Why I Write Fantasy Literature Part 3: Dungeons & Dragons

Dungeons & Dragons has not, to my knowledge, ever been cool. It has occasionally been pop culturally relevant, but cool? Not in my experience.

So it is with some degree of hesitation that a guy who has had a minor (Yes, minor!) obsession with being cool since high school would admit to D&D influencing him to become a fantasy author.

(Cool, of course, is a matter of opinion and is definitely in the eye of the beholder. [That’s an intentional D&D pun for those of you who have played.] My brother and daughter would laugh uproariously at the suggestion that Cool and I ever knew each other well enough to even say hi as we passed each other in the hall. But I digress.)

Imagining a typical game of D&D conjures images of sweaty men in ill-fitting t-shirts, eating junk food and making bad Monty Python references, while pretending to be heroes who slay dragons and other monsters.

This was not me. Except maybe for the junk food bit.

It also tends to invoke the worst kinds of male power fantasies: barbaric warriors with giant, uh, swords, who only meet women wearing chainmail bikinis that barely cover their anatomically impossible curves.

This also was not me. (Although I did read a lot of Robert E. Howard in high school.)

But despite my being a non-sterotypical D&D player, the game did have a profound impact on my development as a writer.

Players' HandbookI played most of my D&D in high school. I would play here and there in college and graduate school, and, for awhile, I was managing publication of Avalanche Press’s historically accurate D&D supplements. But it was in high school where Dungeons & Dragons laid the foundation for my becoming a fantasy author.

The game was a new gateway into magical realms. Just as George Lucas, C.S. Lewis, and Lloyd Alexander had shown me faraway lands where magic and monsters really existed, D&D granted me access to them. Like many of today’s young Harry Potter fans, I imagined myself as a wizard, capable of casting spells that changed the universe. D&D made it possible to actually do it.

I should pause to note here that I never had a Mazes and Monsters moment, where I had a break from reality. Like virtually all players of role-playing games, I understood it was exactly that — a game. The magic in the game wasn’t real.

But the magic of playing was. For the first time, I wasn’t just reading about these fantastic heroes; I was being one. I wasn’t just absorbing the story; I was making it unfold myself — I was creating it.

I can’t understate the allure being the person who created the stories. As a teenager, I didn’t know anything about publishing  or even writing a novel. While the thought ran across my brain more than once and I even hand-wrote a D&D-inspired novel in a notebook, I had no idea about how one actually becomes an author. But playing Dungeons & Dragons put that power in my hands in a very real way for the first time. I made decisions for the character. I chose what spell to cast in which situation. I built the reputation of one of the greatest sorcerers in the world.

It’s no surprise I was immediately attracted to the role of dungeonmaster. This special player is the one who creates the lost tombs for the characters to explore. He or she is the one who fills it with monsters and treasures and is the arbiter of the rules, deciding what happens when there is a conflict. The DM describes the scene and controls the bad guys. In short, the dungeonmaster is the writer who sets the stage for the adventure.

Through D&D, I was creating my own fantasy adventure stories. I was engaged with heroic fiction in a whole new way, and that intimate relationship to the tales was fundamental in making me want to become an author.

Moreover, Dungeons & Dragons was my entroit into mythology. The Monster Manual — the book that had game stats and descriptions for the foes the players would face — was filled with virtually every legendary creature in Western tradition and some from Eastern ones. I encountered elves and dwarves through D&D before I ever read The Hobbit or studied Norse mythology. I met the Sphinx and the Ki-Rin in the game before I ever read about them in real life. I did battle with Medusa before I watched Harry Hamlin do so in Clash of the Titans.

Understanding these classic myths became central to the stories I would later tell as an author. They would shape my perception of Western culture. But I found them first in the pages of Dungeons & Dragons.

In many ways, the game was ridiculous. Forgotten tombs populated by diverse monsters who never left the rooms in which they guarded treasures they had no use for were the mainstay of our adventures. My assemblage of them demonstrated a clear lack of understanding of ecosystems and logic.

But that’s not what the game was about to me. As unsophisticated as our adventures were, they had a profound effect on my young mind — they made me want to create fantasy stories of my own. They enabled me to work my own particular brand of magic. For three to four hours every other Friday night, I was a wizard capable of conjuring fire and affecting the course of nations. I was shaping fantastic stories.

That idea stayed with me. It clung to me as I studied literature in college. It inspired me to spend eight years designing, writing, and publishing similar games in my 20’s and 30’s. It gave me the courage to self-publish fantasy books when e-publishing exploded.

The fantasy adventures I created playing Dungeons & Dragons in high school were embarrassingly bad. They are every bit as uncool as the stereotypical image of the teenage (or even adult) gamer.

But just like reading Lewis and Alexander, playing D&D set me on the path to becoming a fantasy author. It gave that creative impetus in my mind a good, hard shove. It made me want to write fantasy literature.

Next week, I’ll examine one of the most critical components of fantasy literature — escapism — and why it appeals to me.

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