Gods Playing Dice

Writing and RPGs

1024px-Traveller_books

The classic edition of Traveller, Game Designer’s Workshop, 1977

As a young man back in the spiked, crimped velveteen 80s I spent many an happy hour enjoying sessions of role-playing games (now suddenly fashionable). These undoubtedly nurtured my writerly imagination for it is through them I caught the bug for storytelling and creating detailed scenarios. The three systems that enthralled me the most were the classic version of Dungeon & Dragons, Call of Cthulu (based upon the works of HP Lovecraft) and Traveller – through them I experienced the immersive delights of Fantasy, Horror and Science Fiction. It is the latter that is particularly on my radar at the moment, for my SF novel, Black Box, is ready for launch (being published through the crowdfunding platform, Unbound). Although the novel has been consciously informed by a lifetime of reading and watching SF, by Climate Change, and by research into space exploration and artificial intelligence at the University of Leicester where I’m currently completing my PhD, looking back I realise that those lively sessions with fellow schoolmates (in particular Garrie Fletcher, who has gone onto to become a wordsmith too) really nurtured the ‘SF brain’ part of me. With its stylish series of black manuals, and hard edge, Traveller was always the coolest of the RPGs, the Fonz of the whole Happy Days bunch. Each session, usually held around ‘Budgie’s house’, another schoolmate from Mereway, felt like being inside an episode of one of our favourite TV shows – Blake’s 7, Dr Who, Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica (this was pre-Firefly days and that show in particular captures the maverick freebooting attitude of the game – a motley crew taking on some dodgy mission for a fistful of credits, normally running the gauntlet of the Imperium, space pirates and hostiles). The main benefit of these games was, of course, the social angle – lifesaving for a bunch of awkward nerds (speaking personally): the sessions were some of the most enjoyable spent as a teenager – hearty laughter, shared creativity, and heart-pumping excitement. But in hindsight, as someone who has made writing the heart of their career, I see other spinoffs that have a direct benefit to novelists: immersiveness (far more visceral than any virtual reality); multilinearity (complex branching narratives effected by one’s choices); storytelling (how to engage and sustain an audience, create narrative traction, suspense and tension); characterisation (designing vivid characters, improvising dialogue); the importance of setting (almost a character in its own right – certainly spaceships can be); and fictionality (the giddy freedom of making stuff up, spinning a yarn, and weaving worlds out of thin air). These have all become of primary importance in my novel-writing. Of course novels seem, on the surface, less multi-cursory and multi-player – they are a direct interface between author and reader (although they can be shared by millions) – but in the composition of them, the malleability of the plot, the behaviour of the characters, and the volatility of the structure, makes it feel like being in a ‘session’ as DM,  player-characters, and non-player characters – a schizophrenic’s paradise. Aspects of your personality talk back at you: shock, astound and devastate – and you risk coming across as a complete loon, bursting out laughing or crying out in frustration at a screen. Anything can happen in the white void of the blank page. The lonely long-haul of writing a novel may lack the sociability of a RPG (except in the camaraderie with fellow writers and, if you’re lucky, readers), but in compensation one has complete creative control (eventually, if the wild beast of the book can be tamed sufficiently). It can bring out the emperor-god-being in you, the tyrannical deity that plucky characters loved to frustrate. As with the best DMs, who run a game ‘dice-light’, biasing the flow of storytelling over a punctilious compliance with the rules, the best writers always allow their characters to have a lucky break now and then, and to steal the show over a mechanical fulfilment of plot. And writers weaned on RPGs will always remember who the narrative is ultimately for – not the ‘god behind the screen’ but the reader-participant.

Copyright ©Kevan Manwaring 30 April

Black Box has been adapted into an audio drama by the amazing podcast team at Alternative Stories. The first three pilot episodes are due to be launched 20th November, 27th November, & 4th December. FFI: https://alternativestories.com/

5 thoughts on “Gods Playing Dice

  1. fletcherski

    God, that takes me back. I think you’ve nailed it there. RPGs were pretty much a gateway-drug for me. Dabbling in D & D, and, my favourite, Traveller led to a hardcore storytelling addiction. Many a time, I ignored the dice and went where the narrative could grow. It really was hours of fun. Funnily enough, I’ve a sci-fi novel bubbling away, only a few chapters so far, but my touchstone is those Saturdays spent sat around Loz’s dining-room table.

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  2. Dean Kyte

    I remember getting into one in the 90’s. I think the RPG had jumped the shark in terms of its popularity by then. Video games were starting to take over, and those I played with never quite seemed to enjoy the mixture of Byzantine structure and free-form unpredictability as I did.

    If I look back upon the RPG phenomenon now, I think it’s everything that Borges wrote about—particularly in “El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan”. Blind as he was and clairvoyant in his internal vision, he would have loved them.

    And I think you hit the nail on the head, Kevan: The reason why these games are so seductive to writerly folk is that they’re immersive in a way that all the screen-based games which followed them can never be: you must visualize the crystal lattice, the physics of rules which the poetry of imagined game play becomes, within yourself, and keep both the physics and the poetry in constant focus. I think that’s why other people didn’t enjoy the RPG as much as I did and preferred video games instead, because that kind of imagined game play is actually a lot of hard mental work!

    Thanks for your beautifully written article, Kevan, which took me back, and best of luck in the publication of your book.

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