Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Role Playing Games Considered as a Creative Writing Course

My casual impression is that successful authors of fiction do not have a very high opinion of college creative writing courses. Quite a lot of them, however, seem to have developed their skills in the context of Dungeons and Dragons or similar games, as dungeon masters and/or players. A role playing game is, after all, an exercise in collaborative story telling. The things that make it work or not work are, to a considerable extent, the same as the things that make a novel work or not work. And, unlike a creative writing course, the participants are doing it because they want to, for the fun of it, not because someone else has told them that this is what they have to do to learn to write.

I was reminded of this observation recently by conversation in World of Warcraft in which a player was discussing with others his problems in writing. It was clear, in context, that the writing was neither a school assignment nor an attempt at a publishable novel or short story, but posts to one of the World of Warcraft forums. Such posts often take the form of fictionalized accounts of things that actually happened in the game. I will not be surprised to discover, ten or twenty years in the future, that some of the new generation of authors, especially fantasy authors, got their start there.

My own non-fiction writing largely developed during the years when I was producing a monthly column for The New Guard, a conservative student magazine on which I was the token libertarian columnist. There too, I was writing not as a school exercise but because I actually had things I wanted to say.

All of which fits into my general views on the advantages of unschooling, education that takes the form of doing things one wants to do, learning things one wants to learn, over the approach to education embedded in the conventional K-12 curriculum and many college courses.


Michael F. Martin said...

I think education has to be both differentiated and integrated. It's great to let kids explore what interests them, but to be relevant and impactful one has to learn also how to listen and (to some extent at least) conform one's expressions to the community to which one seeks to contribute. Order should be spontaneous, but it shold be order nonetheless.

The current educational system in the United States -- at all levels -- has little to recommend it. We need to attract a wider variety of people to the job of teaching. Although I'd be against drafting people into service, I wish social norms gave more veneration to the role of teachers in our culture.

David Friedman said...

"We need to attract a wider variety of people to the job of teaching. Although I'd be against drafting people into service, I wish social norms gave more veneration to the role of teachers in our culture."

I think it's already a pretty high status profession--how often have you seen anyone argue that the failures of our system are the fault of bad teachers?

What you need to get a wider variety isn't more status, it's fewer restrictions on who is allowed to teach. The current system has substantial entry barriers, which mean that it's largely limited to people who intend to make it a lifetime career. But lots of the interesting people who kids should be learning from are interesting in part because they are doing something with their lives other than teaching.

Michael F. Martin said...

Agreed on the barriers to entry. Same problem in law, especially specialty areas like patent law that don't need artificial barriers at all.

But there are some pointing to teachers as a problem with the system. I don't have a cite handy, but this was tv upshot of some recent remarks by Bill Gates.

Karl said...

I've observed that the skills required for writing a story are the same skills required for telling a joke. You have to include all the pertinent elements needed to set up the punch line, exclude all the unnecessary elements, and make sure the punch line actually arrives at the end of the story. And make it short enough so your audience doesn't get bored.

I recall a Candid Camera piece where people were told a joke, and filmed as they attempted to repeat it to someone else. They had lots of examples of what happens when these skills are lacking.

Anonymous said...

I recently encountered two contrasting examples of the RPG's-to-fiction link. One was a novel, Orcs, which seemed to me quite obviously an FRPG campaign written down, with close attention to the slaughter of hundreds of NPC's (and the occasional scratch or broken fingernail to a player character), a vague notion of a quest for which the answers keep dropping unaccountably into the protagonists' laps, and a supernatural, spectacular, but disappointingly meaningless denouement. It seemed to me to exemplify all the bad cliches of role-playing games.

The other was the short-lived TV series Firefly, of which some friends recently lent us the DVD's so we could finally see what everybody was talking about. This too felt very much like a role-playing game (specifically Traveller), with an opening episode that gathers the player characters from all walks of life and all character classes, and a few recurring NPC's (once you've invented a really interesting character, don't waste it by leaving him/her tens of light-years away). But it seemed like a game with heart, imagination, real moral dilemmas, etc.

I think many of the things that go into a good work of fiction are also those that go into a good role-playing campaign; see The Hero with the Thousand Faces for some of the patterns.

Anonymous said...

Out of curiosity, why is unschooling K-12, rather than just always? There seem to be lots of articles about how unschooled kids make excellent college students, but I (as an outside observer) wonder why the same students (or their parents) opt for formalized study after years of avoiding it.

David Friedman said...

"Out of curiosity, why is unschooling K-12, rather than just always? "

I think the unschooling approach can and should continue beyond K-12. As it happens, I've taught at the graduate level at top schools in two fields, law and econ, in neither of which I ever took a course for credit.

But beyond high school age, there are advantages to also taking courses, because the people teaching them are likely to know much more than high school teachers--and much more than parents. In addition, college functions as an environment where bright kids can get to know lots of other bright kids of about the same age.

Anonymous said...

Role-playing games have contributed a lot to my education in history. Way back in the 1970s, when I was playing Dungeons and Dragons out of the little tan books, I became curious about what things cost and how prices of equipment were figured, and so I started reading medieval economic history. And from that I began to gain a notion of what real medieval economies were like. And that led me on to history of science, history of technology, economic history generally, legal history, and military history . . . and the sort of general history that tries to take all those into account. I've done even more of it since I started writing books for Steve Jackson Games; my current work on GURPS Low-Tech has had me reading recent historical studies of catapults, warhorses, boats, non-Western firearms, camels, and several other topics. I like to think I've gotten a better sense for how differently historical societies worked. . . .

David Friedman said...

"Role-playing games have contributed a lot to my education in history. Way back in the 1970s, when I was playing Dungeons and Dragons out of the little tan books..."

In which books gold was worth ten times as much as silver, and electrum ten times as much as gold. I did very little D&D, but I did consider the possibility of a dwarven character with a safe cave somewhere who bought silver and gold, sold electrum, and got very, very rich.

On the subject of catapults ... . In writing Harald, my one published novel, I did a good deal of research on trebuchets. But I ended up cheating--having the trebuchet at one critical point throwing about 20% farther than I had good reason to think it could--because it was needed for plot reasons. I doubt anyone but me noticed.

Which reminded me of a comment by a very good DM I knew, now no longer alive: Never let a bad die roll ruin a good plot.

Anonymous said...

When I was in elementary school, the librarian noticed I was checking out a substantial amount of fiction, and non-fiction books about WW2. She decided she needed to step in and broaden my reading by refusing to allow any books in this category. I know I checked out other books after being informed of her decision, but to this day, I can't remember anything about these books.

I think your impression fits and should be an important consideration by those that teach.

Anonymous said...

Can you recommend any particular books or Web sites for information on trebuchets? I've read Mark Denny's Ingenium, which has a very nice chapter on the trebuchet, but it's mostly modeling rather than historical data. I haven't found anything that compares to E. W. Marsden's two volumes on Greek and Roman catapults (which include complete translations of the surviving technical manuals) or Tracey Rihll's more recent Catapult (which I learned about from Ken MacLeod). I'm turning in the first draft in nine days, but if I learn anything that changes my conclusions I can fit it into the final draft later this year.

John Fast said...

David: In original D&D, electrum wasn't worth ten times the value of gold; it was worth "either twice or half" as much as gold.

Of course as soon as I realized that electrum was a real metal (as opposed to mithril or adamantite or orichalcum), I found out what electrum was, and so it was obviously worth half the value of gold.

William H Stoddard: I've been trying to get back in touch with you for over five years.

Anonymous said...

My casual impression differs from yours. Years ago I enrolled in 3, maybe 4, creative writing courses at the University, not because I had to, I was employed full-time at the time, but because I wanted people to have to read what I wrote, which is what a fiction workshop guarantees one. And to a lesser extent I wanted to critically read what other young writers wrote. One thing is for sure, tho, one does not learn how to write in a college writing course, at least a fiction course, one learns craft. No one can teach someone how to write good fiction. Learning the craft and then practicing it is the only way I know to learn to write. A helping of raw talent doesn't hurt either.

And I can think of a number of successful fiction authors who had their beginnings in college fiction workshops. One of my favorites, T.C. Boyle, for instance, was a product of the Iowa creative writing program. He and others I have in mind are, however, writers of literary fiction, not science fiction.

David Friedman said...

On the subject of writing workshops ... .

My impression is that many professional authors have a high opinion of certain writing workshops. But those workshops, at least the ones I know of, are not college courses. They are workshops organized at colleges to which people who are not students in the college come for a month or so in the summer.

Cole said...

One of the reasons I got involved in role-playing games was the creative aspect of the sessions. I felt like there was a reason for me to express my ideas to others during the games.