Friday, May 12, 2006

Gaming as Writing Workshop

Holly Lisle, in her podcast Holly Lisle On Writing, Episode 3 briefly discussed the intersection of gaming and fiction writing. She said that she sometimes created game versions of her worlds, then ran a group of players through them--using it as an interactive workshop in world building.

Said Holly, "They're not so hot for putting together stories, but they're fine, fine, fine if you're wanting to figure out how to build your own world."

Here's the thing. Back in my misspent youth, I think my gaming actually hurt my writing. I developed bad habits regarding conflict (mostly killing things) and plot (fairly superficial, linear, action-adventures). Maybe it was just the folly of youth--but I really think gaming encouraged me to stay within that comfort zone much longer than I would have otherwise. I wrote an epic fantasy novel in college. I swear, you can almost hear the dice rolling. Much of the action had no point in the larger story--just another random encounter thrown in the character's way. It was bad, bad, bad.

Sometime in my mid-twenties, things began to turn. My fiction broke out from behind my gaming and the stories began to explore issues that truly matter. My hopes and fears made it onto the page. My protagonists fell from grace--no longer the golden heros of adventure fantasy, they had their own hopes, daydreams and moments of weakness. Combat, when it occurred, was now a symptom of a larger conflict--not THE CONFLICT.

Then a funny thing happened. My writing bled back into my gaming and improved the stories that we told at the table.

Still, that's not enough for me. I want to play games that actually improve my writing. I want those dinner-table stories to be so engaging, so moving, that they challenge me to reach even deeper within myself when I write. I don't know if I'll ever get there, but that's where I want to be.

When you play a game, the audience is right there, just arms length away. The other players provide near-instantaneous feedback. You can see when they get excited or confused or bored. So, why can't roleplaying function as a workshop for things other than world building? Why can't we use the game to hone our sense of plots, pacing, themes, characters, or any other writing technique?

Game stories and written stories are different--in some ways very different. Not all techniques can cross from one to the other. So is this just a hopeless dream? Or will we actually get there some day?

I don't have an answer to this. I'm just throwing it out.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


What about Dragonlance?

Where these not born from a campaign?


9:34 AM  
Blogger Rich said...

Fair point.

I don't know the background of Dragonlance. My impression is that Weiss and Hickman were hired to write the novel as a novel. They outlined it, planned it and wrote it as a series of novels. (This is speculation based on comments by Tracy Hickman on his podcast).

I don't know if the story was inspired by actual play. I gather Tracy Hickman is a gamer--and he has a long history of writing gaming adventures.

I also had the good fortune to run a charity RPG game with Margaret Weiss about ten years ago. While it was one of the best gaming experiences in my life--Margaret gave the impression that she was at best a casual gamer. So I doubt gaming was much of an inspiration for her writing.

Even if the novels were based on actual game play, I doubt the game improved either Weiss or Hickman's writing ability. And that's really what I was talking about in the post. Instead, I suspect we have a case of talented writers who happened to have some relationship with gaming. More coincidence than cause and effect.

Finally, I both played and read the original Dragonlance series back when I was in high school. While I enjoyed them at that time, they're hardly high art. I feel the books carry a lot of gaming baggage--particularly the original three. And that the story is actually hurt by that gaming baggage. This is especially noticeable when you compare the original Dragonlance books with their later, non-gaming fiction. Of course that's only my opinion.


11:50 AM  
Blogger Rich said...

OK, I've been thinking a lot about this since my last post. I think I got distracted, and brought up a lot of stuff which really doesn't pertain to the issue at hand.

First, let me be clear. I'm not interested in translating my games into stories. Partially because of the copyright complications involved, but mostly because my games are games, and they shall stay that way.

For the sake of argument, lets assume the dragonlance stories came directly from a gaming campaign. Now, here's the $1,000,000 question: did PLAYING in the game improve the writer's WRITING skills?

Think about it. Gamers (and particularly GMs) and authors have to deal with many of the same issues: general creativity, interesting dialog, building interesting characters, describing actions/feelings/scenes, generating interesting conflicts, pacing, and to a lesser extent building a good story arc.

Now, as a writer I get very indirect feedback, and I usually have to pester people for it. But as a GM I get instantaneous feedback from the other players. It is very clear when something in the game really excites them (things that bother them are less clear--but I can sometimes get a feel for those as well).

So, why can't I (the GM) take this feedback and learn from it, improving skills that I (the Writer) can use on my next story? It seems like it should be possible, yes?

However, I know for a fact that much of my early gaming actually created lazy, bad habits that I later had to identify and break for my writing to improve.

Now, the story-quality in my games has improved greatly over the last twenty years or so. But I'm still mining my writing skills to improve my games. I'm not sure I'm really getting any improvements going from games to writing. And, given the distributed nature of games, I'm not sure it's even possible.


12:32 AM  

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