Today I had the pleasure of engaging in some gaming of the D&D variety with some of my writing friends. For anyone not familiar, essentially one person is the story teller, directing the players through a set of scenarios, where they try to solve the puzzles put before them in fun and creative ways, using the skills of the characters they’re playing.

I’ve played these kinds of games since I was a kid and greatly enjoy them. This isn’t surprising when you consider that it is, at its heart, a kind of structured improv storytelling. I’ve engaged almost exclusively as a regular player, not the game master (GM). I’ve tried my hand at that and to be honest, I felt like I was absolute rubbish at it. I never thought much about the “whys” of that at the time, but now that I’ve grown as a writer and storyteller, I feel like I can pinpoint it a little better.

It really became clear when some of the puzzles we were faced with today involved riddles. I’ve always considered myself bad at riddles. I’ve always seen myself as a straight line thinker – my thoughts go from A to B to C, and even if the connections aren’t always obvious to other people, they’re still there and can be explained in a simple linear fashion. Maybe more importantly, once that A to B to C track is established, I find it very difficult to think along any other track.

But riddles don’t work in straight lines. They’re full of metaphor and layered meanings. You have to look at them a little sideways, checking out of the corner of your eye to see if the meaning you think is there actually is. I tend to overthink them, and dwell on the wrong parts of the clues or the wrong meanings of the words. I’m not saying I can never get them, but my friends today can attest that when I’m stumped by them, you can’t get me to the meaning until you’ve practically spelled it out. This is because I’m stuck in that track my straight lines have led to, even though it’s a dead end.

What I realized is that being the story teller in these games needs that same kind around-the-corner thinking. The GM will have an idea of how the scenario should progress, but players tend to do things you don’t expect. You spend a lot of time reacting to them and adapting your scenarios. A good GM can do this, just rolling with the weird directions players take the story, and bringing them back around to the planned events without making anyone feel like they’re being corralled. Our GM today is very good at rolling with those punches.

I am not. When I tried to GM, I had the scenario all planned out and when players took it off the rails I didn’t know what to do. I just floundered and found it frustrating, I couldn’t adapt. I was bound by my straight lines and just couldn’t get around those corners.

This echoes the problems I’ve had with editing and rewrites. I’ve talked before about how my brain is just like “no, we told this story, this is how it goes, it’s done” and I have to push so hard to move it to a new place. I can do it, but it takes me a lot of time and effort. The kind of off-the-cuff adjustments that have to be made for role-playing games are outside of my skill set.

I don’t say any of this as a “woe is me, my thinking is limited” kind of thing. It’s just one way of approaching storytelling, no better or worse than being a planner or a pantser, or being better with one genre over another. It was just interesting to me to put these pieces together, a reflection of the insights I’ve gained into myself over the years.

I can say with certainty that all those years ago I never associated my difficulty with being the GM with my difficulty with riddles or editing. Sad as it is, back then I just figured I was too dumb or talentless to be a good GM. It’s a huge relief to look at it now and realize I was just trying to put the proverbial round peg in the square hole.

Now I can look at it and wonder if there’s a way to improve, to work with my brain and adapt faster. Just like I was failing at my novel because I was going about it the wrong way, maybe there’s a way to be a bit more flexible in my storytelling, so there’s room to change it when things don’t go as planned. I’m a little hopeful now that this exercise of editing and rewrites, of slowly reshaping my novel to take a different path than it started on, is an improv skill I’m practising. It’s slow and careful now, but with time and repetition, maybe it becomes a sort of mental muscle memory I can do without thought. Maybe enough short, straight lines, when looked at from a distance, can approximate a curve right around those corners.

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