Three facets of fantasy writing

My life as tabletop gamer, live role-player and novelist

I’ve read fantasy for far longer than I’ve been writing it and one thing that influences me when considering a new author is their acknowledgements. A book can have great artwork, a blurb that really gets a hook into me but if I read ‘and thanks to all the Friday Night gamers’ I’m likely to put it down. Some of the worst fantasy books I’ve read stem from someone having a really great time playing a table top game, and then writing it up, just as it happened. But writing gaming scenarios, both table top and live action was an essential part of my apprenticeship as a writer. How do these things tie together?

The people I gamed with wanted escapism with a bit of intellectual stimulation, which pretty much still sums up my approach now I’m writing fantasy novels. The longest campaign I ran kicked off with a kidnapped dwarven prime minister. A wildly assorted party identified the bad guy responsible and spent the next two and a half years going after him. I’d write up encounters every week; sometimes we’d have an evening of hack and slay, sometimes I’d throw in a puzzle for the gang to thrash out over the Hobnobs. I’d write sessions where everyone could use their particular skills or magic items and every so often, I’d build a session round an individual, like a Buffy episode highlighting Xander while everyone else is off saving the world. We enjoyed ourselves immensely but there’s no way I’ll ever take that material and try making a novel out of it. We had a lot of laughs and some really edge-of-the-seat evenings, but what we didn’t have in any particular sense was a plot

Fantasy campaigns rarely need anything more complicated than some vague rationale keeping characters moving around the map. There’ll be an overall story arc but the focus shifts depending on the monster of the week. In that sense, most fantasy campaigns have more in common with the X-Files than with a book. Novels on the other hand, do need plots. They need a beginning, a middle and an end and ideally, within the same set of covers. Just because Tolkien wrote a trilogy is not sufficient reason for every fantasy novelist to do the same. Novels don’t necessarily need three volumes but characters in them do need three dimensions. Characterisation draws readers in, keeps readers concerned about that individual’s fate. A warrior in a novel needs a back-story underpinning the motivation sustaining him through trials and tribulations. All anyone gaming wants to know is the fighter’s hit points and whether he’s got his own magic sword. Characters in a novel need a good reason for being involved; just being in the same tavern as a bunch of people going off to fight a dragon simply doesn’t cut it.

A novel needs to focus on that plot, something nigh in impossible in a long running scenario. I’ve faced parties doing something entirely logical, which made me tuck everything I’d written for that session behind a blank sheet of paper and starting running the adventure off the cuff. A notorious random treasure incident in an underground complex springs to mind. The party found some small drums, which the players decided might bring the roof down. So everyone carefully stood at least 10 feet away while one character had a crack at them. But they were drums of panic, affecting people 10 feet or more away. I had the entire party racing in all directions, turning corners on random dice rolls, failing saving throws at every opportunity and two characters ended up dead. The adventure turned into a quest to recover the bodies, get them resurrected and then hunt some passing monsters who’d looted their magic items. All of which was fun to write, fun to play and would have totally derailed any tightly planned stratagem.

GMs trying to follow a specific, linear plot are scuppered time and again because gamers have this indefatigable talent for thinking themselves out of corners in some barmy yet entirely plausible way. A GM trying to stop them gets no thanks and anyway, what’s the point? Gaming is interactive, not just an ego trip for the GM. If you want to present your singular vision in a form where people can’t argue back, by all means try writing a novel, because it won’t make a role-playing scenario. But don’t take a taste for long diversions with you because fantasy novels really drag when writers get seduced into taking characters down sidetracks that don’t really lead anywhere. As a writer, I pick up tips from all over the place. My kids have got Snow White on video and there’s a documentary tacked on about the making of the film. It includes sequences cut because no matter how good they were technically, they didn’t progress the plot and they didn’t develop character. One such scene is when Snow White’s cooked dinner and the dwarves sing their way through the meal; all very entertaining, bringing nothing new to the film and the reason I know to get editing when one of my readers sends back a draft with ‘dwarves drinking soup’ pencilled in the margin.

All gaming systems have logical inconsistencies. When you’re playing, you slide past them or the GM comes up with some spurious reasoning. You can’t expect readers to do that. Gamers moves fast, thinking about umpteen things simultaneously. Readers have time to think things through and spot the flaws. In a gaming scenario, you can ignore the implications of your party slaughtering things at will. You don’t need to address the complications of elves living hundreds of years or wondering what’s to stop your 15th level wizard taking over the world, apart from some comparable wizard hexing him till he glows. Writing a book, you have to pin down that internal logic. Dice characterise tabletop gaming, the random roll and the random outcome. Are you going to decapitate the dragon with your first natural 20 or get a 1 and stab yourself in the foot? Gamers love the way a chance roll can turn events on their head. Readers of fantasy novels do not like random events sending the book off on an unheralded tangent or some wicked combination of luck resolving all the hero’s problems. As far as I’m concerned, taking a gaming experience, writing it up and expecting to have a novel is a bit like telling someone about a fabulous party they weren’t at. Sooner or later, you find yourself saying, ‘Well, you had to be there’.

Editors throughout the English speaking world are doubtless bracing themselves now that Wizards of the Coast have declared the AD&D world an ‘open’ system. I wouldn’t try writing within it on a bet. How can you sustain any suspense using an established system when everyone knows how powerful the monsters are and what the key magic item you need to defeat them? You need surprises to hook the reader and to keep them turning the pages. Originality is essential if an editor or an agent’s going to take a novel seriously. Many years ago, my first attempt at the definitive fantasy masterwork kept coming back from agents and publishers with variations on ‘there’s nothing to distinguish this from the six other perfectly competent fantasy novels that hit my desk every week’. The odds will be even worse when every second gamer is sending in a Dragonlance knock off.

So is tabletop gaming experience more hindrance than help if you want to write novels? No, I don’t think that at all. Gaming experience is a huge help when it comes to bending rules without actually breaking them. All genre fiction has rules, be it fantasy, crime or city girl chick-lit. A writer can’t think ‘if the rules don’t say I can do this, then I can’t’ but rather ‘if the rules don’t say I can’t do this, then I can try.’ Gamers are devils for that kind of thing; as a writer, it’ll spark that originality so essential to getting ahead of the competition. You can’t get away with the logical inconsistencies of gaming systems in a novel but you can get some interesting plot ideas by exploring them. How are things like politics, science and religion affected when magic really does work? How do you stop wizards ruling the world? What kind of checks and balances do you need and what happens if something screws them up? See The Tales of Einarinn for further details.

Writing scenarios is a fantastic training ground for the imagination, especially writing for gamers who like detail. If you’re up against players who pick away at anything that might be somehow turned to their advantage, you soon learn to tie up loose ends. After one experience of your gamers exploiting you mercilessly because they saw your cunning plot twist half an hour before the big monster hit, you start using lateral thinking to frustrate expectation, to play off people’s assumptions. All those skills are central to believable plot development in a novel. Watching players working well together gives an excellent basis for writing interaction between characters that comes off the page as realistic.

Much of this applies equally well to Live Role Playing. LRP also puts people under rather more stress than tabletop gaming, getting them cold, wet and often really scared, giving you all the more experience to draw on for vivid scene setting. Fighting is totally different in LRP to tabletop gaming. You can’t see what everyone else is up to when you’re trying to stop an orc hacking your arms and legs off. Working out what magic to use in the dark and the rain with screaming goblins racing at you is a damn sight harder than when you’re sitting in a lounge with your player’s guide to hand. Traps and puzzles are a whole different ball game by guttering candlelight. Spend a winter night in an unheated scout hut and put on the same damp clothes that you took off before crawling into your sleeping bag, and you’ll get pretty close to an authentic medieval peasant experience. In LRP people don’t always agree about what to do and hyped up on adrenaline, they’ll bloody well say so! Keep an ear open and you’ll soon develop a knack for natural sounding dialogue.

Other things from my LRP days influence my writing. We established early on that six or seven fights with one or two talking encounters and one or two puzzles or traps made for a good evening’s adventure. Every character gets a chance to do their thing, no one spends too long getting cold or bored and the pace of the whole thing moves merrily along. I apply a similar balance of action to chat in my novels which is probably why it’s been said I get more plot in one volume than some writers get into a trilogy. I take that as a compliment.

Live Role Playing scenarios have the same problems maintaining an on-going campaign as tabletop ones but in my considered opinion, individual sessions do best with a linear plot. Some people run ‘free form’ adventures which are basically an attempt to copy the table top pattern of random encounters dotted round a map. Ten or so groups of monsters set up in an area and adventurers go round seeing what they can find out. There are all kinds of problems with this, not least the monsters get very bored sitting in a wood and after half an hour, given half an excuse, they’ll attack random dog walkers. This approach also falls down when the referee expects the party to follow a particular course of reasoning and do encounters in an allegedly obvious pattern. I was once an imp in an adventure like this, disguised as a human, and my job was to talk the party into retrieving a bottle inside a magic circle. Years of fast-talking to baffle players and refs alike makes me very persuasive and I got every party coming past me to help. What the adventurers didn’t know was picking up the bottle released a demon as played by Steve who’s six foot, seventeen stone and came charging out of a bush in full costume up to and including a two-handed sword. Party after party froze, going ‘whu?’ and the ones Steve didn’t kill, I stabbed in the back. That was the end of their adventure because no one had fancied talking to the boring-looking hermit on the other side of the wood who’d have warned them off.

It’s an amusing story and it illustrates just how easy it is to kill adventurers, something common to tabletop and Live Action gaming. People dying because they’ve been really stupid or really unlucky is fair play but even then, I think that should happen as seldom as you can manage it. It’s all just a game after all and the whole point in everyone having fun. You have far more control over a linear scenario where you devise an initial set up and then write each encounter so the next step is logical, but not too obvious, making the party to work together, using their wits to get the crucial piece of kit or information. You select monsters so combats are a real test without being a slaughter. You think through all the potential implications of whatever you’re setting up and stick in diversions that stop people heading down the wrong track in an entirely logical and non-obvious manner. Ideally, your adventurers get to the last encounter on minimal hits, minimal magic, having used all their potions and convinced that they did it all by the skin of their teeth, making every decision along the way. Put all this together smoothly enough and your adventurers get caught up in the suspension of disbelief, never stopping to see just how you’re pulling their strings.

All this experience feeds directly into how I plot and write novels, where you absolutely have to avoid digging yourself into plot holes or assuming your personal logic will make sense to everyone else. If things go awry in tabletop gaming, you can pull some figure out of the monster box and make things up as you go. In a live action scenario, the Ref’s options are more limited but you can evade most cock-ups by talking fast enough to baffle brains with bullshit. As a writer, if you get so stuck you resort to the attack of the killer plot device, readers can just turn back the pages to find the bit that plainly contradicts whatever you’re trying to get away with. For every reader who’ll skate over the thin ice, two others will get drenched in the cold water of common sense, and never bother with anything else you write.

One of the great things I find about writing novels compared to live action scenarios is some bright spark can’t scupper things half way with a cunning plan. However hard you work to avoid that as a LRP ref, it still happens and I’ve been the guilty party on occasion. In one of those non-linear scenarios, I was a wandering evil elf with a staff that could glue people to the floor, one spell, ‘Ignite’ and the ref told me to harass the adventurers. As far as I was concerned, the obvious tactic was to creep up, hide behind a bush and rustle it. When a solitary adventurer came to investigate, because no matter how many horror films people watch, they always do this kind of thing on their own, I would stick whoever it was to the floor, set their clothes on fire and run away. I did so much damage the ref had to pull me out but as far as I am concerned, I was playing fair. When it comes to writing novels, that’s the mentality you have to adopt for your antagonists. You must see the world through their eyes and act accordingly. Don’t give the hero any kind of break, just because he’s the goodie. If the antagonist’s obvious move causes your hero all kinds of problems, then your job as the writer is finding the solution. You can’t just collar the elf, give her a bollocking and send her off for coffee.

So while some crucial things are common to table top gaming, live action adventures or fantasy novels, particularly the need for original ideas, a lot of what makes for good table top gaming does not make for good LRP and in turn does not make for a good read in a novel. Each form of fantasy writing has its own rules, its own strengths and weaknesses. Take heed of the differences and you can capitalise on the similarities.

This essay started life as a talk I gave to various university SF societies in 2000, and as far as I can establish, its earliest printed appearance was in an issue of the BSFA’s Focus magazine in late 2001

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