I’ve written a fair bit of prose. And I’ve also GMed (Game-Mastered) a couple of roleplaying games – and planned many more campaigns. You know what I’ve noticed? They’re very similar.
After all, both writers and GMs are storytellers. They both have plot ideas, things they want to get out of the story. Both are working within particular rules.
You go into both with some degree of planning. Even the most chaotic of GMs and dedicated pantsers sit down with some idea of where they want to take their story. And both inevitably go awry at some point, meandering down unexpected routes. As the storyteller, it’s your job to rein the narrative in and try to direct it towards your envisioned end-point. The more you do either, the better you’ll be at noticing when things are veering off track.
In both, you need to pose interesting questions. After all, you have an audience to entertain. When writing prose, your audience (usually) isn’t right in front of you, interacting with the story as you go. But when you’re GMing, your players are basically your audience – and if they don’t find your narrative engaging or the questions interesting, they’re going to zone out. I think GMing is great practise for storytelling because you get to see your audience react to your story in real time – you learn pretty quickly how to tell if your players are engaged or not, and as you go, you’ll work out what works best for them.
In both, you’re effectively a magician behind the curtain. This feels more real when you have players in front of you, both it’s true of both: you’re effectively there to shepherd people through an interesting, extended session of daydreaming. You need to give them interesting things to focus on, while sneaking important information behind their back so you can surprise them with it later. You can’t cheat and spring something on them out of the blue, or they’ll be pushed out of the experience. But if you can wrap them up in danger, and show them that actually, if they’d been paying attention, they could have seen it coming from the start, then they’ll come away feeling like they’ve had a great time – and they’ll think you’re a wizard. Which is a pretty cool feeling.
Bad writing and bad roleplaying games have the same things in common: they aren’t working for the reader. Either the reader is wrong for the mode of storytelling, or the storyteller isn’t focusing enough on their audience – they’re too preoccupied with their own thing.
At the end of the day, stories are stories – whether read, spoken, performed on stage or done together around a kitchen table with pencils and sheets of paper – and the audience’s enjoyment depends on the storyteller’s ability to ensnare them, whatever the medium. The rules, the successes, the pitfalls are often the same regardless.