How Your RPG Campaign Can Inspire Your Novel

I’m sometimes startled to realize how many of the stories I’ve written have their roots in a role-playing game. They’re by far the minority among my published works, but even so: depending on how you count it, one novel series, one novella series, a novelette, and three short stories have been shaped in some fashion by my RPG experiences. If you include unpublished works, the list increases by at least two more novel series and another short story.

I say “depending on how you count it” because the nature of that influence varies from work to work. Nothing I’ve written is a direct retelling of a whole game. Some make use of pretty significant elements; one is barely related at all, being an idea that sprang sideways out of my character concept and thereafter had nothing to do with it. The process of adaptation changes based on what bit of the game you’re using as your springboard: a setting, a character, a plot. If you’re minded to adapt your own game experiences in some fashion, it can help to look at it from those angles and figure out what you’re dealing with—so let’s dig into each possibility in turn.

A Disclaimer: Before we get started, though, let me make clear: this post will largely be focused on the craft challenges of such an adaptation. As some of you probably know, there’s another dimension to consider, which is the legal one. An RPG is not a solo endeavor; it involves other players, a GM, game designers, setting writers, and so on, and that means copyright may be involved. This is a complicated issue, and I’m not a lawyer, so I’m not going to attempt to lay down any clear-cut advice in that regard; if you think you might be treading on such ground, I recommend you consult an IP lawyer for real counsel. But as my own experience shows, I don’t think such considerations automatically mean that RPG material can never be reworked as fiction, as long as you go about it the right way.

“The right way” should also be “the ethical way.” Even if your fellow players don’t have copyright on their contributions to the game, you still have an ethical obligation to respect their creative efforts. There’s a running thread throughout the rest of this essay, which is that whatever the core of your adaptation is, you should do as much as you can to change everything else—to come up with your own ideas, your own backstory, your own cosmology to underpin the world and outward flourishes to relate it to the reader. If you want to keep an element that originated with another player, talk to them first. Don’t just re-use their ideas without permission. Even if it’s legal, it isn’t very nice. And why would you want to risk a friendship over something like that?

With that said, on to the approaches!

Setting

Re-using the setting of a game for later fiction is either the easiest or most difficult form of adaptation, depending on the sense in which you mean it.

The easy road is the one that departs from a setting you made up yourself. The GM who invents a whole world in which to play out a story is proverbial; in fact, some of them already plan to employ that setting for short stories or novels, and are using the game as a way to flesh it out or share their ideas with others. If you’re the one who made up the world, awesome! Rock on with your creative self! Because the ideas are your own, there’s nothing stopping you from using them again elsewhere. I did something along these lines myself once; the world of the short story “A Mask of Flesh” is based on the research I did into Mesoamerican folklore for a Changeling: The Dreaming game. Remove the human side, leaving only the folklore, and I had a ready-made society of monkey-people and jaguar-people and feathered serpents, whose political structure and social customs were entirely my own work.

But what if the ideas aren’t your own? What if you were just a player, and your GM is the one who made up the world? The answer to that is between you, your GM, and your ethics. If the creator is cool with it, you can in theory go ahead and use their setting for stories—but you risk a minefield later. What if you write a novel and it becomes a bestseller? Shouldn’t you, in good conscience, share some of that wealth with them? What if they want to write their own books in that world, after you’ve already staked a public claim? I believe that second scenario is akin to the one Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esslemont found themselves in with the world of Malazan; it was a joint creation from day one, and they agreed to each publish their own series based on their game, in consultation with each other. You may not wind up in so intense of a collaboration, but if you want to use a world one of your friends invented, I highly recommend that you write out and sign an equitable agreement beforehand… however you may define “equitable” in those circumstances. It doesn’t guarantee you’ll avoid hard feelings later, but at least it reduces the risk.

When it comes to a setting made up by a company instead of a personal friend of yours, though, you’re scaling a pretty difficult mountain. Unless you’re writing licensed tie-in fiction for Paizo or White Wolf or Chaosium or whoever, that whole “equitable agreement” approach isn’t really an option. And while many elements that may appear in game settings are public domain—nobody owns the copyright on the general idea of vampires or faeries or space marines—the specific versions you see in those settings are not free for the taking. So if you’ve fallen in love with a game setting and really want to write a publishable piece of original fiction that takes place there, you’re going to have to break out the file and get to work on those serial numbers.

Which is, I’ll admit, easier said than done. The elements of a setting are interwoven with each other, and they create the flavor you’ve fallen in love with. You have to break that flavor into its component ingredients, so to speak, and figure out which ones you love the most, then—to run this cooking metaphor into the ground—invent a new dish to use them in. If what you love about Legend of the Five Rings is the moral dilemmas posed by the code of bushido, can you write a historical fantasy set in Japan instead? Or come up with a similar-but-not-identical moral code, and then create a society that follows such a code? If instead you’re really attached to the Spirit Realms, can you keep that part while replacing the human side of things wholesale? If what you love about the setting is the warring factions, each with its own strong personality, can you make a different, non-Japanese-inspired society with a similar political matrix? It will be tempting to carry a lot of details along for the ride, dividing each faction into a group of families and giving each family its own special techniques that —

Resist. Resist. Make yourself come up with something equally cool to take the place of those details. Keep only the ones that you really and truly love the most, the ones that inspire you to tell your own stories, and then set them like jewels in a crown of your own forging. Let the rest stay where it belongs.

But what if you can’t do that? What if you have a story you really want to tell, but it will only work if you use a very specific combination of worldbuilding details that are unmistakably derived from a copyrighted setting?

Then you have to accept that it will remain in the realm of gaming, fanfiction, or licensing. I adore the mythical history of the United States I came up with for my Scion campaign, but it fundamentally doesn’t work unless new gods start out as the heroic, half-mortal children of other gods, and Columbia and Britannia and Marianne are all former Scions of Athena who ascended to full divinity, and the enemies of the gods are creatures called Titans who are more like the elemental planes of whatever concepts they represent but they have Scion-like avatars who can act directly in the world. If all I needed was one of those factors, I could probably find a way to make it stand alone, but with all three? That’s a Scion story, and there’s no use pretending it’s anything else. Unless the owners and creators of Scion hire or encourage me to write a story in their world, I just have to live with my happy memories of the game, and be content with that.

Character

By far the majority of my RPG adaptations have, at their root, been driven by character.

This is probably because almost every instance of me adapting an RPG into fiction has sprung out of the experiences I had as a player, instead of as a GM. In fact, I become much more strongly invested in my RPG characters than I generally do with those in the fiction I write, because my PC is the primary conduit through which I experience and influence the story. I perform their speech and behaviors; I think intensively about the things they want, the things they fear, their backstory and what they prefer to do with their spare time. I get to know my PCs much better than I could possibly know every NPC in a game I’m running, or every character in a story I’m writing. Is it any wonder that they’re so prone to lingering in my brain for years afterward?

The good news is, character-based adaptations can work really well, because your inspiration is often flexible. To be sure, no character is an island: their personality and life history are bound up in the setting they live in and the story you told about them the first time around. But if what you’re interested in keeping is the backstory or the personality or the emotional arc or something else of that sort, you can often transplant that root quite effectively, putting your Pathfinder paladin into some Dune-style space opera or your Changeling eshu into a secondary world. (The same thing is true in reverse: I once played a character who was basically Himura Kenshin as a transgender vampire.)

Here the question you have to ask yourself is, who is this character? Not their whole story, not every little thing that ever happened to them, but their core, the sine qua non of their identity. You can put Sherlock Holmes into the modern United States or Tang China or even make him a medical doctor instead of a detective, and he’ll still feel recognizably like Holmes if he has a mind like Holmes’ and uses it to solve puzzles that baffle everyone else. If Holmes, to you, is defined instead by a violin and a cocaine habit, then give him those things (or period/regional equivalent) and forget about the analytical ability. You’re the only one who can say what’s essential to the character, and what’s optional—and what you need to build around those bits in order to make them work.

But make sure that whatever you build still works in its own right. I have a trunked YA novel that’s inspired by a character I played in a tabletop White Wolf game, a popular teenaged girl who discovers her popularity is due to her being a telepath and unconsciously reading/influencing those around her. There were some other details from the game I really wanted to keep, things about her family history and relationships with the people in her life… but I did a really terrible job of coming up with reasons for those things that weren’t the ones we used in the game. (For example, replacing a vampire boyfriend with a guy who wound up immortal by a different, insufficiently-defined path.) The novel’s trunked because it looks like exactly what it is, a resurrected Franken-corpse stitched together out of disparate parts that don’t quite fit together like they need to. Until and unless I can fix that, the book’s going nowhere.

Plot

Oh, plot. You knew this was coming: the big one, the all-encompassing Story that you want to retell, in its full and radiant glory.

I’ll break it to you now: you cannot make that work. Not in its entirety.

Not even if it’s set in a non-copyrighted world and you have the written and notarized permission of everyone who ever ran or played in that game. This isn’t an issue of ethics, not in the first instance; it’s an issue of pragmatics. To put it bluntly, a game directly transcribed into fiction is going to be a bad piece of fiction. Games don’t work like written stories; their pacing is different, their narrative techniques are different, their focus shifts differently when switching between various character and plotlines. Events in games happen because the dice said so. Characters drop out of the plot and then reappear because a player was out of town. People often criticize movie adaptations for altering the story from the novel, but the truth is, that’s necessary; what works in one medium falls flat in another. Whether you’re going from book to movie or movie to book, you have to play to the strengths of your medium, rather than trying to approximate the techniques of the source. The same is true here.

As with any other kind of game adaptation, you have to decide what it is you really care about. When I was writing the novelette “False Colours”, I knew I wouldn’t try to include the entire one-shot LARP it came from; as with any LARP, I was wildly ignorant of half the plotlines (which coincidentally included every plotline where magic was involved), and trying to replace them would only take the narrative attention away from the story I really wanted to retell. My goal was to recreate the serendipitous moment where, just when my allies were secretly formulating a plot to help me escape my problems by faking my death, I accidentally got shot by my own captain. If the LARP was a tapestry, that was a single thread pulled from the fabric. Then, having pulled it, I ditched everything involving magic and espionage and mummies rising from the dead, and set about weaving an entirely new cloth around that thread.

This approach poses the biggest ethical complications, when it comes to respecting the contributions of other people. You can make up a setting or thoroughly revamp an existing one and do just fine, and a character exists so much in your own head that, while other PCs and NPCs may have had an influence on them, you can still consider what you’re working with to be your own creation. But plot? Plot is a collaborative thing. It’s exceedingly difficult to use it in any great detail without bringing in the actions—which is to say, the creative efforts—of your GM and fellow players.

The further you let yourself stray from the source, the easier a time you’ll have of it. I say that “Love, Cayce” is inspired by a game I played in, but the inspiration consists of “the children of a bunch of adventurers grow up to be adventurers themselves and then write letters home about the crazy things they’ve been doing.” The plot-based resemblances more or less end at the first line: “Dear Mom and Dad, the good news is, nobody’s dead anymore.” But when I wrote “False Colours,” it wasn’t just about my cross-dressing naval lieutenant; it was also about her best friend and her love interest and her captain and our GM, the backstory we’d all invented together and the actions we took during the game. I went to greater lengths with that story to obtain permission from my fellow players than I did with any other adaptation I’ve attempted to date, and I won’t be surprised if it continues to hold that record for the rest of my career.

A Closing Exhortation

The common theme throughout this post has been “figure out what you need to keep, and then change everything else.” Which leaves one final step: be willing to change the essentials, too.

I’m not saying you have to. After all, there was some bright spark that made you want to write this story; I’m not going to tell you to extinguish it. But you may very well find, as you’re working on your draft, that even those bits you thought were essential aren’t quite. The new ideas you came up with have developed their own momentum, leading you in directions that aren’t the one you originally planned for. Be willing to go with that momentum—the same way you would if the plot of a game you were playing in took an unexpected turn. Gustav Mahler defined tradition as “the preservation of fire, not the worship of ashes,” and the same concept applies here. Don’t ossify the original game material; let it grow and change to fit the rest of what you’ve built around it.

And have fun. There’s a special pleasure in reworking an idea, like a musician remixing an older song; if all goes well, then in the end you have two great songs to listen to.

This article was originally published in October 2016.

Marie Brennan is the author of multiple series, including the Lady Trent novels, the Onyx Court, the Wilders, and the Doppelganger duology, as well as more than forty short stories. The Varekai series of novellas—Cold Forged Flame and Lightning in the Blood—are is available June 6th from Tor.com Publishing. More information can be found at her website.

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