A guest post by Janina Franck
A pastime I share with a lot of my friends is playing tabletop, pen & paper RPGs. Most people will have heard of Dungeons & Dragons, but trust me, there are many more systems out there. I’ve been an active player for about ten years now, but up until last year, I never actually ran a campaign myself. Well, that’s not quite true. I tried once to run a three-session one-shot. It was terrible.
So as a result, I figured that I was no good at being a Game Master. Then last year came around and with the pandemic preventing me from seeing anyone, I and most people I know turned more to RPGs than ever, and I decided to try again.
And just because it was an option, I decided to run the game in the world I had created for my trilogy “The Chronicles of the Bat”. Back when I wrote the books, I’d already created a whole encyclopedia filled with information that never even made it into the books, including a historic timeline for the largest events of the previous 3000 years and famous figures from history. Plus I had a map. In other words, it was the perfect set up to run a game in. I ended up adapting several game systems and making a new one to fit what I needed to run the game, and it was a huge success.
My players loved it, I had tons of fun, and it was smooth sailing from there. At this point the game has been running for almost a year.
One of my players is an aspiring writer himself, and a few months ago, he asked me how I found writing a game and writing a novel compared to one another. My answer at the time was: “Very little. Running a game is way easier.”
And in a way that’s true – because you don’t need to decide what the protagonists of the story do. You just control the world around them. But here’s where it was really useful to me. Character voices are part of my strength. It’s probably the one thing that has stood out to most people who have talked to me about my writing. Where I struggle is the descriptions of the world, of the surroundings, of physical attributes of side-characters. When I run an RPG, I have to describe all those things in detail and in a clear manner, so my players all imagine the same thing. If I’m unclear, they will get confused or make wrong assumptions. I couldn’t wish for any better practice for that, because it provides me with instant feedback as well.
Additionally, it’s also a great way to keep me thinking on my feet. You wouldn’t believe how often my players have completely overthrown the plans I’d made for them and gone an unexpected, different direction. Obviously this means that I have to improvise without showing it.
Those kind of curve balls are also great for world building. As I mentioned before, I’d already put quite a bit of work into this world, even though I knew it would never be relevant, but my players seem to have a knack for asking questions that I hadn’t thought of figuring out, such as what the local interest rate at a bank in the sticks would be when asking for a loan. Let’s face it – it’s not something you expect adventurers to ask about. But they do and I need to give them answers, which means that whenever I have to make up something new for them, it goes into the encyclopedia.
On the other hand, running an RPG would also be good practice for someone to focus on character voices, since as the game master, you need to voice everyone the players meet, and decide what they say and, more importantly, how they say it. The more unique and vivid the different side characters act and speak, the more memorable they become to the players, and the more involved they become in the world of the game.
To return to my player’s question about how writing a game and writing a novel compare – I still think that they don’t. They’re very different mediums and ways of storytelling. But I do think that they both help one another, and you can use and adapt things you learn in one in the other. It’s something I would highly recommend any writer to try out – even just as a player.
About the Author
Once upon a time, Janina Franck was born in the Black Forest in Germany. Growing up there, she shared a room with many of her bookish friends – and by that, shall we say, they were the paper-and-ink kind. Her imagination spurred by her environment and choice in company, she began writing at a young age. Later on, she moved to the emerald isle of legends and myths, Ireland, where she completed her basic education, as well as studying Modern Languages and Multimedia. While her surroundings changed, her desire to create stories did not, which she now pursues across various types of media, while travelling to quench her thirst for new impressions and adventures. Learn more about Janina at her website.