I’ve been doing role-playing games off and on since the mid-1970s, when I was first introduced to the concept of D&D style tabletop games. The group I gamed with wasn’t big on number-crunching and stats; we were more about the improvised story-telling. At least five of us ended up inventing and running our own gaming worlds; of those five, four eventually wrote and sold novels, and three of those four have had significant careers in writing and are still going strong.
Which is not to say that there’s a cause-and-effect relationship between running/playing RPGs and success in writing. Far from it – I’ve seen far too many hopeful gamers who think that what made for a wonderful adventure in their game will make an equally wonderful novel if they just write it up. It doesn’t work that way; the things that make for a wonderful and memorable game are just not the same as the things that make for a wonderful and memorable novel. There’s some overlap, but unfortunately not enough.
I will say, however, that I think that running my own invented-from-the-ground-up game did a lot for my writing. Not in any of the obvious ways that people like to leap to conclusions about – I’ve never used a storyline from any of the games I ran, for instance. But trying to make up a background and rules, and then watching my players twist it all to their advantage (and then desperately trying to twist it back) gave me a sense of the possibilities and alternatives that even the simplest decision could set in motion. And trying to keep on top of the player characters during a marathon session was really good practice for staying on top of the rickety heap of branching plotlines that tend to develop when I’m in the early stages of story construction.
But the thing that I personally found most useful about being gamesmistress (GM) was running all the non-player-characters. I thought of it as a bit like improvisational acting, with me having to do a varying number of sufficiently-different characters every session, depending on whether my players were in town dealing with local politics (lots of different non-player-characters [NPCs], each of whom had to have a different personality and agenda even if the players only talked to him/her for five or ten minutes out of a three-hour session), or chasing down an enchanted sword in the ruins far from civilization (usual NPCs limited to evil critters whose dialog and personalities could be summed up as “Aaaargh! Die!”).
When I started writing, I was lousy at giving characters actual personalities. Plots and twists, fine; characters, not so much. Fortunately for me (and my eventual readers), I started gaming when I was barely halfway through the first draft of Shadow Magic, my first novel. Having to act out different characters (starting with my own player characters in other people’s games) made the second half of the first draft much better in terms of characterization, and the second draft better still.
Years of observation have taught me that this is not so for everyone. I was lucky; the kind of game I was participating in was just what I needed to exercise a particularly weak set of skills, in just the right way for me. I’ve seen other writer-gamers rave about similar growth in other areas – worldbuilding being a prime one. The biggest successes seem to come in places that aren’t the point of the game – in things that support and add to the richness and fun of both the game and the books, but that aren’t actually the main thrust of the adventure.
I think that’s an important piece of why a great gaming episode usually doesn’t make for a terribly good story (not without a whole lot of writing and rewriting, anyway). All of the folks I know who have successfully turned a game into a novel or series of novels haven’t actually turned the game into a novel. They’ve taken their character and some favorite NPCs, the setting and history, some of the political situation, and maybe a few of the plot elements (though often not), and remixed them into a new story.
The other part of why great gaming episodes don’t make good novels has to do with pacing and focus. In a game, the focus is on having fun and leveling up your character, so even a totally irrelevant attack by wolves or bandits is interesting. In a book, those considerations are much less important. Yes, we want to watch the hero improve, but watching is much less fun than being part of the action. What I, as a reader, want is to see the hero move forward toward his plot goal; I don’t really care that much about his imaginary stats.
Similarly, I’ve had great gaming evening where the entire group basically sat around chatting with an interesting NPC. The adventure part didn’t get any farther along, but nobody cared because everyone was enjoying the banter. In a novel, that sort of scene can work IF there’s some heavy-duty characterization development going on, but if it’s nothing but witty banter, it’s going to have to be absolutely brilliant to keep a lot of readers from starting to skim.
To make those scenes work in a novel, they have to be made relevant to something besides fun and player stats, and that usually involves adding a lot of plot or character stuff that didn’t happen in the original game. This generally ends up being a lot more work than you might expect…which is why so few of the hopeful gamers actually produce a saleable story when they try to turn their games into books.
And you can’t trust most of your fellow gamers to be objective about a writeup. At best, most of them will love it simply because they were there, too. At worst, they’ll complain bitterly that you gave their character too little time on stage, that you left out all their clever dialog, and that you’re changing the game by putting in stuff that didn’t happen (which of course is what you have to do to make it work as a story).
Mining a game for writing can work…as long as one understands that it is work, and not a quick and easy road to success.