Surf on over to You Tube and check out Wil Wheaton’s webcast called “Table Top”. He has an excellent episode about an RPG rules-light game called Fiasco. And yes, that’s a writer or two at his table (John Rogers, the screenwriter for Leverage). It is entertaining to watch and comes across as exactly what it is – a fast paced improv story/script writing session.
Currently, I am playing in an RPG based on Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series of books. It uses an RPG system known as FATE or Fantastic Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment for the ruleset. From start to finish, this game focuses on storytelling and incidentally provides some tools a writer can borrow for their own process.
To start, the first session is a collaborative world building session where players and the Game Master (essentially the referee) develop the setting where the action will take place.
As the first step, players create the city. Unique to most RPGs I have played, FATE encourages players to think of the city as a “character”. It, and the locations within it, will change and advance as the story advances. As a writer, I find this approach incredibly useful. Thinking of a setting or world in this way keeps you from allowing stagnation and forces you to think through the ramifications of your character’s actions on the overall fictional world they inhabit.
Whether your setting is urban fantasy Chicago or a single room, things there should change as your character develops and pursues their quest. The impact of that needs to be reflected in some way in their surroundings. In the same respect, every location in that setting needs its own unique feel that brings it alive for your reader.
In the next step, players create “faces” for the locations, each of which will be played by the Game Master. These are support characters, foils, antagonists for the main characters to interact with during play. These characters are loosely defined by concepts or brief descriptive phrases called aspects that detail something important. An aspect can be as simple as “Drug Dealing Vampire” or a bit more complex like “Reluctant Apprentice to the Fel Sorcerer Galraith”
Finally, the players create characters which they play and which serve as the “protegonists” for the story. The player starts with a High Concept that defines the core of the character. “The Wizard Boy Who Lived” could be an example of a High Concept. The collaboration continues through several phases as each character must intertwine his story with one or more other player’s characters at the table and then integrate that into the setting. For each phase, the player adds a new aspect to their character sheet which is simply a descriptive phrase that further defines the character.
These aspects not only tie the player’s characters together, but give the Game Master ways to develop plot hooks throughout the game. Often a game session can be run simply by taking an aspect from two or more characters, matching them up to aspects in the setting/faces and looking for conflicts and commonalities.
So, a character with “Trust Issues” may find himself at odds with a character who is a “Man of Many Secrets” especially if they are dropped into the “Paranormal Underground” which the second character is a member of!
In a nutshell, the setup for this great RPG provides a framework for world building and character development any author could borrow and steal from. Once all these details are outlined, sub-plots come crawling out of the crevices, characters and their surroundings get more dynamic and distinct personalities and motivations can be groomed for even minor support characters.
Gaming has always borrowed from literature. Usually it is the intent to let players explore a literary world (such as the common RPG trope, Tolkien’s Middle Earth). However, as the hobby has matured, it turns out writers can maybe learn a bit from the games as well!