Greg Stolze is a fiction writer and game designer best known for designing Unknown Armies, Meatbot Massacre, and Reign. He developed the One-Roll Engine (a streamlined game mechanic using a pool of 10-sided dice) and pioneered the Ransom Model for funding his designs through patron support. For more on Stolze (and if the previous sentence baffled you and piqued your interest), check out “Tea Leaves! Rat People! Odin!” over at Kobold Quarterly.
Stolze contributed an essay on the game Button Men to Hobby Games: The 100 Best.
What has playing games taught you about writing (of any sort)?
Greg Stolze: It’s taught me the value of constraint. Roleplaying games (RPGs) especially put constraints on what a character can do, usually embodied by numbers on paper but also in the form of explicit expectations. You sign up to play a game called Vampire, the Requiem and you’re going to look like a fool if you complain when your guy gets turned into a vampire.
Running games, in particular, has taught me to ease up my grip on creative control. You run a roleplaying game and you cannot predict what your players are going to do. Even friends you’ve known for years surprise you. Moreover, if you try to control them, you’re just going to trash the game. Sure, there are guidelines — “don’t complain about disempowerment if you agreed to play horror” — but you’re a facilitator, not a boss, and trying to force things to go the way you think they should just produces pushback and frustration.
What’s interesting is that this social back-and-forth has close parallels with the entirely solitary process of writing. I had a novel that was carefully outlined and, midway through writing it, it just totally jumped the tracks. I called my editor in a panic and he said, “Greg: Are you still making progress?” When I admitted that I was, he said, “Why not see where the novel and the characters want to go? I trust you to write this. Why not trust your instincts?” It worked. It’s certainly possible that those moments at the game table where I sat up, blinked, and said “You’re going to do what to his what now?” made me more ready to deal with an unexpected internal twist as well.
Is there a game every writer should try?
Greg Stolze: I’m tempted to say “Anything with my name on it. Buy two copies!” but if I’m honest, no. I don’t think there’s a particular game that’s helpful, but rather, that the idea of playfulness is helpful. Here, check out this internet link.
That was a sort of literary game I played with some of my RPG design buddies. What’s really fun about it is that when I described it to some people at the Naperville Writers Group, one of them took it off in an entirely different direction. Poet Joe Larkin took the idea of an alphabetical list of words and wrote this rambling free form poem called “The XYZs of Our Existence.” I got to be a muse, and it started with a game.
In what ways does playing games enhance your creativity?
Greg Stolze: It makes creativity more interactive, inserting other people into a process that’s usually solitary. It’s good to have a second voice in your ear, a second set of eyes on your ideas before you have to deal with the stern gaze of the editor and publisher. By the time you’re sending it to the guy with the checkbook, you’re usually highly invested. Games give me an arena for ideas where there aren’t severe consequences (like having an editor say, “This is crap, here’s your kill fee, never darken my door again”). Moreover, the perspective of other players keeps me from getting into a feedback loop with myself. You do your creating alone too much and you sort of fold up into your own ideas, until you’re your own audience. A writer has to be true to what he thinks and feels, but it’s possible to take that too far and become a lone crackpot who makes sense to nobody else. Letting in a little light, in the form of others’ critique (even if it’s the implicit critique of players who have no interest in the plot you found so compelling) can only be illuminating.
Unless, of course, the players are ignorant fools who don’t get it. That happens sometimes too. But if you don’t expose yourself to fools now and again, how can you expect to recognize them? Especially when, in my experience, you get a couple insightful and respectful perspectives for every shut-down “critic” who really just wants his prejudices confirmed.
Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher. He is the staff Interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine and a frequent contributor to Kobold Quarterly. He teaches at Wofford College and Montessori Academy in Spartanburg, SC. He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.