Wednesday, February 19, 2020

The Pros and Cons of Using Tabletop RPGs as a Writing Tool

Tabletop roleplaying games have been around for decades now, and at this particular moment they're undergoing something of a resurgence in popularity. Between shows like Stranger Things, which heavily feature Dungeons and Dragons, and the popularity of online live play shows like Critical Role, it seems that more people than ever before are getting into this particular hobby.

Believe me, we are happy to have every one of you!
If you're a fan of genre fiction, though, you've likely noticed the impact tabletop RPGs have had for some time. Writers like R.A. Salvatore, Ed Greenwood, as well as Chris A. Jackson, are known for their novels that explore the settings these games take place in, for example. Additionally, many of these games will adopt popular fictional settings, from Tolkien's Middle Earth to the Known World of A Song of Ice and Fire, and give players the chance to forge their own tales in realms they've only read about before.

A lot of folks use these games as ways to test out story ideas, character concepts, and to help them build worlds. However, there are good sides and bad sides to using RPGs when it comes to your writing.

The Pros

Just take a drink... what can it hurt?
Before we get started, I'd like to establish some bona fides. First, I've been playing RPGs on the regular for about fifteen years or so. I'm also a content creator for these games, with modules like The Curse of Sapphire Lake for Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, and supplements like 100 NPCs You Might Meet at The Tavern on the market right now. Lastly, I've used several games to explore characters and ideas for stories, such as in "Jungle Moon" and "Dead Man's Bluff," both found in my latest release The Rejects. I also run the gaming blog Improved Initiative.

This is a topic I know a little something about, is what I'm trying to say.

So, from the pro side of things there are a lot of benefits for writers who take up tabletop roleplaying games. First and foremost is that these games exercise your creativity (often in ways you don't expect). They let you experiment with personalities, archetypes, character arcs, and histories, getting all the reps you need to pump up your imagination. These games also give you a sandbox to play around in, testing out different ideas and structures to see what most appeals to you. Perhaps most importantly, though, these games are group affairs, so you can play off all the other folks involved, get feedback from them, and build off of the collective activity.

And that's just what you get from being a player.

If you take the extra step to become the dungeon master (the person who runs the bad guys, voices all the other characters, and generally breathes life into the setting) you can learn a whole new set of skills. Everything from constructing narratives, to filling plot holes, to making the world feel real and lived-in are things you learn how to do when you sit behind the screen. And while the extra character creation and world building are good practice, you also learn how to cover all the details when it comes to the world. Because when your players ask you what the history of a particular symbol is, or what kind of sewer system the city of Karoka has, you learn there's always more going on in the world than what you think to put on the page.

The Cons

Oh god... not again!
 Before you get too enthused at the idea that a DND boot camp will turn you into a brilliant novelist, I'd like to let a little air out of your balloons. Not all of it, of course, but there are some genuine traps I've seen a lot of writers fall into you need to be aware of, and that you need to watch for in your own work if you use tabletop games as your training ground for writing.

Keep all of these things in mind, because they'll save you a lot of time, trouble, and frustration along the way.

First and foremost, you need to know where the lines are in a game so that you don't end up using someone else's intellectual property. I've talked with dozens of different RPG players who were going to write novels about their favorite characters or adventures who didn't realize until someone pointed it out that everything from the names on the map to the gods of the realm are the intellectual property of the company who created the game. So unless you're writing the book for that publisher (great work, if you can get it), you're going to have to go through and scrub everything in order to make sure nothing you can be sued over makes its way into the final product. And depending on how intimately your story is connected to this specific setting, that might torpedo your whole project.

Another problem I see a lot of writers deal with is that when they base their books off of RPGs they often end up with a distinct RPG feel to them, which can introduce a flavor to their stories they may not even realize is there at first. For example, roleplaying games generally have tiered threats and achievements, with the player characters growing in power over the course of the story. So they start off protecting towns from goblin raids, and end the story fighting god-like wizards for the fate of the world. Now, there's nothing wrong with that kind of escalation, but if your story has definite periods where the party "levels up" in threats and powers, just happening to discover new abilities when they most need them, that can impose a structure you weren't intending on your narrative.

Where the hell did all this come from?
Speaking of unintentional structure, another issue folks who try to write stories and novels based off their gaming experiences run into is adopting the framework of the game for how things work in their books. As an example, in fantasy RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder your spellcasters have a certain number of spell slots per day they can use for their magic. This is meant to keep things fair in the context of a game's challenge, but it isn't necessarily something a story will benefit from. If your protagonist is a wizard, though, and that limitation has been part of their character since their inception, you might simply adopt this Vancian magic system out of reflex. The same is true with iconic magic items, the special abilities of the monk, or the rage of the barbarian; if you get too steeped in how things work in the game, you often end up copying and pasting those elements into your story without asking whether they're helping or hurting.

To be clear, that's not inherently a bad thing. There is, after all, an entire genre of Lit RPG books which are supposed to feel like you're reading an RPG campaign. But if you aren't doing it on purpose, it likely won't make your book better.

Lastly, something I would recommend to those looking to use RPGs to enhance their writing is to test out concepts and ideas, rather than simply recording the events of a campaign and then writing them in a more engaging prose format. Part of the reason for this is because (with very few exceptions) you are not the only one at the table, and the other players may not take kindly to having their characters wind up in your work. This goes double if you're the dungeon master, because then it feels like you ran the game so your friends could write your book for you. Learn how to test specific elements and ideas, and to take those things out of the game, polish them, refine them, and spin a book about them.

You get a lot more mileage out of this approach.

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That's all for this week's Craft of Writing! For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, or at My Amazon Author Page where you can find books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, or my short story collection The Rejects!

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