Tabletop RPGs Shaped My Ability To Write Well 2

Tabletop RPGs Shaped My Ability To Write

I spent a good chunk of my teens hooked on tabletop roleplaying games. We didn’t have to call them tabletop at the time, because there weren’t digital ones to compare them to. They were just RPGs. Dungeons & Dragons, RuneQuest, Call of Cthulhu, Champions: at some point, the games of the day got an airing among the people I played with.

Quite often, I refereed. Which means I came up with the plots for the games, seeing as I enjoyed doing that more than buying pre-made modules. And now, I realise how much that shaped my ability to write…well, the range of work I do now. Most obviously, it means I have the headspace for developing background material for a fantasy MMO, one of my recent gigs. That whole framework of character classes, races, and magical items is familiar to me, itself derived from the often clunky modeling of what goes on in the work of writers including Michael Moorcock, Fritz Lieber, and Robert E. Howard.

I say ‘clunky’ there because gaming tends to fixate on those elements of a story necessary for a player to approximate the creation of a character. Where they’re from, who they are loyal to, who they hate on sight, what they will kill people with and whether they can read magical scrolls. Which at the purely mechanical level works well enough, and enables gamers to come up with a named string of digits with an equipment list and point them to the nearest tavern, there to consort with other adventurers and get their first commission.

Now, all of that is fine and good. I had a lot of fun gaming, for a long time. But ultimately I found something unsatisfying about it. In attempting to replicate the experience of stories, RPGs almost invariably miss the core experience we actually get in fiction: closure. By continuing the adventures your character and their friends have, you prolong the jeopardy they experience purely for the pay-off the characters can benefit from, in the form of treasure and points. Extend that to computer gaming and the situation becomes even less akin to what you’ll experience from a narrative: purposive combat is replaced by wholesale slaughter for no readily apparent reason.

I don’t say that dismissively, by the way. It’s something I note because it forms the distinction between story and computer gaming. I can enjoy both, but one should not be mistaken for the other. As I became more interested in writing for its own sake, I started to realise that story is just as much about structure and theme as it is about character and payoff. Lord of the Rings isn’t about hobbits acquiring experience points, it’s a tale of good against evil in which plucky protagonists have to leave the land they love to save it from those who would destroy it. Star Wars has cool light sabre battles, sure – but at its heart is a tale of father and son conflict on an epic scale.

Bit by bit, I became more interested in that thematic stuff, and the archetypes within the stories, than the fixtures and fittings which made them work (or not) in a particular context. And that’s what makes me a writer. A friend who has some of the same background is now an award-winning CGI professional, because his fascination was a different one: just how does that stuff on screen happen?

The other element which shapes my take on writing is my interest in social issues. I did a politics degree, and that interest in how the world works, who gets to benefit from the way it’s currently put together (and who goes without), persists. Put it all together and it explains why even in developing fantasy worlds I’m interested in power structures and how sexuality is expressed. And in scripts, why I aim to get beyond stereotyping where race and sex are concerned.

That’s my story. I don’t know what yours is. But I mention all this because one thing I know for sure is that whatever form your creativity takes, it is inescapably linked to the choices you have made and will make, and the perceptions they shape. There’s no single way of developing a creative career, and I had no idea I was going to head in that direction until I’d worked in advertising for a few years and a tragedy made me reconsider what I was doing. All I can say is, if there’s something you keep coming back to – whether it’s writing or drawing, photography or coding – then over time it will inevitably be influenced by the other forces in and on your life. Which is great, because as fine as the stories and creators I’ve mentioned along the way are, we need new ones for the future.

Chris McCarron

I'm an angry Scotsman, fanatical about Doctor Who with a savage hunger for comic-books and an unrivalled passion for video games. Owner of GoGoChimp