Role-playing Games And The Dark Side: Musing On Writing Horror (Part Zero – Background)

Horror, Evil, and Despair in Role-playing Games
Horror, Evil, and Despair in Role-playing Games

Ok. Confession time. I played Role-Playing Games (RPG) as a youth. And by youth, I mean I was a Dungeon Master from thirteen until I was freakin’ twenty-nine. Yep – I was a massive nerd, and even though I loved it, I wondered if I should be doing something else with my time.

Imagine my surprise when, at the exact time that I’m starting to plot out a novel, my first foray into writing, I see this article on the NY Times: A Game as Literary Tutorial: Dungeons & Dragons Has Influenced a Generation of Writers:

For certain writers, especially those raised in the 1970s and ’80s, all that time spent in basements has paid off. D&D helped jump-start their creative lives. As Mr. Díaz said, “It’s been a formative narrative media for all sorts of writers.”

The league of ex-gamer writers also includes the “weird fiction” author China Miéville (“The City & the City”); Brent Hartinger (author of “Geography Club,” a novel about gay and bisexual teenagers); the sci-fi and young adult author Cory Doctorow; the poet and fiction writer Sherman Alexie; the comedian Stephen Colbert; George R. R. Martin, author of the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series (who still enjoys role-playing games). Others who have been influenced are television and film storytellers and entertainers like Robin Williams, Matt Groening (“The Simpsons”), Dan Harmon (“Community”) and Chris Weitz (“American Pie”).

Of course, already being a worshiper at the altar of Wendig, I was thrilled to find he had addressed the benefits of playing RPG’s back in 2011: Twenty-Sided Troubadours: Why writers should play Roleplaying games. I particularly liked this:

Playing a pen-and-paper table-top RPG is not going to make you a better writer.

It goes deeper than that.

It’s going to make you a better storyteller.

Damn, this is exactly what I wanted to hear! Here I was, destined to be a writer thanks to my childhood hobby – Awesome!

Well, I’ve had these articles in the back of my mind for a few months (as well as this review of The Elfish Gene on Books, Brains and Beer which came out within days of the NY Times article) now, and wondered if I should do a Toolbox on them. My problem has been, well what do I add? Chuck, the NY Times all do a great job of outlining the benefits, and I recommend you read them, so beyond linking them, what is my take?

Then I had it. Lets take it to the dark side.

Horror, fear, terror, madness, evil, and darkness in storytelling

Most my gaming was pretty standard fare, fantasy trope D&D, but as the Dungeon Master, I would add darker, horrific elements wherever I could. I would use plot points from horror movies and novels, I would use horror and fear based supplements. I even managed to convince my group to try the very difficult game Wraith the Oblivion which has a lot of dark themes (difficult in the sense it requires some pretty deep roleplaying to do well).

My love of horror fed my roleplaying, and my roleplaying fed the love of horror. Some of my favourite horror RPG books and game systems are:

  • Advanced Dungeons & Dragons – Castle Ravenloft: a classic supplement, focusing on the Poe and Lovecraft style gothic horror.
  • Dungeons & Dragons – Book of Vile Darkness: a supplement in the 3.5 edition rule book era, this is an exploration of the concept of evil and how evil fits into a story/RPG session
  • World of Darkness – Wraith the Oblivion: a game system where characters play ghosts of the recently dead, in a bleak afterlife filled with the threat of eternal slavery or absolute oblivion.

Man, I loved Wraith.

So I intend to write a series of posts on the lessons these games taught me in how to deal with horror in a story setting. How to get your characters, and through them your audience, to feel fear. Where possible I will try to tie these into books, stories, movies, etc. that exemplify the points I’m going to try and make. I don’t know how many posts I will do – I think at least three, not including this first post (which is just a background/explanation post).

Lets see how things go!

These posts will be on random occasions (much like my other toolbox or musings posts), and I hope you get something out of them. I also intend to start applying some of the lessons and refreshers I get from my research, so you might find a darkening of the tone and mood of my other fiction on here for a little while.

Bear with me, and let me know what you think. Good idea for a post? Terrible? Is there anything I should make sure I cover?

As always, thanks for reading.





Published by: wildbilbo

My name is Kristian Thoroughgood, alternately known as KT to my friends, or @WildBilbo on twitter. As of August 2015, I am forty years old. Australian. My blog is intended to be both a place for me to polish my creative writing muscles (not a double entendre) and for others to read and comment on my musings. Expect short stories, articles, essays and other brain dumps. My opinions are my own, and whilst I take care to be at least moderately informed about any topic I speak or write about, these opinions are subject to rapid change in the face of passionate arguments and greater evidence. Please note - on my blog, Evidence beats Passion.

Categories Books, Horror, Toolbox, Writing, WritingTags, , , , , , , , , 2 Comments

2 thoughts on “Role-playing Games And The Dark Side: Musing On Writing Horror (Part Zero – Background)”

  1. Great idea. I never played D&D, but had a friend who did, and I always borrowed the books to read. (And to look at the art.) My favorite was the Ravenloft boxed set (released in ’90? ’91?), which focused on storytelling and establishing atmosphere. Curious to see what you come up with. 🙂


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