Published on 5/15/2015 Written by 8 comments

How Role-Playing Games Make You a Better Writer

It's probably not the reason you're thinking.

Full disclosure: My debut novel is now available as an eBook on Amazon. The following is a description of a gaming trick that worked for me, that helped me to develop better stories. You may not find the same thing to be true, and you may completely disagree with me and think I'm full of shit. That's okay. I respect your right to be wrong.

When most young writers start playing role-playing games, especially Game-Mastering, they fall into a very common trap (I know I did) - they write their story and expect the other players/PCs to follow through it. The would-be writer doesn't want the players to be active members of the narrative - they want the party to stumble through his detailed adventure/novel, hitting HIS beats and telling the stories the way HE wants them told.

How do you know your GM is one of those who just runs you through the script of his novels? The following are pretty obvious tells:

"You can't do that!"

"You're not supposed to do it that way!"

"That's not what I had planned!"

I know I've probably said all of those things at one point or another (though hopefully not recently). They are not really the sign of someone who didn't prepare enough so much as somehow who prepared too much - and really wants to make certain he gets all his shit in.

So yeah, you can write a novel, plop your players into it and slog through it, but that doesn't make you a better writer, and makes you a downright shitty GM. So what the hell am I talking about?

For reference, this is too many notes for your novel OR your D&D adventure.
The best part of any role-playing game is the unexpected part(s). The players will come up with stuff you didn't plan for, and you often have to improvise to keep the story going. One of the players kills the big villain in cold blood half-way through the adventure. One of the player characters kills another player character out of the blue but actually makes perfect sense in retrospect. One of the players randomly declares he's another character's brother, even though (unbeknownst to the player), the character is a Cylon. Someone says something really stupid. These create wrinkles that make the game memorable. These are the moments you talk about for years to come, especially if you work them into the mythos of the campaign and they become canon.

You know what are also the best parts of many works of fiction? The unexpected parts. So many books, especially genre fiction, are pretty paint-by-numbers, and you can see every twist and turn of the plot coming a mile away. When something surprises you, hits you right in the feels, it makes that memorable mark on you the same way a surprise moment in a game does.

Bit of advice: Don't surprise a wookiee during a game of Monopoly.
Take for instance A Game of Thrones (I hear it's pretty popular these days). At the end of the book *SPOILER* a major character dies rather suddenly and unexpectedly (though upon further re-reads he totally deserves it). It was a defining moment in the series that sets it apart from other fantasy series: anything can and will happen in these books.

You know how that scene played out in Martin's D&D game the night before he wrote it?

Player One (playing Ned): Okay, so we've got a plan? I'm going to go to the Wall, raise an army, then come back to protect King's Landing.

Player Two (playing Cersei): Perfect! I'll hold down the fort and stir up distrust against the Targaryans. We want the people on our side when the bitch with the dragons comes back. 

Player Three (playing Joffrey): OFF WITH HIS HEAD!


Player Three: I'm the king now. I can do whatever the hell I want!

Player One: But you... but we... 

Martin (as Game Master): *rolls* He makes his command check. The headsman nods and attacks Ned with Ice, which is +4 to hit and automatically decapitates on a 19 or better... *rolls* NATURAL TWENTY!

Player One: FUCK! I was level 12, you fucking bastard!

You know that's exactly how it went down.

Pictured: Your little brother's character in like, every game. Ever.
Those are the kinds of moments you want to embrace. Those are the feelings of shock, awe and wonder you want in your writing. You don't necessarily have to kill off characters to get it (though that is the quick and easy way). But don't be afraid to add weird, interesting things for the sake of throwing in weird and interesting things.

Some people plot their novels to death, outlining every scene, every line in advance so they know exactly what will happen. This certainly has a place, but you also need to have room to explore and be creative and let unexpected things happen.

There are lots of weird things in my book, Ten Thousand Days. It starts off (after the prologue, anyway) as a very normal, real-world story. There's a few brief flutters of oddness but it stays fairly grounded until the weirdness grows more and more frequent. At the half-way mark reality goes out the window and we enter completely into a surreal fantasy world. Some of the oddness in the first part foreshadows this, some of is doesn't. There are a lot of odd goings-on in the second half that I throw out there but never really explain, and that was very much on purpose. The main character doesn't understand what's going on around him, and neither should the reader. They should experience the same unnerving sense of wrongness as our hero. When he does find something that makes sense that he can latch onto, it becomes important to him and he needs this thread of reality to keep him going, so I explain it more for the reader as well.

Basically he has his quest/adventure laid out, but there are lots of bits of set dressing thrown on top. This is the same as the fluff the GM adds to his game, or the stupid shit the players make up to entertain themselves. It doesn't always make sense right away, but it becomes part of your world and if you embrace it, it creates the best memories.

How do role-playing games affect your writing? Or your enjoyment in reading, for that matter? Do you read books and watch movies and automatically view them through the filter of an RPG?

My debut novel, Ten Thousand Days, is now available as an eBook on Amazon sites worldwide as well as Kobobooks.
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Published on 3/29/2015 Written by 7 comments

Steal this New Map

After watching these videos , I started playing around and drawing up some topographical maps in photoshop. They aren't my typical style, but I think my first effort turned out pretty decent.

So, here you go. Key up this map and use it for your game. The only thing I ask is that if you post it on your blog/Twitter/Google+/Facebook that you link back to here, or my Twitter, my Google+, or my Facebook page. Have fun.


The picture is quite large, so don't forget to zoom in to see the details.
Several people have inquired whether they could my maps in their commercial (for profit) projects. The answer is: No, you cannot use these maps for any commercial project. Read the creative commons copyright below.

But, if you are a DIY RPG person, with little to no money, and really want to use one of the maps for something that you're working on, that might earn you a bit of money, let me know. We can talk, and if I like your thing, I will most likely let you use my maps for free.

  Creative Commons License This work by John Williams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada License
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Published on 1/30/2015 Written by 2 comments

Time Keeps On Slippin' Slippin' Slippin'...

Anyone who is a regular reader of this blog (there are at least 2 or 3 of you, right??) will notice a distinct lack of posts over the last 3 months or so.  If I were getting paid for this, I'm sure I would have been fired by now.  Between the holidays, work, and some other hobbies, I haven't had time to write.  In fact I haven't even had time to play any games.  So this brings up the point of this post: How do you find time to play?

A couple of posts ago I talked about my new PBEM game.  It fell apart soon after that post.  I take a
huge part of the blame for it, as I  tried to build intrigue and world events before I built any reason for the players to care for their characters.  I also didn't introduce the combat mechanics soon enough, so I think the players weren't sure how to react to events as they didn't know how easily they could die.  Beyond these issues though, was also just a lack of time on everyone's part.  At first everyone posted a response once a day, or occasionally within 48 hours.  By the time I gave up, I was getting one or two responses a week.  I may try again with a simplified introduction in a little while.
In my board-game group things have fallen apart as well.  Other than the wedding I posted about here, there has only been 1 or 2 get togethers of that group, and I missed them due to work.  Actually, thinking about it, work has been the reason I've missed a lot of social engagements lately.  I'm at work right now, typing up this post... (don't tell da boss!).

Even my online RPG dates have fallen by the wayside.  To paraphrase quote another of our players / GM's:

How it feels trying to organize
a game night.
"I want to play a game but honestly I don't even have the time to organize it. If someone else can herd people to a time and place, then I will do my best to be there. ... If we don't have a regular schedule, someone needs to be the cheerleader to organize the game. ... I don't know if I have the drive to overcome the inertia to say 'so when are we playing?' every two or three weeks. Please, someone else take over that responsibility."

As much as we all want to play, none of us has stepped up to organize it yet, and I think it's because we're all just as busy. 

So here's the question of the day: How do YOU make time for gaming?  Do you have a regularly scheduled session? Is there a single person who is the driving force?  Do you cut something else out of your life to fit it in?

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Published on 1/09/2015 Written by 2 comments

Touching Can Also Be Funny.

Hmmm, that title doesn't quite sound right.  Oh well.
     Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending the wedding of Alex and Emily, two of the people in my current table top gaming group.  They play with us a lot less often than I'd like, but that's only because they currently live in the UK and can only play when they come back to Canada for a visit. Ironically, the first visit back from England that we played at, they introduced us to Great Fire of London:1666.  At the wedding, another from our group, the brilliant Kathryn K gave one of the most impressive wedding speeches I've ever heard.  Here it is in all of its unabashed glory:

Kathryn and the Astronaut
"Friends and family, 3 years ago I met Alex and Emily working at St. Michael's College School and it was the greatest things about working there.... that and meeting Chris Hadfield, that was pretty great- Alex and Emily are a very close second to Chris Hadfield.
            They've asked me to say something today and I'm honoured to do so but I think is a real roll of the dice, they're playing with fire asking me to do this, but Alex and Emily have always enjoyed playing games and make a great team.
      Im so pleased youve decided to play The Game of Life together, I know it will only be one of many games you will play. Alex you have a Monopoly over Emilys heart, as Emily, you rule Dominion over his. Marriage is a Risk: Keeping your partner happy can be a delicate Operation, but it is also a Candy Land of opportunity. Don't let any of the Ghost Stories people tell about marriage scare you,  although marriage does take work. You must learn to say youre Sorry when you get into Trouble, let nothing become Taboo and love each others little Qwirkles. Stepping through the Portal into married life, it brings with it a kind of Evolution. From this point onward you will share everything. What is mine will be yours, and what is yours will be Mine. Craft your relationship so that none may shake it, and when you have no Clue what to do, Diplomacy will be the answer. Let commitment, compassion and a sense of adventure be your Ticket to Ride wherever life may take you.
Photo by Jennifer Xu Photography
            You will not be alone in this- We are all here for you.   To all those here today. This is a moment of Magic. The Gathering of this group of family and friends has the power to do wonderful things. This is a Smash Up of so many different ideals and experiences that together we have everything it takes to support Alex and Emily on their Journey. We must offer no Resistance, but instead give our unwavering support for their goals, and Guess Who is going to be there on the darker days when a Gloom falls. And if they should decide to add their own little Munchkin to the world, it will be welcome into the hearts of everyone present here today. Wherever you two find yourself in this Small WorldPuerto Rico, Waterdeep or in grand Citadels, you will always have friends near.
            Alex and Emily have custom made each other's rings, may they be a Talisman of their love for each other. May each one of us Scrabble to be the first by their side in times of need and celebration. And may I be only one of many to tell you both how happy am I for you, how much I love you both and what a wonderful team you make... Settlers of Catan."
Alex & Emily. Photo by Jennifer Xu Photography

As you can guess, we were all in stitches by the end of this.  So this post is dedicated to Alex and Emily, and brought to you by the letter K.
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Published on 12/17/2014 Written by 0 comments

Review: Silent Night, Darkest Night

"You know Dasher, and Dancer, and Prancer and Vixen. The other reindeer from that song have all been eaten, by Rudolph. This monstrous reindeer was made fun of when he was growing up, but then he kept growing, dwarfing the other reindeer by the time he was an adolescent. Their jibes about his size finally got to him, and he lashed out, killing at least three other reindeer before Santa was able to chase him away using his Christmas magic. Now Rudolph plots revenge against Santa, the elves, and the other reindeer, and he has been studying dark magics which make him more powerful than any reindeer before him. His nose now glows not with Christmas magic, but with seething hatred, and its red color is the product of the fresh blood which covers Rudolph’s face after feeding on the flesh of the living, which he must do every few hours in order to power his profane magic."
- From Silent Night, Darkest Night

In honour of the Holiday Season (the "Christmas" Season, for you non-PC types out there), I thought I should pick-up and discuss something appropriately festive. Normally I hate writing reviews, but this particular item caught my eye and I really wanted to check it out and share it with you. Not to mention all proceeds go to RPG Creators Relief Fund, so I get to cover my holiday-charity-guilt at the same time as coming up with some content. It's a win-win.

Fat Goblin Games' Silent Night, Darkest Night is my favourite type of book - one in which I can't tell if the creators are being serious or not. It's a short (28-pages including covers, intro, table of content, OGL, etc - so about 22 pages of actual content), mini-campaign guide to the denizens and locales of the "North Pole." It's the kind of thing I would slap together as a half-assed blog post for a joke, but the FGG guys put it together in a beautiful package with lovely illustrations and a nice layout (the holly/bloody parchment motif on each page is particularly choice).

It's designed for the Pathfinder system, but that means it's easily adaptable to any d20-based system. The stat blocks are standard and well laid out, and very visually similar to the stat blocks from D&D 4E. (I'm not super familiar with Pathfinder - is that a Pathfinder thing or unique to Fat Goblin Games?)

Anyway, the antognists are (mostly) all familiar, such as Abominable Snowmen, Cobbler Elves, Emperor Penguins(!), and Silver Bells (which are 7-foot tall violent metal flowers). There's also a tattooed sylphan gunslinger Mrs. Claus and Rudolph the Bloodthirty Megatherium, as well as the obligatory visit from Krampus.  Oh, and Santa Claus is a goat. (Apparently this is a thing)

There's also a couple of very nice North Pole maps, some arctic exploration equipment and a handful of appropriately themed magic items. While not particularly exciting in effect, just saying your character is wearing a Cloak of the Yeti and wielding a Mammoth Lance is pretty badass.

The best part, as I eluded to, is that everything is presented completely straight and serious. Even Jolakuttar the Festive Cat, who sneaks into villages to devour misbehaved children. You could play this material completely absurb and silly, or go balls to the wall creepy and dark in the other direction (because seriously, a 200-pound tabby that eats kids who don't make their beds is fucked up). Personally I would aim somewhere in the middle, skewing toward the absurd and occasionally swinging back to the dark just to keep people on their toes. But that's just me.

All in all, the folks at FGG put some love and care into a great little source book, especially one that is available for practically nothing (it's Pay-What-You-Want at RPGNow.com) - though again, anything you do pay goes directly to a good cause. Do yourself a favour and pick one up this Holiday Season. You might even bump yourself up a couple of spots on the Nice List.

I don't know if I'm going to have time to run a game over the holidays, but if I do I will definitely find some way to jam this material into it. Even if it's my dark modern zombie survival game.

And with that, Happy Holidays, everyone! Stay safe and enjoy your eggnog.
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