Much like said-isms and wake-up openers, novels based on tabletop roleplaying games are usually regarded with a “kill it with fire” mentality. This is not about why RPG tie-in novels are bad. Some of them are actually pretty solid. This is about why novels based on a campaign that you’ve played don’t work. I’ve come across a few articles about why agents hate these so much, but they the focus was mostly on originality rather than craft. Below, I’m going to unpack some of the things that work in roleplaying games but wreak havoc on novels, and then look at how you can improve your writing by doing the opposite.
Some terminology for the non roleplayers:
- Campaign: A game that’s played over several sessions. These can be simple or involved.
- GM: Game master. This is the person who plans out the campaign and is in charge of running the game. They operate the monsters and the non-player characters.
- Player: an out-of-game person.
- Character: an in-game entity controlled by a player.
A random encounter is when the GM throws the dice and based upon the result sends a monster crashing out of the woodwork to engage the characters in combat. This happens because 1. It keeps the players on their toes and 2. Combat is fun.
Because these encounters are quite literally random, it’s rare for them to have any bearing on the larger plot. This makes them bad for novels because they’re essentially filler. On the off chance that someone is grievously injured and it does have wider implications, it’s generally unforeshadowed and feels like it came out of the blue.
The other problem with random encounters is sometimes they don’t happen. If the characters are wandering through a haunted swamp but, by pure luck, happen to miss the bog monster, it reads as the author letting them off easy.
Fiction application: Your story should not be left to chance. Even things that appear random should have intention behind them. When you choose to add combat to your story, figure out how it will affect your characters and what repercussions it will have down the road. Randomness also cuts down on character agency. Random events do happen in real life, but in fiction they usually feel like a cop-out because they deny characters the opportunity to act.
Consider where combat situations will have the most impact—will it heighten the sense of danger? Will it advance the plot? Does the character have any control over the circumstances of the encounter? Did they provoke it? (the answer to at least one of these should be yes).
When you write a novel from scratch, you are in control of the character motivations. When you base your novel off of a D&D campaign, each character is tied to a player. Even under the best of circumstances, the player’s personal motives can’t be separated from their characters. This leads to inconsistencies.
For example: Alice is really into Jane. Even if her character is an evil wizard who likes to hurt puppies, she might be reluctant to go after Jane since she doesn’t want Jane to be angry with her. This may or may not be justified in play, but unless Alice is an exceptionally good role-player, odds are that her character’s behavior will look strange when you remove the players from the equation.
Another thing to take into consideration is information flow. Players talk, and often know things that their characters don’t. While it’s frowned upon, this knowledge does sometimes bleed into character interactions.
Fiction application: In well-written fiction, character motivations should be consistent with how the character acts. Readers should be able to understand why each character acts the way that they do based only on the information that is put on the page. Characters who appear inconsistent should have a motivation that becomes clear later and explains their behavior. It is also important to keep track of what each character knows and whether or not they could feasibly know certain plot-relevant information. Characters should never act on information that they do not have.
In tabletop roleplaying games the plot is at the mercy of the players. They may choose to follow the main plot arc, but they could just as easily go off the rails. They may decide that the plot doesn’t interest them. They may pursue a subplot instead. They may slaughter the village people they were supposed to defend. There are also a lot of times that the GM will make things up on the fly, or will be actively retconning things to fit new developments.
Campaigns are full of plot holes. They’re easy to ignore while you’re playing, but if you actually lay out the plot, there’s a good chance that it’s going to be meandering, inconsistent, and full of loose ends. There will be plot twists, but not the good kind. At the same time, trying to stay true to your exact campaign experience locks you into a plot and prevents you from making necessary changes.
Fiction applications: Have a rough idea of where your plot is going before you start writing. This allows you to set up necessary twists, plant important details for later, and foreshadow. It also lets you start your plot at the beginning, rather than forcing readers to trudge through pages exposition while you hit your stride and figure out what the story is really about. Keep your plotting tight.
And no matter how well you’ve plotted, be prepared to go through after you finish and pare back some of the inconsistencies, if any should arise. Being too attached to a plot can be detrimental if it means that you’re not willing to make changes to accommodate the story. If something doesn’t make sense—if a subplot usurps the main plot or you need to abandon a plot arc—don’t be afraid to change your trajectory. This is how stories evolve.
Writing like a boss: Intellectual property
The other big problem with roleplaying game novels is that, no matter how good your book is, if you’ve used someone else’s setting you run into ownership issues. Unless you’re writing a licensed tie-in novel, it’s effectively fanfiction. And while there is some damn good fanfiction out there, your publishing options are limited. If you’re writing for your friends, this isn’t a problem (and they’ll probably love your novel regardless of whether you follow this advice, because it was their campaign). If you had plans of marketing your book, you may need to change your angle–or like certain other bestselling fanfic authors we know, reskin it.
…But wait. There’s more. Check out part two to take a closer look at what parts of roleplaying games are good fodder for fiction, and how you can draw on ideas from roleplaying games to improve your storytelling.