This article is by Terry W. Ervin II.
It is often said, “Write what you know.” This can be a stumbling block for some writers. How do you convincingly write a dastardly or evil character in a novel if you’ve never acted or done such things? That is where Role Playing Game (RPG) experience can benefit a writer.
Whether it’s space adventure (as in Traveller), sword and sorcery (as in AD&D) or even spy and espionage intrigue (as in Top Secret)—okay, you as the reader may be muttering, “Man, those games are old—no, near ancient.” But those are examples of games that I cut my RPG teeth on years ago, and those led to the foundation for some of my writing and storytelling ability. Even games like Diplomacy, Star Fleet Battles, King Maker, Axis & Allies, and yes, even Monopoly, can add a more strategic overview that may be of benefit to a writer.
As an RPGer, playing (or running) different types of characters in varied settings, one can come to recognize and appreciate the different goals, motivations, strengths and weaknesses of a variety of characters. An RPGer quickly comes to learn that the character they’re running is far more than the numerical statistics and the list of skills and abilities listed on a sheet of paper (or computer screen).
And, as an aside, I’ve come across many writers, especially on forums, that create ‘Character Profiles’ listing physical description, educational background, likes and dislikes, family, friends, enemies, and much more. Still, they struggle to bring a character to life in the pages of their novels and short stories—no matter how detailed and comprehensive the character profile. That’s because what comprises a character is far more than lists and numbers.
Taking on the persona of an elven wizard leading a party into the depths of a necromancer-controlled forest or a green secret agent attempting to infiltrate a small-time black market organization are just two examples demonstrating the wide breadth of experience an RPGer can gain in taking on a character’s point of view, and working through an adventure—which is, in its essence, an evolving storyline. To be sure, the adventures are made up, including the actions, reactions and interactions based on the player’s and the game moderator’s, and any other involved RPGer’s imagination, all within the rules of the game. But isn’t that the essence of what writing fiction is?
One step beyond being a player (or participant) in an RPG is being a game moderator or game master (GM). Not only must the GM play the part of multiple non player characters (NPCs), including their interactions, personalities, goals, among other things, but it is the GM who constructs the world in which the participants play. How grand and detailed the world is can vary greatly, but the process has many elements in common with writing a novel.
Created worlds include social structures, including governments, laws, socio-economic structures, social norms and taboos, competing cultures and subcultures, histories, technology, even varying races, religious beliefs and languages. In an RPG, much of the world is developed over time, and often only surface elements are scratched and understood, just as in a novel, where 90% of the history and foundation of a created world or universe is never directly observed, or even recognized, by the reader. But still, it is there.
To be sure, the breadth and depth of creation of a world contained within a novel varies depending on the setting and genre. A modern murder mystery would require less creating than a military science fiction novel set five-hundred years in the future.
Even so, a GM, like a writer, must keep track of all the moving parts. What ripple effect would the assassination of a loved and respected prime mister, or a severe drought in a vital food-supplying region have upon the immediate and surrounding societies, from powerful leaders down to the lowest of beggars?
Thus, not only would an experienced GM have a background in creating variety of believable characters, but he would also have practice in creating believable societies, nations, worlds and even universes within the pages of a novel.
Beyond that, over time a GM becomes adept at description. Sights, sounds, smells, touch and occasionally taste are important. Just as players in an RPG must understand their surroundings and environment, the same must occur for the reader while drawing from the words on the page. An advantage a GM has over the average novelist is that players provide instant feedback, often through looks of confusion, immediate questions, or nods of understanding. Because of this, the ‘description’ learning curve can be shortened if a writer has GM experience.
Last, pacing is both important in an adventure created by a GM and also throughout the storyline of a short story or novel. The main difference is that in an RPG adventure, players have greater influence than do characters in a novel, where the writer has complete control. Still, like cross-training, skill in one lends itself to improved ability in the other.
So, while being an avid RPGer and/or an effective GM doesn’t guarantee the successful jump to writing fiction, it does enable the gamer to bring a familiar set of tools to the task.
About the Author:
Terry W. Ervin II is the author of The First Civilization’s Legacy series. To date, the series includes the novels Flank Hawk and Blood Sword. To learn more about Terry and his work, visit his blog, Up Around the Corner, as well as his writing site.