When we play RPGs, we tell stories. For some it’s a fun consequence of the characters’ exploits, while for others it’s the whole point of the game. These stories can often have great power for the groups who create them, creating characters more personal and compelling than any novel ever could. It’s natural, then, to want to share these stories outside the group. The problem here, really, is that a tabletop campaign is a big, extended instance of “you had to be there”. As fun or dramatic or gutwrenching as it was at the time, you cannot recapture those feelings by turning your campaign into a novel.
Everyone’s reaction here is to tell me I’m wrong; apparently this statement crushes the dreams of thousands of frustrated novelists out there. They say “what about Dragonlance” and “what about The Expanse”, as if the success of two pairs of two authors negates the overarching truth of the statement. Well, as it turns out, if you write the entire campaign setting and sell it to TSR (Dragonlance), you probably can turn it into a novel or six. Additionally, if you scrap the events of the campaign and most of the PCs, only using the setting (The Expanse), you’re also probably OK. For the rest of us, looking at our campaign notes and wistfully remembering the events of sessions past, it’s important to remember why those sessions worked so well and then understand why that doesn’t translate into narrative.
You aren’t the only author of this story
While there are a number of differences between narrative created with a tabletop RPG and narrative written by an author, the most significant one is the number of people contributing to the story. A written work usually has one author, while an RPG campaign usually has between four and six. When one of these authors tries to tell the whole story, the result falls short. The player who is most likely to fall into this trap is the GM, because it’s from the GM’s perspective that one can most easily be convinced that they have a complete picture. Even though the GM is ‘running’ the game, they are often quite far away from understanding why certain events are compelling to their players, at least beyond what’s necessary to have the forethought to instigate these events in the first place.
In a game with a GM, the GM’s role is to set the stage for what the characters are going to experience, perceive, and do. The players, though, are the ones who understand why their characters act and are most likely the ones able to see the motivations of the characters that extend beyond the surface level goals, like getting to the bottom level of a dungeon or top level of a corporate facility. These deeper goals are shaped to the scenario that the characters find themselves in, while in many good novels the opposite happens. As gamers we’re content to see our characters and their goals develop slowly as we share the spotlight with the rest of our group, but as readers we tend to want to follow the arc of a story directly. One way this manifests in game-based stories is a lot of “and then this happened and then this happened and then this happened” without much clarity as to why these things are important or, in some cases, why the characters are even doing them.
Speaking of understanding why…have you ever played an RPG without an infodump? It’s possible, but I’d bet that you haven’t. RPG infodumps come in many forms, but the two most popular vectors are from the GM as part of either a campaign pitch or a handout, or from a rulebook or supplement. Yes, I’m not even talking about the monologue-style ‘infodump’ that is a writer’s crutch in sci-fi and fantasy, I’m talking merely about pre-game information. Your novel will not have pre-game information, and that may make it necessary to resort to some tedious infodumps…or it may force you to explain information that outside of a game context makes no sense. When you try to explain how the party came together at the beginning of the campaign, for instance, your players will forgive cliches like “you all meet in a tavern” because they implicitly understand that rejecting the premise means not playing, and for most players and campaigns a hackneyed intro simply doesn’t matter that much. In a novel, though, you’re not going to get away with it.
My message is clear and constrained: Don’t try to rewrite the story of your campaign. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t write fiction about your games or your characters.
How to make good fiction from games
When you play an RPG, you’re creating a narrative that’s unique to that medium. That’s one reason so many of us find RPGs so compelling and will return to long-running campaigns for literally years. Writing fiction within the confines of a setting or campaign can be rewarding and fun, but for it to work as fiction it needs to step away from the narrative created within a game context. When Aki and I tried our hands at Table Fiction based on the High Impact Heroics campaign, we wrote about an event that was alluded to in the campaign’s Session Zero but never played out. That’s important, because it gave the authors much more freedom than any set of i-ngame events would. I doubt Seamus would ever have me play out a scene of Gil fleeing to a gaming store from a math test, but that scene helps flesh out the character even if it’s not going to fit on the timetable of a GM who’s balancing spotlight between four, five, or more people. My introduction to this idea of fleshing out your character’s backstory with fiction actually came from the infamous Cyberpunk 2020 GM Guide Listen Up You Primitive Screwheads. In between sections on punishing powergamers and ideas for lethal traps (the book hasn’t exactly aged well), there was a chapter on going beyond the game’s Lifepath system, which included a section on a practice called bluebooking. The idea in Cyberpunk specifically was that Lifepath defined a number of important events in your character’s past; as they weren’t going to come up in game, a neat exercise could be writing or even playing out the events from the perspective of your character. As long as the event resolved in the same way that was defined on your character sheet, you could make it as dramatic or embellished as you wanted. Bluebooking was described as a potential roleplay opportunity between a player and a GM between sessions, but I believe the idea is just as compelling as a writing exercise.
Just as a player can use their character’s exploits away from the table as fiction fodder, so too can a GM use their setting. One of the most popular counterarguments to my thesis is the existence of the series The Expanse. The two authors (who write under a pseudonym) are widely known to have based the novels on an RPG campaign. What’s not as well known in this case is that most of the details from the campaign that the duo played were either modified or scrapped. The worldbuilding is all intact, but the player characters with few exceptions don’t show up. Ty Franck, one of the two authors, even stated directly in an interview “You can’t just transcribe your D&D game and make a fantasy novel.” Franck has the right idea here. The setting of your campaign could very well be a narrative gold mine, but the way things play out in a game will not give you the arc of a good story; you’ll have to make a new one.
If you’re dead set on writing the story of your campaign, there are ways to do it. Using an Adventure Log format helps maintain the contextual cues that are lost when moving away from the game format, and will result in something easier to read (and hopefully more entertaining) than trying to fit all that context into prose. Having the context right out there also means your audience is more likely to understand why your game was so compelling at the time, which is likely why you wanted to share it in the first place.
If you still want to write a novel, take the element that you’re most excited about sharing and build a new story with it. This could be a character, part or all of the setting, or even a particular conflict or arc you just loved. These individual elements could likely work great in a novel, but writing fiction for an audience, especially commercial fiction, is a different skillset from running a role-playing game and requires a different focus. While I don’t have much in the way for advice when it comes to writing fiction, I can say that it’s a creative outlet that many gamers will enjoy…just know the difference between what works in a game and what works on the page.
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