It’s true. I do, and a testament to this fact is that I’m involved in three games of 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons right now, and haven’t really written a story successfully in over a year. Due to this discrepancy, I’ve been thinking about why that might be. Here are five reasons I’ve come up with.
Originality doesn’t matter
In my fiction, I work very hard to be as original as I can. If I lean on a trope, I try to subvert it. If I’m inspired by something else, I try to keep that inspiration as hidden as possible. I work very hard to remain original in my fiction. I don’t know why. It’s probably not necessary to be successful. It’s just one of those rules I seem to stick to.
In games I run, all that goes out of the window. The only hard and fast rule is that I want the players to experience a fun story and just generally have fun. If that means stealing liberally from other sources, I don’t mind. RPGs wear their influences on their sleeves. They pretty much owe their existence to Tolkien fans, so a little obvious inspiration is accepted and even to some degree encouraged.
No editors. It’s direct to the intended audience
I don’t mind editors. They do a good job of helping my work improve through their process. But the psychic wear and tear of being a writer is one of being constantly and utterly rejected over and over again. It means that if you measure success in getting your fiction to the reader (which I do), then you’re not going to feel the zing of success very often. With RPGs, I get to tell stories and I don’t have to worry about selling them to an intermediate who determines if the work is worthy. I produce it. People play it. There’s no middle man I have to get through. That’s refreshing and good for the soul.
In fiction, getting feedback on a work outside of critiquing is rare, and valuable, but often not very timely. When running a tabletop game (including “virtual” tables), the feedback is fairly immediate, so long as you pay attention. A good GM can tell if the players are having a good time, and if not, adjust things accordingly. There’s little time between what you orchestrate and the reaction of the “audience” (which aren’t really even strictly an audience. See next item.)
The other players are co-conspirators
We’re fond of saying that writers only bring part of the story, and the reader brings the rest, but I don’t see them in my office typing the manuscript and helping me figure out tricky plot points. Players in a tabletop game are in on the gag, they’re there to shape things and play their part. They’re semi-autonomous narrative characters, and as someone who struggles with weak characterization, I very much enjoy out-sourcing that work to sub-contractors.
No writer’s block
Put me in front of a group of eager players, and I will spin a yarn. I don’t know where it comes from half the time… I do an odd mixture of prep and GMing on the fly. I’m often as surprised by the direction of things as the players might be. There’s an energy in my GMed games that I don’t capture well in fiction.
I’ve never had GM’s block for more than a day or two. Given all the reasons above, and their counters on the fiction side, it’s relatively easy to break free. The problem with fiction is, well, if you want to do it professionally, you cannot make mistakes. Unless you’re blessed with some remarkable talents, learning to write a good story is like learning to build a bicycle from spare parts. There are so many moving parts to a story, and getting that right is an outsized effort for the rewards.
A lot of this boils down to me questioning whether i have any interest in being a “professional writer” moving forward, and whether or not I can find the same satisfaction I used to get from writing that I can easily get in the form of playing tabletop RPGs. I don’t really know the answer to that right now.
The flaw of RPGs is that it’s all work for an audience of 5-6 people. When it’s done, there’s often little evidence it existed; it’s ephemeral and limited. Then again, is a short story really all that different anymore? Certainly very few if any of my stories will outlive me or even their original publications.
Am I done writing fiction? Honestly, I hope not. I’ve been here before, and it does have a few advantages and thrills over playing around with friends with dice. It’s entirely possible I wrote this post simply to make myself feel better for utterly failing to produce any in the last 12 months.