Six impossible things

Gaming and Writing

As some of you know, I did a lot of role-playing games in the late 70s and early 80s, some as a player character and some where I was the gamesmistress. Ever since, I’ve been running up against other writers with really strong feelings, pro and con, about gaming. The main objection I keep hearing is that “you get lots of bad habits from running a game or playing in a game.” The underlying implication is that running a game is actively bad for your writing, which is not universally the case.

Gaming is a different medium from writing, with different constraints and expectations. Saying “gaming is bad for your writing” is just as true – and just as false – as saying “Writing screenplays is bad for your writing” or “Doing comedy improv is bad for your writing.” Novels, plays, comedy improv, and gaming/gamesmastering are different forms of storytelling. Because each is a different medium, each type of storytelling places different demands on the storyteller, exercises different skills, and is subject to different constraints on the story itself. Because all of them are, at bottom, storytelling, there will always be some areas where the demands, skills, and constraints overlap.

Wherever the skills and demands of storytelling overlap between one medium and another, they will carry over. (An obvious example: one would expect most playwrights to write good dialog, but to be less skilled at writing descriptions of large-scale action scenes that wouldn’t fit on a stage.)

Wherever the demands and constraints of a particular medium don’t match up with those of another, things get murky. A large part depends on the person who is switching from one type of thing to another. If they recognize that there are differences, then they’ll usually also recognize what they should and shouldn’t do differently. For some people, it’s instinctive; others have to work at it.

It isn’t just a matter of recognizing differences, though. It’s also a matter of how well different forms of storytelling fit each storyteller’s natural strengths and weaknesses. A writer who is very bad at worldbuilding can learn a lot from creating their own gaming world (and they’ll have to, if they want to keep their gamers coming back for more than one or two sessions). A writer who is obsessed with worldbuilding, on the other hand, will often gravitate toward games that encourage more and more worldbuilding at the expense of other aspects of storytelling. They won’t learn any new skills, and they may find themselves with a bad habit of overbuilding and overdescribing their background when they get around to trying a novel.

In my experience, most of the folks who discourage gaming and/or claim that running a game made writing harder are looking at places where there is little or no overlap between the skills demanded by the two forms, or else they are looking at places where they have found one way (out of four or five possible techniques) that works for them in one of the forms, but that doesn’t work for them in the other. For instance, one writer complained that games have far more magic items than is workable in a novel, claiming that so many different gadgets would be nothing but distracting clutter at best, and at worst would make the novel’s protagonist too powerful, rendering the plot too easy to solve. That, however, depends entirely on the writing and the worldbuilding. Poul Anderson’s Operation Chaos has an enormous number of magical gadgets, paralleling the technological gadgets of the modern world, and everyone in the story takes them for granted and they don’t throw the plot out of balance because everybody else has them, too.

The complainer’s real problems were that a) he didn’t know how to build a world so that lots of magical gadgets would look reasonable, b) he didn’t know how to construct a plot where lots of different gadgets would make things fun and interesting without making it too easy, c) he didn’t know how to handle a lot of magical tools in the prose without bogging down in a lot of boring exposition, and d) the stories he liked and wanted to tell needed magic to be rare and valuable, not common as mud. D) was the only valid objection, in my opinion, and it trumps all the others…for that particular writer. My problem with him was that he wanted all fantasy to be the sort that he liked and wanted to write (i.e., where magic is rare and valuable and doesn’t have to be taken into consideration as a common thing when plotting).

Another writer of my acquaintance claimed that when one is constructing a plot, one has to narrow the central characters’ options down until they only have one choice, a technique that is known as “railroading” in gaming (and heavily frowned on). Whittling down the characters’ options is certainly one way of plotting, and it’s probably quite useful if you are the kind of writer who lays a plot out in advance and expects their characters to follow it, but I’ve never actually written that way. The closest I came was when I plopped an impassable swamp down to keep some characters from heading in the wrong direction. If it had been a game, I couldn’t have done that (because by then the players would have been around long enough to know I’d just invented it on the fly, since it wasn’t on any of their maps), but I could have done something else to head them the way I wanted them to go. One of the advantages of writing a novel is that you can go back to Chapter One and backfill the swamp or the gun on the mantelpiece; you can’t do that in a game.

On the other hand, if one handles things correctly as a gamesmaster, it is perfectly possible to set up a situation in which there is one and only one solution, and your players have to go for it. What you cannot dictate is how they go about getting their hands on the seven ancient statuettes they need for the ritual. It can be annoying when you’ve set up a dangerous obstacle course for your players to go through to get hold of Statuette #3 and one of them manages to bribe a guard to bring it out to them, bypassing all of your plan, but that’s how games go. And one of the advantages, for a writer, is that if things like that happen to you as gamesmaster enough times, you start getting better at finding interesting alternatives, which can greatly improve your plotting.

It all depends on what one’s style is, as gamer, game runner, and writer. I was lucky enough to get involved in a series of games that forced me to work on worldbuilding and characterization, rather than on plotting. I learned a lot from them, because I was working on some of my weaker areas. Somebody who was already good at those things would have likely found them unhelpful. It’s like any writing exercise: some people need it, some don’t; it helps some, but not others.

The reason I think this keeps coming up is that gaming looks and feels a lot like storytelling, with the GM in the role of the author. And it is storytelling – in collaboration. Most novels, however, are not collaborations, and the ones that are generally don’t involve five, six, ten, or twenty different authors collaborating. No, the writing model that best parallels RPGs is the shared-world anthology, where each author has his or her own main character whose adventures cross and intersect other authors’ characters, and the editor has to coordinate it all and has the last word on the worldbuilding and the stuff that affects the shared non-player-characters. The editor may or may not write stories for the shared world, but if they do, their character is not the “main character.” Because in a shared world, as in a game, every character is the hero of his/her own story, but a minor player in everyone else’s. This is, of course, equally true in a novel, but much easier to get around when there is only one author who gets to choose one story as the central focus.

  1. A more true statement might be, “An unedited core-dump of your last D&D campaign is bad for your readers,” which I suspect is where the objection to gaming originally came from. 😉 (And like most slogan-level writing advice, has gotten corrupted out of meaning over time.) But there’s no reason a game can’t be a useful jumping-off point, if you’re the sort of writer who likes to jump off of that sort of thing.

    • I can hardly wait to quote “if you’re the sort of writer who likes to jump off of that sort of thing” out of context.

  2. I’ve never done any role-playing games, but it’s something I wish I had done at least once. I guess I just didn’t know anyone who did them and didn’t know how to get into it. It always looked interesting.

  3. A bad habit I picked up from gaming was “assembling the team” by having them answer an ad (or request for assistance) at the local tavern. It stuck in my brain and for a while blocked any other technique for getting the party members together.

    • There’s also the little matter of players being justly miffed if you concentrate more on one than another, or worse yet, on one of the NPCs, but it takes real skill to write a novel without a focal character.

      You can see it most clearly in RPG webcomics. My own favorites are Order of the Stick and Rusty & Co. Both of them are explicitly set in worlds where the characters know about experience points and levels and stats — Rusty has a character consult the Monster Manual at one point — but they would be terrible as games because there are strips where the NPCs are the only characters that appear — sometimes even in prolonged sequences.

  4. I must observe, however, that I have actually heard people recommend RPG as a start for aspiring writers. Rather than writing.

    Yes, it will teach some useful skills. Writing itself will teach them, too.

  5. You forgot, “Writing a blog is bad for your writing.”

    As a gamer, I have looked at the similarities and differences, but it never would have occurred to me to think one bad for the other. “I’m sorry, but if you are going to put so many skill points in blog writing, you will never get that novel written.”

    • Which is yet another example of all writers are not the same: for me, writing a blog is bad for my writing. As is much of any social media activity beyond the occasional comment in places like this; it taps the same resources as writing, and there’s only so much to go around.

      But some writers seem to find it energizing, or a useful outlet for things that don’t belong in their fiction — and hey, more power to them. It gives me something to read on my lunch break. 😉

  6. I remember when my son and I put together a scenario for Teenagers from Outer Space. We had it all plotted out; he was the GM and I was merely the observer. Within ten minutes the players had run off in a different direction and Tris simply had to wing it from then on.

    Computer games, of course, are a different kiddle of fish. You can argue with the system all you want, but it still will not let you kidnap the NPC and head in the opposite direction from where he told you to go.

  7. How useful do you think acting is in learning to write dialog?

  8. My answer to the fellow with the complaint about magical gadgets would have been, well then, don’t have lots of magical gadgets, they’re not required…

  9. To my mind, *any* experience is good for writing—if you’re paying the correct sort of attention.

Questions regarding foreign rights, film/tv subrights, and other business matters should be directed to Pat’s agent Ginger Clark, Curtis-Brown, Ltd., 10 Astor Place, 3rd Floor New York, NY 10003,