I may be a little biased (been a role-player long before a writer) but I think every author, especially new ones, can benefit from participating in that nerdiest of hobbies…tabletop RPGs. In general the benefits are pretty basic. Writing, by its very nature, is a solitary craft. Sure, there are times when we consult with editors, agents, publishers and fans, but the vast majority of our time is spent alone, in front of a desk, hunched over a notebook, or squinting at a computer screen. Becoming part of a group and meeting regularly to share a beloved hobby is just plain good for you. You get out, socialize with like-minded people, and you get to utilize all the skills a writer needs to research, plan and craft good story. For those who have never played an RPG before it’s basically a play, without a script, and the actors don’t know the story. The Game Master (director of the play) knows half the story and script, but is missing the parts for the actors. That’s the beauty of it from a writer’s perspective.
As a Player
As a player at the table you take on the role of a character, a person in the story who isn’t you. How does this benefit you as a writer? Well, if you really let yourself get into it, the benefit is practicing the basic foundation for being a role player and a writer are the same, character creation. Some people go through their entire life in the hobby without ever actually taking on the role of their character. They roll the dice, compare numbers, and enjoy the basics of the game, but when it comes time to ‘be’ the character they just won’t go that far. Now I’m not talking about believing you are the character, or jumping up on the table and swinging a real sword at imaginary goblins. Taking on the role of the character is much more subtle. As an example, if you are a player already, when speaking about your character do you say ‘I’ or ‘she’? Do you try to create a speech pattern or ‘voice’ for your character or always talk in your own? Do you spit out dialogue as if you are the character talking directly to another or do you say, “Uh, well I just tell them to surrender.”? If you are a player and you fall into the latter example, try to make that subtle change and actually think like your character would think, and talk like they would talk. Give them quirks, and a speech impediment or accent. Creating the character for a game, and for a story, is so much more than just giving them an appearance, some physical and mental statistics, and a back story. Give just a little more and see how it benefits your game, and your writing.
The other area that being a player helps out greatly is dialogue. Imagine a scene from two different perspectives. You’re writing your story about pirates, the young naval officer has just boarded the pirate ship and the Captain leaps down from the foredeck and shouts, leveling a sword at the officer, “Stand to, ye scurvy bastard! Explain yerself quick afore I run ye through with me sticker.” As a writer we have the time to come up with the perfect response, how the officer will react, what he will say. Will he be heroic and answer the pirate Captain in kind, or will he be paralyzed with fear? Now imagine this same scene as a role-player and the GM (Game Master) has just delivered the above dialogue. You know, as a player, you have just as much time as your character, the naval officer, to decide what to do and what to say. If you hesitate too long the GM will move on with the Captain’s actions and your character might just wind up dead because he was paralyzed by fear. It forces you, as the player, to come up with more natural reactions to situations, and more natural dialogue. It works especially well when you’ve followed the advice above and ‘become’ your character. When you start to think like they would think, your reactions become more fluid, more real, and in the end this kind of experience will help you write more natural, more real scenes.
As a Game Master
A game master is already a story teller. They either have the adventure script they wrote themselves, or one that someone else wrote up. The key to being a good game master is being able to adapt, and think on the fly, change the story when necessary so that the characters can continue even if they step off the ‘written path’. Many writers know what this is like, and they will even say “I love it when my characters surprise me.” How is that possible, you might wonder? How can we be surprised by the things we are writing ourselves? Well, we can have our story planned out, the scene in our heads and start writing it. During the process we will naturally change things that we had planned based on what sounds better, or a new idea that comes to us during the writing, so things change. When they do we either get stuck trying to think of the next part, now that we have deviated from the plan, or we get good at adapting. That is what we mean by being surprised. Sure, we wrote it, so it’s not like we don’t know it’s happening, but we didn’t exactly plan it that way either. When you are a game master, with half the story (minus the character’s parts) it’s inevitable that you will be surprised. You can either adapt to your player’s (character’s) actions, or try to steam roll them back onto the story path. The first will result in interested players that will keep coming back. The second will lead to boredom and a less engaging feel. In the writing world you can bet your reader can tell the difference between a fluid story that evolves as you write it and one that was set on tracks, like a train, from beginning to end, always sticking to the plan.
A game master also needs the skills to develop and create interesting characters, and good dialogue. In fact, they need a better grasp of this skill than the players, in most cases. While your players will handle one character at a time, the GM is responsible for a whole cast of characters in the story. That’s not to say every single goblin needs a back story and interesting dialogue, but important characters in the story should have some semblance of this. Just like in writing, the pawns or goblins or whatever, are just there. Fodder for the heroes of our story. The shopkeepers, innkeepers, etc need to be a little more robust. You don’t need to give them much of a back story, but you want them to seem like unique characters, not just generic window dressing. Then you get to the leaders, villains, and allies. The more important the character to the story, the more detailed their back story and the more interesting their character needs to be. This is no different for writing as it is for a GM, but being a GM allows you to explore and enhance these skills against other thinking minds and see how they react.
That’s really the key to having RPing as part of your research for writing. You can sit down and write a whole book, create your characters, write the dialogue, and crank it out. Odds are you won’t know if it works until you send it off to your agent, editor, beta reader, or whoever is first to read it. And even then, you only know if it works for them. You still don’t know if it will be a hit with more than one person, and if it’s not, you have to take that feedback and then develop your skills, hoping the next time it’s better. When you sit around a table with friends your character creation, dialogue, and story telling skills are weighed with immediate feedback. You can tell where you shine and where you need polish right away. You can take these skills back to the desk after every session and make adjustments as you go. It’s definitely something I recommend for any writer’s tool kit.