It’s All On You

Tracy Barnett is a new writer who loves fantasy of all types, especially the kinds that mash up genres. He has the temerity to call himself an author and it working on funding his first novel, Sveidsdottir. A Norse fantasy mashed up with giant stompy dwarven automatons and the skeletons of dead giants. Oh, and inclusive as all get out. Tracy got his start writing tabletop RPGs, and has published two of his own. Tracy thinks that typing in the third person about himself is weird as fuck.

You see that bio up there? I had no idea what to write for it. I mean, I’m new at this. Fresh-from-the-garden, still have that ‘New Writer’ smell on me new. As those clumsy words above state, I’ve written tabletop RPGs and am now working on my first novel. The difference between how you write those two things is night and day. I’m not sure how many readers here have done RPG work, but I think it’s interesting to compare the two. At the least, you’ll get my take on the novel writing process. Let’s do this thing.

When you write an RPG, you’re essentially building someone a playground. You’ve got some kind of premise (Ninja Pony Assassins!) and that’s the open plot upon which your playground equipment will go. You’ve got your game mechanics (we need to incentivize the interpersonal relationships between the Pony Assassins and their targets, oh and we want to use target numbers and a shit-ton of d6s) and that’s like the paths that lead from one fun thing to another. And you’ve got plot points, world details, and maybe an adventure or two (the Ninja Pony Assassins must defeat their nemesis, the Dark Lord Horsington to save the world!!) which are like the actual equipment that people play on.

Still with me?

That’s the kind of writing I’m used to doing. Whether I’m making a new game of my own, or preparing for a session on a Friday night, I generally build a playground and then ask other people to come and climb all over it. They do what I call The Hard Work. They make characters, they interact with the world, and they move the story forward. I have the luxury of responding to all of that. Everything I do once I build the playground is in response to what the people playing on it do.

Novels are different. So very, very different. With a novel, I still have to do all of the above things (minus the mechanics part because, really, are you going to ask your reader to bring dice with them while they read? … hmm, Choose your own adventu- Ugh. Back to my point). So, I do all of those things: I clear a space, I put down the equipment and then I am the one that has to go playing on it. Yes, I know that people say their characters take on lives of their own and maybe Miss Hester the Protagonist will decide that she’d much rather play on the slide than use the jungle gym. But it’s still me doing all of The Hard Work that I usually get to divide between the brains of the 4-8 people I have at my game table.

That difference was daunting at first. And then I remembered something super-important: this is my goddamn playground. I built it, and I know which parts are the best. I know that Hester really does want the play on the jungle gym (eventually) and I know that Johnny Plot-Point will be perfect over by the monkey bars. AND, if I don’t see a place for Bernice the Badass Villain, I don’t despair and I don’t change Bernice. I change the fucking playground.

There’s a freedom in novel writing that, if you’re not careful, can paralyze. Instead of having to craft things to fit the gamers at your table like in an RPG, you can to change things to suit your vision. You are the god of your world, the god of your story. Don’t let that paralyze you. Own it. Slip into the skin of your characters and dance around for a bit. Hop on the merry-go-round and then take to the balance beams. It’s your world and the world is your playground.

Just, whatever you do, don’t install a climbing rope. No one fucking likes those things.