Writers & Roleplayers : The Benefits of Collaborative Storytelling

I mentioned in my introduction that roleplaying, or any form of collaborative storytelling, often gets a lot of flack from the writing community. I’ve seen it painted as an exercise in infantilism that will hobble a writer’s ability by miring it into strict amateurism. That it’s a childish game at best, a crutch at worst.

Really, I find any writer taking a high horse on “playing pretend,” as so many are quick to call it, hilariously hypocritical. At the end of the day, every writer is just playing with dolls in a world of make-believe and transcribing the events. It doesn’t really matter if we fancy it up by calling the components “characters” and “setting.” It is what it is.

Sort of demystifies the whole process a little, doesn’t it?

That said, I don’t really see what’s so very different about inviting a friend and telling them to bring their dolls along so you can play together. There are a lot of benefits to adding another perspective to your writing; if there weren’t, there’d be no advice concerning beta-readers, critiques, or editors.

But what does bringing someone (or multiple people) along do to benefit your writing? Well, in no particular order, let’s begin.

  1. It gets you to write. A lot.

    I know I’ve already cited this, but it really bears specific explanation.

    I’ve been roleplaying for almost 15 years now. That is officially more than half of my life. And, in that time, I can safely say I have written thousands of pages.

    Yes, that’s right. Thousands. It might even be pushing into the tens of thousands, as a quick estimate gave me approximately 9,000 pages, and I was intentionally and seriously low-balling that number.

    So what. That’s about, 4.5 million words as rock-bottom estimate? Yeah. So the equivalent of 45 novels, if we’re counting 50k as a “novel.”

    I’m not saying this to brag. Not at all. I’d say almost every word of it was utter crap. Complete and almost wholly unusable shit.

    But here’s the thing. I’ve read more than one piece of advice that suggests you write anywhere between one and three novels and just… throw them out.

    Just toss them. Because your first ones are going to be bad, and you just need the practice.

    Now, I see where they’re coming from. Like any art form, writing needs to be practiced. It needs to be done over and over and over again, until your fingers bleed and you’re bleary-eyed. Then, do it again. And again.

    Most of that practice will be dross. That’s just how practice goes.

    … but doesn’t that just sound exhausting? They seem to be saying, all with such flippant ease:

    “Here, waste 3 months to a year or more of your life to write a story you bled your soul into, and then just chuck it! Because your so-called ‘heart and soul’ is unpolished tripe that no one cares about.”

    Wow. Not really encouraging, is it?

    But, just by pure accident, I did just that. More than that, actually, by quite a wide margin. I sat my ass down and put words on a page—thousands of them—and then just tossed them all out. I blazed forward. I tried things.

    And it was fun.

    See, roleplay is two things that solo writing is not: social, and a game. Which brings me to:

  2. It integrates your writing into your social life and encourages multitasking.

    Solo writing can be as exhausting as it is rewarding. Save a very few, most writers can’t really do much else while they do it. They can’t hang out with friends, they can’t do other hobbies. Their whole focus has to be on their craft.

    When you roleplay, you’re inherently doing something else as you write: you’re socializing! You’re hanging out with your friends, whether physically or digitally. It’s not uncommon for roleplay boards to have areas for “Out of Character” (or “OoC”) chatter, where the players can just hang out and talk while they’re waiting for their turn.

    Now, this might just be my own personal quirk, but the turn-style model of many freeform roleplays has always been incredible for my productivity. It would take ten or fifteen minutes to hammer out my part, and then I’d have to wait for my partner (or partners) to respond. That’d be at least ten or fifteen minutes while they typed up their replies.

    So, while I was waiting, I’d get up and clean. I’d do chores. As a teenager, I did my homework, or played a video game, or watched a show. Basically anything. Then, when it was my turn, I’d sit down, take ten minutes, and the process would repeat. The inherent start-stop of the format kept me engaged, but freed me up to do other things.

    Plus:

  3. It’s a game, so it’s more comfortable to experiment.

    For the most part, roleplaying is just for fun. There’s no grand plan to turn your words into something that’ll make you money. The pressure’s off to pick every word carefully, or make sure your voice isn’t passive, or it’s all original.

    So, you thought the plot device of a movie was cool? Sure, you’d probably feel uncertain to use it in a novel for fear of walking the line of plagiarism or just plain unoriginality in rehashing it.

    But in roleplay? Why not! Throw that device or plot into the mixing bowl and see how you and your partners’ characters react.

    The possibilities for experimentation are limitless because it feels less “serious.” It becomes an exercise on character reaction, of plot-building, of setting creation. There’s no reason to worry if someone will compare your work to [x] movie or [x] book, since you probably told your partners that you saw that movie or read that book and wanted to try it and they jumped on board.

    Things that would seem daunting on a solo project become much easier to handle, not only because the pressure is off to “do it right,” but you can bounce off your partners.

    Other people are great when you’re unsure or stuck, because:

  4. You’re exposed to other ideas, characters, and situations.

    Let’s face it: you’re only one person. You have your own biases, and your own experiences. Whether you like it or not, your writing is going to be limited by your own understanding.

    But when you have other people join in on the writing? You can be exposed to ideas or plots or character types that you would have never considered. You’re now forced to react to them and integrate that into your ongoing story.

    It’s amazing what that can do to flesh out your own ideas. When you’re confronted with questions you didn’t even know to ask, it can give you a significantly broader perspective. You can tackle a plot from an angle you didn’t even think was there.

    More than just that, your characters and ideas are put to the test as well. Does your charming character really come off as charming, or do they read more like they’re just posturing? Is there an obvious hole in your villain’s plan that can be easily exploited? Well, throwing other people into your writing process gives you:

  5. Instantaneous feedback.

    Playing with other people and their characters has given me some of the best and most precise feedback I’ve ever gotten. I get to know their reaction to a single moment, a single action, and how they’ve interpreted it. How someone might see it and respond.

    This micro-feedback is amazing for understanding how the subtle details of character interaction or text can affect a reading.

    It’s this sort of instant, ongoing, and focused feedback that has really let me hone my communication through body language. I was able to see how just an off-handed remark on how a character moved their hand was able to elicit a very specific emotion. If noted my character’s eyes wandered, I watched as my partners jumped to assume they were lying or hiding something. Just mentioning the posture of their spine could change the entire feeling of a line of dialogue.

    I was able to see if my snappy one-liners came off as clever or trite. I was able to see how my character’s actions were interpreted, and what part of the text carried the most weight.

    And man, if I ever put forward a plot, I was sure to see it torn to shreds. If there was a hole in my logic, a player would definitely point it out. The old DM saying of “no plot ever survives contact with the players” is definitely true, for better or worse.

    I’ve seen players get frustrated when their ideas weren’t taken the way they’d hoped, but I don’t think there’s any point to that. It’s an excellent exercise in learning to roll with changes in a story, and it helps to hone your abilities on how to lead your readers down the path you want them to take.

    You can learn the fine line between directing your readers and railroading them, because you can be sure your players will complain if they feel like they’re not allowed freedom. If you pay attention to what your partners are saying, you can walk away with a lot of critical feedback on whether or not you seem ham-fisted or unnatural in your scenarios or side characters.

    After all, adding that truly human element of, well, another human being does wonders for:

  6. Organic character development and interaction.

    Ever read a story where the train of dialogue seems too perfectly choreographed to get to the point? That sort of trap is easy to fall into when you’re basically talking to yourself. You know both halves of the conversation, and it’s easy to lead it forward.

    But when you’re writing with another person? All bets are off.

    Conversations between characters in roleplay are… well, just conversations. The two players are really just talking through the mouthpiece of their characters. It makes it so much more organic, rife with misunderstandings, failed starts, and small talk that just fades away.

    Does that mean reading a transcript of a roleplayed conversation is good reading? Hell no! One of the criticisms about roleplay is that it’s all mundane conversations and small talk, and there can be a certain truth to that with the wrong group of people.

    But here’s the thing: for a writer that’s paying attention, it’s a great way to learn how to organically move a conversation forward. It’s great to learn how small-talk can fizzle out between two characters if they ever want to write a potentially awkward scene. It lets a writer experiment with a very natural and organic flow that doesn’t have the choreographed overtones of dialogue written by just one person.

    Plus, the longer you write a character, the more things you have that character experience, the more likely you are to see their evolution. It makes tracking their history, and what has affected them, easier. It makes their situations and reactions all the more more surprising because you didn’t arrange them.

    And speaking of situations you didn’t arrange, sometimes a scene or a plot or an idea in a current roleplay requires a certain kind of character. One you’ve never played. But, someone needs to take up the reins.

    If you want to continue the game, it:

  7. Challenges your comfort zones.

    When I started roleplaying, I was your average kid: I wanted to write the Hero, who was Good and Just and kicked a lot of ass.

    Now, that’s all well and good, but most players want to write this character. It becomes rather difficult to write a story filled with the same sort of person, all jostling for the limelight.

    I wanted to be a team player, so I started picking up different characters as the story demanded. I wanted to give my friends’ Big and Brave characters a foil to show just how Big and Brave they were.

    So, rather accidentally, I started writing cowards.

    I started with one. And then two. And suddenly, I was writing a whole bunch of cowards. Why? Because I discovered they were incredibly fun. Not only did they provide a great foil for other characters, but they ended up as unexpected hinges of a plot and offered awesome character growth.

    Before I started writing them, I never realized how versatile a simple idea like “The Coward” could be. How much they could change in a story. Writing a character more likely to flee than fight really forced me to look at resolving scenes differently or other solutions to plots.

    It’s just one example, but had I not been pressed into playing a coward by the parameters of a scene, I likely would have completely missed out on one of my favorite archetypes.

So, it’s time for the big question: Is roleplay good writing?

Overall? No.

Freeform roleplay is full of repeated words and sentences and actions. It’s a lot of small talk and false starts. It’s overrun with overused ideas and half-formed characters.

But do you know what it is?

Great, encouraging, driven practice.

For any writer who is willing to learn, there is an absolute abundance of fantastic exercises to be found in roleplaying. Really, I don’t think any medium offers more and is more fun.

Yes, my focus during this article was mostly on written forms, but I feel a lot of this list can be applied to D&D, LARPing, or any other form of roleplay. At its core, roleplaying is telling a story. It’s getting into a character and learning how to react as they would. It might not offer the writing practice, but roleplaying in general certainly offers unparalleled storytelling practice.

Is it all sunshine and rainbows, full of great people who encourage your growth and practicing your craft? Of course not. But I can safely say, without roleplay I wouldn’t be half the writer I am today. Really, it’s not even about having good partners to bounce off of, but that certainly helped during my formative years.

It was a reason to get me to write, to try new things. I was constantly challenging myself to do better. To write a stronger character, to have a more foolproof plot. I saw what did and didn’t work, both in my own writing and the responses I received, and I learned from it.

If you’re serious about improving your craft, I simply can’t recommend freeform roleplaying highly enough. Have any writerly friends? Grab them and say, “Hey. That character of yours that’s my favorite? How about we throw them and the main character of my stalled novel into the world of Mad Max and see what happens?”

Yeah, it sounds ridiculous. But if that sorta sounds fun, try it. You won’t regret it. And maybe, just maybe, after you realize you’ve powered through a novel’s worth of utter unusable tripe that was a blast to write, you just might realize you’re a much stronger writer.

Maybe your novel won’t even be stalled anymore. Who knows until you try it.

Want more about Writers & Roleplayers? Check out my other articles:

  • A Little History: An introduction to roleplay, a little bit of where it comes from, and how I got into it myself.
  • Pitfalls, Hindrances, & Bad Habits: The dark side of roleplaying and its impact on writing.
  • Coming next week! The Dread Label “Mary Sue”: What it means, where it comes from, and if it has a place either in roleplaying or solo writing.
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4 thoughts on “Writers & Roleplayers : The Benefits of Collaborative Storytelling

  1. You know, I wanted to get into actual role playing, like for The New World of Darkness, and stuff along those lines but never did. But, you’re simply right. If anything, RPing allows you to train yourself and just write. No one’s there to judge if you got the prose perfectly, or if your grammar is top notch. So I think I’ll take up actual RPing, if only to write in a comfortable atmosphere and make new friends.

    Also, I never understood how people could think so poorly of RPing or even LARPing. I know I ‘LARP’ when I’m doing my action scenes to make sure this type of stuff is even possible.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re definitely not alone in LARPing scenes! I do it constantly myself, and I’m lucky to have a partner to do it with. It really gives you great personal experience and a foundation to describe it.

      I wish you a lot of luck in pursuing RP! I definitely have found a lot of value, and it certainly helps to connect with writing-minded people. I hope it serves you as well as it did me.

      Like

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