Posted in Tools & Techniques

What Nanowrimo Taught Me About Roleplaying

I participated in and completed Nanowrimo last year, for the fourth year running. I’ve learnt more and more from it each year, about myself, writing and even roleplaying and gamemastery. This time, there were some particularly useful things that I wanted to share. So, here’s what Nanowrimo taught me about roleplaying.

Be Willing to Let Go

I wrote a love interest into the story within the first few paragraphs. She and the main character connected a few chapters later and then agreed to meet up in two days. I spent the rest of my 50,000 words on the next day and never got to the point where they met up to continue that relationship. By the time I had done this, I realised that the relationship was interesting, but not as interesting as the rest of what I had written.

I had run out of time, so once I hit my word goal for the month, I summarised the rest of the scenes. I included scenes about the love interest, but I felt that in a rewrite, it might be best to just let her go, or maybe kill her off before the hero got a chance to know her better. Or perhaps meld her with one of enemies or in the story.

Sometimes when GMing you come up with an NPC or a city or some cool thing that you really love… and it falls flat. PCs ignore the city and don’t connect with the NPC. It happens. In cases like this, sometimes it’s best to just let it go. Don’t push them. Instead, just let the NPC or city or whatever quietly slip away.

Alternatively, you could twist it. If the NPC is being ignored or poorly treated by brash PCs with god-complexes, maybe they become a villain intent on putting the PCs in their place. The Incredibles is still one of my favourite examples of this, and its plot is easily tweaked to many different genres (particularly fantasy and sci-fi).

Improv Can Be Better than Prep

I prepped a basic outline of the story I had in my mind, but let the details fill themselves in as I wrote. In particular, there was a fae woman who I described on a whim as having burning golden eyes. In a blur of keystrokes, I instantly decided that they were literally burning and she was a sun fae. I doubt I would’ve thought of that during laborious, detail-oriented prep.

Another good example of this was the spells my urban fantasy hero was casting. He was just learning magic and music was his means of casting. He listened to songs and they would allow him to cast certain spells. Only he – and I – didnt’ know what spells each song let him cast. So, I had the songs on my playlist and listened to them as he used them, coming up with much cooler descriptions of how they worked than if I had prepped.

His healing song became one that let him issue healing water from one hand and a soothing breeze from the other, rather than a generic white light sort of thing. His song that I knew was going to save him in combat against a giant creature didn’t give him miraculous fighting strength, but the grace and timing of a dancer to dodge the beasts’ attacks.

Improv can be difficult, and sometimes you stuff it up (in which case, you can sometimes twist it or just let it go). When it works though, you can surprise yourself and hopefully your players.

Prep Can Be Better with Scrivener

I use Windows, so I have been deprived of Scrivener in past years. But now, there is a Windows version too! For those of you who don’t know, Scrivener is a popular writing program with an in-built corkboard/overview function. It allows you to break your text up into scenes or however you see fit. You can easily view them on the corkboard and even give each a category and a little description on their virtual index card to quickly refer to them.

After using this to prep an outline of the scenes for my story, I felt much more confident about filling in the content of each of those scenes, splitting the scenes into several scenes where needed, and even deviating from that outline. I haven’t had the chance to yet, but I plan to use Scrivener to prep some RPG sessions. I found it a very useful way to organise my thoughts, as well as disparate plot threads.

Do What You Know and Love, Try Something New

I write about fantasy stuff mostly. This time, I went a little different and did modern urban fantasy (I did this the year before too, but it was different again from 2010’s stuff). I wrote about things I really like, namely fantasy, an unlikely hero, big responsibilities suddenly gained and putting twists on classic creatures. But I added things I wasn’t very familiar with. It worked well.

Doing this in a ratio is a good way to go about it (I read this somewhere, but can’t find it right now). Try keeping 80-90% of what you’re good at, what you know and what you love, but try adding 10-20% of something new and exciting. This way you aren’t throwing yourself in the deep end and if the new stuff falls flat, at least you know that you’ll like the rest.

Lead With the Cool Stuff

This article from Treasure Tables sums this one up nicely, but I’ll put my own thoughts forward here. I had an idea in my head for a scene where the hero would get his magical powers. It happened like I planned, but that was 20,000 words into a 50,000 word story about that character. I had all sorts of cool scenes in mind about how to introduce the various factions he was helping/avoiding and my twists on several folkloric monsters.

I got some of that done, but I ran out of time for a lot of it. In fact, I stopped writing and started summarising just before an awesome mage-vs-mage fight scene. In a story you’re writing for yourself, this might be okay. You can go back and edit. In fact, I’m quite happy with the pacing of my story, it just turned out that I need more than 50,000 words to tell it at that pace.

In roleplaying games, though, if you’re running a game about fighting a dragon or killing an evil king or confronting the dread pirate lord, you want that to happen. If you spend all your time getting to the lair, infiltrating the castle or following sea charts and then the game ends… well… you’ve missed out on all the cool stuff.

If your game is about radioactive vampires, have one in the very first session. It can be too tough for the PCs and maybe they have to get saved, or maybe it attacks and then tilts its head and leaves for some unknown reason. Now they’ve seen its power and are probably pretty freaked out. You’ve got them hooked.

If your game is about political intrigue, you want the PCs to be wrapped up in it from the start. Trysts, accusations, lose-lose decisions, imposters and more. Have these things present in the first few sessions so that people can see how the game is going to be and what it’s about.

Think of it like this: your first session (or two or three, maybe) is the pilot for the series that is your campaign. Yes, it needs to tell them what the game is about, but it also needs to be awesome enough to get people hooked and make them want to come back every week.

50,000 words sounds like a lot when you start, but you quickly realise it really isn’t. When you know you’ve only got six sessions left before someone leaves the group to go live overseas or something, make sure you fit the cool stuff into the time available.

Know When to Stop

Just as important as all the rest, be aware that you can ruin a campaign by stretching it on and on long after the spark that made it special has died. Most of us have TV shows we once loved that got stale after too many seasons. Some ended too soon, so it’s also important not to cancel your campaign short. Some of the best campaigns I’ve played in and run were about a year in length. Although, more recently, I have run some very poignant campaigns that were much shorter and much better for it. They wouldn’t have had the same impact long-term.

It’s important to know when to stop.

The End.



I live in Canberra, Australia. I love games and stories.

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