Twenty-Sided Troubadours: Why Writers Should Play Roleplaying Games

Time to speak out with my geek out.

Writer-types, here’s your homework: go forth and play a roleplaying game.

No, no, put down that Xbox controller.

Here. Take these.

*hands you a pile of glittery multi-colored polyhedral dice*

They’re not pills. Don’t swallow them. They’re dice. You’ll choke. Stop that. Take them out of your mouth. Here, you’re also going to need some other stuff, too: a pencil, a character sheet, maybe some index cards, a bag of Cheetos, a 64 oz “Thirst Aborter” full of Mountain Dew, a 6-pack of beer, a pizza coupon, a can of spray deodorant, and a big overflowing bucket of your caffeine-churned imagination.

Playing a pen-and-paper table-top RPG is not going to make you a better writer.

It goes deeper than that.

It’s going to make you a better storyteller. And here’s how.

The Essential Ingredient: Characters In Conflict

Given the geeky composition of my audience, I assume that you grok the core experience of the average tabletop roleplaying game: a game-master orchestrates adventures for a group of players, all of whom control imaginary characters whose skills and abilities are laid out on a character sheet. A player says, “I want my character to see if he can use his Wombat Magic to steal the pocketwatch heart of the Toymaker’s Daughter,” and then he rolls dice in accordance with the rules to see if his Wombat Magic is a spell that can survive its own casting. Simple enough, yeah?

That’s really not the truth of the story, though. That’s just the nature of the rules.

The truth of the story — its essential element, its elemental essence — is that of characters put in conflict. And you see laid bare the nature of all our stories, right there: character-driven conflict. Even more awesome is what happens when you let the players just fuck around at the game-table without even trying to steer them. Eventually, they’ll start creating conflict. Tavern fights, dead cops, stolen items. While this may not always be true to the character it is true to the story: conflict must fill the vacuum and that conflict must be driven by the characters present in the narrative.

What’s more interesting to the players at the table is when their characters are at the center of the conflict. Not conflict driven externally by the world, but characters who are knee-deep in the thick shit.

This is their world, and their problems matter.

The Labor Contractions Of Birthing Good Story

Pacing is a really hard trick for storytellers. It’s ultimately too simple to say that escalation is the only order of pacing, because it’s not — you can’t just drop a cinder block on the accelerator pedal and let the story take off like a rocket. Eventually the engine burns out. The audience grows weary. Constant action is naught but the electric cacophony of a single guitar chord blasted over and over again.

This becomes abundantly clear at the game table. You know you have to ease off the gas from time to time. Let the players breathe a little. Let the characters talk to one another. Even the tried-and-true “our characters walk into a tavern” schtick reveals this, to some degree: they don’t kick open the door and start throwing punches. A tavern fight starts simple. Drinks. Laughs. A goblin says some shit. A paladin encourages restraint. A warrior gets all up in the goblin’s business. Someone throws a bottle. And then — explode. Spells and swords and shotguns and goblin venom.

And then you have the come down. The denouement as the fight ends. Wounds licked.

Session to session you can see the pace change, too — one session might be heavy on action, another session heavy on politics. Or introspection. Or melodrama.

You not only start to see exactly how important it is to keep the pace staggered but also how important it is to let this narrative chameleon show all his colors. A story is not one thing and it does not take off like a horse with a rattlesnake shoved up his ass — sometimes that horse needs to stop, drink some water, slow down the pace unless that old nag fancies dropping dead in the dust.

Writer’s Block Does Not Live At The Game Table

You can’t get writer’s block at the game table. Not as a game master, not as a player. You can’t be all like, “Yeah, I’m just not feeling my character’s actions today, let’s try again tomorrow.” It’s shit or get off the pot time, Vampire Cleric from Minneapolis. You gotta do something. Anything. Stab! Throw a Molotov! Hide under a car! Manifest your Vampire Cleric batwings and take flight above the city!

Same thing goes for writing. Shit or get off the pot. Do something. Throw a narrative grenade. If anything will remind you of this, it’s the act of rolling the bones with a couple-few like-minded gamer-types.

The Audience Is Waiting And Their Knives Are Sharp

They’re listening. And watching. And waiting.

Them. They. The audience. The other players.

This is a group activity. This isn’t something you do in isolation. You don’t sit over there in the corner fiddling with your dice and surreptitiously rubbing the crotch of your khaki shorts. You’re in the thick of it. Your words — whether as a player or, more importantly, as the game master — are the central focus. You can tell when you’ve hooked them, and can tell when you’re losing them. You shuck and jive and duck and weave and do any kind of narrative chicanery to keep the momentum going, to ensure that the table doesn’t spiral off into restless side-conversations (“Do you think an Alchemical Exalted would be able to beat Jesus, if Jesus were wearing like, Mecha Armor given to him by the Three Wise Men?”). You’re on stage. They’re on the hook. It is, as David Mamet writes, fuck or walk.

Your story is the story of the moment, and it reminds you just how important it is to keep the audience in mind — not just your intent as storyteller but their interests, their needs, their attention.

It also reinforces the cardinal rule:

Never be boring.

Because if you’re boring, they’re going to start talking about Dr. Who.

Unintended Emotional Resonance (Or, “I Like To Move It, Move It”)

Every once in a while, you’ll have a moment during a game session where it’s like, “Oh, holy shit. These other people are actually worked up over this story. I’ve inadvertently affected them.”

They’ll get mad at a villain. Pissed at one another for botching a plan. Sad at the death of a character. They’ll hoot and gibber, victorious over the death of the Necro-Accountant who’s been making their lives hell session after session. Their emotions worn plainly upon their faces, the masks worn away.

And then it hits you: this is part of your arsenal of storytelling weapons. To make people give a shit. Enough so that their heads aren’t in this alone; their hearts hop in the car, too, riding shotgun until the story’s told.

You learn how to do it there so you can do it on the page.

At The Table As On The Page: Anything Is Possible

You sit down at the game table and you start to realize: whatever I say is made manifest. Okay, sure, sure, maybe your skill check doesn’t let you automatically drive the car up the ramp formed by the crushed school buses and straight into the Kraken’s unblinking eye — but by god, you have a shot. And as a game master, this is multiplied infinitely upon itself, this god-like power to create realities from words in whatever direction you choose.

No constraints. Speak the word, and let it be so.

That, my friends, is the power of fiction. It’s the power of books, comics, film, and — duh — games. But it’s not just the obvious non-revelation that what you say at the game table is made into a fictional reality. It’s also the notion that you can say whatever you want. You aren’t contained by comfortable boxes of genre. You aren’t stopped by expectations and tropes. In fact, you’re often rewarded by jumping right just when everybody thinks you’re going to jump left. You begin to realize that the enemy to good fiction is doing the same thing over and over again. The enemy is fear, where you’re afraid of sitting there in front of an audience and telling the story as it lives and breathes. You don’t have to worry about the story as it lays dying in a cage shacked by rules of genre, trope, template or format. You have it all right there in your hand — a few dice in your palm, maybe a pencil, nothing more — all the elements of creation laid bare.

It’s an awesome — in the truest definition of that word — feeling.

One that will serve you well when you bring it to the written page.

Writer-Gamer Hybrid Types, Chime In

I know a good number of you came here originally from some of my game work or are yourselves gamers still — moreover, I know that the Venn Diagram of GAMER and WRITER has some big crossover in this audience. So add your two cents. Why should writers and storytellers play tabletop games? I know you have reasons I haven’t even considered. Spit ‘em out like broken teeth!

(Oh, and again I’ll mention: if you haven’t checked out SPEAK OUT WITH YOUR GEEK OUT, well, get on it, won’t you? Go forth. Speak your geek. Own your nerdery.)

85 comments

  • Excellent post! I agree with everything that you’ve written.

    Funny timing with this piece as I was in the middle of writing something similar of my own on my blog. I think you said it much more eloquently than I would have anyways.

    Playing WW games has got me out of writing stereotypical wishwash bullshit and concentrating on the heart of a character and how they interact with other characters and most importantly that not all the time the characters will act according to the best course of action but what they know with the information they have and what they want…and sometimes what they WANT more than whats the best choice.

    Playing table top games, especially the white wolf series, can definitely strengthen your ability to write a great plot and unique characters so I certainly recommend it. What Wendig said is right, you shit or get off the pot. The action moves in real time and if you don’t speak up about your great idea (or nefarious bad ones that your character would do) you will be kicking yourself in the face in regret! It feels like half of the game is acting and the other half is actively piecing together a plot with the ST. If your ST is really open like that to suggestions, she or he is pretty damn awesome then)

    You have to keep in mind even though the ST is running some bits its really the characters that star in the show as the get the call to go onto greater things and save princesses or slay Exarchs…or ignore the call and see what happens.

    Great tip: For players who run out of ideas often, carve some time before the week of game and sit and ask yourself “What is my character going to do?” come up with contingency plans. As for new characters it takes a little while to break into them and understand them in and out so you can make quick decisions.

  • I just tried to post this and it didn’t seem to work, so I’m trying again. Hopefully this won’t result in my comment posting twice…

    From my own experience, I very much agree with this post – gaming has definitely helped me to develop my skills with characterization and plotting.

    But I don’t think it’s necessarily always helpful for everyone. A lot depends on your style of gaming, and/or the style of the other people you game with. For example, the comment Steve Darlington made above that “GMs don’t HAVE to write. They come up with a bad guy and a setting and then the characters come up with the characters and the plot.” threw me a bit at first because that’s very much not the kind of game I’m used to, but for a lot of people, that IS their experience of it. And I’ve met other gamers whose approach is pretty much all about problem-solving, and for whom a character is just a collection of skills you might need to solve particular problems. They don’t care about things like personality and backstory and character development (other than spending XP to gain skills), whereas for me, those – and creating interesting stories – are the main things I DO care about.

    Put me in a game where people are mainly just concerned with racking up points, solving puzzles or kicking ass in combat, and my eyes glaze over. Likewise when I’m running games – if someone comes up with a character that seems to me to be lacking depth and complexity, and I’ll do whatever it takes to dig into that character and make them develop some, whether that’s asking the player pointed questions about the character’s hopes, fears, regrets, etc. or placing the character in emotionally challenging situations to see how they react. And that sort of thing is really helpful for fleshing out character concepts I’ve come up with in writing fiction as well – when a particular character just doesn’t seem to be coming together as well as the others, I’ll use some of the same techniques on myself that I use on players whose characters aren’t quite there yet.

    And one question I’ve been mulling over lately is whether or not I really believe what some commenters here have said – that gaming plots can’t ever translate effectively into fiction. I think it’s often true, but I’m not so sure it always has to be. For some while now, the players in my ongoing series of Deliria games have been saying that the stories I’ve come up with for those really could be turned into novels, and I’m increasingly tempted to try it and see what happens. Especially since Phil Brucato, a couple of years back, gave aspiring writers blanket permission to use the Deliria setting as long as they credit it properly. We’ll see…

  • I think the structure of most RPG’s character building profiles work well when applied to novels. There was one I played a million years ago, Superheros (Marvel, maybe?), that worked with a fun “powers to fatal flaws” ratio ladder that limited the character from becoming godlike, while providing all kinds of ways to screw with them.

  • Couldn’t have said it better, chief.
    Especially the audience part. As GM, I had to entertain my audience, be funny, be exciting, be gross, be wicked…anything to keep their arttention.
    I think being GM taught me the importance of creating a fun and entertaining story.

  • Gaming certainly helped me learn the basics of storytelling once upon a time, but for me it’s one or the other. They live in the same place in my brain’s motivational structures. I can game, which I enjoy enormously. Or I can write novels, which I enjoy enormously, and which is what pays the bills. So, much as I love gaming, for me it’s fundamentally incompatible with writing and unless I want to give up writing, gaming is out.

  • Great post! I’m right there with you in having a background of gaming. For all these commenters talking about how RPG makes GMers lazy on characters, I say to take a turn as a PC then. I never made cliche characters, nor did I play them that way. I learned most of my character development stuff from gaming too.

  • Fantastic post. Loved every word. I’m now a retired gamer after starting out with Traveller in the *ahem* early 80s then moving through everything from RuneQuest to Warhammer to Paranoia (just no D&D as it happens).

    The main reason I started writing was to get the story to unfold MY damned way, because my players would keep drifting off on their own tangents…and now here I am writing character-led plots where I actively encourage my characters to wander off…

    Anyway. Superb post. Makes me want to dust off my dice (which I still have) and my little black Traveller books (which I will take to my grave).

  • RP has taught me so much about writing. I began RP not with tabletop play and dice but with online forums, where it truly was an experiment in collaborative writing. My early games had no actual stats or real rules beyond “don’t do anything to ruin the fun of the story”, which meant no taking control or immediately writing an easy and neat solution. I learned to really sit and think about how a character would react, and how that would make all the other characters react, and how the plot unfolded from there. I eventually moved into D&D and other tabletop games, and while it’s a different experience (and I still prefer the prose-heavy game of online RP) there is something about everyone sitting together and telling a story that really can’t be matched. I think I’m a much better writer than I ever would have been without all those years learning and interacting through RP.

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