What writers can learn from fantasy RPG’s

Back in the early 1980s I used to do role-playing games. It began with the old classic, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons™, which came with hardback rule books, dice and long evenings with friends where everything was defined by random die roll:

Dungeon Master: You enter a room and [rattle of dice] find a wardrobe.
Player: My character opens the wardrobe and [rattle of dice] steps in. Are there fur coats?
Dungeon Master: [rattle of dice] The wardrobe is a shape shifted Gob Monster. Make a saving throw.
Player: [rattle of dice] Failed.
Dungeon Master: You’ve been swallowed and are about to pass through the [rattle of dice] duodenum.
Player: My character says [rattle of dice] “Aaaargh”.

Part of the fantasy world map I devised, with friends, for our RPG. This is the bit I managed to digitise.
Part of the fantasy world map I devised, with friends, for our RPG. This is the bit I managed to re-draw and digitise. Similarity to the coast of Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand, is entirely coincidental. Honestly, officer.

However, our little group balked at the way the whole was framed around hack-and-sorcery stereotypes, into which had been droozled elements of Tolkien. Then there was the way characters were ‘aligned’ to a nine-space cliche morality grid. Even as young twenty-somethings, we knew human reality was a tad more complex:

Player: My character backstabs the Elf and steals the magic dingus.
Dungeon Master: You can’t do that, you’re Lawful Good.
Player: Haven’t you heard of the law of the jungle...and it’s good for me.

We shortly ditched the game and swung into creating our own, which was very different and built around telling the story of characters in a fantasy world, largely via what amounted to improvised theatre between the players – collaborative creativity. Character names varied from the German slang for ashtrays to a brand name of analog synthesisers. Place names commemorated 1980s synth-pop bands and motorcycle part makers. The rest came from Bored of the Rings

The panel of one of my analog synths... dusty, a bit scratched, but still workable.
This brand of analog synth became a character name. I own the synth pictured here…but it wasn’t my character. Anybody care to guess the name?

As you can guess, if it was silly, it usually happened. A lot got written down. And therein is the lesson. It was good practise. The rules and scenarios demanded creativity, and an ability to write in ways others could follow. Afterwards, we got down to writing down the adventures. None of it is publishable – or readable outside the playing group, now scattered. (The guy that developed the map and game with me, these days, is an indie film-maker in the UK, for instance.)

I last played our RPG©®™ nearly 30 years ago. We’d come to the end of the world scenario, and our characters had gone through their development arcs. We deliberately ended it with a final adventure that wrapped up the characters. The end. It was fun at the time, but I don’t miss it. What counts – now – is the way it created writing experience. Part of the million word journey from unconscious incompetence to making writing part of your soul.

Did you play AD&D™ or its variants? Did you write down those adventures? Or is there something else you’ve done that has captured your imagination and got you writing?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014


And now, some shameless self promotion: Where that million word apprenticeship led me:


It’s also available on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/nz/book/bateman-illustrated-history/id835233637?mt=11

Nook is coming soon.

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11 thoughts on “What writers can learn from fantasy RPG’s

  1. RPGs is something that falls completely outside my frame of reference. They just never caught on over here. In fact, in the region I’m from D&D was (and in some cases still is) promptly condemned as Satanic. Thus my first exposure was through TV shows like The Big Bang Theory and The IT Guys. It seems like fun, though. And I like the idea of writing it all down.

    1. Yes, that criticism of ‘satanic’ was levelled at AD&D here, too – and, I think, in the US. I couldn’t see it myself in the game at all – it had a variety of demons, an underworld, and so forth, all cartoonified. I guess it all depended on how seriously anybody took the game – I mean, AD&D wasn’t real. By my standards it wasn’t even good fantasy, actually; it was thoroughly kiddified and pivoted on some truly over-used cliches. Probably that had quite a bit to do with the target market, in the end. I haven’t played it for many, many years and can’t help thinking that it’s something people maybe do at a particular time in life? For me and a lot of my friends, way back when, it was a cheap pastime – we were students and it was way cheaper than going down to the pub to drink beer.

  2. We had a go at D&D back in the 80s but never really mastered the concept having only heard about how it worked. We just sat round feeling a bit silly about the whole thing, especially about how much we’d paid for 12-sided dice. It was a revelation to see it played properly on Big Bang!

    1. Looking back, that game WAS very silly, in so many ways…I suppose in a way that’s why the game my friends and I invented was, quite consciously, satirical. It was a way of having a laugh about a shared imagination, rather than anything serious. And yeah, the dice were rather expensive… So were the AD&D hardbacks, as I recall.

  3. I never did get into an RPG group, though I had some of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles RPG books and did very brief RPs with a friend. Never went farther than that. When I was in university, there was a group of friends who were playing RPGs, but I never had the time. Wish I had. I was fascinated by them. But knowing that the Japanese novels Record of Lodoss War were the written account of an AD&D campaign was very interesting. I wish they were translated into English.

    1. Intriguing to think that an AD&D campaign could actually become a coherent story. The ‘module’ based approach the designers had come up with didn’t particularly lend itself to that, but I guess people could make up their own rather more coherent scenarios. The only worry I’d have in such a thing is (a) copyright relative to the game, and (b) the fact that a lot of the concepts and ideas in AD&D were very, very cliched. The game that my friends and I developed was more specifically intended to turn into an interesting story – though we never did, particularly; it was purely for our own entertainment at the time.

      1. The story was quite cliched. Swordsman, elf, dwarf, wizard, all going on a quest in a war to defeat the evil wizard, as well as a dragon. But there was no problem with the copyright, as the story was just based on a series of campaigns. It wasn’t a retelling of the exact campaign. But I would say it inspired it.

  4. The D&D days were nearly over just as I got to the age when I suspect I would have been into it. Sadly I struggled to even find people willing to play tabletop war-gaming. Computer games and XBox were already the big thing.

    Alas, not quite the same!

  5. I’ve played on-line RPG’s. But the guys all want to hack and slash. After a little while, it got old. So, I turned to writing and am living out my dreams that way.

    Still…my characters develop a will of their own. Even though I know it’s just my subconscious filling in the blanks, it’s funny that, once again, I’m just the helpless little girl along for the ride. Ha.

    1. The only way to get ahead was via hack and slash because of the way the xp point system worked. My playing group disliked that too and it became another reason to invent a better game.

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