What I Learned from D&D: Campaign Session #2

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Note: It’s been a while with these, I know.  It’s been a while since I’ve blogged at all, for that matter. I’m trying to be better about it. If you don’t see about seven more segments of this series in the next few weeks, feel free to yell at me.

“Wait, what was his name again?”

“What did you say we were fighting?”

“Oh, shit! I have resistance to fire! I forgot!”

These interruptions have been common occurrences for me in our new D&D campaign, and it’s a wonder our DM hasn’t snapped and put me in time-out for an hour.  (How would you go about doing that in D&D, anyway? Maybe an npc could curse Cherish so that that she would be paralyzed until it was dispelled? Not that I want to give dungeon masters ideas for how to punish their players, but I do kiiind of want to give dungeon masters ideas for how to punish their characters. Just not mine.) I tried to pay attention, but there are a lot of details to take in.  My mind wandered, thinking about something I wanted to say when an opportune moment arose or about the tentative respect between two characters–and suddenly we had to explain to a pair of guards what we were doing and I couldn’t remember any of the words I needed.

I’ve never been a note taker. In high school, I never had to be. I was one of those obnoxious kids that tested well without studying. We all know how the rest of that story goes. In my first week of college, one of my professors pulled me aside and said, “I noticed you weren’t taking any notes. You’ll really need to remember this material.”

“Oh, I will,” I assured her. “I don’t have to take notes. I’m just really good at remembering.” She gave me a concerned look. “You’ll see.”

She did not see.

I did horribly in that class, because I never took notes and thus forgot all but a few stray details. I also forgot most of the important details of all of the other classes in which I failed to take notes–which was all of them. I forgot most of the names of the many peers I met in the dining hall those first few months (when in doubt, just guess Katie). My brilliant retention skills evidently decided they didn’t need the college experience, moved to California and never returned.

But even after I left school and joined the working world, for some reason I still stubbornly insisted on not taking notes. “I’ll remember,” I kept saying. “I’m really good at that.”

I never quite suffered for that the way I did in college; usually, I just asked my supervisor, “I’m sorry, can you show me again?” They sighed, but they showed me again and I repeated the steps to myself a few times until I had it down. Each time, I decided I had learned my lesson. I would pay closer attention.

And then we started playing D&D and, even though everyone talks about how necessary it is to take notes, I still found myself thinking, “Nah, I’ll just pay attention.”

Learn from my mistakes, reader:

You need to take notes. 

At least, you need to take notes in D&D. And to take notes, you need to pay attention. I had a notebook in the second session, determined that I would start to take notes, but because I was so out of practice, I was never sure what to write down.  What names would come up again? How much did I really need to remember about each city? My first notes were sparse: a couple names and a vague description per page, tally marks to remind me how many spells I had used. In future games, they didn’t help me much, but in future games, I learned to take better notes. I learned that when in doubt, the closer attention to detail, the better.

I’m an odd creature of a writer. I consider myself a detail-oriented person who cares about the little things in the story. I have a feel for them in my head, a vague, abstract feeling that sort of contradicts the nature of specific details.  I like the idea of having a rich setting. I like the idea of having thorough world-building and knowing the names and backstories of the characters that have one line of dialogue in the whole story. When I actually sit down to write, though, those details intimidate and exhaust me.

I put them off. Even with important things, I say, “I’ll just make them up as I go along,” or “I’ll leave it vague for now and I’ll fix it when edits come around.” That might be all fine for some writers.  It’s even necessary for most writers. There are some things you just won’t be able to figure out until you finish a first draft and go back through to revise it. However, I’ve caught myself a few too many times thinking that I don’t need to worry about the details right now, only to run into a plot hole or a block later.  I find myself thinking I have a developed character and even though their motivation is a little vague, it’s enough. I have a firm idea of them in my head, but when I write it, they come across flat. I even forget elements I added into my own story five chapters ago, because I never thought to make a note of it.

The best stories I’ve read are rich in detail, whether external world-building or the protagonist’s inner world.  Their settings aren’t just places where the story happens, but living, breathing characters themselves. Those authors don’t just think, “Eh, I’ll figure it out.” They put in the work. They make notes so that they remember. Or they don’t. Maybe they don’t need to. But as a writer, and a tiefling cleric, I need to take notes to make sure that I remember everything I need to know. It’s time to stop fooling myself and pretending otherwise.

What I Learned From D&D: Campaign Session #1

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“I really want a campaign,” my friend, Jamey, told me over Skype soon after our one-shot.

“I know,” I replied. “Same.” Actually, we had been talking about this for at least a month before we ever played our first Dungeons & Dragons game. I said that I wanted to play the first game to get a feel of things and be sure, but we knew we would be hooked right away, and we were right.

So, we took to Tumblr with our plan for a campaign, and, when no one on Tumblr was available, we tried Facebook. “I’ll DM if no one else wants to,” Jamey offered.  By the next day, that had changed to, “I really don’t mind if I have to DM. I think it might be fun.” And by the end of the day, “Yeah, I have an idea. I want to DM.”

At first, we had about seven people, not including Jamey as our DM; but, through scheduling, computer, or personal conflicts, that number dwindled before we started our first game. By the time of the first session, our party consisted of:

  • Daarga, a half-orc druid who was taken in by druids after his orc tribe beat him nearly to death;
  • Alerith, a half-elf monk daughter of a diplomat (left later because the player decided D&D wasn’t for her);
  • Neeks, a half-elf bard with a secretive past; and my character,
  • Cherish, a tiefling who became a cleric to avoid consequences after an affair with a noble’s daughter.

Cherish is a far cry from Fenoise. She’s irreverent and selfish and her motivation of “well, serving a badass volcano goddess I’m not sure I believe in is better than being a fugitive” couldn’t be further from Fenoise’s idealistic ambitions of becoming a bardic folk hero. But in creating her, I did notice a common pattern:

I like to write characters that don’t quite “fit” their type.

I hesitate to say that Cherish is “bad” at being a cleric or Fenoise “bad” at being a bard, though I suppose they start out that way; that’s what character development is for. In each of them, though, I made a point to do something unexpected. Making a cleric: what about an irreligious young woman that looks a bit like a demon? And if the cleric’s deity is known to have aggressive, passionate followers: well, what if my cleric doesn’t really care yet? What if this was just a last resort for her? What if this elf who wants to make a career of music and making magic out of her words is terrified of performing? Even the fact that Fenoise had one leg four inches shorter than the other was something I added to combat the stereotype of lithe, graceful elves. My favorite characters that I’ve written start off with a concept like that: take this stereotype and flip it. As I get to know them, I develop them into fully fleshed out characters.

I don’t think that these are genius subversions of character that no one has ever thought to write before, but I think  it can be fun, and it’s something I like about my writing. And as a writer riddled with self-doubt, I don’t often find things about my own writing that I can, with certainty, claim to like.  Character creation is one of my strengths, and it’s just as important to learn about my strengths as it is to learn about my weaknesses. Character creation has always been one of my strengths, but I’m not sure I’ve often tried this trick when writing something that doesn’t have clearly designated character classes. I did try it recently, though: I wrote a short story for a contest featuring a suburban stay-at-home mother with a secret past as a grifter. As soon as that twist came to me, the rest of the story started to fall into place, and a daunting assignment became fun.

Finding the unexpected in my characters is one of my favorite parts of writing, and from now on, I’m going to commit to looking for it.