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)
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)
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 characters, either 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!