Roll for Experience!

How D & D has helped me become a better filmmaker

I’m not afraid to admit that I’m a bit of a nerd. In recent years, this nerdiness has manifested itself in me picking up a new hobby: Dungeons and Dragons. Upon starting to play, I’ve wondered how I went for so long without it. It is a game that offers escapism, world building, improv, teamwork, and chance in a way that I’d never experienced before.

Soon after my first roll of the dice I began to notice something else as well: the many, many shared skillsets between industry jobs and playing D&D. Depending on the play style of your group, Dungeons and Dragons has the potential to teach / reinforce many skill sets you may find yourself needing on your next project.

The list of similarities I’ve found is quite long, so to start let’s focus on one phase of filmmaking to compare: preproduction.

Every story starts with an idea. Whether it’s just a pitch off the top of your head or a highly detailed treatment, these stories need to be fleshed out before the completion of your script. This is the same in D&D. Though your story doesn’t ultimately end up in a script format, a dungeon master (or DM for short) who builds their own world needs to go through much of the same fleshing-out process. Who lives in this world? What makes this world special? What is the land like? What are common problems to be solved? If anything, a DM may need to answer more questions than a screenwriter, often detailing how the world was made, the religious structures, sources of magical power, and information about how powerful any characters introduced are (as well as what they might be holding).
In my own experience, I’ve found that I build both scripts and campaigns in similar ways, making work on either experience I can bring to both practices.

There are times that a DM may have trouble finding a group to play in their campaign. Sure, there are people who are open to the idea of being involved, but something might be holding them back. When DMs find this is happening, they often need to find a way to appeal to potential players. Much in the same way a writer and/or producer may pitch a story. DMs often focus on the world itself, explaining what amazing things could happen if a player decides to get involved! If that’s not their style, they may pivot to talking about how much fun combat is, or how a player can develop a character that they develop the personal story of. Minus the combat, these are tricks reminiscent of a pitch session. Selling your story requires whoever is pitching it to be excited, knowledgeable, concise. If they see that their audience isn’t reacting the way they expected, they need to know what changes to make to what they emphasize as they go along. It’s a complicated dance that takes lots of practice, so why not practice with a game first?

Now no world built by a DM is complete without players to experience it. Sure, you may have some friends who are ready to jump in, but no one has a character to play. No one has the same schedule either. This is where the next crossover skill set comes into play: Scheduling and Casting.

Players are usually given the freedom to make their own characters. As a result, it is the DM’s job to make sure that the characters match the world. The player who wants to play as a mermaid won’t have much fun if the story is taking place on an active volcano’s peak. Thus, casting must happen. Who is right for the role? DMs sometimes limit the types of character classes and races players can make to best fit the part, just like casting directors narrow down what a production is looking for for each part. Clear, concise communication is needed from both the DM and a casting director to make this process go as smoothly as possible. Unlike casting directors, the players ultimately decide who their character is. But the communication needed is very similar.

Producing is often a vague term to people who don’t work in the industry, but those in the know realize that there are many roles on the producing team that need to be covered. Logistics is one of the cornerstone roles. Who is available when? Where are we shooting? What special equipment does the production need? What is the budget, if any, for supplies? Snacks?
Though it is a less intense parallel, D&D games need to overcome the same hurdles. I’ve heard DMs compare getting their players together on the same day to wrangling feral cats into a cage. And I’ve heard the same from producers. In fact, some DMs outsource location and scheduling to their more logistically inclined players.There’s a reason that a good logistics is so highly valued in every industry.

Long story short, if you’re that writer/producer/director who is looking to get some practice in outside of the industry, maybe playing a few games of D&D can help. As there is much more to D&D, there is much more to compare to the film industry as well. Keep your eyes open for a follow-up article to this in the future. We still need to talk about how a session of D&D is like a day on set, and the incredible benefits to actors from the game 🙂

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Colton Hayward

Originally from Michigan, Colton is currently attending school at Columbia College Chicago. He hopes to someday work regularly as a creative producer or writer for television and internet content.

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