This past weekend, I played my very first game of Dungeons and Dragons.
Some people call it the Initiation into Geekhood, but I quickly realized that, more than initiation, it was a test of my Adventurous Spirit.
The entire thing was a challenge, to tell you the truth. First, I knew absolutely no one who had actually played the game before and could give me pointers. Second, being the owner of the game, I was going to have to teach my friends and soon-to-be gaming group how to play. And third, that meant I was going to have to play the role of Dungeon Master. And that meant I would have to do everything.
It was kind of scary, trying to learn everything I needed to. All the rules, stats, terminology, strategy, monsters, powers, dice–it was a lot to take in. I picked up a copy of Dungeons and Dragons for Dummies from the library and, with the help of the handbooks included in the 4th edition starter set, I began learning my way around the game. I familiarized myself with the nuances and minutiae, and developed a Plan. I was going to approach this methodically and go by the book, and I would be fine.
My first mistake: underestimation.
I thought it would be no problem to whip up character sheets before we played, so I didn’t bother to address character creation before our game day. Not only was I horribly disorganized and flustered, struggling to coach five other D&D newbies through character creation, but it also took up two hours of our time. Once we were finally ready to play, I’d already lost two players who had to leave early.
At that point, I was already exhausted, and we hadn’t even really started. But I had my Plan, and I had the book to guide me, and so I knew I’d be okay. Opening the book to the pre-made adventure, I started guiding the players through it. That was when I realized my second mistake: pre-planning.
Two minutes after I picked up the book, I put it back down. The characters had taken over, and there was nothing I could do to stop them. They had the adventure inside them.
It all started with a wagon wheel. The wagon was rolling along, just as I wanted it to, when suddenly one of the players cried out, “Look! The wagon wheel is broken!” What?! I thought, Since when? But, figuring it wasn’t that big a deal, I let it happen. “Having hit a rock,” I narrated, “the wagon’s wheel broke and the entire caravan came to a stop.” I was about to continue on, steering the story back in my direction, when the wagon suddenly tumbled into the ditch.
Oh boy, I thought. That was unexpected.
But I went with it. I resumed the narration, trying to get the story back where I planned it, but again, the players and their characters had different ideas. Even as I pushed them into a battle, they threw a twist at me. “I recognize that goblin!” said the rogue. “He’s my ex-boyfriend!” No, he’s not! I thought, bewildered, He’s just an unknown goblin! I didn’t want him to be anyone special, because that wasn’t in my Plan. But the more I distressed over it, the more I realized that this wasn’t the point of the game. I wasn’t there to tell them a story. I was there to help them live their own adventure.
And so the goblin remained her ex-boyfriend, and the story from there on completely deviated from The Plan. I started making up stuff on the fly, drawing on every reserve of creativity and imagination I had stored away in my writer’s brain, and I adapted the story to meet the needs and interests of the characters taking part in it. If they mentioned something that I hadn’t narrated, I took it in stride and let it happen. I let them have their goofy, off-topic conversation too, because it was making the game so much more engaging. Instead of being the dictator in the situation, as I imagined I would be as the Dungeon Master, I ended up the servant to the characters–and I quickly learned that that was a heck of a lot of fun.
My favourite moment was when they were having a dialogue with a merchant who needed a favour. He wanted a stolen chest returned, but he didn’t want the characters knowing what was inside. So, as I played the part of the merchant and spoke to the characters, I was careful to keep the chest’s contents secret. I was brisk and vague in my description of the chest, but was completely stunned when the rogue asked, “If the goblins have already opened the chest, how will we know what item we’re looking for?”
I sat there for a good ten seconds, trying to come up with a suitable answer without revealing the object, and for a time couldn’t think of a thing to say. I never would have come up with that question on my own, if I were writing the story, and I was so entertained by the players’ brilliance, I got as sucked into the adventure as they were. I wasn’t just the Dungeon Master, there to enforce the rules and play the monsters and merchants. Now, I was a character in the story, but it wasn’t my story anymore.
It was their adventure, and I was just lucky enough to be allowed a supporting role in it.
They kept me guessing that day, surprising me with their unique ideas and their amusing characters. They guided the story probably more than I did, and I’ve never been so inspired. Ever since our game, short though it seemed, my head has been full of ideas and creativity, and it won’t let me go.
I’m starting to understand why some days are difficult when it comes to writing, and why I spend hours bashing my head on the keyboard, struggling to come up with something good. It’s because I try to stick so closely to The Plan–so terribly closely that I can’t see a good idea even if it’s right in front of my nose. I don’t let myself deviate from The Plan and explore the sillier, more exciting paths, and that keeps my writing feeling dull and uninspired.
I’ve got a lot more to learn from this brilliant game, and the stuff I’ll be learning won’t be found in any rulebooks. It will come straight from the heart of adventure itself. And I can’t wait.
What’s something unexpected that happened to you today? Did you adapt it to your story?
May you always know when to deviate from The Plan, and pursue those unexpected twists which keep your adventure fresh and fun.