Your hero enters the dungeon, exploring every twisting corridor for dangerous traps, valuable clues and endless treasure. Each corner of the crooked stone ceiling is covered in cobwebs. The walls seem to swell as if they’re breathing. Your hero holds up their torch, lighting the otherwise dark path as they approach the main doorway of the mad wizard’s lab. Written in ancient runes are the words “Office, Keep Out.” The hero grabs the doorknob, takes one last deep breath, then pushes forward, sword raised as they rush inside. To the hero’s horror, the study is empty except for a single desk. On top of the workspace, a laptop glows an eerie white. It appears the evil wizard had been working on something. As the hero approaches, they see that Microsoft Word has been opened. Upon its first lines reads a message: “Chapter 1: The Hero’s Demise“.
Oh, role-playing, what a weird and wacky world. Technically, role-playing has been around since humanity could communicate, but in contemporary terms, the world of tabletop role-playing is less than fifty years old. For non-nerds, tabletop role-playing is when you get together with a few friends to create characters that help tell a story in an imaginary world. In most circumstances, participants describe their characters’ actions through speech while a designated person known as “The Game Master” describes what happens in this world based off of the player’s choices. But what if I told you that tabletop role-playing wasn’t just for fun, that it could also sharpen your writing? Playing a world-building game is perhaps one of the best ways a writer can hone their skills of story-craft.
I started role-playing when I was eleven. My best friend, John Mecha, introduced me to a little game called Dungeons and Dragons by bringing over a hand-me-down Monster Manual he’d received from his neighbour. He carefully explained the rules: there were funny shaped dice, guidelines, and confusing processes that were hard for a sixth grader to understand. Once he helped me over the first hurdle, I was hooked. We created these wondrous protagonists that banded together to battle horrific villains for a winner-takes-all plot to save a mystical realm. I can still smell the mildew on the old pages.
We played all night, and planned future sleepovers where our elves, dwarves and mortal knights would clash again with the ancient warlock and his army of orcs. This went on for years, gradually transforming into a weekly occurrence with dozens of our friends. Eventually, I took over as the Game Master, and the role-playing games expanded to different worlds like the sci-fi setting of Shadowrun, the macabre thrill of Vampire: The Masquerade and the epic space fantasy of Star Wars. Still, when we weren’t huddled around a dining room table, life went on. While many of our friends came and went, our core group always managed to stick together through high school and college.
Then one day in a tiny university classroom I decided, “Hey, I’m going to be a writer”. Almost overnight, I changed my major to English with a concentration in Creative Writing and went to work. I studied under some of the smartest professors I’d ever met, taking down every vital note they could teach me about being a great writer. I devoured the lessons of greek mythology, learned Chicago Manual style page formatting, and focused on the essentials of creating seamless dialogue. By the time I decided to write my first book, I was certain that I could pack everything I’d learned into it. Well, guess what? My first book was a flop, and it only took one editor to tell me so. I was trying way too hard and it just didn’t come together in a way that was enjoyable for readers, so I went back to the drawing board.
This time, I promised myself to relax and have fun. I focused on the story, putting the tricks of the trade on the back-burner. I created characters that I’d like to play if the novel were a game. I built a world that would give me the creeps if a Game Master described it to me. I built plot twists that would blow my role-playing buddies minds if we were rolling dice in their basement. In essence, I wrote a novel version of a role-playing game, and guess what? Eight months after completing it, a publisher reached out to me and said they wanted to publish it.
For the last twelve years, I’d been developing the tools that I needed for a good book simply by role-playing. I figured out how to create well-developed characters that my friends would love. I cultivated techniques for story arcs that would make the perfect adventure. I learned the axiomatics for keeping audiences interested. The only thing that I really needed to learn in college was the expectations of the literary world, which was mostly grammar and formatting. Everything else had been assembled just by having fun through tabletop role-playing.
I’m not saying you have to go out and pick up hundreds of dollars in gaming books. I’m not even saying that you have to join a tabletop campaign, though I highly recommend it. Ultimately, what I’m trying to tell you is that if you’re a writer that’s burning to write a book, chances are that you already have something hidden in you that’s the perfect tool for telling great stories. Once you realise what that is, then it’s just a matter of complementing it with the rules of writing, and that story will be a critical hit.
Justin Alcala is a novelist and nerdologist. He’s the author of the novels Consumed, (BLK Dog Publishing) The Devil in the Wide City (Solstice Publishing) and Dim Fairytales (AllThingsThatMatterPress). When he’s not burning out his retinas in front of a computer, Justin is one of the geekiest tabletop gamers you’ve ever met. He’s also a blogger, folklore enthusiast and time traveler. He is an avid quester of anything righteous, from fighting dragons to acquiring magical breakfast eggs from the impregnable grocery fortress.