Twenty-Sided Troubadours: Why Writers Should Play Roleplaying Games
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.
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.)