The Writer at Play

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]

Back in May, Clarkesworld Magazine published a piece by Justin Howe and Jason S. Ridler, Of Dice and Men, a mind-meld of SF/F writers on the topic of role-playing games and their writing careers.

My first thought on reading it was, “they stole my blog post idea!” My second was that it’s easy to come away from the article with a sense of how RPGs can detract from your work as a writer, either by eating up your spare time and energy, or by teaching you habits of story that will annoy editors and readers alike. My third was that Cat Valente is the only woman quoted in the entire piece. So, since my recently-released novel Midnight Never Come grew directly out of an RPG I ran in 2006, I decided to go ahead and add my own thoughts to the mix. Because honestly? I believe that playing RPGs makes me a better writer.

Quick primer for the unfamiliar: the quickest way to explain RPGs, especially for the purposes of this discussion, is as collaborative storytelling mediated by rules. In other words, you and your friends are making up a story (with each of you controlling a particular character), but you have rules to tell you what is and is not possible, what succeeds and what fails, so that you don’t end up with six-year-old Cops-and-Robbers-style arguments about what’s going on.

Why do I say it’s made me a better writer? Because in RPGs, I have to be adaptable; I don’t control the entire story. And that means I do things in different ways than I might when sitting alone at my computer, moving all the pieces around in my head.

For starters, a game can be like the speed drills athletes do in practice. When I’m confronted with a problem to solve, I can’t save the file and come back tomorrow, having thought about how to get through. I have to come up with a solution now. And once I have, does it work? Most games use randomization of some kind (usually dice) to decide whether something succeeds. Maybe I roll badly, and now I need to come up with Plan B — or maybe there is no second chance. Our characters were sneaking into the castle, but now we’ve been spotted and chucked into prison. The plot just got more complicated. Sometimes that’s annoying, but sometimes it makes the story better, because the characters have to struggle harder to succeed. Left to my own devices (i.e. writing), I might have gone the easy (and less interesting) path.

More importantly, I’m not the only person involved. I control one character; the rest are in the hands of my fellow players, and they? Do not think like I do.

Even the best-intentioned writer falls into certain patterns of thought, and must actively work to stretch beyond those. I tend to think of certain kinds of characters; my fellow players make up ones I would never dream of, or would have trouble playing/writing if I did. I tend to imagine certain plot trajectories, but those can and do get regularly blown out of the water by twists other people throw in. I vividly remember one game where another guy took an action that left me wanting to beat my head into the wall; it was the worst. possible. thing. he could have done at that moment. But while I was trying to figure out a way to salvage the situation, he turned the entire thing around, showing me how his apparently idiotic move was in fact a perfect solution to a problem I hadn’t even been considering.

And everything I see others do goes into my mental toolbox. Later, I find myself pulling out those new approaches and trying them in stories. Reading does a similar thing, of course, but in a game I deal actively with someone else’s plot complication, responding to and working with it myself, instead of seeing it as a finished product. And that makes quite a difference.

The list of benefits goes on. Playing a single character, instead of controlling the whole story, puts me more intensively in that single point of view; I think it’s no accident I tend to explore more psychologically damaged people in games than I do in stories, and I think that eventually I’ll be able to carry that over. Being unable to go back and revise the story so far not only prepares me for writing series, it builds my ability to re-interpret events in a fashion that will allow me to take the narrative where I want it to go. And it’s social, which makes a nice change from sitting in front of the computer, alone.

Can RPGs teach bad writing habits? Certainly. But the proliferation of more story-based games (as opposed to the D&D style of “kill monsters, take their stuff”) means that not all campaigns will feature an elf, a dwarf, and a ranger walking into a dungeon. Mine went through 650 years of English history backward, outlining a bizarre long-term alchemical experiment to create the Philosopher’s Stone. (But don’t look for that in Midnight Never Come; the meta-plot got excised in the course of creating the novel.) And it can definitely eat up time and creative energy that might otherwise be spent on writing. For me, though, that goes both ways; the fun of storytelling in games builds my enthusiasm for writing — even when it doesn’t turn directly into fiction.