Thursday, November 12, 2015

Things That I Like: Becoming a Better Writer Through Roleplaying

There was a time when every roleplaying game opened up with an explanation of what RPGs were and described them as being improvisational storytelling with some rules (or a lot of them, GURPS) to govern conflicts, &c &c. The only thing that I find wrong with this is that none of these books have, to my knowledge, mentioned that if you are interested in writing stories then it’s a good thing that you picked up an RPG.
This article is not meant to introduce you to the world of roleplaying. It’s supposed to get you to see roleplaying in a light which you may not have seen it in before now: a way to practice your writing game.
Or, for that matter, to help you to actually work out certain parts of your story. Using a roleplay transcript as the basis for your story is frowned upon in some circles, and I remember at least once coming across submissions guidelines which included it on their list of bad, horrible, no-good things that they never want to see from you. Perhaps unsurprisingly, going from roleplay to narrative has a better reputation in the world of fanfiction. I have to admit looking askance at it in my early days (or even a year ago) but since then I have found roleplaying to be a useful technique for getting into a character’s head in one of my series, The Gods Have Horns, and there is another series of roleplaying sessions that has been doing well enough that we’re considering revising and converting the transcripts over into a narrative form.
It is not only in the world of fanfiction that getting stories out of your roleplaying sessions can bear good fruit. The characters of Dragonlance were developed over the course of a number of gaming sessions. Love it or hate it, the series had produced almost 200 novels and tens of millions of copies. Record of Lodoss War, which began at about the same time as Dragonlance, was originally nothing more than a series of Dungeons and Dragons transcripts published in a magazine called Comtiq. Over time, however, it grew into a franchise with eight novels, fifty-six anime episodes, twenty-three manga volumes, ten soundtracks, ten video games, and two spin-offs. And according to Karen Woodward, Jim Butcher of Dresden Files fame sends “his world-building-ideas on a trial run with his weekly gaming group.”
(At some point in process the work needs to actually be made good, but what’s the difference between a gaming-derived story that needed to be revised eight times over a story that never heard of the world “roleplay” and also needed to be revised eight times?)
This isn’t to say that you should only roleplay something which you intend to turn into a story someday. Just the process of roleplaying (and especially of being the gamemaster) will be helpful to your craft. But rather than try to convince you myself, I will let some established authors do the speaking for me.
In his article “Twenty-Sided Troubadours: Why Writers Should Play Roleplaying Games,” Chuck Wendig gives us the following advice:
“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.
[…]
“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.”
In the comments, somebody named Josin says:
“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 [sic] you’re working with, the other players will slap you upside the head with a cluestick.”
While I can’t vouch for this myself, a number of people have said that a game called Fiasco is especially useful for polishing your writing chops.
Whether you simply intend to improve your skills or you want to turn your session into a story, I would suggest running one-on-one sessions with just a single person. You can rotate the position if you are both in this for the writing benefits, but in my experience being the gamemaster—if there is one at all—is usually more helpful than being the player (if you’re trying to get into a single character’s head, on the other hand, then being the player might be more helpful). Kirk Kohnson-Weider has roughly four years of thoughts on the subject, in the roleplaying column Duets.
And as far as that goes, /tg/ (of 4chan) has a tradition of large-scale roleplays called Quests, wherein a number of people (anyone who cares to read along in the thread) take on the collective role of the player character (generally). A guide to running Quests can be found here. Adventures on the MSPA Forums are much the same as Quests except that switching between characters is more common and there is a greater expectation that you will be drawing a lot. Not well, just… at all. The websites Anonkun and MSPaint Fan Adventures, for Quests and Adventures respectively, make either one a bit (or a lot) easier to handle.
Before we close out I would like to offer up the wisdom of Greg Stolze, author and game designer, who was kind enough to respond to my very short, one-question interview: Would you consider it good advice for authors to pick up RPing in order to hone their storytelling skills?
“I would say that if an author thinks that RPing sounds fun, it certainly won’t hurt their writing. The way RPing has particularly helped me is by getting me out of my private hermetic headspace and forcing me to interact with other people, through story, in real time. It helps me incorporate others’ interests instead of just getting wrapped up in my own concerns solely. And this is a fine balance, because ‘the things that interest me’ are probably the things I’m most likely to write about interestingly. But writers always run the risk of becoming self-absorbed, and having to absorb others with your story, immediately, in a milieu where part of the control is in the hands of the players and part lies with dice… that cures navel-gazing really quick.
“Another advantage is that, inevitably, players throw GMs curve balls and go off in wild, weird directions. Once you’ve handled that with some aplomb, it helps [you to] relax when you’re writing alone and things go pear-shaped. The ability to relax into one’s creation without losing all momentum is really valuable, and improvising back and forth with players can help with that, I find.”
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