The RPG Rythm - why a novel is, and isn't, like a role-playing game

In the third in a series of posts inspired by editing Damon Courtney's new book.

Tabletop role-playing games are an intensely creative group activity. A whole world is created in the shared imagination of the players, a process that has a lot more in common with theatre than it does with reading.

The act of creation is structured, to ensure that everyone shares a similar experience. Generally the Game MasterI (GM) describes the setting, and provides details of the situation in which the players find themselves. At this point the players will likely start asking questions of the GM. The nature of the questions they ask will give him clues about how they have responded imaginatively to the situation he has placed them in, and he will (often) start improvising details to further enrich the world in accordance with the players' needs, and of course, consistent with the challenges they face.

The most enjoyable games arise when all players and the GM become absorbed into the imagined world, and create a story together.

Since most of these games contain some fantasy element (whether mythical, magical, extra-terrestrial or technological), those things require rules to prevent the tedium that results from omnipotence and omniscience. The rulesets of RPGs are generally about what is possible and what is impossible; they set detailed boundaries about what players (or the characters they are 'playing') can do. This might be anything from how far you can jump through how much sleep you need to how much more trauma you can take while remaining sane.

Rules are essential in fantasy stories. Everything from the 1001 Nights to Twilight works on strict rules. The rules are what define the boundaries of the possible, and what enable the reader to recognize the drama in situations—recognition that arises from a shared knowledge of the rulesII.

The result of these similarities is a shared experience that is as satisfying as a really great theatrical performanceIII or reading a really good book.

It is inevitable therefore that players and GMs will have the thought: "Hey, that game was like a great story. I should write it as a story."IV

I have no specific objection to people doing this. Indeed, chronicling RPG adventures can be amusing, rewarding and improve your writing skills.

But there are very particular differences between the way things happen in an RPG and the way they happen in a storyV. The most glaring of all is that the narrator usually has a pretty good idea of what the characters are going to do.

Below is my generic editor's note on the subject:

Editorial note 11: the RPG rhythm

The RPG system developed by Gary Gygax and others requires some significant storytelling from the GM, and a certain degree of complicity from the players, but generally resolves itself to a particular rhythm, as follows:

  1. The scene is set by the GM. He describes the location and gives a few light details about what can be done, should be done, and what the risks or dangers might be. He also tells the players if there are any immediate threats.
  2. The players ask a whole load of questions about the details, to which the GM gives the answers, either from what he prepared earlier, what he thinks is reasonable or consistent or what he hastily made up. Sometimes he rolls a few dice to buy time.
  3. The players discuss various options amongst themselves. They may refer to the GM for clarification of further details at this point.
  4. The players agree a plan or the skeleton of a plan. They present it to the GM who either rejects it as impossible, helpfully points out the worst flaws or just accepts it to either maliciously watch it all go wrong or curiously see what happens.
  5. The players finalize the details of their plan. They tell the GM what they will do and in what order.
  6. Many many dice are rolled. Traps are found, doors are opened, bars bent, walls climbed, shadows hid in, backs stabbed, initiative won or lost, battles fought.
  7. return to step 1.

This pattern is not like the pattern of normal life, however it can sometimes creep in. Writers who have spent a lot of time playing D&D and the like will inevitably end up matching this rhythm of lengthy conversation alternating with intense activity. This sometimes happens in real life but very rarely, and I suspect even more rarely in good novels.
Finally, following on from what I said yesterday about fighting; RPG players get into the habit of thinking about combat in terms of rounds. A round is like a turn in a board game. It's your go. Imagine a group of heroes fighting a Dragon. The Dragon surprises them from above so he attacks in the first round. The heroes just stand there and get toasted. Once the Dragon has done toasting them, it's their turn in the second round. Those not welded into their armor start lobbing spells and arrows at the Dragon who hovers conveniently above them and either gets hit or doesn't. Repeat until one of the two sides is dead.

Real fights don't work this way, and so far I've never seen a (non humorous) fantasy book that depicts fights this way. However the structure of this system can give RPGers VI  a skewed sense of how fighting actually works, such as supposing that at any point a combatant is either defending or attacking (I mentioned this more briefly yesterday), or supposing that there is a hierarchy in types of armor, and that the higher up the hierarchy your armor is, the harder it is to hit you (in reality, armor is part of a strategic arms race; each type of armor has different strengths and vulnerabilities, and there is an upper limit to how useful armor can be. In some contexts, a man with no armor can be almost impossible to hit, while a man in massive plate mail almost impossible to miss).

Don't even get me started on hit pointsVII .


I really believe that the imaginative exercise of RPGs can and will make you a better narrator and writer. It will help you to think creatively, and to set yourself challenges and find satisfying solutions to them. But you must keep in mind that when you change media, not only are conventions different, but the whole mechanics of communicating your creations changes, quite beside what you chuse to call 'realism'.

I this is the politically correct title for the person who runs the game. In my mind it will always be Dungeon Master (DM), but there are now an awful lot of rpg systems out there, and most of them don't take place in dungeons. Indeed with systems like GURPS, any setting or situation you can imagine can be role-played. As a result, the more generic term GM is used.
II PTerry makes constant use of this, and often parodies it at the same time. On Discworld there is an element called narrativium and a rule called narrative causality that together ensure that stories follow their proper course.

III I studied theatre and have been to an enormous number of plays. I think I have seen two where the play and the performance really combined into a great shared experience. Maybe I just wasn't born at the right time, but most of the theatre I have seen has been stagnant, dry and sterile or desperately cheerily gimmicky.
V To say nothing of differences with real life. Most people do not throw dice to find out if they can do something or not. Most people.

VI role-playing gamers

VII Oh all right. Hit points indicate how much injury you can take before you die. Highly skilled and experienced heroes have hundreds of them while random peasants have 1. That suggests that to kill a hero you have to hit him at least 100 times as hard, or 100 times more, than you need to hit a peasant. This is obviously nonsense, but the game would be very different if it didn't work this way. Possibly more challenging and rewarding; probably less entertaining.


RFinn said...

But RPGs certainly can feed a story, I think. Supposedly Weis & Hickman played out the campaign on the table top which later became the Dragonlance Chronicles. They certainly had to balance the things you're talking about and I'm quite sure the books do not flow 1-to-1 from the gaming sessions, but I also imagine that a lot of the drama did flow from the table to the page.

One great thing about playing out a story like that is that the players, if they truly wear the mantle of their characters, do things the GM/author might never have thought of. In the gaming group Damon and I have been a part of for the last 20 years you certainly saw that from time to time. Now, mind you, a lot of the players were like Bruce Willis or Ben Stiller - they played the same character no matter what the role was.

Another aspect that I think benefits a budding author is the practice of the thing. My wife, while not interested in gaming in the slightest, thought it was a great creative endeavor. Maybe she thought less of that after we hosted a game in the living room, but I digress... the point is that GM'n, particularly of one's one setting and not a published one, requires a lot of world building, a stable of interesting characters and situations, and yet also the ability to allow the characters to drive the story in concert with the plot. Occasionally, we had an entirely different campaign than was originally envisioned.

Maybe you should write a book: Translating Gaming Experience into a Writing Career.

Unknown said...

I certainly think gaming experience prepares you for the kind of creativity that an author needs. Indeed the same kind of creative thinking that gamers need to come up with a really satisfying solution to a tricky situation is also what the writer uses to deal with difficult areas of plotting—as I was saying to Damon yesterday, to come up with your best ideas you need to put yourself in difficulty, and I think Damon is living proof that 20 years of gaming can give you the skills you need to become a writer.

Damon J Courtney said...

That's nice to hear because these constant posts about how my buffoonery has inspired you to write something are getting tiresome. 0-]

Just kidding. You call 'em like you see 'em, and that's a good thing. It's making me a stronger writer along the way, and that's all I've ever asked from the experience.

The hardest part about writing now is that I no longer have accomplices. I can't tell you how many times I DM'd (it will always be DM to me as well) a game only to find the players going in a completely different direction and rewriting my story. Or even positing an idea about where the campaign was going that I had never considered only to find that I liked their idea better! I've rewritten entire campaigns because of an offhanded comment like, "Wouldn't it be funny if he turned out to be the mad wizard?"

For the record, I've never run the "mad wizard" campaign. The term mad wizard is just silly. Evil wizard? Oh, yeah, all over the joint.