3 Ways Tabletop Gaming Helped Me Improve as a Writer

Hey, quick question to everyone reading – who here has played Dungeons and Dragons, or some other tabletop gaming system?

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Please put your hand down now, you’re on the toilet and no one can see you.

Well, for those of you who haven’t, Dungeons and Dragons – and all the tabletop games that came later – can be hard to understand. The best explanation I have is this: remember when you used to play pretend as a child? Dungeons and Dragons is basically that, except with dice and rules so Billy can’t break out his Everything Proof Shield, and with a single person – the Game master – who controls the world so the story you make up with your friends has some kind of structure. It’s every bit as nerdy as it sounds, and twice as fun.

It’s also a great way to develop some important writing skills. Here’s three things I’ve learned over years of both playing and running tabletop games.

1) Being a player lets you get into a single characters head.

Writing good, detailed, well rounded characters can be hard. Every writer has their personal thing they struggle with the most. For me, it can be characters. I can struggle with making sure their motives stay consistent, and have to resist the urge to have them do things for the sake of the plot as opposed to what the character would actually do.

I’m a lot better than I used to be because of playing in tabletop games.

See, when you’re a player in a tabletop game, you only control one character. That’s it, that’s your contribution to the story. You don’t have to worry about plot, setting, pacing, minor characters, or bad guys – that’s all for the Game Master to control. You don’t have to worry about other major characters – those are controlled by other players. You only have to worry about your character, their motives, their personality, their hopes, their dreams, their history and, of course, how much ass they can kick. It’s the kind of in depth, single character focus that hard to do as a writer normally, because you still have to control other people and the world and all of that.

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Left side: before playing in a game, how developed my characters were. Right side: after gaming.

Playing characters in Dungeons and Dragons games has created some of the best characters I’ve ever had the pleasure to “write.” Some are characters that I want to use in a novel or short story at a later date – such as my bard, Merrik, the Masterful Musical Magician, who had an obsession with alliteration of the letter M and a dry wit that was always fun to bust out, or Sara, my teenage metal controlling superhero with a love of sculpture and the social grace of a hungry bear at an all you can eat buffet.

But this post isn’t for me to talk about my gaming characters. The point is, I played Merrick back in 2005, and Sarah back in 2008. I cannot tell you the name of a single character I wrote back then, let alone their personalities, but the character’s I’ve developed while gaming have stuck with me and taught me how to make sure my characters contain a consistent motivation, personality, and have depth far beyond what you used to write.

2) Being a Game Master teaches you Worldbuilding limits.

I still have a whole post planned at some point to talk about Worldbuilding, maybe even a series. From about 2009-2016, after a computer crash caused me to lose  my entire Work in Progress, I quit narrative writing and just worked on settings and worlds. I know other writers like that, who have focused on building worlds. And there’s nothing wrong with that, if that’s what you like doing! However, sometimes it’s hard to know when you’ve done ‘enough’ worldbuilding.

Being a Game Master is a great way to learn when enough is enough.

See, you can lay out the entire world down to the family history of every single family on the planet, but you’ll quickly learn when you’re running a game that your players don’t care about that any more than real world people care about the family history of every random person they meet on the streets. They’ll care about it for nobility sometimes, when lines of succession get important, and they’ll certainly care about it for their characters, but for Innkeep #289, they won’t care. They will care, however, that Innkeep #289 is actually called Mathis and holds the key to the Lich’s tomb. They’ll also care that Mathis has an interesting and engaging personality.

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But Mathis’s great great grandfather slew a dragon! Why don’t they care about the dragon?!

The players will have similar views to both your major characters and your readers in this case.

You don’t need a detailed backstory for every minor character your players encounter in a game any more than you need it for every background player in a novel. You can detail the entire continent to the North, but if your players never go there, you’ll never get to show it. Focus on what’s actually important to the game or the story. If you run a long term campaign, you will start to develop an intuitive feel for this that will do wonders for your future planning for novels. Speaking of plans…

3) Being a Game Master is a Doctorate Class in what to do when Characters Go Off the Path

As I mentioned above, sometimes I have to resist the urge to make characters act out of their normal personality to keep them going along with the plot. Well, when you’re the Game Master, you have to learn to adapt to characters going off your well laid out plans, because you don’t actually control the stories protagonists. The players do. Some Game Masters get around this by railroading the characters back to the main plot, which will leave the players upset and frustrated.

Other Game Masters adapt the plot to fit the characters actions.

Let me tell you a story: once, while running a DND game, part of the plot hinged on the characters getting information from a certain old hermit who lived on the edge of town. Before I could reveal that this hermit had the information they needed, however, the party rogue learned there was a hermit on the edge of town because of what was supposed to be foreshadowing and decided that would be the perfect person to rob. The rogue tripped when climbing in through the hermits window at night, which woke the hermit. The hermit was a wizard and began to cast spells, and somehow wires got crossed and the rogue got the impression that it wasn’t a wizard, it was a necromancer, and proceeded to murder the hermit and then light his hut on fire to destroy any chance of him rising from the grave.

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WHYYYYY

Well, I was suddenly in a pickle. I’d already established no one else in town knew the information, and had no other plans for the party to get the information. I ended up creating a travelling merchant who would come through town and had the information, and the players were so enamored with him they ended up travelling with him, and the merchant became a major character for three or four sessions. Much, much later, the hermits estranged daughter tracked the rogue down to extract revenge, creating a personal nemesis for that character.

I had never planned for any of that, but both the travelling merchant and the estranged daughter turned assassin became two of the players favorite moments. It taught me the value of letting characters do what they want and adapting the story around them as opposed to trying to force them into line, because it makes for a much more robust and dynamic experience. It makes the story feel organic, and if you adapt it to writing, you’re going to find that you have a much more engaging novel as a result.

Anything else you learned from gaming while writing? Let me know in the comments below! And if you want to see what happens when one of my characters takes on a life of their own, check out Rumors for free!

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