How Role Playing Games Can Enhance Your Writing Career

A guest post by Terry Ervin II.

It is often said, “Write what you know.” This can be a major hurdle for some writers. How do you convincingly write a knavish or vilely evil character in a novel if you’ve never acted in such a manner? (Okay, if you actively hang out on the darker side, pretend—or consider how you’d write a benevolent or ‘goodie two shoes’ character.) That’s where Role Playing Game (RPG) experience can benefit a writer.

Whether it’s space adventure (as in Traveller), sword and sorcery (as in AD&D) or even spy and espionage intrigue (as in Top Secret)—okay, as the reader you may be muttering, “Dude, those games are ancient—no, near Paleolithic.”

“Krug, Stegosaurus swipe tail. Roll three-side rock.”

“Krug, Stegosaurus swipe tail. Roll three-side rock.”

But those are examples of games that I cut my RPG teeth on several decades ago, and those helped form the foundation for my writing and storytelling ability (that and reading, of course). Even games like Diplomacy, Star Fleet Battles, King Maker, Axis & Allies, and yes, even Monopoly, can add a of variety strategic overviews that may benefit a writer.

As an RPGer, running (or playing) different types of characters in varied settings, one can come to recognize and appreciate the different goals, motivations, strengths and weaknesses of a variety of characters. An RPGer quickly comes to learn that the character they’re running is far more than the numerical statistics and the list of skills and abilities jotted down on a sheet of paper (or typed into a document or spread sheet).

And, as an aside, I’ve come across many writers, especially on forums, that create ‘Character Profiles’ listing physical description, educational background, likes and dislikes, family, friends, enemies, and much more. Still, they struggle to bring a character to life in the pages of their novels and short stories—no matter how detailed and comprehensive the character profile. That’s because what comprises a character is far more than categories, lists, and numbers.

Taking on the persona of an elven wizard leading a party into the depths of a necromancer-controlled forest or a green secret agent attempting to infiltrate a small-time black market organization are just two examples demonstrating the wide breadth of experience an RPGer can gain in taking on a character’s point of view, and working through an adventure—which is, in its essence, an evolving storyline. To be sure, the adventures are made up, including the actions, reactions and interactions based on the player’s and the game moderator’s (GM’s), and any other involved RPGer’s imagination, all within the rules of the game. But isn’t that the essence writing fiction?

One step beyond being a player (or participant) in an RPG is being a game moderator or game master. Not only must the GM play the part of multiple non player characters (NPCs), taking into account their personalities, goals, personal histories and experiences, among other things, but it’s the GM who constructs the world in which the participants play. How grand and detailed the world is can vary greatly. Nevertheless, the process has many elements in common with the world building aspect of writing fantasy (or science fiction) novels.

Created worlds incorporate social structures, including governments, laws, socio-economic configurations, social norms and taboos, competing cultures and subcultures, histories, technology, even varying races, religious beliefs and languages. In an RPG, much of the world is developed over time, and often only surface elements are scratched and understood by the players, just as it is for readers of a novel, where 90% (actually it’s 91.874% but Bevan told me to round it off) of the created world’s history and foundation are never directly observed, or even recognized, by the reader. Yet it’s there, forming the consistent backdrop for the events and action as the story unfolds.

To be sure, the breadth and depth of a world created and established for a novel varies, depending on the setting and genre, and the story to be told. For example, a contemporary murder mystery would require less ‘world building’ than a military science fiction novel set five centuries in the future.

Even so, a GM, like a writer, must keep track of all the moving parts. What ripple effects would the assassination of a beloved and respected prime minister, or a severe drought across a vital food-supplying nation, have upon the immediate region and surrounding societies.  How will people (characters) react, from powerful leaders down to the lowest of beggars?

Thus, not only would an experienced GM have a background in creating a variety of believable characters, but he would also have practice in creating believable societies, nations, worlds and even universes within the pages of a novel.

Beyond that, over time a GM becomes adept at description. Sights, sounds, smells, touch and occasionally taste are important. Just as players in an RPG must understand their surroundings and environment, the same must occur for the reader, all drawn from the words on the page (or tablet screen). An advantage a GM has over the average novelist is that players provide instant feedback, often through looks of confusion, immediate questions, or nods of understanding. Because of this, the ‘description’ learning curve can be shortened if a writer has GM experience.

Last, pacing is both important in an adventure created by a GM, and also throughout the storyline of a short story or novel. The main difference is that in an RPG adventure, players have greater influence on events and direction than do characters in a novel, where the writer has complete control. Still, like cross-training, skill in one lends itself to improved ability in the other.

So, while being an avid RPGer and/or an effective GM doesn’t guarantee the successful leap to writing fiction, it does enable the gamer to bring an established set of tools to the task.


Terry W. Ervin II is an English and science teacher who enjoys writing fantasy and science fiction. His First Civilization’s Legacy Series (fantasy), Crax War Chronicles (SF), and short story collection, Genre Shotgun, are available in print, ebook, and audiobook formats.

To contact Terry or learn more about his writing endeavors, and where his works are available, visit his website at www.ervin-author.com and his blog, Up Around the Corner, at uparoundthecorner.blogspot.com.


Robert Bevan is the author of the Caverns & Creatrures comedy/fantasy series of novels and short stories. Feel free to go like his Facebook page.