Roleplaying

Nine Truths for Roleplayers Who Start Writing

Roleplaying is a type of storytelling, whether you’re a player or a game master. You might spend hours between sessions crafting the perfect adventure or practicing your character’s inflections in front of a mirror. Regardless, you’re contributing to a collective storytelling experience with the rest of your group. And if you’re passionate about the stories at your RPG table, then it’s only natural that you might seek out writing as another form of storytelling.

However, like most things that seem natural, this is a lot more complicated than you might think. Prose fiction is an entirely different beast than a roleplaying game, and a lot of what you learned not only won’t serve but will directly hinder you. Fortunately, if you know the problems ahead of time, you can do something about them, so here are a few truths I wish someone had given me when I first switched from dice to pen.

1. You Have Too Many Characters

The number of players in an RPG campaign varies wildly, but in my experience, three to six is the most common range. In my group, at least, it’s almost always six because there are more players than GMs, and six is the most I can handle at one time. Each of these PCs is a main character, hopefully sharing equal spotlight with their fellows. This creates a real problem on the written page.

Six is a lot of main characters even in a long novel. If you’re writing something shorter, having that many protagonists is likely to overwhelm you entirely. Three or four is a more reasonable number, but even then, most prose works have a single main character who’s clearly the most important.

Worse than the number of main characters is the NPCs. In a lot of games, each PC has their own stable of NPCs they primarily interact with. GMs add these NPCs so each player feels special, and it’s easy enough to remind the rest of the table who your NPC’s long-lost cousin’s former roommate is when they forget.

In a prose story, the reader will quickly get overwhelmed, unable to keep track of who’s who or how they’re related. The only solution is to cut, combine, and consolidate your cast until you have a manageable number. Yes, that likely means you’ll have to cut some PCs too. I promise your gaming group will forgive you.

While there’s no exact number for how many characters a story should have, the best practice is to use only as many as you absolutely need. This is almost always smaller than the number of characters you want.

2. Your Setting Needs Stronger Theming

Literary critics have a lot of weird ideas for what a “theme” is, but here at Mythcreants, it means some element that gets repeated throughout your work. In worldbuilding, this generally means consistent stylistic choices that make your setting feel like a cohesive world, like how Avatar: The Last Airbender constantly employs elemental theming.

A lot of RPG settings have nothing like that. This is especially common if you came into the hobby through Dungeons & Dragons or one of its offshoots, as a great many of us did. D&D worlds are incredibly scattershot, with everything but the kitchen sink thrown in.

For example, D&D has an arbitrary split between arcane and divine magic, even though they work nearly identically in the setting. Why does it have that? No reason other than Gary Gygax thinking it would be cool. D&D also has easy access to resurrection, and literal gods walk the Earth with little thought to the implications that would have. It’s got urban fantasy vampires rubbing shoulders with high fantasy dragons like it’s no big deal.

I wish I could say this is just D&D’s fault, but it’s a widespread problem. Torchbearer has a gritty, realistic world, but with just a few years of practice, anyone can learn to do literal magic. Sure. Blades in the Dark is a hardcore steampunk setting, but also everyone can talk to ghosts if they try. You get the idea.

RPG worlds usually have this bizarre theming because the designers want to give players more options. How much of that is reasonable even in roleplaying is a debate of its own, but in prose, breaking theme even a little will hurt your story a lot.

3. A Lot of Game Mechanics Don’t Make Sense

It’s hardly news to say that even our favorite RPG systems have rules that are a little wonky here and there. We tolerate them for the sake of the game and do our best to muddle through. That approach will not work in written stories.

There are some obvious offenders, like how a lot of systems let your character soak up half a dozen sword hits before falling over, or how a Bayushi Saboteur could stare at a castle for ten minutes and then knock it over with a good swift kick back in second edition Legend of the Five Rings.* But there are subtler examples, too.

My favorite is the concept of “levels.” They are completely absurd, and yet a ton of RPGs use them. Imagine your main character getting better at medicine because they’ve killed enough werewolves to level up. Or how in 5E D&D, you can only polymorph someone into a giant ape if they’re already level seven or higher.* I always laugh at the idea of trying to explain that in character. “Sorry, I can’t transform you into King Kong because you aren’t self-actualized enough.”

Unless they’re writing litRPG, most new authors know better than to directly state game mechanics in their prose work. Instead, the danger comes in acting as though those mechanics still govern the world. I’ve worked on a number of manuscripts where characters act like they have hit points to burn or can only cast Magic Missile a rigid number of times per day.

This is especially bad in D&D tie-in novels. In one of the Drizzt books, I read a particularly tortured section where one of the characters somehow dodged out of the way of a lightning bolt, but only half of it? After reading the section again, I realized that the author was struggling to describe a Reflex save for half damage. Don’t let this happen to you!

4. Characters Need Motivation

When we sit down to play an RPG, there’s usually some understanding of what the game is going to be about. Good GMs will do their best to make the plot hooks obvious, and good players will do everything they can to follow up on those hooks. We often still try to have solid motivations for why our heroes are on this adventure, but that’s a secondary concern.

This makes perfect sense in an RPG. No one wants to be the obnoxious contrarian who refuses to play the game because their character has a tee time booked at the local golf course. Motivations are then further stretched as the campaign goes. If a new PC is brought in, the player usually does whatever handwaving is necessary to get into the party. Similarly, if a PC’s motivation was originally to stop a rampaging dragon, the player will usually do what is necessary to make their character continue the adventure and take on the evil king.

In written stories, motivation can’t ever be treated that casually. Understanding why each character does what they do is essential to reader enjoyment, and if it ever feels like characters are doing something just to make the plot work, you’re in real trouble. Readers are particularly sensitive to stories where it feels like a new PC has just joined the party without a good reason. Since a lot of spec fic readers are also RPG players, they recognize that contrivance for what it is.

Fortunately, prose stories also give you a lot of time to figure out each character’s motivation in advance. You don’t have to hope that your character concept will survive first contact with the other PCs or that the group will find your plot hook interesting. You can just write characters who are motivated to do what you need them to do.

However, by the same token, you also have to put in the work to make those characters believable. This requires a lot of planning if you’re an outliner or a lot of revising if you’re a discovery writer. No matter which camp you fall into, do not skimp on character motivation. Readers won’t brush past it the way a friendly RPG group will.

5. Jokes Aren’t Always Appropriate

A stone statue of a woman putting her hand over her face.

Players like to joke. It is a universal law of RPGs that players will make wisecracks and witty one-liners at every hour of the campaign, no matter how serious the GM wants things to be. This is to be expected. An RPG group is (hopefully) a bunch of friends who enjoy each other’s company. Of course they’ll want to exchange banter!

It’s often not clear if these jokes are spoken in or out of character, but the result is that roleplaying parties almost always have an air of irreverent humor about them. So long as the players quiet down and pay attention when the GM needs them to, this usually works just fine. There might be occasional quips at the villain’s expense, but that usually stops when the dice come out.

Prose stories don’t have that kind of tolerance. Writers have to work really hard to establish the tension and atmosphere they want, so having the characters make inappropriate jokes can be disastrous. What qualifies as an inappropriate joke, you ask? Basically, it’s anything that makes it clear the characters don’t take something seriously when they should.

Remember that scene at the beginning of The Last Jedi, when Poe distracts Hux with a Who’s On First routine? That shows that Poe doesn’t take Hux seriously, and henceforth the audience won’t either. If your characters pull something like that when confronted with the main villain or a climactic problem, all of your tension will flow out the window.

That doesn’t mean you can never use jokes, of course, even in dark situations. Ask yourself this key question: Are your heroes joking to better cope with what’s happening, or is it because they don’t even care? If you aren’t sure of the difference, best to err on the side of caution.

6. You Can’t Explain Things in Real Time

Perhaps my favorite aspect of GMing roleplaying games is that if a player is ever confused by what I tell them, I can clarify until they know what’s happening. If someone is getting the wrong idea, I can explain what I really meant before going on. It’s really easy to include complicated concepts and plots because I have as many chances as I need to convey the important information, so long as my players don’t get bored.

The nature of prose stories makes this impossible. You get exactly one chance to explain things to the reader, and that’s it. You can remind them later, and add more information as the story goes, but there’s no way to back up and try again. If your reader doesn’t understand what you mean the first time, their enjoyment of the story will be irrevocably damaged, even if they eventually figure it out later from context.

This means you have to think very carefully about what you’re presenting to the reader and how complicated it is. That’s why we talk so much about only adding more complexity when you absolutely need it. Unlike a face-to-face interaction, you can’t just keep adding context until everything makes sense. If you try, readers will just get more confused.

The bright side is that you have plenty of time to refine and polish your explanation rather than trying to give it in real time. Even so, there’s a limit to how much information a reader is willing to absorb, and that limit is always lower than authors think it is. Never employ complexity you don’t absolutely need, and always ask yourself if you really need the things you think you need.

7. No One Else Has Played Your Character

A painting of a monkey showing cards to dogs.

If there’s one thing roleplayers have in common, it’s that we love our characters. The heroes we build let us become someone else, whether that’s to experience a power fantasy or to safely explore difficult issues. Even in an otherwise uninteresting campaign, our characters often stand out as shining beacons of entertainment.

This leads many new writers to assume their PC will be just as compelling for readers, and that’s when the story runs straight into a brick wall. While wish fulfillment and character identification certainly happen in prose fiction, they can’t ever be as strong as in an RPG, where the player is in total control over what their PC does. In an RPG, you are your character. What happens to them feels like it’s happening to you.

That’s why it’s hard for GMs to go wrong by giving their PCs candy. When your PC vanquishes evil and charms their favorite cutie, you are vanquishing evil and charming your favorite cutie. In a prose story, however, the page always creates some level of separation between reader and character, even when the author uses a blank hero to invite a vicarious experience.

What seemed like a great prank at the table will seem like insufferable antics on the page. What felt like a cool new power when you were rolling dice will be yet another god-mode ability when you’re writing words. Readers do not know what it’s like to be this character; they will always see the story as fundamentally happening to someone else.

And unfortunately, your fellow players aren’t a great judge of how likable your PC is. A big part of why they like the character is that you, their friend, are the one controlling the sheet. Your performance is something readers won’t have.

This doesn’t automatically mean that your PC will be a disaster if you put them in a written story. It does mean that you have to follow the best practices of character likability, even if they sometimes clash with who this character was at the table. It’s more important that they be compelling on the page.

8. Dice Rolls Are Not Turning Points

When I first got serious about my writing a few years ago, my editor noted a consistent problem: my climatic moments were a total snooze fest. Beta readers agreed. Right when the story should have been the most exciting, all the feedback said that people were checking out.

I didn’t understand. I’d recreated the exact situations that had wowed my gaming table for years, right up to the moment where a PC won the day with a critical hit. That’s when I finally got it: I was writing like the reader could still have the experience of actually rolling dice.

In RPGs, the dice roll often substitutes for the turning point, that moment in the climax where the hero goes from winning to losing. This is what gives climaxes their satisfaction, and roleplayers can get that satisfaction by tossing a handful of polyhedrals. The roll gives them the feeling that they earned their victory, even if nothing notable happens in the narrative.

For example, consider the first Star Wars film. The main turning point of Luke’s attack run is when he turns off his targeting computer and puts his faith in the Force.* In an RPG, it would have also been satisfying if Luke had to make a really hard attack roll. But imagine if in the movie, Luke had just made his run like normal and then hit the target. One ticket to boringtown, please.

Short of including a bag of dice with every book, you can’t count on a natural 20 to carry the climax in prose. Writers need to show how the protagonist earned their victory. There are lots of ways to do this, but they all require something out of the ordinary to happen, something besides the hero just doing a really good job this time.

9. The Gratification Is Long Delayed

A photo of sailing ships in the process of being built.

As a storyteller, I thrive on validation from other people. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of another human being telling me that I’ve entertained them. With roleplaying, I can get that feeling every week. For others, it’s more like every two weeks or every month, but it’s still a relatively short waiting period between crafting the story and seeing the audience enjoy it.

Writing fiction is on a much, much longer delay. Writing times vary wildly depending on the length of the story and the individual author, but even the fastest short stories generally need several weeks for editing and revisions. Then you need to find a publisher, unless you’ve already built a platform of your own.

Novels take far more time. Even if you’re a fast writer, several years from page one to publication is the norm, and the process can take a lot longer. And then there’s the question of reader feedback. At the table, it’s pretty obvious if your fellow gamers are having a good time. With prose fiction, you might not ever know. Most of my short stories have no comments on them, so I have no idea what readers thought of them.

That’s not to say that writing isn’t worth the time and effort. For some people, the long-delayed gratification of finally publishing a book is all they need. For others, the writing is a reward in itself, even if no one but their editor will read it for years to come. But if you’re coming from a roleplaying background, the lack of regular feedback from other people can be a real shock. Only you can decide if it’s a shock worth overcoming.


No doubt I’ve painted an intimidating picture with these tips. That’s to be expected, since writing is an intimidating proposition. It’s also an incredibly satisfying expression of human creativity, and for anyone who decides to take it on, I wish you nothing but success. But it’s important to understand what you’re signing up for, especially if your experience is with an entirely different storytelling medium like roleplaying. That way, you can make an informed decision rather than being caught unaware once you start.

Need an editor? We’re at your service.

 

Comments

  1. Innes

    In addition to the theming and inappropriate mechanics problems, there’s some genre conventions that happen in rpgs that don’t make sense in other works. In Dungeons & Dragons: The Movie (which exists and is hilariously awful), the characters have to go through a puzzle dungeon, and in an rpg it makes sense that there might be a convoluted pressure plate puzzle because It Is An Rpg and there’s a pretty high tolerance for bizarre/campy conventions. In a movie the idea that someone would go to the trouble of making a pressure plate trap just to murder adventurers (which is a job people have like baker, or accountant, in this setting) and that it would work after untold eons just doesn’t make sense.
    It’s a genre convention of RPGs that dungeons will be there, full of traps and also riches that no one will ask too many questions about when you try to pawn five gold statuettes at the nearest merchant.
    Granted an experienced GM/a group with a storytelling or roleplay focus may have explanations for these sorts of things, but you should still keep it in mind when writing about a rpg campaign.

    • Gray-Hand

      Worked okay in the Indiana Jones movies.

      • Cay Reet

        But the gold statuette should have gone into a museum!

        Well, Indy is pulp at its finest and pulp has some allowance in that way.

  2. Danita Rambo

    Oren, please go back in time and publish this article 3 years ago. Would’ve saved me a lot of trouble with my first draft! 😉

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