Once again, I dance like a monkey for your amusement. This time around my friend Al asked via facebook:
Why should writers never write RPG campaigns as stories, why on earth did you do just that, why isn’t it finished yet?
Okay, we’re going to kick this one off with a list o’ reasons, some of which people are likely to disagree with.
1) EDITORS DON’T LIKE IT
Let’s kick this off with the obvious – the best reason to avoid writing up RPG campaigns as stories is the fact that places that give you money for writing aren’t a big fan of things that are based on RPG campaigns. This warning from Strange Horizon’s List of Stories They See Too Often isn’t exactly uncommon, where they pretty much tell you to avoid anything where:
Story is based in whole or part on a D&D game or world.
a. A party of D&D characters (usually including a fighter, a magic-user, and a thief, one of whom is a half-elf and one a dwarf) enters a dungeon (or the wilderness, or a town, or a tavern) and fights monsters (usually including orcs).
b. Story is the origin story of a D&D character, culminating in their hooking up with a party of adventurers.
c. A group of real-world humans who like roleplaying find themselves transported to D&D world.
They’re not alone. I mean, I can think of at least one other well-paying fantasy magazine that has the same prohibition and I’m willing to bet that a bunch others are just as biased against campaign-oriented fiction without specifically calling it out. Call me crazy (or, you know, mercenary), but writing things you can’t get paid for is generally a bad idea when your goal is to write things for money.
Me, I write for money. Stories are one of those things I exchange for some form of payment. If you can find someone who’ll pay you money for your campaign notes, more power to you. Personally I’m planning on sticking to the things that don’t alienate editors.
2) YOUR CAMPAIGN IS A HORRIBLE STORY
Here’s the thing most people don’t like to admit about gaming – it’s a terrible format for complex storytelling. Instead, gaming is, to borrow a phrase from (I think) Robin Laws, a way of telling a simple story in a complex way.
This isn’t an argument about rules complexity, just a reality of the way RPG’s work. Characters tend to get painted in broad swathes, and even when they’re designed to replicate the kind of internal and external conflict you’ll find in a narrative story, those conflicts lack the depth you’d aim for in fiction. PCs are often defined by singular motivations and short-term goals. Session and campaign goals are externalised and often unrelated to the internal conflict.
More importantly, gaming doesn’t really need to *stretch* against the boundaries of its genre – a great deal of the joy of gaming, when you get down to it, comes from hitting genre sign-posts and inhabiting narrative moments that are recognisable as familiar sign-posts of the genre. GMs frequently look for familiarity because it makes their life easier.
The very nature of a campaign as a collaborative, ongoing thing works against creating a cohesive story as well. In narrative terms your standard gaming group represents an ensemble cast with no clear protagonist, your average campaign is a series of episodic stories connected together without any real clear sense of narrative arc, and the vicissitudes of dice and rules mean that you have no real control over the pace and climax of the action. Think of it like a very uneven TV series where, if you’re lucky, there’s a seasonal arc to hold things together but plenty of stand-alone episodes.
Worse, everything is filtered through multiple creators who may have slightly different ideas of what story you’re telling. A character who sees himself as the embodiment of a particular archetype (hardboiled PI, for example) may enjoy some friendly banter with a character he perceives to be playing the femme-fatale, but his long-term expectation of the two character’s arc can easily be thwarted if the femme-fatale’s player (or the GM) doesn’t recognise that’s what’s going on and agree to it. If you doubt me, try this as an exercise: sit down with your regular gaming group and get people to write down what they perceive to be a “happy ending” for all the other characters. Odds are, the expectations will be wildly different. I’ve never seen a game-group navigate this kind of disconnect perfectly (though some have gotten close).
So, yeah, RPGs are simple stories that are told using enormously complex methods (regardless of system). Once you strip the method out, what you’re left with often feels comparatively hollow and familiar.
3) GMs THINK ABOUT SETTING AND ANTAGONISTS, WRITERS THINK ABOUT CHARACTER
For a couple of years one of the local universities used to bring me in and get me to work with a handful of students from their writing program. It was part of a subject they ran where undergraduates wrote longer works – a suite of poems, a collection of stories, or a novella – and had a writer/editor type critique their work.
I encountered a lot of gamers-turned-writers in those days, primarily ’cause the lecturer in charge would team me with any students of a…well, let’s say geekish persuasion…simply ’cause I knew how to handle the conversations you’d have in the first critique session. Inevitably we’d sit down and talk about the students work, and two things would happen:
1) The student would rant about the university not understanding their work and the obvious bias their instructors had against genre work.
2) I’d nod a lot and ask the question “So you’re gamer, right?”, after which the student would express shock that I could tell that simply by reading their work. They were usually just as shocked when I pointed out that I didn’t like their work either, despite being a gamer and knowing where they were coming from.
There’s a bunch of reasons I could pick an GM-turned-Writer just from a handful of sample pages, but primarily it’s ’cause GMs are hardwired to think about stories in a slightly different way than other people. They have great settings, they tend to build towards cool moments in the narrative, and they develop cool antagonists.
What they failed at, generally, was creating a compelling protagonist (or, indeed, identifying a core protagonist among their ensemble), conveying the narrative rules of their world, and hiding the fact that their approach to magic/space-flight/aliens/
Also, their action scenes were generally…well, messy.
These aren’t criminal faults in writing. Plenty of GM-turned-writers have overcome them and learned how to make their GM skills interests a strength, and I’ll certainly cop to being a writer who favours “cool genre moments” and writes a particularly mess and ill-paced fight-scene every now and then. Hopefully I’m getting better at that, but odds are it’ll take time and conscious effort and I’ll spend years relying on my circle of beta-readers picking up on the things that are more “game” than “fiction.”
THE WORLD SAYS DON’T DO IT, BUT THEN, I’M AN IDIOT
And yet, despite all this, I started writing a short novel based off a roleplaying game campaign earlier this year. In my defence, it wasn’t my game – it was run by the inimitable Sleech – and it involved a group of people who’d been gaming together for a long time. Unfortunately half the group absconded to Melbourne, including Al, so we pretty much wound down our regular game and got used to doing other things.
I started the novel project for two reasons: I missed the game and the people I gamed with, and it occurred to me that my job at the writer’s centre meant that, for once, I could afford to do some goofy projects that weren’t necessarily about making money in the long-run.
The reason it isn’t finished yet is pretty simple – looming potential unemployment meant I turned my attention to short fiction again, and I ran into all the problems I’ve outlined above when it comes to transforming campaigns to fiction (particularly when it came to disguising the fact that the game we were basing it on has a very distinctive setting).
I haven’t abandoned the problem, and to be honest I think I know how to get around the setting problem, but fixing that sort of thing takes the kind of dedicated writing and research time I don’t really have now I’m working full-time.
Fortunately, working full-time is only a temporary thing, and working itself still up in the air until I get news about if/how my contract will be renewed next year. Should I find myself without a dayjob, odds are the Untitled Victorian Planetary Romance, Pt 1 will make a re-appearance in my writing to-do list. ‘Til then, unfortunately, it’s a project I attempted and failed, and it’ll remain such until I get a chance to take a better run-up.