How Dungeons & Dragons Helped Shape David Mitchell's Epic Storytelling

Illustration for article titled How Dungeons  Dragons Helped Shape David Mitchells Epic Storytelling

Slade House David Mitchell is a literary darling, who’s won acclaim and award nominations. But when he talks about the things that shaped him as an author, he namechecks genre stalwarts like Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip Jose Farmer... and Dungeons & Dragons.


Mitchell gave a long, long interview to the Geeks Guide to the Galaxy podcast a while back, and now there’s a full-length transcript online. The whole thing makes for fascinating reading, including Mitchell’s huge debt to Le Guin, and his relationship with Kazuo Ishiguro, and how he went about creating an expansive shared world for all his novels. But my favorite bit is probably where he talks about what he learned from playing D&D:

I played Dungeons and Dragons as a kid; a lot of us did actually. A lot of the writers I know would be at bars late at night after literary festivals. Sometimes the conversation will get around to us huddled over in the corner saying, “So, did you play Dungeons and Dragons?” And it’s amazing how many say yes. Gary Gygax has a lot to answer for. I know there are probably PhD theses out there somewhere on Gary Gygax’s influence on the 21st century novel. It would not be negligible....

Ingenuity and the way that some of the dungeons, the scenarios, could outwit you and trick you, and the deliciousness of being outwitted and tricked. So number one, I’ve got no idea what the names are, but an adventure began on a mountaintop, and there was a pool, just a clear pool, and nothing else, nothing else in the world, and you had to work out how to get into the adventure, and I tried to throw a stone into the pool. And the dungeon master, Charles, said, “You see a splash.” That was it. And we wasted more time looking around for the way in again, and then Charles said, “Just try throwing another stone in.” So, we did, and he said, “You see a splash.” And, okay, yeah and? Nothing. Then the third time, Charles said, “You see a splash.” Then my friend, Richard, who I’m still friends with, and who is and was smarter than me, said, “You see a splash. You don’t hear a splash. You just see a splash.” And that was the key. So it was an illusory pool of illusory water because you just saw it, you didn’t hear it. Isn’t that cool? And it’s these constellations of, “Isn’t that cool? Isn’t that cool? Isn’t that cool?” in the generation of the world that I still remember and think very fondly on.

More generally, outside the world, and on our level of reality, it was a collaborative art form. It’s something you all made. It was noncompetitive. It was based on cooperation, and you only won if you worked together, and there was a generosity of spirit in not picking the pieces, or finding faults with, or wasting time on hunting for the inconsistencies within the whole enterprise, and that is something that I don’t feel you get on computer generated multiplayer games. Computer generated is really a long word for it, but digital versions of the same. But we were speaking with each other. We were laughing, and interacting, and making things, and being friends. And the games, although we took it seriously, in a way, it was simply the vehicle for the human interaction that made the whole thing so very enjoyable.


The whole transcript is well worth reading, over at Nightmare Magazine.

Charlie Jane Anders is the author of All The Birds in the Sky, which is available now. Here’s what people have been saying about it. Follow her on Twitter, and email her.

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I definitely want to see a horror-fantasy movie with this bad boy: