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?

Blood and Sand: How I Learned To Write Action Scenes

Gladiator fights at "Brot und Spiele"...

Tip One: The pointy end goes into the other guy.(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am always writing.

Even times like this, when I’m caught between projects, I’m still writing. Playing in the sandbox, mostly. Stuff that’s never intended for publication. Scenes, moments, attempts at capturing a feeling…all that stuff’s in the sandbox. It’s where I go to experiment.

Some people might call this a waste of time. I could be working on something else, surely? Something that would pay? Or might, someday? But I’d say that those people are missing the point. The sandbox is where I go to work on skills. It’s a form of deliberate practice, which is how you really improve your abilities at things. You don’t just hammer away; you develop a plan.

Example time: I’m not great at writing action scenes. I have to work really fucking hard at giving them the appropriate tension and consequences, while still putting in enough description to work out what the hell is going on. So, one of the things I do in the sandbox is write fights. All kinds of them—fist fights, gun fights, sword fights, giant robot fights. Actually, one thing I do a lot is write versions of the fights that happen in the tabletop RPG I play with some friends. It’s an RPG; fights are going to happen. So I use those as source material and work out how I would write that event. I take some liberties, shift things around, and figure out what works, what doesn’t, and what’s the difference. I can break those scenes down piece by piece without worry, because they’re just practice. They don’t affect a plot. I can play with them to my heart’s content without breaking anything else.* I can rework them until they’re right.

Now, obviously none of those scenes will ever be published**. They’re not even a part of one of my stories. But as a training tool they are invaluable. My action scenes have improved since I started doing this; writing them is much less torturous than it used to be. And they’re getting better, faster, grittier, and more dangerous. My stories are getting better. I can write things—for submission this time—that I otherwise avoided or never thought of in the first place. All because I took the time to play in the sandbox and work on something I suck at.

In the words of Jake from Adventure Time:


*Except some bones. And cities.
**If they were, it’d have to be in some anthology called 1001 Ways To Fight Minions and Monsters: Giant Robot Edition.