Roleplaying For Character-Driven Stories

When I was younger I became absorbed, as many writers seem to, in roleplaying games. I started down this path with children’s Choose Your Own Adventure books, graduated to Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson’s Fighting Fantasy series, and then branched out via the FF Dungeoneer, Blacksand and Creatures of the Pit books to fully-fledged RPGs like Palladium’s Heroes Unlimited, Rifts and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

I cannot express how pivotal these experiences were in formulating my idea of what writing is. For most players, I think the point of an RPG is to win the game, complete the quest, level up, or whatever, but I started to see them as primitive, fragile storylines. As a game master you formulate a scenario into which you throw the player characters. You have a basic idea of what the plot ought to be, and where the twists and turns should eventually lead them, but really you’re only sketching up until you start the game and people begin to roll the dice. That’s when things get interesting.

I experienced RPGs from both sides, as a player and as a GM, and I have to say that I actually had way more fun as a GM. As a player you only get to interact with the game world through one character. As a GM you have the whole rest of the world to play with. As a GM you also get to be the one who moulds the initial version of that world. You lay the foundations. Your world might be a near-replica of ours, except that super-powered humans exist. It might be a completely different world with a medieval or dark age tone, where technology hasn’t advanced far beyond the crossbow. It could be somewhere in between, a post-apocalyptic world, perhaps, where technology is scarce, government is non-existent and mutations in the genome give rise to unexpected powers and abilities. It’s your world, you can do what you want with it, to begin with.

It only really dances when you get your players involved though, and that’s the bit that gets the writer in me excited. The players – if they’re good – will play their characters faithfully, and you’ll get to see what this merry band would actually do if faced with the challenges you’ve laid out. They often surprise you. I’ve had to improvise whole adventures on the fly because a player took the adventure in a totally unexpected direction. I’ve had my main bad guy slaughtered by a lucky shot in the first few minutes of an adventure and had to come up with a new threat to keep things moving. I’ve had players make a mockery of the internal logic of my world to the extent that I had to totally rethink it. Here’s the kicker, it’s not just real people that do this. Your characters can and should too.

Your characters should be so vivid and clear to you that you can just wind them up and let them go. If you drop them in a situation you should know what they’re going to do with it, or at least you should allow them to do what they want with it and take the consequences. If your character blows large holes in your plot, it’s your plot that’s at fault. You didn’t make it right. That’s what roleplaying taught me about writing, and I think it holds true no matter what you write. Get the characters right, invest your time in them and get inside their skulls and then put your story in their hands. Do all the world-building you want, but make sure you let your characters re-shape it their way.

At the end of the day, a good GM – and a good writer – gets out of the way and lets the characters get on with it.

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