One of the most significant reasons I game is the storytelling potential. As evidenced in my earlier novelizing exploits on this blog, I am also a writer, and it’s unsurprising that there is a degree of crossover in the two activities. Logically, one of the reasons I enjoy running games is because you spend a good chunk of your prep time writing.
Though gaming is a writing-intensive, story-focused activity, it is not necessarily well set up as a springboard to pure writing. Admittedly, writers like R.A. Salvatore have taken the wealth of information available in roleplaying settings and written well-received fiction. And settings are a great place to start a novel or short story set in your game. But going beyond that usually leads to disappointment.
In high school I tried writing a story around the characters in one of my games. I was fairly happy with the results, and even turned it in to my English teacher for a free writing exercise. I got a good grade on it (the grades were mostly on form and grammar), but the comments were telling. The events were exciting and the storyline drove forward, but the characters were lifeless, and all sounded alike. I wasn’t very happy with this analysis, but it got me thinking.
When you run a game, you’re focused on creating a world, and adjudicating events at a good pace and in a way that’s the most fun. Characters are secondary, and even your best NPCs usually have half of their life given to them by your players. As such, the GM’s screen is usually a poor place from which to write a story.
Think about it this way: when you write in the first person, you have the advantage of being inside the narrator’s head, and really showing what they’re thinking. This comes at the cost of losing a lot of perspective from the other characters. Realistically, writing a story using a cast of characters from a game you GMed is like writing from the first person, not having the internal monologue from any character. What’s worse, the GM “character” doesn’t relate to the characters at all, because he really isn’t in the story. The result is a perspective that doesn’t really have any leverage for developing characters.
Writing a story from the perspective of a character you’re playing is different. Though it isn’t an exercise I’ve tried, there’s an arena which is highly built around writing character-centric stories: play-by-post. Play-by-post and play-by-email games focus more on character interaction and development, and less on combat or other more physical encounters that are unwieldy and slow to run through either the e-mail or forum mechanism. As a result, you see a lot of writing from players in the perspective of their characters. And, no surprise, some of it is quite good, and a lot of it is highly entertaining.
In the end, regardless of perspective, I believe that writing about game sessions or ingame events is a gamble. Games flow around different events than novels, and the types of events that build tension and grab players’ attention may be yawn-inducing to a reader. Similarly, making a reader identify with a character is much, much more difficult than making a player identify with one, and this disparity makes it highly likely that the sort of events that can help a reader connect will be largely absent from the typical events of a gaming session.
In short, though games provide a huge amount of ideas and inspiration for writing, the events of the games themselves aren’t going to be as exciting as they were at the table when they’re written down. However, if you have a compelling setting with interesting conflicts and characters, you probably have an excellent springboard. The message is not that your gaming settings can’t support good fiction, rather that the events of your game sessions may not translate well.
Tomorrow, a recollection of some of my favorite experiences as a player. This weekend, a consideration of writer’s block, and how to overcome it.