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.)

93 comments

  • This is so true it should be on a T-shirt.

    I’ve never done the table top RPG, but I’ve done an online one, and the things it did for my ability to write dialogue and keep a character “in voice”…

    RP makes you learn your stuff and learn it quick, and if you deviate from character or slip out of voice or make the character do something he just wouldn’t do given the cannon you’re working with, the other players will slap you upside the head with a cluestick.

    You learn to maneuver. You learn to anticipate. You learn to compensate. You learn how to fake knowing that scene was going to dovetail beautifully when you’d actually forgotten the first scene that all the other players assume was your being clever and setting stuff up.

    When you’ve got 20-30 people all posting at once, creating an organic story as they go, there’s no time to carefully select what you want to say or how you intend to present it. You have to wing it, and you have to do it fast.

    RP is where pantsers are born (I also blame it for the rise of 1st Person Present as the popular POV for YA novels.) And if you’re writing for teens, then an RPG is a GREAT place to soak up the rhythm of how teens speak.

  • I have two words: Fiasco.

    Seriously, this is a great game for any writers who want to get into the tabletop RPG thing to hone their skills. It’s very story focused, it still hits all the points Chuck is making here, and it’s done in 2-3 hours. Definitely a good one.

  • It feels good to play RPGs (and there are a very many more forms than tabletop) but the books themselves sometimes elicit good reads. My favorite books are White Wolf for the sheer density of ideas in them, but the things many gamers refer to as “fluff” and “flavor text” can inspire a lot of crazy shit.

  • From time immemorial my friends and I played RPGs every Monday night. They still do, and I would too if I hadn’t emigrated to Australia. Probably the thing I miss the most, other than the friends themselves, are our gaming sessions.

    And there’s no doubt that RPGs informed my writing. Scenarios from games played decades ago still find their way into my stories. I’m actually having a little private geek-out right now because I realised a few weeks back that I could factor an old game into the novel I’m currently working on. Something I GMd as a seventeen year old is finally being novelised. It makes me happy.

  • Re: pacing. I once spent three sessions of a game stuck in board meetings (we kind of invented unions, the nondisclosure agreement, assembly line production). It was fun but a stark contrast to the ending of the campaign (worlds first convention nearly destroyed the earth). For all the oddness of that in a D&D game I think it and other gaming sessions did teach a bit about pacing.

    Writers block: you are completely correct. I have invented the most balls to the wall fucked up plans on earth why improving at a table. Need to work on relating that into my writing a bit more. This also applies to the “Anything is Possible”

    My addition: character work. I have often found that the at least semi coherent world of a game allowed me to explore what character X would do in situation Y more than in any writing exercise I do alone. It’s right here and right now, overwhelming odds are at the door. Do I stand my ground and why? (Answer in this case: Yes and because I am a supremely Bad Ass mother fucking ranger). A game lets you stretch out and test a characters personality to make them more human (or less as the whim dictates).

  • Great. Post.

    I’ve been RPing for over 20 years (I feel so old…), starting with Rolemaster and moving through a variety of games before settling on WWs old Vampire, Mage, and Werewolf games, and more recently Scion. (With plenty of other experimentation along the way.) Where reading and writing taught me the craft of writing, roleplaying definitely taught me the art of storytelling.

    On top of everything you’ve already listed:

    1) RPing games taught me how to foreshadow effectively. It’s kinda important. While it’s incredibly frustrating to reach the end of the adventure and have the players all stare at you blankly because you forget to drop any hints about where the bad guy lairs, it’s even worse when an hour into the first game session, they’ve figured out the meta-plot. Both of those things happened to me in the early days. Practice may not make perfect, but it certainly approaches perfection.

    2) Running games like Cyberpunk taught me how important it is to make sure there’s a hook to draw characters into the adventure. (In some games, you can pull a “The Prince says so” hook. While it works, it gets old REALLY fast.) There’s nothing worse than coming up with an awesome plot idea, and then having the characters shrug and say, “Why should I care?” Because I’m going to kidnap and torture your girlfriend. That’s why. Motherfucker.

    3) Running games helped me learn when to have an NPC for a walk-on role, and when to turn them into a long-running part of the plot. You know, sometimes the bartender is just a faceless guy who serves drinks. But sometimes the players just *have* to ask his name. Once a name is dropped, you can’t just disappear him at the end of the scene. There’s an expectation from the players/audience that he’s going to hang around for a while. Or at least show up later as a horribly disfigured corpse.

    … and now I’ll shut up and crawl back into my ten-sided box.

  • Okay, apparently not hiding away just yet.

    Just wanted to add that I totally agree with Sparky on the advantages of RPing when it comes to testing out the way characters behave in given situations. I’ve always found it a great way to explore or twist character archetypes. I think that lets me build more 3-dimensional characters in my writing.

  • I used to play tabletop RPGs, back in the 80s and 90s, and run some too. As a player I loved “Call of Cthulhu” – as a GM, it was Runequest and Vampire: the Masquerade. Having the guys run around early 80s Bristol (a very Gothic city, and the one where I went to uni) was just awesome.

    But… I had to give up running games when I realised it was taking the time and creative energy that I’d rather be spending writing. It’s all very well when you’re a student or unemployed or whatever, but when you’re bringing home the bacon in one hand and gripping a quill in the other, you’ve not got a hand free to roll those dice. Plus I’m a control freak, and I prefer having all the characters (more or less) under my thumb, rather than running off on a tangent and ruining my carefully laid plans. Story improvisation is not a talent of mine (as I think I made clear in my interview!).

    Other writers have given up videogames to find more time to write – with me it was RPGs. Great practice for storytelling – monster black-hole-like time sinks for an aspiring writer. But maybe that’s just me…

    • @Anne:

      That is admittedly the dark side of the RPG thing — contrary to what Josin said it isn’t always about pantsing. I know I did a fair amount of thinking and planning, and the players did, too, and committing to that week after week gets hard. It takes up not only real time, but also intellectual energy. You’re committing so much time to This Other Story it has the potential to drain away from the One You Need To Write.

      Of course, for over a decade that wasn’t always a problem with me as a lot of my writing focus was in the RPG industry, so. :)

      Even still, I think it behooves writers to try this now and again — for pick-up sessions in particular. Or hell, go to a game con.

      — c.

  • I write but I write for RPGs, nothing else published yet save a little comic/short story, but I’m working on it. Also working on some social/mobile gaming Interactive Fiction.

    Games writing is weird, very multidisciplinary. Some is fiction, some is travelogue, some is technical writing to explain rules. All very useful but it does tend to be scattershot.

    When it comes to gaming itself my style is very improvisational and I think that does help my writing, knowing how to let go and just ‘throw stuff out there’ and then adapt on the fly makes it relatively easy to come up with concepts, play around, see what works and adapt and fix as you go.

    The advantage writing has over gaming is that you can more easily go back, retcon and edit what doesn’t work.

  • I’ll give the counter-argument – I blame playing and writing roleplaying games for stopping me writing fiction.

    I’ve been a full-time freelance writer for eight years now. I’ve written more rpg books than I can remember, and there were few times in those eight years when I wasn’t running or playing a game too.

    That brought a lot of benefits. Characters – especially secondary characters – I can do. Setting? Yep. Easy. Conflict I can do. Dialogue – yep, that’s in there too. And all that GMing meant I could think on the fly and come up with plot twists and arcs that looked like I’d planned them for ages, even if I just pulled them out of whatever orifice was closest.

    The trouble is, after all that game writing, you start thinking in certain ways. I’d sit down to write fiction, and what I’d produce would basically be a rpg adventure. I’ve have the initial set-up and the supporting characters, but my protagonist would be a nebulous, ill-defined everyman and he wouldn’t do anything, because I was subconsciously leaving room for players to drop in their player characters and to drive the plot. A good rpg adventure needs to work for any suitable player character; a good piece of fiction shouldn’t have interchangeable protagonists.

    I’ve finally – I hope – broken myself of this by dint of writing absolutely massive outlines, but time will tell.

    I’m not saying ‘writers shouldn’t game’ – everyone should game – but gaming alone certainly won’t help writing.

  • As a storyteller (the behind-the-screen type, not the words-bound-up-and-sitting-in-an-abandoned-Borders type), I love pissing people off.

    I love creating complex, compelling and sympathetic villains. Hatching plots and letting the players sort out the best ways to thwart them makes me giggle. Watching their faces when that “thirty-five minutes ago” moment is reached is priceless.

    It’s a feeling I long to recreate in fiction, and it’s one of the things that keeps me writing.

    Well, that and the coffee and booze.

  • I’ve always been a boring sort, with only a set stable of characters that keep showing up again and again, and it was only after gaming with all sorts did I come to appreciate the way complications and conflict can really make things interesting.

    It might not have taught me writing, but I think I can say that gaming does help.

  • This is why we love you. Well, that and because we’re masochistic and love the abuse you hurl at us.

    RPing gives me character ideas. It gives me ideas for neat things that could happen in a story. It lets me world build and then mess around in these worlds to my heart’s content. And these are all things that help me as I write.

  • I’ve been roleplaying since I was seventeen, literally half a lifetime ago and a couple of the characters in my WIP started out as RPG characters so I’m kind of inclined to agree with, well most of the above really.
    The only thing I have to add is from my experience as a playtester, which I think has taught me, (or at least reinforced the idea) that breaking the setting / system / etc and then figuring out how to fix it makes for better stories. Basically instead of thinking ‘I can’t let character X do that because then it messes up Y and Z’ I think ‘I will let character X do that because it is awesome and figure out how to fix Y and Z afterwards.’

  • I second the Fiasco suggestion. Fiasco is great for writers, but it’s also great for roleplayers because you can get so creative with it. Anything’s possible and there’s no way you’re having writer’s block there.

    Because if you’re boring, they’re going to start talking about Dr. Who. That’s my group to a T.

  • I once ran a Dark Sun adventure that after twelve sessions they eventually made it to the first encounter. The players thought it was one of the best adventures ever.

  • I spent fifteen years writing day after day on play by post forums until I finally got off my ass and put the efforts into a novel.

    In addition to everything you said here, you learn how to look for the not so obvious in a story and toss in the totally unexpected and make it work.

  • I’ve been gaming for nearly 20 years now, and it helps in a lot of ways. Dealing with railroading GMs helps to show you how a story can look when the plot is forcing things a long. A good GM will show you how left field things can go if you truly approach every problem from the character’s point of view (wait, why are we breaking into police HQ when the mob is after us?)

    As a GM you have to learn story craft if you want story to matter, and you learn about consequences for actions. You also learn how to improv a scene, make up an NPC/support cast member on the spot, and where you want to throw challenges in people’s way.

    It doesn’t help with the writing, sure. But it can help with almost everything else.

  • Love this post. It’s such a penny-dropping moment – when you’re playing D&D or CoC you can’t get writers block – something has to happen.

    In the RPG blogosphere I’ve read a lot of posts about players and DMs in particular thinking they’ve got what it takes to write because they can run/play a decent adventure. These tend to go down the – you’re just writing up your games as a story, that’s not a story.

    Well they’ve got a point there, but this is the counterargument – that playing a table-top game does not stop. You can’t press pause, you can’t put it away until tomorrow. There are always consequences and you have to make decisions as you go. The story you get out of it might not be interesting on paper, but there was a sequence of events and nobody shied away from them.

    You’re a genius Chuck, MWAH!!

  • I haven’t played in a while, but I used to be tabletop RPG obsessed. What a wonderful way to flex creativity. I cant wait for my kids to be old enough to play. I think i have just found the topic for my next blog post!

  • RPGs are totally awesome for coming up with exciting plot twists. Don’t know what to write next? Roll a d20. Either go with the result, or you’ll think of something better anyway. The only downside is that many folks fall into the Overly Powerful Demigod PC trap, which a good DM can defuse, but still. Don’t be that guy.

  • Welp, I have to disagree. Generally, roleplaying has kind of eroded my ability to write, because 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. So many times when I’m trying to write fiction I get to the point where, as a GM, I stop, to allow the PCs to be awesome, and am horrified to find that suddenly, it’s my job to come up with stuff for these people to do.

    GMing, and in similar ways, playing, are just way too lazy to teach you about storytelling. It’s storytelling where the audience is already invested heavily and you don’t have to sell them anything. It’s storytelling where you don’t have to come up with any characters (or just one), pacing is optional and the rules provide 90% of the cool stuff. As they say in Wonder Boys, writers make decisions. But at the gaming table, that’s what dice are for. And as for writer’s block? Happens all the time. And because it’s not a story you can say “okay, let’s take a break for ten minutes so we can figure out what would be awesome to do here”. I mean, maybe you guys GM without time outs but I don’t.

    Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great way to relax, but it’s writing with all the pressure off and all the help you could dream of, so it’s not a learning environment.

    • @Steve:

      I don’t count a “time-out” as an embodiment of writer’s block — you take ten minutes to figure it out, that’s what a writer should do. And a GM. But getting vaporlock and stopping for days (or just ending the game) isn’t.

      And again, I don’t think GMing improves writing. But for me, it definitely improved my sense of storytelling. I’m sorry that your mileage varied, there.

      — c.

  • One thing you learn pretty quickly as a GM is, you can spend hours plotting out what’s behind each of the three doors at the end of a long hallway, but when you get your players there and ask them to choose one, those assholes are going to turn to their left and blast a hole through the wall instead.

    As a GM, it teaches you to think on your feet: what do the players find when they step through that ragged hole? How do you get them back to where you need them to end up? How does their detour change the outcome?

    As a writer, it’s taught me to let my characters be a little unpredictable. And if the plot starts going in a different-but-interesting direction, I’m allowed to take a bit of a detour, too, and see where it takes me.

  • I’d honestly extend this to all artists in storytelling arts. Writers makes absolute sense, especially as a GM. GMing is storytelling where when you as the storyteller go “Duh, what do I do here?” a player grabs what ever is in front of them and shakes it ’till you respond. For me it fills in the hole that I as a writer have where I just get bogged down in contemplation of ramifications on the story because someone just went thataway!

    Theater is another obvious one, most of role playing is just improvisational theater with a stronger framework than your average improv set up. That said, my opinion on this may be colored by the fact that I bring theater’s “Don’t say no” to the role playing table.

  • I’d have to agree that it improved my abilities as a storyteller. It also made me realize I wanted to BE a storyteller.

    I haven’t had a chance to play a tabletop game in… a really long time, but that dynamic between storyteller and audience, that sense of what does and doesn’t work, sticks with you.

    Kind of like watching a train wreck. All that screaming and blood…

    Anyway, I think it not only helped my storytelling abilities, but my writing, too. Structurally, writing up a scenario for Call of Cthulhu or Traveller (Do they still make Traveller? Anybody here even remember Traveller), isn’t all that different from writing a story outline.

    You have to break out your story beats, figure out where you’re going to ratchet up the tension, etc.

    If there’s any downside for me I think it’s that it influenced my story-telling a little too much. Sometimes cinematic isn’t what I’m shooting for, but that’s the mindset I got in and I find it a little hard to break out of it.

  • Oh, great guns, I am SO happy other people see the value of RPGs. Started playing circa 1980. Haven’t played in about a decade, but so many characters I have written began as character sheets…

    The interactive fiction was fantastic at times. So was the banter at the table. Plus, not all conflict began with the MONSTERS. Players did things to each other all the time. I didn’t always enjoy that, but I can’t argue that it didn’t help me with writing infighting later.

  • It was D&D and Traveller back in the 80s and the original Neverwitner Nights on AOL after that. It’s where I cut my writing teeth. The gameplay was simple and once you maxxed your character it was all RP. The guild I was in required writing every week to stay in. Great stuff, I think this is missing from the current Online versions of RPGs, they do all the thinking for you.

    Great post as usual!

  • I think the issue for me is I’ve come to writing after GMing for years. So I’m sure it HAS taught me a lot about story. It’s just now I find myself climbing the mountain that lies between story and writing, and I find the leg-ups GMing gave me on story are matched by the laziness it gave me on character.

  • I’ve been gaming since I was in my teens. Any time I take a lengthy break from it my writing suffers. Not appallingly, but it’s easier to become duller. Lazier.

    It was a watershed moment, early on, when I decided it was no longer about dice and loot, but character and context and personal history looping back on itself. That built a great foundation from which to create stories that we still retell twenty years later.

    Last year my three friends spent six months, working in secret, transcribing, copy-editing and typesetting the last three arcs of a game I ran for them. Three days before Christmas it arrived in hardcover, leather-bound. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. And it reads beautifully.

  • My name is Karen and I’ve been playing RPG’s since I was 12.
    I learnt a lot from table top roleplaying, not least how to waste many, many hours*cough* OK, *years*. Never really got down with Elf Quest though…

  • The only role playing I’ve ever done is mild mannered human being.
    Games sound like a good idea for at least kick starting writer’s block. Which I have this week for the FridayFlashFic.
    But seeing as I am away from my desk on a trip, I’m not beating myself up. (hey, great idea for a story!)
    This is a great place to meet peeps, and learn a little more about what makes them.
    Thanks Chuck <3 : )

  • a brief story: My brother had to work on our normal game night, so i whipped up a quick scenario for our players (my character left out of it, of course) that was a nasty, awful, almost no way out scenario. The players had a chance, but only a teeny tiny one.

    We didn’t finish it the first time, so the next week, my brother decided we were making it real, and part of his campaign. We, and me especially, treated those players terribly. we didn’t kill them, but we broke their bones, shattered their resolve: something they needed. They had been steamrolling through every encounter without a scratch. We needed to knock them down so they would understand that they could be beaten. It was fantastic.

    But then my brother made me play the part of my own character, and where he had been the whole time. It turned out he had been kidnapped. and was getting his limbs sawed off, one by one. It was hands down one of the most stressful and fun nights of my life.

  • Sorry to post twice on one entry but I feel the need to share a small story.
    My group was playing a custom built Buffy RPG and things had been trouble from the start. Under the excuse of this being the “grown up” version of the Buffyverse near death and dismemberment was common. We had to fight the GM just to find ways for the nonslayer characters to be useful in combat. The plot was a mess and we were being railroaded by what the GM felt was approriate and right, despite our protests.

    Finally we reached near the end of the campaign, in part by forcibly streamlining combat (a nightmare itself), and forcing the characters to work as a cohesive unit when the meta plot required backstabbing and the like. But the end was in sight, we just had to figure out how to destroy the big bad without making all of the southeast US a volcano. Then the GM asked one question: “Do you want a happy ending?” We all said yes, we had earned our happy ending. The rest of the session went as normal. Then the next one was cancelled on some pretext. And the next. And the next. Then finally an e-mail.

    He couldn’t do it. Happy endings were so far outside the plan of the GM that he just cancelled the game, unable to conceive of one at all. So I guess writers block can happen at the table. There’s a twist though. We, the players, wrote our ending. A glorious thing of fighting and magic and bittersweet goodbyes and world saving.

    Make of that what you will.

  • You totally can get GM’s block, of course. It just usually occurs between sessions, not during them. The social condition of playing through a full session can teach you how to power through “no ideas” but the expectation of turning up next week with more can crush your motivation just as surely as any writing deadline.

  • I’m going to play devil’s advocate a bit here. If you’re the GM, using your RPG gaming for fiction writing is a bad idea. Basing a short story (or god forbid a novel) on a gaming adventure doesn’t work. Those stories are always terrible and it’s glaringly obvious where they came from. Something about the logic of an RPG plot structure doesn’t translate to a cohesive work of fiction — something about the choppy, uncertain serial nature of it takes the three-act structure and chops it to incomprehensible ribbons. This is why I just can’t read Ed Greenwood’s fiction, as much as I love his RPG design work.

    There’s a corollary though. If you’re an RPG player, then gaming is a great place to find good characters. The GM has to whip up a bunch of characters every week. They can’t help but be on the narrow side, especially since some of them exist only to be obliterated with Burning Spray or Reign of Pointy Steel Blades or something. But as a player, you spend a lot of time inside your character’s head. You learn how he or she will react to stuff (as Chuck said). You think up backstory in between sessions. You imagine your character’s facial expressions, how he feels about his dad, why he wears a sword on his back instead of at his hip, where he learned to cast spells without speaking aloud, who his lost love is.

    The key, then, is to take that character (and the other ones you’ve come to love over your years of gaming) and take them out of the game world, away from the lame stereotypical characters your friends made, away from the pointless quests and kingdoms with random apostrophes in their names. Don’t put them into a team with a fighter and a wizard and a rogue. Don’t have them seek a magic macguffin. Put them in a good world, that’s interesting and less weighed down by cliches. Build a story with a real plot structure and arc. Then turn the character loose.

    • To be clear, @Ed, I wouldn’t advocate trying to turn a game directly into fiction (or vice versa, though there you might find more success). I just mean that gaming at the table teaches you valuable storytelling skills, especially in terms of having to appease an audience with certain elements (beats, emotions, pacing, character).

      — c.

  • I had never thought about before, but your right. I played D&D when I was a kid- not for very long and we never seemed to get anywhere in the game, but we had the best time setting up the world and mapping out the dungeon. I wonder what ever became of the two boys I used to play with? Maybe they’re writing too.

  • I’m a tabletopper, but I recommend LARPing more for writing. (I play White Wolf LARPs, where the emphasis often rests on Story Telling over combat, though many players like their mass combat.) The backstories are more intricate, and there are more players than at a tabletop game. There are a number of national organizations players can join and then carry their characters from one game to another. There’s a giant convention in NOLA this weekend where there will be more than 1,000 players representing a host of different organizations and games. When you have thirty or sixty people all interacting within the game, you can really see social dynamics at play and how the plot of five hundred point elder vampire influences the lives of the thirty point newbie characters and how the newbie characters’ decisions often throw a cog in the elder’s plans.

    I would also like to point out that it’s easy to see what not to do when there are large groups of players gaming together. There’s always at least one doofus in the mix who wants to ride an alligator through modern NOLA brandishing a sword; this can show how bad decisions will forward the plot of a story or frustrate everyone else who is involved.

  • A friend was visiting once and said he had a drinking game for us to play, and did I have some dice? Sure, I said, how many sides? In confusion, he said that there were no sides, per se, everyone was on their own. Hilarity ensued as it took me a while to realize that when using the word “dice”, he understood that to mean d6 AND NOTHING ELSE. It took just as long for him to realize that when I used the word “dice”, it could be d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d16 or d20.

    Needless to say, this friend was not a gamer.

  • Damn straight. I learned the fine art of putting words together in pleasing literary formations from reading awesome writers, but I learned about story-telling and character interactions from the omgwtf PLAYERS ARE LOOKING AT ME moments of GMing. Nothing drives creativity like panic. I also lucked out by having super smart players (some of whom I’ve played with for 20-some years now) who don’t let my plots get lazy or predictable. I keep them in my head as the audience for whatever I’m writing, and that helps my stories stay sharp.

  • Pen and paper RPGs have always been on the periphery of my life, but aside from one fling with D&D (in which we ruined the poor GM’s life) I’ve never actually played.

    You and my brother, a long time RPer, have convinced me. I have heard mighty fine things about the Dresden Files RPG. Perhaps I’ll start there.

  • First, how’s it hanging, Chuck? Long time, eh? Wow. An old college friend who I introduced to Harnmaster — long before I was sucked into the World of Darkness and became, like you, a freelance Vampire “pen monkey,” just shared this post with me and, gosh and golly, I can only say thanks. I’ve been so overwhelmed by work, side-work, family, a soon-to-be newborn, and all the other things that demand attention that I’ve basically allowed myself to create a thousand seemingly good excuses for not getting back to doing what I love — and I believe, *do* — best: telling stories. Pretty hard to get a gaming thing going again, and honestly, fun as it is, if it’s not producing an income these days, hard to justify the time it can consume. However, throwing words on a page is a “must do,” and yet… alas, those old excuses. Your words and the words of other commenters remind me of the “way back,” as it were. Approach writing as I approached gaming, creating rich worlds, characters, and plots, and then simply set the beasties in motion and prod them whenever things slow down too much for too long.

    Hope all is well and thanks for giving me another place to find inspiration when in need.

  • Or, in fact, the opposite: being a writer will make you a better GM. ‘Strue.

    Also, the best thing to do in becoming a writer is to write; don’t use gaming as an excuse not to put pen to paper!

  • Great post. As always. Just last week, I was trying to explain to a writer friend why roleplaying – done right – is so much fun. And conversely – done badly – is just a tedious circlejerk. Just like writing itself. I also tried to explain how it gave me a brilliant grounding for writing for ‘real’. He just wasn’t buying it. So I’m sending him here. And then, he will see! Or get a couple of d10s shoved up his nostrils.

  • I have no idea what you people are talking about. I checked youtube for ‘tabletop RPG’, but only turned up fat pasty blokes saying stuff.

    Point me to a primer?

  • Admittedly, I’ve never played a tabletop rpg. They always seem fun but I’m horribly intimidated of them. I do, however, roleplay on a couple of forums. Hell, I even started my own up a couple of days ago. I’m hoping it’ll help teach me some self-discipline. You know, considering I’m a lazy ass dorito eating bitch.

  • This post is so perfectly timed to the recent developments of my Mage the Awakening game.

    To give some background: One of the characters is trying to find information on her missing sister. Her sister was grabbed by the Seers of the Throne who may, or may not, be the bad guys of the campaign. Whether or not they are really “the bad guys” is in the eye of the beholder. At any rate, a Seer has been kidnapped, and the Cabal has gone on an Astral Journey into her Onerios (personal dreamspace) seeking answers. Four members of the Cabal make the journey.

    The kidnapper in question was once married to one of the player characters who is now in her head.

    Best Plan of the Session: The Mastigos (Mind/Space Mage – ex-husband of the kidnapper in question) decides to call upon the kidnapper’s desire to tell secrets. This desire manifests in her mind as a very young version of herself. (Children have no filter. They love to tell secrets!)

    Best Moment of the Session: the Acanthus (Time/Fate Mage – sister of the kidnappee) asks the child who is leading the kidnappers. The child leans in close and whispers a name very softly to the Acanthus Mage. This is a really good secret! A hush falls over the room, and I know that my whisper will carry to all of the players at the table. Out of the corner of my eye I can see that the Silver Ladder Thyrsus (a Life/Spirit Mage who is in the “executive” Order of Magedom) is starting to hide his face behind his hand. It is a slow movement, an attempt to hide without being caught. he does this because as I start to say the name he realizes it is destined to be a name that is familiar to him. Suddenly the movement catches the attention of the Acanthus who breaks the soft, whispering, conspiriatorial mood of the room by yelling: “ARROW! WHAT DID YOU DO?!”

    My work here is done.

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