Monday, December 9

Making the Switch From Writing in a Game World to Writing a Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

When I was a freshman in high school, one of my best friends wanted the Dungeons & Dragons Red Box Set for her birthday. I'd always wanted to try it, so I bought it for her. It took one game for her to decide she didn't like it, but I was hooked.

I got to be part of the fantasy worlds I loved reading about. Even better, I got to create my own worlds and characters and tell my own stories. This unwanted birthday gift turned into a lifelong love of games for me. Especially role playing games (RPGs).

I believe my early exposure to RPGs is why plotting has always come easily to me. I spent years being put into situations where I had to figure out what happened next--be it as an adventurer in a computer game, a player in a fantasy card game, or a GM (game master) in a classic pen and paper RPG.

So when I got this question on the blog, I knew it had come to the right person:
Apart for short stories when I was a young teenager, all I ever wrote was a few (poor) fanfictions, but mostly tons of role playing games. I think I am rather good at it, building characters (actually that's my favorite part) and improving their personalities along their (mis)adventures. But it feels SO different from writing a story of my own, because the story actually has to go somewhere, and the writing itself seems to be a very different process. But on top of it, you are on your own: you can't rely on a partner to bring in fresh ideas to keep it alive, and to cheer you up when you're afraid your last post wasn't so good.

How does a simple RPG player unlearn their old habits and relearn how to write in order to make a good novel?
Writing a game uses the same basic skill set as writing a novel. You create worlds, settings, situations filled with conflict and goals, and you put characters (players) into them and see how they unfold. The difference is that a novel relies on you to do it all. You have to be your own players, so to speak. And you don't have volumes of books to draw from for monsters, cities, and magic.

Here are some things to remember when making the switch from game writing to novel writing

1. The Adventure is Only the Beginning

In RPGs, the whole point is to go on an adventure, solve puzzles, defeat monsters, and level up, so it's rare when players fail. A good GM will even fudge the rolls to save a player if failure means a bad gaming day for the group.

For a novel, that's a frightfully boring plot of one event after another with no stakes and no conflict. Failure must be a real possibility for protagonists, and they should fail, and fail often, to make everything they need to do harder to accomplish. They have to earn that win through struggle and growth, not just because it was the next thing in the way.

In novels, the adventure is the vehicle that allows change for the character. The adventure itself isn't the point, it's what's learned on that adventure that matters most.

(More on a classic fantasy plotting structure here)

2. Fighting Doesn't Solve Every Conflict

If my gaming group isn't fighting, they're not happy. Sure, they enjoy the occasional puzzle and role playing opportunity, but they love beating the monsters and getting the loot. How they get to each fight is immaterial, and if going down a dark, creepy path in the woods might get them into trouble, they'll happily do it, even if the game story is pointing them in another direction.

This is the opposite of most novels. Characters would rather avoid trouble, not dive headlong into it. They fight only when there is no other choice. And there's a good reason for this--fighting can't solve all the problems of a novels. That's a one-note solution that gets repetitive and boring after the first few times, especially if the fighting occurs because "bad guys are in the way and we must get around them." And speaking of bad guys...

(More on conflict types other than fighting here)

3. Random Monsters Are Only Fun in RPGs

Random monsters are encounters that occur out of the blue because a dice roll says so. They're fun in a game, because, hey, it's another fight, but they have zero to do with the story and could be skipped without consequence. The GM might not even roll for them if they don't want to be bothered with it.

Novels don't have random anything. If it's in the book, there's a reason. If the protagonist is running into random "monster" after random monster just so there's trouble in her way, then there's no actual conflict and likely no real stakes. Without those two things, there's also no story.

Every encounter in the novel should mean something. If the protagonist bumps into a friend she hasn't seen in ten years, that plays a role at some point in the story. If it doesn't, why was it there? Why did the author waste precious page time showing that to readers? It might be a subtle role, like a reminder of the right thing to do or say at a critical time, but it should matter somehow.

(More on making things matter to the story here)

4. It's Not About the Dice Roll

Unpredictable things can happen in an RPG because someone makes a lucky (or unlucky) dice roll. A natural 20 pops up and suddenly that crazy Hail-Mary plan is going to work, even though all logic says no way. This unpredictability is what makes it fun for both players and GMs.

Lucky breaks don't carry the same joy in a novel. Things working out because of luck steals the fun from readers because they want to see the protagonist struggle to win, not because she got lucky. If the protagonist succeeds because of luck and not through her own skill or actions, that's a red flag there's not enough conflict in the plot. No one is really trying to stop her, it's just random monsters in the way.

Unpredictability, however, is good. Just as a freak dice roll can change the game, an unpredictable choice or event can change the story. One of the best ways to crank up the tension is to keep things unpredictable, because not knowing what happens next is a huge hook for readers. But the unpredictability has to make sense in the overall story. It can't be random. So when crafting a story, leave room for secrets and reveals at various stages of the plot, have information mean something different from what the protagonist first thought, drop clues that might be missed, and lay all the groundwork for the protagonist to run into unpredictable things that eventually allow her to figure out the whole puzzle.

(More on creating unpredictability here)

5. Leveling is More About Growth Than Numbers

Games judge character growth by numerical stats. Defeat so many monsters and get so many experience points and eventually go up one level. Every level, you get stronger in certain skills and physical attributes. Start out a weak level one, end up a powerful level 85.

Novels judge character growth by actions and emotional fortitude. If the protagonist starts out a private in the army and ends up a major and never gets over the negative traits keeping her from making colonel, she hasn't grown, even if she's "leveled."

Character growth is learning the lessons to make the protagonist's life better and get what she needs to be happy. It's the result of all the trials and failures the protagonist goes through on the plot adventure. What the character experiences is what triggers the growth (which is why making plot events matter is so critical).

(More on creating character arcs here)

A novel is a bit like what a game would be if the GM controlled every aspect of it. The encounters would all mean something personal to the characters, the characters would learn things from the experience and grow emotionally, the clues dropped would lead to the final conflict and not just a subplot for more loot.

If you're a gamer trying to switch gears to novel writing, let your gaming experience provide a foundation to work on. Use those skills of world building and problem solving, but remember that a novel is a series of plot events that guide a character through lessons she needs to learn to be happy, even if she's doing it while saving the world from the evil undead overlord.

Gamer shout out! Do you play? If so, what, and has it helped with your writing?


  1. Pen and paper RPG players were a very brief generation of gamers that preceded the rise of computer games, but so many of them have gone on to become writers that it is with some disappointment that such games have faded from popularity. As you point out, the skills of a novelist and the gamemaster are very similar and that gamemaster gets a chance to play characters for the people that the players interact with.

    Of late, I've seen a small rebirth of those games as older players return to the games of their youth and rediscover the joys that those shared creations allowed.

    1. I hope they do come back. They're a lot of fun, and really stretch creative thinking. It's not just about pushing buttons, even though that can be fun, too.

  2. As a writer and a gamer (still playing) I found it a very interesting post. I find the two media do feed each other, but only because the latest generation of MMORPGs are attempting to introduce more complex story lines. The linear growth following quest after quest is slowly vanishing, and what one's avatar chooses can impact on the storyline. For instance, in Star Wars: The Old Republic there are consequences if you make certain decisions... kill certain people, or let them live... that can impact on your storyline, and on the game world. I sense that the game devs are attempting to give the gamer more input into their storyline. A long way from a novel, but an interesting change. And I'm working on a modern day cyber-mystery set against a gaming world.

    1. I actually did a post about SW:TOR because of it's fantastic storyline choice aspect. The storytelling in that was awesome and so gut-wrenching at times. I love that we're seeing that in games these days.

      Ooo, the books sounds fun.

  3. Very clever post, Janice. And as useful as always. Thank you! :)

    1. Thanks! Hopefully it has something to offer even non-gamers.

  4. Thanks for this post! I'm really glad you treated my question ^_^

    1. Glad you asked it. Was fun to examine the difference between the two. Hope it answered your question and helps you with your novels.

  5. Ah, the memories :-)
    You had me with the photo of that red box! Unfortunately I gave my original away as a young teen but now, at 40, just bought a new one to share with my kids (still miss that TSR logo though).

    I loved solo RPGs (as I could never find anyone to play with) and Fighting Fantasy/choose your own adventure books as a child and am slowly filling my library with "vintage" copies for myself and my children.

    Tabletop RPGs (along with movies, books, comics, audio books, radio plays, film soundtracks and more) form such an integral part of my brain's functioning that thoughts of stories (either mine or others') fill most moments of my days.

    Thanks so much for the article Janice.
    Oh and, Ready Player One by Ernest Cline is a great read for RPG fans.

    1. I hear you. D&D will always be TSR and Gary Gygax to me. I also gave away all my books years ago, and sometimes wish I hadn't. I even used to draw the covers when I was younger just for fun. The monster manual with the red dragon and the pegasus was my favorite.

      I've read Ready Player One. Cline and I were presenters at a con a few years back (never on the same panels sadly) and I picked it up. It's like one long in joke for gamers! Loved that he used Tomb of Horrors.

  6. Oh my gosh, my husband worked at an arcade when Dungeons and Dragons first came out (aging myself here). He got free tokens, and worked his tail off until he beat the game. So funny to read about it here!

    1. I'm aging myself more (grin). There was no arcade game when I first got it, just the pen and paper game. Actually, there were no arcade games at all! Okay, now I'm really dating myself.

  7. I've never played a RPG, but it sounds similar to what my younger sister and I would come up with as kids: pick a character, figure out a scenario, and take off through the woods, bouncing these ideas and dialogue off each other. (There was the time she decided she was a Mafia princess with the authority to have me offed...thanks, sis.)

    Now I'm curious about RPGs!

    1. They're a lot of fun and there are a all kinds of different genres. I've played the traditional Dungeons & Dragons (fantasy based adventures), spies, space marines, superheroes, a mix of all of it. They're like genres--whatever you like, there's a game for it!

      It's also a fun group activity, and a great excuse to get together with friends. Though sometimes it does take a while to get to the actual playing (grin). Too much talking and catching up between games.