Tuesday, June 26, 2012

RPGs and Writing

What are RPGs and why are they good for writing?

When people hear the term RPG or Role Playing Game, they tend to think of one of three things:
- Computer games, like Dragon Age and Mass Effects.
- Sexual games couples play in the bedroom.
- Old style geek board games, like Dungeons and Dragons.

All of these are incorrect in this context, but the last one is the most accurate.

I am referring to ‘play by post’ RPGs, in which the players take turns writing about the actions and reactions of their characters in a fictional setting. These games are usually played on a forum, via email, in a chat room or via an instant messaging program.

I can hear many of you shutting down and turning off now, but bear with me to the end of the tutorial. You’re about to learn something.

When I talk about play-by-post RPGs, I am referring to ‘long post’, rather than ‘short post’ or ‘chat room post’ games. I will expand on this later. However for those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, a long post RPG will read exactly like a published novel, it will just have numerous point-of-view changes in every scene.

I’ll get into the nitty gritty of how a game is played soon, but first, why are RPGs good for writing?

Imagine you are training for a marathon. Food can either be very good for you, or very bad. If you’re eating Tim Tams, sausage rolls and chips all day, it’s going to hurt your chances of completing the marathon. If you’re eating lots of lean protein, leafy vegetables and wholegrain, you’re priming your body to be the best it can be.

In this analogy, RPGs are food and writing at novel is the marathon. RPGs can be either very good or very bad for your writing skills. If you want to use them to improve your writing, you need to have a strategic approach and you need to do it the right way.

I’ve been playing with my primary RPing partner for ten years now. Usually we play for two or three hours, everyday. And in that time, we each write between 3000 and 5000 words. Each. Every single day. Are you crunching the numbers in your head yet? That means our RPing sessions are equal to almost 35, 000 words of writing exercises every week.

Am I a talented writer? God no. I am a very well practised one.

My RPing partner too, has flourished into a brilliant writer. She will always be my favourite writer to read and she does characterisation better than any other person I know. However in our games I am always the DM, which means I plot the action and events of the game, and her characters essentially react. So while my plotting and world developing skills are fantastic, hers have been neglected.

She also doesn’t want to write books. So one of the most enjoyable writers of our generation will probably never see print. And her epic steam punk novel, Brass City, will remain ever unpublished, languishing in my backup hard drive until the day she agrees to give it to me to finish and accept a co-author credit. Not that I could do it justice.

So what separates the good from the bad?

Essentially, the good are separated from the bad by effort. Take away pizza is easy and bad for you. Homemade pizza takes time and effort, but it’s tastier, healthier and more satisfying. To make an RPG post good, you need to strive to include all the elements that make a scene in your novel good. It needs good pacing, intelligent dialogue, good characterisation, interesting description that brings the scene alive and a strong, developed narrative.

Why RP instead of just writing then? Because long post RP posts are between 200 and 500 words, then the other player reacts and sends you a post back, giving you something (hopefully) unexpected and interesting to reply to. You feed off one and other, you excite one and other, you’re working together to develop a fascinating world and plot.

Do you ever feel like your characters are alive and controlling the scene? Imagine if you didn’t write them at all. Imagine if you made something happen and they reacted all on their own, the words appearing on the screen. Good RPing is like that. It’s thrilling and exasperating. You have to think on your feet, react to unexpected plot twists and keep things moving. You get instantaneous reader feedback and validation and you get rewarded with your partner’s posts, which are hopefully just as thrilling and exciting for you, as yours are for them.

RPGs are all the best parts of reading AND writing, rolled into one insane package.

There are also a lot of shitty RPers in the world. People who write poorly and selfishly. People who are boring and self obsessed. People who want to RP because they hate their own life and want to live in a fantasy one where they are perfect. People who are downright crazy. People who only want to RP sex scenes to get themselves off.

To enjoy RPing and to get the benefits of it, you need a good partner. You need someone with the same goals as you, so I suggest looking for other writers. I did not find my partner on a Role Play forum or community. She gave me feedback on a short story I wrote, and after reading a few of her short stories, I realised she would be a fantastic RPer. The rest is history.

But how are RPGs actually played?

This is going to be easiest to explain with examples. Each player has a character, or several characters, whom they play. Usually one player will be the DM, directing the plot and non character events, such as cyclones and alien invasions. Players can only post for the actions of their own characters. Posting the actions of another players character is called ‘bunnying’ and strictly against the rules. Players should communicate with each other regarding injuries and deaths of their characters. If my character and my partner’s character get into a physical fight, we’ll normally talk about the outcome on skype beforehand.

There is no ‘winning’ or ‘losing’ in this kind of rpg. The goal is only to tell a good story together. So sensible players agree to end character conflicts in a way that best serves the plot. Just like when two characters in a novel fight.

Here are three posts, from a recent RPG, to show you how they actually look in practise. In this scene I am playing Princess MacKenzie, her father King Winter Riviera and Winter’s men. My partner is playing Prince Griffon and the court of the Trident. King Winter has arrived at the Trident with his armada and is taking Prince Griffon hostage with the intention of forcing him to marry the princess and gaining access to the trident’s trade routes. It’s an incredibly hostile situation, though everyone is pretending to be friends to avoid a massacre.

POST ONE – My Post.

The King of the Floating Trash Heap, AKA the Trident said a lot of nice things to MacKenzie’s father and they were all—even the berserkers and assassins—led through the floating-trash corridors to a banquet hall that smelt overpoweringly of every slithery wet thing that could be dredged up from the watersea.

MacKenzie was introduced to some fancy men in warm, sensible clothing and she let them touch her hands and tried to ignore the fact she was so cold her nipples were showing through the front of her dress. She was seated beside a bitter looking young man whom she presumed she was going to be forced to marry and served a lot of things that still had their heads, such as fish and crabs. She ate nothing and tried not to stare at it like it was actively trying to eat HER, because that would be rude.

The octopus on her plate looked sad. Dead, but sad. She was hypnotized.

Belatedly, she realised her father was looking at her and quickly tried to recall what had been said. Her father had been talking about the young man beside her. Something about him spearing sharks or people or sea monsters.

“Yes, a great many things,” she tried. Everyone seemed satisfied with her response.

“She wanted to come and meet him and I knew any young man valiant enough to inspire my daughter to travel so far from home must be a marvel.”

From anyone else her father’s words would have sounded gushy or cheap. Instead, they were almost threatening, as if the prince had set some trap to lure them here.

MacKenzie was used to it.

There was a berserker behind the prince. His face painted black and red, a ruff of black feathers around his hood. His eyes were blue. Their gaze met a moment and then the berserker went back to staring at the prince’s head.

She wondered if the berserker’s gaze was more off-putting than being expected to eat a sad octopus.

POST TWO – My Partner’s Post.

Griffon was wondering if anyone had ever been killed with the knife used to pry apart a mussel, though he was smiling and thanking the king for saying such kind things about him, his traitorous tongue pouring out compliments and pandering on automatic. He was aware of the man behind him and it killed his appetite, though he pushed his food around on his plate so he could look at it instead of King Riviera. He wondered if the man could see the hatred in his eyes, though he had no desire to look up and check.

He did glance at the princess next to him. She seemed aloof, cold and disinterested in anything they had to say. Still, he decided to try and pry some more comments out of her. "I'm surprised the princess is so interested in one young man from so far away, though I am honoured by her attention. How did you hear of me?"


“Uhhhh,” MacKenzie stared at him, green eyes momentarily wide. She didn’t know his name, much less how she was supposed to have heard of him. She was pretty sure the Trident’s king was ‘Edwin’. Or something to that effect. Wasn’t the prince named after some kind of beast? Basilisk or Quinkin?

“Humorous hieroglyphs. Very popular in the port towns.”

Humorous hieroglyphs typically depicted royalty… though usually in acts of vice or depravity. Horse fucking or eating their own weight in cakes. She wondered what sort of humorous hieroglyphs there were of Prince Basilisk.

All the Floating Trash Heap people were staring at her. However she also knew she could say anything she liked to anyone but her father. She turned her plate so the sad octopus was looking at the Prince instead.

And on with the tutorial.

Hopefully you see how the game works. This particular game is currently around 350 pages long, probably close to 100, 000 words. That’s about average for a longish fantasy novel. The game could easily be as long as a trilogy before it’s done. The writing is quite raw—obviously editing is left to a minimum, as we’re firing off about twenty posts an hour.

In summary, RPGs can be an awesome tool to improve your writing. Some people will never ‘get it’ and some people will be lazy and actually make their writing worse by teaching themselves bad writing habits. However those who do it well, will not only find a great new pleasure in life, but will turn themselves into writing powerhouses.

Let me know how it goes for you.

Copyright. Talitha Kalago. 2012

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