Roll For Initiative (or why every writer can benefit from RPGs)

For those who know me, it’s no secret that I’m a sucker for this thing called pen&paper RPG. RPG is short for “role-playing game”, and the base concept of the game is to create a fictional character and play as that character for the duration of the storyline around which the game revolves. RPGs come in all shapes and sizes: from PlayStation and computer games such as Skyrim and Dragon Age, to larp (live action role-playing game) where you physically dress up and act and fight as your character, and to pen&paper, which is my personal favorite.

You’ve probably heard about Dungeons&Dragons, an RPG set in a fantasy world originally inspired by Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings novels where humans, elves, dwarves, etc. coexist and go on adventures in a medieval setting. Dungeons&Dragons – D&D for short – is the arguably most popular pen&paper RPG, and the only things you’ll need in order to play it is a group of people, a rulebook, a set of dice, a pen, and some paper, thus the concept name. You create your character on a character sheet that denotes their strengths, weaknesses, belongings, etc., and then you head into a story told around the table and headed by a Game Master. You can read all about the details online of how to play it, so I’ll stop my explanations here. Instead, I’m going to tell you why I believe every writer can benefit from trying out RPGs – of any kind, really.

 

A deeper understanding of your character(s)

One of the things I love most about RPG, and the main reason I believe writers can benefit from trying it, is because RPG teaches you to think like your character. In fact, it demands that you think and act like them, and do it quickly and instinctively. In the heat of the game, you won’t have much time to ponder the actions of your character like you might do when you sit in front of your screen and try to write about their adventures. Because once you’re playing e.g. pen&paper, which is where most of my experience stems from, you’re not the only one in control of what is happening; quite the opposite, in fact. The other players are going to act as well, perhaps steering the situation in a completely different direction than what you imagined, and you will have to continually respond to the changing circumstances you find yourself in. In other words, you can’t control the action – only how your character reacts. This goes with dialogue as well; you never know where it’s going to take you.

This means, of course, that you have two choices: 1) you can try to gain an intimate knowledge of your character before you sit down at the game table in order to play them the way you imagine, or 2) you can make sure you know the basic traits of your character and then let the story bring you along on their journey of development. For me personally, I like to know the background story of my character as well as their general personality traits, their motivations, and their morale, so I’ve got a pretty good idea of who they are to begin with. Even so, with every single character I’ve always ended up in situations in which I’ve had to act by the seat of my pants, and this is when RPG gets really interesting, as well as very challenging. Because when I’ve got no preparation time, I have to surrender, go along with it, and let my characters guide me.

Especially when you have a good GM (Game Master), you will be put through situations that you had no way of anticipating, which will in turn help and challenge you to think differently from when you write, because in RPG you don’t have a complete plot plan and you don’t know the outcomes of the actions of your character cast. And once you’ve mastered the art of being your character in RPGs, you can use this way of thinking either when you later write stories about that specific character or, alternately, as a new approach to story character creation. For instance, when you’re building a new character, try to consider what actions they would have taken during the surprise situations your GM has put you through while playing. What would they have done differently? Would they e.g. have rushed into it? Tried to talk their way out of it? Or simply high-tailed it first chance they got? In general, actually, imagining your characters in situations that are not part of your story or their usual everyday life will help you develop them and give you a deeper knowledge of who they are – not just who you plan for them to be.

Of course, this tendency for unexpected situations and quick and instinctive acting doesn’t pertain to pen&paper only. Although I’ve never personally tried live action role-playing, I’ve heard plenty of stories about it from a couple friends of mine who play regularly, and they’ve ended up in some pretty interesting situations as well. Even RPGs for PlayStation etc. give you a sense of it, especially the kind where there isn’t just one set storyline, and where there can be different outcomes to a smaller or larger degree depending on your actions as a character. An example of this kind of game is The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, which I’ve played a lot lately. I’ve also tried text-based RPGs, e.g. on online forums, but although that’s still exciting, they don’t give you the same “by the seat of your pants” challenge.

To sum up, RPG is a useful tool for character exploration, which might just teach you something new about your character. Because how well do you, in fact, really know them when all comes down to it and you can no longer predict or plan the final result of their actions?

 

Story inputs to fill your (dried-out) well of inspiration

Aside from being an awesome tool for character knowledge and development, RPG is also great if you feel like you’re starting to run low on inspiration and are in need of a story boost. After all, perhaps the plot-twist or that one crazy argument between those two characters in your group that really dislike one another was exactly the input you needed to get on with your story.

With this too, I have personal experience. My friend S and I play together in various pen&paper campaigns (= games with a story line that lasts longer than the limited hours of a weekend session), and because we’re both creative writers, we tend to go home from a game with lots of new ideas for our writings. Most of those ideas, however, are mostly based off of the characters we’ve played; for instance, we’re currently working on a trilogy that formed from the question: “What would happen if our two characters went on another adventure together after this one ended?”. Sometimes, though, we keep certain ties to the original story line, but we make sure to modify it, and the same goes for the world we’ve set the story in to ensure that it becomes our personal interpretation of everything. This is important, because even though RPGs can leave you with great ideas, you need to be aware that you can’t just go home and write the exact same story you just lived.

Why? Well, the answer to that lies partly in copyright and partly in the interactive story-telling part: The story isn’t just yours. Rather, the base line of the story was thought out by a GM and is set in an already existing universe. Which means that in order to use any of it aside from your own character (i.e. your creation), you’ll need permission from the GM and the other players to integrate their creations into your story, and you’ll need to make sure you’ve modified the world to bear at least no name-like resemblance to the original game setting so you’re not challenging the rights of another creator. Of course, if you simply write the story to keep at home, this won’t be a problem, but you’ll need to make sure you have all of the above before you can send it to a publisher. If you do get permission from your gaming group, make sure you include a proper thank you in your book, and although it might seem weird to ask of your friends, make sure you have their consent in writing.

 

All that being said, the benefits of RPG for writers make me definitely recommend that you try it – especially for what it can teach you about being in character, which you can use in your writing. But also because it enables you to go on fun, exciting, and hopefully inspiring adventures. So what are you waiting for? Pick up that twenty-sided die and roll for initiative to begin your actions! I daresay you won’t regret it.

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Planning … Is It Really Necessary?

In the beginning of August, I attended a reunion weekend at Brønderslev Writer’s College where the program had been filled with presentations by published authors and other people in the writing industry. During that time, I had the pleasure of listening to four different authors talking about their writings and the techniques they use to make a book coherent and enjoyable. Three out of four explained that they use a lot of time planning their stories more or less from beginning to end, then simply sit down and write what they have planned. This made me consider the different ways of approaching a story that you want to write and in the end, I reached the conclusion that writers can – roughly, mind you – be divided into three categories when it comes to planning: The Impulsive Writer, The General Planner, and The Details Planner. The question, then, is whether planning really is necessary to write a great novel and if so, how much do you actually need to do?

First, let’s consider the three types of writers I just mentioned:

1. The Details Planner: S/he plans everything in details, which leads to her/him knowing exactly how the story is going to start, how it’s going to end, and how it’s going to get wherever it’s going. S/he knows the strengths, flaws, fears, looks, etc. of every character, not just the main ones. S/he often plans what’s going to happen in each chapter, and at least a couple of these chapters are a hundred percent detailed before s/he starts writing the novel.

2. The General Planner: S/he has a pretty good idea of what is going to happen throughout the novel, including the major turning points of the story. However, the plan is rarely detailed and may be subject to change as s/he goes along. S/he has a fairly good grasp on the characters, especially the main ones, but isn’t always sure how they are to turn out eventually. Also, s/he might add other characters later on who weren’t necessarily planned from the beginning.

3. The Impulsive Writer: S/he knows more or less what is going to happen at the point in the story that s/he is currently writing, but apart from that, s/he only has a vague idea of where the story is going and, maybe, how it’s going to end. S/he has a fairly good grasp on the personality of the main characters, but when it comes to other characters, they may be added and deleted as s/he goes along. The development of the main characters is also subject to change.

So which of the above approaches to writing a novel is the most effective? And can you say that there is a “right” way of writing?

To the last question, definitely no. Just like different students have different ways of approaching their school work, different writers have different ways of reaching their goal: a finished novel, ready for a read-through followed by some editing (yes, there will be editing no matter what kind of approach you choose, so don’t fool yourself – your novel is only going to be all the better for it). However, I will make an argument for why, when all comes down to it, I believe that The General Planner and The Detailed Planner may have an easier writing process than The Impulsive Writer.  To do this, I’m going to tell you how planning works for me.

First of all, I am definitely a General Planner. I do like planning; however, to me it feels as if some of the fun would go out of writing if I planned everything down to the last detail. I know all the major turning points and plot twists of the stories I write, but apart from that I like planning the story bit for bit as I go along. When it comes to characters, I’ve got a fairly good idea of their background story, their looks, and their personality, but I let them decide how they’re going to act when I place them in one impossible situation after another (I know some of you out there will understand what I’m talking about here, while the rest might find me a little crazy). My character list is mostly done from the start, but it sometimes happens that I add new people if I feel like I need to (in one of my novels, for instance, a character introduced on a whim ended up a main character all of a sudden).

So how much planning do I do and how does it help me?

Well, for one thing, I make sure I have my main characters straight. I need to know their basic personality and overall background story, along with their relations to the other characters of the story and the way they view the world around them. This is very important to me because the main pivotal point of my stories usually is my characters and how they evolve. I never start writing a story before the main character(s) is/are loud and clear in my mind.

Furthermore, I need to know the general storyline. Therefore, I find the major events and plot twists from the start so I have at least a basic idea of where I want my story to go. These do sometimes get changed as I get further into the story, but they provide me with a very much needed plot line that I can work my way through (also, knowing the general plot of the story will help you throw in hints to those big secrets you’re going to reveal later – just saying). When the general storyline is set, that’s when I can start writing. Sometimes, I plan my first chapter in detail. Other times, I don’t. It depends on my mood and the type of story I’m writing. A short story will typically be planned in more detail than a novel.

That being said, the most important thing about planning for me is that it gives my writing flow. Being a General Planner, I sometimes get stuck during the writing process because I don’t know what’s going to happen next to get to that big scene that I do know how will turn out. That’s when I sit down, pull out a piece of paper, and start brainstorming and mind-mapping my ideas, because for me, that’s the most effective way of getting an overview of the current plot lines in my story. As soon as I have that overview, I can make the loose ends meet and mostly, that will lead to ideas that can make the story continue. In other words, as soon as I have planned, quite generally, what is going to happen next, it’s a lot easier writing it.

When I’ve finished a story, I go through it at least twice before I consider it done. I read, I edit, and I usually find that my planning has helped me get a consistent story down already from my first take. Sure, there will always be some things that needs rewriting (I once heard three great authors agree that the writers who don’t think they need to rewrite at all are the ones who actually need it the most and I quite agree), but all in all, I’ve got a story line that generally works and some characters that are consistent in their beliefs and actions throughout the story. That’s why I believe that planning can really help you in the long run.

Conclusion: No, planning isn’t necessary. But you’re going to make things a lot easier on yourself if you do some anyway as that will eventually make your editing process easier and faster. Furthermore, if you’re anything like me, it will also help your writing to flow from your imagination and down onto the computer screen in a mostly coherent manner. I can strongly recommend a bit of planning, but stick with the amount you find necessary and don’t let anybody tell you that there is one right way of writing and planning. As I stated at the beginning of this post, all writers are different. The most important thing is that you find an amount of planning that works for you and helps to make your writing process as enjoyable as possible.