Inspiration from Other Sources: RPGs

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A few times I and my friend Serdar have discussed how we take inspiration for our writing from sources other than writing. Serdar often takes inspiration from music, I get inspiration from management processes, and so on. Lately I had a strange and interesting inspiration I wanted to share.

Role-playing games – but probably not in the way you suspect.

I began studying RPGs in depth lately for two reasons – first, to study them for my related works, and as I’d taken an interest in trying some game design. Pleasantly, I found inspiration for my fiction writing efforts as well, and I wanted to share my insights.

RPGs are sort of storytelling games – I say sort of because some games or groups have different preferences, such as having more of a tactical military game. But, overall, RPGs tell stories and many game systems in the last two decades or so have been storytelling focused, such as FATE, Cortex, or Forged In The Dark.

You have to turn writing into rules, make rules support story. Just a few examples from my latest studies and past experiences:

  • FATE literally makes character traits part of the game. You define Aspects, vital character traits, that could be everything from “Magical Powers” to “Really awful manners.” That made me think of how many times we don’t think about “what stands out with a character.”
  • The Forged In The Dark games constantly emphasize cause and effect and results and impacts. It’s meant to construct stories (and surprise players and GMs) and keep up a pace, and is a good example of interesting engagement with the story.
  • Among the FitD game, Scum and Villainy, their “Firefly-but-not” game system has various well-realized space western/space rouge archetypes that help me see how you can view archetypes. Probably my favorite is the Scoundrel (aka Not Han Solo But Is) who’s abilities include things like being able to do dangerous things and get special “gambits” to allow them to take more foolish risks. It’s a great example of turning concept into rules – and thinking about concepts.
  • The punishing CRPG Darkest Dungeon added intense psychology and madness rules, which meant generic characters quickly evolved personalities. Sure they were mechanics, but they added the feel of a story and a drama, a reminder of how such things should have impact in a tale.

Of course, as I write this I can see great lessons from older games:

  • Champions, that famous formative Superhero RPG made disadvantages and backstories part of the game. It made you think about characters, and almost forced characterization even if you tried to avoid it (hard to avoid your tendency to go berserk around blood).
  • Villains and Vigilantes, another venerable game, had the concept of points you used to invent things or solve problems – basically you had Brilliant Ideas you could spend. A good reminder of how characters have inspirations, suddenly turn the plot around, etc. – as a rule.
  • The venerable and abused Character Class idea is a good reminder about making characters distinct. From early D&D to the wild classes of Apocalypse World are reminders of how different is interesting.

I could probably make enormous lists of these – and I may if I can find a non-boring way to do it. Either way, that’s one of my latest inspirations – RPGs. If you’re looking for some new ideas or to think over your writing, maybe a break to play a game or at least examine one might unlock some ideas.

I’d love to hear your insights.

Steven Savage