Here, at Black Hat Writing, a lot of us are writers. Some of us write fiction with the goal of living off of it, others do it as a hobby. We share a love for building worlds and telling stories, whether it be within fiction, tabletop RPG, or somewhere else. After thinking about this a bit, I realized that a lot of advice given to new fiction writers can be also applied to those new to the world of tabletop gaming. I’m hoping this will help anyone out there who doesn’t quite get tabletop RPG, but has at one point in their life written a story or two.
First: show, don’t tell. This is the most common advice most people hear as a writer. You are told to show your world, instead of telling the reader it. The same applies to tabletop RPG. It doesn’t matter what side of the table you are on. Everyone prefers a GM who says, “You come up to a dilapidated building. You can smell the notes of smoke and alcohol wafting out,” to one who says, “You find an inn.” The same applies to players. GMs and other players will be more engaged if you say, “I run at full speed and attempt to slice that orge in half with the hilt of my sword,” than if you say, “I succeed in attacking the ogre with my sword.” The more descriptive everyone is, the more immersive the experience will be, and the more fun you will all have.
Second: What’s at stake? This is another thrown around a lot be writers. Basically it translates to, “Why should I care as a reader?”. No one wants to read a book where nothing happens and the characters aren’t interesting. The same applies to tabletop RPG. No one wants to be in an RPG where nothing happens. As a GM, if your players (and by proxy their characters) don’t care about the problem you’ve put in front of them, then you have a problem. Maybe it’s not affecting them directly enough. Maybe you are not seeing what really is interesting for them. This is one of things I love about the storytelling that comes from tabletop RPG, you can change it for your audience.
Third, know your audience. As a writer, you are taught to know who you are writing for, make sure there is someone out there who would read your writing. The same applies to GMs. Know the players you are GMing for. Don’t try to give them a plot that none of them will find interesting. It’s not worth their time or yours.
Third, develop characters. When reading fiction, no one wants to read about a flat or underdeveloped character, so writers are taught to develop characters. The same applies to tabletop RPG, on both sides of the table. It is so much more interesting for everyone if everyone who populates a world, PCs and NPCs alike, are developed and multi-layered. A villain who isn’t just evil for the sake of villain evil is much more interesting. It’s so much more interesting to interact with other members of the party, and NPCs, if they are actually people and not just caricatures.
Fourth, look to other writing. This is why most Creative Writing majors are made to read lots and lots of Literature. The goal is to figure out what you like and don’t like in writing, and learn from it. The same can be applied to tabletop RPG. Had a bad experience with a GM or a player group? Do you know why? Was it the play style or intergroup dynamics? Is there some way you can avoid this in the future or not be that person yourself? One the side of the coin, what do you like about your favorite GM? Is there someone you’ve played with that you’d like to be more like as a player? Perhaps think about these questions next time you game.
Finally, write the book you’d like to read. In terms of tabletop RPG, this means as a GM, GM the kind of game you’d like to play in, and as a player, think about whether you’d like to GM for the game you are currently in. Would you like being on the other side of the table in this game? Why or why not?
If this discussion has inspired you, consider signing up to become a playtest GM for Theatre Noir.
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