Writing vs. Roleplaying
Posted by thehydradm
Lots of people compare being an author and being a GM. The comparison, on the surface, appears apt. Both create characters, write (or perform) dialog and descriptive narrative, and craft a story in general.
However, I’m willing to wager the two skill-sets don’t have as much overlap as many people suggest that they do.
This revelation came to me when, for the first time in many years, I decided to try my hand at creative writing. In the meantime I had been a prolifically active GM, running dozens of sessions for dozens of players in real time text, real time voice, and play by post formats.
I quickly thought up what I figured was a pretty good story seed that I should expand upon, and so I sat down and started writing. I also quickly came to a realization: I had no idea how to do middles or ends (and especially not in a sustained or preparatory fashion), only premises and beginnings. The writing got to about a paragraph and stopped cold with no clue what should even happen next. Just totally brickwalled.
Why was this the case? I’ll let Brian Jamison speak for me on this one: “The more the Gamemaster plots, the less the players will follow the plot.”
He terms that quote his “only absolute Law … in gamemastering,” and for what it’s worth I think he’s more or less got it right. Look in just about any given thread on the topic, and you’re going to find a well-received post that details how you should determine as little of the plot in advance as possible because it’s simply not practical (and usually not very fun, either) to do more than that.
I had taken this advice so close to heart that it actually made true, solitary, authorship impossible for me. It’s not that I can’t write fiction – I can and have – it’s that I was trying to apply the wrong set of skills to my project. It was at this point that I realized at least one critical difference between a great GM and a great writer. Put simply, an author dictates whereas a GM collaborates.
As tends to be the case, there’s a problem that is the tails to my writing dilemma’s heads. Just as trying to apply GMing principles (collaborative improvisational story generation) to writing a short story (solitary edited story generation) gets you stuck, the opposite is also the case.
Trying to apply the author’s principles to GMing leads to a lot of wasted effort at best, and what has come to be termed “railroading” – of the most awful sort – at worst. Being unable to cope with characters who literally have a mind of their own and are actually not under your control (as opposed to metaphorical “characters with minds of their own” that many authors talk about, which literally are actually under their control) is a real problem in a roleplaying game that simply doesn’t exist in a novel. Even in a play-by-post RPG, which has a form that is apparently very similar to that of a novel, there are still several “authors” all with different levels of creative control over different portions of the world capable of conflicting each others’ intentions.
I think that the above is a pretty compelling explanation of at least one of the critical differences between the storytelling skillsets of an author and a GM, and I think we should all be just a bit more careful when we read advice – or try to give advice – that borrows ideas from conventions that originate with works traditionally associated with what might be termed “writers” (edited scripts or novels, which are in opposition to the real-time nature of most RPGs, or the complete creative control of an author that is in opposition to the distributed creative control of an RPG).
Until Next Time,
The Hydra DM