Roleplaying Games – Alternative Means of Expression Part III
By Jeff Bowles
The first Wednesday of every month, science fiction and horror writer Jeff Bowles offers advice to new and aspiring authors. Nobody ever said this writing thing would be easy. This is your pep talk.
Earlier this year, I wrote two articles about finding new writing inspiration in what I called alternate means of creative expression. In the first article, I talked about creating new non-writing projects to jumpstart your inspiration, and in article two, I shared the perspective that sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself in the face of writing burnout is to—get this—quit for a while. If you’ve read the Pep Talk before, you know I’m a huge advocate for treating yourself well as a precursor to good creative output. I’ve seen too many very talented, very capable writers hit a wall in their work and tear themselves to pieces because they can no longer commit to a regular writing schedule. Being an author can be a pretty tough gig, and it does most people no good to pretend burnout doesn’t exist. Be kind to yourself. Recognize human creativity is not an inexhaustible resource, but rather, is more like a battery that occasionally needs a recharge.
This month I’ve got some new ideas how to go about said recharge, all centered on a little thing many adults have a hard time engaging in: play.
I like to play. In fact, you could say I’m an enthusiast. When I was a kid, sometimes the only refuge from school, bullies, and the pressures of modern family life was in fun and games. The thing about kids is nobody has told them yet it’s not okay to use their imaginations. You may not believe me on this, but a lot of people learn to ignore their creative impulses because they’re not “practical,” “serious,” or “valuable” enough for the adult world.
But you and I are storytellers, which means we know better. I say the day you stop playing is the day you lose contact with your own heart and soul. When I was getting too old for make-believe on the playground, I got into playing video games. Later, I got into playing music with my friends. In either case, I refused to sever contact with that part of myself that required the emotional release of a rollicking good time. And since we’re all storytellers here, odds are you may be a lot like me, in the sense that some part of you still feels the need to bring to life concepts, characters, and worlds that previously only existed in your head.
In my very personal experience, video games are a good way of nursing a bruised and battered creative drive, and if you’re so inclined, or if you simply haven’t played a good game in years, you might be surprised to learn modern gaming offers so much more quality and variety than players had access to in decades past. Only problem with video games is that although they’re interactive by nature, they’re often no different than watching a movie or a TV show, at least as far as these things go. In gaming, I don’t get to create the story, not really. Some other storyteller is graciously offering his or her talents, which in itself offers a fine respite, but it doesn’t always help me find my own inspiration.
So may I offer an alternative, one that might shock you in its sheer unabashed nerdiness. Back in the 1970s, people used to have to—wait for it—use their imaginations if they wanted to play. On a whim inspired by fantasy literature like The Lord of the Rings, a small group of very talented and enterprising nerds created something brand new from some very old storytelling traditions. (Nerds is not a pejorative, by the way. Not in the year 2019. These days, I’m a nerd, you’re a nerd, the old lady down the street is a nerd, and so is her pet poodle.) In 1974, a man called Gary Gygax published the very first version of Dungeons and Dragons, and the world of tabletop roleplaying was born. Now I know what you’re thinking.
“Dungeons and Dragons? Isn’t that only for people with bad acne, social issues, and a penchant for dwelling in their mothers’ basements well into their mid-40s?”
I’ll admit, the stereotypes tend to cling to D&D like a shirt of fine mithril clings to the back of a frightened halfling. But here’s the thing, tabletop roleplaying games engage an individual’s storytelling capacity in some pretty surprising and dynamic ways. For those not in the know, roleplaying games (RPGs) involve a shared storytelling experience between players and a game runner—in D&D parlance, a Dungeon Master. The game is all pretend and dice rolls, slowly and joyfully co-creating and co-experiencing an unfolding adventure completely unique to you and your group of friends. And let me tell you something else, here in 2019, there are so many variations, spin-offs, and reinventions of the basic RPG schema it’d make your head spin. There’s fantasy roleplaying, sci-fi roleplaying, horror roleplaying, romantic roleplaying, and even roleplaying based on Saturday morning cartoons. And I’ll tell you another thing, these kinds of games have experienced a huge resurgence in recent years.
I’ll make a confession at this point: my wife convinced me to write this article. I didn’t grow up playing D&D. Like many of you, when I was a kid and teenager I scoffed at it. Sure, I collected comic books, wrote speculative fiction stories, played video games, and enjoyed the heck out of entertainment properties like Star Wars and Star Trek, but for some reason, tabletop roleplaying was simply a bridge too far. My prejudices continued well into adulthood, but very recently my wonderful wife turned me on to a new way of experiencing RPGs.
Round about the time internet culture discovered people like to watch others game electronically, it also discovered the joys of watching a group of strangers play D&D. The most successful example of this is Critical Role, which you can watch on internet apps Twitch and YouTube. Critical Role is a weekly show populated by a group of eight Hollywood voice actors who just so happen to be best friends and hopelessly devoted D&D enthusiasts. These guys aren’t your prototypical basement trolls, either. They’re charming, attractive, talented, incredibly funny professionals who are as dedicated in their own ways to the craft of storytelling as you and me. They play D&D like no one else, personifying their characters with impressive skill and gusto to generate an incredibly engaging and entertaining storytelling experience that shouldn’t be tons of fun to watch but is. And they show you what’s possible when you engage your imagination in a completely improvised way.
Admit it, sometimes the act of writing is lonely. It’s just you, your word processor, and your dedication to the craft. Fun is not at all required, as much as we’d like it to be. So here’s my advice if you’re dead tired of laying down one paragraph after another, one concept after another, one character, theme, or narrative arc after another, and your mind is aching for a bit of a vacation: go out and play a little bit. Not everyone has access to a group of people who like roleplaying. This much is true. It’s also true a huge chunk of the adult population considers such things frivolous at best. But look, roleplaying can be a hell of a good time, and as modern pop psychology often reminds us, sometimes you’ve got to nurture your inner child before you can fully embrace what it means to be a grown up.
RPGs force players to think on the fly, to produce results from nothing but their own creativity and random dice throws. It’s extreme storytelling, if you think about it, and if you’ve tried everything else to combat that nasty spell of writer’s block, it may be just what the doctor ordered. There are plenty of online resources that can help you find local games in your area, but if you’re still not sure, maybe just start with a little passive viewing. Do yourself a favor and check out some internet shows like Critical Role. There are a lot of options out there. See if it doesn’t spark something within you, and if it does, maybe consider giving it a try yourself.
We live in such a take-no-prisoners world. Is it really too much to ask of yourself to slow down every once in a while and just have some good, clean, creative fun for the sake of, well, good, clean, creative fun?
Until next time, folks, keep those storytelling skills limber and toss a couple d20s. That’s roleplaying parlance, by the way. It’s your adventure. Tell it how you want it.
Jeff Bowles is a science fiction and horror writer from the mountains of Colorado. The best of his outrageous and imaginative short stories are collected in Godling and Other Paint Stories, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, and Brave New Multiverse. He has published work in magazines and anthologies like PodCastle, Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, the Threepenny Review, and Dark Moon Digest. Jeff earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Western State Colorado University. He currently lives in the high-altitude Pikes Peak region, where he dreams strange dreams and spends far too much time under the stars. Jeff’s new novel, God’s Body: Book One – The Fall, is available on Amazon now!
Check out Jeff Bowles Central on YouTube – Movies – Video Games – Music – So Much More!
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I’m so excited! There are changes coming for Writing to be Read. Last week I gave you an introduction to the newest addition to the Writing to be Read team, Jeff Bowles, who will be giving us a monthly writer’s Pep Talk. Since that post, even more good changes have occurred, and I’m pleased to announce that Jeff will be migrating Jeff’s God Complex blog to this site and sharing even more valuable content with us, two Wednesdays a month.
For Writing to be Read and its readers, that means Wednesdays will be awesome! Robin Conley will still be providing her Monthly Memo with great writing tips, and Jeff will provide his monthly Pep Talk. On the two Wednesdays left, Jeff will prov Jeff’s God Complex content. Now, if you want to know what God Complex content is, I’m not sure if I can explain, other than to say Jeff’s posts are unique and can go in any direction, but they are usually about writing. If you want to know more, you can check out Jeff’s posts on Jeff’s God Complex. I think you will see why this is so exciting.
In addition, Jeff has agreed to provide one gaming review per month in the Friday reviews, and I’m hoping Robin will provide one film review per month, as well. Never fret. That leaves room for at least two book reviews per month and will allow me more time to do them. If you want to pick up more writing tips from Robin, or you’re looking for some of her great writing prompts, check out her blog, Author the World.
One more thing that I will be looking forward to, and I hope you will, too, is a series of author interviews I’m planning to run taking a look at what works for each of them. No one thing works for everybody. Hopefully, in these these interviews you will find some ideas that work for you. So be on the lookout for my Writing that Works interviews, which will be coming soon.
Overall, I think these changes will greatly improve Writing to be Read and make it a more well rounded blog by providing a greater diversity in content, allowing me to offer a little something for everybody. I hope you will all drop by frequently to see what’s new. Or better yet, subscribe to email and get notification to your inbox each time there’s a new post, so you never miss on what’s up on Writing to be Read.
Kaye: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Jeff: I’ve kind of only ever had two passions in my life, music and writing. I wrote my first story when I was about ten years old, which also happens to be the age I wrote my first song. When I got older and met my wife, I realized being a musician wouldn’t be conducive to family life, what with touring and recording and the general pressures of the business. So at that time I decided to settle on my writing, and I haven’t looked back since. Good choice. You can write a song any old time you want. Short story tales are forever.
Kaye: What is the one thing in your writing career that is the most unusual or unique thing you’ve done so far?
Jeff: Let’s see … Probably the couple of comic scripts I sold to English comic book press FutureQuake. I’ve written everything from short stories, novelettes and novellas, to full-length novels, screenplays, newspaper articles, nonfiction, a bit of ghost writing, you name it. I found being diverse and far-reaching was way better than narrowing in on one small niche. At this point I could take a stab at anything, any time. Very helpful if you actually want to make a little money, and who doesn’t?
Kaye: You seem to have a bit of a preoccupation with God, which has certainly shown up in a lot of your writing. Can you tell us what that is all about?
Jeff: Ha ha, well I think I just found it to be the largest, most expansive concept in existence, right? I mean, I try to tackle topics and themes that are gargantuan in relation to small, fragile beings like you and I. That sort of thing has always appealed to me, so God was a natural extension, one most people have a strong gut reaction to in one way or another. My newer work–including my latest short story collection, dropping on March 28–has very little to do with God or gods or anything of that nature. I was also on a personal quest for God for many years, I suppose. I was raised agnostic, so my whole life I was searching for a reason to believe and worship, and corny as that might sound. Writing about Him always seemed like a good outlet for my spiritual curiosity.
Kaye: How many of your stories have been based on God to some extent, or featured God?
Jeff: Quite a few, actually. If not the Almighty Himself, I’ve tinkered with super beings, celestials, demigods, and everything in between. Most writers are timid about concepts. I go for the biggest, largest, hugest.
Kaye: Your thesis novel involves God, and Satan, too. Would you like to tell us a little about your novel?
Jeff: Sure. Body of Heaven, Body of Darkness is a contemporary horror fantasy. Harold Math watches in terror as God and Satan, each ten miles tall, beat each other to death in the rural desert of Nevada. Booze and anxiety become his life, until a strange, supernatural boy in a red cape causes a terrible car wreck that kills his fiancé and unborn son. The world slips into chaos as the deaths of the two immense beings herald national disasters and the destruction of the city of Los Angeles. A horrifying hell-beast emerges in the chaos and begins terrorizing the country, even as Harold reunites with an old flame and tries to put back together the shattered pieces of his life. At last, the boy in the cape reveals himself to Harold as the all-knowing Will of the Universe. He’s chosen him and three others to destroy this contamination before it spreads.
Kaye: In addition to being a very talented writer, you are an artist, as well? You did the cover for Godling, right?
Kaye: You’ve had quite a few things published, including a comic book. How did that come about? Did you do the artwork for that? Or was it collaboration? Tell us about the process in either case?
Jeff: No, I didn’t do the artwork. I wrote the script and submitted it to the publisher just like you’d do with any short story. They accepted it and paired me with an artist. I got to see his work evolve over the course of several months, and it was always rewarding to check out what true artistic talent could do with my material. I couldn’t draw like that if you paid me. Writing a comic book script, though, it’s something I urge a lot of science fiction and fantasy authors to try out. Very cool, very challenging medium to work in.
Kaye: What are your favorite genres to read? To write?
Jeff: Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror are my bread and butter. I like to read and write nonfiction and more literary work as well, but my home and my love will always be speculative stuff. It’s what I was raised on, so it’s the most natural thing in the world for me. Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Marvel and DC, all these mega-nerd story types and franchises, I probably dream the stuff at this point.
Kaye: What is the biggest challenge for you when writing short fiction? Or when tackling a novel-length work? How about when writing comic books?
Jeff: For short fiction there’s always a push and pull between expressing myself fully, telling an engrossing story, and making something concise and fully realized with a limited word count. Novels are tricky because they’re a marathon, a long-haul project, though I find the actual writing to be easier than short form on a day-to-day basis. Comic book scripts are another beast altogether. Kind of the ultimate test of a writer’s mettle when it comes to precision and execution. Highly recommend writers try it out at some point. Probably learn a thing or two in the process. Sometimes it pays to be a mad scientist with your writing. Take no prisoners! Hold nothing back!
Kaye: Which is your favorite type of writing? Short fiction? Novels? Comic Books?
Kaye: Any advice for aspiring writers?
Jeff: Absolutely. NEVER GIVE UP!
You’ll probably find people in your life will try to dissuade you, or in the very least, that they’ll lack enthusiasm for your work, your calling, until you’ve been at it long enough you finally start to see results. You can’t let that get to you. Apply ass to seat and type until something’s done. Writers are a funny breed few people understand, and sometimes we become crotchety and bitter. But the truth is if you’re going to do this thing, you’ve got to stay focused and disciplined. Much like writing a novel, this job is a marathon. Many very famous authors had to work their butts off for years, if not decades, before people finally took them seriously. I will say it again. NEVER GIVE UP! PROMISE!
So, now you know a little about Jeff Bowles, which is good, because you should know who is giving you a writing Pep Talk. I hope you’ll join us every first Wednesday to read what morsels of writing wisdom Jeff has to offer. And I hope that now you’re as excited as I am to have him join the Writing to be Read team.
Interested in Jeff’s writing? Check out his latest short story collection, Godling and Other Paint Stories: https://www.amazon.com/Godling-Other-Paint-Stories-Bowles-ebook/dp/B01LDUJYHU
YouTube’s Jeff Bowles Central: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC6uMxedp3VxxUCS4zn3ulgQ
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