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Teaching Fiction Writing Using Role-Playing Games

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Trent Hergenrader

on 16 June 2014

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Transcript of Teaching Fiction Writing Using Role-Playing Games

Teaching Fiction Writing
Trent Hergenrader
Assistant Professor
Department of English
Rochester Institute of Technology
Using Role-Playing Games
CW's Traditional Workshop Method
No formal admissions process
Few students know current literary publishing
Low incentive for them to engage with each other's work
Broadening the Scope of Creative Writing
collaborative writing
digital and multimedia production
Internet publishing
decentered classroom
Experimental Approaches
de-emphasize plot and theme
focusing on character and setting
historical and material conditions
Craft Concerns
But for Undergraduate CW Programs?
Role-Playing Game Definition

An episodic and participatory story-creation system that uses a set of quantified rules that help determine how characters’ spontaneous interactions are resolved.
Why Role-Playing Games?

Players "get into the head" of their characters
Explore and respond to a large an unpredictable world
RPG stories
develop by
interacting with their
You will usually be more successful if you start the other way around. If you

start with a real personality, a real character, then something is bound to happen
and you don’t have to know what before you begin. In fact, it may be better if you don’t know what before you begin.

You ought to be able to discover something from your stories. If you don’t probably nobody else will
Literary Authors Agree! Part 1, Characters
In most good stories
it is the character’s personality that creates the action of the story
In most [amateur stories], I feel that the writer has thought up some action and then scrounged up a character to perform it.
Flannery O'Connor
Mystery and Manners

one of the most enduring influences on me was a childhood playing RPGs
Dungeons and Dragons [D&D] and others. I’ve not played for sixteen years and have absolutely no intention of starting again, but I still buy and read the manuals occasionally. There were two things about them that particularly influenced me. One was the

mania for cataloguing the fantastic
if you play them for any length of time, you get to know pretty much all the mythological beasts of all pantheons out there, along with a fair bit of the theology. I still love all that—I collect fantastic bestiaries, and one of the main spurs to write a secondary-world fantasy was to invent a bunch of monsters,
half of which I’m sure I’ll never be able to fit into any books
Narrative Experience of RPGs
“refight the epic struggles related by J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, and other fantasy writers; or you can devise your own ‘world’, and conduct fantastic campaigns and conflicts based on it.”

The other, more nebulous, but very strong influence of RPGs was the weird
fetish for systematization
the way

everything is reduced to “game stats.”
If you take something like Cthulhu in Lovecraft, for example, it is completely incomprehensible and beyond all human categorization. But in the game Call of Cthulhu,
you see Cthulhu’s “strength,” “dexterity,” and so on, carefully expressed numerically
There’s something superheroically banalifying about that approach to the fantastic. On one level it misses the point entirely, but I must admit it appeals to me in its application of some weirdly misplaced rigor onto the fantastic: it’s a kind of
exaggeratedly precise approach to secondary world creation
Catalog of Quantified Entries
"Incremental Storytelling"
A methodology by which students learn the craft of fiction writing in small, discrete bits that, in aggregate, create something much greater than their constituent parts. This progressive approach puts students in immediate contact with each others’ writing throughout the entire creative process and opens space for critical discussions about the fictional characters and the shared world they create.
Literary Authors Agree! Part 2, Start Small
John Gardner
Art of Fiction
I would begin, then, with something real--
smaller than a short story
, tale, yarn, sketch--and something primary, not secondary (not parody, for example, but the thing itself). I would
begin with some one of those necessary parts of larger forms, some single element that, if brilliantly done, might naturally become the trigger of a larger work
--some small exercise in technique, if you like, as long as it's remembered that we do not really mean it as an exercise but mean it as a possible beginning of some magnificent work of art.
The RPG-Designed Course in a Nutshell
Collaboratively write a metanarrative for a fictional world via "critical world building"
Populate wiki and map with items, locations, and characters
Create player-characters
Explore the world through tabletop RPG or other game-based approaches
Write narratives based on experiences
A class of ≈ 20 students will:
collaborative | digital production | student - centered
character & setting | critical sensibility
Daniel Makay
The Fantasy Role-Playing Game
A New Performance Art
Critical World Building
"craft criticism"
situating creative writing within specific institutional, political, social and economic contexts.
Congratulations on your new world!
Now tell me...how did it get that way? How does it operate?
Metanarrative of the world = over 8,000 words
or 30 pages of collaborative writing.
25 students each assigned:
10 items (250 items)
5 locations (125)
5 non-player characters (125)

Discussions about the traits each item, location, and character should have in their entry

Wiki page templates modeled after the
Fallout 3
Wiki World Building
Fallout 3

Social/politcal questions
[The author] must
shape simultaneously
(in an
expanding creative moment
) his
characters, plot, and setting
, each
inextricably connected
to the others; he must make his whole world in a
single, coherent gesture
, as a potter makes a pot.
You've Got a Vast World...What Next?
* Tabletop role-playing campaign
Pros: Highly interactive, spontaneous, fun
Cons: Institutional challenges w/space, time; huge admin overhead
* Game-like writing exercises (Storymatic, random char+location+item)
Pros: Low admin overhead, maintains aleatory aspects
Cons: No embodied experience, loss of spontaneity
* World building + narratives (personal histories, narrative history)
Pros: No admin overhead, students free to explore interests
Cons: No game-like aspects, less engagement with other's writing
Contact Info
Trent Hergenrader
Rochester Institute of Technology
Twitter: @thergenrade
(Re)Writing Craft
Tim Mayers
Why is this good for fiction writers?
Incremental Storytelling Examples
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