3 Ways Role Playing Makes You A Better Writer

Roll for damage to your free time.

1. Players, like characters, do whatever the hell they want. If you’ve ever played a tabletop RPG, you might be familiar with these people:

-The one who wants to fight everything, from healers to legendary dragons to inanimate objects.

-The one who wants to fuck everything, from healers to legendary dragons to inanimate objects.

-The one who tries to murder other party members.

-The one who refuses to explore any area beyond a cursory look and complains anytime another character wants to check something out.

-The one who soliloquizes every movement, describing everything they do in excrutiating detail.

-The one who hesitates and takes forever to decide what to do every time.

-The one who jumps in without understanding the situation and almost gets everyone killed.

-The one who’s only here for the loot. If it comes from your corpse, they’re not complaining.

And a thousand other iterations of these and other player qualities. I’m not slagging players; I’ve done a lot of these myself. And I’ve run games with all of them, at once. Sometimes one person is all eight.

Understand the motivations, and you can get them to do what you want. Most of the time. This will be good practice for working out character motivations. Just like the players, characters in your story shouldn’t do something ‘just because’. They should want to fight something, fuck something, steal something, be rich, be powerful, be famous. You should know what you have to do in order to get them to walk down the suspicious path in the oddly-quiet forest.

2. Character Knowledge versus Player Knowledge will fuck you up. Picture this: you’ve stormed into the Temple of The Dread Spider God. The High Priest is in the middle of his chant that will summon the Endless Eight-Legged Horrors of Crawling On Your Face While You Sleep. If he finishes the ritual, shit will go down. What do you do?

If you’re 99.9% of role-players, you smite that bastard, and you smite him good and hard. Job well done.


Except when you kill him, his blood falls on the altar, thus completing the ritual and summoning the Eight-Legged Horrors anyway.

The player made the best choice they could, with the information they had available, and it still turned out badly. Keep this in mind for your writing, because characters should do this, too. They don’t know everything. And if they don’t know everything, there’s a reasonable chance that the choice they make to fix something will actually fuck it up.

Making it worse: every character’s superpower.

Differentiate between character knowledge and author knowledge. You know that pushing that button won’t turn off the alarm, it will summon the guards. But the character doesn’t, so they’d probably push it. Or a character doesn’t know that talking about their family will activate that other character’s anxiety because they don’t want anyone to find out about what their father did. Mess things up.

3. Roll with it. There is one guarantee in role-playing games: no matter how long you’ve been playing, no matter how many campaigns you’ve seen to the end, no matter how many mounts your fighter has had eaten out from under them by the goddamn Tarrasque, something you never thought could happen—something you never even conceived of—will happen.

And you’ll have to roll with it.*

The random nature of the dice roll is such that occasionally the unthinkable or the unimaginable happens, and it rockets the plot down a new road. It’s not quite that random in writing, but sometimes the tumblers click in your brain and you realize that the only way forward is to do something new. Maybe something that you don’t like. Maybe that character you really like has to die, or betray the protagonist. You can go back and change everything to get a new outcome, or you can roll with it and see what happens.

Role-playing makes you flexible. And, speaking as someone who loves critical fails almost as much as critical hits, it can make you realize that what you thought was the worst outcome is actually the best.

Do any of you role-play? Has it taught you anything about writing? Make a knowledge (gaming) check and tell me your best role-playing story.

*Roll with it? Like rolling dice? Get it? Get it?

Subvert The System: 6 Ways To Hack NaNoWriMo

Quick, before the NaNo Police arrive!

So I’m doing NaNoWriMo this year. Kind of a last minute decision. But, since I’m already in the process of doing something else—namely The Big Edit—I figured this would be a good chance to kick start it.

Now, I won’t be starting from scratch; I’m actually rewriting the last NaNoWriMo project I did. Don’t tell the NaNo Police*, since it isn’t strictly by the rules, but rules were made to be broken, baby. Or at least severely bent.

I know there are more than a few of you out there who might have considered NaNo as a jumpstart for writing, but you don’t feel that your project fits their guidelines. Well, guidelines be damned; this is about writing. So here are a couple ways to hack NaNo to fit your project.

1) Go Short And Sweet. A small but interesting group writes short stories instead of novels for November. Some do thirty in thirty days; others try to tally 50,000 words worth of short stories in a month. If you’re more into short fiction, this could be your project.

2) Hack and Slash. Maybe, like me, you’ve got a project that needs editing. NaNo can jumpstart that, too. Depending on your needs, maybe you could edit a chapter a day. You’d be through those edits in no time! Or, if you need to spend a little more time on it, go for a page a day and really fucking dig into it.

3) Draw Me A Picture. I am a long-time lover of comics and graphic novels, as evidenced by the contents of my t-shirt drawer, and I see nothing wrong with taking NaNoWriMo and working on a comic script. Whether you’re writing a poignant narrative about life during the Enlightenment, a heady space adventure, or a rocking cape story with heroes galore, this could be your time.

4) Just The Facts, Ma’am. Or maybe you need to grind out some non-fiction. Honestly, if I’d known about NaNoWriMo when I was working on my theses, I would have jumped on it like a meth-addicted cat on a slow mouse. Talk about footnotes with your fellow academics! Or compare dodgy research methods and start messing up Wikipedia articles!

5) Roll A Craft (Writing) Check. All you tabletop gamers out there: do you think those books of rules, monsters, scenarios, and dodgy magical items write themselves? Jump in and have a go. There’s a small group that sharpens their pencils and rolls the dice to make up scenarios for their favourite games. Or maybe writes their own game. Break the rules by making other rules!

6) Something Else Entirely! There’s a group on the NaNoWriMo forums called NaNo Rebels. There’s not as many things in there as you might think; the rules have changed a little in recent years to allow for other sorts of projects than the puke-it-up-as-you-go zero draft. But if you’re not sure what it is that you want to do—if, in fact, all you have in an amorphous idea blob that could become any number of things—then trawling through there might give your project a shape.

And if you are in doubt about the legitimacy of your project, they will be more than happy to tell you whether or not you belong in the regular forums or in with the rebels. Also, I hear that they might be giving our eyepatches and parrots to eligible candidates.

Still think it’s not for you? Fair enough. But know that the doors are more open than the title ‘National Novel Writing Month’ might imply. And, even if they’re not, there’s no harm in squeezing under the door when no one’s looking.

*No such thing, but a trip through the internets could leave you thinking differently.

Monday Challenge: Nature Versus Demeanour

Le Vampire,engraving by R. de Moraine

Seriously, who wants an eternity of that?(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the games I’ve run as a Game Master over the last few years is Vampire: The Perpetual Hassle*. The system is flawed** but there was one part of the character creation process that intrigued me. There were two aspects side by side at the top of the sheet: Nature and Demeanour. And they were all about the role-playing aspect of the character as opposed to the stats.

On one side, Nature: the way the character just is. The way they were born or the way they were raised, something made them that person at heart. It’s who they really are.

And on the other, Demeanour: who other people perceive them to be. The face they present to the world, intentionally or not.

Now, it’s possible with some characters that these could be identical. A character that appeared to be a brash, no-nonsense, heat-of-the-moment type could really be that way. Or they could be an abject coward who puts on that face to prove something to themselves and others. Or a deeply manipulative little shit who knows that the easiest way to put one over on people is to be underestimated.

You see where I’m going with this?

Your characters have a Nature and a Demeanour as well. They have who they are and who they appear to be. The way those things are presented—if they work together or constantly contradict each other, if their outward manner is a direct contradiction to their inner personality or closely aligned, if they believe their own demeanour over what they know is true, deep down—will influence their progress through the story. Might influence their exit, too, especially if someone who is essentially harmless comes off as a threat.

Monday Challenge: write about a character’s Nature and Demeanour. They might be similar, they might be diametrically opposed. They might be something in between.  Figure it out.

*Okay, that’s not it’s real title, but a Jhonen Vasquez comic I read fucking years ago referred to a game by this name and I’ve always secretly thought of it that way.
**Like all gaming systems. You have to take what’s useful and run.

The Slow Reveal

this is how i roll

This is how I roll. (Photo credit: jima)

Among my other hobbies, I play tabletop role-playing games.* Run them sometimes, too. If I want to be all responsible about it, I can tell you about how both playing and running RPGs is a great way to build writing skills; after all, you create stories and characters and events and then watch them play out. I play for fun, sure, but never overlook an opportunity to hone the skills, right?

Right now I’m playing a game run by a friend of mine, Spiderman Dave**. And, I have to tell you, Dave is the fucking master of the slow reveal.

When we made our characters, we made skill sets and character traits and personalities, but not backstories. We didn’t know enough about the world Dave had created to do so with any believability, so we left it to him. And in the months since we’ve started playing, he’s dropped in bits and pieces about our pasts here and there. Just enough to let us play the characters convincingly, but not enough to know the whole story. So we’re left with questions. A lot of them. Why are extremely high-ranked military officers searching so hard for a single deserter? Who put the exceptionally high price on the bar owner’s head? Why did an operative leave his loving fiancé and join a mission that will see him dead within five years? Why send a mission to an obscure corner of the universe with no hope of success?

All those questions. And, I don’t know about anyone else, but at least half the reason I’m playing is to find out the goddamned answers. The combat’s fun, and my character does have an awful lot of shiny toys, but the questions are what keep me coming back. Curiosity: I has it. In fucking spades.

Works in other fiction, too. Questions lead the reader on. Hell, look at Citizen Kane*** . Fucking ‘Rosebud’? However you feel about that movie, you have to admit that it poses a question early on which is not answered until the end, and that question digs at your brain.

That bit’s important, too; I’ve written elsewhere about the importance of keeping your promises. The answers have to fit. There has to be a pay-off. But ask those questions early and then let them dangle in the reader’s mind. This works especially well if it’s something the characters already know; people rarely need to talk about something that they know, so the long reveal makes sense. If you’re just hiding something for the sake of hiding it, then it doesn’t work and the reader feels like you’re being a cock.

But with the right questions asked at the right time, you can lead a reader right through the story you’ve written. Just make sure the answer’s not a goddamned sled.

*For the non-nerds among you, this includes things like Dungeons and Dragons, Shadowrun, Call of Cthulhu, Rifts…all that stuff that requires character sheets and dice and spare time. Hell of a lot of fun if you’ve never tried it.

**Thus named to distinguish him from the other Daves I know: Uncle Dave, Tattoo Dave, Fur-Pants Dave, I-Nailed-His-Hat-To-My-Door-With-A-Pocket-Knife Dave…

***Apologies for using such a tired, over-used reference, but I didn’t want to spoil things for people by using a newer one. Frankly, if you don’t know the ending of Citizen Kane by now, you haven’t been paying attention.