Writing Excuses 4.5: Roleplaying Games as Tools for Story Telling

Roll for initiative, folks! Brandon, Dan, and Howard all play tabletop role-playing games, and sometimes even play together. The question of the hour (well… quarter-hour) is “how can these games help your world building, storytelling, and anything else having to do with good writing?”

If this ‘cast doesn’t make you want to play RPGs with your friends, congratulations on a successful Saving Throw vs. Dark Podcast Magic. If this ‘cast doesn’t make you want to sit down and start writing, you have our condolences. That’s not the saving throw you were supposed to make!

In the spirit of not-necessarily-related personal information: This week we learn that Howard is moister than Dan.

In related news, see the Writing Excuses crew this coming Saturday, February 13th, at the Life, The Universe and Everything Symposium at Brigham Young University in the Wilkinson Center. We’ll be there for the full symposium, but on Saturday we’ll actually be recording in front of an audience. You’ll also get to meet Bob Defendi, who gets mentioned at least three times in this episode.

Audiobook Plug: Nation, by Terry Pratchett

Writing Prompt: Don’t write about players being sucked into their RPGs. That’s been done a lot. Suck the RPG characters out into our world, and see what happens.

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52 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 4.5: Roleplaying Games as Tools for Story Telling”

  1. Re: the writing prompt. That poor wizard first time he tries to use magic in our world… Master of cosmic powers… DENIED!

    Makes me think the fantasy version of Last Action Hero… only hopefully slightly less cheesy ;-)

  2. You know, it’s funny you should bring this up, because I’m in the process of writing a short story where a supervillain invents a weapon called “the stereotype gun,” and if you get hit by the gun’s energy rays, you turn into a stereotype of yourself.

    For instance, the brown-haired, attractive young physics professor gets turned into a white haired, bushy moustached, sweater wearing physics professor who speaks with a German accent.

    And in the story, a fantasy author gets hit with the stereotype beam, and it turns him into a glasses-wearing, overbiting, D&D maniac who is horribly, horribly shy.

  3. Perhaps somewhat ironically, I stopped playing role-playing games roughly about the same time I started getting serious about my fiction. Circa, 1994. From 1989 to 1993 however, I had a rolicking good time with the “Rifts” and “Robotech” franchises, by Palladium Books. I even wrote and sent a worldbook on spec to Kevin Siembieda. Alas, the confiscatory language of their rights waiver was borderline-ridiculous, so I dropped the project.

    Looking back on it, my like for RPGing was driven very much by my want to create my own stories. I just hadn’t yet realized that I should be putting that effort into manuscripts, as opposed to the elaborate scenarios that I invented for my players. And yes, I was almost always the Game Master — I found that to be more fun than playing. Figures, now.

  4. Brad, there’s no irony there. RPGs use many of the same creative energies that writing does, and if you’re limited on time something’s gotta give.

  5. Gentlemen- I have never been able to wrap my head around roleplaying games, though I love writing and am a very “visual” thinker with an active imagination. The reason, I feel, is because when friends would try starting campaigns or games it was in school and making charachter stats took so long, by the time it was done, I was bored with it or we had no time to play!

    Does this make my aspirations as a Genre Fiction writer a pointless pipe-dream now because I was not a buck-toothed, socially inept “Gamer” Geek?

  6. The RPG sucked into our world has been done with ‘The Gamers’ a short comedy movie that can be found online. I won’t give away what happens, of course. :)

    Good podcast. One point of similarity I find in RPGs and novels it finding the right cast. Inviting a player that love to just hack for XP in a game that requires thinking to solve a mystery will make for a bad game. The same can be true in our novels, though the ‘character out of place’ (IE Kindergarten Cop, Beverly Hills Cop) can make for story as well if done right.

    I’ve been a player for some years, too. I won’t go into more detail. RPG’s aren’t a can fo worms for here, it’s more a seperate podcast show altogether.

  7. A lesser-known book that was apparently based on experiences with an RPG is MIDNIGHT NEVER COME by Marie Brennan. I enjoyed it a lot, and I wouldn’t have ever guessed that it was based on anything like that. I think that’s the key to using RPGs as practice. The novel should never feel like an RPG, because the two are different genres for a reason. They aren’t supposed to feel the same.

  8. @Mike

    Does this make my aspirations as a Genre Fiction writer a pointless pipe-dream now because I was not a buck-toothed, socially inept “Gamer” Geek?

    I imagine a greater problem would be your goldfish-like attention span.

  9. I really wish there wasn’t this ‘evil’ stigma attached to role-playing. I grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah, and my parents were strict Mormons. One day, they came home and I was playing AD&D with some friends in the living room. It was enough for my dad to kick me out. (I was only 17 as well.) (I admit, there was a little more to it than that, but the role playing issue was definitely there.)

    I’ve always called it interactive storytelling, and I still think it fits. While there is a gm that controls the path and setting, the players as a group write the story. This helps because it adds an element of the unknown into each story. You never know what player n will do. Even after playing with people for years, every now and then something happens that just blows you away. These can give great ideas for your novels, or help open up your mind a little bit and add to your creativity.

    Either way, I think it’s a great tool. I just wish I had more friends that played. I miss my old groups. (Anyone in the Bay Area want to start something up? ;)

  10. I used to find an opposit problem to the one’s you describe here. I used to find that my “writer’s nature” interfered with my functioning as a good GM because I wanted too much control. I wanted the story to go the way I envisioned it, and tried too hard to force it.

  11. Hi guys. This is an interesting subject. Being a girl who was involved with things like cheerleading and the like in high school and dating jocks, I never really got into RPG’s. However, after I finished high school guess I turned geek and got very heavily into writing fantasy. After hearing you talk about how RPG’s can help stir the imagination which could help with my fantasy writing I thought that I might reconciler if someone would be kind enough to point me in the right direction.


  12. @Olin
    Ya, forcing it is definitely not good. I have played a sort of RPG with my sister, (Though neither of us realized it) where we each have characters and write a script like story using up about 50 notebooks in the last year or so. I added a character recently because I liked the characters story, only to realize that she didn’t match the actual story line at all. It took me a long sleepless night to think about it before I finely rewound and reluctantly pulled her out. Then I came up with something even better that actually fit and didn’t seem forced.

  13. Matthew,

    My parents didn’t like D&D either, mainly because they’d bought into the silly “devil worship” folklore that seems to have most recently attached itself to products like the Harry Potter franchise.

    They backed off a little when I got into “Robotech” because futuristic planes and robots was “safer” than wizards and demons and scantily-clad damsels. Of course, when I got into “Rifts” it was the perfect storm: futurism, robots, plus demons and wizards, and more scantily-clad women. An LDS parent’s worst nightmare, I suppose?

    Thankfully my parents didn’t kick me out. I wasn’t into drugs or booze or partying, and my sister came home from BYU once and kind of laid into them: what do you want, Mom & Dad, it’s not like he’s out getting girls pregnant! She had a point, and so my folks just kind of let it go.

  14. I’ve never played an RPG like Dungeons and Dragons but I do follow MS Paint Adventures. It’s a webcomic which is an interactive storytelling game and it’s just great

  15. This is a good time to re-declare that all three of us podcasters are Mormons. And we all grew up roleplaying, and we’re all very well-adjusted fathers with good jobs. The stereotypes have an element of truth on both sides (yes, some roleplayers go too far, and yes, some religious parents frighten easily), but I’d rather focus on the good stuff. Like I said in the podcast, if parents really understood what roleplaying was about they’d push their kids into it, not pull them out. Do you want your kids to play a highly social, innately cooperative game that encourages reading, problem-solving, and team-building skills? Of course you do! Every organization in the world, religious or corporate, uses roleplaying for training and therapy and a dozen other things. I’m continually amazed the stigma’s even around anymore.

  16. I always thought R.A. Salvatore wrote his books about RPG sessions. They’re interesting reads individually, whether for GM inspiration or if you just like fantasy.

    Sadly, I get very distracted by the “ret-con” at the beginning of almost all of his books that contradicts the major events of a previous one. I’ve actually stopped reading his work because of it.

    Is it wrong of me to expect the author to remember his work better than any of his readers? I mean this as a serious question; I can see an author remembering something incorrectly because of how it might have been written in an early draft – but then again, I don’t think anyone sees into the characters’ heads as clearly as the author does.

  17. I really appreciate this podcast. I am into dnd, and I have been playing for years, but I recently started DMing more often, and I have to say that I have seen a pretty big improvement in my storytelling.

    One of the things that I have noticed about roleplaying games is the great advice that I get from roleplaying books on DMing. I have read several books on writing fiction, and none of them helped me with writing stories as much as my Dungeon Master’s Guide II. From that book, I learned about pacing, revealing information, describing setting, proper motivation, and so many other things. It doesn’t go into much detail about each thing, but it gives me enough detail that I can put the rest of the pieces together by myself. Dan mentioned the great advice that a role-playing book gave him, and I completely agree with that.

    Another thing that I have learned from DMing is how to get people invested in a story, and that secret is to do awful things to people they care about. You pull an awful trick on a PC or a beloved NPC, and the players are going to be completely involved in the story. They will come to you and ask you to involve them more in the style. All because you are doiing awful things to them!

    But I also have Howard’s problem that I get too invested in the game, and I would spend six hours preparing for a gaming session.

  18. @William: That was a major issue for me with Salvatore. Too often, his books seem like a retelling of a game session, going from encounter to encounter, action to action, instead of focusing on character and story.

  19. Hey guys, thanks for the podcasts!

    Just wanted to say that was the weirdest one ever. I have absolutely no clue what RPGs are, so that was like listening to people talking in another language. I have of course heard that people play these games, but I thought they were to do with earning points or something, not making up stories … now I have no idea whether I am picturing you sitting around a board game, playing with toys, or running around in weird costumes scribbling down notes. Totally at a loss here.

    Also weird to read the comments and see some people’s parents have a problem with RPGs. What on earth are you doing in these games?? I come from a mostly secular country and don’t really understand why people believe in religions, so maybe I am totally missing something — but how does a game cause conflict in a family??

    Anyway, just wanted to say (in the nicest way possible) this was all-in-all a totally baffling and bizarro-world podcast! :)
    And thanks again for the episodes. Great stuff.

  20. Some friends and I have been RPGing since the early 90s and even though we’re down to about once per month now (because people are in different STATES, so we have to schedule carefully), we still game. AD&D, GURPS, & RoleMaster, primarily.

    One thing we’ve talked about frequently over the years is how “gamey” the DragonLance books felt. We knew that they developed some of the characters and story elements during gaming sessions, but unfortunately, we felt that too MUCH of that came through in the books, and that, for instance, if there was a chapter or scene in which Tanis or Raistlin weren’t there, it wasn’t because the plot called for it, but because that person couldn’t make it to gaming that night.

    I’m sure others will have different opinions. I still put the FIRST three DragonLance novels up pretty high on the “cool books” scale, mind you.

  21. Oh, and on the whole ‘parents being afraid of gaming’ thing:

    My parents never were (and for the record, I was raised in exTREMEly southern baptist rural Alabama), but one time in the early 90s I was in a mall in Tuscaloosa, Alabama (where I went to college) and I ran into the mother of one of my friends. We chatted briefly and she asked what I was up to, and I told her I had come to the mall to get dice and books for Dungeons and Dragons…

    …and she took a step back from me. Oddest thing ever. She covered it and we both went on our merry ways.

    What I didn’t tell her was that her son was gaming with us. :)

  22. I actually learned a lot about the nature of dramatic story arcs from DMing. In my early days as a DM I always shot for epic stories that fell flat because I introduced all the main bad guys and challenges too quickly. Practice, Ravenloft roleplaying supplements and paying attention to what my players liked taught me a lot about pacing, climaxes and how to make tragedy compelling. I think it was Howard who said in the podcast that it’s harder to make drama work in RPGs and that’s true — but it’s also really good practice!

  23. @Marissa:

    By way of clarification, imagine us sitting around the living room as if we were just lounging and chatting over snacks. Except the conversation is shared storytelling with a mix of improvisational theater, and we each have some pages of notes and a few dice to help mix things up a bit.

    Yes, there are rules for how the dice and the notes interact, but that’s secondary. The important thing is the shared storytelling.

  24. @ Matthew:
    If you think Salvatore is bad for writing books that read like recounts of a gaming session, I suggest you avoid the “Pools of…” series also in Forgotten Realms, I forget the author(s). The fight scenes read like “Alfred and Bridget attacked Charls0z the Burninator. Alfred hit scoring a minor wound but Bridget’s attack missed badly”. (That’s almost verbatim)

    Awesome podcast guys!

  25. Outstanding podcast. Several comments:

    I have GM’d many campaigns and adventures and we’ve had mad fun over the years. After running an amazing Vampire: the Masquerade campaign, I realized that I could never use it in a novel because of all the intellectual property. So I built a unique magic system for use with the base d20 rules available from Wizards of the Coast, and we’ve been playing in this world for about a year. If you want to really try doing something unique in RPGs, the base d20 rules are an excellent place to start.

    It’s absolutely amazing how well rounded my world and my rules have become and how visual the action is. I’m now 100k words into a novel within my world and I think it’s coming along really well – and no legal problems!

    To Howard’s point that GMing is work and takes time – I have found that GMing not only takes time, but it steals a great deal of creative juice from other endeavors. When I’m going good from a GM perspective, my writing will always take a hit. So much so, that I passed on the GMing duties of my world to a friend and we’ve had a great time with him running the action. That enabled me to get back to it on the writing.

    If you’d like to try my RPG rules, let me know.

  26. One series based on RPG sessions that I have read is CLAMP School Paranormal Investigators, and it is truly dreadful. It has that “let’s make a bunch of crazy characters who do crazy stuff” thing going on. (I know that’s not atypical for CLAMP, but in this series it just did not work.)

  27. @ Marissa
    That’s alright, I had no clue what Roll playing games were either. The funny thing is, I have unknowingly played them for the last two years with my sister.

  28. @NickH: Hey, thanks for the advice. I will definitely avoid that. Anything that reads like “The hero charged the evil monster and rolled a 16 which hit the monster and killed it to smithereens” is definitely not what I want to read.

  29. Question!

    Alright, it’s off topic but I need some pointers.
    Is it alright to write a book with both a first person viewpoint, and third person views? I have a story I have been working on forever, and I have allot of the parts written down, but some of them are in fist person and others in third and I like both of them. Some of them are just wonderful done one way, and the next scene I like best the other way. I was just wondering if changing view points like that was okay. Could I have my main character in first person then switch to the other characters in third or is that a big no no?

  30. CM:

    The great thing about art is that it can be created and interpreted in so many ways. There are literary conventions that shouldn’t be broken unless they are broken intentionally, for a specific reason, and it’s well done. I’m sure that there are fiction books out there written in both first and third person. Personally, I don’t like first-person perspective changes within a single book. If you want multiple perspectives, the normal thing to do is write third-person character perspective – much like Brandon Sanderson.

    One way around the convention is to have the first-person chunks at the beginning of chapters in italics. Yours would no doubt be longer than the standard chapter bumps, but it might work that way. You could do a variation on a common mechanic and make every other chapter first-person, with third-person in between.

    Bottom line is you have lots of options. I’d try a few arrangements out and have some people you know read it and give you feedback. I’m sure it could work. The tricky thing about conventions is that they exist for a darn good reason, and breaking them is a big risk. It’s either going to be a startling breath of fresh air, or it’s going to turn people off. If you do it – make sure you do it well.

  31. CM: This is entirely my opinion, and I am one of those people who enjoys a little bit of experimental stuff in fiction (I’m also a bit biased because I’m considering the same approach for a future project) but at the very least, try it. See if it works! Since you’ve already written parts of it, I guess the next step would be either to finish it and see if you still feel like it works, or throw it out to some alpha readers and see what THEY think. Or do both.

    When I throw weird stuff like that into a narrative, I always ask myself if doing so is adding something to the story, rather than just not hurting it. I figure that if you’re calling attention to the framework of the story as well as the content you should probably do so in a way that furthers the story somehow and not only for the cool factor. That said, I do occasionally decide that “I just LIKE character A written in present tense and Character B written in past, and that’s good enough”. Or whatever it is.

    I think the biggest thing when you do something like that is you want to make sure it still makes sense structurally. It might be kind of funky, but readers should get the sense that you do have a method to your madness, that you’re not just taking a scattershot approach. If it’s well executed I think you can get away with a lot. It won’t work for everyone, of course, but nothing ever does.

    Also, you may want to check out this post by Kristin Nelson. The client project she’s describing in this post sounds like exactly what you’re doing.

  32. wow guys thanks! I’m still not sure exactly how I will work it, I plan to experiment a bit. Thank you for all of your advice, it has been extremely helpful and I really appreciate it.

    Thanks again!

  33. It can be a valuable learning tool–at least, it was for me. The first stories I wrote seriously were recaps of game sessions. I strung them all together and turned it into a “novel” (note my loose usage of the word). I went back later and read it and realized it was awful. Some of the writing was very good, but I realized that I didn’t know how to write “the boring parts”. It was just a series of battles and encounters with extremely tenuous connecting narrative. In the end, I found some things I did well and some things I needed to work on. I have also continued to use some of the characters and locations in original stories I have written since (some of them have acquired extensive backstory over the years), so it wasn’t a complete waste of effort.

  34. Thanks for clarifying, Howard! When I have spare time I will look into this strange passtime of yours some more. Sounds like a curious way to spend an evening. Cheers!

  35. Great web-page/podcast gang. I fell across it after just missing my saving throw by only 99%. I will not be a devoted listener….keep up the good work.


  36. Just reread my post and see that my fumble fingers extend from the battle ax to the key board I should have said “I will now be a devoted listener”….amazing what a single missed key can make….

    Red faced and apologetic and wanting to write better stories,

  37. I’ve just started with your podcast and I’ve really enjoyed them. Thanks!

    One thing about your Audible choice this time, Nation for some strange reason isn’t available in Canada through Audible. So, I can’t get it. I love audiobooks and Audible, but doing these kind of things just encourages people to pirate it instead. In my case, I just used my credit to get The Gathering Storm instead.

  38. Thanks for another great session.

    I’ve been roleplaying since ’77, back when roleplaying was all about dungeon crawls. But even then I was lucky enough to be in a group (Of fellow High schoolers) who demanded backstory, motivation, and and a true sense of risk; long before D&D had rules and guides to help us do these things. Heck, when I start a campaign not only do I at least outline the histories of the land; I work out the plate techtonics so that my mountain ranges make at least some sense. My group has added new blood as some of us have gone afar and 2 dear friends have passed away. Where is this leading …

    I have a friend, who for the last 3 years has been leading a small party of us on the most complete roleplaying experience in my 33 years of playing and GM’ing. How do I get him away from the game, and get him writing? He has all the tools of pacing, plot, building dynamic tension, originality, character growth, catharsis, … well, you guys understand where I’m going.

    The other player in his ‘interactive novel’ agrees with me. We are willing to stop the campaign (A true sacrifice) to let him put this opus to pen (er … laptop) but he shrugs us off. He says writing is too much work, then he puts in 20 to 25 hours weekly into his 2 campaigns (he also does one for his nephews, and niece). He’s failed his perception die roll. I told him of this topic from your site to prove that writers can still role-play, in moderation at least. Alas, I’ll continue to write and try to improve, but my current GM is a writer that may never find the spark to actually do so. How can I get across the concept of the multi-class character: GM/Writer? How do you break a person not out of the standard “afraid to fail” mode but out of his “afraid to succeed’ habit?

    Of course, I’m asuming that like me, his craving to roleplay and especially GM all these decades is because that deep inside his soul, that there is some ember of a writer waiting to be fanned.

  39. A quick comment on the division of Church and D&D.

    Younger brothers friend couldn’t play D&D because Mother thaought it lead to devil worship. She wanted her so to hear it from someone inside the church so one Sunday, a few decades ago, she brought him up to the Deacon and told him of her dilemma. He told he in from to her son that He couldn’t help her as He and the current priest were players in a roleplaying group run by one of the other members of the church. Wasn’t enough to stop her from forbidding him to play D&D but my brother was able to incude his friend in the ‘Top Secret” and Traveller campaigns, that were also going on.

  40. Sadly only role playing I’ve ever done was playing Mario RPG on the SNES, but I know it’s something I would love to do, but I still got a whole lot of great stuff out of this podcast, thanks guys!

  41. @Curto: Your friend does more work on the RPG than he would writing a novel because he finds RPG play to be more fulfilling. It’s a social activity, and the shared storytelling is always surprising.

    Which is why it’s NO surprise that many of the very best Game Masters are World Builders par excellence, but can’t be persuaded to try their hands at a novel. Writing is a solitary pursuit.

  42. Hey, I took your advise and listened to The Nation by Terry Pratchett. You are right, he has a very distinct “voice” when he writes. He makes me realize I need I find my voice in my writing. I have half way done with my first novel. Thanks for the motivation guys. Never would have started without you!

  43. [rant] I am also LDS and do play RPGs (Dungeons and Dragons 4ed., Exalted, BESM, Star Wars) and I only partially understand the stigma these types of games have (some bad apple group some where at some time, vague, I know, ruined it for the rest of us RPG loving geeks), but if people who are against these kind of games compared them what TV/Movie/Broadway performers do they will find the basic concept is the same: A group of people gathered together to role play a character. The difference: they have a script, those who play RPGs don’t. There are other differences too, but I’m not going to get into them. [/rant]

    One of my concerns about playing RPGs and writing has been that the elements some of the RPG worlds I have been introduced to would influence my writing. For example, I have noticed some similarities between the world of Exalted and my current series. My disclaimer is this: I’ve been working 0n my current series since my senior year in high school (I graduated in 1996) and I didn’t start playing Exalted until I was in college (I started college in 2002). I know, when and if, I get this series published some readers, who also happen to play Exalted, will say I have ripped some ideas from the Exalted world. But despite these fears, I’m still rolling with the ideas. Listening to this podcast laid those fears to rest.

    Note: I know fourteen years is a long time to be working on a series, but the series has evolved over the years and I’ve come up with other book ideas. Some YA, one thriller type, and a few geared toward high school and higher.

  44. Another note: I know this pod cast isn’t about influence, but it still helped me as did the influence podcast. XD

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