Sunday, October 26, 2008

Dungeons and Dialog

I had a request recently to talk about what I bring from the gaming table to the writing table. Eventually I'll bring some specific anecdotes (hopefully, my gaming life will pick up - right now, other than a highly intermittent Mage: the Ascension game and a largely theoretical chat-based Exalted game, all I'm doing is one-on-one games with my Abigail, most of which are not for public consumption). Right now, though, I'll make the best of what I've got and let you know how roleplaying has informed my writing and writing has informed my roleplaying up to this point.

The biggest contribution of roleplaying to writing is that, on some level, gaming is writing. A four hour session of game isn't equivalent to four hours of solid writing - for me, at least, nothing is better than writing - but it's pretty close. In a world where both writing time and gaming time is precious, the fact that the latter can be the former is a lifesaver.

Another realm in which my gaming contributes to my writing is sympathy and identification. When I write, I find myself getting into character, almost as though I were at the table. My ability to identify with my characters improves my narrative, my ability to write my characters' decisions, and my dialog (which I was just complimented on by my lovely Abigail). Also, because I care about my characters so much I'm a lot more hesitant to kill them in stupid ways (unlike a certain television writer *cough* Joss Whedon *cough*). I love my characters, I respect their stories, and I want them to have cool endings. I'm perfectly willing to kill them off, mind you, but only when it's cool, and I think readers appreciate this.

Similarly, thinking of my characters as player characters and thinking about how to make the game fun for their theoretical players improves my narrative as well. On some level, when you read a novel, you are the characters' player (in a weirdly static sort of way). You identify with the characters, you want to see them have awesome stories and reach their awesome conclusions. Keeping that in mind as I write has, I feel, positive results. It keeps characters from falling off the story, loosing their awesome, or becoming sidekicks in their own story. You know, all the things that piss off readers that us writers seem to do all the time.

Of course, my writing contributes to my gaming, too. Possibly more so.

The greatest of these contributions is in pacing. Have you ever been in a game session that just dragged? Maybe the players were all stuck on trying to figure out the solution to this one puzzle and they thrashed around, doing everything but the right thing, or there were endless lame conversations that went nowhere. Yeah, I hate those, too. I also don't run them anymore. Becoming a writer has taught me that the story has to be kept moving no matter what.

And, of course, descriptions. It seems that I have a gift for describing things that happen in a cool and evocative way, a gift that I attribute to my writing.

Of course, the best thing about this whole situation is that since gaming is writing, these things all feed into each other. For example, I claim that my writing has helped me improve my pacing as a game master... but who's to say that the eye for pacing that I bring to the table doesn't come from all that gaming in the first place?

Lest I come across as arrogant, I should probably admit that gaming opens me up to some particular foibles as a writer, and being a writer can create problems for my inner gamer.

For one thing, it's possible to screw up a story by adhering too slavishly to gaming tropes. I just finished listening to a rather nifty podcast novel (Heart of the Hunter, by Sam Chupp) that I think has this problem. I really enjoyed it, but there were places where the story and dialog felt a little forced. People became friends a little too quickly here or made certain illogical choices there, things that would have made sense in a roleplaying game but were jarring in a novel.

I also think it's possible to like your characters a little too much. That way lies the path of raw mary sewage. Horrible things happening to sympathetic (or at least ambiguously nifty) people is what drives most stories. In most games, while it's really awesome for a player to contribute to her character's troubles, the game master exists to provide opposition. A writer has to provide opposition - and not just bad guys, but real, challenging opposition - all by himself.

And of course, I think we've all gamed with someone who was also a writer. Those intensely beautiful snowflake characters that break the setting and the system left and right? Those novel-length backstories? The phone book of NPCs? Yeah, I don't know about you, but I do that all the time. It takes a lot of discipline to curb my instinct to bring my writing to the gaming table and overdo it.

Wow, I think every one of those paragraphs above has the potential to be a post all on its own, some day. I'll be sure to come back to this topic in the future, hopefully with some examples from my writing and (please, God, someday soon) my gaming.

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Here's where I want to hear from you. How has gaming influenced your writing and writing influenced your gaming? What are some anecdotes and examples from your creative life?


SambearPoet said...

Thanks so much for the link and the compliment.

I think you are right about Heart of the Hunter not altogether hanging true; I'd be interested in knowing more about your thoughts since I am taking all of the commentary I'm getting and using that as writer's notes for the 2nd draft.

Even though it does work as a story, HotH really is a first draft of a novel, and it shows! I hope to polish it up to shine.

However, I find that many people automatically assume that, since I'm a big ol' RPG gamer, everything about the story is D&D - and I don't think that's ever going to go away.

I think that, for me, the world-creation that took place during roleplay enabled me to have such a huge world in which to place my novel. RPGs are like incubators for world creation.

The problem is that they create so much that it's impossible to expose it all in a "show, not tell" sort of story.

Many times I found myself having to back up and say, "You know what, Sam? Those 1,000 words you just wrote about the Firewherian Empire might make a great wiki entry, but they're not going to help the story move forward at all."

Going from novels to games - *that* is the true toil, I think...but that's outside the scope of your blog :)

Anonymous said...

I've had exactly the same problem. Just the other day, the Abigail read the first chapter of Rat and Starling and said "Mark, that's just one big infodump."

And she's right, and it's frustrating as hell because I really like all that info.

I'd love to give you more detailed feedback on Heart of the Hunter, though to do that I'd need a copy to print out. I'm a visual learner literary Luddite - I can enjoy things I hear and read on computer screens, but I can only engage with them in a writerly way with a hardcopy in front of me and a pen in hand.

What I've got, though, is that I don't think the D&D homage was entirely a problem. Often, it was fun and comforting. Many of the best parts were when I could say to myself "I can totally see this happening at the gaming table - it would be one of those awesome moments we'd talk about for months." It gave me a warm, fuzzy feeling inside.

I do think you and I share a love of our settings that leads to the occasional infodump.

Anyway, with a printable copy I'd love to give you more feedback.

I'm also honored that you commented on my blog (eee!) and I hope you choose to keep reading!