Roleplaying Games as a basis for Fantasy Writing

I don’t have any data, but I would expect that most (if not all) of today’s fantasy authors played role-playing games as kid. As I delve deeper into my own writing, I notice how much those experiences influenced me. Not just the books that I read as a young man, but also the games I put together with my friends in college, late night, on a Friday. And really both the successes and failures of RPG sessions have influenced how I see a story as good or not. Much of what I like in a fantasy story is affected by those sort of games.

So it got my thinking, how the games that I used to read (I read way more game books than I ever actually played.) developed over the years. To me they are getting closer to feeling like writing spontaneous stories in addition to games.

The Great Grandfather of them All.

The most well known roleplaying game is probably Dungeons and Dragons (DnD). It started as a branch out of wargaming and grew from there. At least how I experienced it, characters were often flat and served as hanging places for cool imaginary weapons. I have heard stories from from friends that other groups were better at the more character driven epic stories. Though they still centered around rolling dice in combat.

Storytelling becomes central

Then come White Wolf with their idea of Storytelling games. They were definitely not the only one doing it at the time, but probably the most well known. The books talked more about making stories driven on the character and the character’s desires. Stats in DnD focused quite heavily on combat and external conflict. One of the hallmarks of White Wolf games for me was a couple of stats based around the internal conflict of the character. Their well known Vampire : the Masquerade game had a mechanical game way to measure how close the vampire character was to losing his humanity. This meant that the players had to balance actions and make tough choices on behalf of their characters to manage this stat.

As an aside, one of the later games from White Wolf was Exalted. Many of their early games were based in a modern world paralell to our own. Exalted was pure fantasy and one of the heavy influences on me for building Crossing the Dropline as a world. The anime influence and the elemental directions are inspired in part from that game, though they are not at all the same place.

Mechanics Echo the Writing Process

Burning Wheel is more recent game system. I first encountered it in the Mouse Guard RPG in a boiled down form. The core mechanics of the system really get to the conflict of the character. Each character has instincts and beliefs that influence (and sometimes dictate) their actions. These are set off by goals, both short and long term. In many game systems character advancement is based on XP points gained from combat or from just playing. Burning Wheel requires characters to go after their goals and challenge their beliefs for XP points. This starts to get really close to how character driven fantasy stories are built.

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I have had ideas of whether I could sit down with a game system and play it solo, writing down how things happened with the dice and generate a story. I think it would work, but somehow doing it all alone seems like a lot of hassle when I can just built it in my head and directly onto the paper. The mechanics of the game that protects players from each other isn’t really needed. That said, I do still think about how my stories would feel as games.

* – In hunting for some data to back up my first sentence I ran across this post from Chuck Wendig about Writers and Roleplaying Games, which is pretty cool.

One thought on “Roleplaying Games as a basis for Fantasy Writing

  1. Charles says:

    I’d like to think we got further away from the hack-and-slash and more into character development and storytelling as our college days went on in that group. Certainly, those of us who still (albeit rarely) gather for a gaming session are doing FAR more role-playing than fighting. My big struggle is laying out a complex enough world to let the player characters go through it without them feeling railroaded (and I try not to railroad my players). One of the problem when your player characters are career professionals in areas you are not can make things challenging (trying as a GM to explain to the Chemist what the substance is, or trying to explain to the ER Nurse what the illness is, or trying to explain to the EMT what the injury is…). Setting up your world and story setting is, I find, the most challenging part.

    We do miss having you for our gaming sessions though Andy. Your advice to me over the years in setting up environments, scenarios, and game balance has been invaluable.


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