Tag Archives: gaming

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

Monday’s Top 5

I have to admit, I don’t play many computer/console games. But I do love a good story. Storytelling in games has advanced rapidly over the last decade. Instead of the action-packed, will he/won’t he narrative of an intrepid frog crossing a busy highway and crocodile-infested river to get home, we now have sandbox-style games with strong characterisation, back-story, twists and turns, and a final reveal/confrontation. And, like with all forms of storytelling, there’s a lot writers can learn from computer games.

You may remember Patrick O’Duffy from last week’s Top 5. He spent the last two weeks playing Batman: Arkham City, and then wrote a fabulous post about it. It’s not a review (although he does talk about what he does and doesn’t like) but rather a look at the lessons on storytelling and narrative structure that can be taken from the game. In his own words:

But as of yesterday I have finished the game (both the core plotline and the host of side missions) and having done so I think there’s a lot to consider from a writing POV about the way the game handles its stories and characters. Arkham City does some things right and some things wrong – more the latter than the former, to be honest – and a lot of that is pretty directly applicable to writing fiction. So let’s step away from the fact that the game is a lot of fun and features my favourite character and see what else we can learn from it.

Check out Patrick O’Duffy’s Arkham City — the writing dos and don’ts. (Warning: Spoilers abound, so bookmark and read it later if you’re still playing the game.)

For those of us who live work exist in peruse the writing blogosphere, there was a massive furor when Farhad Manjoo published an article on Slate titled “Don’t Support Your Local Bookstore”. Type that phrase into google, and I’m sure you’ll find at least seven bajillion angry responses. If Manjoo’s intention was to cause a stir, he certainly succeeded. Of those seven bajillion responses, I’d like to share with you two.

Literary agent Sarah LaPolla responded with Jocks vs. Nerds. She suggests that Manjoo is trying to create a divide between the I-Hate-Amazon and the Amazon-is-King camps (a’la nerds and jocks), and puts forward the idea that there is a huge swathe of middle ground that he’s forgetting:

Manjoo fails to see that you can sip your soy latte and be a member of the NRA and shop at Whole Foods and vote Republican. Not everyone needs to be one thing, and not everyone has to want only one thing from their bookstore. Manjoo isn’t just telling us to respect Amazon for what it is. He’s saying it’s the only way to shop, and that even if you’re able to support local businesses, you shouldn’t because if you do you’re nothing but an out-of-touch, overly romantic hippie who doesn’t get how business works. 

Anthony Lee Collins isn’t so much responding to Manjoo’s article as responding to the extreme anger that arose in its aftermath. He is a writer and an avid reader, but (as he puts it):

I love words. I love stories. But I don’t love books. I like books – they’ve been the main way I’ve received words and stories until recently – but I’m not attached to them as items.

I think this love of books vs love of stories is one of the core differences between the people who fanatically support indie bookstores and the people who fanatically support Amazon — and a concept that seems to have been forgotten in the argument up to this point. So thank you Anthony for sharing that you are (Mostly) Not sentimental about books.

If people get their knickers in a knot talking about which form of book shopping is their favourite, you can bet that the question of which child is your favourite is an even tougher one. Come on, you know you’ve asked your Mum if you’re her favourite. As Aussie comedian Fiona O’Loughlin says: If your mother tells you she doesn’t have a favourite, she’s lying. It’s just not you.

Jennifer of Kvetch Mom has three children, and has had to come up with her own answer to this question. In her case it’s, “You are all my favorites! (Cough, cough, bullshit, cough, cough.)” Her post, You Are My Favorite, is funny, touching, and considers an aspect of parenting that we’re supposed to pretend doesn’t exist:

The thing about parenthood is, you don’t know who you’re going to click with when you have kids. You will love each child fiercely, but your interpersonal dynamics may be challenging with some. No one really talks about this, but for me it is true. I think it’s a lot easier to parent a kid who doesn’t jangle your nerves. Or remind you of your crazy uncle.

Finally, did I mention that I’ve got a post featured in Momma’s Twelve Days of Christmas? Right. I did. Well, I’m not the only one. Karyn Gallagher also has a guest post as part of the Christmas Celebrations. But, unlike mine, Karyn’s story is heartfelt and touching — a true Christmas miracle. I warn you: I cried for a solid ten minutes during/after reading this story. Tears of compassion and understanding and joy. Her story is that beautiful. Please go and read about The Gift. And have a tissue handy.


Filed under Top 5