The Guide to Writing Success, As Explained by Tabletop RPGs (and Probability!)
I played a bunch of Dungeons & Dragons as a teen and young adult. And every now and then, I would also branch out into some lesser known tabletop RPG systems — D20 Modern, Call of Cthulhu, and even a poorly run session of Paranoia or two (I can say they were poorly run because I was the one running them!)
One system that I never got the chance to try, but always wanted to, was the one at the core of White Wolf Publishing’s The World of Darkness line of products: Vampire: The Masquerade, Werewolf: The Apocalypse, and various other [Creature]: The [Noun]-style titles.
Outside of their moody settings and macabre foci, one of the things I found most interesting about these games is how they determined player success as opposed to Dungeons & Dragons.
For those unfamiliar, here’s how a player succeeds at a particular task in a game like modern Dungeons & Dragons:
- Roll a single twenty-sided die (the d20)
- Add to or subtract from the result based on the character’s strengths, weaknesses, equipment, and current status.
- If the result is higher than the difficulty value assigned to the task, the player succeeds.
Meanwhile, here’s how a player succeeds at a particular task in a system like The World of Darkness:
- Roll multiple ten-sided dice (d10s)
- Count up the number of dice that show a 7 or higher
- If this number is higher than the difficulty value assigned to the task, the player succeeds
In the D&D system, character advancement allows the player to add more bonus values to each individual role. Meanwhile, in TWoD, character advancement allows the player to add more dice to every roll.
When it comes to writing, I often see these two systems reflected in the successes and failures of individual writers.
For instance, one of the biggest mental mistakes I’ve seen in new writers — especially those who only want to write novels — and especially those who think they’re cooking up the next Harry Potter/Twilight/Hunger Games — is that they treat writing success like it’s a die roll in D&D.
They write the novel, edit it, and send it off to a random slush pile hoping (or, in some cases, expecting) the book to be picked up, climb to the top of the sales charts, and earn a movie deal. Success, to them, comes from a single roll of the die — you write the book, mail it off, toss that d20, and pray.
But writing success often doesn’t happen that way. In fact, the writers I’ve seen succeed tend to follow the TWoD approach much more often than the D&D approach, in that they do things to give them more opportunities at success with every toss of the dice:
- They build an audience by providing content on social media and other digital publishing platforms.
- They work with other writers to give and receive feedback.
- They find mentors who help them build their hard and soft skills.
- They learn as much as they can about their market, then target agents who line up with their particular niche.
- They experiment with different genres and styles in order to keep their creativity flowing and to discover new things to pull into their main body of work.
Each of these things can be thought of as another die in the dice pool. Each of these things — as alien and uncomfortable as they may be to the person who only wants to write books and ignore “the other stuff” — adds to their likelihood of writing success.
There are, of course, examples of taking this pool-building too far. Some writers end up focusing so much on marketing, networking, branding, reading articles about writing, etc., that they forget to do the most important thing: finish their work. Their dice pools could be way larger than those of the isolated, book-focused writers — but because they don’t have an actual body of work to point to, they don’t even get to roll the dice.
Writing success depends on a lot of things — some of which is in our control, and some of which is not. But if we want to mitigate luck by pushing it towards our favor, it’s best to spend at least a little bit of time on activities that will build our dice pool — all while keeping in mind that without good, completed pieces at the core of it, we don’t get our chance to toss the dice.