Feb 11 2011 11:37am

Roles That Bind: Roleplaying Games and the Fantasy Genre

Dungeons & Dragons home campaignMy earliest attempts at writing fell largely into two categories: emulating my favorite authors, and stories based on roleplaying games. For me it was a natural progression from reading fantasy to roleplaying to writing. My first novels were little more than extrapolations of these mutually-bound activities. (What if Sir Galahad existed in a Gary Gygax world? What if a team of adventurers acted like the characters from Mission: Impossible?) Those novels were (thankfully) never published, but I learned a great deal from them. Let me sum up some of those lessons.

The mainstream doesn’t have much respect for gaming. By gaming, I mean fantasy roleplaying. Shooter and sports games like Halo and Madden get a pass and are even considered cool in some social circles, but if you sit around a table with a bunch of friends pretending to slay orcs, you’re labeled a geek of the worst kind. That seems silly to me. How a person chooses to spend his/her leisure time is none of my business, but pretending to shoot aliens or score touchdowns is certainly no more mainstream than kicking dragon ass in my book.

Roleplaying campaigns don’t necessarily make for fine literature. Now there are some exceptions. Author Steven Erikson has stated that his very awesome Malazan Book of the Fallen series was based on a roleplaying campaign. But Mr. Erikson has also made it clear that he was consciously running away from the tropes of gaming (and fantasy) in creating his epic.

Why don’t roleplaying games make for good fantasy stories? Well, for one, most gaming systems have rigid structures for character archetypes (classes), development (leveling), behavior (alignment/roleplaying suggestions), and abilities (powers/spells). And once you start thinking of your story character as a game piece, you’ve taken a very large step toward creating a caricature, unintended as it may be. In literature, characters are organic creations. They act, react, and interact based upon how the author views humanity, not how a game designer sees the world.

Another reason most gaming adventures don’t translate well into prose is that gaming is often little more than wish fulfillment, which is fine in and of itself, but it doesn’t bode well for your narrative. You could argue that escapist literature is everywhere, and I’d not deny it, but I don’t believe that should be your highest writing goal.

But what about gamers who read fantasy? Certainly they would enjoy books about campaign-derived adventures. Some of them do (and it might be less than you suspect, or hope), but unless you’re representing a name brand like Wizards of the Coast or Lucas Arts, you have a better chance of winning the lottery than getting anyone to pay attention to your homebrew campaign.

It isn’t my intention to disrespect gamers. I’m one of you, and I’ll defend your right to slay monsters and loot their bodies until my last breath. But if you’re also an aspiring author and you think your home campaign would make a great springboard for a novel, then knock yourself out. Write the best damned RPG-based book ever. And then do yourself a favor and put it in a drawer while you move on to other projects. That might not be what you want to hear, but there it is. We can debate the stuffiness of the literary world until the brie comes home, but writing for publication is a tough business. If you write anything that isn’t flavor-of-the-month and embraced by society at large, you’re already behind the 8-ball. So why make it tougher than it needs to be?

I think fantasy and roleplaying games are a natural fit. They feed each other in some very positive ways. Dungeons & Dragons was hugely influenced by J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and in turn spawned a generation of fantasy series—some good, some bad, and others just plain ugly. But if you’re creating literature (and if you want to be published, in my opinion, this should be your real aim), at some point you’ll need to throw off the comfortable shackles of gaming conventions and test your wings in the larger world.

Jon Sprunk is the author of Shadow's Son (Pyr Books) and the soon-to-be-released sequel, Shadow's Lure. He is wintering with his family in chilly central Pennsylvania.

John Ginsberg-Stevens
1. eruditeogre
This makes a lot of sense to me, although I would be a bit more
generous in acknowledging how running a game can give you insight into story structure. My first novel attempt was basically a rehash of a D&D campaign, and it did not work, for most of the reasons you outline. I think you do have to change your goals, and not rely on what you did, but apply the experience of being-in-a-story to your writing. I learned a lot about how to shape a narrative from RPGing, and it has helped me to work through plot entanglements in my current story.
Mathew Bridle
2. Mathew Bridle
I'm a big fan of RPG so lang as it has depth. Many scratch teh surface and some like World of Warcraft, are possible to play without taking onboard any of the story. And, as you say you must break out of the fixed class / character scenario or it will die or at best limp along.
I write fantasy, I use elements of gaming but avoid streotyping ans rigid character / class / roles. Characters are people and must have the freedom to adapt and change.
Alejandro Melchor
3. Al-X
I slightly disagree with the idea that RPG campaigns do not make good novel-fodder. At its core, writing a fantasy novel and developing a campaign have one thing in common: world-building. While the world-building for an RPG can take into account the system it is being developed for, the "social" inside-the-story elements are independent.

I've read my share of franchise novels where I could literally hear the dice rolling, but also others where the game elements are introduced more as a nod to the base franchise than strict guidelines, as well as non-derived novels with such a rigid structure to the world-building that translating them into a RPG would be just a matter of adding numbers.

I've been writing freelance for RPGs for several years and playing for even longer, but also published narrative here and there, and I've found that the skillsets for developing a RPG product and a novel are highly complementary, it's just a matter of identifying the languages of each medium and making sure not to use tropes of one that don't work in the other.
Matthew Schmeer
4. mwschmeer
The Deed of Paksenarrion.

THAT is how RPGs should be translated into good reading.
Luis Milan
5. LuisMilan
Hah! This reminds me of the time I took my Mage: The Ascension RPG character, wrote a small novel about what he did when he wasn't hanging out with the other RPG characters (with some input from my Storyteller) and I wrote new characters and antagonists for that novel. My Storyteller liked it so much, he used those new characters in our game as NPCs.

It was as good a first novel as you'd expect (i.e. not much at all), but it was fun to write, it was a great writing experiment, and it was something cool to read for my fellow gamer friends.

So my advice: if you want to write it, do it for the fun of it. Who knows, maybe one of us will find a true calling in writing fantasy/game novels.
Sky Thibedeau
6. SkylarkThibedeau
LOL My penname is that of my favorite D&D character. My real name is exactly the same as a main character on a science fiction TV show/Movie/Comic though I came before them.

Most of our D&D campaigns were modules bought from TSR so I'm sure any stories we would have written would have brought the IP and copyright police down on us.
Mathew Bridle
7. Lsana
I think this depends on just what sort of RPG you are playing. If you are playing Rangar, 7th level Elf Barbarian, as a tool through which to kill monsters and collect their XP, then probably this is not a novel, no matter how interesting your quest is.

If, however, you are more interested in figuring out what it is like to BE Rangar rather than just using him, then this is a different ball game. If you can find a way to see events through his eyes rather than your own. If you figure out just what being a "7th level Elf Barbarian" means to him. If you spend sometime talking to the other players in character and allow the relationships between them to develop organically. If you can do that, I think you have a good jumping off point for a novel, at least, even if you probably need to tone down the mechanics elements.
Christopher Johnstone
8. CPJ
I'm afraid I agree with Jon entirely. I've never been entirely sure exactly why, but ever heavily narrativist games with character as the focus just don't tent to translate well to written stories.

I used to think it had something to do with the strucutre of game stories vs book stories, or something to do with the way in which characters in RPGs tend to be mostly diagloue/action and not as much psychology (after all, other players can't actually read your mind, but readers read the mind of characters all the time). Even games that are *heavy* on character psychology are still lightweights compared to a good novel. And yet, I'm unsure now whether any of that is right. There is something importantly different, I just don't know what.

The thing is, in the end, it's difficult to imagine a book like 1984 or The Dispossesed or Crime and Punishment or even the Sherlock Holmes stories coming out of a game, even if it's a very good game. There is some link in the creative process missing, or some aspect of the narrative that doesn't link up, though I don't exactly know what it is. There's probably an arts PhD buried somewhere in this mess for someone.

This doesn't denigrate gaming in any way. I write RPGs for fun and it's a great thing to do. It's a great hobby, I just don't think that the narrative structure of RPGs is the same narrative structure as written stories. Maybe RPGs would make better graphic novels or short films or something?

David Thomson
9. ZetaStriker
I'm wholly agreed with it as well; role-playing games, even those with a very, very strong narrative inclination, are generally structured in a way that just doesn't lend itself well to a literary novel. The enjoyment of the players, and not the flow of the narrative, is the primary focus, whether that involves killing everything for treasure and XP or having long conversations about a PC's dark past.

But that is not to say that it isn't useful as a tool. A setting can be further fleshed out by expanding it to others in a DnD campaign. An NPC can serve as a prototype for an actual character. An author can take the pieces that work and use it in an original narrative to great effect. Those who get it right read like Erikson. Those that don't read like Drizzt.
Mathew Bridle
10. Stefan Jones
I've had some awful experiences listening to friends read story versions of their RPG sessions . . . or had friends who insisted on watching me as I read them myself. (Shudder.)

I have an impression that there is, among budding SF/fantasy novelists, an overemphasis on worldbuilding . Or instead: an unrealistic expectation that a carefully constructed world will lead to a good novel.

A good, compelling story about interesting characters is a far more difficult thing to put together than the gazeteer of an intricate fantasy world. A good narrative can in fact weave a web of illusion that there is an intricate world behind a story.
Mathew Bridle
11. Mndrew
I contest and provide as evidence Joel Rosenberg's "Guardians of the Flame" and George R. R. Martin's "Wildcards".
Sol Foster
12. colomon
I'm a bit puzzled over this article. I mean, of course the actual narrative of an RPG campaign is just as unlikely to create a good book as vice versa -- that's pretty straightforward and obvious, they are two different things.

At the same time, each seems to be fine inspiration for the other. RPGs inspired by books are obvious, but it goes the other way, too. It is my understanding (and in one case, first hand experience) that some works of John C. Wright, L. Jagi Lamplighter, and Elizabeth Bear have been inspired by RPG games. In the examples I know first-hand, interesting characters are the primary game influence, setting less so (and in disguise), and plot doesn't really carry over at all.

It would be surprising if it weren't so! Good, long-running games can certainly generate interesting characters. If you are both a gamer and a novelist, why not take advantage of that?
Mathew Bridle
13. DarrenJL
When I was a kid, I loved the Gord the Rogue novels that Gygax wrote. Not sure I would enjoy them today, but then I don't like the David Eddings books I liked at the same age anymore, either. Also loved the Dragonlance novels, which not only were based on a campaign, but were a promotional attempt to sell a campaign. Other rpg books I enjoyed were Rob Charrette's Shadowrun novels.

I agree with Mr. Sprunk that none of these were high literature. Or even high exemplars of the fantasy genre. But I disagree entirely with his conclusions. Geeks read books. Not just "too", geeks read books, where a lot of people do not. How many horrible (you heard me) Star Trek novels get sold? Never mind Doctor Who! It's not the arbiters of cool who are buying them. It's geeks. Of course if you write a book based on a campaign, it should probably be a campaign in which the characters shone more than the backdrop, but I don't think you need to keep the finished product in the closet.
john mullen
14. johntheirishmongol
I thought Rosenberg's books were fun until they got away from their RPG roots.

RPG's are episodic by nature and tend to wander from place to place, whereas a decent novel should have defined goals even is they don't appear obvious at first. Even the best game I ever played had issues with that long term a vision.
Mathew Bridle
15. Neon Sequitur
most gaming systems have rigid structures for character archetypes(classes), development (leveling), behavior (alignment/roleplayingsuggestions), and abilities (powers/spells).

This is where I have to disagree. Not all RPG's are D&D -- and I wonder if the author has played any other games. There are dozens (if not hundreds) of other RPG's on the market, and most of them aren't this rigid -- clunky mechanics that pigeon-hole every character like classes, levels, and especially alignment are the exception, not the norm.

In literature, characters are organic creations. They act, react, andinteract based upon how the author views humanity, not how a gamedesigner sees the world.

...and of course, role-players are incapable of doing this, right? Again, I have to disagree. The author is painting all RPG-ers with a very broad brush -- again, I assume, based on his own gaming experiences.

It isn’t my intention to disrespect gamers.

I'm glad to hear that. Hopefully that means you'll refrain from stereotyping us all as brain-dead hack-and-slash munchkins.

I’m one of you, and I’ll defend your right to slay monsters and loot their bodies until my last breath.

Then again, maybe not. Seriously, if your premise is "bad D&D campaigns aren't a good basis for fantasy novels" then okay. But that isn't even close to "most RPG's".
Scott Raun
16. sraun
A couple of unlisted inspired-by RPG books - Steve Brust's Dragaera books, M.A.R. Barker's Tekumel books, and Raymond Feist's Riftwar books.

I know that the characters in the Dragaera RPG were transferred to the books - my first edition Jhereg is signed by all the characters/players. But, I also know that Steve used the RPG characters as starting points for the books, and the characters in the books are Steve's take on them, and not the players. AIUI, Steve had some legal paperwork done to this effect.

I think the difference between the two may be who's running the cast of characters - in an RPG, you've got many problem-solvers vs. (usually) one problem-creator. In a novel, the problem-solver and the problem-creator are the same person (again, usually). What make for a fun problem for a group to solve is really hard to write up in a fashion that will be fun for a reader, and vice versa. It may come down to viewpoint - an RPG is practically always experienced simultaneously from multiple points of view, while a novel is experienced from a single point of view.
Justin Levitt
17. TyranAmiros
I have to agree with sraun@16 that the central problem is the one vs. many creators. I came up with my online handle during a Wheel of Time RPG--Tyran Amiros was as Altaran knifesman who had the ability to channel and went off to join the Black Tower. No matter what I wanted to do with my character, it was never fully my decision; other players would participate in campaigns and my character grew out of that in directions I didn't expect.

The other thing is that a novel necessarily is closed whereas an RPG is open. What I mean is that when you finish a book or series, the Big Bad has been defeated or the protagonist has accepted his fate or something similar. With an RPG, it can go on as long as you're interested in the characters and the world. We may have defeated 24 badgers, but now it's time to defeat a 25th (I had a DM obsessed with badgers)!

The first true "adult" fantasy I read was actually Dragonmount, which if not directly RPG-based, is pretty close, so I have a sentimental attachment to the RPG-based genre. I know there's a Dragonmount D&D campaign, but I think that came after the books. You can really see the D&D-style influences in the worldbuilding in Dragonmount, just as you can with the Magic: the Gathering books. It's what gave Diana Wynne Jones fodder for the Tough Guide.

In a way, the central motif of the quest serves to connect the two styles. Whether its an RPG or a novel, you're out searching for something and have to defeat the obstacles in your way.
Sol Foster
18. colomon
srann, I'd have mentioned Dragaera myself if I'd had more to go on than ancient memories and vague Internet rumors. Thanks for providing some substance on the subject!

I'd like to send kudos to Neon Sequitur, too. Sprunk seems to be confusing late 70s style D&D with the much wider world of RPGs....
rob mcCathy
19. roblewmac
I think a GAME setting might make a good setting and some characters may work in stories but imagine how depressing a novel written LIKE a game would be? "obar left the town of blackpool Meaning to kill the Wizard Slapdash and that would have been a great story but he rolled a one and broke his neck in a pit-trap"
Mathew Bridle
20. Neon Sequitur
I think a GAME setting might make a good setting and some characters may work in stories but imagine how depressing a novel written LIKE a game would be? "obar left the town of blackpool Meaning to kill the Wizard Slapdash and that would have been a great story but he rolled a one and broke his neck in a pit-trap"

This is exactly why "save or die" rule mechanics have mostly gone out of style in RPG's; because the players wanted to develop characters and tell stories about them, rather than killing off an endless series of one-dimensional sacrificial victims. A well-written RPG will support character development and growth, not just mindless slaughter and/or endless power-ups.

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