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There are lots of ways to tell a story

July 11, 2013

You rolled a seven. That means you have to give me your beer.

My college roommate introduced me to Dungeons and Dragons back in the 80s. It was fun and I didn’t turn into a flesh-eating zombie who believed in Orcs and rolled a ten-sided die before deciding which gruel to eat at the dining hall.

In the D&D world, the person who runs the game is known as the Dungeon Master, or DM for short. The DM does more than tell you to roll to see how much damage you took when the guy with the magic blow darts hit you with one of them. He or she is responsible for the entire world that you inhabit. And for anticipating and reacting to each player’s actions.

Basically, it’s as if the DM wrote a book in which a significant subset of characters had a truly free will. Based on the variations of what each player might do, the DM has to have a next action ready. If you consider God as having the next move in spite of what billions of free-willed people–and random chance–produce, the DM is far closer to Godlike than any writer.

A couple years after I got out of college, my former roommate invited me to join him and his wife and some of their friends for a friendly game at one of the friends’ house. We gathered and started playing early in the afternoon. The story unwound at an appropriate pace and everyone seemed to do the right thing–or at least defensibly intelligent things. At the end, the pace suddenly accelerated and things that would have unwound over a series of steps resolved themselves as if by…well, magic.

When I asked what was up with that, he said, “It’s 11:00 and we have to drive back to Pittsfield and go to work in the morning.” I had no clue what time it was.

Sure, we provided the characters and saved him the trouble of figuring out what to do, but the universe we lived in was complex and had multiple levels. Good guys weren’t good. Bad guys were sometimes bad, but for reasons that were buried deep and hard to discern. And some of the bad guys weren’t bad at all–they were simply good guys who didn’t quite trust us.

Basically, it was like a role playing games with magic, old-timey weapons, and weird species, set in a Ludlumesque world of intrigue and complexity.

My former roommate never really caught the writing bug, though he tried. In the, uhh, few years since we graduated, he managed to buy a suit of armor, but to the best of my knowledge, he doesn’t create worlds like that any more.

It’s too bad, because he was excellent at it.

There are lots of ways to tell a story.

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