Written by James L. Sutter
As the editor in charge of Pathfinder Tales—the Tor and Paizo novel line that tie into the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game—as well as the author of two of the books myself, I spend a lot of time talking with people about the boons and challenges of writing fiction tied into a game. But what’s often easy to overlook in these conversations is just how much RPGs can teach us about the craft of writing.
The most important thing we learn from pen-and-paper roleplaying games is that anyone can be a storyteller. Books, movies, TV, video games—all of these can inspire a would-be writer, but the audience’s role is still fundamentally passive. These media are fun, but do nothing to fill the chasm separating us from creative “professionals”: the gulf between “Wow, that was cool,” and “I want to do what they did!” At the end of the day, we’re still standing outside the dream factory looking in.
Roleplaying games burst right through that wall, Kool-Aid-Man style. By their very nature, RPGs force audience members to take control, to see themselves as storytellers. RPGs are improv, and even the best-written adventure module is still only a stage for the participants. Creativity is mandatory, and as people game, they come to identify as creative. I can’t count the number of professional authors I’ve met who were drawn into writing by the urge to create more elaborate backstories for their characters, or settings for their game, or journals of their parties’ adventures. Gaming breeds writers like salad bars breed bacteria.
A writer can gain much more from gaming than simple confidence. By running games—and being lucky enough to work on Dungeon magazine and help create Pathfinder—I got an invaluable education in crafting worlds, plots, and characters.
Designing your own setting is one of the great joys of RPGs, and packed with lessons for writing science fiction and fantasy. It’s where I learned that I could combine tropes from vastly different real-world cultures to make societies that feel brand new yet relatable. That magic without logically consistent laws is boring, and that the constraints those rules impose are half the fun. That even your purest “good” gods or nations are more interesting when they have flaws, and vice versa. That money and geography determine your national borders, and that rivers should always flow downhill and together rather than splitting apart. (You’d be amazed how many fantasy maps ignore that fact.)
Writing an adventure is excellent training for plotting a novel. It needs all the same elements—the hooks and clues that draw the protagonists in, the rising action, the climactic battle—but comes with the added challenge that you don’t get to control the heroes. You’re writing a script that could change wildly at any moment if the characters zig when you expected them to zag—not unlike adapting a novel outline to fit unexpected character developments or editorial requests.
As for characters—well, they’re the heart of roleplaying, aren’t they? And as every roleplayer learns, the more you know about a character’s background and personality, the easier it is to get into their heads and create realistic reactions to any situation.
Fiction and roleplaying games are just two different styles of storytelling, so whether you’re rolling dice or pounding a keyboard, you’re exercising the same muscle. Each makes us better at the other.