Wednesday, February 8, 2017

RPGs & Writing - guest post by Renee Cheung

I am honoured to be guest blogging at Christine’s and to follow up on her post about RPGs and writing. She and I go back quite a bit, to the days when we used to write together on Play by Email RPGs. (If you want to find out more about what they are, read her post here) and in truth, she was one of the people that inspired me to improve on my writing at the time, and she continues today to inspire and encourage me to write.

Maybe I’ll start at the beginning. Writing was always a bit of a chore for me, until I stumble into Yahoo Groups and found people writing together, controlling characters and creating stories. I immediately fell in love with the idea and joined in with an unholy enthusiasm that concerned my parents (I was in high school at that time).  Although I was really, really bad in the beginning, (some of my posts were literally one sentence!) I got better with practice. And that practice carried me well forward today in writing, whether it’s writing stories or technical documentation for work.

I won’t bore you with details about the latter. Really, it’s quite boring. Unless you’re writing it while drunk on champagne jello. But then again, I would think quite a few boring things would be fun if you were drunk on champagne jello.
Anyhow, back to RPGs! As Christine mentioned in her past post, playing in these forums forced players to be character-focused and to be flexible in how events evolved because you never knew what other characters would do or say or react. It also gave everyone a chance to form some pretty strong friendships through the storytelling. (Exhibit A right here!)

I also wanted to touch a bit on the mechanics of writing that these RPGs have helped me develop. Because everything was through the written word and because other players depended on what each other wrote, I had to be very descriptive as a player. If my character walked into a new room, I had better describe that room well. Anything not mentioned was fair game for another player to build on and describe. And so, every post became an exercise in making me consider what to write and what to leave out, how to describe everything from the setting, to the mood and tone, to my character’s expressions and actions. On the other hand, I had to consider how to do it without overloading the posts with so much detail that it would not give other people’s characters room to breathe and act? (No one likes a control freak, especially when it comes to these RPGs.) Now when I write, I constantly ask myself the same questions. What do I want the reader to picture? What do I want to leave up to their imagination?

Christine also spoke a bit about experimenting different writing styles and characters and I wholeheartedly concur. Very often, many players including myself played more than one character. An easy trap to fall into was to have every character sound and act the same way. However, when you have them all interact in the same RPG, it becomes very obvious and I grew to learn the importance of developing distinct characters. This included everything from the way they react, their values and back stories, to their mannerisms and the way they talk. It is something I am still working on to master, but it is something that RPGs have brought to the forefront of my mind.

Another mechanic is in setting up conflict and this was especially important when I started my own RPG. Portals to World was meant to be an ultimate fanfiction crossover RPG and as the owner/moderator of the group, I was the one that set up the premise, the setting and the overarching conflicts that came in the characters’ ways. (For those that play Dungeons and Dragons, it’s the equivalent of the Dungeon Master who sets up the quests that players with their characters go on, usually via NPCs or non-player characters.) It became an exercise of how to set up situations and how to present them to the characters. Is it an in-your-face earthquake (or in my case, a random portal just opened up!) or is it a more subtle sinister creeping hint of a big bad coming that would span over multiple posts? Still, sometimes the conflict becomes a dud because it was just too easy, or sometimes it becomes a corner that gets hard to write out of and as the moderator, it was something I just had to roll with. Being the moderator of a RPG taught me to set up conflicts well and also taught me to be flexible when something doesn’t quite pan out the way I anticipated.

As I pick up writing back up again after a long hiatus, I fondly remember what I learned writing in those PBeM RPGs and I sincerely hope that there would be a chance to do it again some day. Perhaps not in that particular form, but to experiment with some sort of dynamic real-time storytelling. Have you played in any sort of storytelling games and if so, how have those affected your writing style? I’d love to hear more!

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Find out more about Renee on her website and blog.

Renee is one of the twelve amazing authors featured in this year's IWSG anthology, Hero Lost: Mysteries of Death and Life. Her story, "Memoirs of a Forgotten Knight" is set in the Physical/Digital world. A fantastic read! The anthology will be out at the beginning of May.

Check out her fantastic new release, Tales From The Digital.

Somewhere along the way, humans found a way to anchor magic into technology, bringing about the commercialization of once-mystic energies. Little do they know that by doing so, they also created a conduit for the fae and other creatures to migrate into a whole new land...


  1. Those online RPG games would've been fun. As a former D&D player and Dungeon Master, I know what you mean about crafting a story that is challenging but fun.

    1. For sure! And to be able to account for the unpredictability of the players is always a challenge.

  2. The more I read about these RPG communities, the more I want to join one :) Great post, and food for though when it comes to writing!

    1. It doesn't have to be forums either! You can also just start playing over email with another friend. In some ways it's like daisy-chain writing

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  4. Yep, I'll admit I used to play those types of games via Yahoo Groups. It was a lot of fun... except when you got stuck playing with people who'd suddenly take things in really weird/really bad directions and you had to unscrew yourself and the story with your next part.

  5. I used to be active in similar communities to the ones you've described, and still role-play with a trusted Critique Partner to expand my story concepts. The only problem I have is that that instant interaction and creation can be super addictive, and I end up role-playing more than I write. ;-)

  6. I also got my start in writing with RPG on Yahoo Groups in 1999. Star Wars, A dragon one, LOTR, A Regency one, and so. I still have friends from then. We all wrote together consistently for about 5 years. I even created several RPG's of my own and ran them. I have one now on a wiki, but no one playing with me. I just tootle around with it. May turn it into a story. I miss it and hated when Yahoo Groups changed so much it was no longer easy to access or fun because of setup changes My groups are still there though. I have thought about trying to find another one but it would be just another for me to distract myself from serious writing.

    Great post.
    Juneta @ Writer's Gambit

  7. Congratulations on your inclusion in the anthology!! I really would have loved writing like that, in high school especially. I was a lone ranger for a long time. That kind of instant feedback would have been invaluable.

  8. Oaky, so about this champagne jello...

    Writer support is so wonderful. I'd have stopped long ago too if it weren't for writer support.

  9. A Beer For The Shower: Oh yes, I remember those times when suddenly the story just goes sideways, or when people leave, etc. It was pretty hit and miss for me until I found the right group to play with (Christine included!)

    Misha: Oh that is so true, it is very very addictive. I don't do it anymore but I can totally see how one can end up rp-ing instead of writing. I always wondered if two people can turn an RP script into a full book/novel. Would be a really interesting experiment.

    Juneta: Thanks. I haven't been back in Yahoo Groups in a long time but with Yahoo being bought out, I doubt that the forum would stay around much longer.

    Krystal: Thanks for the congrats. It's a great honour for me. I hope you've been able to get some feedback now! Writing in a vacuum sucks.

    Elizabeth: hahahaha I was wondering if anyone was going to pick up on the champagne jello. I actually just wanted a snack and there was some jello in the fridge. I had clean forgotten how much booze was in that thing as it was left overs from a potluck. Sadly that was also the best technical document I've ever written... I wonder what that says about my day job writing :P

  10. The RPG communities do seem like a great way to develop story-telling skills. Thank you for sharing.

  11. It sounds like a great way to hone writing skills. I used to play RPGs with a few friends in high school - MERP, TMNT, Justice League - and I think it helped me understand storytelling more - even if it was interrupted often by pizza breaks. :)
    We had a group that played at lunch for a year - and keeping the play good while keeping it short was really challenging. I don't know that I honed characterization or even plot development as well as you and Christine from that experience, but I think joint storytelling forums or e-mails sound like a lot of challenging fun!


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