I’ve recently gotten back into tabletop roleplaying as a Game Master for a Pathfinder adventure path and I’ve really been noticing all the ways that tabletop gaming can help fiction writers.
First, a quick summary for the uninitiated: Tabletop roleplaying is a form of collaborative storytelling that relies heavily on imagination, mediated through a set of rules and kept unpredictable through the use of multi-sided dice. Most games feature a single Game Master and several Players. Each Player invents a character that they control throughout the events of the game. The Game Master (GM) is responsible for bringing everything else to life — people, places and events — and adjudicating the actions of the Players.
That means that one of the GM’s core responsibilities is providing effective, on-the-fly description. Through words, the GM has to sketch out the scene in enough detail to not only suspend disbelief, but also to provide the Players with enough information to act on. In addition, the GM also has to learn how to hide things in plain sight. It’s unfair to Players to simply withhold key information (like the structurally unsound pillar in the center of the room), but it’s also not challenging to simply point everything out for them. So the GM must learn to bury key details within the descriptive “fluff” so that Players can enjoy the fun of spotting them (or suffer the consequences of missing them).
The GM must also have a very firm grasp of motivation for all the Non-Player Characters (NPCs) they must portray over the course of the game. Having a very firm grasp of who a character is and what they want — even if you’ve just made them up moments ago — is essential in order to know how they would react to whatever completely unpredictable thing your Players are up to this time. If you have to hem and haw your way through a scene, it slows down play and undermines suspension of disbelief. Conversely, having an NPC behave in an ill thought-out manner can also collapse suspension of disbelief while creating all sorts of narrative problems for you down the road.
And when the unexpected happens, a good GM needs to be able to weave together these motives with story hooks and descriptive elements to quickly flesh out a scene or even an entire plot line for the Players to interact with. In my Pathfinder game, I’m working from a published adventure — essentially a big outline — but some of my favorite moments as a GM have come from spinning an encounter out of the barest of set up in order to react to Player actions. You don’t want to force people to stick to the script. It’s a collaborative process and Player ingenuity should be rewarded.
It’s this last component where Game Mastering can really be beneficial to writers. While description, motivation, and improvisation are all important elements of a writer’s toolbox, they can be deployed at one’s leisure so that readers ultimately only see a polished final product. A Game Master, on the other hand, has to juggle all these tools on the fly while receiving instant, continuous feedback from the Players. It’s like a perpetual first draft being submitted to a continuous workshop critique.
By forcing you to practice these elements of the writer’s craft while thinking on your feet, Game Mastering teaches you how to tell better stories. Notice that I’ve said very little about a subject that is often near and dear to Game Masters — the world building and plot of the game. That’s because the best lessons that Game Mastering can teach from a writing perspective come from the act of running a game, regardless of the quality of the setting and story that you are running. It puts your skills as a storyteller to the test in front of an audience that provides immediate feedback. It also happens to be tremendous fun.