Are RPGS Bad or Good For Writing?

This is a topic I don’t really have an answer to. I’ve mentioned it before in a couple of posts, and I probably have a bias, but the truth is I don’t actually have a clue.

Are RPGs bad for writing? That’s probably what I’d say if you put a gun to my head and demanded an answer. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not against RPGs, or any kind of gaming for that matter. I love games, and have been playing since the ‘60s. But I’m also pretty sure that I’d have done a lot less reading and a lot more gaming if I were twelve today instead of forty-five years ago.

That’s not the crux of my bias, however. The real reason is that I think the act of gaming is diametrically opposed to the act of writing. RPGs, by definition, are a group pursuit. Writing, with some exceptions, is just the opposite. In RPGs there can’t be any red shirts. Everyone has to participate equally. But novels have to be more focused. In a novel everyone, even the protagonists, is an NPC.

And gaming, because it is a group pursuit, can be much more open-ended. One of the great things about gaming is you can go wherever you want. The DM may smack you down, but you can still at least try to go off the edge of the map.

You can’t do that in a book. The author defines everything in a book, and is only going to let you have the adventure he wants you to have. Stories, even if written by Robert Jordan, are not as open-ended as gaming is.

Personally, I prefer the immersive, focused narrative of a book when I’m reading. As I prefer the more open-ended pleasures of gaming when I’m gaming. I think most readers used to feel the same way, but in the last decade or so, more and more readers have started reading more open-ended books. The works of Jordan and GRRM have been hugely popular, despite the fact that both seem to be more content with the process of their characters’ lives than the culmination of their stories. You get it in television as well, in shows like Lost and Battlestar Galactica, where the shows’ endings were almost beside the point.

Which is why I can’t make up my mind. There’s a different kind of writing out there, which is a good thing, because more choices are always a good thing (except for parents with two year olds). I may miss the focused plotting of the genre I grew up with, but now there are other aspects of storytelling to enjoy as well.

What do you think?

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  1. 1. Farah Mendlesohn

    Frances Hardinge came up from gaming and she’s one of the best YA writers in the UK.

    I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad influence. Sharp minds do interesting things with the most unprepossessing material, and gaming is far from being that.

  2. 2. domynoe

    I’m an ex-gamer and being a DM was probably one of the best things that happened to my writing. Granted, I had to unlearn some bad habits, but the one thing a lot of writers have trouble with is description, and the one thing you need to describe in a game is setting so players have a clear idea of what’s where and atmosphere. I was also exposed to, through my players and fellow DMs, an incredibly broad and diverse group of characters. Heck, forget the characters they play, just the people you meet can be quite diverse and interesting. Writers just have to remember to tone down what they learn description-wise when actually writing.

  3. 3. Mary

  4. 4. Eliza

    As a writer who became a player, then a DM, I’d say that they are related, but different pursuits.

    Tabletop DMing doesn’t tend to have a single protagonist, and the systems are set up so that everyone’s about equal, skill level, as a con. Hack and slash style gaming is so close to computer games you may as well expand that point to card games and improv acts.

    On the other hand, you do need to make things up on the fly. You need to be able to come up with a good character, then see how that character interacts with others– this can be an eye-opener to generating realistic reactions.

    Now, there are other forms of role play aside from tabletop. I have a friend across the country I’ve been writing with for years– we each have a cast of characters, we each co-dm the ‘game’, and we meet on an IM and write. It’s not good writing, no, but what it is is an idea factory. And a reaction factory. And realizing your own faults while coping with theirs grind.

    Anything can really help you as a writer, but tabletop gaming from a story-telling aspect I don’t think is one of them. I think gaming gives you character insights, method insights, logistics, relational feedback… but not for the stories.

  5. 5. S.C Butler

    Farah – Never read any Hardinge – have to go look at some. And I think the biggest problem with the influence with RPGs is probably on some of the less sharp, who might not be aware of the limitations.

    Domynoe – Interesting connection to descriptions – I’d never have thought of that. And you’re absolutely right.

  6. 6. S.C Butler

    Mary – Thanks for the link. As usual, you’re dead on. Said it better than I did.

    Eliza – I agree, gaming is definitely a great source for ideas and brainstorming. A fantastic, resource, I think. I did some module design once upon a time (strictly amateur), which gave me some lovely ideas I later used in my books, although in very different form.

  7. 7. Duncan Watson

    I disagree but more because your definations of the tabletop RPG experience vs example of successful authors who game. Many of the campaigns I have been in and run myself are reasonably constrained. I keep goals in front of the characters and there are well developed NPCs that are woven in and out of the campaign. Goals are key to both good gaming and good writing.

  8. 8. Laura

    It’s all dependent on the person. If it wasn’t for gaming, I don’t think my son would have ever developed his reading skills.

    The school was having a hard time teaching him to read and he wasn’t interested in books, but when he wanted to play D&D he had to learn how to read the books to go along with it. Especially, when he wanted to become a DM. Plus, it helped with his basic math skills.

    Then he started reading fantasy novels because he developed a love for the genre.

    And now is a true book and gaming junkie.

  9. 9. Steve Buchheit

    It all depends (as usual) on how the experience is used. If you translate the game experience directly into the story so that the reader can hear the dice tumbling, I’m not sure it’s such a good thing (although there is a strong market for that). However, gaming with a good group can educate the young writer in plot, character motivation, scene setting and sudden twists (and if the GM is good, that antagonists also have motivations and sometimes win).

  10. 10. HarryMonmouth

    The following comes from a response I left to a discussion about this article on Google+, I thought I should publish it here as otherwise it may never be read due to the discussion being a few days old.

    I think your focus is too narrow; you write like you are blinkered. I am a reader. I may not read as much fiction as I did when I was a child but I am essentially a words and letters geek. If I can I will always place the translation of letters into language as the very highest artform and the most satisfying pastime.

    Among the many books I read through my teenage years I read just about everything by Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson. They wrote books that are also RPGs. You may have your own opinions about what they produced or the genre of choose your own adventure books in general. They are not as free and limitless as live role playing but they are not as tightly controlled as a linear reading environment. They are a middle ground and they are a demonstration that this is not an argument of black and white. They are also not the only hybrid alternative; there are many shades of grey.

    I have to say I am afraid I am quite passionate about the role playing book. I was on the more introverted side of introverts and although I loved the whole idea of role playing games, in the main D&D, I am afraid I was more inclined to read and absorb the Dungeon master guides than I was to actually interact with other players. Yes, I am afraid that is me, I made the geeks look outgoing, adventurous, and sociable by being totally otaku. For me the books of Jackson and Livingstone allowed me to explore these worlds they created with a sense of freedom that was not possible with an ordinary book.

    I would get absorbed in ordinary books as well. When I was 8 I would wake up early just so that I could get back to middle earth before school even though I hadn’t left middle earth until late the night before when my parents had taken the book away to ensure that I would sleep. As long as I could read I would read. When others watched TV I read. When we went to visit people in the car I read. When we got there I would read. My parents used to despair about how to stop me reading; a habit that my mother still has not managed to fully escape despite the fact that my life is far more normal now.

    But the RPG choose your own adventure novel was a changing force in my life. The best thing about it was that the other kids got it as well. Although I was essentially role playing on my own and still in my private world other kids who had nothing in common with me were entering the same worlds in their spare time. When you are a freak it is quite gratifying when everyone else becomes a freak as well.

    I think the writer of this article is doing these books a grave disservice by dismissing them without consideration. There is a middle ground.

  11. 11. S.C Butler

    Duncan – Goals are great, and important in a lot more than just gaming or writing, but I would still argue that the two experiences are very different. Perhaps if you constructed a tightly controlled solo game you could come close to the process of writing (for the DM), or reading (for the player), but I’ve never heard of it being done.

    Laura – Glad to hear gaming led your son to reading. Fantastic! And I’m not saying that the two or mutually exclusive. In fact, I think reading and gaming have a lot in common, particularly the level of participation required. Watching TV or playing a shoot ‘em up just aren’t the same as books and RPGs.

    Steve – You said it. How you apply what you learn is the key, whether it’s writing, or DMing, or cooking. Which is what makes all three so much fun (and occasionally wretched).

  12. 12. S.C Butler

    Harry – Sorry if you thought I was taking a shot at Jackson’s Fighting Fantasy books – that wasn’t my intention at all. In fact, I was thinking of them as I was writing the post – I played a few of them (mostly the Sorcery series) back in the day – but I didn’t mention them in the post as I don’t think they’re pertinent to what I’m saying. As the headline says, I don’t know whether RPG s are bad or good for writing, not reading or gaming. I know they’re good for reading and gaming.

    That said, I wouldn’t recommend anyone who wanted to learn how to be a writer to do so by reading gamebooks. Although the idea of allowing readers to choose their own paths through books is not solely a gaming one (the literary world calls it hyperfiction), it is a fairly advanced pursuit for anyone not doing it primarily for gaming. People learning how to write should focus on the nuts and bolts before they try they esoterica.

  13. 13. Keith W

    I’ve always wondered if there is any utility in using DM & Character guide books in story and character creation. I don’t mean literally following it word for word, unless you are writing a story for a particular game, but as a frame work or spring board to get you started and you can modify or adjust ‘the rules’ as your writing goes.

    Also on a related note, many years ago, a friend was writing a story, but was apparently having some trouble with it. So he decided to make a role playing game out of it, got his fellow games together, gave them short character bios/descriptions, backgrounds and had us role play the parts as he DM the story. It was fun, but we never finished it, I think he had to move or something else. Has anyone tried that?

  14. 14. Paul (@princejvstin)

    Well, I write a column at SF Signal called “Roll perception plus awareness” which has its core thesis that roleplaying games are something genre writers and readers should know about.

    Maybe not reading books directly, but being aware of what games do, what they have done, is valuable

  15. 15. Kathryn Scannell

    I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit, because I’m in the process of polishing a presentation for Conbust in a couple of weeks about the perils and pitfalls of turning your game into a novel.

    The conclusion I’ve come to is that in general (and there are always exceptions), gaming is a superlative way to do worldbuilding if you’re creating your own. And there’s nothing quite like turning a bunch of experienced gamers loose on it to find *all* the gaping holes you left when you did it. Gaming, either as a player or as a GM, is also a great way to learn character development. (Assuming of course that your game involves role-playing, not just dice rolling and rules lawyering. If it doesn’t the whole question becomes as pointless as asking if playing Risk or Monopoly is goof for writing).

    What it’s not so good for is plot development, because of the need to keep everyone happily participating and involved at a more or less equal level, as you pointed out.

  16. 16. S.C. Butler

    Keith W – I think a lot of folks try to use games as templates for fiction. That’s one of the reasons I wrote this post. As you say, it’s helpful to not follow the game’s rules too literally.

    Paul – Absolutely, readers and writers need to be aware of what’s happening in gaming. Sounds like an interesting column. I’m going to go take a look.

    Kathryn – What a great idea, to use gamers as beta testers on the world. Very cool.


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Author Information

S.C. Butler

Butler is the author of The Stoneways Trilogy from Tor Books: Reiffen's Choice, Queen Ferris, and The Magician's Daughter. Find out what Reiffen does with magic, and what magic does with him... Visit site.



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