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Unsouled by Will Wight
 

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What I Learned as a Tabletop Gamer

Dungeons and Dragons Red BoxIn news that will shock precisely no one that has spoken to me for any amount of time, I am a massive nerd. Like, huge. I am the kind of nerd who is genuinely surprised when people don’t enjoy hour long one-sided conversations (re: rants) about political systems of Middle Earth or subtleties hidden within an anime about guys without shirts shouting at each other and firing lasers from their fists. So it should come as no surprise that I have been known to partake in that most geeky of pastimes, the activity most looked down on by the average person, whom I refer to as “normies”. That’s right. I play tabletop RPGs. Dungeons & Dragons. Pathfinder. Dark Heresy. FATE. You name it, I have probably spent an unhealthy number of Saturdays in the dark basement of a comic book shop playing it.

And it has actually been one of the best things for me as a writer.

Now, I know what you’re thinking (since I cast detect thoughts, suckers). Surely this hobby is nothing more than an interesting distraction at best and a huge waste of time at worst. I mean, it’s all a bunch of sweaty nerds making Star Wars jokes and casting pretend spells on pretend monsters when they should be getting a job and moving out of their parents’ basement. And… well, gaming has that (sometimes stereotypes are true) but there are also bankers, scientists, actors (Vin Diesel will apparently talk your ear right off about his character), and, yes, even successful writers such as Jim Butcher and George R.R. Martin. It’s a hobby that attracts pretty much anyone who is interested in sitting around a table with friends, beating the hell out of orcs, and telling stories. Because, at its heart, that’s what this is all about: telling stories. And that is why it can be such a valuable experience for fantasy writers, because it makes you…

Plan Less and Do More

Flenta the Halfling Fighter by Jason BulmahnThere are two types of people who sit around the table, no matter what game you’re playing: the players, who control a single character taking part in the story, and the Game Master (GM), who controls everything else and drives his plot forward with the Player Characters (PCs, if you will) taking the central roles. As a player, you only need to show up with a character that obeys the rules of whatever system you’re using and a backstory for how you got to that point. Players, especially those who count themselves as writers, are always tempted to put way too much effort into making their backstory super intricate and interesting, but that’s kind of missing the point. Not that answering the question, “How did my character decide that a life of adventuring was their best option?” isn’t important. However, it is not nearly as important as the question of, “What happens next?”, which is something a lot of writers struggle with.

We all know someone who is forever in the planning stages of their novel, who wants to know every detail of their world, characters, and plot before they start churning out words, as though that will magically allow them to skip the editing process completely (spoiler alert: it won’t). They also tend to be the people who show up at a gaming table with a six-page long backstory for their character, full of important details about where they have been but failing to answer the most important question of all: Why are they adventuring? They are focusing too much on where their work has come from and not near enough on where it is going.

D&D Party Planning by CarmenSinek

The planning stage is not where writing happens. Not that it isn’t important to creating a cohesive and engaging narrative, but that isn’t where the story gets told. Plan, plot, and know where your characters are going, but don’t do it so long that you forget to, you know, write.

Balance is the Key Word

Dungeons and Dragons Beholder Encounter by Deimos-RemusWant to know what the main complaint people have about tabletop games? I mean, other than the fact that their GM seems to delight in destroying their hopes and dreams. (It’s in our nature. Sorry not sorry.) The biggest complaint you’ll see on message boards is the lack of balance between different characters. Maybe wizards are too strong or monks don’t get enough abilities at high levels or clerics can do everything the fighter can and then some. Creating a game system is a long, costly endeavour, so a lot of time gets dedicated to avoiding this problem because no one wants to get to the table and then have to ask the question, “Why is my character even here?”

Now imagine every single character in your novel asking the same question. Why are they there? What contribution are they making? Can the main character already do what they’re trying to do but better and/or sexier? If so, then you have two options: either cut them or, if that would leave you with your main character wandering a desolate uninhabited wasteland, then make them more interesting. Give them a skill that the main character doesn’t have. Make them into something that drives the plot forward so that we care about them by the end of the book. Just like no one class should be better than the other in D&D, no character should be so good at everything that they make everyone else obsolete. It’s just not fun to read.

Challenge Everyone

the Dungeon Master by MoulinBleuEver read a book where there is a character who can solve all their problems by just being awesome at everything? How exciting was that? What’s that? Not very? Oh dear! That is…not very surprising at all, actually. The essence of drama is conflict. Without that, you don’t have a story anyone will want to read. As a writer, it is tempting to make your main character too awesome, forcing all supporting characters into the role of impressed bystanders. In fantasy, this is especially tempting, as the genre usually resolves around the “special” person, the one with an item or ability or birthright that will be key to saving the day. And that is fine, but there must be a danger of (and consequences for) failure otherwise, again, why should I care?

In D&D, and many other tabletop RPG systems, the GM designs encounters to test the PCs in some way. These might be combat (kill the goblins!), environmental (escape the burning goblin lair!), or social (convince the police that you thought the orphanage was a goblin lair!), but they are all designed to tax the players in some way and to present consequences, usually a gruesome death. However, keeping these encounters fair yet challenging is an art form unto itself. Too difficult and the players will flip the table in frustration. Too easy and you can’t laugh as they fret and squirm in fear (GMs are evil. Always remember that.).

It is the same thing when writing conflict in a book. The challenge needs to be great enough that the characters should have a reasonable chance of failure but not so great that success is impossible without help from outside forces. Every victory should be by the skin of their teeth. Every failure should cost them something. Otherwise, what is the point? Why should the reader care?

Every Character Needs to Shine

Giant Devilfish Fight by yanimatorIn every adventuring party, a star is born. Someone is going to take the lead. Particularly in large groups, it becomes necessary to have a face character, someone who represents your group to the world at large. As a GM, the person playing that world at large, it is always very tempting to focus on that character and make them the centre of the plot, but this is a mistake. There is no greater way to alienate the rest of the group than to give too much attention to a single PC. Everyone needs to be equally invested in the story you’re all telling in order for it work. Even just a side quest relating to a missing family member, a love interest that shows up now and then, or a nod to their backstory as the party travels around causing mayhem and destruction. It will go a long way to keeping them engaged and having fun, and that should be every GM’s number one priority. Aside from making their players cry, of course (remember – evil).

Dice by Hector OrtizWhen writing, do you ever find characters who are the same from beginning to end? Sometimes, this is alright. The random barkeep doesn’t need to be developed further. We don’t need to see the effects the epic quest has on every background character or soldier, but if you reach the end of the story and the main character’s best friend is still the same cheerful, upbeat guy he was on page one, then you should consider giving them that little bit of development. Give them something to love and then threaten to take it away. Better yet, just take it away and make them work to get it back. Just like raising children (Editor’s Note: Fantasy-Faction does not endorse this statement). The point is, if you haven’t explored your characters enough for them to change over the course of the story, then you should give them a bit more attention. Otherwise, your readers aren’t going to care about them and they will just drag the story down with their uninteresting, bland presence.

Got any fun RPG stories that made you a better writer? Or just generally fun RPG stories that you want to share? Let us know in the comments below or on Facebook! We love getting our geek on!

Title image by MoulinBleu.

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3 Comments

  1. There is a third kind of player at the table as well: the party leader. Whether formally appointed or not, nearly every successful group has one. There are real world benefits from learning how to turn a bunch of individualists that you have no hold over (you certainly are not paying them) into an effective, goal-driven force. Then you get to the raid leader for 72 man raids in Everquest. These raids have to be organized like military operations with every member doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing with a high level of skill–and if you annoy one player more than you motivate them then they will just log out and potentially end the entire enterprise. These develop skills with real payoffs (i.e. six-figure salaries) in the real world. Oddly, it’s amazing how many of these folks bag groceries for a living and really do live in their mother’s basements. I am NOT judging. If they ever emerge, watch out!

    • Whoops, missed the last section. Sorry, you did mention the party leader, although not by that name and with more of a caution to the GM. I actually wrote a couple of chapters once for a book that started with the main character ruthlessly steamrollering a group of people to make himself the party leader in Wizards and Warlocks tournament at GameCon–he really was the best choice for it but he started out really obnoxious in the way he manipulated people. His character arc would have involved developing better empathy as the book went on. Who knows? I may still write it.

  2. Great article. D&D (and all tabletop RPGs) are great inspiration. In fact, my most recent novel, The Girl with Red Hair, is the first of an eventual series inspired by the campaign I create(d) and run on Friday nights. The campaign story and characters became such a great backbone for a novel, and then gave me the opportunity to put a lot more detail into it. Story inspiration can come from anywhere, but tabletop RPGs just seem like a story creator themselves. And if you’re a DM, it’s a good place to test out different story elements and NPCs.

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