To this day, I remember the first time I rolled up a character for Dungeons and Dragons in 1980. My friend and I sat on the back porch of my house in the shade on a warm summer day and rolled the strangest dice I had ever seen.
I was 9 years old.
What began there was a love affair that became a wonderful creative marriage, then a bad romance which rebounded into an on again-off again fling filled with regret and finally a bitter, burned out divorce. In my heart, I still love Role Playing Games, but I know what going back to running them, let alone playing them, will cost me creatively.
And that is where the damage was for me. In my creative process. Not to brag, but I was a good GM. REAL good! I had gamers who would petition to join my games over the years. People who thought I should run games for GenCon and really get into the whole society of running games. But I also learned my failings and that I could not keep up a pace that some of the people had because I did not see how I could make money doing it, and did not want to devote myself to what was necessary to take it to the next step and become that GM my gamers thought I could be.
For 30 years straight, I ran RPGs from Cyberpunk to Westerns, I ran them all it seemed. Weekly turning out game and running long winded campaigns like a network television show. In the end, I realized I was enabling participatory improvisational theater for amateurs and a small audience, and began to resent it. I started trying to find new ways to love running games, but every year and every game system got harder and harder as I got more fed up with learning rules, doing the weekly prep-work and necessities for running good long term campaigns.
There were also spiritual reasons too. Once I became Born Again, I could not play many of the character or games I used to love. Gone were the games of magic and sorcery. Gone were the complex characters I loved to play who were, for all intents and purposes, sociopaths, psychopaths and perverts. I did, for a while find much fun in very moral characters trying to deal with very immoral choices, but even after a while I was burnt out.
All that experience though has been beneficial, for it has taught me a lot about storytelling. This is what I learned from my players as well as their characters who were both participants and the audience of my creations.
Engage the Senses.
The reality is you and your buddies are sitting in somebody’s kitchen/basement/living room/dining room rolling dice among stacks of books. You need to build mood. That means lighting. That means music and sound. Smell, touch and taste not so much, but you can use good description to engage their imaginations. The more you engage the senses, the better the immersion, and the the more likely you will have them sitting on the edge of their chairs, holding their breath as you roll your dice in secret, giving them a knowing grin worthy of Vincent Price. Keep that in mind when setting the scene for you are all their senses and influence their intuition.
Pace is Critical
Gamers I learned have a very low boredom threshold. If you don’t have combat every week, some players won’t show up. Others, when the action is not on them, and you don’t have them interested enough to listen to what’s going on, they will engage in derailing side chatter which bogs the game down. Same can happen to a story, just not as obvious. The reader who is bored (and I speak as a reader myself) starts thinking about other things and finally finds a reason to put the book down and go back to facebook or youtube, ending your time together, maybe for good. That means if a section leaves a faint hint of Doritos and Mountain Dew in the air of boredom eating, what is a better, more interesting way to tell the tale.
If things slow down, attack them. If they’re wasting time on minutia, remove the distraction. If they feel secure, betray them. All these things will help jump start a flagging pace, and snap the reader’s attention back to you.
Satisfy the Needs Including Your Own
Every player who plays an RPG is doing so to have their needs met, but so does every GM. If players bore the GM by not wishing to play interesting storylines, don’t bother looking for clues, ignoring the flavor text you so carefully crafted to give them clues and rush on to the next dice rolling pewpewpew fest… It can leave the GM, or author dry. The good news is that being an author, you can write in a way that satisfies your needs.
Want more character driven plots? Have at thee! You like a good whodunit? What are you waiting for! Write that story. The downside is that in writing, if you write something only you want to read, you will not sell. That means finding the tropes people want to read, and write to them in a way only you can. Then you will see both your needs as a writer, and the reader’s needs get fulfilled.
Realize what you control and what you don’t.
Sure, you come up with the basic storyline idea and handle the activities of every Non-Player Character, the weather, and so on… but you’re not really in charge. You’re just herding cats towards the completion of your story. Players can take your story in crazy directions, often introducing ideas that you never thought of, leaving you scrambling to keep up with them. Hugh Wilson, head writer and show runner for “WKRP in Cincinnatti” put it very well, when considering characters (and I paraphrase) Writers start out with the idea of who a character is. It becomes apparent quickly that they are in a collaboration with the actor, and then spend the rest of the show chasing the actor.
This is true of the characters you are writing as well. You must be willing to listen to your own creation and follow where they take you to complete your story, or fix the incidents your character’s wouldn’t participate in. Remember, the characters are the cameras in how the readers will experience the world.
Nobody cares about your character particularly if they are derivative.
Hands up; any gamer here who has gotten caught in a game where some noob comes up to you and starts prattling about his AWESOMEZ CHARACTARRRR named Steel McKillalot? Or some exotic whackadoodle that is a Count Dracula knockoff with an unpronouncable name? Yep. Been there and have the tee shirt. The same eyeroll can be found in readers if you spoonfeed ‘tell don’t show’ backstory in your book anywhere. The instant you do, the wide eyed cosplaying fanboy has just clomped up to you while you’re busy and started gushing.
This is a problem even for authors. Backstory can be introduced only after the character has been made interesting to the reader in the context of the story. So why is this Count Dracula ripoff so cool I want to hear why he is the way he is? Is Steel McKillalot something better than a two dimensional cutout with a stupid name? Oh wow! That is cool how he got that backstory because I liked what he did in the book you just wrote. Epic characters have to audition, before you can give them their one man show… unless their one man show is the story, then… carry on.
Be open to happy accidents.
No plotline survives contact with the writing. Just like in gameplay, you will be thrown a curveball. That image of a scene will not be met and no matter what you try, that becomes a platonic symbol of what you wanted, but just lack the skill or tools to achieve. When those times come, be open to the accidental discovery. Perhaps it will be the character whispering something about them you didn’t know that sends you gallivanting after their take on what you had planned. It may be the map you drew out in your mind is showing you an easier route or a flaw in your plan that must be addressed.
Case in point. Early on in Book 2, I discovered an escape route would be an impossible run through a gauntlet for the heroes. But as I looked at the map, I realized I had forgotten a whole new section of the land and said:
“Self, nobody would be guarding that way… it’s too crazy, and besides, they have to do this other thing or all is lost. So they would go that way!”
That one realization completely rewrote my middle build. Instead of being all sorts of cloak and dagger hiding over territory I’d already been and struggled to think of a new way to make it interesting… well… it went back to a classic adventure/exploration in the land of “Here There Be Monsters”!
That is a happy accident. Something I’d not be able to explore if I did not just chuck the solution out and stick with the original plan. (It’s also why I’m a plantser. I know where I have to get to, just how it happens is open for innovation.
In the end, these are lessons I learned over decades of running RPGs. Maybe I’ll have to be content on producing gaming materials, but not run the games because I get too bogged down in the process, and I need time to write. But who knows? Maybe 10 years down the pike when my first movie comes out, I’ll produce the game and modules and get the invite to sit down and guest GM at GenCon.
Wouldn’t that be nice?