Writers face a significant challenge when choosing how to plan their novels. Hardcore planners have a wealth of tools and templates available, but pantsers and plantsers often find these tools tedious to work with. The world of tabletop gaming offers a solution. Story-based roleplaying games begin with broad guidelines that direct scenes without restricting too much. Some of the best ideas for my current WIP came from the following three story-based tabletop roleplaying games.
Dread is a horror RPG that uses a Jenga-like block tower (which is, of course, legally distinct from Jenga) for psychologically daunting skill checks. The game centers on two mechanics — the character questionnaire and the Tower of Dread — both of which are excellent tools for planning your novel.
The Dread questionnaire digs deep into the character’s psyche and highlights flaws, fears and trigger points for the GM to exploit throughout the narrative. Players answer probing questions about their characters like, “Why do your companions find you indispensable, and how are they wrong?” and “What photograph do you keep despite the fact you can never display it?”. This questionnaire is useful because it forces the writer to give their characters flaws. It also signals how the narrative can exploit these flaws (to the character’s benefit or detriment).
The other element, the Tower of Dread, is a spectacular vehicle for building tension in a story. In the game, the GM instructs characters to pull blocks from the tower when trying to accomplish a goal or task that’s outside their comfort zone. If the tower falls, the character dies. Writers can use the tower as a guide for pacing action scenes, plotting try/fail cycles, and determining the impact of a character’s flaw on the narrative and the characters. Dread works best for telling horror stories but can be adapted to suit other action-oriented and speculative fiction narratives.
Inspired by Cohen brothers movies, Fiasco revolves around characters with “high ambition and low impulse control.” Players create characters with distinct relationships and roleplay scenes between two characters at a time while observing players determine the outcome. Key elements of this game include character creation tables, the Tilt table and six-sided dice.
When creating characters in Fiasco, players consult tables of pre-written relationships, needs, objects and locations, which they choose by rolling and allocating dice. An interesting aspect of character creation in Fiasco is that instead of focusing on the individual, character creation derives from relationships between two characters. Needs and desires also correspond to relationships at the high level rather than to individuals. Using this model gives writers a more concentrated view of the conflict and tension sources available to drive the narrative.
Introduced halfway through the story, the Tilt amplifies the tension. The Tilt introduces two new elements that propel the drama and funnel the relationship-driven conflicts toward an often tragic conclusion. Writers can use the elements on Fiasco’s Tilt table to sketch a dramatic or brutal climax.
In both character creation and the Tilt, Fiasco uses dice to limit players’ choices, since players can only select elements from the tables that correspond to available die rolls. This mechanic is useful for writers who come up with too many ideas, or prefer building from limited options. This can be an excellent way for writers can focus their narratives and strengthen their writing discipline and flexibility.
Fiasco is a great planning aid for writers who need minimal structure to get started but enjoy the fluidity of open scene plans. The game allows just enough restriction and guidance to get started, but also enough freedom to craft individual scenes and overarching plots as you see fit. Writers from any genre can make use of this framework, provided they’re not afraid to sow some turmoil.
Misspent Youth casts players as rebellious teenagers rising against a dystopian regime. The game gives players a set of tools and encourages them to build the world, characters and conflicts collaboratively from the ground-up. These tools are the dystopia, the permanent record and the case file.
Players in Misspent Youth collaborate to build a dystopian world. The dystopia file breaks the authority down into five key qualities: vice, victim, visage, systems of control and brutalities. Effective dystopian fiction establishes these qualities early, and Misspent Youth’s rule book develops an efficient system for creating them. This mechanic also builds flaws into the system for the rebels to exploit.
Players create characters using the permanent record. This outline provides a basic overview of the characters that entrenches them in the dystopia with the means, motive, opportunity and M.O. to challenge the authority. As with the dystopia, the permanent record builds in a disorder, or weakness, for each character. This system makes it easy for the writer to create an antagonistic institution equal to its rebellious protagonists.
One of my favorite features of Misspent Youth is the case file, which provides an overview of the antagonists, character conflicts, and the overarching plot. The case file breaks the plot down into eight scenes, each of which present a conflict between the offenders and a member of the authority. One special aspect of these conflicts is that, to challenge authority, each offender must use either the means, motive, opportunity or M.O. from their permanent record. This technique encourages writers to push their characters’ strengths and weaknesses to the forefront throughout the story.
Misspent Youth is designed for YA dystopian fiction, but can be a great asset in planning any dystopia.
With the help of these tools, pantsers and plantsers can organize their novels while having fun and honing their improvisational skills. Thank you to Geek and Sundry for providing the inspiration for this post on TableTop with Wil Wheaton.