Playtesting Numenera via G+ Hangouts.

(For part A of this post, where I look at the positive ways in which gaming has affected my writing life, please check out “What Writers Can Learn from Games, Button A.“).

For the past five years or so, I’ve participating in National Novel Writing Month, where writers from around the world make a commitment to write a novel in the month of November. A few years back, I was invited to attend the opening ceremonies of this event in Portland. Writers of all ages and experiences gathered together to tell us what their novels were going to be about and how they were going to write them.

As I listened, beginning writer after beginning writer got up and said something like, “It’s going to be a novel like Fallout, only set in Portland.” Or, “I want to write a novel set in the world of D&D, only they’re going to be pirates instead of hobbits.”

At first, I was a little surprised by what I perceived as a lack of creativity from these future authors. After all, there are so many worlds to make up; why choose one that already belongs to someone else? But it wasn’t long before I realized that they were actually exhibiting a great deal of creativity and technique. They understood there was something important about writing to be learned from gaming, and they were going about that process in the way that made the most sense to them.

Since then, I’ve thought a lot about the crossover between writing and gaming. So many writers that I admire are gamers, and we talk about how the skills are different, yet compatible. Storytelling, character creation, coming up against obstacles — there is so much to be learned by gaming that you can take back to your writing desk.

A Living World: Spend any time immersed in a vast, complex world like Forgotten Realms while sitting around a table with a fantastic Game Master and you instantly get an idea of how to build a real, living world to put your characters into. Details like flowers make a cool world. Details like flowers that you (or your character) can pick and turn into a potion to heal their loved ones (or a poison to kill their enemies) make a really cool world and a great addition to the plot.

Some other things to think about:

  • Create a world path. There is a large difference between an open-world computer RPG, where you can go anywhere and do anything but which can quickly become overwhelming due to size and choices, and a tabletop RPG, where the GM is more likely to guide you through a series of specific places and events. The second is how the majority of fiction works, so you can quickly see the difference between giving your readers all of the information about a world vs. giving your readers just the information they need for a given point in the story.
  • Don’t be a bore. If every village, town or vista in your book looks the same, with the same people, the same creatures and the same objects, ask yourself why they are there. Do they do any work other than giving a sense of vastness to the world? Perhaps it would be better to consolidate or find ways to make each place really unique.
  • Don’t be a bore #2. Writing isn’t about showing the whole world; it’s about zooming your reader’s attention in on the things and people that matter. Think about exclamation points and map markers in computer games; they’re saying, “Hey, look, here is a person or place or thing that you should pay attention to because it’s important.” Same in tabletop games when your GM adds details to a place or person. If he or she says, “And in the corner, there’s a big door, with a chest in front of it.” Well, duh. Instantly, you’re thinking, “What’s in the box? What’s behind the door?” A good GM draws your attention to those things on purpose. A good writer does the same for her readers. Don’t tell me everything, but do tell me what I should be paying attention to (probably with more subtlety than they do in games, though. I don’t need a big question mark over the character’s head).
  • Make sure your world makes sense. If you’ve ever played a game where the creatures “just are” — meaning they don’t seem to have any reason to be there other than as obstacles — then you come to understand how important it is that your world works together. Even the creatures that just want to kill you should have social structures, a way to get sustenance (other than you), and a reason for living where they do. (Note: the world doesn’t have to make sense with OUR world; it just has to make consistent sense without its own borders).

Characters with Depth: Most writers understand that you want your main characters to have a lot of depth. But how do you do that? And what about your secondary characters? Gaming teaches us a lot about that too.

  • Roleplaying games are all about character creation. You give your character a background, a set of unique skills, cool clothes and weapons, and probably even a couple of friends or companions. Each of these elements is important in fiction as well. If my player character chooses to wear glass armor over leather armor, it says just as much about him as if my fiction character chooses to wear brand-name jeans over a dress from Goodwill.
  • If you play Skyrim (or even just read memes), you’ve probably heard the phrase, “I used to be an adventurer like you, then I took an arrow in the knee.” It’s one of many stock phrases that non-player characters say when you walk near them. That particular phrase is said by so many people so many times in the game that it has become a catchphrase of what NOT to do to your secondary characters. Obviously, that’s extreme, but making sure each of your secondary characters has something unique about them is step one. (They also need a purpose, other than just background chatter).

Plotting: In both game-playing and writing, you are the master of your own (or your character’s story). One of the major differences, though, is that when you’re playing a game, someone has already set some parameters for you. There are only so many options. When you’re writing, anything goes.

  • Main plots are the long, complicated, over-arching tale that kicks off your character’s journey and ends with a huge conflict and either death or treasure. This a the “If/Then” path that your character will follow. Gaming can give a very clear idea of how this works. You start out in a new, unexpected place (you just came back from the dead, you got knocked out in a fight that you can’t remember, you have been accused of being a criminal, you are lost in a scary town, the world was just attacked). You are advised to do something or see someone or take some sort of action. Once you take that action, it leads to the next action. And so on.
  • Side plots are common in gaming. They usually begin with a random encounter or a “Hey, what’s over there?” You’ll notice, however that most of these are actually tied into the main plot in some way. If dragons are ravaging the world and your character’s main plot is to save the world from said dragons, then try trying your side plots into the main plot. For example, if you want romance, have the romantic interest need help (or offer to help) because of something the dragons have done to him or her.
  • Foreshadowing is classic in both fiction and game strategy. Recently while playtesting Numenera, we overheard a shopkeeper in town talking about his odd dream. It was a a small moment, something that could easily have been written off as a world building detail. But in truth, it was actually a hint of the conflict to come. You can see foreshadowing done in games when someone falls ills by a mysterious disease, by the discovery of certain books or a symbol on the wall, or even by a simple comment in passing. Take note of these because they can be used in your fiction as well.
  • There is another all-important element of this as well, and that comes when you make the move from playing a tabletop roleplaying game to GMing one. If you’re a writer, and want to learn about plot, I think trying your hand at running games is one of the best ways to spend your time. You’ll need to create an adventure (a plot) for your characters ahead of time, with the understanding that the players around your table might not follow it. This teaches you a bunch of things: letting go of your original idea when a better one is presented, planning and plotting on the fly, and learning when your plot slows down or gets boring (trust me, your players will let you know, with yawns if not with outright verbal comments).

Worthwhile Obstacles: Boring conflicts are boring. Fighting and killing 100 rats as a training exercise is my least favorite part of any game. Fighting and killing a creature that is only hard because it has a lot of health bores me to tears. Gaming teaches us how to keep escalating the conflict and how to create villains that are worth our  interest.

  • Make conflicts worth something. There is nothing worse than doing a ton of work to finish a quest and then returning to the quest-giver only to find out your reward is a couple of pieces of silver (or worse, an awesome piece of armor that you can’t wear). Every conflict in fiction should matter to the character, as should the conflict of that outcome.
  • Make good (read: complicated) villains. One of my favorite bosses in computer games is Princess Theradras, a stone golem in WoW. In WoW lore, she and the Keeper of the Grover fall in love and became the parents to the centaurs. When you meet her, she is keeping watch over the body of her long-dead love. She also has some inventive fighting tactics, among them her “fart blasts,” which can knock you off the ledge where she lives so that you go tumbling down into a pool filled with all kinds of things that want to kill you. This is a villain that breaks a whole lot of conventions, has a strong backstory, and is very complicated (she is defending her love, which makes it harder to see her as just a “creature.”).
  • Hurt your characters. Curses that slow movement, poisons that reduce health, spells that decrease weapon damage — these are all great examples of how games put characters at risk. Sure, characters can die, and there is always that danger. But going forward while hurt or impaired is incredibly scary and makes any task more difficult (and thus, also makes the reward greater).

The Power of Probability and Chance: Almost all roleplaying games, both computer and tabletop, are built on game mechanisms that use both probability and chance to move the game forward. As a writer, you want to be in control of your work, to make sure nothing is left to chance. And yet, when you’re still in the planning stages of your fiction, the creativity that you need can actually be enhanced by randomness. If you feel like you’re plodding along and things are stale, become your own GM and force your hand. Ask for a creativity check and pull out a tarot card, use a random plot generator or find some other way to add an element to your fiction that you wouldn’t have thought of. What happens to your character when they roll a one on the die of their life? Probably things that make for a horrible day for them, but really fantastic fiction for your readers.

Are you a writer and a gamer? What have you learned from playing games of any sort? I’d love to hear your stories and thoughts.

Kiss kiss bang bang, s.

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