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[GUEST POST] Stina Leicht on ‘Things I Learned About Good Writing from Playing Role-Playing Games’

Stina Leicht‘s debut novel Of Blood and Honey, a historical Fantasy with an Irish Crime edge set in 1970s Northern Ireland, was released by Night Shade books in February 2011. She also has a flash fiction piece in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s surreal anthology Last Drink Bird Head.

Things I Learned About Good Writing from Playing Role-Playing Games

They say that in order to be a good writer, one has to have written a million bad words. Really, all this means is that good writing requires a lot of practice. That’s true of anything — sports or activities like driving or art or any profession. Talent factors in, of course, but not as much as practice and passion. Pen and paper RPGs can be a great place to practice the art of storytelling, provided your focus in the game is on storytelling and not game mechanics. That’s the main take-away here. RPGs can be a great place to practice writing skills.

Take pacing, for instance. When your audience is sitting in front of you, you know right away if you’re boring. (Talk about instant feedback.) You learn how long you have to give background details and world-building elements such as history, politics, culture, technology levels and such. Let’s just say, it isn’t long. I learned that everyone was happiest if there was at least some sort of battle or other conflict twice per gaming session. Having that experience once a week for sixteen years, I began to develop an instinct for how long I could stretch the story before another monster battle. Plot and non-player character (NPC*) development was best seeded in the cracks between.

Which brings me to the subject of creating realistic characters. When role-playing is a majority of your campaign the NPCs need to be interesting and fleshed out — otherwise, no player wants to interact with them. In a long-term campaign, characters will grow and develop. It’s best to let them. No real person remains the same over time. We all change and grow. Without growth, we’re lifeless. At the same time, change carries risk, but that risk is what makes things interesting. The same is true of characters. Most of all, the biggest, most powerful aspect of RPGs for me was the actual role-playing. In a game, players will react to you as if you are the person you’re playing. I had an incredible experience once with a new player who was an actress. She didn’t understand the distinction between acting and role-playing, and so, she acted out her character’s reactions to my male NPC’s rejection of her amorous advances. I have to say, I owe her a great debt. She taught me so much about what it means to be male in a very short amount of time. Online, one can do the same thing, but it isn’t as powerful as having an actual person react to you. Every writer should be so lucky as to have the experience of “being” someone completely other than who they are. It’s an eye-opener.

Then there’s dialog. Game masters have to think of dialog on the spur of the moment, and in a pen and paper RPG game dialog is the main tool a GM has to convey the story. Dialog is the main means players have of differentiating one character from another too. As a GM I experimented with all sorts of ways to convey information. Some of them were more subtile than others. But the biggest help for me was when a couple of my players moved to another state. We used a chat program that wasn’t terribly sophisticated. I had learn how to communicate in a way that allowed players to discern the differences between one character and another. I firmly believe that’s where I learned about good dialog. We gamed like that for at least a year, every few days. For hours. Did I type a million words of bad dialog? Probably. But I needed to. I needed the practice.

All in all, I think it’s important for writers to experience storytelling in all sorts of formats whether they be live theater, film, radio plays, animation, RPGs, novels, short stories — it’s all storytelling. No one storytelling form is the answer. All the forms have weaknesses and strengths. It’s important to learn what is universal and what isn’t and why. The best way to learn is through experience, and I think role-playing is a great experience for writers.

* NPCs are characters created by the game master (GM)

5 Comments on [GUEST POST] Stina Leicht on ‘Things I Learned About Good Writing from Playing Role-Playing Games’

  1. Stina, as the “Roll Perception Plus Awareness” columnist here, you are playing my song!



  2. Very true.  I never realized it until later on, but that’s where I learned a lot of storytelling too.  Thinking back, the games I played, the characters I created, and the types of stories I liked to GM are very similar to what I write these days.

    Thanks for the insights, Stina.

  3. You all are very welcome. I believe in giving credit where credit is due. And you know what? I’m not the only author with a gaming background. 😉

  4. Combat is not the opposite of roleplaying. Development of PCs, NPCs, plot, and setting, can and should take place during combat encounters, especially if the encounter is about more than just each side trying to wipe out each of the others. I tend to notice that the battles in my favorite stories all have more (and often more important) things going on that just the battle.

  5. Paul, I don’t disagree with you about combat. I merely wanted to make the distinction between GMs whose emphasis and focus are on the rules aspects verses GMs who focus more on the story. Focus on story = more practice writing story. Combat can be and is an important part of storytelling. In fact, it’s very difficult to have an actual story without conflict. Ask any Literature teacher. 😉 

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