One of the most interesting things that has come from running this weekly role-playing game was something I never would have expected. It started as a novelty, then it became an interesting feature, and now the more I think about it, the more it seems like a profound change in how I think about writing.
To put it simply: I have no idea where this story is going.
That’s never happened to me. With all of my scripts and my novels, even my short stories and blog posts, I have a structure and a plan before I ever put pen to paper. I know where it’s going, I’ve planned the beats, I’ll often have detailed descriptions of the most important scenes before I even know how it starts. For consistency and smoothness I always try to write the first draft in a straight line from start to finish, but the planning is just as likely to go backwards as forwards, or randomly piecemeal.
But with RPGs, you have no idea where the story will go. You may have some cool ideas (I personally sketch them out in a particularly awesome leather-bound notebook), but your players may have other plans entirely. Or they may just not get it, and miss the path you’ve laid out for them. They might veer off in a fit of curiosity and explore a completely different area than you’d anticipated, or come up with a new interpretation that was way cooler than anything you’d imagined. Or they could switch things up just to give you a hard time.
Five minutes into a session they could derail your entire evening’s story, and forget trying to plan next week’s or next month’s. It’s like trying to travel in a sleigh pulled by wild tigers: you can nudge them and guide them along a little, but the more pressure you exert the more danger your plan is in.
As a writer, that fascinates me. How can you plan a story arc without knowing that you’ll ever reach the climax? How can you develop a character when the character might not play along? How can you do anything except lay the tracks down in front of the train, creating off-the-cuff encounters and spur-of-the-moment action scenes? And if that’s all you do, how will you ever make it compelling enough to keep your players invested in the story?
Of course, TV writers do this all the time. They may know what the next few episodes will be about, maybe even a season-long arc, but they usually have no concept of whether they’ll be on the air two or three years in advance, let alone what they’ll be writing about. Even shows with specific ending conditions like How I Met Your Mother or LOST will end up with wildly different conclusions than their creators ever anticipated.
But even TV writers have one thing that game masters don’t: they’re in total control. Whatever comes out of the writer’s room (after the producers and the networks have had their say, of course) is what gets filmed. A GM has to react to the decisions of their players, altering their story both in broad strokes and particulars on a moment’s notice, without any way of planning for eventualities.
I’ve only posted the first installment of my Q’art Hadash series so far, but already I can tell that this “by the seat of your pants”-style of writing will have a deep and lasting effect on my projects and my writing style at large. It creates a sort of enforced immediacy, a focus on the moment at hand without any ability to foreshadow coming events, let alone get distracted by them. I will never be able to rush through a scene in order to get to a scene I prefer, or give away the ending of a mystery before the characters have figured it out. I simply cannot: I don’t know what’s coming any more than they do.
Right now I’m gearing up for a big push to finish the final edit on my novel. My hope is to get it ready for publication sometime in the next few months. I’ve also got several scripts to write, both pilots and features, as part of my efforts to land a writing agent. It will be very interesting to see if I can internalize the urgency and immediacy of this new kind of writing and apply it to my other projects, adding a degree of unpredictability to a process I’ve always had under total control.
If I can, I suspect it will all be for the better. Because as much as I love an intricately crafted tale, who doesn’t also love the idea of setting out on an adventure, leaving the familiar behind, and never quite knowing where the next day will lead?