A lot is said about the need for writers to read, and while I won’t dispute this advice as being some of the most sensible you’re ever likely to get as a writer, I’m going to say that there’s more you can do. A good writer, I think, also needs to play.
Of course any writer should immerse themselves in media of all kinds. Reading books will teach you the language and the composition of books, but even movies and comics can contribute to your understanding of narrative. Regardless of the end medium, everything starts off as the written word, and inspiration can come from anywhere.
This does include video games, at least those which have some sort of plot (Tetris need not apply) but the sort of play I’m talking about now is tabletop gaming, often also referred to as ‘traditional gaming’ despite the majority of it being rather untraditional indeed. Nobody’s ancestors sat around the table during Elizabethan times and pretended to be elves by rolling dice, although history might have been so much more entertaining if they had.
Hypothetical 16th-century nerds aside, I’ve spoken about tabletop gaming once or twice in the past. It’s a hobby of mine, and one I like to contribute to when I can, so it’s no surprise that I’ve played a lot over the past decade, and it’s taught me a lot as a writer.
First, it gives you a real sense of where your priorities as a writer should lie. If you’re running a game (as the game/dungeon master, or whatever title is appropriate) and creating a world for the players to explore, you’re essentially writing for an incredibly small audience and getting immediate feedback. It becomes very clear what’s important to the developing narrative, and what’s just extraneous. If you’re one of the players, then you get to determine the same thing from the audience’s perspective, what interests you and what does not.
Because you’re playing with other people, you can get a lot of insights into new ideas, hooks and twists that you might not have otherwise come up with by yourself – just remember to ask permission if you’re going to turn their concepts into something you’ll be publishing.
Character balance is another thing you’ll learn by playing with other people. As a solo writer, you may be unintentionally oblivious to a single character hogging the spotlight in your story. But when the other characters in the narrative are being played by real people, you’re going to hear about it sooner or later. You might even be one of those characters pushed aside.
Tabletop gaming is, and always has been, a sort of collaborative fiction-writing exercise that’s governed by a set of rules to ensure things don’t go off the rails. The best rulesets are those which provide a reasonable set of limits without offering the possibility of constant failure. Stories are only interesting if they progress, and whether you’re writing a book or playing it out, five hours of looking for a secret door in order to get out of a locked room is painfully boring.
Lastly, one of the more interesting benefits comes from outside the game itself, and it’s simply being social around a table. Whether they’re good friends, family, casual acquaintances, or random people at the same convention as you, you’ll get the chance to engage in (and study) human interaction. So by all means, engage in a lot of people-watching when you’re doing tabletop gaming. Just remember to pay attention to the game as well.