The "The 'The Adventure Zone' Zone" Zone: On Dungeons & Dragons & Storytelling

It’s pledge week for the Maxium Fun podcast network, which means a whole slew of special episodes and bonus content from some really amazing shows. I’ll issue a blanket recommendation that you check out the network if you don’t already listen (a few personal favorite shows are Judge John Hodgman; Stop Podcasting Yourself; My Brother, My Brother, and Me; Still Buffering; and The Adventure Zone), and that if you do listen and aren’t yet a donor, that you consider signing up during the pledge drive. Just think about the hours of free entertainment, education, and advice you get from MaxFun on the regular, and all the things you pay for that bring you less joy. Okay, that’s that.

One of my favorite MaxFun shows, The Adventure Zone, consists of the three McElroy brothers (Justin, Travis, and Griffin) playing Dungeons & Dragons with their dad, Clint. I’ve never (yet) played D&D, and my interest in the podcast is as much or more about the medium of collaborative, improvised storytelling than it is the campaign itself in any kind of gameplay-focused way. For MaxFunDrive, the guys produced a special episode called "The The Adventure Zone Zone" (yup), a kind of analysis and commentary of the show and their experience making it. I was struck most by some of the things Griffin had to say about serving as a Dungeon Master as a first foray into writing fiction—imaginative storytelling; devising and working to protect a plot arc even in the face of unexpected obstacles; the vulnerability and occasional embarrassment of creativity. The McElroys also talk generally about the challenges of collaborative storytelling, particularly when characters/players have their own agency coupled with an ignorance of the DM’s intent.

This reminds me of more traditional fiction-writing, especially the common workshop writing exercise that involves filling out an extensive character sheet of traits and histories. It’s the literary fiction version of figuring out a D&D character’s alignment and stats, their (dis)advantage on constitution saving throws. In creative writing classes, the followup to making these lists of characteristics is often to write a vignette or short story that pointedly references only a fraction of the background details you’ve brainstormed. The basic principle is that in fully realized fiction (as in D&D, apparently), the author should know things about the character that never come up. The McElroys footnote this with an underdiscussed truth about writing, or at least drafting, fiction: sometimes the author forgets things about the character that never come up—until suddenly they do, halfway through a novella draft (or campaign). “...Oh, right.”

I used to hear novelists and aspiring novelists talk about the idea of “disobedient” or “surprising” characters—“I had the scene outlined to end in [A], but once I had them all in the room they just insisted on [B].” I would always, silently, call bullshit. It seemed to smack almost of pseudoscience, and I was never sure how seriously these people meant it. Was it one of those things, like the importance of writing every day no matter what, that so many more of us preach than practice?

Now I get it. In part it’s a simple effect of working on a longform project, one ambitious enough in scope and sketchy enough at the start that it has room to evolve and surprise you as you go. (Writing every day, by the way, is also something I’ve found much more realistic when drafting a novel than working on short fiction. Maybe all these “rules” have been designed for novelists all along?) Coming around on this matter of “disobedient” characters, though, was also just a matter of me growing as a writer of fiction of any length or scope. I needed to learn to be less beholden to a thorough outline or preconceived plot. At least for my personal writing process, my initial plans for a piece are never strong enough scaffolding to hold up a final draft. I think it’s an important but difficult, for me almost counterintuitive, step—to honor an overarching vision while remaining open to improvisation at a bedrock level.

I felt I recognized both the joy and the anxiety of this in Griffin’s description of serving as a Dungeon Master, and his advice to those looking to start their own campaigns. It makes me wonder anew about the idea of playing D&D as a creative exercise. For now, I’m going to try to keep the spirit of it in mind as I write.

Everyone join me in listening, and donating, to MaxFun shows! They’ll grow your brain!