This is a guest post written by Jenn Lyons, twice-nominated Astounding Award finalist who lives in Atlanta, Georgia with her husband, three cats, and a nearly infinite number of opinions on anything from mythology to the correct way to make a martini. The Ruin of Kings, The Name of All Things, The Memory of Souls, The House of Always, and The Discord of Gods, the books in Lyons’s five-book debut epic fantasy series, A Chorus of Dragons, are available from Tor Books. You can find more about her on her web site.
When the first book of my epic fantasy series, A Chorus of Dragons, was released, one of the most-commonly asked questions lobbed in my direction was “Where did you get your inspiration?” Frankly, this is an exasperating question*. The motives were always good, but how could I possibly condense thirty years of cumulative experiences into a neat, pithy answer? I made it a game to never answer that question the same way twice, while never lying. (This was easy, since so many inspirations were involved.) Many of those inspirations stemmed from the same source: before these books, there was a D&D campaign, one that had existed in various permutations for decades.
D&D itself has never made a secret of how it pulls from fantasy for its inspiration. The works of Tolkien, Jack Vance (whose last name Gary Gygax used as an anagram to create ‘Vecna’), Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, and others are keenly felt in the game’s roots. The Githyanki were named after a race in a novel by George R.R. Martin. The orcs were…well. Do I even need to say?
The love goes both ways. Many writers over the years have been inspired by the roll of the dice first. Raymond Feist, Stephen Erikson, and James S.A. Corey (both of them) have all admitted basing books on their ttRPG experiences. George R.R. Martin is known to have participated in a long-standing RPG game with other local writers (note: I have no idea how much of those games may or may not have made their way into A Song of Ice and Fire). This isn’t even counting the authors writing LitRPG or licensed IP work (Aleron Kong, Andrew Rowe, R.A. Salvatore, Margaret Weis, Tracy Hickman, and many, many others).
I guarantee you I’m forgetting an uncomfortable number of people here. We are legion.
What I’m saying is: it can’t be such a surprise that people who write fantasy also play fantasy RPGs. You don’t have to squint hard to see (or at least suspect) their table-top dice origins. Nor is this difficult to understand. Creating a custom setting for a table-top RPG game is a lot of work, so why wouldn’t someone eye that same setting once they’ve made the decision to write a fantasy novel? Waste not, want not.
That said, there are pitfalls.
First, let me mention that if you’re writing LitRPG, the game aspects are right there on the page, made as obvious as possible. You can happily ignore everything I’m about to say. The same applies for anyone writing licensed fiction: you want your book to feel like its inspiration.
No, this advice is for everyone who wants to write something using the world-building they’ve already created, even if that world-building was originally meant for sharing with friends on a Sunday afternoon.
Rather than a list of ‘you musts’ (because I hate being told what to do as a writer) allow me instead give you what I hope are some useful questions to ask yourself.
1. Original, or Easily Accessible?
There’s nothing wrong with being ‘unoriginal.’ If you don’t have to explain what an orc is, then that’s story space you can instead use to make your reader question why this particular orc is running a coffee shop (see: Legends and Lattes, by Travis Baldree).
Originality and accessibility are typically opposite each other on the quadrant chart of writing a fantasy story. The less ‘original’ your world-building is, the more likely the readers are to easily comprehend what they’re encountering with a minimal amount of explanation. The more ‘original’ your work is, the more work you’ll have to put into describing the basic concepts of the setting. Neither way is wrong, but consider the pros and cons of each option carefully.
2. Who owns what?
You probably didn’t create all the characters in whatever campaign you’re using as your inspiration, even if you did create the setting from scratch, so I don’t recommend that you gather them all together and dump them into your story as-is. There’s nothing wrong with being inspired by a player’s charming and affable rogue named Raphael who grew up on the streets of Greyhawk and decided to join the PC party instead of mugging them. However, if it’s not your character, you may run into trouble unless you A) get permission, preferably in writing, and/or B) file off the identifying marks.**
The same goes for worldbuilding. Dragons are ubiquitous, but if your story contains creatures created specifically for D&D (rust monsters, yuan ti, illithids, etc.) you’ll have a harder time defending against accusations of theft.
3. Are you letting dice rolls control your story?
It’s very tempting to write a scene exactly the way it happened at the table. Unfortunately, dice don’t care about pacing, plot, or tension. I often used to joke as a DM that the most certain way to make my PCs roll a natural 20 was to play through any scenario where I wanted them to lose (one eventually learns not to leave these important moments to chance). I’ve seen the reverse happen too. Some days the RPG gods just don’t smile upon the players—even if from a story perspective this should be the PCs’ shining moment of glory.
There is also the fact that most tabletop RPGs do not do a good job of portraying what a real fight looks like, with or without magic missile. Fights happen in a TTRPG differently from how they need to happen in a story, and the pacing and shape of them should be different, too.
If a GM is god, then the writer is god playing without dice. Let me share the curse and blessing of writing with you: what happens in your story is always up to you.
4. What do you want the world-building to say about your story?
I love Dungeons & Dragons. I’ve been playing the game for forty years, (which is weird when I still think of myself as twenty-five). That said, D&D has always been about a shared good time at the table, a fun improvisational experience with friends. D&D is also a bit like the English language itself, in that it’s not at all above following other stories, mythologies, and legends into dark alleys to mug them and loot their pockets for loose
Thus, Dungeons & Dragons is a pastiche borrowed from many cultures by hundreds of writers and creators, and it doesn’t always make sense. The very first thing I would caution any budding writer to do is go through their setting and figure out what they actually want to keep, what they want to eliminate, and what they want to change. (The dragons in my books are nothing at all like D&D dragons, for example, and there are no displacer beasts to be found anywhere.) This point has heavy overlaps with #2 above, as there may be legal, ethical, and aesthetic reasons to remove the name Mordenkainen from your spells.
Also, D&D does a terrible job of examining the social & political consequences of its power systems. (This IS one of the inspirations that led me to writing A Chorus of Dragons.) If you have a society where anyone with an average wisdom can join a church and learn to cast Create Food and Water, what does that do to your agrarian economy? How about the impact of the cantrip Mend on several dozen occupations? And let’s not even discuss the problems of inheritance when Resurrecting a ruler who has been dead for 200 years is possible.
5. Do you have any plot to spare?
The idea of playing a session of D&D based purely on dice rolls and a wandering monster encounter chart used to be more common, but disconnected dungeon crawls whose only motive is ‘more gold’ are hardly unknown. And while yes, a dungeon crawl certainly can be a story more likely it’s just a setting — assuming it’s even necessary. If your characters seem to be wandering from one place to another ‘just because’ then you might want to ask yourself some hard questions about why that is.
And one last one…
6. Keep it simple. (Yeah yeah, it’s not a question. Deal.)
My obligatory ‘do as I say, not as I do’ piece of advice. The problem with being a long-time gamer, at least for me, is that I think nothing of juggling dozens of plot lines (some of which stretch back for years), characters, monsters, and settings. I suspect I’m hardly alone in this — there is a familiarity to the works of other writers with similar backgrounds, a tendency to write stories with large casts of characters and multiple POVs. Complex, interwoven stories that require a certain commitment to consume. These are difficult books to get published. Simplifying your story makes your odds of success much more likely. So, it’s easy, right? If you want to write a book based on your RPG campaign, all you have to do is change everything that you didn’t create yourself (yes, down to the magic systems). Think of it as editing — it’s easier to edit a story than it is to fill a blank page.
I’ve found World Anvil a fantastic way to keep track of all the details of my worldbuilding, and the prompts do a wonderful job of urging me to think through the little details. I am a big, big fan.
*Seriously, this question frustrates writers. Like, I dunno, man; my spleen?
**If this seems overly specific, it’s because all the way back in 2nd edition, I really played a thief named Raphael from Greyhawk. I eventually changed his origin story and renamed him Kihrin. In the original D&D campaign, he eventually became his own grandfather… I, uh, didn’t keep that part.
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George RR Martin’s RPG game that became books was a Champions super hero game that became the ever expanding Wild Cards series, a favorite of mine. I understand that it’s been optioned recently but I’m not sure if it’s status right now