldn’t just…form the story off the top of my head. But I grew up, and you know what? It’s okay. It’s good to know my weaknesses and to focus on my strengths instead. I’m great at plotting out a dynamic character and a compelling story. I just have to give myself the time and put in the work.

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