5 Things I Learned About Writing From Role-Playing

This is an article in the series, “Keep Reaching Higher: The Power of Pursuing Your Dreams”. This article appeared previously published on October 6th, 2011 on my former blog.

I never thought that I’d call myself a girl gamer, let alone learn how to write by playing role-play games online. My brothers were the ones who played games. They played Nintendo, Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis, Xbox, Xbox 360 … you get the idea. Sure, I had some exposure to the games. I even tried a few but since games are generally targeted towards a male audience, most games didn’t capture my interest.

Then during college, I reached a stumbling point in my writing. How could I truly write a villain when I’d never been one?  I decided that I had to try something drastic to push myself out of the rut I had found myself in. So I did what any self-respecting woman would do. I went shopping.

Shopping, that is, for a creative, mythic-based role-play game online that I could practice my creativity on and see how real people act.  Six years later, I’ve spent HUNDREDS of real dollars playing role-play games online, and I’ve learned some things about writing.  This article passes along some of what I’ve learned to you, no charge.

Five Facets of Writing I Learned From Online Role-Play Games:

1. Playing Online in Real Time Taught Me There’s Only One Typing Speed … FAST.

Did you ever take a typing class in high school? The closest I ever got to typing class was a miserably hot detention spent in the typing lab and the computers were off. Growing up, I didn’t have access to a computer at home and received my first laptop as a high school graduation gift after years of begging for a computer.  Shortly afterwards, I discovered role-play games and learned how to type. FAST.

Learning how to type quickly:

  • gave me the confidence to focus on the screen and what I was writing and not hen-peck at the keys.
  • was a skill I could apply to a work-place environment (outside of writing).
  • helped my pacifist ass get the hell away from crazy, death-minded monks from the northern mountains … FAST.

Now, if I get an idea for fantastic story, I can zip through pages of writing in a considerably shorter period. Bear in mind, you don’t actually have to spend HUNDREDS of dollars to learn how to type. If you’re in school, take a class. If you’re out of school, local libraries, job help organizations and other non-for-profits often offer classes so adults can learn basic computer skills. Invest in one, even if that investment is only your time. It’s worth it!

2. How To Build Conflict Into Your World

A well-constructed world is a crucible for conflict. This applies to role-play games as well as creative writing. Working with real places? Where? When? Here are some questions I ask myself when writing historical fiction:

  • What is the setting of my story?
  • What is the historical context of my environment? What issues were on people’s’ minds? In the news? What external factors affected their lives?
  • Are there any socio-economic, cultural, religious barriers or differences between your characters that can be used for conflict?
Archives, like newspapers on microfilm, online encyclopedias, personal interviews (if the time you’re writing in is fairly recent), biographies, etc. can all be excellent resources for learning more about a particular place and time.
If you’re writing something in a fantasy setting (like I do too), these same kinds of questions are still useful but it’ll require you to fill in a lot more blanks.  Here are some things to consider:
  • What is the setting of my story? (Space opera, alternate history, Arthurian fantasy, a completely made-up world of your own?)  The genre you choose will have some expectations that will guide you. If you chose a space opera, you will need to create different alien races, worlds, etc. If an alternate history, you might want to do some research of the time period before you go changing things, etc.
  • When it comes down to developing the world, look at creating countries, guilds or businesses, religions and other institutions with radically different values and ideals and this will set the stage for combat.
  • Create in-depth histories to give a sense of permanence to your stories.

What do I mean by permanence?  I’ll explain. I’ve played role-play games since 2005 (I’m a late bloomer!) and during that time, I’ve yet to find a RPG that started at Year 1. Usually, they were launched with centuries or millenia of history written in already — let me know if you find a world that hasn’t — I’d like to be there from the ground-up. In the same way, stories never ‘end’ just because the game stops or the reader hits ‘the end’. Stories should be grounded into the history of whatever world you’re working on and the readers will have a sense that the adventures continue beyond the last page.

There is a term called ‘campaigns’ for types of ongoing conflict in tabletop role-play games. These campaigns have definitive starts and ends. This term is a good one to apply to our understanding, as writers, to books. Books have a beginning, middle, and end. They cover a rising conflict that’s eventually resolved. Sometimes this conflict isn’t resolved and carries over to another ‘campaign’ — another book! A series of books with the same story arc might  be compared to a prolonged campaign. None of these books would exist though without strong protagonists and villains.

3. A Well-Built Character Makes ‘Em Stand Out

Someone, somewhere, just spit out their coffee. But it’s true that it’s predominantly men that play role play games.  Sometimes, the women are men too. Erk. So, what’s a girl gamer to do to distinguish herself from the boys in Xena drag? Stand out with a fully fleshed out character.

This concept lends itself well to creative writing. No reader likes a flat character.  There’s a reason why there are stock characters and then there are the unique leading ladies (or gents).  Real women are brassy, bold and beautiful. We come in a variety of shades and attitudes — but I suspect there’s a touch of brassiness in the shyest of ladies out there. We all have flaws. Men do too but I doubt it’s something they like to discuss much.

Great characters:

  • don’t require a character sheet.
  • do require that you know them in and out, which is why some people (*legalists*) recommend character sheets…
  • connect with the reader if they’re inherently likable.
  • have independent motivations that drive them.
  • contain at least 1 flaw that will cause problems in the plot later.
  • everything they say and do in your story should advance the storyline.
  • must like dogs (okay, I threw that in, but honestly, what’s wrong with dogs?)
One way to make your characters stand out is the amount of space you give them to breathe — to see what they look like, how they act, what their backgrounds are, etc. Charles Dickens spent pages doing this. Other authors may do it in a few well-chosen expressions. Whether you are inclined to go short or go long, descriptive writing helps with characterization, be it protagonist or antagonist.
4. The 4-D Villain Approach

To my knowledge, if you google this header, you won’t find it anywhere else (because I just made it up). Stick with me though and I’ll explain why it’s important and why you need it for your writing too! Villains are not that different from you and me. Like us, they’ve got the 3 “D”s that influence their actions:

  • Desire
  • Determination (some authors also call this “drive”)
  • Decision

Unlike us, they’ve got a 4th “D” that sets them apart: deviations!

These deviations in their desires run contrary to what’s acceptable by most people and usually end up infringing on others’ rights. These are just a few examples of people who go outside of societal norms to pursue their dreams, often to tragic results:

  • The mad scientist will rule the world “at any cost”.
  • The father breaks his wife out of jail because he (hopes?) she’s innocent.
  • The cult leader manipulates people into mass suicides.

Don’t get me wrong. Your hero or protagonist may need to go to extraordinary lengths to achieve their dreams, sometimes, even breaking the law to do so. But the end never justifies the means and what decisions your character makes confirms or contradicts the role you’ve set for them in your book.

Consider what your own flaws are, or those of people you’ve met or read about, and you’ll begin to see how these vices can become exaggerated to become major character flaws. The sadistic villain may have an understandable background, but their desires have deviated from the norm and their actions gain attention.

A RPG is a microcosm of society, whether it has a limited player base or one of thousands. Perhaps because of this, variances in personality and character that you find in its players tend to make them stand out. I think this is why people play to be quite honest — doesn’t everyone want to be the hero of somebody’s story?

Recognition for one’s own self is an extremely powerful desire and our determination to have that desire fulfilled will push our decisions to achieve it. As we’ve seen in some news stories, our decisions will lead to deviations in behavior that can have tragic results — like the story of parents abandoning their children to online gaming, or people killing themselves over comments made online.

5. Finding Balance

I’ll be the first to advocate that if you ever intend to be a serious writer, you MUST devote time to writing. There’s no way that your writing will ever develop and your output will result in a book if you never commit time to writing. That said, be aware of the costs of time, money, talent, family, etc. that it may take on you in your pursuit.

Is your writing career worth:

  • displacing God as the first priority in your life?
  • losing connection with other people?
  • alienating friends and family?
Writing can become an addiction the same as workaholics are addicted to their jobs or gamers to their screens. I’m speaking from experience here. At my lowest point, I quit school, worked part-time, and was gaming 70 hours a week. If you are a Christian, it is crucial that you keep God placed at the center of your life. Trust Him to guide you in your writing. He will!

In general, I believe that finding balance also means being aware of our strengths and weaknesses.  What do you excel at? Are there elements or aspects of writing that come easier for you than others? Maybe, like me, description comes easily or maybe you can spin out new stories as fast as Scheherazade in Arabian Nights. Maybe you’ve got this great, original idea for a unique character (like R. A. Salvatore had for Drizzt the Dark Elf). Capitalize on these strengths to stand out from the crowd. But also be aware of your weaknesses as areas to improve.

There are probably more lessons to glean from role-play games which we could apply to writing. Certainly one could talk about creative development further, overcoming writer’s block and co-ops with other writers.

If you have found that some of the points I have presented in this article are helpful to you, please write me and let me know. I’d love to hear from you!  You can also subscribe to the RSS feed to be notified when new content is added. Thank you for reading!


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