Article Header Image
Writers on Roleplaying: Davis, Mayo & Pelegrimas
Spotlight Interview
Christopher Dinkins & Jeremy Jones

In today’s spotlight interviews, we ask three celebrated authors—both with acclaim in the Western genre—about the role of roleplaying in their literary careers.

Russell Davis is a remarkably versatile writer and editor. He hits all the genres with equal enthusiasm. He’s also been playing Dungeons & Dragons and other RPGs for nearly 30 years, and it shows in his work in the best possible ways. Davis is an active member of the Western Writers of America and is a former president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. It’s safe to say that he is an active and very public advocate of speculative fiction and westerns.

Davis recently released a string of Western anthologies entitled Lost Trails, Ghost Town, and Law of the Gun, all co-edited with Martin H. Greenberg. Davis’ short story “The First Ride of Monday Happenstance,” which appears in Law of the Gun, begins with words of wisdom that every gamer ought to hear: “What you do isn’t always a reflection of who you are, and… a man is known less by the company he keeps than by how he keeps his word to his company.”

Davis has written under a variety of pen- and house-names. Most recently he has been writing Don Pendeleton’s The Executioner novels for Gold Eagle. In the hands of Davis, these short action-adventure tales read like the campaign notes for a gun-toting paladin running solo through a modern-day Tomb of Horrors or like a particularly brutal night of the old Top Secret RPG.

Matthew P. Mayo grew up in rural New England among cow pastures, rolling hills, and snow banks. He and his brother whiled away their days milking cows, shoveling snow, and rolling dice—polyhedral dice. Born to a family of avid readers, the Mayo brothers were as likely to be reading as climbing trees, hiking, kayaking or fishing… or delving into the darkest, nastiest, most goblin-infested dungeon they could find.

These days Mayo is a freelance writer and editor. His recent books Cowboys, Mountain Men, & Grizzly Bears: Fifty of the Grittiest Moments in the History of the Wild West and Bootleggers, Lobstermen & Lumberjacks: Fifty of the Grittiest Moments in the History of Hardscrabble New England are sort of like a historian’s version of Dungeon Delve—full of fast and furious one-offs set in harsh environs.

Mayo writes pulpy short fiction—pulpy in the best sense of the word—in a variety of genres, and he also pens Western novels that are simultaneously action-packed and character-driven, fast-moving and deeply layered. And there’s enough dark humor and biting wit to make you wonder if Mayo didn’t play an awful lot of the old Boot Hill RPG with his brother, too!

Horror novelist Marcus Pelegrimas learned the basics of fiction writing at the gaming table. Playing Dungeons & Dragons and other RPGs served as a sort of extended boot camp for what would develop into a career of tormenting his characters with werewolves, vampires, and other evil minions lurking in a chaotic world.

Under his own name, Pelegrimas writes the Skinners series, and as Marcus Galloway he writes two western series, The Man from Boot Hill and The Accomplice. There are no easy encounters in a Pelegrimas/Galloway novel. He’s not in the business of patting his characters on the back and handing out experience points. No, in a Pelegrimas novel the guano is always hitting the proverbial fan.

These days Pelegrimas is polishing up the galleys for Skinner #5, revising the first draft of Skinners #6, and writing more westerns as Marcus Galloway and as Ralph Compton. With more than a dozen books and decades of gaming under his belt, he’s more versatile than ever, ready to meet any surprises the stories or the games throw his way.

What has playing RPGs taught you about writing fiction?

Russell Davis: I started playing Dungeons & Dragons back in the early ‘80s. I still have my original books and even the Keep on the Borderlands module that came with it. In the intervening years, I’ve played a number of other RPGs, and more recently MMORPGs like World of Warcraft. But when I first started playing D&D, that’s when I realized that part of what made the game work was very applicable to what made a good book or story work: that is, active participation, either as a player or a reader. When a person reads a story he or she loves, he or she essentially becomes a character in the story. The same is true for an RPG, though the participation is obviously different. As a writer, knowing early on that we want to be a part of the story really helped me to view my fiction from the perspective of the reader.

Matthew P. Mayo: There was a time when I played D&D almost exclusively years ago, and have fond memories of sitting around the table with my friends, and with Fritos, Dr. Pepper, and my lucky Batman shirt (still have it, I think its remnants are balled up in a drawer) to guide me…. Though I didn't give it much thought at the time, working away at thorny problems alone and with friends around the table taught me so much about building a compelling story. D&D is among the few specific things in my life I can point to and say, "That helped me become a writer." Of course, everything contributes to everything else in life, but recognizable elements form a shorter list… such as the fact that both my parents are big readers, which they've passed on to me and my brother, Jeffrey, who reads—and games—all the time. He's the real gamer in the family.

Marcus Pelegrimas: When I was starting off as a writer, playing RPGs taught me a lot about the fundamentals of writing. Things like character development and evolution, conflict, and pacing are as important to games as they are to written stories. As a player, gaming really allowed me to get inside the head of my character which turned out to be an amazing exercise in creating characters for novels and short stories.

Are there any similarities between the act of playing an RPG and the act of writing fiction?

Russell Davis: Sure. As a writer, I’m creating a storyline, choosing actions for characters, imagining an entirely new world and so on and so forth. Playing an RPG is not substantially different, except that the storyline is given to me by the game master, but the actions I choose, my role in the story as a player, etc., are very much like writing.

Matthew P. Mayo: To be done successfully, they both demand that you be focused on the task at hand and engaged in a way that television, for instance, will never require. RPGing and writing are both participatory pursuits that go much better when you can roll up your sleeves and dig in with both hands.

Marcus Pelegrimas: I would say the biggest similarities come from running an RPG. Acting as a DM (or Storyteller or whatever your game calls the Game Master) is very similar to being a writer. Both put you in the role of supreme authority in that particular world. It helps you bridge the gap between what you think may be a cool idea and how that idea is put into action. It’s also a great way to work the muscles that can pull a writer out of a slump. As a DM, I have the world and bad guys ready to go. I have a plot in mind, but it’s the characters (or players) that move that plot along.

While running a game, I learned to be fluid with my story and bend it according to how the players played. If they were slow, I would know when to add some action. If they did something unexpected, I crafted consequences which ultimately made the entire gaming world grow. I ran a D&D game for about three years or so with the same group, and they would always surprise me. Working around the curveballs they threw or crafting situations I knew they would stumble into greatly helped me as a writer. Now, when I’m stuck or blocked, I let my characters go and see what they would do next. Then I react, mold the world around them while nudging them toward my ultimate goal, and presto: I’m unstuck!

How is the relationship between writer and character different than the relationship between the player and character?

Russell Davis: I think the primary difference is that as a writer, I’m trying to facilitate what a character will do within the framework of the story I’m telling. As a player, to one degree or another, I am the character and am reacting to the story that’s around me. The element of control is present in both scenarios, though it’s very different. Put simply, as a writer, I’m telling the story… as a player, I’m a part of it.

Matthew P. Mayo: I view the relationship between writer and character as, of necessity, a more intimate one than that between a player and character. Primarily because writers work alone, they tend to spend lots of one-on-one time with a character, learning all the likes and dislikes, picking at the knobby little secrets of the character. Players may have a similar experience when they are creating their characters, but then when they’re introduced to the world, that relationship changes, becomes less intimate and more shared. Not a bad thing, just a different thing.

Marcus Pelegrimas: As a writer, it’s tougher because I know where the character is going but I can’t make their path too obvious for them. I know their fate (sooner or later), but they can’t know it. When a huge battle is coming up in one of my books, I may know which characters will walk away unharmed and which will die or be wounded, but the characters can’t know that. They have to be scared or over-confident without it seeming contrived. As a player, I can just play my character exactly how I want because I truly don’t know what’s coming or if I’ll make it. It’s not so much knowing whether or not there’s a safety net beneath you but rather being able to convincingly act like there isn’t one.

What hasn’t playing RPGs taught you about fiction? Or, what is a significant difference between playing and writing?

Russell Davis: It’s funny—and I just now thought of this—but playing an RPG is an awful lot like writing media tie-in fiction, at least in some cases. You’re given a pre-established world, and you’ve got to write a story within certain parameters. Often there’s a so-called bible that lists the dos and don’ts of writing in that world. It’s quite a bit like an RPG.

I think the biggest problem, really, of playing an RPG for writers is that it tends to create a mentality of pushing around the characters—and it’s certainly something I dealt with in my own work. Sometimes, the temptation to make a character take a certain action in order for the plot to work the way you want as a writer… it’s almost overwhelming. And it almost never works. In fiction, the characters have to behave in ways that work for those characters, not bow to the demands of the plot the writer wants. In playing an RPG, we can choose virtually any action for our characters, whether it makes sense or not, whether it works for the story or not. Drives game masters crazy, too. So, for me, I think what RPGs didn’t teach me was the difference between a character I control… and a character that controls his/her own story.

Matthew P. Mayo: A significant difference for me is that writing is a solitary pursuit, whereas playing RPGs is best enjoyed among a handful of friends. I look at my time spent playing D&D as truly formative. Because it's rare that I play now (too dang busy with writing, though my wife and I still play D&D occasionally), it feels as though, writing-wise, I can look back on that time as a training period for me, and one that has morphed into different periods of learning. I'd like to think I've actively applied to writing what I gleaned from gaming: building characters, developing interesting plots, figuring out intriguing ways out of dead ends, accepting loss gracefully. Hmm… maybe I need a D&D refresher course….