Tag Archives: Role-playing Games

Gods Playing Dice

Writing and RPGs


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/

Choose Your Own (Viva) Adventure

An Ergodic Displacement Activity by Kevan Manwaring

(Diary of a Viva Ninja: Day 31)

The Warlock of Firetop Mountai cover.jpg

YOU have heard talk of the fabled treasure of Phire-top Mountain in your village local, The Knackered Nag. Going slowly blind drinking pint after pint of Old Bastard every night along with the rest of the reprobates who frequented that unsalubrious hostelry seemed less of an enticing career option when you caught wind of a noisome conversation between two broken vagabonds, gibbering about the dreaded Thesis-Beast and its endless revisions, the Ordeal-by-Viva and the feared Academics of Phire-top Mountain: They Who Guard The Treasure Which None May Look Upon Without Going Mad! Not having anything really to do for the next few years, you decide to set off and win this treasure…

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After many terrible ordeals, diversions, redrafts, cancelled trains, interminable conference papers, word-blindness, back-ache, RSI, piles, and overdrafts you finally make it to the threshold of the Room of Testing, atop Phire-top Mountain (Room 1309). Armed with your trusty Shield of Deflection, Potion of Answering, Mirror of Critical Scrutiny, and Water-bottle of Procrastination, you cross the threshold. In the small room rammed to the ginnels with musty tomes, a midden of coffee cups and muffin wrappers, and empty wine bottles there sit three Level 7 Academics of the Arcane School of  Obscurity. In front of them is an empty chair. Do you…

  1. Say hello and enter the room?
  2. Run screaming from the tower back to your village?
  3. Use a Dazzle Spell from your Phone of Mobility to temporarily blind them while you snatch away their notes and make a run for it?

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One of the Level 7 Academics introduces herself as ‘Ye Chair’, and then introduces her colleagues – one she calls an ‘Internal’ and the other, an ‘External’, although this pays no correlation to the arrangement of their bodily organs. They ask you to take a seat. Do you…

  1. Grab the empty chair and run from the room?
  2. Take the opportunity to show off your breakdance routine?
  3. Sit down?


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The internal asks you ‘Can you give us a summary of your project?’ Do you…

  1. Provide a snappy 5-10 minute introduction to your Quest to Quell the Thesis-Beast?
  2. Provide a 30-60 minute blow-by-blow account of Your Interminable Quest?
  3. Start explaining the Secret of the Ninety-Nine Worlds?

To be continued!

(With apologies to Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson – & the illustrators whose fab work I have shamelessly snaffled from the internet  – and gratitude for many happy hours of rolling the dice and turning the pages…)

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