In an issue of the Twilight Time Zine, I gave a list of writing books that would be helpful to game masters, some of the reasons why, and the titles, authors, and ISBN numbers. Here, for people who would like some easy links to follow, is the list again–with purchase links for Amazon.
I admit it–I’m addicted to writing books. Not because I think they contain the secrets of the universe. Not because I think they’ll magically turn me into a great writer. And not because I’m insane.
Well, maybe because I’m insane.
Mostly, though, I just find them fascinating. I love seeing all of the different ways in which different writers approach their craft. I love weighing the ideas and seeing what I think of them. I simply enjoy reading them.
Most people either love or hate writing books–they either see them as wonderful or useless. I think they’re potentially pretty useful, as long as you use them in certain ways. (We got a whole article once out of the pros and cons of using writing books.) You never want to read writing books as a way to procrastinate from doing actual writing, and you never want to trick yourself into thinking you can learn everything you need to know from books. But within those boundaries, there are books that can teach you a great deal.
Sometimes I even find things that I think apply pretty well to creating RPG plots, characters, and ideas. So in today’s article I’m going to tell you about some nifty writing books and explain how they might just help your game.
Writers’ Books For Roleplaying Game Adventure And Plot Creation
No More Rejections
Just this morning I started reading a book called “No More Rejections: 50 secrets to writing a manuscript that sells,” by Alice Orr. I know, it sounds horribly gimmicky. I think I got it mostly because I’ve never read one of these “secrets to getting published” books before (I prefer books on craft, creativity, and technique) and I was kind of curious.
As it turns out, it’s mostly a book on craft, creativity, and technique, so I’m glad I got it after all. It’s just written from the perspective of “what is your editor looking for?” and “how can you avoid screwing over your chances of getting published?” Because much of this boils down to “how can you make your story coherent and interesting?”, some of it can definitely apply to tabletop roleplaying game (RPG) material. Use it to help you find holes in your plots, and to help you tighten up all those stray bits of material that tend to get frayed around the edges.
One of my favorite bits with respect to RPGs is a list of dramatic themes that serve as sources of conflict. These include betrayal, duty, cowardice, obsession, loss, devotion, hatred, disgrace, and revenge, among others. I think that if you were strapped for plot ideas you could easily run down the list and find something you could build on. I think you could also find out whether your latest plot was likely to have at least some emotional spark to it by running down the list and making sure one of the traits on it was present.
Nancy Kress is absolutely amazing when it comes to writing advice. Her book “Dynamic Characters: how to create personalities that keep readers captivated” is so popular that it’s often difficult to find. If you can find a copy, however, it’s well worth the purchase. Not only does it have plenty of information on creating vivid and interesting characters, but it also has the most complete “character dossier” of questions I’ve ever seen. Kress also has a great sense of humor that keeps this book from being dry and boring.
Breathing Life Into Characters
Although I think that by and large Kress’ book is better, Rachel Ballon’s “Breathing Life into Your Characters: how to give your characters emotional and psychological depth” is probably more easily applied to roleplaying material–and it’s certainly easier to find in a bookstore! It delves into fewer of the broader writing issues than Kress’ book does, concentrating more on the psychology of your characters.
Ballan is a psychotherapist, and her approach is to have you delve into your own memories and psyche to help you better understand yourself–the better to understand your characters. One of my favorite bits of advice from her book is this:
Don’t ever say, ‘My character would never steal,’ or ‘My character would never cheat.’ Given enough desperation and faced with a harsh enough environment, your character can be motivated to steal, lie, cheat, or even die for something she wants or needs.
“Breathing Life into Your Characters” could help any GM to create better, more “real” non-player characters (NPCs). It could also help you to better figure out how to create moving, personalized plots for the player characters (PCs)!
A Bit of Inspiration
Sometimes, in the middle of a game, you need a bit of inspiration. In other articles I’ve suggested doing things like pulling out a tarot card and seeing where it takes you. You can also use this same method to help you come up with yet another new and interesting NPC or plot point. Now I have four places you can take inspiration from that aren’t tarot decks:
“The Pocket Muse” by Monica Wood
While sadly these bits of inspiration do not come on cards that you can shuffle, they are arranged similarly on the pages of the book. So you can open to a random page and see what comes up.
“Inner Outings” by Charlene Geiss and Claudia Jessup
These colorful, huge cards contain very simple phrases and words on them. Shuffle them, pull one out, and see how it inspires you.
“The Observation Deck” by Naomi Epel
Some of these cards are meant for content inspiration; many present ways to approach your writing. Use the former while coming up with ideas or running your game, and use the latter while coming up with plots, adventures, and characters.
“The Writer’s Block” by Jason Rekulak
This one boasts 786 bits of inspiration for your writing! Some of them apply specifically to writing (little tidbits about what has or hasn’t worked for or happened to other writers), but most of them are usable for RPG-work as well (photos, phrases, single words).
Almost any creativity book (particularly those with prompts and exercises) can help you to come up with ideas. Here are a couple of my favorites:
“Pencil Dancing: new ways to free your creative spirit” by Mari Messer
This one is a broadly-applicable creativity book meant for anyone, not just writers. The exercises get a bit silly, but that’s kind of the point–it’s meant to force you to set aside the inner critic that’s telling you your ideas are silly so that you can more freely use your creativity.
“The Writer’s Idea Book” by Jack Heffron
This book contains a gazillion prompts, but they aren’t really of the type that’s useful for pulling out in the middle of a game. They’re specifically meant to help you learn to pull ideas out of everyday life, so they’d be best for a game set in the modern world, or for a game with very personal-level plots. You could also use them to help you come up with the mundane details of your NPCs’ lives.
Getting the Most Out of Ideas
Heffron’s “The Writer’s Idea Workshop” is a sequel to the idea book, meant to help you take those ideas from rough nugget to polished finished product. As with book suggestion #1, this means that a number of the suggestions won’t apply to your roleplaying game. However, many of them will. This book will help you to figure out which ideas will work, which won’t, and how to get the most out of them. If you’re truly interested in turning a mediocre or good roleplaying game into a great game, I think this book could do a lot of good.
“The Writer’s Idea Workshop” Jack Heffron
If you’re looking for a change, or a new way to gain inspiration, rejuvenate your sessions, or improve your NPCs and plots, one or more of these books may be able to help you. If you enjoy writing, then why not go for a book that will multitask? Enjoy!