Six Reasons Not to Turn Your Role-Playing Game into a Novel

no dice A guest post by Kevin Pettway

As gamers, we (the author included) understand that our pastime is one of imagination and delight. We spend hours creating entertaining stories and encounters to flummox and amuse our friends.

Also, we are great students of the literature and media of our genre, be it fantasy, science fiction, horror, or something else. We use books, movies, and comics to inform our games, and provide greater heights of adventure. It would seem the most natural thing in the multiverse to marry these two similar pursuits together, to carry the magic ring back out of the game and onto the page it came from.

What could go wrong? Oh, I am here to tell you.

  1. It’s not your world. If you bought that adventure, or used characters or settings you found in a movie or a book, they don’t belong to you. As long as your sticky-fingered thefts are limited to stocking the game for Wednesday night around the dining room table, no harm, no foul. I promise, Tolkien’s estate isn’t coming after your Fantasy Gurps. But as soon as you start looking to publish, either on your own or traditionally, you’re likely to run into problems. Problems of the You-Pay-Me variety, which as anyone knows are the worst problems of all. No one—not publishers, distributers, or storefronts (including Amazon or the like)—is going to handle Jane Smith’s Star Wars VII: the Return of Boba Fett, from Way Back in Time When He Was Really Badass, no matter how much fun it was to play with your friends.
  2. It is your world. Mostly. I hope you play your role-playing games with others. The point is, you probably play with other people. This is great for gaming, but much less so for a novelist looking for something to write about. You see, although you spent the hard time behind the screen writing down the names of every patron in the bar (which your stupid players never even walked into), the resultant product—the game itself—is a collaborative effort. That means your success is a six-way split, or however many players you have. The sticking point for this isn’t even so much about money. If you’re writing a book about your Vampire: the Masquerade game, there isn’t going to be any money). No, it’s about control. Unless your Call of Cthulhu campaign comes with a release form, all of your players are now partners and co-owners, which is a headache you do not want to imagine. All of which leads to…
  3. Your friends are idiots. Well, they probably aren’t all idiots. Not more than half. This does highlight the differences between writing for a game and writing for a novel, though. A role-playing character serves a very specific function. It exists to give voice to our fantasy selves, and keep us entertained, usually four to six hours a week. Without an active human being to inhabit them, they become limp as punctured balloons. The most well-fleshed-out gaming character is a two-dimensional cartoon next to any character from a book. If you’re doing it right, anyway. Take a character from out of your game and put him in a novel and they become capering idiots, dancing and leering for no apparent reason at all. That is because in the game, the players are only trying to entertain themselves. They can do any dumbass bullshit they want for no better reason that it’s incongruous and funny. The characters in your novel need to entertain and be understood by everyone. Think your players are up to that task?
  4. We are no better. Picture this scene: a party of adventurers is on their way to drop the Magic Shoe Insert of Dr. Scholls into the Pit of Really Hot Despair-Lava, when along the way they stop in a tavern for a soda. One of your adventurers has a lengthy conversation with the soda puller guy about whether or not he’s seen any Minions of the Fairly Evil One walking around town in those sneakers with the cushioned soles.

    Freeze the action!

    For this scene to work in a role-playing game, all you really need to know (maybe) is the name of the town, the soda tavern, and probably the barkeep (soda puller guy). Create this same scene in a book, though, and everything changes. Now you also need the characters’ first impressions walking in. What does the town look like? Smell like? What are the people doing? Where is the bar? Why do they have soda in a medieval European setting? Who else is in the tavern? What do they think of strangers? What are their allegiances? Do they wear shoes with cushioned soles or inserts? What does the tavern owner know? Does he have family? Are other goofy details going to become involved, like what he ate for breakfast, or the age of his parents? What does the town produce? Export? Are there any power struggles? The list goes on and on.

    In the game, the whole town has a limited, truncated function. Like one of those cardboard cup-sleeves they give you at Starbucks. But in a book, it has all the characteristics of a real place. It’s a ceramic mug with a double-cap mocha latte, extra foam.

  5. Nobody wants to read about your D&D game. And here’s the sad truth. Publishers of genre fiction have been including in their submission guidelines for years now that they specifically do not want to see a recount of your bestest game ever, no matter how awesome you thought it was. You simply were not the first person to come up with the idea, and it has already been played out—like those movies where the Tuff Guy/Curmudgeonly Asshole is forced to babysit a bunch of kids and turns into a wiser, more fun-loving assassin/drill sergeant/editor-in-chief an hour and a half later. No one wants to see that, but everyone can tell it’s coming. It’s not unlike getting trapped in a coal mine for three days with someone who wants to tell you all about his favorite Pathfinder character, and you don’t have a gun.
  6. Screw you, blog-writer-guy! I’m hearin’ a lot of can’t outta you, but I’m better than that! You don’t know me. I’m awesome! Naturally. If you were the type to be put off by some blog on the web telling you what you can’t do, you would never have read this far. You’d have stopped at number two and toddled off to finish painting your Legend of the Five Rings miniatures with brushes you made out of Cheetos. Since, on the other hand you did get this far, let’s go over some of the things you will have to do if you really do want to make this book:
    • Make it your own world. One hundred percent. It’s okay to borrow concepts, but change them and make them your own before you include them.
    • Throw away all the player characters. Your own characters will be much more interesting anyway.
    • Flesh out your world. The places where no action happens can be just as important as those where it does. The whole world informs everything that goes into your book. It’s world-building. Build that world.
    • If it’s fantasy, decide how the magic works. If it’s sci-fi, figure out how the science works. Horror? How do ghosts work? Understand the underpinnings of your world before you begin, and make it logical. The payoff is huge.
    • Come up with a real plot. Tell an interesting story. No world is so wonderful that you can just describe your book. Write from beginning, middle, and end with compelling characters. That’s your novel, not a game.

In short, you may use your game as source material, but treat your novel as something entirely new. The game might be interesting and add to your background, but it is not a shortcut to a real book. Not like plagiarism. That’s a shortcut. Or finding a successful author with a new manuscript no one has seen, and smothering him with a pillow. Also a shortcut. There are probably some others, but not writing your game. Never the game.

Guest Writer Bio: Kevin_Pettway
Kevin Pettway is a web-comic creator and writer who used his campaign setting as the basis for his books. He has never plagiarized anyone, but he might have smothered another author in their sleep for snoring too loud. Visit his website to find out more.

6 responses on “Six Reasons Not to Turn Your Role-Playing Game into a Novel

  1. Frank Morin

    Great post. Totally agree. I’ll be writing another post this month that deals with constructive ways you can use your role playing as creative input, so I’ve been thinking about some of these same concepts. But just trying to take a game and make it a book through a straight conversion is a really bad idea.
    Frank Morin recently posted..When luck strikes . . .

  2. Norman

    This article feels like you were biased with rules-heavy RPG’s like Dungeons and Dragons, and less familiar with open ended RPG’s like GURPS. GURPS is a lot better for writing fiction from campaigns.

    What I didn’t see you talk about was that storytelling RPG’s and especially RPG’s focused on cinematic progress / combat could easily be churned into novel ideas, particularly for short stories. Don’t forget about Novella, too, which could be all but 50 or so pages. I find it harder to keep it short when there is a lot of interesting ideas at play. Writing a true story about being a five year old, I could barely keep it at 40 pages.

    Funny enough, I found this because I was looking to write a novel about fictional characters playing a fictional tabletop role playing game (which as far as I know, hasn’t happened). Word for word (in character), event for event… translating these into writing would be a chore and most campaigns drag out.

    Ultimately if you’re going to do something like this at all, you should write up all the interesting ideas you have until you get stuck/writers block. /Then/ have your friends play out the match. Depending on what they do might give you some clues as to what to write about.

    #1/2- It should be your own world if you aren’t using supplements like adventure/campaign books. If you /are/ using campaign books, then it’s just plagiarizing. The point of turning a campaign into a novel would be creativity 🙂

    #3- You can write up interesting characters and personalities, but your friends have real personalities. Stupid or not, these can combined with the (PC) Player Characters personalities to make something truly special. In addition I’ve never, ever, managed to play with anyone even slightly stupid, as most of these games take from twenty minutes to several hours to ‘make’ a character. And in something extra, super rule heavy like D&D (pre 4e) death is sort-of common and ‘stupid’ moves means someone sitting out for a while, or going home.

    #4- There are unimportant events in every game (just about, at least) but these also find their ways into books that aren’t based on novels. Point being, they can and should be edited out. As far as detail of a town — You don’t tell your players immense amounts of detail that they don’t care about, but you would add in details not present during the game into the novel.

    Good post, and I agree on the Dungeons and Dragons part. But I think some GURPS campaigns would make for amazing short stories (20 or less pages, at least).

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