RPGs for Writers, Part I

This topic comes to mind because I’m currently spending a good deal of time writing short stories for the world of Avar Narn and have also just started GMing a roleplaying game in the same setting.

I’ve always had a love for both roleplaying games and for writing, and I’m convicted that my experience in one medium has influenced (if not shaped) the other. If, like me, you’d like to be a professional writer–particularly, but not exclusively, in the fantasy or sci-fi genres, I highly recommend that running roleplaying games becomes part of your curriculum of self-education. The reasons are myriad, videlicet:

Roleplaying Games Have Heavily Influenced the Modern Fantasy Genre

When watching Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies, I amusedly observed a certain dialectic that had formed between Tolkien’s works and Dungeons and Dragons (and also the Warhammer Fantasy setting). D&D most certainly drew heavy inspiration from Tolkien (though a look at Gygax’s Appendix N shows that that’s far from the only source). The idea of pointy-eared elves, stubborn dwarves (or dwarfs, if you prefer) and long overland quests all originated in Middle-Earth but found a new home in D&D and its derivatives. Likewise, Games Workshop’s much-beloved Old World setting of Warhammer Fantasy began as an close spin-off of Tolkien, and closely associated with Dungeons and Dragons as well (Citadel miniatures where sculpted and cast for D&D use before they ever had their own setting and style).

In the past few decades, D&D (and again, Warhammer) has become as much a part of mainstream culture as Tolkien has (look to Stranger Things or the fact that D&D got its own movies–however awful they might have been). The tropes of D&D now often stand alone, indebted to but moved beyond the original source material J.R.R. provided.

And so, in a strange reversal, I find several points in Jackson’s films that seem to be inspired far more by the over-the-top “epic” fantasy of Dungeons and Dragons than by the rather low-magic setting of The Lord of the Rings books. A few examples: stone giants attacking one another as the Dwarves and Bilbo  traverse the mountains, Legolas skating down the trunk of an oliphaunt, the boar-riding in the Battle of Five Armies and some of the action-oriented scenes involving Tauriel (who is far more a product of modern gaming than of Tolkien).

What this tells me is that fantasy roleplaying and wargaming have become so ingrained in (at least gamer-) culture that we know look back to the original inspirations (Tolkien, Vance, Lord Dunsany, George McDonald) through the lens of the tropes and ideas of these more-modern creations.

It’s not just the fantasy genre where roleplaying games have had a hand in shaping pop culture. The horror game Vampire: The Masquerade had its own TV series in the 90’s (called Kindred: The Embraced and produced through Aaron Spelling’s production company–find a copy if you can!) and certainly has had a hand in the 21st century vomitorium of vampire novels, TV shows and movies (True Blood, Twilight, etc.).

My point is this: to borrow a quotation from The Music Man, “You have to know the territory!” I’d wager that there are more people who have played D&D than who have read The Name of the Wind or Mistborn: The Final Empire, though both are of a vastly-higher literary quality than any RPG I’ve run or played. There is a certain fantasy mindset that D&D and other games engenders that leaves people with certain expectations (R.A. Salvatore’s sold a lot of books, after all). I’m not encouraging you to emulate the tropes of D&D in your own fantasy works (for the love of God, please don’t!), but you need to know what readers’ expectations and assumptions might be so that you can prey on them (in a completely benign literary sense, of course).

Practice Makes Perfect

In my experience, there are few harsher critics than nerds, and that’s a good thing. Every one of us has our own ideas about what tropes, genres and ideas are cool (or kewl) and which are lame. I love it when nerds find ways to call one another out: “You like Star Trek? How lame! There’s only Firefly.”

Practicing storytelling in front of a tough audience will help you to hone your skills, and RPGs provide a prime opportunity for this. Serious roleplayers (and a discussion of serious versus casual roleplayers merits its own post–but let’s say for now that both are categories are full of respected and valued people) will call you out (or complain behind your back, which is always easy to check on) if your characters are flat or your plot is full of holes. Even those players who prefer to avoid confrontation (in real life–they often play some of the bloody-mindedest characters!) will be happy to help you improve your skills if you ask.

And, as we’ll further discuss below, running a roleplaying game is a very different animal from writing a story on a page. Notice that I called it “storytelling” above–GMing a game is storytelling without the same rigor of grammar, syntax and style of the written text (although it is full of its own set of nuance and stylistic conventions).

I’m a firm believer that style and substance are inseparable in writing (particularly in fiction, when words must evoke a feeling or atmosphere as much as describe events, people and places), but that doesn’t mean that improving the substance by itself–which is possible in some ways at least in the RPG medium–won’t make your writing better as a whole.

Working on the Building Blocks

Outlining a plot for written fiction is a tough task. Making sure you don’t leave any gaps or loose ends, that the narrative flows up and down in drama and tension and that both the logic of events and the characters move in believable ways prove daunting, to say the least.

What can help with that? Having developed characters whose own motivations and personalities suggest the plot and push the story to its conclusion through seemingly-inevitable (but often surprising) actions. Well developed settings that intrude upon the narrative, providing both obstacles and the means to overcome them. Situations that arise organically from the nuance of the setting, creating plot hooks. And, of course, sometimes it comes to a whole lot of creative pondering, brainstorming and working back and forth through the plot as currently written.

Skillfully creating characters, setting and ideas for the beginnings of a story before attempting to sketch out a plot is more efficient (and artistically successful) than starting with a plot and pigeonholing characters and events into it.

As a (good) GM, what are you responsible for: creating memorable characters in an evocative setting and letting the plot develop organically (and often chaotically) out of the intervening actions of the player characters. In other words, creating all of the building blocks for a strong plot and then letting it go, responsively building events and scenes from the characters’ preceding actions.

This is difficult to do at all, much less to do well. But so is writing, and you didn’t decide you wanted to take up writing because you thought it would be easy and relaxing. You decided to take it up because it’s demanding and rewarding and, dammit, you’ll explode if you don’t get some of your ideas out of you and onto paper.

Creative Juices

Because the plot of an RPG develops through the back-and-forth between players and GM, you can only go in with strong building blocks (characters and setting) and a vague idea of plot direction, because no plan will survive contact with the enemy–er, players. The spontaneity demanded of a good GM means that you will have to develop your ability to improvise, synthesize and dramatize quickly and meaningfully. If you become able to do those things well on the fly, just think about your abilities when you’ve got time to sit down and slowly develop and rework a story.

Alongside this, the worldbuilding aspect of roleplaying is, potentially, far more extensive than it is for typical fiction. Tolkien’s example aside, the fiction writer really only has to do enough worldbuilding as will appear “on-screen.” You only need as much culture as will influence the plot and characters, as much geography as suits the story, as much depth as bolsters the fourth wall.

This is not true of a roleplaying game. If your characters wander to the edge of the map (or, more likely, the edge of the scene) and find blank space, they’ve lost all sense of immersion, and the most important aspect of a profound roleplaying experience has been lost–probably never to be recovered. Because of player agency, you need to know what is (or at least, what could and what could not be) on the other side of that hill, what the heretofore unnamed NPC’s life is like if the characters somehow decide he’s more important than you originally intended, what the foreign cultures that the players’ characters may hail from are like. Your worldbuilding has to be far more complete, because the players are not sitting captive in a movie theater exposed only to what appears on the screen–they are holding the camera and may turn it unexpectedly at a whim.

Is deeper worldbuilding always better? No, not necessarily. If you’re writing a standalone story based more on an idea than a setting, it’s probably a waste of time to go into the kind of detail a roleplaying setting demands. But, on the other hand, if the setting itself is part of the fiction you want to weave, why not become adept at doing the thing right?

Go to Amazon and search for books on worldbuilding. If you search well, you’ll find far more books written for roleplaying games with deep discussions of worldbuilding than those for writers. More to the point, you’ll often find the works with “games” in mind deeper and more developed than those with “literature” in mind. This is admittedly changing as Tolkien-esque worldbuilding (along with fantasy map-making and conlanging) becomes more mainstream, though I’d argue that this is another facet of my first point, that roleplaying games have pushed certain aspects of fantasy to the forefront.

A Feel for Narrative

There are plenty of books on “proper” narrative structure. You can find formulae for stories in any kind of genre you can imagine. Plenty of theorists or writers will tell you that there’s only a limited number of dramatic situations (sometimes so few you can count them on fingers and toes) that get recycled from story to story.

Theory is well and good, and I don’t intend to argue with any particular formula or convention here. However, there’s more to plot than the mechanics of dramatic beats and intervening beats, of a rising action and a denouement. The best narrative is like a rollercoaster–it goes up and down, sometimes twists suddenly to the side, gathers momentum or slows, and sometimes, just sometimes, curls back on itself or hangs upside down.

There are even successful stories that in many ways should be described as lacking a plot–Ulysses or Mrs. Dalloway, for instance.

Of course, roleplaying games without plots really don’t work except for players fastidiously (perhaps narcissistically) concerned with their own characters. The point is really that plot must be felt as much as coldly planned.

Running a roleplaying game (well) requires the development of a keen sense of narrative structure, when to rise, when to fall, when to zig and zag. This relies on a sense of mood and audience as much as “rules” of plot.

Sometimes Rules Help to Control the Fun

By this, I do not mean that a novelist should create roleplaying statistics for all his characters and then have them roll against each other to determine how the plot moves. But, especially in the fantasy and sci-fi genres, a lack of consistency can destroy the suspension of disbelief.

Rules in (good) roleplaying games are designed specifically for consistency–to constrain the possible results and ensure that two similar situations have similar odds of resolving in various possible ways. For a game, this is in part a matter of “fairness,” though the best roleplaying games (I find, and so does John Wick–the game designer and roleplayer, not the Keanu Reeves hitman) are patently unfair in ways that mimic real life (and may or may not be codified within the rules). Regardless of origin, though, the consistency of the rules contributes to the consistency of the world, which contributes to willing suspension of disbelief. Nobody likes a hypocrit; even fewer people like a hypocritical fiction.

The “mundane” rules necessary to roleplaying games are unnecessary in fiction writing–logic can help a writer determine when a character dies of thirst without the need to roll dice or consult charts. On the other hand, certain aspects of speculative fiction–particularly systems of magic and superscience–can benefit from a codified rulesystem that ensures consistency. This does not mean that the fiction writer needs to create a mathematical resolution system for these aspects of a fantasy story, but the principles of creating a well-realized and consistent magic system for written fiction and a workable magic system for a roleplaying game overlap so significantly that experience handling one will certainly help with the other. Speaking from experience, the complex systems of magic in the Avar Narn setting are deeply nuanced and influenced by my own inspirations from and criticisms of magic as portrayed both in fiction and in RPGs (I’m looking at you, D&D; your magic is stupid and lacks the fantastic).

Jim Butcher, author of the wildly successful Dresden Files, helped translate his fictional magic system into RPG rules through the FATE-powered Dresden Files RPG. Given his frequent references to roleplaying games in the novel, it’s clear he’s a fan, so I can’t help but wonder if his roleplaying experiences shaped the way he thought about magic for his setting.

To rag on D&D (and its derivatives) again in this section, sometimes a roleplaying game can tell you how not to structure your world. From a standpoint of game design, I have a lot of bones to pick with Dungeons & Dragons (level- and class-based systems, character growth based on violence, etc.), but the worst of it is that (probably more through players’ fault than the games’ writers) the rules of D&D are usually scene as the physics of the work, rather than the rules attempting to model the physics of a fictional world. What I mean by this is that, if the rules say that something is possible, or even vaguely imply that things should work in a certain way, or the history of those rules carries with it such an implication, then some players assume that the rule trumps all logic and narrative coherence. Hence jokes of leveling up by pouring boiling water on an ant mound (millions of 1XP kills, right?) and far less funny arguments between player and GM about the results of some seemingly ludicrous action supported by the black-letter reading of the rules. This experience may be an artifact of my own biases and agenda when running a roleplaying game, but D&D does seem to be susceptible to this occurrence more than any other game I’ve ever run.

Still, there’re several lessons here. First, you’ve got to be aware that the rules can cut both ways, whether codified in RPG mechanics or simply narrative restrictions–if something works once, you can’t complain when it working again hampers the story you want to tell. Second, as mentioned before, audience expectations must be managed carefully. If you’ve indicated to them in one scene that your story or game is going to be zany and over-the-top in its fantasy tropes, readers or players will be confused and upset when later you try to make things too gritty.

The Future of Entertainment?

While I’d prefer to avoid making decisions based on the commercial aspects of writing, it is worth considering that there is good work for writers to do in emerging media. Video games are becoming more and more concerned with strong storytelling and literary elements–see The Witcher 3 (in my opinion, the best video game made to date, particularly on the storytelling front).

With the impending boom of virtual reality, I think that we can expect a corresponding boom in second-person storytelling in ways previously unavailable to writers and storytellers–except through roleplaying games. Responsive narrative crafted through alternatives of player agency marks an opportunity to tell multiple stories through the same outlet, to examine issues from multiple perspectives and approaches in literary style, and to leave a more powerful impression on the audience than words alone (possibly–I’m willing to accept the possibility that technology will never surpass the power of raw imagination).

Without all the visual and haptic special effects, roleplaying games already do this. I know gamers who have had experiences in roleplaying games that have changed them as people, so powerful was the narrative created at the table. In that sense, a good roleplaying game has the same potential to effect change as a good novel–albeit on a smaller and more intimate scale.

Conclusion

So, have I convinced you, dear fellow writer, that you ought to consider picking up an RPG rulebook, getting some friends together and playing a game? I hope so.

In the next post in this series, I’ll explore some different RPG rulesets, systems and settings to think about when selecting which game to play. In the post after that, we’ll talk about the benefits and drawbacks of using the same setting you intend to write in to run roleplaying games.

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