Roleplaying for Writers — Part 1: What is Roleplaying, Anyway?

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about narrative structure wherein I noted that I’ve learned a lot about narrative pace, structure and tension through my many years of roleplaying. I had a couple of people comment that they didn’t really ‘get’ the correlation between roleplaying and writing, and so I decided to write about it. The more notes I made, however, the larger the topic seemed to get. So, rather than writing a post so long that it results in nothing but a series of “tl;dr” responses, I’ve decided to break it into four parts.

  1. What is Roleplaying, Anyway?
  2. Playing a Character
  3. Running a Game
  4. The Magic and the Mindset

So, what is roleplaying, anyway? 

(And no, I’m not referring to whatever it is that you and your Significant Other do in the privacy of your own bedroom, bathroom, or kitchen. Those games are private and should remain so. Please.)

I’m going to introduce you to the concept in the same way I introduced my parents to their first (and only) roleplaying game. But first, a little background…

I first came across the idea of roleplaying when I was all of about nine, before I even knew I’d come across the idea of roleplaying. Does anyone else remember the amazing Dungeons and Dragons cartoon?

Six kids, magically transported to a new world and gifted with skills, abilities and magic items by a seemingly benevolent Dungeon Master and sent to fight evil and find their way home. But not too quickly, because then the adventure would be over.

I loved it. Absolutely loved it. What could be better than imagining myself cast into this situation, transformed into a cavalier or a unicorn-loving barbarian? (Yes, there were female characters. No, I didn’t want to be either of them.) 

Unfortunately, the cartoon was aired right in the middle of the “Dungeons and Dragons killed my son!”, “Role-Playing Games are of the Devil!”, “My Teenager Killed Himself When His Character Died!” hype that swept America and the world in the mid-80s. I was far too young to know anything about it, but my extremely conservative Dad heard the headlines and promptly banned me from watching anything labelled Dungeons and Dragons. “But why?” I asked plaintively. “Because it’s dangerous,” he responded. And that was the end of that conversation.

It wasn’t until I was thirteen that I actually learned about roleplaying, and came to realise exactly what version of Dungeons and Dragons my father was actually concerned about. I’ve written about my introduction to roleplaying before. What I didn’t say was that my parents instantly banned me from playing. Even my assertions that, “It’s not Dungeons and Dragons, it’s another game, and it’s not dangerous it’s just fun,” didn’t encourage them to allow me to play. They were adamant that anyone who played roleplaying games would end up either selling their soul or committing suicide. Or possibly both.

So I discovered a loophole.

The qustion, “Can I go to Adam’s place and roleplay?” would be met with a negative response.

The question, “Can I go to Adam’s place and hang out with him and a couple of other guys for the day?”, on the other hand, was apparently absoloutely fine.

I spent the next few years roleplaying as much as I could and keeping it a secret from my parents. It wasn’t until I moved out of home that I ventured to mention to them that I was roleplaying again. They were… let us say “not pleased”. But they didn’t really have any control over what I did with my spare time, so they let it go. After giving me a variety of warnings about the evils of RPGs.

Fifteen years later, I was still roleplaying. I was married, successful in my chosen profession, happy in my life, and not dead or bereft of my soul. My parents were staying with me for a few days when my Dad said, completely out of the blue, “You seem to do a lot of this ‘roleplaying’. Maybe it’s time we found out what it’s all about.”

I stared at him for a minute. “Really?” I asked.

“It can’t be all bad.”

And thus began the first, and only, time my parents have ever roleplayed.

Roleplaying, at its heart, is a collaborative storytelling experience. Have you ever watched a movie or read a book and found yourself thinking, “I would totally have seen that coming.” Or: “If that was me, I would have done something different.”? Congratulations! You know how to roleplay.

A roleplaying game consists of a person to run the game (often referred to as a Dungeon Master (DM), Games Master (GM), Storyteller (ST), or one of about a million other titles depending on which game you’re playing) and a group of players. A game can operate with any number of players — from a “solo game” with one player through to a game with twelve or thirteen players. Each of those players creates a character, and then takes on the role of that character in the story that that GM creates.

Important note: In a standard roleplaying game, “taking on the role” consists solely of talking. Facial expressions, hand gestures, etc are often used to punctuate dialogue, but there’s no real moving around or acting out or real weapons or satanic rituals or whatever else people think goes on. It’s a group of people sitting around talking, telling a story together.

There are a LOT of different roleplaying games out there. Dungeons and  Dragons is one of the most well-known, although I’ve only played it a handful of times. I’ve spent much of my roleplaying in other universes and worlds, some of which I’ll mention in later posts. But for right now, allow me to introduce you to the game of Amber.

When I decided to run a short session for my parents, I immediately decided to go with the Amber Diceless RPG.There were several reasons for this. First, they didn’t need to pretend to be a vampire, werewolf, monster-hunter, or anything else that would immediately make them think of horror movies. Second, the system is incredibly simple and, as the name would imply, doesn’t involve dice. That enabled me to introduce them to the concept without needing to teach them about a game system at all.

And so we started.

Me: You play a character in the game. So I want you to think of a character that you can play. It can be absolutely anyone that you can imagine. What does he/she do? How old is he/she? What are his/her hobbies? What’s his/her name?

Dad: —-

Mum: I’m a high flying lawyer with a fancy apartment and lots of money. I only take cases where my client is innocent, and I also like to solve crimes on the side. I’m thirty years old, I’m not married, but I live with my boyfriend and I don’t have any kids. I don’t want kids. I’m focused on my career. I like to go jogging. And solve crimes. And  my name is Sandy.

I think I just stopped and stared at my Mum at this point. So did my Dad.

Me: Uhh… What’s Sandy’s last name?

Mum: Goestopper.

Me: Okay. Dad?

Dad: —-

Me: Just pick something familiar to you if you like. It doesn’t have to be completely different.

Dad: Okay. I’ll play an Air Force pilot.

Me: Great! How old is he?

Dad: He’s 27. He has a wife and two children.

Me: What’s his name?

Dad: Tom.

Me: Tom…?

Dad: Jones. Tom Jones.

With characters ready to go, we embarked on the beginning of the game. Each of them, while living their normal lives, noticed a lady watching them intently. Tom Jones ignored her. Sandy Goestopper approached her and demanded to know what was going on. Eventually, each of them found themselves in a situation where their loved ones (and the rest of the world) seem to have frozen in time, and the woman explains that the world is about to be destroyed and only she can save them.

Dad: I go with her. I leave my family behind. That’s what an Air Force pilot would do.

Me: Oka-aay. Mum?

Mum: I slam the door on her and run inside. Jason [her boyfriend] is under the kitchen table, so I go under there and grab hold of him. “Jason!”

Me: He doesn’t answer. He seems to be frozen.

Mum: (miming shaking someone) Jason! Jason! You’re no good to me now, Jason!

Me: (laughing) Okay, what do you do?

Mum: I go back and open the door. “Okay, let’s go.”

Hi-jinks ensued, until they found themselves in the kingdom of Amber, where the King explained that they were actually a Prince and Princess. Tom Jones had a long conversation about metaphysics and what that meant for his future. (“What do you mean there’s no planes in Amber???”) Meanwhile, Sandy Goestopper ordered ridiculous amounts of food from the Royal Kitchens, and then went for a swim on the beach.

We ended the game session there, and I was satisfied that I had, if nothing else, given my parents a taste of what roleplaying was all about. I didn’t ask what they thought, or if they understood that we had created a story together — the three of us, weaving a series of events that never would have come together if any of us had tried to do it individually. We all went to bed, and that was the last I had expected to hear of it.

The next morning, my Dad said to me, “I don’t know if I like this roleplaying.”

My heart sank. “Why not?” I asked.

He frowned. “I had really vivid dreams all night. About castles and magic and strange worlds. And through all of it, there was this annoying lawyer woman who wouldn’t stop talking until I went to the beach with her.”

I guess that, on some level, he did understand.


If you’ve never roleplayed before, does this give you an idea of what it’s all about? If you do roleplay, how does this compare to the way you explain it? Have you ever introduced someone to roleplay? Would you run a game for your parents?


Filed under The Inner Geek, Writing

19 responses to “Roleplaying for Writers — Part 1: What is Roleplaying, Anyway?

  1. Dan

    Wow… I’ve got a long childhood history with D&D. Fortunately, we got it shortly before the big hysteria hit, and by then my uber-conservative parents realized it was too late, though Mom was still “concerned” for years.

    Probably my neatest experience sharing role playing with someone was in my 6th grade “talented and gifted” program, convincing the teacher to let us play D&D for school credit.

    Our arguments that we were even willing to give up recess for it didn’t convince him, but then he coincidentally tried to teach us about perfect solids. The four gamers in the class knew them all: 4-sider, 6-sider, 8-sider, 12-sider, and 20-sider. We also knew about flat distributions (one die) vs. bell curve distributions (multiple dice added together). We knew about probabilities and how to combine them through multiplication as well as lots of other math tricks.

    When he realized that it was a game of storytelling that used math and probability to resolve disputes, he was willing to give it a shot. There were only about ten weeks left in school by that point, but he sat and watched almost every gaming session we had. He then applied our time towards math and reading units in the class record keeping.

    Of course, I imagine if it had been only three years later during the anti-D&D hysteria and word had gotten out in our conservative town, it would have meant his job. Instead, I get to remember him as one of the most open-minded teachers I ever had.

    • You are officially the coolest person ever. Playing D&D for school credit is amazing. We thought we were pretty awesome because the boys convinced our maths teacher to let us use his room during lunch breaks, but we had nothing on you guys.

      Thanks for sharing your story. I will remain in awe.

  2. ava

    Wow! This is great!
    You have very cool parents Jo! I love how your mom just went in and dived through the “roleplaying”!

    And I just love how you ended this post! Your Dad’s dream is a classic, his subconscious obviously understand the concept. 🙂

    Great great post.

    • Mum completely blew me away with her willingness to dive in. It was like she’d been doing it for years. (She’s probably been making up stories in her head forever, mind you.) Dad was less comfortable with it, but then he prefers to steer away from creative things and stick to facts and reality. Clearly his subconscious had other ideas, though!

      Thanks for commenting, Ava. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  3. I have a friend who has a good blog on all the things that parents are told are “dangerous” for their kids (RPGs, metal music, “goth” culture, etc.):

    I remember when it was rock and roll (and then rap after that), and comic books. Before that it was jazz music, which is now very respectable.

    It’s always something. 🙂

    • It is, indeed, always something. Here’s hoping I don’t magically turn into my parents and fight against whatever my kids think is cool when they grow into teenagers. 🙂

  4. Very funny and cool post. Never got into RPGing myself but I have plenty of friends who did, and they were hardcore about it. For me I think it was my ADD kicking in, and the fact that I prefer doing most things solo.

    • That’s my situation, too. Before I was really focused on writing I was in bands, and in bands _everything_ is collaborative.

      I was ready to do things solo for a change. 🙂

    • I actually spent a good few years playing ‘Fighting Fantasy’ books (anyone else remember them?) once we moved away from my first roleplaying friends, rather than put myself out there and try to make new friends with the same interests. Not quite the same thing, but the closest you can get while maintaining your solitude. 🙂

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

  5. Yeah, I try and explain “Role-playing” in much the same way: as collaborative story-telling.

    But I also remember instances of brushes with role-playing in class lessons in school. Things like dividing the class into teams, with each team representing a group of Colonists coming to America, and having to compete in various tasks in order to build up our colonies. Conceptually, these were role-playing games incorporated into school. Fun times.

    But yeah, collaborative story-telling. And I’ll usually go further and explain that each player plays the role of one character in that story (thus the name, role-playing), except one player who sets up the story and the challenges the other players must overcome as part of their story. That’s pretty much it.

    I’ll also agree with your approach: D&D is very mechanics heavy, and for people late in their years coming to Role-playing for the first time, it may not be the best introduction to the concept.

    I also thought it was kind of fun in College, when it came to statistics, how I was ahead of the curve because I already understood some of the basics of stats due to my experiences in RPGs.

    Alas… I don’t play much at all, these days. No time and no contact with a core group of players.

    • Yeah, there’s actually a lot of role-playing scenarios in schools and workplaces, which is why I always thought it was a bit rich that the entire RPG world could be so easily criticised. “Don’t play a game where you tell a story as though you’re someone else, it’s evil! Instead, come over here and pretend to be a Colonist and tell me what happens.”


      With everything else in my life, I don’t have time to get together with a RP group these days either. I’m very lucky, however, that I actually met my husband through a roleplaying group. (The first time we met, I was GMing him in a game of Amber.) So even when we don’t have time to leave the house, we can find time to RP one-on-one.

      • Yeah, Dear Wife isn’t into RPGs… but she’s into nerdish Board Games (like Settlers of Catan, etc.), so that’s how we get our game on.

        Our current favorite has been Dominion.

        Some day… some day I may get back into the RPG community…

      • Nerdish board games are definitely the next best thing. 🙂

        I’d suggest the various online RP options, but they take up so much time that I’m sure you’d rather spend writing.

      • Well yes: if it’s a choice between playing RPG in any form and writing… I’d choose writing.

  6. I’m so happy I set this aside until I had time to read it. It was really interesting. I’m looking forward to the next few parts.

  7. This is a great article, Jo – thanks for writing it. 🙂

    I was fortunate enough that when I was a kid, it was actually my parents who introduced ME to roleplaying. Dad had a weekly game every Sunday that my mom and a bunch of family friends played in… When I became a teen – not only did I run my own games, but dad ran a long-standing campaign that I participated in. RPGs have been an important part of my life since I was a baby – literally. 🙂

    I guess it makes sense that my current business venture is a RPG based company. 🙂 We host an online storage and management system for tracking character sheets, timelines, and RPG world information. 🙂 My eventual goal is that it will be a useful tool for writers, as well.

    I would love your feedback on some of our videos and podcasts! 🙂


    • You were, indeed, very fortunate. My husband and I are hoping that when we introduce our sons to roleplaying, they enjoy it as much as we do. (You’ll note the “when” rather than “if”.)

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting — I’ll be sure to check out your site when I can. 🙂

  8. In Iceland… Roleplaying is used to teach English. — (… and although the bottom fell out of the market (I shot myself in the foot by introducing “Magic: The Gathering” here), I still sell the books.)

Speak to me.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s