Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A Writer Writes, Always - Part Three

And now, we come around (finally) to the heart of the matter - what happens when gamers turn their beloved campaign settings into fiction settings, with the goal of creating some kind of marketable material and earning the much coveted title "novelist".

In a word, tragedy.

As we discussed earlier, there are elements of fiction that don't translate well into RPGs. And it follows that there are elements of RPGs that don't translate well into fiction. This problem is compounded, furthermore, when you have a campaign setting, inspired by a fictional setting, that is then used as the basis for your fiction.

Lets take a look at a possible case study. Hank loves Tolkien. He thinks Middle-Earth is an amazing fictional world, and loves everything about it. Loves it so much, in fact, that he wouldn't ever consider sullying it by running a D&D campaign IN Middle-Earth. So, Hank settles for the next best thing - he creates is "own" Middle-Earth, calling it the Mydrealm. He populates Mydrealm with noble, immortal elves, stalwart dwarves, doughty "little people" of some fashion, and a whole host of human cultures that are basically Gondorians and Rohirim and Dunedain and Easterlings and whatnot with the serial numbers filed off, as well as Orcs and Goblins and Trolls and Dark Wizards and a few other nasties.

While it's in no way an "original" campaign setting, Hank's love of Tolkien and Middle-Earth drives him to put a lot of love into Mydrealm, and he writes volumes of campaign setting material, and creates histories and characters, and quests and battles, and eventually a world is born that Hank uses for his D&D campaign for the next ten years. Dozens of gamers play in Hank's campaigns over that decade, and the care and attention he had put into his game, resulting in hundreds of hours of happy, enjoyable gaming, prompts many of these players to suggest to Hank that he should try writing stories set in the world of Mydrealm. Most of these players know it's got a very "Tolkien-esque" feel, but because they enjoy that themselves and see all the little details in the game that ARE original, they feel the world is more "inspired" by Middle-Earth than anything else.

So Hank thinks to himself that there is something to this idea, and takes a break from gaming to dig through all his notes and read through all the adventures over the years, and finally he puts together what he thinks is a suitably epic plot and creates over the span of a year or so a fairly well-written mid-length fantasy novel. He farms out drafts to his players, who all read through the manuscript and enjoy it immensely because they've spent countless hours in this world, and love to see it rendered so prosaically. Bolstered by this positive reception, Hank takes some of the editing and constructive criticism and re-writes his draft, and asks his players to again read it over. The reception this time is even more glowing, and so, thinking that he's really touched on something great, he packages up his manuscript and ships it off to a handful of publishing houses, in the hopes that someone will like it and offer to publish it.

And then it all ends in tears.

Frank at Del Rey flips through the manuscript, sees only a thinly veiled Tolkien pastiche with some RPG influences, throws it out and sends his rejection letter. As does Scott at Baen, and Bill at Tor, etc. etc.. In the mind of Hank the writer, he's got a well-written story built around what he probably considers "traditional fantasy in the vein of Tolkien", while others just see a wannabee ripping off a more well-known author, just like the other fifteen Tolkien rip-offs they've had to reject in the last week. Of course, because it's based not only on Tolkien but D&D as well, there are "clerics" of various Tolkien-esque deities, who possess magical powers of a healing and divining nature, as well as other D&D-isms that have subtly creeped into the story. This only further damns the work in the minds of these professionals, since in their mind, they do not publish "gaming fiction".

So, where did it all go so horribly wrong for Hank?

I think the problem lies in two areas - proximity and objectivity, each of which plays off the other. Hank set out to create a very "Tolkien inspired" world, and while at the micro-level there are many differences from Middle-Earth, at the macro level, there is little to differentiate one from the other. However, having spent so long working at the micro level as a DM, creating NPCs and maps of villages and all these other things that have no direct relation to Middle-Earth, Hank has lost his objectivity because he's too close to the world; he's painting a portrait "inspired by" the Mona Lisa with a single-hair brush three inches from his nose and noting all the tiny differences, while anyone standing a few feet back behind him can't tell the two apart.

Unfortunately, Hank's reviewer base isn't any help either, since they suffer from the same problem. Playing in Hank's world for years and creating all their own stories and adventures, the players lose sight of the fact that the world they are playing in is really just Middle-Earth with the serial numbers filed off. They've seen all the little ways in which it is different, and forget all the ways in which it's the same, and as such when they read Hank's novel they aren't seeing a pseudo-Middle-Earth, they are seeing the home of their PCs for the last 10 years. Maybe their characters even make cameo appearances, which they'll love, and perhaps rumors and stories they helped create are mentioned here and there, just adding to their enjoyment - after all, who wouldn't want to feel like they actually helped in the creative process? Because all of them were involved in the project from before it even existed, their perspective was too warped to be of any use to Hank, and in the end, all they did was reinforce a bad course of action.

Now, you might think that what I've just written is a rather contrived example. Yes, it is contrived in that it is probably a very stereotyped example of what I'm talking about, but I think it is in no way an impossible, or even far-fetched, scenario. If people can write fan fiction about settings other people have created, thinking them publishable when (in most instances) they are clearly nothing but unimaginative drivel, they can certainly write "recursive fan fiction"; essentially fan fiction set in a world of their own creation. And I say that to differentiate it from, well, normal fiction set in a world of an author's own creation, because those worlds are created with the purpose of being written about, not gamed in and THEN written about.

Gaming worlds carry unnecessary baggage:

- They carry the baggage of the rules system the campaign used. Do your wizards wear armor? Do they wield swords? Is there a distinct difference between "magic of the arcane" and "magic of the divine", and do divine "mages" wear armor but the arcane do not? Can "clerics" use swords? Are there "spells of healing"? Does anyone ever cast a "fireball" or a "magic missile"? You can give these ideas different names, but anyone who's spent any time reading this stuff can spot a magic missile hidden in a "eldritch bolt of azure energy". Of course, some gaming systems are going to be more generic than others and have less of an impact on the world, but removing all traces is a difficult task. In fact, since these tropes have so saturated what it means to be "fantasy", they creep into novels written by people who've never played RPGs, but just feel it's part of what makes fantasy "fantastical".

- They carry the baggage of the campaign itself and the events that took place. The storyline of the PCs tends to have "deep footprints". If there's any hint of events caused by a "ragtag band of adventurers", anyone who knows what a role-playing game is will smell this out and not be terribly impressed by it, even if such references are tangential.

- They carry the baggage of major and minor NPCs as well as, of course, the player characters themselves. The action-adventure author Clive Cussler has a bad habit of putting some cameo appearance of himself in each of his novels, and since the man wrote nothing but a string of schlocky but spectacularly profitable NYT bestsellers for 30 years, he can get away with it. But sadly, a neophyte author can't, and someone reading the book with a jaded eye will spot certain characters as needlessly standing out - the spotlight a little too bright on a character who otherwise has little to no impact on the story. Thus, what appears to the author as "clever", appears to the reader as "trying too hard to be clever".

And, before anyone asks the inevitable question, I myself have not attempted to publish a work of fantasy or sci-fi fiction, much less gaming-inspired fantasy or sci-fi fiction. However, I've seen other people attempt it, and heard or read anecdotes for years now about people who've made the attempt. And if you don't believe that anyone would be so foolish as to actually try this, I remember one website in particular that admonishes perspective writers from submitting this sort of content.

I'm sure digging around the websites of other fantasy and sci-fi publishing houses, you'll find similar statements cautioning against submitting "game-based storytelling of any kind". Actually, most will simply tell you that they don't accept unsolicited works, period, but also specify what sort of fantasy they tend to publish.

So after all that, what do you do if you're a gamer and an aspiring author of fantasy and sci-fi fiction? We'll discuss that in Part Four.


taichara said...

Good thing some of us keep our game writing and our fiction writing separated in ways that make the Great Wall look like a row of toothpicks ...

I think I'd shoot myself (or give up mecha, the horror --!) before trying to convert my game material into prose fiction, frankly.

Kameron said...

The most popular post on my fantasy fiction writing blog is about turning your D&D campaign into a novel. It takes a lot of work, and I think you'd be more successful if you created original stories using the setting rather than attempting a direct conversion of a campaign. I've seen my share of fiction markets whose guidelines specifically state that "retellings of a D&D campaign" are candidates for insta-rejection.

I thought I would also point out that Hank's manuscript would likely never reach the publisher. Most major publishing houses do not accept unsolicited manuscripts. Hank would need to get an agent first, and any agent worth his/her salt would do the same as the editors in your example.

Jack Badelaire said...

Totally right about the agent/publisher thing. I should have said that, but it does make the statement even clearer that it's not just Agents that don't want to peddle such works, it's the Publishers that don't even want to see it.

But it does reinforce the fact that if you're going to get published by anyone other than a micro-press or PoD, you need an agent.

Sean said...

I think the point here is not that a good GM can't be a good writer, but that you can't expect the same things that work for a campaign to work in fiction. Good writers and good GMs require (similar but) different skill sets. I suspect that if Tolkien sat down to GM a game of D&D it would be crap. I also suspect that if he kept at it and played with some other GMs, he would learn very quickly and get very good.

Jack Badelaire said...

"...you can't expect the same things that work for a campaign to work in fiction. Good writers and good GMs require (similar but) different skill sets."

Exactly. The danger is that they are so close together, and yet, so far apart.

And the bitch of it is, most GMs who turn writer don't know that.

Harald said...

I've just read the Writer-posts, and I just have to say it was a damn good read.

I am of course one of those GMs who is convinced I have at least one good book in me. My problem is that when I have a good world I use it to play in, and when I play regularly I devote my creativity to the game. So by that logic I need to not play if I'm to write my best-seller.

Well, for the time being I have a relly good group, so I wont be published just yet. Still, hope springs eternal and all that ;)

kathulhu said...

I had that problem when writing about our D&D games. I'm just doing it for entertainment/a record for my DM but it get so bogged down with the little things that important to the D&D game.

But just look at Weis & Hickman. They are proof that if you have a great world and great characters, you can still pull it off.