I’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games for two decades. As a storyteller, I’ve found that role-playing a character or running a session has a lot in common with running a string of writing exercises, with immediate, sometimes in-your-face, feedback.
What is a role-playing game?
Some explanation first. Role-playing, in this context, is not the acting exercises you do in marriage counselling or management training. It’s a game, where a group of players play out an interactive story under the guidance of a storyteller called the game master. Each player — except the game master — acts the part of one character in the story, and the last player handles the rest of the story. Sounds complicated? This movie gives a view into what a role-playing session looks like.
Playing a character
When you create a character for one of these games, you want them to be interesting, recognizable, and memorable. That’s part of the fun. To do that, you’ll have to apply the same bag of tricks a writer uses for characterisation. A character can’t be good at everything all the time. A game system forces you to set up a character that way. You want to be a good fighter, then you can’t also be a great thief. You want to be a great thief, well then you’re not going to be a mighty wizard. Flaws make your character interesting. And your character needs a motivation and a twist. You get the idea.
One advantage of role-playing over writing is that you get to see what kind of characters other people think up. And you get to have your shiny new character interact with other players’ characters.
Running a game
Being a dungeon master requires you to not only create interesting characters, but also a great story. You need to engage a group of players. You can last a few sessions (sessions last several hours usually, in my case usually one evening) with a bad story, but not much longer. You’ll quickly be staring at a group of players with glazed eyes or playing with their phones.
So, you need to make a compelling tale, and I’ve found that to do that you need to adapt the plot to take character backgrounds into account. With a story you can make the characters match the plot you want, but as a game master you’ll have to adapt your plot to the characters – and often players think up wildly mismatched back stories.
When I’ve got a general idea of how to tie all the backstories together, I’ll start putting together stuff for a session. I don’t plan ahead too far, and I leave things open-ended, because — like in a story — the characters rarely do what you want. Each session, like each part of a story, has to be interesting in itself, advance the story, and do something to advance some characters’ arcs. On top of this, you’ll need to find ways to make the characters interact. I usually pit them against each other. If the goals of one character are contrary to that of another, you’ll get some sparks, as when you’re writing a story.
If you’re writer and you want to play a new game with friends that also helps improve your writing, go set up a role-playing game. If you are role-playing game master and you feel that you want to do more with your skills, guess what, you might like writing stories.
Go write, or go role-play, or both.