Today’s guest, Terry Murray, talks about the value of using RPGs as a valuable resource for worldbuilding, character development and plotting. Take it away, Terry!
Mine is a tale of long ago, back when Steve Jackson’s Generic Universal RolePlaying System (GURPS) was almost new and the Commodore 64 still cool if not hot. A time when machines could not tell much of a story before their memories ran out. Nevertheless, I like to think some of what I learnt as we entered the 1990s will prove of value to a younger generation of cybernetically enhanced writers.
My venture in to the world of graphic novels to write, arguably, the first Christian example of the genre ironically benefited from a source many believers then (and now) might disapprove of – rpg reference books. I have found such materials a great help when it comes to fantasy writing. Of course, they also present some potential pitfalls.
The first problem role playing games helped me to solve was, so to speak, historical. It is true that the fantasy writer does not suffer the inconvenience of the historical novelist who must constantly take care to be faithful to the time and place they have set their story within. However, I soon came to realise I faced double the challenge. I needed first to create a plausible world, complete with history, within which to set my story and then to ensure I did not break my own rules of existence.
Admittedly, it was a fact-filled publication, Whitaker’s Almanack, which proved invaluable when it came to the early number-crunching. A late 19th century edition provided population figures for Australia from which I could envisage low-tech population clusters.
While Whitaker’s applied the broad brush strokes it was the rpg handbooks that filled in the finer detail. Using them as “culture catalogues”, I was able to order a collection of nations and people groups to populate the land.
The second problem I faced was character generation and plot development. The way I write, I might have a beginning and an end in mind but my story lines tend to be character driven. What happens to them in large part is influenced by who they are. I might place them in a situation but their abilities and personality will colour and to some extent decide the outcome; just as in the “real world” we don’t always have control of our circumstances but we do have a choice as to how we respond to them.
I found my rpg manuals an easy and convenient way to access a multitude of professions, abilities and backgrounds when I put together a collection of possible major players. I then played “what if” with a number of them and considered the results. Following these “auditions” I selected my cast and sent them on their way. As their journey changed them, they in turn changed their journey. The rest, as they say, is history.
If only it were that simple. The downside with referring to RPG material is one finds oneself spoilt for choice, so like a child let loose in a sweet shop it is tempting to have too much of too many things. From weapons to races, magic to monsters, the world of roleplay would be absurdly overstocked but for the discernment and discretion of those running the games.
The writer even more so must filter and distil the mass of possibilities if he or she is to create a world that does not look like a theme park. Where the games master might be generous, the writer needs to be frugal. We need to remember that exotic items, be they weapons or wands, are just that. They should be rare and reasonable. Similarly, you don’t need to be an ecologist to recognise what havoc some creatures would do if let loose upon a world. If you are going to introduce an exotic animal or monster in to the world, one way or another, it needs to fit in to the scheme of things.
Finally, when drawing upon such sources for inspiration, we must not lose sight of who rules our universe. Get too caught up in the designer’s game mechanics and we will start to limit our own imagination. Don’t let your story turn into a system scenario (unless you are planning to sell it as such).
Would I recommend any particular role playing game?
In my case, the Iron Crown Enterprise (ICE) Rolemaster series of the time played a big part in helping me to populate the world, establish its social dynamics and set its degree of divergence from the mundane. But there were a number of other potentially useful games around then, as there are now. What was best for me might not be best for you. If you are considering investing inRPGs as a writing resource investigate the market for yourself and purchase what suits your particular needs.
You might even find yourself playing the game!