RPGs for Writers, Part II

In the previous post on this subject, I offered some arguments for why writers (particularly speculative fiction writers) should consider adding the running of roleplaying games to their toolbox for development of the craft. This time, I’m going to suggest a few particular games that might help you to begin.

A Bit of Theory

If you spend much time with online forums about pen and paper roleplaying games, you’ll come across a few particular common theories that inform the discussions found there. The first is GNS theory, meaning “Gamist, Narrativist, Simulationist.” In short, the idea is that there are three main approaches or sets of goals people have when approaching RPGs. Gamists want to achieve and “win.” Narrativists want to indulge and immerse themselves in character and plot. Simulationists focus on the coherence of the rules and reality in which they play, especially as those rules help create narrative that meshes well with our the player’s own experiences of how reality (extrapolated for fantasy and science-fiction, of course) tends to work. About this, I’ll say what I say about most attempts to categorize things into neat theories–it’s a gross oversimplification that misleads more than helps, I think. I’ve never found a person who fits solidly into only one of those descriptions.

That said, GNS theory has proved useful because it encourages us to think about the games we play critically. At the heart of GNS theory is the idea that different RPGs are about different things; they have different goals that (at least when done well) lead to different rules, attitudes and atmosphere.

The more modern argument about the classification of RPGs is whether they are “traditional roleplaying games” or “storytelling games.” In many ways, this relates to discussions about whether games are or should be “rules-light” or “rules-heavy” (though this is more often called “crunchy.” The argument I commonly see put forth is that storytelling games are an entirely separate category from roleplaying games, the supposed focus of storytelling games being on collectively creating a narrative with very few rules getting in the way and the focus of roleplaying games using rules (extensive or not) to decide the outcome of events in the progressing narrative at least as much, if not more, than “mere” dramatic requirements. Again, I don’t buy this; there are plenty of rules-heavy games that focus on the creation of meaningful narrative above all else, and probably some rules-light games that focus more on the game than the story.

Why bring all this up? Truthfully, probably because I’m a pedant. In my defense, though, these are things I’ve been thinking about lately as I lay the groundwork for creating a roleplaying game for my Avar Narn setting. Since both worldbuilding and creative traditional fiction with Avar Narn are goals I’ve set above a marketable (or even playable) RPG, I’ve been looking at lots of systems to determine how many and what kind of rules would be best to capture the feel and nature of Avar Narn in the improvisational format of the roleplaying game. To speak more plainly (I hope), my thoughts on the above influence the recommendations I’ll make below.

RPGs for the Writer

Roleplaying games have come a long way since the birth of Dungeons and Dragons in the 70’s. “Modern” games have moved away from the wargaming roots of the genre’s pater familias and toward a focus on narrative. By “narrative” in this context, I mean a focus on capturing the feel and structure of traditional fiction.

The gamer/writer will probably get the most out of games with a narrative focus (though any RPG has a narrative focus if you run and play it that way). So, my top three suggestions are some of my favorite narrative-focused RPGs.

FATE (Evil Hat Productions)

If you’re a writer who wants to try running a roleplaying game and it’s something you’ve never done before, I can’t give a better recommendation than FATE. The FATE RPG runs relatively rules-light (although it’s really a toolkit for running the type of game you want to run, so you can make the rules as involved as you like by grafting on additional systems) and, by design, uses narrative logic to influence the mechanics of the game.

The primary vehicle for this is the aspect. An aspect is a short narrative tag on a character, scene or object. Examples might be Sucker for a Pretty Face or (my favorite) On Fire! At the same time an aspect tells you something about the character or situation, it carries oomph–under the right circumstances (usually by spending a character resource called Fate Points, but sometimes for free) a player or the GM can reference an aspect to affect a roll of the dice. If the aspect positively affects a roll, the actor gets a +2 bonus on the roll (quite significant given FATE’s range of results). If it would negatively affect a roll, the same bonus is added to the resistance to the actor.

Aspects can also be compelled by the GM or a player to cause the player to act in a manner that is counter-productive but fitting for the character to complicate the plot. The noir detective with Sucker for a Pretty Face may fall for the femme fatale even though everyone else knows what’s going on. In exchange for accepting this narrative turn, the player receives a Fate point, which he can spend later to help his character succeed (or maybe just survive).

FATE uses Fudge dice, which are six-sided dice that have two blank faces, two faces with a “+” and two faces with a “-“. You roll four, looking at the appropriate character trait’s rating and adding one for each plus and subtracting one for each minus. That number is compared to the difficulty of the task to determine success.

I could go on and on about the innovative and influential aspects of the FATE system (see what I did there?), but there’s more ground to cover and you can find full reviews elsewhere on the net. I’ll summarize by saying that FATE has a system that’s easy to grasp, fun to tweak and that feels intuitive to the creative writer.

I will also say, however, that many of the principles of FATE can be used in other roleplaying games without using the mechanics whole cloth.For instance, you don’t need to spend a lot of time writing down scene aspects on notecards to take a look at the description of the narrative and the scene and say “circumstances should affect your action like this, so here’s a modifier” in other games.

Either way, it’s worth a look. Best of all, it’s free!

Cortex Plus (Margaret Weis Productions)

I’ve heard Cortex Plus called “FATE with more crunch.” I suppose that’s true, but given the toolkit nature of both rulesets, there could be wide variation in the “heaviness” of the rules.

To name drop, Cortex Plus is produced by Margaret Weis, co-creator of Dragonlance and is written by (among others) Ryan Macklin–a major force behind FATE, Rob Donahue (who’s written for many different games) and Philamena Young (who has worked on some of my favorite games–Shadowrun and World of Darkness–and who has become a voice worth listening to in terms of both game theory and gamer culture). Maybe to recommend it more, Cortex Plus is used for the following franchised RPGs: Marvel Superheroes, Leverage, Smallville and Firefly.

The base book (really the only you need unless you’re going to play one of the above-mentioned settings) is the Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide.

Like FATE, Cortex Plus focuses on a strong dialectic between narrative and mechanics. Conflict is resolved by forming a dice pools from different sized dice that represent different traits, skills or belongings of the actor and rolling against a dice pool created from the opposing character’s traits or the circumstances of the task and scene. The two highest-rolling dice (this can be manipulated) are totaled and compared to determine success or failure.

By giving you control over the categories into which relevant traits fall, Cortex Plus allows you to use a toolbox game to create the feel of particular types of narrative–from the dramatic television represented by Smallville and its ilk to heist-style stories a la Leverage to the thrillin’ heroics of Firefly and much much more in between. This provides the writer a way to customize the stories she tells in RPG form and even to set the mood of the game without much heartache. A game where you receive dice for your pool based on the nature of your relationship with a person and one of a handful of ideals feels very different from a game with character statistics like “muscle” and “guns”. Same mechanic, different atmosphere.

I’ve run and played in several Cortex Plus games–I’ve even used it to run Avar Narn. The “heroic fantasy” rules in the Hacker’s Guide provided a good starting place for developing the grittier more dangerous feel of my own world.

I really like the way the Cortex Plus system works, but I do have a few complaints. While reskinning rules and attributes to fit the tone of your setting goes a long way, a universal system like FATE or Cortex Plus will never match what a customized ruleset will do to accentuate and define a setting. Also like FATE, I think that some of the concepts from Cortex Plus can be used effectively without needing to resort to mechanics to enforce them. That’s my opinion and the people I game with very much like both FATE and Cortex Plus.

HeroQuest (written by Robin Laws and published by Chaosium)

No to be confused with a number of other titles with the same or similar names, Robin D. Laws’ Heroquest is another narrative-focused ruleset that would suit the author experimenting in roleplaying games quite well.

Robin Laws is unqualifiedly a master of narrative in roleplaying games. His Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering and Hamlet’s Hit Points are excellent books for people who want to run games well (no easy task). Writers should read Hamlet’s Hit Points even if they don’t ever run a roleplaying game.

In addition to writing about RPGs, Robin Laws has written for more RPGs and publishers than I can count and has published a number of RPGs of his own design, including Feng Shui, Hillfolk and HeroQuest.

Like FATE and Cortex Plus, HeroQuest turns narrative descriptions into actual mechanics. The mechanics of HeroQuest are simple and streamlined in the interest of telling fast-paced stories where the rules bleed into the background. Does that make it a storytelling game rather than an RPG? Don’t know, don’t care.

While I’ve played FATE and Cortex Plus extensively, I have not played HeroQuest; I’ve only read the rulebook. That said, it made me excited to roleplay in a way that only a few games do, and I’ve considered using it for games I want to run on many occasions.


The three games I’ve mentioned here are on the rules-light side with a stated narrativist agenda, for whatever that’s worth. Really, they’re just games that are or seem to be easy to run, easily adaptable to your setting of choice and focused on the aspects of roleplaying games most useful to the writer.

Online publishing has been a Godsend for gamers, as it’s allowed an explosion of new games and innovative ideas that are not forced to run the gauntlet of publishing pitfalls (which exist even, if not especially, in the gaming world, I gather).

There are many excellent games to play, many very good rulesets (though I’ve found none I’m willing to call perfect) and many interesting settings to explore to pilfer inspiration from. Go out and find them!

In the next post in this series, I’ll talk about the ups and downs of using your own fantasy setting for running a roleplaying game.

3 thoughts on “RPGs for Writers, Part II

  1. Really good info! It’s nice that you also explain how the table-top RPG works and I must say RPGs do come in handy, when you hit a roadblock, or you feel that your creation flow has shifted! I felt quite more interested in table-top RPGs and the like when I started my own guide to RP in video games. They are great tools for writers.


    • Thanks for the comments! It’s amazing to me how many wonderful tools for writing can be found in RPGs that rarely make their way into writing books–random generators for people, places, events and the like are excellent for jumpstarting creativity. Maybe if we called them “random prompt generators” they’d get more attention. It’s still very much the reality that RPGs are taken less seriously than other forms of storytelling, though we see that progressively changing for the better…

      Liked by 1 person

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