What Dungeons and Dragons taught me about Writing: Planning and Pantsing


I was 13 years old when I played my first session of Dungeons and Dragons.

A few guys and I were spending the night at a buddies’ house. We started by playing computer games in their home office, and slowly throughout the course of the night, people began to disappear into the other room. I was the last one playing computer games, just hanging out enjoying my time when it happened.


Intense, prepubescent laughter.

I shrugged it off. No big deal. Someone probably just farted. We were 13. Farts were hilarious. Still are. Even better when you light them on fire… but then it happened again…and again.

“Oh man! That was GREAT!” one of the guys said as they walked into the office from the other room.

“I know! Can you believe that?” another said, heading downstairs to grab a coke.

My interest was piqued.

When they came back upstairs, I ducked my head out just long enough to ask, “What’re you guys doing? ”

“Playing D&D.”

I wasn’t sure what that meant, but they looked a little embarrassed.


“Dungeons and Dragons.”

“What’s that?”

“Oh, you wouldn’t be interested.”

I’m not sure why he thought that. I WAS interested. Clearly interested. I liked fun, and whatever was happening in that room sounded like fun to me.

“Mind if I just hang out and watch.”


10 minutes later, the game started up again. The Dungeon Master described the scene: Kobolds were slinging arrows, stones, and one-liners at the characters my friends were playing. My friends, in turn, responded with what they wanted their characters to do, and rolled the appropriate dice to check if they’d been successful. Over the course of the scene the Dungeon Master described over-the-top gore-filled deaths, insane critical-failures, and yes, thinking back, I’m pretty sure there were fart jokes. I was in love. We gamed through the night and straight into the next afternoon until our mothers showed up and forced us away from the pencils, paper and dice to make us do things like brush our teeth, shower, put on deodorant, and maybe take nap.

Years passed, and I was fortunate to spend many many nights the same way. I never thought at the time that I was really learning anything of value. Now I know better.


On Planning and Pantsing

Being a Dungeon Master (Story Teller, GM, whatever you want to call it), teaches you a lot about planning. Initially the thought of running a game was terrifying. You pour yourself into it, trying to plan every little detail in order to compensate for any veering off your party may do. In those early days there’s nothing worse than a party that decides to go their own way, sidelining hours and hours of your hard work.

In the beginning my work as an author felt like this as well. I can’t tell you the amount of time I’ve spent plotting and planning stories that would just never come to anything at all. Hours and hours wasted, paralyzed by what was, in fact, an excuse not to write.

And then it hit me… one of the reasons I loved those early all-night gaming sessions was how good the DM was at improvising. There’s no way he had 12 hours of game planned out for us. He just rolled with the punches and made things up on the spot, and it was fantastic.

To many authors, the thought of writing without a complete plan is unnerving.

“I can’t write yet. I haven’t planned the whole series!”

Pantsing is a skill, and you will get better at it.

But lets get back to D&D, shall we?


We learned fairly quickly that while Pantsing (improvising) is a skill, it’s also something that’s best done to complement an outline that you’ve already planned out. If you try to 100% pants a campaign, you’re going to hit roadblocks sooner or later, run into continuity issues, and just plain get yours into trouble.

So what am I saying? You have to have a plan, and you have to be able to improvise. Have your outline. Establish your absolute truths, so that when the characters you breathe life into with their perks and flaws derail your story (and they will), you’ve got the tools in your toolbox to bring them back around. Give them leash, just not too much.

Part 2 will come sooner or later, and we’ll be talking about Strings. Fun fun!


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