The Worldbuilding Dungeon and Other Perils of the Gaming Writer

I’m not afraid to admit it: I’ve been playing dice-and-paper role-playing games for most of my life. Starting with Dungeons & Dragons, I’ve been gaming and collecting RPGs since I was a kid in the 80s; It’s a great hobby that I love dearly, and it’s a pastime that has brought me long-standing friendships. The monthly gathering of gamer friends at my house to play our ongoing campaign is something that I always look forward to. I have found that RPG gamers are, like me, an imaginative and creative lot as a whole. Show me a gamer and more often than not you will also show me an artist, a performer, a voracious reader or a writer at the same time.

This really shouldn’t be surprising… The most critical component of tabletop role-playing is imagination. A sharp mind also helps, but if you are going to get any enjoyment out of rolling dice to hit that bugbear, then a creative mind to illustrate the evolving story is a must. RPGs also tend to be good exercise to bulk up one’s reading and verbal skills, with a nod to that I’m also not surprised at the number of gamers that I have met who write or want to write. I’m certainly an example!

DiceBut as writers, to what extent can (or should) we mix the imaginative stories and concepts that we delve into within our role-playing hobby? On that topic, I’ll speak from my own experiences, triumphs, and failures on how my passions for writing and RPGs have mixed over the years.

First and undeniably, there are concepts and ideas that I have found in D&D and other games that have become part of my inspiration, writing toolbox and idea-shelves. The magic system and theory found in the Shadowrun RPG would be a good example of that, as are the flavors and types of starting characters and background you can find in the old Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play system. I haven’t lifted any one of these ideas in whole cloth, but the concepts have inspired several of the premises within my setting of Burus.

RPG sourcebooks can also be great wells of research and inspiration for the peculiar things that we authors might have questions about. In particular, the GURPS books are often excellent in this regard, with lots of cited sources and details beyond simple rules. However, backup anything cool you might find in a game book with independent research outside of it. Often things in a game will be exaggerated, downplayed, or just plain wrong because of the needs of stuff like game balance, rules mechanics or the biases of the authors.

I will strongly suggest to anyone thinking about doing so that they do not start making RPG stats for any of the characters in their story. I say that because it will start you down the road of making stats for all of your story’s characters and derail your time away from what is needed most: creative writing. It will also limit the way you look at your characters, framing them through the lens of the game system in a way that will be hard to shake. It’s a big mistake and I know from experience.

I suggest instead that people write notes and dossiers on their characters that don’t reference game rules or mechanics, as if they were real persons. If your hero is strong or whatever, just say so and include any relevant specifics as need (“Sally is really strong, she can bench-press a Prius…” etc.). I have found notes like these mega-helpful in my recent writing; far more so than a list of stats.

Don’t take your last epic RPG game or campaign that you had so much fun in and try to turn it into a story or novel, verbatim. Without a lot of adaption and work, doing such a thing won’t create a story that will captivate anyone outside of your gaming group. That said, I’m going to stress the adaption and work part above and say that there are tons of things that can happen in a game that will inspire your writing. I’ve had some of my old RPG characters heavily inspire a character or three in my work, and it was like seeing an old friend again.

One last downside of an RPG background as a writer can be, and this has been a major problem for myself, that RPG’s teach you to be “worldbuilding heavy”. This can form a real barrier between fleshing out your ideas and actually writing them as a story. Because that is what you need to do, ultimately: Write your story. The story should dictate the world you build and not the other way around. Telling a story is not like dungeon mastering a game of D&D where you need to know all kinds of background information because your players can (and will) fly off in every possible direction you could not have anticipated, every single adventure.

The characters in your story will (mostly) do what you want them to, and the readers are only going to see what involves them. Spending years crafting a detailed setting can become a huge obstacle to actually writing anything. For me, I did all this worldbuilding for years and then when I sat down to finally write something, I realized that I had no idea how to actually write a good goddamned story!

I have found that crafting a world for a written story is a lot like constructing a stage or movie set; the only parts that need to exist in detail are what is being showcased and seen. Behind that can be a white void… no one will know except for you. You can fill out the details as you plot and write more stories.

To surmise my points, RPGs can be great source of inspiration and ideas. But don’t try to turn your last epic dungeon-crawl into a novel verbatim. Don’t take a sourcebook at face value or map-out the stats of your characters in game statistics. And please, don’t get trapped in the worldbuilding dungeon!

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