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Writer’s Den: Using Game Worlds in Writing

As a fantasy author, I try to keep up with the trends in the industry. The dos and the don’ts are important to what I do. A discussion came up one day on one of the message forums I frequent about using game worlds in fantasy writing, and I thought I would talk about this a little more for this month’s article.

Many of us fantasy writers are also gamers who have spent a number of years playing fantasy role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, and card games like Magic: The Gathering. Over the course of many years, a player can amass a large amount of material from these games in the form of characters, monsters, dungeons, and entire worlds.

I can’t fault a writer for wanting to reuse some of this material. It takes many hours of preparation to create these things, and years to build up a good collection. Having a prebuilt world can drastically simplify the writing process, as it provides you with a guide, maps, races, places, religions, money, measurement, a magic system, and so much more. But there are downsides to this too, especially if you aren’t careful when you write. Here are a few things to think about when incorporating a game world into your writing.

The Vanilla World

Coming up with original material in fantasy is extremely difficult. While you might consider your game world to be unique because you developed it yourself, think again. If you’ve built it using a rule book for a role-playing game, there’s a good possibility that hundreds, or even thousands, of other game worlds built by other people are very similar to yours in its basic structure. This can leave your fantasy world feeling a little vanilla. You should be aware of how these rules or guidelines are shaping your world.

Are you adapting stock races? Battle systems? Magic systems? Have you allowed the rule system to shape your game world, or do you think outside the box? The further away from the core rule system you get, the more likely you are to have a game world that is original. Something other than vanilla.

Taking a World Tour

One of the complaints brought up about authors adapting game worlds is that rather than a good story, with a good plot and good characters, the book ends up more like a world tour. Game worlds are often very detailed, with long histories and many battles fought. Sometimes when a game world is adapted to writing, the author will focus so much on showing off the world that the story itself gets lost.

My advice is to focus on one particular part of the world and build the story. Focus on developing the characters in the story and building the plot. You might have a rich, fully developed world under your belt, but if you have no plot you don’t really have a story. Writing a book is quite a bit different than running a game, as you must determine the actions, mannerisms and personalities of all the characters.

In my book, The Time Weaver, I’ve adapted and used my game world Galadir, but the bulk of the story focuses on only one kingdom, Findoor. Many of the characters are original and were developed just for this story. There is very little overlap between this story and game events that have been played before.

The Book That Reads Like a Game

When playing role-playing games, the rules are very important. Die rolls determine many things. Attacks hit or miss, magic succeeds or fails, skills succeed or fail. It’s very black and white, and this works well for games. The thing is, if you adapt these mechanics you will end up with a book that reads like a game, and I’m positive that this isn’t what you want. An author adapting a game world to writing should be aware of this and work to come up with a new system that allows more flexibility and more grey areas than would be allowed in a game rule scenario.

The Time Weaver may be adapted from a game world created for Dungeons & Dragons, but I created an entirely new magic system that would flow better in a written world. Also, actions and attacks succeed, fail, or fall somewhere between, based on where I need the plot to go and not based on some predefined formula or numbers. My characters don’t have ability scores, and if they did they would only serve to guide me on their physical and mental limitations. I disregard the game rules when I write, because they don’t matter in a written world.

Using Game Rules to Your Advantage

The one major strength that I can see in using a game world is in anchoring the characters and surrounding world to some kind of rule set. I know, I know, I already said to be careful when applying rules to your writing. But here’s my case: having a set of rules or limitations can help you better define what is and isn’t realistic. Your warrior should not be able to pick up a scroll and cast a spell. Your wizard should not be able to pick locks. These are skills and rules that a game system can clearly define for you and keep you from getting things mixed up.

Having a set of ability scores for a character can give you a good idea of their physical and mental limitations, provided that you heed this warning: game systems are often designed to create heroic characters. If you are shooting for a more grounded character, it may be best to either skip ability scores, or figure out what is more realistic for an average person.

Putting it All Together

There are some great advantages to using a prebuilt game world in your fantasy writing. It can save you a lot of time and effort in building a whole new world, and it can help define limitations and rules that your characters follow during the course of the story. But be forewarned: it takes skill to implement a game world in writing. If you’re not careful, you can fall into one of many traps which will negatively affect your story as a whole.

Good luck, and happy writing!

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7 Comments

  1. David Jace says:

    When I saw the title on this post, I was excited because I thought you were going to be talking about my current WIP! Actually, my WIP is the opposite: I’m creating a game that the story happens inside of. I think that’s worse.

    That said, I finished and enjoyed the article, and I completely agree with your points. I don’t know as much about D&D (I play Elven Fire), but your points make sense. Basically, make sure you have a story, not just a world, or system. Would you also have to be concerned with copyright issues if weaving a story too closely to such systems?

    • No, not really. Unless you are copying large portions of the rules system or material word for word. They can’t stop you from writing a book based on a world built using a certain system. 🙂

      The book itself is an original creation, and doesn’t infringe on any of the original game material.

      Thanks for reading! 🙂

  2. That’s some solid advice. With my near-addiction to Skyrim, I can see it influencing my writing in the future. I’ll be sure to keep in mind your tips. Thanks!

  3. Great article Thomas, this is right in my sweet spot for what I am trying to do with my manuscripts. There is so much to learn from a video game world or even the worlds created from a pen and paper world that it is amazing.

    Some writers pan the idea since it isn’t the traditional methods, but I challenge them to look at a series like Dragon Age with all the codexes and books to see the world thrives as well as any novel series out there.

    I also am in favor of the “focus on one character in the world” stream of thought. That is the only way to do it in a world so expansive.

    Thanks for sharing this article with us, I am going to show this to some of my associates and let them revel in my geekdom being validated… heh

  4. Thanks for an interesting article.

    I was wondering about markets for games. I’m currently experimenting with my own fantasy world and I think there could be potential for a spin off game. Are there any markets I could submit a new game idea to? To be honest, I’m not a huge gamer so I’m ignorant enough on the subject.

    Thanks for an info.

  5. Carl Roberts says:

    This is a helpful article. I found myself deliberately writing like this, adding in weird things people don’t take much attention to (text boxes appearing in front of the characters, loading bars showing up in the sky, and lag appearing in certain scenes). Perhaps I’ll implement something like that, but give a more deliberate inclusion into it, or allude more well to those elements.

    What I gathered from this article is I shouldn’t restrict my world and characters to strict rules, and also not let them do whatever I wanted without limits. Humans (and I suppose we can apply this to other races) do make decisions that break the rules; I don’t think a book would be exciting if I knew how things were supposed to play out. I agree with that.

    I do refrain from using too much magic, though. I find these supernatural abilities far too powerful; one could simply block one spell, and back and forth, forever. That’s why I prefer to tap into a character’s natural athletic abilities, providing them with limits and advantages at the same time. I relate the overuse and reliance on magic to playing “guns” with friends.

    “I just shot you!”
    “Nuh-uh! I had a bullet proof vest on!”
    “Liar!”

    Not fair 🙁

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