Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Writer Writes, Always - Part Two

All right, so we've gotten past the hard part - ripping the bandage off the hairy leg, so to speak. Lots of gamers, especially GMs, are writers in disguise. Unfortunately, many of them decide to try and take off their mask during the middle of the ball, and rather than the prince falling in love, the music screeches to a halt and someone not-so-quietly upchucks their dinner into the nearest potted palm.

Yes, I know that's gross. It was my intention.

So why, you might ask, does this so often go so horribly wrong? A writer needs to be creative, and diligent, and well-read, and know their subject matter, and feel passionate about what they are writing. All of these qualities any half-decent GM possesses to some degree or another. So where's the problem?

I think the Number One Problem is that, just as you cannot easily translate a book into a movie with any degree of success, or a movie into a book, it is much harder than it might seem to successfully turn a book into an RPG campaign setting, and likewise a campaign setting into a book. Just as there are certain aspects of film that don't translate well into prose and vice versa, there are certain aspects of prose that don't make for good campaign settings, and there are certain aspects of good campaign settings that don't make for good prose.

To expand on this specifically with regards to RPGs and fiction, I am first reminded of an interview with the author China Mieville.

At one point fairly early on in that interview, he discusses the influences of role-playing games, particularly D&D, on his writing. The particular point which I want to draw one's attention to is where he talks about the RPG player's "fetish for systemization"; the idea that you can read H.P. Lovecraft's Call of Cthulhu, and still think there's some way to boil down such an alien, unknowable entity into "game stats", as Mieville puts it.

Fellow gamers, please raise your hand if you've ever read a novel or watched a TV show or movie and pondered how to "stat out" a certain character, or how you'd handle a certain piece of technology, monster, or method of magic in terms of your favorite RPG system.

Okay, now raise your hand if you didn't raise your hand before, because you're a liar and not willing to admit the sad truth of the matter.

Of course, one may ask, where is the harm in "statting out" heroes and monsters and other facets of one's favorite fantasy or sci-fi series and building a campaign setting around these stats in order to game in that world?

Because, to paraphrase Dutch from Predator, if it's got hit points, we can kill it.

Frodo Baggins, despite being a three-foot tall potato dumpling who's probably never been in a real brawl his whole life, makes it across a thousand leagues of murderous war-scape, drops an evil magic ring into the heart of a volcano, and manages to get back home to brew another pot of tea in his hobbit hole, because he's the "hero" of a work of fiction, and doesn't die unless the author feels its appropriate for the character to die in order to suit the aims of the story.

Frodo Baggins the RPG character might very well die in the first session of the campaign when he fails his roll to leap from the Buckleberry Ferry dock and into the boat with Merry, Pippin, and Sam, and instead drowns in the Brandywine River. Whoops. Bad luck, that. Here's a new character sheet.

To look at it from another angle, Robert E. Howard's Conan is the ultimate pulp sword & sorcery badass and survives countless deadly situations, emerging victorious time and time again surrounded by windrows of dead enemies, bruised and bloodied, but nevertheless triumphant. On the other hand, Chuck's Rolemaster character Conan will die from a bad puncture critical to the groin.

Again, once you "stat it out", you're setting limits on your campaign setting that may not give you the results you've come to expect. Once you start giving gods and demons a statline, cheeky players WILL want to find a way to kill them, or die in the attempt. Looked at from the point of view of the players, once you give something a statline, you take away the mystery and the awe. If Cthulhu has hit points, then all you need to defeat it is a big enough gun and a few lucky die rolls. If Luke Skywalker has a Will Save stat, he's just one bad flub of a die roll from being the next Sith Lord.

The more I think about it, the WORST thing you can do to your favorite fictional setting is to turn it into an RPG campaign setting. In the harsh light of day (i.e., after "statting it up"), the love of your life...well...she probably ain't so pretty no more.

I was going to continue the argument here and discuss the problems with going in the other direction - turning RPGs into fiction - but as this column is already fairly long, I'm going to stop here and return to this issue in Part Three, so stay tuned...


Chgowiz said...

The more I read this, the more I think I shouldn't write anymore. It probably is a fool's errand.

Dungeonmum said...

I thought it was odd when GW came up with the LOTR RPG. If the books/film are that good then you'll be a fan and want to play the game, but paradoxically, isn't playing the RPG like rewriting the story? does it really need 'improving'?

Talking about the 'statting up' of film characters. I confess to have an equally tragic game in my head where I'll place each one into a character class. e.g the A team Murdock-wizard, BA-fighter, Face-rogue, Hannibal-fighter/rogue.

Badelaire said...


Assuming you're not just being snarky...

1) I'm certainly not advocating that gamers "shouldn't write anymore". Far from it. I guess my key point is, "don't quit your day job".

2) What I am doing is pointing out a pattern of behavior that I think can and should be changed, and I want to explore the whys and hows involved.

3) At the end of this arc of pontification, there will be some light at the end of the tunnel. One hopes...

Chgowiz said...

I really try hard not to snark in my comments and posts, unless it's at myself. This was dead serious... the points you make about trying to express RPG elements in one's writing or vice versa, I'm not a pro, I'm not a good writer and I shouldn't be trying to do something I'm not.

Badelaire said...

Well first, see #3. We will work towards a solution, believe me.

Otherwise, my primary point is that, just as it is not as easy as one might think to take a literary source and convert it faithfully and successfully into a role-playing game, it is far, far harder than a lot people think to go in the other direction, i.e., take their beloved campaign setting and "convert" it into a marketable fiction product.

And notice that I say marketable. I'm not talking here about someone writing up what I call "recursive fan-fiction", I'm talking about someone saying to themselves "Man, my world is so awesome, my players love it, when I blog about it other people think it's cool...maybe I can write a novel set in my world and become a writer".

So write all you want, but I caution that you should think twice before hitting "submit" to Del Rey or Baen.

Chgowiz said...

I feel like my crap is junk anyway, so no worries that I'd submit it.

The other hurdle of writing to one's beloved fiction is licensing and cost.

The reality check is always good.

Cameron Wood said...

Don't stop writing, Chgowiz. Badelaire's point is that certain elements don't successfully carry over from RPGs to serious fiction and vice versa. Orson Scott Card points this out in a book I'm too lazy to dig out of a box: the mechanics of D&D are senseless when it comes to some elements that a publishable fiction story needs; but I would add that a particularly interesting campaign can generate some very good stories, but only if you're willing to do some highly creative and "kill your children"-style editing of how things went down.

Me? I stick to poetry. Knowing my adventure-related verse will never see publication outside of my blog makes the writing actually more fun, not less.

(My apologies to Badelaire for some light link-whoring here.)

Forge said...

Awesome post. I think you've nailed it. While both are creative, they have different rules on what makes them work.

And I'm ashamed to admit that as a teenager looking at Cthulhu's stats I thought "Mmm, I wonder how I could do that much damage." Mutants & Masterminds has a cool rule where certain villains don't have stats. They can do whatever the GM needs. It's perfect for Beyonder-type characters.

Darkwing said...

I remember reading something by Ray Bradbury where he was giving advice to budding writers. It went something like "Write. All the time. When you've written 1 million words worth of material, throw it all away, because it's crap. NOW you're ready to write for real."

kathulhu said...

I don't necessarily "stat out" my favorite characters/movies but I do think that certain movies would make kick ass video games. Actually stating out a movie/book character involves math. And math is hard.

Dagda said...

When it comes to "statting things out", I think you've missed the point. If I give Cthulhu hit points, X attacks per round, Armor Class, etc. then the problem isn't that I chose to stat Cthulhu out; it's that I used the wrong *kind* of stats. You don't pound in nails using a screwdriver, and you don't quantify a Great Old One using mechanics that were designed to represent entities players could kill with axes and fireballs.

Meanwhile, if I give Cthulhu stats such as "Health: Cannot be harmed except by GM fiat, in which case he reforms in 1 round if 'injured' or 5 rounds if 'destroyed'" and "Attacks: Can devour the nearest 1d4 PCs as a standard action", then I've managed to come up with a set of mechanics whose results will be true to the source material.

Translating fiction into game mechanics is how roleplaying games are made in the first place. It produces terrible results because you did a crappy job on the translation. Trying to turn your favorite piece of fiction into an rpg setting is the BEST thing you can do- for your abilities as a GM and RPG designer. Because it'll help you see all those horrible ways in which your initial attempts fall short, and provide you with some extra motivation to try, try again.

P.S: Naturally, telling the players about something's statistics can still be bad idea. Deciding what kind of metagame information to pass on is a separate matter- and a very interesting one. Ever play in a game where only the GM knew everyone's current hp?

Anonymous said...

Almost any fantasy I read or watch, I ponder how I would do aspect of it mechanically in a game. Now, some things I recognize as writer's fiat and needed for plot, as games and fiction have very different demands. But I still think it is a useful exercise.

And when I write fiction set in a game world, I try to have the fiction conform to the game rules as long as that still makes the story interesting.