So today I’m going to talk about why we, as gamers, should be both widely read and at least dabble in writing ourselves. To be fair, many of us fit both of these points, and many professional (read: paid for their work) authors use tabletop games as a side hobby to help them stay creative while getting out of the worlds in their head for a bit.
All too often, we can get stuck in a creative rut, following the most basic cycle of game plot; would-be heroes (and the occasional grimdark antihero brooding loner who mysteriously works with the others) get together to face some minor threat like a goblin tribe harassing the town the players are in, gradually gearing up toward some Terrible Dark Lord who was behind everything and needs to be brought down. It’s the gamer variant of the monomyth cycle, and it gets reused because it’s a reliable core plot.
But it can get old and tiresome when that’s what happens every single time. It’s why you can take almost any old module from the early days of the hobby and distill it down to Terrible Menace Arises; Unlikely Heroes Must Thwart It. It digs a rut and ends up causing people to leave the hobby out of boredom when that doesn’t have to be the case.
What can reading widely do for us? Plenty; take, as an example, the Mockingbird series by Chuck Wendig. The central character is a young woman who can, by touching someone, see how they’re going to die. That’s the sum of what you need to know to suddenly have an entire campaign of material available to you. A person who can see, without fail, how someone is going to die just by touching them can become the central figure for an entire plot; first the players hear of her and get a reason to seek her out; then on finding her they have to convince her to help them – and wouldn’t you know it, she’s as cynical, sarcastic, and bitter as they come. If they manage to get her to help them, they have to get her to where they need the help.
Or say you need a little help with side characters; tap the works of Delilah S. Dawson for a whole host of strange, exotic, and well-written characters, from the mysterious vampire carnival master of her Blud romance novels to the calm and cool assassin Sabine in her Star Wars novella. Rather than dropping back on tropes and cliches, we can pick interesting side characters from the stories we read and drop them into our table-side tales to liven things up. Sending your players to a more Arabic locale? Don’t just fall back on Arabian Nights and Aladdin cliches; pick up a couple books by people who write stories of those cultures, like Saladin Ahmed‘s Throne of the Crescent Moon. Want a strange and creepy fantasy Venice? Scott Lynch has you covered with The Lies of Locke Lamora. You’ll get characters, locations, and all kinds of little details that can bring these non-generic-high-fantasy settings to life in ways you’d never manage on your own.
Likewise, as a player, reading widely is absolutely valuable. You’ll be reading through a book and stumble across a character that sinks into your head and begs to be brought to life at the table, or see ways to play characters that are absolutely true to a type without being cliche. In Pathfinder, Miriam Black from the previously mentioned Blackbirds would be an amazing Oracle of Bones; Jean Tannen of The Lies of Locke Lamora is the last thing you’d expect from a thief, but he certainly is a good one. Reading widely can give you the seeds of characters you’d never have dreamed of without those books.
Let’s turn the corner on the topic; we go from talking about authors and what their writing can offer us to why you, as a GM or a player, should take the time to sit down with a word processor or a notebook and tell some tales of your own. Many of you probably already do, and none of this will really be a surprise.
First and foremost, you can sit and write the backstory to things; all of us get an image of who our characters are, but we may not know why, as players. Sitting down and writing a handful of scenes as their history will let you get into their heads more easily than any amount of effort at the table itself. As an added bonus, you can tack the stories on with your character sheet if the GM is the type to want backstory information to build plot hooks off.
Second, there are always those times when the dice or the plot of the story (or, in the GM’s case, the players) betray us and things don’t go the way we wanted it to. You can write things the way you want them to go, and get two things out of the way at once: one, you get the vicarious satisfaction of the story going the way you want, and two, when you come back and read it some time later you’ll likely discover that the way you would have preferred, full of victory, is incredibly dull. Stories – including interactive ones at the table – thrive on conflict and failure existing to be overcome and redeemed. If you got to take the villain down now, rather than being phenomenally frustrated at his escape, you wouldn’t have the satisfaction of taking him down for good later.
Next, writing will help you make deeper and more detailed characters that respond to the game (and players, for GMs) better. Learning to write interesting characters makes it easier to roll up interesting characters; learning to handle scripted scenes will let you appreciate the vitality of scenes with multiple authors at once. And, for GMs, writing will give you a nice place to go vent your frustration when the players decide to ignore everything you set up and go haring off into the unplanned and unplotted wilderness – and can give you a host of scene seeds to throw in front of them in a hurry.
Lastly, writing will give you a more thorough appreciation for the art of storytelling itself, and in doing it you’ll learn to tell better stories; that cycles right back into the game and helps make things more fun for everyone.
And, perhaps, you might eventually get to be one of those people who can point at a novel on a shelf and say “I got paid to write that.”