English 280 combines creative and professional writing | Features

English professor Martin Buinicki’s new course, English 280: Writing for RPGs, is a brand new class at Valparaiso University to be held in the fall of 2022. Writing for RPGs will focus on how narrative works in tabletop RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons or Dungeon Crawl Classics.

According to Buinicki, RPGs are a form of “collaborative storytelling that revolves around a certain set of rules and mechanics”.

By the end of the course, students will have written their own fantasy or sci-fi RPG adventure, ready for testing.

“You can role-play without writing anything up front, but what we’re doing in this course is kind of learning to write the material that some players might want to use, instead of coming up with their own script. … It’s really a kind of collaborative storytelling, or even a kind of shared improvisation, which is part of what makes it unique as a writing task,” Buinicki said.

Creating adventure modules for RPGs poses a number of challenges because writers can never really expect what their players will choose to do next. For example, a writer may come up with several possible endings, depending on the actions of the players.

“When you write an adventure module, you have to leave enough room for people to improvise and for people to bring their own creativity,” Buinicki said. “But you want to provide enough structure that people can just come together and play without feeling the pressure of having to find all the characters and all the conflicts and all the goals on their own.”

Buinicki’s inspiration for creating the course came from his work publishing adventure modules through the company Gaming Honors, of which he is the lead writer. According to Buinicki, working on publishable modules brings a number of skills, not only in creative writing but also in professional technical writing.

“I write about fantasy characters, magic, traps and monsters, but it’s also an instruction manual. I have to tell the reader what to do and how to make sense of the alternatives,” Buinicki said. “And when I really started thinking about it as a professional writing experience, I thought it might be a really good class because whether or not you want to pursue a career in the role-playing game business, which, like any kind of creative endeavor, is pretty hard to do. You can learn to be a better writer writing these adventures because you’re going to be able to exercise your creativity, but you’re also going to learn how to write really clear and understandable prose so that people can follow and know what to do.”

Students who wish to join the class are encouraged to do so, even if they have no prior experience writing or playing RPGs.

“I would definitely encourage them if they’re interested or curious to take the course,” Buinicki said. “We will be working with a game system called Dungeon Crawl Classics, which many students are probably unfamiliar with. So hopefully everyone will start off on an equal footing and that many students are likely to learn this system at the same time.

Buinicki notes, however, that students will not be required to produce their final projects using Dungeon Crawl Classics. Students who come after playing other systems, such as D&D or Call of Cthulhu, can also write using this.

“I don’t want anyone to feel like they can’t take the course because they haven’t played it,” Buinicki said. “All I would ask is that they be interested and curious, because it’s not going to be a lecture. There’s going to be a lot of playtesting and sort of testing… You have to be interested in wanting to play these games as well as writing them.

English 280: Writing for Role-Playing Games is currently scheduled as an MWF course, from 10:30 a.m. to 11:20 a.m. The modules published by Professor Buinicki are available on gaminghonors.com.

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