The Protagonize blog

Musings about collaborative writing, storytelling, and the evolution of publishing

Roleplaying for Writing

Image under CC-BY license from Thomas Dippel
As those of you who frequent Protagonize may know, roleplaying can be a valuable tool for writing stories that have a larger number of characters. With a single author taking on the role of one of the characters, you can give each one a much stronger sense of having their own voice and personality.

However, roleplaying doesn’t just stop at the writers desk, roleplaying games are a huge industry both on the tabletop and in the computer game industry. Tabletop games in particular are built specifically for telling stories together, with some games making story telling the primary focus (as opposed to combat and tactics, that also make up a large portion of some RPGs). With both kinds of roleplaying ultimately being about telling stories, you shouldn’t be surprised that there are a lot of roleplaying games and tools out there which can really help serve you as a writer – and are just fun to play too!

Chuck Wendig, a writer and gamer makes a good case for why writers should play roleplaying games. This blog post is more about the specific games and tools from roleplaying I’ve found useful and why, but any game and any roleplaying utility can be useful to writers, so I encourage you to get involved with the hobby!


Most games are built around a central theme, such as horror, or super-hero action adventures, or pulp science-fiction. Picking the right game to use for helping you write should be based on what kind of stories you want to tell. While there are a lot of ‘generic’ roleplaying systems, for helping you as a writer, those can fall a little short when you what to capitalise on genre-specific tropes. Here is a round up of a few games I’ve used before to help with writing:


Fiasco is a great, narrative-driven game with no combat mechanics and no gamemaster or adjudicator. At it’s heart, it’s about improv and prompting, with a simple dice mechanic to decide whether things go well, or badly, and who gets to make that call. Fiasco is built primarily around stories of people doing bad things for bad reasons, and how their grand plans go inevitably wrong with disastrous consequences. Films like Fargo or A Simple Plan are the kinds of stories Fiasco excels at telling and best of all, the writers of Fiasco have even written a companion for their game called The Fiasco Companion which has a chapter in using it for writing.

Each game of Fiasco is driven by options in a “playset“, a book of prompts, tropes, props and goals that define the basic conditions and setting of the story. These things are used to build connections between adjacent players at the table and after that turns go around the table. Each turn involves one or more players acting out scenes that make use of their relationship, props and goals and either ends positively or negatively, based on the game mechanics. If you haven’t checked out Fiasco, I highly recommend it and you can see a great example of it in setup and in play on the Tabletop show:

I’ve used Fiasco for coming up with inter-personal relationships, prompts and scene building when I’ve wanted to write a story involving things going terribly wrong. With the huge number of playsets available, you can use the process to write scene outlines for many different genres, though naturally the game itself is geared towards a black comedy style and if you’re writing that kind of story, you’ll gain the most benefit from it.


Next up is Fate. It’s easy to think of Fate as a generic roleplaying system, which is one of the things I warned you about earlier. However, Fate, while it can be used across multiple genres, excels at a type and method of story telling that can really work wonders for you when you are trying to write. Fate is built very heavily around empowering narrative control. While typically Fate games will have a primary gamemaster that drives the main plot forward, players can influence the untold facts that make up the scenarios they are playing through by spending points they accrue though play. These might be as simple as a player stating that the building is on fire (which would add an aspect to the building itself, of “On Fire” for example, which the player could invoke for bonuses on tasks that would benefit from fire) to pointing out the big bad guy they are fighting has some kind of weak spot.

One of the most rewarding things about Fate though is the way characters are created and played. Characters in Fate don’t have a lot of complicated attributes like Strength and Dexterity and Constitution that govern their abilities and actions but instead use a system called ‘aspects’. Aspects are short phrases about a character that act as a sort of double-edged sword, defining something interesting that the player can draw on to get a boost to succeeding, or can be used to penalise players for acting against their nature, even going so far as for the gamemaster to compel the character towards a bad course of action which is inline with one of their aspects, giving them points to spend later.

Aspects can be anything, from objects, to catchphrases, to relationships. Some examples might include:

  • Daddies Girl
  • “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry”
  • Assassin with a heart of gold
  • Tougher than old boot leather

Aspects all tell a short story about a character, raising as many questions as they answer. They are ideally double-edged swords, for example “Daddies Girl” might mean that character can gain benefits and resources from her father, but on the downside she might be spoiled or lacking self-reliance, depending on what your own personal take is on the phrase. Equally “Tougher than old boot leather” implies a rugged, survivor, someone with scars and experience but also someone cantankerous, stubborn, rough and prickly.

The core Fate rules are completely free and I highly recommend you check them out, both for the way characters are built, but also for the mechanics that influence the rest of play, and thus how the stories form and progress as a game goes on.

I’ve used Fate to help create characters, develop them into more interesting, well rounded characters and to help make scenes more interesting and develop interesting plots by essentially playing multiple characters myself.


Microscope is a big picture game and is incredibly useful for world-building. Instead of playing individual characters, in the game you create a timeline that could span from the creation of the universe to it’s destruction and perhaps even rebirth. One of the strengths of Microscope is that it really builds of the interplay of different players free will and benefits immensely from no pre-planning, no arranged agreements on timeline progression – basically it works best with a no-rules blank slate.

Microscope takes it’s name from the fact that you start big, at the macro level defining huge eons of time and whether they are on the whole negative or positive, then zooming in to focus on individual events and then again to focus on pivotal scenes within those events. If you want to create a rich, vibrant history for your world, playing through a game of Microscope can help make that happen. Another great thing about the game is that you can return to it at any time and keep adding detail.

I’ve used Microscope to do world-building at epic scales as well as acting on small timelines, such as a few weeks, to plot out major events and scenes of a story.


As well as games, there are a bunch of gaming and improv tools you can use to really help you with inspiration whilst writing. I’ve made use of Daniel Solis’ Writer’s Dice before, a simple series of dice with ifs, ands, and buts to throw complications into your plot ideas or your characters actions. Another series of dice I’ve not used before but quite like the look of are Rory’s Story Cubes, a series of dice with simple icons on each side, designed to inspire you to improvise all sorts of stories and situations.

Non-Player Cards

Finally, this brings me to a project of my own – together with a friend, I’ve created my own story inspiration tool, a deck of 300 cards designed to help you come up with ideas for characters in your games or your stories. Playing on the term NPC we called them Non-Player Cards, and they cover 8 categories including relationships, names, professions, physical traits and personality quirks.

By combining cards, you can quickly and easily get a visual and tactile reference of details for a character. Each card also has it’s own individual artwork, to aid in providing additional fuel for your imagination beyond the names and descriptions on each card. The basic deck of 300 is designed to be fairly generic with a slight leaning towards the fantasy genre, but if we are successful we plan on releasing a series of booster decks themed around specific genres and settings, from contemporary modern day to science-fiction, horror and high-fantasy. You can even combine the decks for your modern-day fantasy story needs, or that sci-fi horror you’ve been struggling with.

I’m really excited about Non-Player Cards and how they can change they way you come up with characters. I hope you are too! You can learn more about the project and keep up to date with it’s development over at our kickstarter page.

Image courtesy of Thomas Dippel on Flickr.

Filed under: Guest Posts, Tips & Tricks, writing, cards, fiasco, improvisation, kickstarter, microscope, moderators, non-player characters, NPCs, projects, roleplaying, tabletop, writing exercises

“Writing About Magic,” a book review

Rayne Hall - Fantasy Horror Author - Portrait by Fawnheart
If you are a writer of fantasy, or plan on writing fantasy, having a grasp on magic is necessary to tell a convincing story. Magical systems must make sense, and to contribute to the plot of a story must not be a quick and easy solution to every problem the protagonist faces. Rayne Hall’s how-to eBook, “Writing About Magic,” is a great starting place for those unsure about the workings of magic in fiction. It is also somewhat useful to those more experienced with writing about magic, though more as a refresher and reference than as a guide. The eBook is part of a larger series of how-to guides titled “Writer’s Craft.”

Writing About Magic by Rayne HallRayne’s introduction to the eBook makes it clear that the contents are adapted from a course she taught. It is safe to assume that this course might have taken the form of “Writing Magic 101,” as the eBook offers a very broad and basic overview of the subject. Some of the more common systems of magic are covered and referenced, predominantly those familiar to a Western reader. While Asian, African, and indigenous magic are not presented in the text, Rayne includes references to them in the “Further Reading.”

The eBook is divided into several chapters, each of which deals with a theme or aspect of magic in fiction. These range from rituals to weapons, types of magicians to systems of magic. Each chapter concludes with some “food for thought” and a set of “assignments,” which serve to help develop characters, plot points, and world building. Many of the chapters also include a section on further reading. These are two of the greatest strengths of the eBook, and are useful to both amateurs and pros alike.

Other very beneficial inclusions are the examples of plot points and character conflicts that can be explored. For example, the chapter on ethics offers writers hypothetical situations to be explored based on the code of ethics their mage character follows. While it is not advisable to use the situations exactly as presented by Rayne, they serve well as inspiration.

Overall, Rayne’s guide to writing about magic is a good starting point for writers looking to improve the believability of their stories. It would have been good to see non-Western examples provided, as their exclusion hampers the variety of existing systems, mythologies, and practices available to help inform the reader. The broad scope of topics, ease of reading, and list organization make the eBook particularly useful as a reference for more experienced writers. Plot points, exercises, and reading lists are the greatest assets the eBook has to offer the reader. If you wish to improve the magical content of your story, then “Writing About Magic” is something to consider.

This is the first of two book reviews for entries in the “Writer’s Craft” series, requested by the author. Protagonize was provided with a complimentary copy of the eBook mentioned for review on our blog.

Writing About Magic” is available for purchase online from Rayne Hall’s other publications are available on Amazon and Smashwords. You can also visit her website and follow @RayneHall on Twitter.

Filed under: Book reviews, analysis, book review, ebook review, guides, magic, rayne hall, writer's craft

Plotting, Planning, Probably Perspiring

NaNoWriMo 2013!It’s that time of year again! Those of us in the northern hemisphere are searching for scarves, wrapping our hands around hot beverages, and pretending we’re dragons with each warm breath. Those in the southern hemisphere are… I’m not too sure what goes on down there, could someone fill me in? I’ll just assume the Australian crowd is busy avoiding spiders and drop bears as usual.

Whatever the weather in your part of the world, October brings a challenge to all writers: preparing for National Novel Writing Month! For those of you unaware, NaNoWriMo is a month-long marathon of novel writing held each November. Anyone can win this race, and many people do! Your only competitor is yourself, and simply finishing a 50,000 word story of some sort qualifies you for a nifty badge. (“Simply” might not be the best choice of adverb. I’m open to suggestions on that one.)

Most of the fun is over on the NaNoWriMo website, but that’s not to say you should abandon Protagonize on November 1st!

The official Protagonize NaNo group is dusting itself off in preparation, and offers lots to this year’s participants. You can find a writing buddy to keep you on track, get advice on preparing for your NaNo Novel, and maybe even get some inspiration if you become stuck along the way. Many authors also choose to post their novels-in-progress on Protagonize.

So, how prepared are you for this year? Will you be obsessively world building until midnight on October 31st, sugar-high on Halloween candy? Or are you going in blind with nothing but a few notes on a dirty napkin? Let us know how you’re doing in the comments!

Image courtesy of National Novel Writing Month.

Filed under: Contests & Competitions, NaNoWriMo, writing, 2013, challenge, nanowrimo, novel, november, preparation

Protagonize, Spam, and You

Spammy word cloudBODY GET HEALTHY.

What fun phrases do you see? This word cloud was generated from the spam text of several dozen advertising profiles on Protagonize. Did you know our community attracted spammers? Whether or not you did, here’s a quick guide to “Protagonize, Spam, and You.”

What is spam?

Simply put, “spam” is any undesirable and unavoidable content on the internet. The name refers to the well known processed meat product, but we can track its current meaning back to a Monty Python skit. The more you know!

Alright, but what does spam look like on Protagonize?

Most often, spam on Protagonize comes in the form of advertising profiles. They’ll generally have paragraphs of nonsensical text containing buzzwords and catchphrases (to trigger search results) as well as a link to the website or product they are promoting. Sometimes these fake accounts will post a “story” containing the same gibberish.

However, spam can also come in the form of repetitive comments or direct messages to our users. A common example is someone asking half of Protagonize to add them on some social network, to forward them a manuscript for publication, or critique something they would like published. The last example can be tricky, since sometimes people are just desperate to have their work read and aren’t trying to generate spam.

So what do I do if I come across spam or a spammer?

Report it! One of the options when you report a user or content is “Spam or Advertising Material.” Any report you make will be sent to the moderators for review.

That said, the moderation team is usually pretty good at weeding out spam accounts before anyone else notices them. We’ll typically delete about a dozen spam profiles each week, though it isn’t unheard of to delete that many in a single day! But on the off chance we’re in the middle of writing a new chapter and you come across some spam, report it and we’ll delete it when we have the chance.

And that’s it!

If you have any other questions not answered here, you can ask them in the comments or send a direct message to one of the moderators.

Filed under: Education & Literacy, General, Site mechanics, advertising, community, fake profiles, moderation, reporting, spam, spammers

A Home for Every Orphan

A Home for Every Orphan

You might already know that Protagonize has it’s own Pub, but did you know there’s a Protagonize orphanage, too? There is! Sort of.

Stores with only one chapter, the root, are known as orphans. You can look at all the orphaned stories when browsing by story type.

Just like their namesakes, Protagonize orphans are in need of a little love. Adding chapters to an orphan is often a great way to meet new authors, get your name out in the Protagonize community, and participate in collaborative writing. Even if the story doesn’t end up going anywhere, it’s always nice to see a chapter or two added to one’s work.

But what if you want to see an orphaned story completed?

Well, you might be interested in the Collaborative Writing Contest! We’ll be taking an orphaned story and challenging the participants in the contest to write on chapter each in chain fashion. There will be a small panel of expert judges who will review and critique each chapter, eventually selecting the three top contestants. These three will then submit a final chapter to be voted on by all the contestants and judges to determine the ending! Exciting, eh?

And what’s a contest without a prize? In addition to the pride of winning the first ever Collaborative Writing Contest, the winner will be able to participate in the next contest as a judge, where the orphaned work is one of their own!

For details on signing up and the contest structure, please visit the official contest group page.

Photo courtesy of opensourceway on Flickr.

Filed under: Collaborative writing, Contests & Competitions, General, Groups, competition, contest, orphans, prizes