There’s Something About D&D

Now that I have published my first book, I feel obligated to check out other writers in the same genre. I have read quite a bit of fantasy, but I rarely payed any attention to the author’s blurbs. In fact, I often felt knowing too much about the author might prejudice my reading of their work as I look for clues about how their influences show up. However, as a novice writer I seek out other writers to trade information with, and so I have been paying more attention to the actual writers. It does make me enjoy reading a little bit less, due to my tendency to over-analyze, but I often gain valuable insight into my peers. This is how I discovered that the ranks of modern fantasy writers have been infiltrated by tabletop RPG players (I used the term D&D in the title for name recognition, most RPGs could fill in)

I wrote a little blurb a few months ago about how I noticed while reading the Dresden Files and Codex Alera that Jim Butcher was quite willing to show off his gaming influences (Dresden even joins a weekly tabletop game in book 4, Summer Knight). It turns out that a large number of prominent fantasy others are RPG players. They may not be serious Grognards, but they certainly know what a d20 is (shorthand for a twenty sided die). Here is a link to a video of several of the best and best-selling fantasy authors playing D&D. Apparently you can win a chance to play with some of them, as part of a charity effort. Myke Cole (One of the long suffering GMs in that game, author of the Shadow Ops series and a longtime D&D player, has an excellent post on what it was like be at that D&D game.

I was a little stunned when I first saw this. I’m not sure why. My first irrational, visceral thought was where the hell were all these people when I was was trying to set up my last game. I guess I’m not really used to the idea of Geek Chic yet.

On further reflection. Duh. It makes quite a bit of sense that people whose interest in fantasy led them to RPGs and vice versa are now writing, in ever increasing numbers. It makes even more sense that an author would trumpet this fact now that nerdy things are kind of cool (I call it geek chic). Also on reflection Ed Greenwood, Margaret Weis, Tracy Hickman, and Steven Erickson all have some RPG background, so really I should not have been that surprised. Maybe I just miss my Saturday night game.

I think tabletop RPGs are very good for focusing and developing your imagination. Here are some of the ways in which RPGs have influenced my writing.

1) Action scenes. Combat is inherently chaotic and hard to describe. In many traditional RPGs (like D&D) the focus of the largest chunk of rules is break that mess down into easy to manage chunks, resolve what is happening, and then weave it back into the larger narrative. Because of my tabletop RPG background (Which also including some miniatures games, Battletech, Legions of Steel, Warhammer 40K, and Hordes which are also great for combat) I find it much easier to keep track of what is going on in a fight scene. Given that my first book is about Gladiators, this has proven especially useful.

2) Magic Systems. RPG magic systems are often more practical than creative and inspiring. However most of them are very, very consistent because the game has to set rules and limits for what magic and mages can do. (Some advanced RPF magic systems do not have set rules, but I did not have access to any of them as a kid) When I create a magic system I strive for consistency over originality. When I read a fantasy novel with a magic system that is coherent and consistent, I am very rarely taken aback when a character uses some new spell since it operates within the same framework as the others, if the system is not consistent new powers often seen Deus Ex Machina in the worst possible way. While RPG magic descriptions translate awkwardly at best, the idea of having a consistent set of mechanics for magic in your world is very, very useful and important even if it is never fully communicated to the readers.

3) World-Building. RPGs were the basis for my first forays into world-building. Every RPG needs a setting, and for some reason I was never satisfied with even the best of modules (Keep on the Borderlands, Undermountain, and the first Ravenloft are my favorites since they had more of a sandbox feel) or pre-generated campaign settings (Earthdawn is my favorite there, Birthright if it has to be a D&D world). RPGs and D&D in particular encouraged me to make up my own worlds. At first these fell apart after a few sessions as my players found and exploited the cracks in my creations. One of my early games allowed for enchanting and also incorporated futuristic elements like power armour and guns. The enemies were still orcs, bad equipment and all. Every encounter ended very quickly, in a hail of enchanted exploding elemental munitions that would have been cool and glorious if I weren’t countering it with feeble opposition. As time passed, my skills at making a more cohesive sandbox for my players increased. My ability to make a world evolved, and yet the my gang of players also got more skilled at finding the weak spots. We matured and our tastes changed, with players no longer interested in just interested in combat and direct conflict I was forced to flesh out backgrounds, histories, and characters to make the setting come alive. The skills help me tremendously when writing, to the point where with Bloodlust: A Gladiator’s Tale I have take the relatively limited and contrived idea of Gladiatorial combat, placed it at the centre of a setting, and built a story and a working world around it.

The players are another part of RPGs that could be helpful to writers. The Game-Master might create the world but each player wants to weave their own character into it, which helps expose flaws and brings a unique kind of feedback that can really improve any setting.

I could go on about this at length, but company has come over, so I shall end with a rough teaser from Bloodlust: Will to Power

A muscled, athletic ogress strode into the arena. At first Gavin could not make sense of her armour. As she strode across the fighting grounds he realized that he was seeing segmented metal plates, each individually pierced into her flesh. He saw blood around some of the blades, which cut into the Gladiatrix as she moved. The blood ran into clever channels on the plates, forming a decorative pattern that signaled some skill in blood magic. Her expression was add odds with the obvious discomfort of such a form of protection, serene and watchful. He felt a thrill of recognition. His opponent was the only true Disciple of Pain that the arena had produced in fifty years.

“Welcome Razorthorn,” said Mistress Chloe [The arena master in the Killer’s Circle, more on that later]. “You look sharp today. [Groan, I know, this may not make the final cut]”