Hobbies, Skills, and Passions

I’ve talked in other posts, I believe, about one of the useful elements in becoming a good or great writer being a fluency in the language of writing. The faster and cleaner you can translate what’s in your mind into what’s on the page, the easier the entire process of writing will be. On a good day, at the right time or times, you’ll be able to write as fast as you can type. If you’re a good typist, you’ll be able to write almost as fast as you can think.

At this point, one of the big bottlenecks will be what your mental speed limit is: how fast you can make story-creating decisions that fit the characters you’re working with, and that advance the plot in the right direction. As with everything else in writing, this takes practice to get really good at.

Luckily for me, I’ve spent the vast majority of my life playing Dungeons & Dragons.

More specifically, I’ve spent a huge portion of my life as a D&D Dungeonmaster (as opposed to the BDSM kind of Dungeonmaster), running games for all kinds of different players. I credit this particular hobby with a lot of my ability to come up with plots on the fly, as well as my ability to create fictional characters quickly, and my ability to envision the decisions those characters might make. All of those things are skills that one needs to varying degrees when running a tabletop role-playing game.

As with writing fiction, a Dungeonmaster (DM) tries to create or direct a narrative, to tell (with the aid of his players) a kind of story. The Dungeonmaster lays out a general plot, with a beginning, middle, and (assuming not everybody dies along the way) an ending. As with writing, any or all of this outline is routinely threatened by the often unpredictable actions of the characters involved. While the DM has full control over where the story starts, he/she does not fully control how or where the story ends, nor what happens along the way.

This is because the characters make their own decisions. Which often seems to happen when one is writing fiction, particularly fiction of any significant length.

A DM might start the story off in a tavern, intending the characters to roleplay a quiet meal getting acquainted with one another, planning the next day’s journey to the castle or dungeon where the object of their mutual quest lies. The players might choose to pick a fight, either with strangers at the tavern or with each other, and the evening might end with any number of dead bodies, and burning tavern.

The DM’s job is to adapt, to get the story back on track, but also to include the consequences of this event into the overall narrative. Surviving party members will likely be on the run now, to avoid angry mobs and law enforcement, which can be used to increase their incentive to achieve whatever their original goal was, as well as to provide additional possible obstacles that might add to the story.

It’s not so different when writing, sometimes. A writer might think they know where a scene is going, but by the time they’re done writing it, they have to re-adjust their entire outline to account for unpredicted outcomes. This is likely to happen more than once, in a longer story.

This can be frustrating as a Dungeonmaster, so most DMs try to predict ahead of time how and why scenes might go wrong, and to come up with ways of reducing the odds of disaster or major derailment. Instead of starting the scene in the main room of the tavern, for example, the DM might start the scene in a private room, where there are fewer distractions from the DM’s goal with the scene. It’s hard to start a fight with non-player characters (NPCs) when there aren’t any in the room/scene.

The party can fight amongst themselves, but this can be countered by making sure that each of the main characters, the Player Characters (PCs) have compatible backstories that can be used to avoid disastrous in-fighting. Four complete strangers are more likely to pick deadly fights with one another than a group of four people composed of two brothers, one brother’s love interest, and that love interest’s long-time friend who happens to have helped the other brother out of a serious jam on at least one occasion. It also helps if the characters have compatible personalities and overall motivations. That way, if things start to go off course, the DM can guide them back on course by reminding the PCs of their close ties and their mutual goals.

Storytelling is storytelling, and a lot of the skills that one can develop in table-top role-playing games can translate into other forms of storytelling, such as writing. It’s not the only way to develop useful skills, and it’s not even necessarily the best way to do so. It is one of the ways that’s worked for me, and I’ve heard other authors make similar claims.

Then again, writers tend to use their own experiences, and whatever a writers’ experiences are, I’ve heard them claim that those experiences have helped shape and guide their writing.

If you’ve never tried running or playing in a tabletop RPG, but you’re looking for fun hobbies that might help you with your writing, I recommend joining or starting a game sometime. If you have played or run tabletop RPGs, I recommend actively thinking about lessons that you can learn from your RPG experiences that will translate into writing skills, and vice-versa. It’s always nice when our hobbies can sharpen our skills for our passions.

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