I attended Bubonicon this year — the first sci-fi convention I’ve been to in over a decade.  It was an interesting experience in that this time around, I was much more interested in the panels than in the costuming or the merchandise tables. (The rise of the internet and the ability to buy the goods you would otherwise have to wait a year to scarf up at convention prices is why I suspect the merchandise tables were mostly flea market trash.)

One of the panels was on writers who game, and it had a few of the expected names:  Melinda Snodgrass, Walter Jon Williams, etc…  Their comments got me thinking about my own experience as a writer and a gamer, and led to this post…

There are a lot of gamemasters out there that think of themselves as frustrated writers.  I had always been interested in some form of storytelling since I was young — not necessarily writing, per se…I drifted between that, acting, cinematography, comic books, etc. but always with the intent to, some day, tell stories for a living (hence the profession of historian.)

There are some problems with translating your ideas from a game into workable, salable fiction.  First — gaming is collaborative by nature.  The GM might set the plot in motion, and might nudge the players to get through the adventure on track (I have a tendency to do that), but the better storytellers don’t railroad (I have been known to do this, or to bribe the player with story/plot/hero points to stop trying to derail things…but I try to be subtle), and are willing to let the players guide the direction of the adventure.  This collaborative feature of role playing is one of the reasons it’s so fun and social, but is also is a problem for the wannabe writer who wants to cull his gaming for ideas.

There’s the problem of intellectual property.  Do you “own” the characters?  do the players?  Do they get a cut of the proceeds, or maybe a mention in the forward?  Best is to not use other people’s characters.  Come up with something new, or similar.  Avoid the problem entirely.

I’ve found most gamers, when I’ve thought about moving characters to fiction, don’t mind not getting money or credit; it’s usually enough to see their creations in print…but a thank you is appropriate.  It’s a good idea to see if the player is alright with the idea, but once again — I’d suggest against it.

(Caveat: I have written and published a novel with a character culled from a game that another player ran, but the original idea was mine and he simply took it over.  When I wrote the book, I kept the name, but the character reverted to my original conception and away from the stuff that the player had done with him.  He was okay with this.)

Second, storylines and ideas from games tend to have a certain format to them, and these are easily identified by editors who are in certain genres like fantasy.  (There’s a reason that some of the magazines for fantasy explicitly tell you not to write up your gaming sessions as a novel and send them in…they’ve seen this before.)  If you had a good plot arc and want to use it, great, but remember the collaborative nature of the game tends to make the way a game unfolds more unwieldy than a tightly plotted novel.

thirdly, characters — and this was something mentioned in the panel that I agreed with — are central to good fiction, and several of the authors admitted to culling their RPG characters for fiction…but always with some tweaking.  A game system — especially the random creation or the class-based ones — have a tendency to create archetypes that do not translate into fiction well.  Whereas having a Level 2 Elf Fighter is something that gives a nice shorthand for the player to latch onto to play a character, a fictional character is not a stat block…  (This is why I prefer systems where you build your character to the idea — one of the better ones, I think, is Cortex.  Even so, you can “feel”  the advantage/disadvantage nature of characters crafted in a game when they are dropped into short fiction.)

Characters first.  Who are they?  Where do they come from?  What do they do and why?  Add quirks.  You can almost see this template for much of genre fiction — mysteries, especially.  A lot of mystery hero(ines) have that quirks first feel to them.  I need a detective, but I need something different…this one’s fat.  This one has Tourettes.  This one is a chimp.

Stealing well-rounded characters from a game is something that I think is fully doable and can lead to a successful transition of some gaming ideas to fiction.  If didn’t, a friend of mine and I wouldn’t be tossing around the idea of a comic book based on one of our campaigns, right now.  But that’s the key:  based on — not a straight translation.  The best translators (language wise) always play with the language a bit, to fix the flavor of the writer they are translating, rather than a cold mechanical transposition.

Fourth: A lot of games, over time, develop massive backstory, and delve into a lot of ideas.  I’ve run into guys that have complete worlds, worked out to Tolkeinesque complexity and completeness, and who think that everyone in the world will be as excited by, and interested in their worlds as they are.  You’ve met them, the guys that have notebook upon notebook of history, geography, etc. that they will often truncate into a Dickensian players guide to their universe as a welcome packet for the new gamer.  Throwing everything at the wall and hoping it sticks doesn’t work for RPGs anymore than it works in fiction.

(One of my problems when experimenting with science fiction is that I concentrate on worldbuilding and forget, oh, character…plot…that stuff.)

Look at the best science fiction, for example.  Much of the time, there can be a number of intriguing ideas, but they focus primarily on one technology, one trend, and examine their world from that.  It doesn’t inundate the reader, and is more concise and interesting.  Mysteries concentrate — red herrings aside — on the problem at hand:  who killed this due in the kitchen with the candle stick?  Romances are straight-forward:  how do this girl and this guy get together and what seemingly insurmountable problems do they have to overcome to do it.

Keep it simple, keep it concise, keep it interesting.

The general consensus of the panel at Bubonicon was that, in general, it’s not particularly effective to translate gaming ideas over into fiction (Wild Cards not withstanding…)  I don’t agree, but I think it’s necessary to be very careful with what you pluck out of a game to use for fiction.  Basic storylines, character ideas — yes; transcribing your “way cool” gaming night — no.