Sunday, January 04, 2009

Game Masters Should Also Be Writers

One of my more peculiar beliefs is that all game masters who possess the time and interest should also be writers. This is based entirely on my own idiosyncratic personal experience, and may very well not be universally applicable. But it's kept me out of trouble, and done a fair amount of good for my players, so I feel confident in recommending the practice.

It doesn't even have to be good writing. It may help if it's not. I've written two and a half novels, a play, and a novella, all spectacularly bad. That hasn't stopped me from getting a good deal of benefit out of them, both the practice of writing and the artifacts themselves.

In the first place, it encourages a creative habit. Not particularly necessary for an experienced game master, but it does a novice good. My first campaign was loosely based on the first (and most dramatically terrible) novella I wrote, and having that grounding of ideas on which to base a campaign made that early campaign much more successful than its inspiration. And my habits of thinking about stories and places and ideas for a long time, being used to doing "work," alone, as a source of entertainment, and writing down ideas as they came to me or as I stole them all started with writing, and all were handy as a game master.

It's not just being a former writer that's a benefit. Knowing that if an ideas proves to be unworkable for a game, I can just repurpose it for a story or something, keeps me focused on the table, and on ideas that make sense there. Likewise, there are certain things I'm uniquely terrible at writing about, but still call to me -- things involving guns and explosions, mostly. So action and adventure go in the gaming bin, and anything philosophical or sociological, (I read too much Heinlein as a kid, but I'm trying to kick the habit) focused on particular moments of emotion or decision, or that comes with anything resembling a plot goes in the writing bin. It also keeps me from getting too wrapped up in theme, though I'm starting to come around to the idea that there is a place for such things in a game. A decorative place, sure, but a place.

Most importantly, writing makes me appreciate just how easy running a game is. Running a game comes with a source of ready made ideas and information in the rules and whatever setting is implied or described by them, frequent but small deadlines, and a gang of happy, crazy people with ideas of their own and responses to mine. I have much more control over the finished product when I write, but that also means I have a lot more work to do. Writing is sometimes frustrating, often time consuming, and often hard -- and game mastering is, too. But compared to writing, it's a dream.


  1. I agree. However, I wonder just how terrible your writing could really be. If there's one thing I know about dungeon masters is how unnecessarily down on themselves most are ;)

  2. Nifty topic. I find it near to my own heart, given that my blog is founded entirely on the idea that writers could learn to hone their craft by running games, and that I may as well help them with the skills that work for both whenever I can.

    Though I'm inclined to argue with your assessment that running games is easier than writing. Once an idea's made its way to the top of my mind, it'll just flow; while the characters I write do have minds of their own, I don't have to worry about them not understanding how the world works despite my being sure I'd explained it, ditching in the middle of a scene they're vital to for reasons that don't really fit in character, engaging in munchkinry.... and I know what plots will hook them. Writer's block is nothing when it comes to the cat-herding it takes to get PCs to agree on things.

    So do you suppose the "easiest" thing is whatever was being done first?

  3. Gaming is what got me into writing in the first place. It all started with the single idea of "Hey, this stuff is pretty good, someone should be writing this down..."

    So I did. That was over 20 years ago and I think I still have that beat up 3-ring binder somewhere.

    I do find that writing and running a game on a forum is far easier for me than running a live tabletop game. I'm not really good at plot, so planning a whole game out from beginning to end in advance is a struggle. I do much better on the fly, watching what the players do and coming up with ways to their gaming experience that way.

  4. I've found I don't have the discipline to be a professional writer, so GMing lets me do the fun part of the job, and get almost-immediate feedback on my ideas.

  5. Wyatt: I dunno, no one who asks to read them gets past the first couple of chapters. They're not internet fiction bad, on a mechanical level they're fairly decent, but I have this problem with plot . . .

    Ravyn: Ah, a too-hasty generalization on my part. It's easier for me, but writing has always come slowly, at least the variety involving stories -- and I've gotten lucky with my player selection, which makes everything a lot easier. Even with that, they're both tremendously difficult tasks, and it's a wonder that as many people take them up as they do.

    vegaspen: I like to make everything up on the fly, when I can get away with it, even when I'm running at the table. Can't stand plots. But my players are fairly tolerant about me taking five minutes to get a drink and think about how I'm going to respond to the latest dang fool plan they've come up with. And I've long been curious about 'net gaming because it would make that, and world building on the fly, easier.

    Anar_Kyst: I've been so much better off since I decided I didn't need to make a living off of writing to be a writer. Sure, it sounds cool, but it's not for me.