Writing stories is hard. Everyone who has ever taken the running leap off the cliff of imagination to try and fly quickly learns that. When the thermals are good, you’ve got smooth sailing; the words come like water from a faucet, and everything seems to flow. You can coast for pages on a good burst of inspiration, struggling here and there, but overall making good time. When that lifting force fades though, as it eventually does, it’s just you and your arms, flapping harder and harder to try and stay up.
One of the biggest causes of that lack of lift is plot. When your plot starts to drift or show its holes, then everything starts to fall apart. You can stall for days, weeks, months, until that burst of insight and motivation hits you. Having a solid plot is like having a map of air currents to ensure that you can always avoid the biggest pockets of dead air.
And that’s the greatest advantage writing a story based off a completed tabletop game provides. The plot has already been established, by the hard work of the GM and the capricious whims of the players. There’s an established beginning, a satisfying (or depressing) end, and all the major events that lead from one to the other is sitting there waiting like checkpoints in a side-scroller.
The second great advantage provided by writing a story based off a game is the characters. Their relationships are fleshed out, their motivation and personalities more or less made clear. All the tagonists are lined up, pro and an, waiting for you to breathe life into them.
So if those are the main advantages of writing a story based on a game, what are the unique challenges? Here are a few of the main things to look out for and check off your list of bases to cover while worldcrafting:
Loose plot threads:
Your average game more than likely will have had a number of directions it could have gone in. To ensure player autonomy and choice has an impact in directing the story, the GM often adds in a dozen characters and story threads that end up not doing a whole lot, or having any purpose, because the players go in a different direction or never choose to fully explore all the little paths and back alleys he or she littered the landscape with.
When writing a novel, however, you can’t have superfluous characters and subplots. It’s your job as the writer to tighten the strands together into one cohesive tapestry. Use your judgment to prune the extraneous bits so that a reader who has no backstory or knowledge of the game it’s based on won’t get confused.
Example: In the game, the party reached an inn in a strange town and decided to spend the night. While there, the GM presented the players with three potential objectives by way of NPCs. An attractive bartender bemoaned the theft of her family heirlooms, a wealthy businessman requested aid guarding his caravan, and a suspicious fellow tucked a note in one of the characters’ pockets detailing a time, place, and potential reward.
Roughly half the party was interested in helping the bartender, while the other half saw more benefit in helping the businessman. One player, perhaps the one who was given the note, was curious about it, and asked for backup in case it was a trap of some kind. No one was particularly keen to walk into a mysterious meeting however, especially when there were so many other (potentially) safer options. They convinced him not to go, and he ended up helping one of the two groups, or perhaps they all end up helping the bartender or the businessman.
You as the writer have a choice to make now: do you take everything, and write it out as it happened? Do you prune out the note, and leave it as a debate between the other two options? Or, if the party ultimately decided to all work together toward one goal, do you eliminate the other options altogether and focus on the one that was followed through?
There are reasons to keep them in, of course. Perhaps the conversation everyone had in order to decide together who to assist was made more interesting by the alternate choices. If you want to, you can certainly keep them in just to keep the character development and relationship tensions in. Or if the mysterious notegiver ends up being an important part of the later story, obviously it’s important to set the groundwork by leaving it in.
However, note that removing the options doesn’t necessarily remove complexity from the story. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you could try developing other reasons for the debate to take place that still develops the characters and scene without the superfluous NPCs and dialogue. Ultimately, this is often the best choice: in the framework of a game, it’s perfectly acceptable for strangers to ask a group of adventurers for help in their everyday worries. In an ostensibly realistic story, it doesn’t quite make as much sense. Additionally it distracts from the pacing, leaving incomplete and rough cobbles on the road for your reader to trip and worry over fruitlessly.
In most games, players take a few sessions to get into the swing of things. Maybe they’re trying a new personality out, or are in a setting they’ve never encountered before, or perhaps it’s their first tabletop game in a while, if ever. Over time, character concepts crystalize and behavior becomes more meaningful. But if you transcribe events and dialogue exactly as it occurred in the game, you might find yourself writing erratic and inconsistent characters, or flat, two dimensional caricatures that turn the readers off before they get a chance to evolve into the well rounded and engaging people you know and love (or hate).
The solution is simple: artistic license. Assuming none of the players get terribly offended by your manipulation of their character’s moods and backstory, feel free to change anything you need in order to present a more stable and smooth character arc. This applies to interactions as well: if two characters are meant to be friends from the beginning, but at first acted stiff and formal around each other due to their player’s unfamiliarity, liven their starting scenes up to set the right tone off the bat. As a general rule, whatever helps make your character more relatable and engaging while still sticking to the core of who they were, try it. You can always edit and fine tune it later, but be sure to start with how things turn out rather than sticking mechanically to chronicling how things were.
Example: John and Sally had never met before the game started, yet their characters, Midas and Kate, were the first to meet in it. Their backstories had them both growing up in the same neighborhood of the same city, and while not necessarily friends, they were familiar acquaintances. When the GM informed them that a storm of unprecedented size and strength was heading toward the city, both go to the same shopping mart to get supplies, and meet there.
The players, familiar with the setting and expecting trouble of some sort beyond the storm, focused their characters’ interactions on efficiency. They stocked up on food and medical equipment, bought certain things that could be used as makeshift weapons, and coordinated pooling their resources in the event of emergency. Before they could leave the shopping mart, the power went out, and in the imposed darkness of the coming storm, they emerged ready to battle whatever evil was befalling their city.
There are a number of changes to be made to turn this bit of roleplaying into a fully fledged, novel-quality scene. You want the first impression the reader has of these characters to be a good one: not too overloaded with information, but giving a strong sense of who they are and what quality a relationship, if any, they have together.
Maybe it turned out as the game progressed that Midas was attracted to Kate and had always had a crush on her. To that end, some attempts at overt friendliness, if not outright flirting, would be beneficial in setting up his character and the mood of his interactions with Kate. Perhaps Sally realizes later that her character Kate is so perceptive because she has borderline OCD, which helps her pay particularly good attention to details that the other players miss. To help set the ground for that, it would be good to briefly show Kate exhibiting minor symptoms of an obsessive compulsive personality, such as straightening things on the shelves as she shops, or buying things in even numbers.
Additionally, the players may have focused on pragmatic details, but the characters almost certainly would not have. There are certain norms in social settings, familiar patterns in greetings and conversation that could be expanded on not just for realism, but also to establish characters. Have Kate ask Midas how his father is doing; perhaps she went to his store just the other day to buy some art. Inject a familiar event or location from their past in their dialogue, to show without telling that they’ve lived in the same neighborhood together all their lives, went to the same school, and so on.
Character fidelity is important to you as someone who played in the game and as a friend to the player of the characters, but your independent reader is the one you have to entertain and inform above all others. Don’t be afraid to liven character interactions up or shift focus from one aspect of their personality to another to make them more interesting and stable.
Part 2 is out now, the challenge of perspective.