I’m in my last year of my MFA, and in May, I will leave my teaching stipend and the structure of the past three years and enter “the real world,” a place rocked by COVID-19 and the uncertainty it’s brought.
My thesis is due soon, but working on fiction this year has been a struggle. Writing short stories is a solitary act made even more solitary by the pandemic. Every form rejection stings a little more as I’m holed up in my apartment, and “Midlist Author” by the Decemberists featured prominently in my Spotify Wrapped: “You’re never the best but you’re never the worst. / Why even bother? / You’ll never be last but you’ll never be first.”
I’ve spent the year sinking, thinking about how nobody reads short stories anyway, and wondering if that makes my writing practice more than just unsuccessful—what if it makes it selfish?
To those of you suffering from the same stale melancholy and doubt, might I suggest Dungeons & Dragons.
In a game of D&D, the dungeon master, or DM, guides the players through the adventure as they roleplay their fantasy characters. They also dictate when players roll the dice that decides successes and failures in the game.
I’ve been trying out the role of DM, and it’s been a remedy for these feelings of loneliness and the feeling that what I create doesn’t matter. In my depressed writing slump, I’ve been thinking about writing as wailing and banging my fists against a bunch of closed doors. D&D is revitalizing to me because in writing for the game, you open up potential.
D&D is going through a renaissance right now. Many people, myself included, have got into it through actual play shows, where people record their play sessions. Through watching other DMs run their campaigns, I’ve developed a fierce fondness for the game. CollegeHumor’s Dimension 20 is a piece of media I’ve clung to this year like a floating spar in a shipwreck; a tableful of comedians and several sets of dice put together stories that have never fail to bring me to tears.
What’s kept me interested in D&D is not the official content, but the way people have adapted the rules and settings to tell stories with and for the people at the table. The game and its lore were made by and for straight, white, cis dudes, and based heavily on the fantasy canon, which was also created by and for straight, white, cis dudes. The official fantasy world lore of D&D codifies some of the worst biases of our own world—for example, there are races in D&D which are inherently evil.
Slowly but surely, a lot of amazing creators are changing the face of D&D. NDND, for example, is a brand new actual play show with an all-Indigenous cast. The most compelling narratives I’ve seen treat The Player’s Handbook and The Dungeon Master’s Guide like old family cookbooks laden with corrections and substitutions and new recipes. Don’t want homophobia in your game? Fine, don’t include it. Everyone’s gay now and none of the villagers care.
I’m new to DMing, but writing my first games has made me think about narrative as a gift for the players. When I approach fiction writing, I rarely think about it as a gift; I think about it as something I’ll feed to my fiction workshop, where people are required to tell me what’s wrong with it, and then perhaps it will go into my thesis, where my thesis committee will judge me for it. But D&D is fundamentally a tool for collaborative storytelling. It’s something to be shared. As a DM, you write out interesting scenarios to drop your players into—plus a setting, plot beats, a cast of characters to interact with—and your writing immediately has an audience. That audience is also co-writing the story with you alongside the randomness of dice rolls as they make decisions and navigate your world.
As a writer, I think a lot about solving problems. I think about the ways in which my plots can be resolved and my endings can satisfy. D&D reminds me that the job of a writer is to ask interesting questions. The more I use this mindset, the more boundaries I push in my stories, and the more excited I am to write them.
We’re going to virtually gather soon, a ring of friends and acquaintances in our separate apartments. We will roll the dice and count up numbers and slash at imaginary things with imaginary swords. I don’t know what will happen, but for once, not knowing is invigorating.
Sarah Boudreau, fiction screener and managing editor