How to turn your roleplaying game into a novel, part 1
Who doesn’t want to turn their D&D game into a novel? Or a webcomic, or visual novel, or some other new media format? You and your friends had such an amazing time saving the multiverse and defeating the forces of evil. Surely other audiences would also thrill to those same adventures.
Some well-known classics took this path. Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, who worked on the Dragonlance setting and modules for TSR back in the 1980s, also wrote the Dragonlance Chronicles which read like the novelization of D&D modules. Around the same time Ryo Mizuno’s gaming party became the novels and anime series Record of Lodoss War. Many other authors also got their start with the collective storytelling that is gaming.
But what’s the difference between storytelling as a game master and storytelling as an author? How exactly do you go about turning that campaign into a novel? (From here on out, I’m going to use novel, but the advice also largely holds for other storytelling mediums like comics or new media).
In the first post in this blog series, I introduce seven important differences between these two ways of crafting a story. Understanding these differences in the first step in writing your own book based on a roleplaying game.
(How do I know this stuff? I learned through doing. A long-running D&D campaign was the inspiration and a lot of the bones for my Orphaned Gods series. The first book is with beta readers, and the second in undergoing its first revision. Find out more here!)
- Number of creators
RPGS are collaborative. A game master presents a setting, opening problem, and side characters and the players create the main characters, who in turn create the plot through their actions.
Novels are shaped by a single hand. Or sometimes two, in the case of co-authors like Weis and Hickman. The writer creates all elements of setting, character, and plot.
- Level of improvisation
RPGs are improvisational. The game master may have created some material ahead of time, but the actual story happens in the moment, and no one, GM or player, knows how it is going to turn out. This can cause surprising and often very fun turns of events.
Novels are pre-planned. Brainstorming ideas or writing a first draft can be improvisational. If the writer tries something that doesn’t work out, they can delete it and plan out something different, which isn’t possible in an RPG. When the book reaches its final form, though, it will no longer change.
- Relationship to time
RPGS are an ephemeral art form, like theatre or dance. They happen at a specific series of moments in time, for a particular group of people. They can’t be returned to again and again, except in memory (or if you happened to record your session).
Novels exist outside of time. Different readers can pick up the book across weeks, years, centuries. The same person can read it multiple times, catching additional nuances and having new reactions. The book can continue to be enjoyed long after the writer is gone.
- Type of plot structure
RPGs are episodic, like most TV shows. Each week, or month, a new adventure happens. An individual session is probably related to the adventures before and after it, or to a larger campaign, but it has its own shape. The structure is dictated to some extent by the amount of time the players have to game that day, which players showed up, and other outside considerations.
Novels have an overarching plot from beginning to end, like most movies. The plot might be divided up into acts, scenes, chapters, and so on but these are not individual episodes. Structural concerns, such as length, are determined somewhat by norms of the field but are mostly dictated by the demands of the plot.
RPGs can use talking, body language, miniatures, pictures, handouts, music, costumes, and any number of other elements to tell a story.
Novels use printed words to tell a story. That’s it. Some formats might include illustrations, but the black and white word is the standard.
- Use of copyrighted material
RPGs often use material not created by the storyteller. This could include adventure modules, campaign settings, or pre-statted monsters or NPCs.
Novels only use material created by the writer. References to any other creator’s material must follow copyright laws.
- Audience experience
People experience RPGs in a social setting, either around a table with friends, or in an online synchronous format, also with friends. Part of the fun of playing is the social aspect—inside jokes, snacking, fooling around, making out-of-character asides.
People experience novels, usually, alone. Someone might read aloud, or multiple people might listen to an audiobook at once, but solitary silent reading is the norm.
Each of these differences can give important lessons on how to turn one type of storytelling into the other. Next time, I’ll get into some of the gritty details!