Why Write Games?
I’m a writer. It’s what I do. More than that, though, it’s who I am. I can’t not write—I actually get something similar to withdrawal symptoms if I go too long without writing. Writing is an essential part of my nature.
So what do I write? Almost anything, really. I’ve written over a dozen novels in the past seven years. I’ve written over a dozen educational books as well. I’ve written articles, essays, reviews, and children’s books. But the thing I’ve written the most? The one area I’ve been writing—and publishing—in continuously since 1992?
“Why?” is what most people ask when they hear that. “Why roleplaying games?” Okay, except for other gamers, whose response is usually, “Cool!” But that’s only because they already understand.
So why do I write roleplaying games?
Is it because they pay so incredibly well? Hardly! Sadly, the RPG industry is tiny when compared to almost any other form of entertainment media, and it pays accordingly. Most RPG writers could make more money working entry-level jobs. Most also have other jobs in order to make ends meet. I was lucky enough to support myself for several years with my RPG writing, but that’s because I was writing A LOT and writing all the time.
Okay, so it’s not the vast fortune, then. Perhaps it’s the fame and the glory?
There is a certain warm glow and a certain ego-boost that comes from sitting at a booth at GenCon [the largest gaming convention in the U.S., for those unfamiliar] beside your book or books, and having people stop and look and say, “You wrote that? Awesome!” And when your name gets used in a thread on one of the gaming sites, usually in either a thread about “check out this latest book by” or one about “Man, I hate writers like”—well, then you know you’ve made it.
But that doesn’t mean the man on the street will have any clue who you are. Or that he’ll care. And even most gamers probably still won’t know you from any of the thirty thousand or so other people milling around at the con.
So no, probably not the fame, either.
Then why? Why write roleplaying games? What is it about them that makes them a favorite media?
Cynics will say, “It’s the low barrier to entry.” But that’s more applicable to publishers than writers, and I’ll talk about that in a separate column. For writers it’s actually the opposite. There are a ton of would-be RPG writers out there, most of them willing to write for their favorite games for mere pennies. Carving out a niche as even a vaguely recognized RPG writer takes a lot of time, patience, and perseverance. Oh yeah, and talent. There are always a dozen kids waiting in the wings in case you fail.
Ultimately, there’s only one reason to write RPGs instead of something else that will probably pay you far more and garner you far more recognition. Story. To write RPGs, you have to love stories.
And not just your own stories. Other people’s stories as well.
That’s the single biggest difference I’ve found. When I write a novel, I’m telling a story. And I love it. I love getting to narrate events to my readers, drawing them into the tale, making them care about the characters. It’s incredible. And I get the same rush when I write a comic book or if I write a movie.
But when I write a game? I’m handing my readers an opportunity to tell their own stories. I’m giving them the setting, the situations, the character options, but I’m letting them take control from there on out. I’m offering them everything they need to get jazzed about the world and come up with their own ideas and run with them.
The biggest compliment I can get on one of my novels is someone telling me, “I loved it! It’s one of those books I’ll definitely read over and over again!” But the best thing people can say to me about one of my roleplaying games is, “I love it! I’m running a game in it, and have been for months now, and my players love it too!” Because that means I’ve given them more than just one story, more than just my story. I’ve given them the opportunity to spin their own stories, and I’ve gotten them excited about those stories. I’ve helped create something that will continue to give back to them for as long as they give to it, and that can be for years and years. It’s truly exhilarating, knowing you’ve created something that has taken on a life of its own and continues to grow and evolve past you. It makes you a part of something far, far greater.
And that’s why I write games.
Aaron Rosenberg is a novelist, writer, and game designer. He has been roleplaying since he was ten, and writing roleplaying games professionally since 1992. In 2002 he won an Origins Award for his book Gamemastering Secrets, which suggests he may actually know what he’s talking about.