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How roleplay games have helped me be a better writer

So, it says on my about page that I am a writer.  This is true.  I have taken joy in in putting pen to pad or fingers to keys for many, many years.  Admittedly, I wasn’t always good at it, but writing is a skill and as with any skill, you have to work at your craft to get better.

One “How to write” book told me that writers have to be hunter-gatherers, always on the lookout for inspiration.  Carry a note book to write down interesting details that can be used later.

Gaming, specifically roleplay, has also proved to be a useful hobby

 

My Game of Choice and the one I will be referring to

Gaming Generates Unusual Ideas

I am running a short Vampire the Masquerade Game with some friends of years gone by.  We play on a Google Hangout and use Roll20 as a playing area and dice roller.  They are playing an investigation team/private army of an archon.  All of them are of the bloodline Malkavian, which means they are all afflicted by some form of psychological disorder (which makes for fun gaming, I have to tell you).

One of them is playing a vampire that is 100 years old, in the body of a child with a psychotic brother.  It was an exchange between these two that gave me an idea.  The child said”Every day is your birthday.”  His psychotic brother gleefully agreed, and it got me thinking.  What about a serial killer that stalks their play sending them birthday cards every day until they are killed – Because their time is going to end sooner, the killer is letting them have all their birthdays first.  That was an idea that would never have happened without that game.

Referring to the same campaign, and the same group of players, each player is playing a vampire of the same clan.  However, they have all specialised (to the point of exclusivity) in one of their clan’s supernatural powers.  If you are unfamiliar with the game, each vampire clan has 3 powers associated with it.  So, in their case, it is ESP, Confounding the senses and either mind control or madness (there are two branches of the bloodline).  As there were 4 players, each of these powers became the purview of one player.  In gamer terms, they mini-maxed (which isn’t necessarily a great idea in this case, but has worked so far).  Their employer, the archon (Think high powered lawman) is of the same blood as they are, and has a good relationship with them.  I can’t recall the exact conversation during game, but it occurred to me that a great twist of the plot would be that they were all personas of their employer.  Figments of his imagination/multiple personalities he invented to get the job done.  I confess, this isn’t an idea that I haven’t encountered before, but it might not have happened again without gaming.

vampire-sketch

Some artwork done by one of the players, Barry.  Click the image to go to his facebook page

Lesson for the writer.  Do things no other writer does.  You will find ides that will never occur anywhere else in those places.

 

Gaming Taught me about audiences

I will refer to a roleplay game, Vampire the Masquerade a second time.  However this time, it is two different sets of players.  I designed an overarching campaign to last 50 years in game terms.  And then I offered it to two different gaming groups, partly because I wanted to play with both groups and partly because I wanted to do an experiment, and see how running two identical plots with 2 different groups would be.

The end result – 2 very different stories.

When presented with the same plot hooks, each group followed a similar trajectory but dealt with obstacles in a different manner.  Example.

Both groups were on the trail of some hired muscle that had abducted a police informant.  Both groups caught up with the muscle at their lockup and confronted them.

One group lied/tricked the muscle into handing over the informant in exchange for a bigger pay day.

The other group turned the abductors into meaty paste on the ground outside the lockup.

Conclusion, people are different, and respond differently to plots.  Hardly ground breaking news, is it?  In other news, rain still wet.

It is still relevant.  When you think about it, a roleplay is a perfect example of the relationship between writer, plot and story.

A writer creates a narrative, a sequence of events in chronological order, and then assembles them into a plot (which may not be in chronological order – a plot is simply how the writer presents a narrative to the reader).  A story doesn’t happen until a plot meets a reader.  A story is the living offspring of a plot and the reader.  It is a collaboration.  If a writer understands that, they realise that writing the plot is actually not the whole.  They need to target their plot at an audience that is capable of interacting with it, to create the story.  In the game, in both cases I pitched a plot at 2 audiences, and in each case it was well recieved but handled differently.  Imagine if I had a group of players that found stories about dealing with the seedier side of life to be unenjoyable?  They would have taken my not too shabby roleplay plot and hated it.

Lesson for the writer.  Write what readers want to read.  To write what you want, know who wants to read it.  Write what people want to read, and you audience is more forgiving (mine certainly are).

 

Gaming taught me about antagonists, protagonists and the folk that could be either one

The secret to a good rpg experience is to have a really good villain.  Someone that the players are confounded by, but at the same time are drawn to.  Either by desire, need or through seduction (and not necessarily sexual – I just mean seduction by the dark side, as it were.  Theoretically, it could mean sex, but I leave that to individual groups/gamers to decide).

In my early days of running games, I created villains that were designed to be powerful enough to withstand the players, but as I was inexperienced they tended to be bland and did not hold the interest of the players.

In my most recent games I have added a whole host of characters, all with backstories and secrets (I’m not saying one of them was Jack the Ripper…actually, sod it, I am.  One of my created characters was Jack the Ripper.  Technically, he’s a good guy in the story…)

I created the hideous monster that lives in the sewers, has an army of animals (including an ape called Annabelle), who sits on a throne of garbage, who appears lame and mad.  People are not convinced he is either lame or mad.

I created some hardened mercenary types to act as body guards for a plot device, mercenaries that weren’t getting paid enough to go to war with the kind of crazy that my players brought (I am going to say grenade suppository and leave your imagination to do the rest).

I created a roguish troubador that was the antagonist in one story, but his allegiance is less clear in the grand scheme of things.  My players all think he is fun, but they have no idea if they should trust him because he is a trickster.

The lesson I learned here, it is not quite so simple as good and bad.  Antagonist and Protagonist are a matter of perspective.  And fleshing out your supporting characters means that you have plenty of opportunity for your villain to work with heroes, or an ally to become an adversary.

 

Gaming showed me the protagonist’s journey 

I played in a game of Marvel Heroic Rolepay recently, over the course of 2 years.  I was playing a version of Moonknight, a street vigilante similar to Batman with a supernatural side.  However, the campaign was not a street campaign, so was started wearing an old version of Iron Man armour.  Emphasis on old.  My character was at rock bottom and Tony Stark gave him hand me down armour that barely functioned.

The first chapter of the campaign was really hard for me.  Fun, but nothing went right at all.  Moloids, Dinosaurs, Carnage, you name it, it invaded New York.  In the first game.  And all the other major heroes were off planet.  So, I teamed up with Hawkeye and Spider-Man (the other players) and we fought our way across Liberty Island and into Stark Tower.  My character had a breakdown in Stark Tower as nothing was going right.  We overcame the difficulty despite Moonknight’s inability to fight a robot, and as a result we found the Suit of Armour Tony had been planning to give me before he disappeared into space (there was a Skrull/Kree/Shiarr war going on).  It was built for me and it worked.  I became effective again.

Over the course of the story, in my new armour I was able to dispatch villains with ease, but my character felt he was on the wrong path.  He started growing a conscience (Moonknight is more vicious than Punisher sometimes), and the next milestone came when it was time to decide if I was a powered armour hero, or the fist of Khonshu.  This came in a dialogue with Neptune.

I had already spoken with the GM and we agreed my story wasn’t that of a Powered Armour wearing hero, but of Moon Knight becoming a paladin of khonshu.  (Khonshu is a God of Vengeance and more in the Marvel Universe.  Moon Knight sees him regularly).

I spoke with Neptune in a brilliant scene, and decided to abandon the armour, which fell off me as I returned from the astral realm.  Hysterically, I arrived on a space ship that Doctor Octopus was trying to blow up.  And I arrived wearing nothing but my underpants.  I defeated him with intimidation.  I accepted my role as Khonshu’s champion.

avengers-assemble

Artwork by the GM, Barry Martin of our team’s firs heroic entrance after we had all accepted our path.

The game ran for a year after that point, including a hilarious crosstown dash in full costume, in a cab, us travelling in time and me losing my powers.  Again.

But, by the end of it, Moon Knight learned he was actually Khonshu in human form.

The point to all this is, for me, the story was amazing but it would have been nothing if I hadn’t had many trials to overcome during it.  A protagonist cannot simply coast through a plot.  There must be challenges, defeats and choices that have consequences.  One of my choices got one I called my brother, Namor, killed.

Though, another choice I made allowed me to forge an alliance with Ronan the Accuser, who threw Loki into an alien industrial parts cleaner for me, and then set the spin cycle to “As long as needed”.

This post hase heavily focused on my experience of roleplay, and its relationship to writing.  I haven’t looked at other media but that doesn’t mean they cannot help creativity.  Any creative media is fodder for a writer’s mind.

Happy gaming, and happy writing.

 

4 Comments on How roleplay games have helped me be a better writer

  1. Reblogged this on Sharp Writing and commented:

    A blog I wrote on my other website about how gaming helped my writing

  2. Roleplaying games are fantastic for storytelling ideas! They provide a space in which folks can experiment with wild character ideas and they’re always accepted, so your imagination gets a bit of a workout. Glad you stopped by and told me about your blog, and am happy to be subscribed now! 🙂

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