Everyone asks, how can I become a better writer? The answers are usually something like: read more books in the genre you’re writing, write as much as you can, get feedback from other writers and readers. Yes, you should do all those things, and they will make you a better writer in general. But something that’s often overlooked (perhaps because it’s incredibly nerdy) is tabletop roleplaying.
RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons are amazing tools for focusing the mind on the process of storytelling. By running and playing in an RPG, you’ll develop skills and habits that will make your writing better – or at least easier!
Being a GM, or gamesmaster, for an RPG is an interesting experience, and it has a steep learning curve to it. It starts with the setting of the game, which could be D&D, the various White Wolf games, Call of Cthulhu, or oldies like Rolemaster. You’ll get to grips with a setting and run games within it, but eventually, once you’ve got some experience and confidence, you’ll want to make your own setting.
This is where things get crazy – and useful. Worldbuilding for a novel and worldbuilding for an RPG setting are exactly the same thing. You create the setting from the top down, laying out the land, races, magic or technology, and politics at a macro scale before you ever get to cities, groups, and individuals. As a GM, you never need to make the characters – those are your PCs – but you’ll have everything surrounding them locked down and ready to go long before the story ever begins.
In a novel, this gives the story a vast, solid foundation to work on. The characters and plot you create, as an author, will be informed by the setting you’ve already figured out. You might think this is restrictive, because it places some constraints on the kind of characters you can make and the story you want to tell, but the benefit of working with a setting on a very wide level is that you can have the big, general themes, ideas and rules set down as your guidelines, and then you can follow or subvert them as needed on the scale of single characters.
Playing in an RPG is a lot like improv acting, but it’s also a lot like having a basic character profile and then telling a story about that character. Tabletop RPGs are collaborative storytelling, after all. But the real power of becoming a character in the game is that you’re forced to create a character from a handful of numbers and traits, and then improvise how that character would react over the course of several hours. The more games you play, and the more characters you play, the more you learn about how to create interesting characters with their own back stories, motivations, and possible narrative arcs.
Every author will know the feeling of coming up against continuity errors. Whether it’s characters out of place, or missing objects, or clashing motivations, or plain out-of-character actions, those errors are the bane of a storyteller’s existence because the readers will notice them.
You might wonder how RPGs can help with this, but here it is: if any one thing defines tabletop roleplaying, it’s the way you have to think on your feet constantly. Both GMs and players have to react, and quickly, to the changing story, regardless of what situation the GM places the players in, and regardless of how the players handle the situation. You have to problem-solve all the time and you never know when the next action is going to break the setting.
GMs get this a lot. When faced with infinite possibilities for where a game could go, due to the players, you learn to adapt the story and add fast workarounds to the setting in order to keep the players in line. This is a great, high-pressure method of making sure your setting and story are solid and plausible. Players, on the other side, learn the limits of the setting by what the GM allows them to do, and work out ways to fit their characters to it as effectively as possible.
If you run or play enough games like this, fixing continuity issues in a novel becomes trivial. RPG players and gamesmasters all learn how to think fast and roll with the punches, and that gets you into the right mindset to handle continuity problems in a novel.
The source of all this? Myself, and my years of experience on both sides of the table. I’ve played and run all manner of RPGs, but my favorites are D&D 3rd Edition, most White Wolf settings except for Vampire: The Masquerade, Call of Cthulhu, Traveler, Pathfinder, and Fate Core. I’ve found RPGs to be one of the most rewarding hobbies I’ve ever had, second only to swordfighting, and I wish I had more time to do it. Authors, if you’re looking for some brain-stimulation for writing in your favorite genre, please look at RPGs and try them out! You, and your writing, will be glad you did.