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Player of Games

May 7, 2011

Caution: this article assumes an entry-level understanding of geekology.

It’s no secret lovers of the Fantasy genre love trilogies; so in keeping with tradition welcome to this, the second of three articles on how role-playing games (RPGs) can inform your writing.

In this article I’m going to discuss how rolling up Player Character’s (PCs) can illuminate the characters we use in our fiction. You see, Fantasy is a menu. You don’t have to dine out every night at a fantasy tavern with a bard singing in the corner and where the barmaid is a “buxom lass” to be familiar with the menu’s specials and regulars. Tolkien cooked up those tropes years ago and we’ve been returning to play with them ever since. At its simplest sword and sorcery RPGs are a mix and match of these staples; but there is real art in bringing alchemy to such base materials.

But how?

In I am Dungeon Master we discussed the role of dungeon master (DM) as storyteller. But the DM is only the conduit for the player’s imaginations. At their most essential characters in RPGs are nothing but a collection of numbers generated by a set of wobbly looking dice and pencilled into boxes on a character sheet. These numbers are attributed to such mystifying virtues as ‘Alignment’, ‘Charisma’ and ‘Amour Class’ … and quite frankly the coffee and pizza stains defacing most character sheets contribute just as much to the actual job of bringing a character to life as these pencilled scribblings.

True, some players possess the imagination of a constipated bison. They may have  “role played” for decades but when faced with the pick ‘n’ mix palette of the fantasy genre repeatedly roll up the same “Hulk Smash!” barbarian type or the wise, white bearded wizard. Not that there’s anything explicitly wrong in that. RPGs are all about having fun and if the hackneyed, regurgitation of tried and worn stereotypes floats your boat, so be it. What fascinates and excites me though is the player who transcends the restrictions imposed by the funny shaped dice. Their characters thrive and become more than graphite scribbles on a character sheet. This guy picks from fantasy’s palette a gnome illusionist and elevates a three-foot tall caricature into a wise cracking pervert with penchant for fencing classical demi-human pornography.

You see, it’s a mind-set. Fantasy tropes don’t just want to be subverted… they’re begging for it. Tolkien’s legacy is not doctrine but base camp. The world doesn’t need any more good-natured hobbits travelling into the world with bovine, wide-eyed innocence. It needs a hobbit revolutionary destined to bring the Shire’s feudal system of oppression to its knees and slap the collective hobbits out of their docile, feckless subjugation.

As in RPG, so too in writing. Tropes are the toys left to us in the sandpit by the kids from last semester. Those kids tested them out and made them do the obvious. It’s up to us to push them to their limits, turn them inside out and maybe even rebuild them. So the next time you start describing the awe-inspiring beauty of your POV princess character stop a moment and consider how much more memorable your story would be if she possessed a face like a bag full of slapped spanners.

In the grand scheme of RPGs the DM is merely the conduit for the players imaginations. He or she may sacrifice huge swathes of personal time and history for world building; but in cases such as the aforementioned gnome pornographer we can see the investment is not entirely one-sided. It’s all about what the players are willing to bring to the table: I’ve had proud players attend sessions grasping their characters coat of arms before them. On occasions opened an e-mail to find an adverb-heavy, 20-page document reciting a PCs background. And once ran an adventure where a player decided to talk in character for 24 hours … much to the despair of all friends gathered around the table.

Years of RPG campaigning has privileged me a position to witness players growing up alongside their favourite PCs. From their first foray into the game as they fumbled with dice and the cryptic language of rule books, to watching them evolve and subsume themselves in their character; until one fateful adventure they dare tell the almighty DM: “my PC would never do that!”

Writers and DMs alike should admire these players for they have walked the distance in their characters shoes.

At first glance RPGs appear a frivolous pastime compared to writing; but RPG players inhabit a character in a more visceral and public manner than most writers would ever dare. Writers may explicitly know all about character creation, but would they be willing to try those precious characters out before a room full of impertinent peers? Insecure in the knowledge the DM is a pig of a sadist who could kill them off without even a whiff of foreshadowing?

Have any of your characters made the transition from character sheet to the written page? And how did you both fare in the process?

  1. May 7, 2011 7:43 am

    First off Jason, I want to thank you for this article. I have taken characters from my role playing days and turned them into Characters on the written page. Devon and Jessie, my space trading duo, from “Of Panties and Pirates” and “The Eye Candy Also Flies” (available to read at are two characters I developed while playing GURPS.

    GURPS, for those who do not know, stands for Generic Universal RolePlaying System, and was developed by my favorite game designer, Steve Jackson. Check it out if you are into role playing and want something beyond elves and swords and the like. It’s a blast. I played lots of it in College.

    Devon and Jessie were bit players in a space campaign I designed many moons ago. They were basically supposed to be cannon fodder, their deaths spurring the Players into action against a band of bloodthirsty space pirates. Now, thanks to the character development of GURPS, they are fully fleshed out members of their own stories.

    I haven’t used the character sheets and dice in a very long time, but now I think I’ll dig them all out again and roll up some new characters.


  2. May 7, 2011 9:52 pm

    I agree wholeheartedly and transfer many of my characters to and from storyies and RPGs for character development purposes. I don’t do tabletop any more (not due to a lack of want, mind you), but I run some of them through Play-By-Post collaborative writing forum RPGs both for the love of the games themselves and to see how my “fish” act in someone else’s pond.

    My love for tabletop came in handy during this past Script Frenzy where I wrote a romantic comedy centered around tabletop gaming.the character’s own alter egos drawn straight from my own character sheet pile and the lands they roamed places I made up when DMing.

    I found it completely amazing how just a glance at a character sheet brought back so many memories of specific adventures, one-liners, and fully fleshed out characters I had created. So many of these 20-year old sheets have seen the inside of my scanner within the past few months, adventurers bold and brave who have not been dead, but sleeping, ready to sally forth each with their own strengths and quirks, into a bold new adventure together, unaware that the dice have been silent for so long.

  3. May 8, 2011 6:48 am

    OMG!! I remember those character sheets.. I still have some of my original ones too.. ( eeekkk… or should I say GEEEEEEK)

  4. Jason Coggins permalink
    May 9, 2011 2:19 am

    @ Chris C: Steve Jackson does indeed rule. “Car Wars” is evidence enough to justify that statement. I intend to check out Devon & Jessie’s stories … because of the GURPS link and awesome titles!

    @ Chris T: The character sheet is a poignant relic of adventures gone by. I must admit to getting misty-eyed whilst searching for images to insert into this post and thinking of the paper trail I left from now stretching back to my school days.

    @ Annie: I suspect Captain Juan would translate nicely to the above character sheet. Perhaps you should try it!

  5. May 10, 2011 5:24 am

    Yes. You’ve read Xan, haven’t you? Okay so he wasn’t a D&D character but he did start out in a hokey RPG. That’s all I’m saying. 😉

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