Tag Archives: roleplaying

Roleplaying for Writers

Before I went on my leave of absence, I started writing about how role-playing is beneficial to writers. That was prompted by some questions I’d had from people who didn’t understand the correlation between the two subjects. I’ve always intended to get back to the question but this time I will answer it in a single post. *deep breath* Here we go.

What is role-playing, anyway?

Role-playing, 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 role-play.

In a role-playing game, each player takes on the role of a character and plays that character as s/he takes part in a story. The Storyteller (also called GM, DM, etc) is the sole exception to this. The Storyteller designs the plot and plays the role of every non-player character in the story.

(If you’re interested in reading my long, rambling introduction to role-playing games — as well as the experience I had introducing my parents to role-playing — you’ll find it here.)

Playing a Character

Most of the people involved in any role-playing game take on the role of an individual character throughout the story. … What does that actually mean?

1) You develop a character concept, personality and background to suit the genre of the game you’re playing.

My character’s name is Cinderella Daniels. She’s 18 years old, about 5’2″ tall, with mostly dark hair — she’s dyed one stripe a vivid fuchsia. She grew up half with her Mom and half with her Dad. Her parents are quite civil to each other, she just happened to be the result of a one night stand, and her parents don’t have anything else in common. So half of each year she spent time with her Mum in a hippy-type commune just outside San Francisco where they lived on minimal money and spent time skipping school to hand- craft goods to sell to tourists. The other half of each year she spent with her Dad in New York, where she lived in an expensive apartment in Manhattan, went to the finest school, and had everything she could ever ask for. When she graduated high school, both parents expected her to live with them — so she moved to Miami to work out what she wants to do next. Her Dad bought her an apartment and gives her an allowance (much of which she gives to charity) and she volunteers weekends at the local science museum.

2) Once the game begins, you take on the role of your character, responding to the Storyteller and helping craft the story as you go.

Storyteller: You’re walking along the street when you notice a dog staring at you.
Cinderella: I love dogs! I look around to see who owns it.
Storyteller: There doesn’t seem to be anyone else around. The dog’s not wearing a collar or a leash, but it’s definitely watching you.
Cinderella: Poor thing, maybe it’s hungry. I’ll approach it — cautiously, though. I remember one time at Mum’s place when I was 8 or 9, this dog wandered in that looked harmless enough, but attacked everyone who tried to touch it.
Storyteller: As you approach, it starts to wag its tail.
Cinderella: Awww… I hold out my hand and talk to it. “Hello, little doggy. Are you hungry?”
Storyteller: The dog says, “Yeah, I’m starving. You got something to eat in that bag of yours? Maybe a burger? I love burgers. But hold the cheese — lactose, you know?”
Cinderella: Um. Did that dog just talk? I look at the dog. “Did you just talk?” Seriously. I must be going insane. I’m talking to a dog.
Storyteller: The dog tilts its head to the side and whines at you. Then it definitely talks. “Shit. Did I scare you? I didn’t mean to scare you. I’m not s’posed to scare you.”
Cinderella: I take a few steps backwards. “Noooo…. Not scared. Um. Hi?” 
 

Playing a character in a role-playing game is quite different to writing a story because you only have control over what your one character does. You don’t control the world, or the plot, or the other characters. It’s up to you to solve the mystery, or catch the killer, or plot to steal all the money in the bank vault of one of the biggest casinos in Vegas using only the skills and knowledge of your character.

Telling Stories

In each game there is one person designated as the Storyteller (DM, GM, et al.). The Storyteller is responsible for designing the plot, describing the world, and playing the roles of minor characters that the main characters come across. … What does that actually mean?

1) Develop a premise, plot, and antagonist to suit the genre of the game you’re playing.

The Morrigan and the Dagda have had a falling out. The Morrigan knows she can’t attack the Dagda directly, but she knows Lugh has a 19 year old child named Cinderella Daniels. Even better, the girl doesn’t know her father is a Celtic God. The Morrigan sets out to have the girl kidnapped, planning to use her as leverage to force Lugh to take her side against the Dagda. Lugh catches wind of this plan, but is unable to get to Cindy, so he sends a dog — a pup sired by his own dog companion, Failinis.

2) Once the game begins, you are the character’s eyes and ears. You take on the role of minor characters and antagonists as they appear, dictate the passing of time, describe the scene, and present the plot — always making sure to give the players space to play their character and make decisions about the direction the story will take.

Being a Storyteller in a role-playing game is quite different to writing a story, because you have no control over what the main characters do. You set up a scene, you provide back-up characters and antagonists, and you react to the characters as they react to your plot. Together, you tell a story.

How Does This Help When Writing?

When you’re writing a story, you take on the role of both the player/s and the Storyteller. You design the premise, plot and antagonists as well as the character/s. Then you build all the elements into a story.

Role-playing lets you practice each of those roles individually, which in turn helps you think about them as individual roles when you’re writing.

Instead of thinking:

Lugh’s dog shows up. It has a brief conversation with Cindy and Cindy agrees to take it back to her place.

I will think:

Storyteller: Lugh has sent his dog to meet up with Cindy. The dog is going to try to convince Cindy to take it home with her and then patrol the house looking for bad guys.

Cinderella (when the dog starts talking): This is totally creepy. There’s no way this dog is coming home with me. Oh, look how cute it is… Okay, it can come home — but it’s not coming inside and I’m taking it to the pound first thing in the morning.

Thinking about the story in this way helps prevent (1) characters from doing things because “it has to happen for the plot”, and (2) unrealistic plot points (based on the world and the antagonists). It helps ensure characters are always acting “in character”, and also forces you to push the boundaries of your plot.

There are a number of other storytelling techniques that I’ve developed and practiced through role-playing — such as setting a mood, rising and falling tension, and building micro-tension — and the “instant feedback” scenario of a group of people reacting to my character and/or storytelling is fantastic. But coming to understand the strong differentiation between plot and character when writing a story is the aspect that has had the largest impact on my writing.

So, all you role-players out there: What aspect of role-playing has had the largest impact on your writing?

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Girls Can Roll Dice Too

When I was in high school, I was a geek. I liked to hang out in the library, read fantasy & science fiction books, and find interesting and inventive ways to avoid sports days and P.E. classes. I always had a book with me, and read in every class I could get away with it. (Except, interestingly, a class known as D.E.A.R., which stood for Drop Everything And Read. I may have been a geek who loved reading, but I hated being told what to do.)

When I wasn’t reading, I was scribbling madly in notebooks, writing my own stories. I didn’t do anything with them, but I loved creating characters and scenarios, and trying to work them into interesting tales.

One lunch time, I was walking down the hall looking for a quiet place to hide for the next couple of classes so I could write down a new story idea, when I heard someone laughing in one of the rooms. I stopped. I was curious as to who would be in the maths rooms at lunch time, but I was cautious about investigating. I didn’t want to stumble into a room full of “popular kids” and give them yet another reason to victimize me.

I was still standing there when the classroom door opened and three guys emerged. Adam, Matt, and Phillip were in a few of my classes. I’d spoken to Adam a few times in science, and I knew the other two well enough to talk to, if nothing else. (Matt was a little intimidating because he was super-smart, and looked a little like Brain from Pinky and the Brain.)

As they were passing, they said hello. And I just had to ask. “What were you doing in there?”

The three of them exchanged surreptitious glances, as though they were ashamed, and Adam said, “Nothing.”

Then they went on their way, lowering their conversation to mumbling whispers of excitement punctuated by the occasional burst of shared laughter. I peered into the room they’d emerged from. Nothing. Just the usual array of desks and chairs.

Back then, I was a curious girl, and not good at taking no for an answer. (Actually, not much has changed.) I kept an eye on the three of them over the coming days. Each lunch time, they would head back to that same maths room, close the door after themselves, and… well, I didn’t know what it was they were doing inside. But it seemed to involve a lot of exuberance. So I started going to the room myself, trying to get there first. I’d station myself outside, and try to eavesdrop on them. It never worked. (And it sounds creepy, in retrospect.)

It seems to me that this went on for months, but in reality it was probably only 3 or 4 days. (Memories are funny like that.) Finally, when the boys found me hovering around outside the classroom again, they asked what I wanted.

“I just want to know what you’re doing in there,” I said. And my persistence finally paid off.

“We’re roleplaying,” said Adam. The other two shot him betrayed looks.

“What’s roleplaying?” I asked.

Phillip was the first to answer. Now that the cat was out of the bag, there didn’t seem to be a reason not to continue spilling beans. “We’re playing MERP, which is really the Lord of the Rings of course, and you play a character and roll dice and fight monsters and go on adventures and it’s really fun,” he said, all in one breath.

“Oh.” I had no idea what he was talking about. And that should have been the end of both the conversation, and my interest in roleplaying. But it wasn’t. Because Adam spoke up.

“You wouldn’t like it.”

“Why not?” I asked. I was just curious. After Phillip’s ever-so-helpful description, I was inclined to agree.

“Because girls don’t,” he said.

I’ve never claimed to be a bra-burning feminist, but this statement made me see red. For one thing, it was insulting. Why would girls not like whatever-it-was? And besides, I didn’t like fashion or make-up or jewellery, and I wasn’t obsessed by chasing after boys, so I was already so far out of the realm of “what girls like” that the statement was irrelevant.

“Let me play,” I said.

The answer was fast and unanimous. “No.” 

It took several weeks of haranguing to get them to agree that I could play a game and see if I liked it. So, unlike most people, I didn’t start with ye olde Dungeons & Dragons. I started with MERP (Middle Earth Role Playing). My first character was a Half-Elf thief. The game started with our characters aboard a ship, bound for lands unknown.

“What’s your character doing?” Adam, the GM, asked.

Matt said, “My Dwarf goes up on deck, makes himself a fishing rod, and begins fishing.”

Phillip said, “There’s nothing to do until we make landfall, so my Elf goes to sleep.”

They all looked expectantly at me. I had no idea what I was supposed to say. Then inspiration struck. “Are we sharing a cabin?” I asked.

“Yes.”

I smiled. “Then while the Dwarf’s on deck and the Elf’s asleep, I go through their stuff.”

And thus began my 20-year love affair with roleplaying.

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