The Best Characters of All: Seth Johnson on Gaming & Writing

Seth Johnson is a writer and game designer who thrives on the interplay (and the anticipation of interplay) between writer and audience.  A real slinger of ink, as the name of his website suggests, Johnson seems to have worked just about every type of writing gig possible – copy writing, copy editing, play-testing, design, you name it.

Johnson has been involved with some of the most recognizable properties in popular culture, such as Marvel comics, DC comics, and World of Warcraft.  He also has written copy for such publishers as Carroll & Graf and Tor/Forge books.

Johnson contributed an essay on the game Lost Cities to Family Games: The 100 Best.  Below, he weighs in on playing games and writing.


What has playing games taught you about writing (of any sort)?


Seth Johnson: The more games I play, the more I come to understand how a great game’s mechanics and metaphor work together to generate really satisfying experiences for players. In turn, that’s helped me hone my instincts as a writer, understanding how structure and setting work together to create great stories.

The rules and mechanics of a game place limitations on a player, but also give their choices meaning and consequence. Similarly, a story without structure may meander through interesting territory, but the destination it arrives at will probably be unsatisfying–if it gets there at all. A story with structure, where actions and events happen naturally given the limitations of the setting, and where those events have natural and meaningful consequences, is just like a game with good rules that lead to satisfying gameplay for its players.

But good rules and satisfying strategic gameplay can still be abstract and dry if they’re not paired with an evocative metaphor. Taking turns rolling dice and guessing what cards are in other players’ hands might be fun… but add a sprawling mansion, a collection of oddball guests, an arsenal of weapons — and suddenly players are detectives in the much more compelling murder mysteries of Clue. An interesting setting similarly brings the events of a story to life, surrounding them in a larger context that extends into the future, the past, and off both edges of the page.

A good and satisfying game has the best characters of all — you and other players. The story you generate with your gameplay, within the context provided by the metaphor of the game and shaped by the limitations of its rules, can be as dramatic and satisfying as the best fiction.

Play good games, and watch for both the rational and emotional reasons you make the choices you do while playing. As you come to understand good games and their players, you’ll have a lot of fun while you become a better writer.


Is there a game every writer should try?


Seth Johnson: I love to play and design games, so the list of games I would suggest might go on and on. But to limit myself a bit, I’m currently having a lot of fun exploring the new wave of small-press “storygames” that are even more driven by character and narrative than role-playing games of the past. In particular, I’d recommend checking out Vincent Baker’s In a Wicked Age and its story-generating oracles, the high-octane character drama of Graham Walmsley’s A Taste for Murder, and John Harper’s Lady Blackbird for sheer, evocative simplicity.


In what ways does playing games enhance your creativity?


Seth Johnson: Good games have strategic choices that you can approach purely intellectually. Great games engage you not just intellectually but emotionally, and push you to make choices that aren’t just strategic but creative. Role-playing games, and especially the new wave of small-press “storygames”, are explicitly built around gameplay engines that ask players to generate narratives. Yet even good board games (and you’ll find plenty of those in James Lowder’s 100 BEST books) generate compelling stories if you pay attention. Stories are always being told all around you, and it’s no exception when you sit down to play a game.


Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher.  He is the Staff Interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine and a frequent contributor to Kobold Quarterly.  He teaches at Wofford College and Montessori Academy in Spartanburg, SC.  He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.

4 thoughts on “The Best Characters of All: Seth Johnson on Gaming & Writing

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