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[GUEST POST] D&D as Inspiration by Erin M. Evans

Erin M. Evans grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. After graduating from Washington University with a degree in Anthropology, she and her now-husband drove around the country in a 1983 Winnebago. They settled in Seattle, WA where she works as a writer and editor.


I have the sort of job that’s great for parties, at first: “And what do you do?” “I’m a novelist.” “Oh! That’s so cool!” “What do you write?” “Fantasy.” “Anything I’ve heard of?” “…Do you know Dungeons & Dragons?”

And, readers, if I’m at the kind of party where I have to ask that question, what comes next is where it gets sticky. See, most people unfamiliar with the idea also tend to assume Dungeons & Dragons is a bit weird—mostly because what they know about it boils down to vague memories of Satanist panics, jokes involving nerds dressed as wizards, and the general impression that it might possibly be like mixing Monopoly with Harry Potter. So I summarize the reality: this is a game that’s about a fantasy world, and uses a combination of storytelling and dice rolls to determine what happens.

Confused, they become very stuck on the idea that what I write is a novelization of the game, a framework of rules filled in with elves and dragons and knights. “So they tell you what to write?” No, not really. “So you explain the rules?” Nope—that’s something else entirely. “Do you dress up like a wizard while you write?” Only on laundry day.

“How can you write something made up when you aren’t allowed to just make anything up? That must be hard.”

Ah, there’s a question I get even from people who understand D&D. While it’s easy to point out plenty of other perfectly respectable genres that involve a lot of rules and boundaries (historical fiction anyone?), the idea that the rules of the game have already written my book for me is hard to shake. But in reality, the game, the rules, the campaign world I write in are sources of inspiration like anything else you might write about.

And it can be fantastic.

In my latest book, Brimstone Angels: Lesser Evils, for example, there is a character called Dahl Peredur. Once upon a time, Dahl was dedicated to the god of knowledge, but something’s gone wrong. He’s lost the powers that his god gave him and is trying to make his way in the world without them. But he’s not helpless: Dahl’s pretty skilled in a sort of magic called “rituals.”

With Fourth Edition, D&D laid out rules for spells that could be cast by anyone who took a proper feat (or were granted that feat by their class choice—don’t tell a wizard they can’t cast something!). It’s not combat magic, and it takes time to cast, but a lot of interesting spells are included in the mix, including some old favorites. I’m certainly not the first author to depict ritual magic, but, I thought, what if you had a character who relied on this sort of magic to get them through the story? He couldn’t use it in combat, not really. He could adapt it in some interesting ways. You could get to be the guy everyone relied on in sticky situations. But I think, the rest of the magic-using world would be inclined to cast you as a poseur. You’re not doing real magic, like a wizard does. Anyone can do that stuff, even if it takes a fair amount of dedication, effort and skill. For someone like Dahl, it’s enough to make you mighty prickly.

Another change in the game was the way in which the tiefling race is depicted. Previously, these descendants of fiends and humans had a lot of variation and could be pretty subtle. With Fourth Edition, the tieflings became much more obvious—horns, tails, solid eyes, and a generally diabolic appearance. Personally, I loved the new look, but that’s a heck of a switch. Why? What happened? What could possibly reshape a whole race? Maybe the king of the Hells, who became a god at the same time? Turns out that makes for an excellent backstory.

Lastly, there are the elements that my publisher requests I use. For Brimstone Angels, my previous book, that was the city of Neverwinter, and I had tons of fun fleshing out parts of the battered city and slipping in connections to other works. For the sequel, they asked me to bring in two venerable societies—the Harpers and the Zhentarim. The Harpers are a force of secretive agents, dedicated to upholding the balance of the world. The Zhentarim are a group of mercenary merchants (and more!) dedicated to power. They haven’t always gotten along so well. But in the current era, there’s one big thing they have in common. Through the time shift involved in the edition change, both these groups have suffered: The Harpers have shrunk down, pulled back into the city where they were founded, focusing mostly on one major threat. The Zhentarim have been decimated by their enemies, fractured by internecine fighting and the cells that remain spread thin.

And the enemy that brought both low: the City of Shade, risen Netheril. Even if neither group wants to have anything to do with the other, the threat of Netheril can be very persuasive.

Writing in a D&D world is definitely not just dice rolls and draconian sourcebooks—it’s a great source of inspiration when it comes to crafting a story. Even if it means I have a lot of explaining to do when I bump into you at a cocktail party.

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