How Role-Playing Games Made Me a Better Writer

Imagine that you are directing a movie. You have meticulously planned the setting, the villains, the supporting cast and the plot. You come to the set, say "action"--and the actors do nothing that you wrote in the script. Instead, they challenge the enemy in a way you did not predict.
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Imagine that you are directing a movie. You have meticulously planned the setting, the villains, the supporting cast and the plot. You come to the set, say "action"--and the actors do nothing that you wrote in the script. Instead, they challenge the enemy in a way you did not predict. Imagine also that this was your only take, your only chance to get the shot. You might have to learn to think on your feet. You might have to ensure that you know your story inside out and upside down--in case your actors bend it out of shape.

I am a writer, the author of The Nethergrim, the first in a series of middle-grade fantasy books. I am also a gamer, and have been since I was eight years old. There are many types of gamer; mine is the sort who enjoy in-person, tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons, which is only one of many game settings and styles that range from gritty war to gossamer myth. Such games are shared stories, with one person acting as writer and director--the storyteller, as it is often called. This storyteller takes on the role of monsters, sidekicks and bystanders, and even the silent influence of the natural world. The other people gathered at the table become the heroes, protagonists of a story made only for them.

A storytelling game can become a private universe, a whole second life. At its best, it can reach the place often sought by the use of expensive special effects in movies--deep immersion in the story and its world. My players and I have experienced tests of our ideals within my games that have served to shape us ever since. Perhaps the events did not really happen, but the ideas and emotions did. Please don't think of us stuck forever in our fantasies--my players are some of the most interesting and accomplished people I know. They are archaeologists and physicists, programmers and lawyers, but they share a secret past. They remember when two versions of their future selves argued over which group had come from farther forward in time, and thus knew the true future. They remember the basso profundo chord and the stench of phenol that announced their strange, alien nemesis. They remember the place of unspeakable horror where they wandered, bereft of all hope, until they discovered that they were locked inside a dream and the only way out was to die.

The only other place where I have found myself so deeply invested in a created world is within the pages of a book. There is something about the use of words, spoken or read, that sets my mind free, that lets me step into the imagined place in a way no other medium can replicate. In a book, of course, all the characters are mine to make and break, but a life spent running role-playing games has taught me how to hold them separately in my mind, how to make them real unto themselves and not merely my finger-puppets. When I write, I try to pull the same trick on myself that I always try to pull on the players of my games; if you can fall far enough into a story that you forget yourself, even for an instant, you can be presented with the hero's choice--to fight or to run, to love or to betray--and you won't be able to lie about your answer.

Games, like books, involve conflicts, and conflicts are sometimes physical. The games I have written and run have taught me what makes for a thrilling scene, what sorts of fights or chases fill the participants with a sense of mythic consequence and which ones produce a mood of gnawing dread. A lifetime describing where the archer who shot at you might be, the density of the foliage under which he might be hiding and whether your friends might hear your cries for help have taught me both the use and the limits of detail. I have created and experienced so many climactic battle scenes, so many I-am-your-father's and cast-the-ring-into-the-fire's, that I have begun to learn how they work, and to honor the coinage of conflict, growth and suspense by which they are fairly bought.

The third label I can claim is that of academic anthropologist, and this I tell you, true as death--human beings have been making and sharing stories for as long as they have been recognizably human. We are meaning-making creatures, beings who need narrative only slightly less than food. There is a look that lights up the eyes of my players when the created world of the game becomes real in their minds. It is the same look that comes over someone listening to a good story. I know that look, and have worked for years to find ways to evoke it within the shared, immediate experience of gaming. This has nourished my writing, teaching me how to imitate the workings of the Fates. A mixture of gentleness and caprice serves the writer well. In any story worth reading, there is a time for shining victory, because perseverance, bravery and love really do matter. There is also a time to kill the hero, because heroes are people, and people die. In the right balance, these turns of despair and hope can make the hero--and the reader--feel that the Fates might care what happens to him, and then again, they might not. In other words, it can make art feel a lot like life.

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