Why Every Writer Should Play a Tabletop RPG, and How to Get Started

Recently I crossed the final frontier into Nerd-dom and got into tabletop RPGs (role-playing games). I am slightly ashamed of myself, but I’m having too much fun to care. So now I periodically meet with two groups of friends to roll dice, have magical adventures, and… unintentionally learn about writing!

So if you’re a writer who’s never played a tabletop RPG: today, I want to convince you that it’s totally worth it. First, let’s talk about how RPGs can help writers. Then, I’ll tell you guys about how to get into RPGs as a complete beginner and for free, no Dungeons and Dragons required! (Nothing against D&D, it’s just a little overwhelming to start out with.)

So how will playing a tabletop RPG make me a better writer?

AS A PC (PLAYER CHARACTER)

pc player character

If you’re familiar with the basics of RPGs, you can skip this paragraph, but if you’re not, read on. The GM, or Game Master (sometimes called the DM/Dungeon Master, but I’m going with GM because it’s what I say) is the narrator and plays all the NPCs (non-player characters). Everyone else plays a specific PC who’s part of the adventuring party, and they make decisions and enter combat as their character. For example, in one of my groups, I play as Fern, an old but strong shepherdess, who’s stubborn, brave, and a little crazy. In my other group, I’m the GM.

So how can playing as a PC help your writing? Normally when you write a story, you’re acting as both GM and PC. But when you’re only the PC, you’re allowed to focus on that character. You really get in their head, and sometimes you have to make a tough decision between what’s “in character” and what would benefit the overall quest/party. I know that sometimes when I write, my characters turn into little versions of me, doing what I’d do and saying what I’d say. But when you’re playing as a PC, you have to think about what your character would do. For example, I’m very cautious, but Fern will charge into battle even when she hasn’t got much health left. So even though I want to hold Fern back, I don’t, because Fern wouldn’t hold back. These decisions help differentiate your characters from yourself.

But, on the other side of the same coin, playing as a PC also makes you think of characters as real people. How many times have you read a book, shaken your head at a character’s actions, and thought “No one would ever actually think/do/say that?” Well, since you’re a real person, your own logic is going to influence your PC’s actions, and you’re going to act at least somewhat how you, a real person, would. You can carry this over into your writing by thinking of each character as a PC in their own mind. This will lead you to write more believable characters whose choices make sense, given their motivations and perception of reality.

AS A GM (GAME MASTER)

Game-master

As the GM, you’re the world that reacts to the characters. You’re the innkeeper, the weather, the terrain… everything the characters encounter. You draw up maps, you write out situations, you’re the opposing side in combat. You control everything… except for the PCs. And for a writer, that lack of control can be surprising.

As a writer, when I come up with a problem for my characters, I’m also the ones to solve it. But as the GM, it’s up to the PCs to solve the problems I throw at them. So I have to be prepared for their creativity. I’ll brainstorm some possible solutions for them, but still, their decisions can surprise me. For example: the PCs needed potion ingredients, one of which was the coffin nail of a powerful lady. I’d expected them to try to grave-rob or hijack a funeral procession or something, but instead, they immediately decided to go to a funeral home. So I quickly had to come up with a funeral home (I just used the one from The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh), and the characters sweet-talked and sneaked their way into getting a coffin nail. Again, this reinforces the concept of thinking of all characters as real people. It also forces you to think about problems creatively and create challenges with several possible outcomes.

Playing an RPG sounds great! How do I start?

Great question! First, you’ll need to find a group of friends to play with. Around 5 people (1 GM + 4 PCs) is a good number. Anyone who has a good sense of fun and likes games and stories will probably enjoy playing a tabletop RPG.

Next, you’ll need to decide what system to use. A great entry-level game to use (and the one I’m playing) is Maze Rats, created by Ben Milton and free to download. The rules fit on one piece of printer paper, and the rest of the booklet is full of fun tables and invaluable advice for GMs. Plus, Ben’s YouTube channel, Questing Beast, has tons of walk-throughs and example games for newbies. The only equipment you need is three regular six-sided dice, a pencil, paper, and your imagination! I love Maze Rats, and I’d definitely recommend it to beginners. (If you want a more in-depth review and explanation of Maze Rats, check out this great article on the blog Gaming with Kids. And here’s a good list of easy RPGs for beginners from the same blog.)

Then, your group needs to pick a GM. GMs should have big imaginations, be good at improvising, and enjoy worldbuilding. Then everyone else in the group can create their characterseither using a character they’ve already made up, generating one using the tables in the Maze Rats booklet (or something similar), or just playing as themselves. Once the GM has prepared a few adventures, your group is ready to go!

Cool! So what does a game session look like?

I could go on, but this isn’t meant to be a complete “how to RPG” post. If you want to know more about how tabletop RPGs work, there are a plethora of videos and blog posts out there! And if you want to see how good RPGs can get with awesome PCs and GMs, check out this short video.

What do you think? Still got questions? Do you want to start playing an RPG now? What have RPGs taught you about writing? Let me know in comments!Remnants signature

source for featured image
thanks to my sister for drawing the little pictures of pcs and gms!

12 thoughts on “Why Every Writer Should Play a Tabletop RPG, and How to Get Started

  1. Great article on how RPGs can be an excellent writer’s aid! Some of my fondest memories as a GM are how my past players reacted to situations, non-player characters (NPCs) and events in the games I’ve ran. A wild elf barbarian, wearing nothing but a loin cloth and a block of moss on his head, jumping from a high cliff onto the head of a black dragon, then singlehandedly slaying it with his two axes while yelling things in his native tongue (which no other character save for one could understand btw) is just one example. Another is the time a Gnome Thief convinced the mayor of the port city that the mayor’s ship actually belonged to him and that the mayor should be ashamed for trespassing onto private property (he has unbelievably high charisma and rolled natural 20s on a d20) is yet another.

    The joy of these games is that no two games are ever alike. You could run the same adventure with two different groups and have two completely different outcomes. I highly encourage everyone reading to try one. There are plenty of games that can be had for little to no money, from combat heavy to all story driven and everything in between. Watch a few actual plays online and give it a go, you won’t be sorry.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have been wanting to play and RPG game forever, and I recently got some friends who are big into them and are willing to introduce me to the world but we just haven’t got the chance I may have to do so more pestering now. This was such a great overview of the basics of it and you made it sound so fun! Maze Rats sounds awesome!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I recently read Ready Player One which has a lot of D&D references because of the whole 80s culture thing, and I became fascinated with tabletop RPG’s. I really enjoy fantasy novels with complex worldbuilding (I’m finishing up the last volume of LOTR) and also games in general so I really want to try playing some.

    I totally agree that making your characters take action (or not take action) based on their own psychology is one of the hardest things as a writer. Some of the books I admire the most are books where there is a huge cast of characters that all have their own inner worlds which makes their actions believable. I find that a lot of authors these days try to achieve this by writing form a first person perspective with inner monologues, which I don’t have a problem with at all, but I find it especially fascinating when authors can achieve the same effect fro ma third person perspective.

    This is why I LOVE War and Peace so much. Tolstoy does such a good job of sketching each of his characters world view and prejudices so that the actions they take are logical but still imaginative. I feel this makes the reading experience so much more immersive.

    Sorry for the long comment 😄

    Liked by 1 person

    • No, thank you for the long comment! If you get a chance to play an RPG I highly recommend it. I also love thoroughly developed characters–that’s one of the things I love about LOTR, incidentally. I haven’t read War and Peace but I have a working knowledge of it due to the musical Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 (my friend is obsessed with it and played the whole soundtrack for me) and yes, the characters do seem to be complex and distinct.
      So you’re finishing up Return of the King? Is this your first time to read it, or have you read it before?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sorry for the late reply. End of the school year and all. 🙂

        It’s my first time reading Return of the King, and I’m seriously in love with LOTR in general. I just don’t understand how Tolkien was able to create such a complex universe. I saved reading the appendices for last because I’m really interested reading about the history and backstory of the LOTR universe in more depth.

        Also the fact that Tolkien was a philologist is just super cool. And coincidentally I’m finishing up Lewis’s Space
        Trilogy right now, and Dr. Ransom is also a philologist.

        Side note: I read Beowulf last year, and I read part of Tolkien’s essay The Monsters and the Critics. At the time I hadn’t read LOTR yet, but now that I have I really want to go back and finish it.

        Liked by 1 person

      • No worries! I’m currently rereading the LOTR trilogy and it’s my all time favorite book. I never got past Perelandra in the space trilogy, but I believe Lewis may have based Ransom on Tolkein, at least partially. I think the reason that Tolkein is so good at fantasy is his background in philology and legends and philosophy. I don’t think I’ve read that essay but I really should, since Tolkein pretty much saved Beowulf from obscurity!

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  4. Great post! I think GMing has also helped me to let go of my perfectionism in writing. When you’re writing, you have an infinite amount of time to tweak, change, and think about your words and story. As a GM you are forced to make decisions quickly and run with them. That’s one thing my tabletop RPG experiences have really helped with.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I really love that about GMing too. I also adore when players take your crazy decisions and make even crazier ones based on those that you have to react to! 😂 Thanks for your comment! I’m so glad to meet another girl GM 🙂

      Like

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