Guest Essay: ‘Lazarus Gate’ Author Mark A. Latham on Roleplaying Games and the Narrative Arts

 

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“The Narrative of Destiny: Roleplaying Games and the Narrative Arts” by Mark A. Latham

Due to my background in the tabletop gaming industry, I’ve been asked a fair few times whether or not writing for games helped, influenced or otherwise inspired my fiction. While it’s fair to say that dice mechanics and statistics play absolutely no part in writing a story, there’s a lot that any writer can learn from the narrative form of the tabletop roleplaying game. I played a lot of roleplaying games in my youth, from Dungeons & Dragons to Traveller. Most recently I wrote a long-running Call of Cthulhu campaign set in the Victorian era for a group of friends, which almost directly led to the writing of The Lazarus Gate.

I was very lucky in that my gaming group—nicknamed the Diogenes Club—was a creative one, and the players completely immersed themselves in the stories I was trying to weave. For me, those years had a profound effect on my writing, and the lessons I learned are, I think, pertinent to any writer. Here are my top three:

Characters have Agency
This is the single most important thing that a good roleplaying session can teach us. If you’ve never played a tabletop RPG, then you might think it’s just a bunch of people rolling dice and talking like goblins. You’d be dead wrong (well, usually).

A good RPG adventure involves a games master (GM) setting out a story for their players. The players, enacting the roles of the characters they created, then play out the story as if they were characters in a movie, acting ‘in character’ where possible, and using the dice and rules only when the limits of their character’s skills and knowledge are truly tested. A good GM facilitates their players’ actions. Each character in the game must be given a chance to shine, and receive ‘equal billing’ in the narrative. Even when the character’s actions don’t really contribute to the overall story arc, if they were creative, fun and truly original, they should be rewarded with a side-plot, clue (or memorable death) created on the fly. Their actions have to matter, for good or ill. My players were a particularly, um… inventive bunch, which means I was constantly inventing new subplots to account for their actions, all the time subtly nudging them towards the climactic finale.

Don’t be Afraid to go Off-Plan
When I write, I start with a plan. However, I rarely, if ever, stick to it.

When I wrote The Lazarus Gate, I was inspired to write several new subplots, new characters, and even rewrite huge swathes of the book before I got to the end. I’d been prepared for this by those roleplaying sessions, where a good idea can come from anywhere, at any time, and you just have to go with it! Sometimes a character does something that was so unexpected it deserves a rewrite, or so stupid that a key member of the cast dies unexpectedly. In any case, it calls for what is known in both gaming and writing circles as ‘winging it’. While I wouldn’t recommend winging it all the time, especially if you have a tight deadline, it can be thrilling, and it really exercises those plotting muscles. Roleplaying games taught me to ask ‘What if?’ even when it’d be more expedient to just stick to the plan.

All Characters Have a Destiny
The biggest reason for deviating from the plan is when a character does something unexpected. But in an RPG, a character’s actions are part of a greater destiny. It sets them on a path to victory or failure, death or glory. When writing, ask yourself at every turn what ripple-effect a character’s actions should have on your plot. If the answer is ‘none whatsoever’, you can probably cut that scene out!

More than that, remember that it’s not just your protagonist that has a destiny, but every character in the story! Even if it doesn’t make it onto the page, you should know what happened to that innkeeper after the heroes battled the werewolves in his pub, and what happened to the minor villain after the investigators failed to stop his thugs from escaping in the opening scene. This is vital in a roleplaying game, because not only do you have to juggle four or five characters, each with individual destinies (and a single, intertwined one), but also a whole cast of reappearing NPCs (non-player characters) to help or hinder them at every turn.

If anything, I almost wish writing fiction wasn’t such a solitary experience; that the creative melting-pot offered around the gaming table was on hand on those days that I’m chained to a desk bashing my head against the keyboard in search of inspiration. But I count myself very lucky to have been part of such great roleplaying groups over the years, whose exploits have both kept me entertained and given me enough grist for the fiction mill for many years to come…

Guest essayist Mark A. Latham is the author of The Lazarus Gate. Find it at your favorite book retailer today.

The Lazarus Gate

London, 1890. Captain John Hardwick, an embittered army veteran and opium addict, is released from captivity in Burma and returns home, only to be recruited by a mysterious gentlemen’s club to combat a supernatural threat to the British Empire.

This is the tale of a secret war between parallel universes, between reality and the supernatural; a war waged relentlessly by an elite group of agents; unsung heroes, whose efforts can never be acknowledged, but by whose sacrifice we are all kept safe.