How Conquering Role Playing Games Can Make You a Better Writer: An Interview with Fred Charles
If you've ever played a role playing game (RPG) like Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder, you're aware that these games are firmly rooted in solid storytelling. We were curious - does RPG experience make you a better writer? In a fun twist of roles (see what I did there?) we interviewed our resident game master, Loud Coffee Press editor and co-founder Fred Charles, to better examine how RPGs can help you flex your writer muscle.
Hey, Fred! For those that haven't played, tell us about RPGs and describe the general role of the game master (GM).
RPGs are games where the players assume the role of character, participate actively in a story. The players choices determine the direction of narrative.
The GM's role is to create the game story and the world that the characters are playing in. As a GM, you'll make up the story and then react to how the players interact with the story. It's a skill that's developed over time. When I first started playing, I didn't know what I was doing, and was following along with pre-made adventures. It took time to develop my skills as a storyteller to keep the players engaged and interested.
Would you say it takes 10,000 hours?
I don't think it takes 10,000 hours if you understand how basic storytelling works. It would be different for every person. I would say it depends on each GM's imagination and their level of understanding of drama and suspense. A lot of my early storytelling skills came from watching movies and reading books.
What is the number one thing being a GM has taught you in terms of storytelling?
Being a GM has taught me to create suspense by slowly giving out information to players and not getting so excited that you want to tell them everything upfront. For example, say you have a really cool idea for a story. You'll have the urge to tell them everything at once - but you really can't do that. You have to pepper the information slowly because one game campaign can last several weeks. It's like writing a book: you start off small, presenting with a mystery. You give a little bit of information and slowly reward your players, like how you reward the reader by making a good reveal worth it. When the players figure something out, like a mystery plot point, you want to be able to provide a good payoff.
How do you keep your players interested?
This concept is similar to the writing concept of plotting versus pantsing. Some GMs outline every part of the game (like in a book outline) and have every plot point ready to go before the game begins. Other GMs will be more loose with how the game will proceed. For me, I have an idea of what's happening and improvise as players react to the story. I wouldn't worry about taking the story in a different direction if something interesting is happening in the game. It's more about being fluid with the idea. If I'm writing a story and something I didn't think about happens that's interesting, I'll follow that path.
The problem is that you'll always have players that will try to throw a wrench into what you're doing because players have their own minds; that's different than writing, where you control the characters. You should be aware that if you create characters in your story, they should be reacting according to their personalities, and this is the same with game (your players should be acting in accordance with their character). If you're writing, and you get to a plot point and you feel like you're stuck, you need to think your way out of it. It's almost like overcoming writer's block. What would this character do? How would this character react? That's what being a GM has helped me think about in my writing.
What do you do to keep the game moving forward?
You have to be able to tell what's working and what's not working. Same with writing. If you're bored with what you're writing, chances are, players (readers) will be bored. When you're telling a story to people in front of you, you can gauge if they're bored or not. When you're writing a story, you have to stop and think about how a reader is going to feel about it. Think about pacing, and think about not being bogged down with too much exposition. You learn how to show and not tell. You're not going to sit there and read everything off to the players because doing that is boring. You have to show things to your players and let them discover things for themselves. You don't want to tell people what's going on. You want the characters to figure it out.
As GM, how do you add suspense and tension to a storyline?
When I'm writing a story, I always like to end a chapter with a cliffhanger. I learned that through game playing because if we were playing for a night, I'd end the night with a cliffhanger. That would help build suspense and get the players thinking about what's going to happen during the next game. You're also using description to build the atmosphere of the story, so if you're describing a story scene when you're in a dark setting, for example, you're still using the same words if you're writing. You want to be able to build a mood. It gets people interested and helps build suspense - building atmosphere, building mood. Plus, you need to be able to think on the fly as the characters interact with the story.
What do you need from your players and how does this help train your 'writer muscle?'
You have people that are invested in their characters. They've created characters and they're sticking to what they've built - if they're playing well, they're not acting out of character. For example, if you have a character that's evil, he's not going to save a burning orphanage out of the goodness of his heart. As a player in a recent game, I knew the whole back story of the setting that the GM was running because he's using characters I was familiar with. As a player, I had to act like I didn't know any of that stuff. It's almost like the players have to play the characters, and they can't use their familiar knowledge. You have to do things in accordance to what the character would do in a particular scene. Say there's a copper ring on the ground, and it will save the universe. You may know that, but maybe your character doesn't have that knowledge yet. You have to act through your character.
When the story gets bogged down, ask yourself what's the most interesting thing you can do to get the story back on track. Same as writers block. You'd say to yourself, "what can I do to get it moving," and make it interesting. If things are going too easy for the characters, I will always do something to make things harder. Say the character just found a magic artifact and they were celebrating in a bar, I'd have someone steal it off them, and they'd wake up the next morning to find it gone. Doing this adds more story possibilities. You have to keep things moving and you can't keep things too easy, or else it gets boring.