Why Every Writer Should GM

It's dangerous to go alone. Take these.

It’s dangerous to go alone. Take these.

This past Saturday I ran a tabletop role-playing game session for the first time in close to four years. It was a session of the latest edition of the venerable cyberpunk/urban fantasy game Shadowrun, and it ran very smoothly. The adventure actually wrapped up more quickly than I was expecting, moved at a dynamic pace, each player got to contribute to the resolution of the session, and I think fun was had all around. I’m very much looking forward to our next game.

While the game went as well as I had hoped, I didn’t expect how fresh and new the experience would feel. Writing and running a tabletop gaming session after such a long absence (and after completing one prose novel and starting work on another), I was struck both by what a unique writing experience game-mastering can be, and by how many lessons can be carried over to other forms of writing.

The GM’s job in an RPG group is to write up scenarios for the other players to play through. And in many respects, this is very similar to writing other forms of fiction; the author either uses an established setting or creates his own, comes up with characters whose interactions drive the story, and creates a story that follows a basic structure with a beginning, middle, and end.

However, where tabletop role-playing differs from other forms of fiction is in its cast of leading characters and its audience, which are one and the same. The other players in the game each create their own character, including the character’s backstory, appearance, personality and skill-set, and control that character, acting as that character would act in the situation presented to them by the GM.

Returning to GMing after so long working in prose fiction, it really is striking how much of a difference not having control over the principal characters of the story makes. True, the GM does exercise a certain degree of control over what kinds of characters a player can bring to the game in the interest of making things run smoothly. It’s in everybody’s best interest for the GM to prevent a player from running a character who, by their very nature, is going to be arguing and fighting with the other player characters at every turn, or who simply doesn’t fit into the setting of the game.

But within fairly light restrictions, the players are otherwise free to create whatever kind of character they want. This leads to a story driven by a cast of main characters not of the GM’s own choosing, who are not at all in the GM’s control, and that’s a unique circumstance for a writer to be in.

Certainly it’s important for a writer to be true to his or her characters and in that sense a character can take on a life of their own; I think anybody who’s written fiction has experienced this at least once, regardless of how well they plan out their stories and think their plots through before writing them out. But that’s an entirely different experience from GMing, where a player character can do something that is entirely unexpected.

It forces the GM to try and anticipate what his players might do in a given circumstance, and even then, it’s unlikely that a GM can actually predict everything his players might try and how they might react to a given situation.

Case in point: in the adventure that I had set up the player characters were hired to investigate the disappearances of several missing girls, one of whom was known to work at a particular nightclub. The missing girls had all been kidnapped and forced into a prostitution ring run by the Russian mob, where they were surgically altered and brainwashed to be obedient replicas of famous celebrities. And the adventure was to conclude at the brothel where all of this was happening, where they would have an opportunity to rescue the girls and kill the mobsters, shutting down the whole operation.

The brothel had four potential entrances; the front, the back, a roof access and a basement access. When I prepared for the scene, I had planned on the PCs picking one of those four entrances and clearing the building of opposition, which consisted of eight mobsters and two black-market surgeons doing the “alterations” to the kidnapped women.

What actually happened was that the players entered the basement and ambushed the two surgeons. The noise from the ensuing gunfight got the attention of the mobsters upstairs, who headed for the basement. The team’s resident hacker, thinking fast, hacked the electronic lock on the door to force it closed.  Having dispatched the surgeons, the rest of the team got the kidnapped women (who were in the basement) outside and into the getaway vehicles. Then, rather than fight the mobsters head-on, the group laid a trap, using a fire spell to ignite the tanks of anesthetic gas from the surgical theater, which exploded right as the mobsters got the door open and poured down the stairs, ready to fight. The resulting explosion killed all the mobsters who had been operating the brothel, and the building itself caught fire and burned.

What I had thought would be a stand-up fight between the two groups that would take a substantial amount of game time actually ended in less time than it took me to write this blog post. The result surprised me (pleasantly; I like it when players think outside the box), but it also got me to think about why they had reacted the way they did. In laying out the adventure, I had the client who hired the characters say that she wanted them to make sure whoever was responsible “couldn’t hurt anyone else.”

The players, hearing this, responded by enacting a literal scorched-earth campaign on the brothel. To borrow a line from Aliens, it was the only way to be sure. Additionally, I had laid it fairly thick about the disgusting nature of the crimes these mobsters were perpetrating against these unwilling women.

And the players responded by showing no mercy to them; one of the PCs (the same one who cast the spell to burn the building down), upon taking one of the surgeons down with a lightning spell, pulled her combat knife and cut the unconscious man’s throat. This was in keeping with her character (who is more than a little unstable), but it also drove home to me just how much animosity I had instilled in the players toward these criminals.

As a prose writer, often you work on a piece for weeks or months before another person ever sees what you wrote and gives you feedback. In a table-top game, however, almost as soon as you read your work to the players, they give you instant feedback in the form of action. And it’s feedback that, as GM, you must react and respond to, even if it’s not in line with your expectations. There is no intellectual barrier, where the writer can wonder if there was any misinterpretation on the part of the audience; there is action and reaction, stimulus and response. And whatever the response, the GM must deal with the consequences.

I feel that every writer, even if it’s only once in his or her life, should GM a table-top roleplaying game. Because nothing else in the world will make you think about the relationship between a writer and his audience more than your words resulting in unexpected arson.

Creative License?

No. No, you're not.

No. No, you’re not.

Well, a new Captain America film has just hit theaters (I haven’t seen it yet, so no spoilers, please!), and once again I’m reminded that there are people out there who just don’t understand the character. It seems any time Cap is thrust into the limelight, there are people who, lacking knowledge of the character, just look at his name and how he’s dressed and assume that he’s some jingoist G.I. Joe type and dismiss him out of hand.

I guess that’s a natural consequence of having a character who’s directly associated with an entire government, and admittedly, Cap was created partly as a piece of wartime propaganda. As a kid, I was guilty of dismissing him with an eye-roll at first glance without really understanding the character, so I can understand the impulse. But Cap has really evolved since his early appearances. He’s not a blind patriot, willingly following any orders without concern for their moral implications, nor is he a product of the institutional discrimination of his time period.

Instead, he’s a hero who always stands up for his ideals, even when it brings him into conflict with the government and laws of his homeland. He respects men and women of all races and creeds, having led an amazingly diverse group of Avengers over the years. Indeed, Cap was a longtime partner with one of the first African-American superheroes, the Falcon, and shared billing with him on their comic book. In short, he’s not a slavish defender of America as it is, warts and all, but rather he represents America as it should be, and tries to inspire others to act on those ideals.

Thinking about this dichotomy and the way audience members can sometimes misunderstand a character made me realize something interesting. Superheroes are uniquely vulnerable to misinterpretation, in that they can not only be misunderstood by their audience, but also by the writers and other creators responsible for handling their stories.

Unlike many types of media, long-running superhero comics rarely have the same writer telling the story throughout their run, or even for very long; sometimes a writer’s run on a book can last as little as six issues, though more commonly a writer will stay with a particular book for at least a few years.

And writers, being people, will have differing opinions from one another. Sometimes this can be a good thing; it can lead to new and interesting takes on a given character or characters that can revitalize them and lead to new and exciting stories, while still remaining true to the core of who those characters are. The famous Iron Man storyline “Demon In A Bottle,” the gradual progression of Spider-Man’s character from a high school student to a married adult, the recent Wolverine and the X-Men series, and pretty much anything done with Deadpool from the late ‘90s onward are all excellent examples of how a different writer can advance a character while still being true to who they are.

However, there are many (some might even say far more) examples of the exact opposite scenario, where a writer who doesn’t understand a character is suddenly put in charge of writing them. This is most common with “Elseworlds” stories, which are non-canon tales where a “what if?” scenario is presented and played out with the established heroes of a comic universe.

And many times Elseworlds tales can be a fascinating way of viewing an established character through a new lens. Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns spins a great story about Batman coming out of retirement as an old man and provides insight about the Dark Knight and his relationship to Gotham City. Kingdom Come explores the future that would result if Superman, Wonder Woman and other heroes actually did use their powers to impose their will on the world. Exiles, one of my favorite comic series ever, is nothing but Elseworlds scenarios, where a team of heroes dimension-hops through the Marvel multiverse to set things right.

But often these stories showcase a writer’s lack of insight into a particular character or group of characters. Spider-Man: Reign was a terrible attempt to ape The Dark Knight Returns, but only served to show how much that setup doesn’t work for a character like Spider-Man. JLA: Act of God demonstrated a complete misunderstanding of just about every character in the Justice League (with the exception of Batman), from the nature of each character’s powers, to the basis of Lois Lane and Clark Kent’s relationship, and having Wonder Woman convert to Catholicism despite the fact that she has met all the gods of the Greek pantheon!

Even Frank Miller, who arguably crafted the modern-day perception of Batman as a character, has used Elseworlds books to showcase his complete misunderstanding of almost all major DC superheroes (including Batman himself) in The Dark Knight Strikes Again and All Star Batman and Robin, which, in addition to portraying Batman as a murderous, child abducting vigilante, gave us the now-infamous “Goddamn Batman” meme.

The damage isn’t limited to Elseworlds books, though. Main continuity comics also fall prey to writer misinterpretation, leading to such character-ruining storylines as Marvel’s “Civil War,” which turned Iron Man into a pro-big government fascist, to the Spider-Man story “One More Day,” in which Spider-Man sells his marriage to the Devil in a misguided attempt to save Aunt May’s life, and to DC’s New 52 continuity, in which Superman’s marriage to Lois Lane has been retconned out of existence, and he is now dating Wonder Woman.

In fairness to the writers, all of these events were orchestrated by editorial mandate in an effort to drive sales, but the fact remains that the creative force behind these books thought these changes would be a good idea, and the resulting storylines alienated droves of fans who apparently understand these characters better than the people who are paid to preserve them and tell their stories.

I’ve always believed that superheroes are a sort of American mythology; bringing together aspects from different cultures’ ancient myths and folk tales, we created these persistent, god-like heroes who could serve the same function as these stories. And one of the qualities of any good folk story or myth is that it can evolve to suit newer time periods. Urban legends evolve to deal with newer, different modern fears. Ancient legendary figures see use in new tales and contexts that are more relevant to the modern era. I suppose it’s only fair that superheroes receive the same treatment; but the key is, these new tales, however they are updated, must remain true to who and what these characters are. To betray the core of these characters is to negate the entire purpose of telling their stories in the first place.