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.