For the uninitiated, roleplaying is simply the exercise of collaboratively telling a story with the use of a system (usually dice-based) to determine the outcome of various actions – as opposed to summoning the devil with complex mathematics as some pundits from yesteryear would have had you believe.
In most playing systems there is one player who handles the world or scenario, telling the other characters what is happening or if they succeed or fail in their stated actions. I’m sure that some of you are way ahead of me in guessing that this player is often called the storyteller.
If your only experience of roleplaying is a brush with the concept on hits like ET or Stranger Things, then you might be forgiven for wondering how a child’s game could help your writing.
A bit of roleplaying history
Roleplaying is not and never has been just for kids. In fact, the first roleplaying games had their origin in the 19th century Prussian game Kriegspiel, which translates to War Game (do you want to play nuclear war?). Back then the player would control whole units on the battlefield and use dice to represent the fortunes of war.
That’s right, your kids have been sharpening their teeth on the descendant of a system used for military tactical training – maybe the parents back in the eighties were right to be worried after all!
Alright, maybe not, I just can’t help having a laugh at the controversy that once surrounded Dungeons and Dragons, one of the grand pappies of the whole roleplaying genre.
D&D is almost always set in a fantasy world, which would have caused a more litigious Tolkien estate to start sharpening the subpoenas. There are elves, dwarves and wizards and if you have any taste for high fantasy this is a good place to cut your teeth. Chances are this is the system most of us have heard of – it’s on its fifth edition and still going strong.
But how can it help my writing?
Okay so you’re sitting around a table with a few close friends, a fun-sized bag of neon-puff chips and a galaxy of dice ranging from the noble dodecahedron to the novelty, and almost spherical, hundred-sided dice that someone bought for a laugh.
The elf just set off a trap and the dwarf’s too busy arguing about the rules of evasion to actually get his damage down on his character sheet… Surely none of this can be furthering your career as a writer?
Actually, you’d be surprised.
One of the basic rules that JRR Tolkien put forward for creating a new world was “draw a map”.
The act of bringing something into the world makes it more real and that gives the subconscious something to get started on.
In the simple act of putting your cartographer’s pen to paper, you are beginning to give shape to something that was purely abstract until that point. Little details become major plot points, undersized mountain ranges become mighty buttresses in your mind’s eye, hiding who knows how many beasties and hard-kept secrets in their fissure-strewn roots.
Worlds and characters may not actually build themselves, but it sure can seem that way when you give your ideas something to crystallise around.
“But,” I hear you cry, “Writing is a lonely affair. Even if I do draw a map it’s all about spending solitary hours crafting a world that will adequately show off my creativity and artistic vision.”
Well, unfairly presuming you did think that, the good news is that your days of lonely plotting could be over. I’ve certainly used roleplaying games as a test bed for worlds or characters and always with good results.
I don’t want to drill down too far into specific examples, but my book The Endless Ocean also served as the home world for a roleplaying game and, as a result, I was able to flesh out more details about the various organisations and factions that underpinned the world. Not everything or even most made it into the book, but it gave me something to draw on when envisaging how the world would work or certain characters would react. In my current work in progress, one of the major cities came into being entirely as a result of creating it for my players to experience in game.
The connection between writers and roleplaying stretches all the way back to the beginning of the last century with HG Wells being a keen proponent, even going as far as publishing his own set of war gaming rules for amateurs in 1913.
Modern games are less concerned with the art of war and more with individual player experience and narrative – modern systems like Lady Black Bird or Fiasco for example have become entirely focussed on story, with the latter even dispensing with the concept of a single storyteller.
If your only experience of roleplaying has been a dice-based slog with your fingers trapped between three different sections of the rule book, you may not have found the right system for you, but don’t despair – if you want to tell a story, there is definitely a system to suit it somewhere out there.
Roleplaying’s not the same as writing is it?
Of course, there will never be a replacement for the hard graft required to bring a piece of writing to full fruition, but I can’t think of any better way to collaboratively test your ideas than roleplaying – it’s a really good first step.
After all, if you do want some feedback, you might find your friends’ eyes crossing as you plunge into the details of some obscure part of your latest work in progress, but tell them they are a part of the action and it’s a whole different kettle of mackerel.
The upshot of all this is more than just a little harmless fun – and it is fun. Roleplaying offers you the chance to bring your ideas out into the wild and test concepts or setting that might otherwise not get punched around until they were set in unforgiving type.
It’s all very well to get everything “just so”, but a truly robust narrative needs to be more than a house of cards that collapses when you remove the smallest element or a perspective piece that can be seen from only one angle – roleplaying takes concepts out into the wild, offers the chance to play with ideas.
When you run a roleplaying game, you go through all the developmental processes that you would have to if you sketched out a world or characters on your own, but with the added bonus that others will be able to interact with your concepts and help you refine them.
“Roleplaying offers you the chance to bring your ideas out into the wild and test concepts or setting that might otherwise not get punched around until they were set in unforgiving type.”
It might seem to you that you have created an impregnable fortress or that the trading system of your new empire is reasonable, but how do you really know until someone else interacts with these aspects of your world?
Fleshing out your world not only lets you get a real look at its moving parts, but it is inevitable that other people with different perspectives will challenge and stretch the boundaries you might have imagined. One of the best ways to think out of the box is always to find someone in a different box!
There really is no limit to the number of ways you can examine a concept using roleplaying. All you need is some friends willing to join you and you can put any scenario through its paces.
Maybe you think the countess will have no choice but reach for the pistol when the inspector exposes her plan to have her husband slowly driven mad by the addition of mercury to his morning enemas – but then again, a player might show you a different option.
Check out HarmonQuest for a great example of narrative spun from roleplaying.
So, it’s just about telling a story?
Roleplaying is about more than simply spinning a tale for others, the experience of trying to operate a character in someone else’s universe can be as illuminating as it is pleasurable.
After all, every character is a little story in themselves and one of the greatest pleasures you can get out of the experience is imagining the character you are roleplaying and how they react to the unknowns in someone else’s narrative.
One of the benefits I’ve experienced personally is the ability to safely examine difficult or dangerous situations – perhaps even embody someone very different to yourself (it’s great practice for putting yourself into the mindset of another individual which is something every writer has to be able to do). It may not be the same thing as actually living an experience, but at least simulating the event offers some insight.
To give a single example, I can remember a game back in my university days where we played grunts in Vietnam. I can still remember how quickly things turned pear-shaped when the embedded reporter caught us breaking protocols. Obviously, it was still only a game, but it was fascinating how I and my fellow player reacted to being put under simulated pressure. We were young adults playing at being other young adults in a heightened war time scenario so there were definitely parallels to be drawn and lessons learned – it’s an insight that has since informed various scenes in my work and one I wouldn’t have had without taking the time to at least simulate the experience.
“Okay, you steaming nerd, we get it you like roleplaying.”
Well, yes, but there’s more to it than that. In my experience it’s all too easy for writers to get insular. In an age spent behind computer screens, trapped in the thinly disguised isolation that so many of us experience on social media, how can any storyteller turn their nose up at the prospect of a willing, collaborative audience? (Or of sharing in someone else’s story for that matter?). Who doesn’t want to see their story run wild and observe the reactions of those sharing it in real time?
For the vast part of human history, stories were communal. Roleplaying offers us the chance to reacquaint ourselves with the raw vitality of sharing a tale, while at the same time honing vital skills that any writer needs.
So, if you haven’t given it a try, do yourself a favour – gather up some of your favourite ideas, a few good friends, and start playing with them.
Some systems I think might be worth trying:
First on the list has to be Dungeons & Dragons (fifth edition – the older editions have their charms but this really is a good system) you can get the basic rules here and manuals are available in hobby stores or online. Many of the rules can also be found if you use Roll20. It’s a fantastic site that allows you to play games over the internet and offers support for various systems. If you are enamoured of the d20 but don’t want to go the D&D route for some reason, you could also try Pathfinder. This system is basically a refinement of D&D 3.5. If you like your fantasy pared down even further, Dungeon World might be a nice starter system.
For those of a gothic bent, the whole World of Darkness rule set from White Wolf could be your thing. I’ve not played much in this system since the old Vampire the Masquerade days, but it provides some nice resources for setting up a dark horror world.
And speaking of dark horror, you might want to try some of the offerings from Chaosium. Their Call of Cuthulu can be a real treat.
Of course, before you rush out spending money on all the fancy source materials, remember that the essence of roleplaying is not the system, but the story and the fun you have sharing it together. As long as you are consistent and have the consent of your players almost any agreed set of rules will work to facilitate your story there are some great free systems out there.
Toby Bennett works and dreams in Cape Town, South Africa.
His writing is primarily fantasy and horror with the occasional digression into science and historical fiction.
His stories have appeared in several anthologies and many of his novels can be picked up in the Kindle store. Audio versions of some of his work can also be found on YouTube.
When he’s not writing he can be found roleplaying, gaming… or simply staring into the abyss – so far the abyss hasn’t stared back but he lives in hope.