In order to play Dungeons & Dragons, you need two kinds of people. The first is the Dungeon Master (“DM”), who sets up the world that the second group, the Players, will explore.
The game is fairly open-ended, but most people tend towards creating and playing stories where the players are the good guys on some sort of quest to vanquish a great evil. There’s not really any way to win the game. Even if the good guys vanquish the bad ones, the DM can make new bad guys rise up. And even if all the players die in a fight,1 then they can make new ones and try again. Consequently, games can go on forever.
When the players sit down with the DM to play, known as a session, each group has different responsibilities. The players explore the world, and roll dice to try and complete tasks, such as hitting an orc with a sword, casting a spell, or climbing up the outside of a tall tower.
The DM, on the other hand, is responsible for describing the various parts of the world to the players, as well as roleplaying all of the other characters that appear in the game. If a character walks into a room, the DM tells him what’s inside. The DM is also responsible for the bad guy’s combat rolls as well as narrating combat.
My experience with Dungeons & Dragons began when I was a senior in high school and one of my friends invited me to try the game out. He was starting a new campaign, and all the other players were people that I knew already, so I agreed.
There were a couple of things I realized the right of the back.
The game was quite fun. If offers a really nice balance of doing epic things, strategic thinking, goofing off with your friends, and the occasional epic fail produced by unlucky dice rolls.
The learning curve was quite steep, though. We were playing the edition of D&D known as 3.5, the design philosophy of which seemed to be to have a complicated but highly accurate rule for every possible scenario. Consequently, the game went slowly, sometimes.
The big saving grace was how detailed and entertaining the world was. DMs have two options when running a game. They can either use a pre-made story made by someone else, or they can build a universe to suit, and use the rules and monsters laid out in the rulebooks to populate it.
My first DM did a splendid job, even if he made some novice mistakes.[Note]You wouldn’t think it was that important, but we once spent two hours in real life stuck in a prison cell in-game, because we hadn’t been told that we were on the second floor.[/note]. The world felt real to me, the player.
This DM also left the country at the end of the school year, which effectively killed off the campaign. I had been telling some other friends, ones who hadn’t been participating in that campaign, stories about the depth of the universe, and my own character’s exploits. They were loving it.
I decided that I knew enough to be my own DM and create a story for them. I broached the idea of a game of Dungeons & Dragons, run by me. They loved it, and we were soon playing.
But there was a problem. Everyone seemed to be loving the game, but I wasn’t living up to my own expectations. The campaign I had played in felt alive, deep and the details I could pull from my memory were rich. In comparison, the campaign I was running felt flat, shallow, and ugly. The sparkle I had felt while playing was completely absent while I ran the game.
It got so bad that I felt the need to apologize.
When I did, I got brushed off.
My players said something to the effect of, “What do you mean? This campaign is incredibly rich and detailed, even more than the one you had told us about!”
How could this be? How could their experience differ so greatly from mine?
It took me a while to sort it out, but I think there are two things at play here.
First, they don’t what doesn’t exist in the universe. They don’t know that the tavern they’re in is the only building in the settlement for which I have designed an inside. They don’t know that I don’t have a detailed family history for every person they walk past on the street. Half of the time, they travel without meeting anyone, just to spare me having to create a character on the spot.
And even though that makes things seem shallow to me, their experience seems deep as long as everything they interact with seems somewhat real. If they ask a question, and I don’t have a pre-made answer but come up with something on the spot, they don’t know any better. They don’t know the universe is shallow.
On the other hand, I think they’re doing a lot of the heavy lifting. This is the second thing; but, let me elaborate.
If you tell them they’re approaching a castle, they’re going to fill in a lot of the pertinent details just from their experience with castles in the past. The rough texture of the rocks on its walls, its towering height, the knights walking the parapets, the slits in the walls through which arrows can be fired. They will likely come up with these things on their own.
Which has ramifications for writing. If I were to lay them out in rules, call them, “writing lessons learned from Dungeons & Dragons,” they would go something like this:
- You only need to describe something in detail if its attributes will later have an impact on the story, or
- You only need to describe something in detail if its attributes are likely to differ from someone’s generic mental image of that thing2, or
- You only need to describe something if you’re trying to create an ambiance that would otherwise be missed. The echoes in a long hallway and the stench of an old cellar fall into this category.
I think following these rules would help a lot of novice writers out. In my experience, most get accused of over-describing, which kills the pace of the story by overloading it with tons of exposition. And, a few are guilty of under-describing. When the level of detail falls below a certain level, the reader loses track of what is going on, or starts to wonder about how thin the universe is.
Everyone knows what a bed looks like. Everyone knows what a sword, a gun, a table, a car, a spaceship, the moon in all its glory, looks like. If you repeat these details purposelessly, you risk degrading your work. The key lies in making sure that you’re giving them just enough to keep them from losing sight of what’s going on, without slogging down the story with unnecessary detail.
One of the strengths that written material has over movies is that it can be less precise. A moviemaker has to make sure every detail in each shot is right, as there is little room for interpretation regarding what is visually there.
On the other hand, books can get away with murder. As long as the core of the scene is fairly concrete, readers will do a lot of the heavy lifting themselves, filling in the details and shadows around the edges of the scene, which both helps you keep the action going by limiting the time spent on details, but also deepens their connection to the work, as some details are playing out exactly as they would generically in their head—because they are!
I think I can honestly say that if it weren’t for Dungeons & Dragons, I never would have noticed this. I think that has a lot to do with the fact that writers like myself often get swept up in lush descriptions we encounter in our works, and instead of realizing that they’re used judiciously, try to emulate them in everything that we write. And sometimes, that’s just too much, man.