or: How I Learned To Create Plot Structure And Let The Characters Drive, Simultaneously
Welcome back, everyone. This past week, I've been writing like mad on The Proper Bearing and getting my new schedule rolling... a task which spontaneously included reviving my Tumblr account. When I logged on to Tumblr, I found this lovely blank character sheet designed for writers, and it was a pleasant surprise to see RPG (role-playing game) stats on the back page. I instantly knew what some of them were for my characters, which prompted me to thinking about RPGs and what they mean to me. Which means it's time for two things: a confession, and a trip down memory lane. Don't worry, writing is relevant...
My confession: I'm a gamer. Not so much in the video game sense, more in the dice-and-paper-and-intimidating-rulebooks sense. I wasn't always one, but at the same time ... I was.
I have been writing since I was in 4th grade. The stories weren't much at that point, but they were there... and along with them came the impulse to act them out on the playground, often with the help of friends. Once recess stopped happening, there was theater, so externalizing stories has always been as easy as breathing for me. I had a very brief brush with Dungeons & Dragons in junior high, when a friend showed me his books (thank you, Justin!) but his friend, the one hosting the games, insisted that D&D was "not for girls". Thus, preteen sexism kept me from a revelation for the next, oh, twelve years or so.
Fast-forward to 2005, shall we? I had finished college, and was mired in the second year of "well now what". Jobs for English majors with Creative Writing minors in my area of the world are pretty scarce, so ... that meant retail hell for me. One of my jobs was next door to a comic shop, and I would pop in once in a while to cultivate a fledgling interest. A group of people about my age were crowded around a table, and I was befriended by force by a blonde juggernaut of energy in a red-and-gold pirate coat:
"What are you doing?" she asked.
"I was just looking at ..."
She pulled out a chair. "Okay. And now you're hanging with us."
Ten minutes later, I had been thrown headfirst into my inaugural tabletop game, and made half a dozen new friends in the process. The girl in the pirate coat went on to become a very, very dear friend, and the inspiration for Buster Heywood's older sister, Dee.... and I went on to the local college gaming club, where I learned not just to play, but how to plot. Each lesson kicked off with a group of us, en masse, before splitting off into our separate game groups at the rumbling, baritone clarion call of another dear friend: "GAME ON!"
I already knew the value of character diversity: of asking the group I was joining what sort of characters were already there. They had a pilot, a research scientist, a hacker, a psychic, and a reporter... but no one to patch them up when the inevitable scrapes occurred, so I became the party doctor. I learned how much research and prep time went into every two-hour session, as I got to know the GM (game-master). I watched her and other fellow gamers as they took parts of characters' histories and turned them into seamless plot hooks (the psychic's cousin, kidnapped by the villain ... the scientist's greed appealed to by a mind-bending monster...).
College had left me burnt out on writing ... doing it on command, about topics other people chose, had made me sour about the whole process. But as I gamed, I began to rekindle my love for writing the stories of my own characters. During these formative gaming months, Buster Heywood was created, and slipped into the world of Aviario - which I'd built the cornerstones of in high school and constructed throughout college. I set the original tale aside, and focused on just fleshing out one character, finding hooks and plot to craft around him in the same ways that the games I had come to love worked.
Each tabletop RPG system had a different way to approach plots, characters, and the mechanics of turning life into fiction, adding random elements for the sake of surprise. After trying a few of them, I decided I was ready to try on my own GM hat and sit at the front of the table: to helm a game. It couldn't be too much different than writing a story, right? ... Well, sort of. The players had their own ideas, and I learned very, very fast that they did not always jive with mine. I had to learn to be flexible, to find ways to bend the story around the things that they were adding. After a year or so of learning how to GM, I decided to take a leap of faith and trust: to work Aviario into a gaming system and invite friends to create residents of their own. It's been a blast... and in the tradition of novels like The Dragonlance Chronicles, those friends have given their blessing to have their characters written into my series. You'll see the first of them in In The Cards ... keep your eyes on the dedication page to find out who.
I'm not about to say that every aspiring writer should run out and find a D&D game (or Pathfinder, Call of Cthulu, GURPS, etc) to join ... but it may be worth your while to check out a few aspects of RPGs! GMs make and share all kinds of maps, from buildings to locations to entire worlds. Sourcebooks for free-form games like GURPS provide a wealth of information on all kinds of things, from weapons and vehicles to history and the mechanics of life in space!
That's enough gaming chatter for one blog ... but I will leave you with an anecdote, from near the end of my gaming-club heyday: after a small, local gaming convention, a few of my friends and I went to the nearby Chinese restaurant to get a bite to eat and trade stories. One of these friends, a big fan of minature war games and tactic-based tabletop, had also gone to another convention and attended a panel where several people spoke about how to be a good GM.
"You know what this guy said, that I never realized?" He took a sip of his Zombie and grabbed a wonton, gesturing with it. "He said that when you're a GM, you're basically writing a story."
The chair may as well have fallen out from beneath me. This guy had been gaming for years before I'd even met him. I had spent my time at the gaming club thinking that he was a pro: he knew the rules to a bunch of games like the back of his hand ... and yet, somehow, he had never grasped the storytelling aspect, and how strongly it was woven into every single game every one of us had ever considered "good". I spent a good balance of our meal explaining to him what I have just told to you. Maybe it's just the writer in me, but ... shouldn't that have been obvious?
Until next time,
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