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Tabletop Roleplaying Games: An Exercise in Collaborative Story Writing

In their most natural form, tabletop roleplaying games (RPGs) are like crisp blank sheets of paper waiting for the first words to be stricken down. The tabletop identifier in the name naturally implies that these games can be played on a table, desk, floor, flat surface, etc. “Roleplaying” simply means that, as the player, you are to answer questions, make statements, and decide upon actions for your character to perform based on how you predict that your character would act according to his or her prescribed personality. A classic example of this type of game is Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), originally created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson and now held and published by Wizards of the Coast. Now, I could dive into all of the mechanics of this type of gaming (and believe me, I’d love to), but it’s much more time-efficient for me to simply link this primer from blogger Raging Owlbear and suggest with a wink and a smile that you give it a skim. To truly understand the creative potential underlying tabletop RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons, there are three primary mechanic elements that you need to understand: the dungeon master, the players, and dice rolls.

First and foremost, every existing event, non-player character (NPC), monster, town, and essentially any other form of lore is created, played, controlled, and prepared by the dungeon master, or DM. This single individual essentially takes on the role that modern video games leave up to the computer to handle. It is best to think of the DM as crafting the story’s narrative. Plot, setting, theme, and many characters are all designed by the DM in this collaborative writing experience. A very skilled DM performs like J.R.R. Tolkien walking his readers through every step of The Lord of the Rings, guiding their actions and simultaneously allowing them to make their own mistakes (i.e., Boromir: failure on a roll to persuade Frodo to hand him the One Ring). The DM’s role is half loremaster and half kindly grandfather; a good DM crafts a beautiful story and still allows player decisions and rolls to manipulate or even completely alter the story as it was originally intended. It is also the DM’s decision, and the DM’s decision alone, to accept or reject the actions of the players (think of them as “suggestions” in terms of writing a story) as feasible enough to merit an attempt (“No, Kevin, your character cannot slide the silver pitcher into his pocket; it’s simply too large”).

Secondly, players of tabletop RPGs take control of single characters (known as the “player characters,” or PCs) and determine their backgrounds, personalities, appearances, actions, and, to a large extent, abilities. In creative writing, often the most time consuming portions of a piece are built around the design, redesign, re-redesign, etc. of a protagonist. Characters are fun to create, but challenging and time consuming to craft. In a tabletop RPG, each player is essentially crafting their own individual protagonist. Each character plays a major role in his or her own perspective of the story, which is analogous to drafting a piece of writing multiple times to gain different character perspectives. The relative freedom with which each PC can be controlled is what gives tabletop RPGs the strong collaborative story writing element and one of the primary pieces that allows RPGs to provide such an unusual, creative experience.

Finally, most tabletop RPGs implement a random number generation tool as old as time itself­— dice rolls. These aren’t just your ordinary Monopoly dice, however. A typical D&D dice set contains seven dice with side counts numbering at 4, 6, 8, 10 (there are two of these), 12, and 20. Each is named from its number of sides with a “d” preceding it. Thus: d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d20. The d20 is the most important of all of the polyhedral dice in a gaming set as it determines how successful (or hilariously unsuccessful) a character is when his or her player attempts an action. The dice effectively decide a character’s various skill stats, the results of his or her interactions with the world, and ultimately alter his or her story. Dice rolls provide the engine, the fuel, to the story that might otherwise be lacking. I often find in my own writing that, despite the establishment of a clear major conflict and cast of characters, my stories become bland from a lack of minor plot conflicts. The system of chance in RPGs generates decision paths with their own great or small senses of suspense, and the alleviation of that suspense by success or failure can generate excellent plot points. These can range in complexity and magnitude from the simple (Bad roll: The bard fumbles his lute chords and is kicked out of the inn in which he is performing; the other members of the party are disgruntled and mock his failure) to the extreme (Bad roll: The thief is caught with his hands in the pocket of a government official and is sentenced to three months in prison and the removal of a hand).

Do you spot the writing implications of tabletop RPGs yet? If not, have no fears; it was several sessions into my first campaign (a series of game sessions surrounding a single plotline) before I recognized them myself. As writers, we work hard to create our plot and our characters. We craft them with all of their flaws within our flawed literary worlds, and then we throw them to the winds and see how the ink and blood settle at the end of all things. It’s an exhilarating experience, and one that leaves no characters unscarred by the end. Some become altogether unrecognizable. Consider this: Tabletop RPGs do the exact same thing, with their own self-crafted stories, and in a collaborative format. A D&D campaign built up of a strong DM and dedicated players can lead to some of the most marvelous stories. Take a look here for Reddit commenter BaseAttackBonus’s fantastic contingency story for a dinosaur-loving player character. There are tons of similar stories all over the internet, and any of them could provide inspiration for your next novel or short story; in fact, I would bet many of them have already inspired works of literature.

I can add my own personal experiences to this mix as well. I don’t know how many hours I’ve spent with friends— innumerable— in which we hand-crafted backstories of our characters before walking into our first session of a new campaign. We work together, creating characters we want to play as while simultaneously creating links and bonds with each other’s characters to elicit growth of a stronger narrative. It is a spectacular exercise in character and plot development that goes on for weeks and months into the campaign’s progress (believe me, I know). Even during times when I feel like I’ve dried up of new content for characters in stories, I’ve not once been fully stumped as to how my D&D character should react to a certain situation as our DM prompts us. If I can figure out how my roleplaying character should react to a situation, then I sure as heck ought to be capable of the same with my fictional characters.

Whilst attempting to capture and interrogate a corrupt guard captain of a small city in one of my D&D campaigns, my little halfling ranger once attempted to follow our party’s rogue as she leapt off a tall building, flipped gracefully in midair, and landed with her daggers planted into a watch guard’s skull. My ranger, on the other hand, tripped off of the side of the building, spiraled downwards out of control, and landed on top of a second guard, dazed but unharmed. After ensuring that both guards were incapacitated, the two of us moved onward. With more descriptive details of the surroundings, this series of events could easily be converted into a comic relief scene in a book, juxtaposing the grace of the elf rogue and the sturdiness (and silliness) of my halfling ranger.

The literature development opportunities are not limited to regular players. Anyone feeling bold enough to handle an average of 5 separately-controlled characters as well as constantly developing fresh plot, lore, and setting design should try their hand at DMing. DMs are champions at creating clever solutions to many, many different kinds of problems, not the least of which are personality conflicts. This provides tremendous levels of experience in character interaction, plot significance, and last-minute alterations to storylines that leave the readers going “Oh wow, he/she was planning that all along! How impressive is that!?”

Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge (and growing) fan of D&D and other tabletop RPGs, so I would be attempting to persuade you to give them a try either way; however, it’s this very potential for story development through narrative, character, and world design that has really inspired my interest in playing. Every session leaves me with some new pearl of wisdom that I later apply to my own personal writing. One of these days, I even hope to take an ongoing D&D session and compose it into a story of my own. These kinds of possibilities are out there for all of us— we need only be open-minded enough to give them the consideration they deserve.

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