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On Hating Role-Playing Games

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Topic: On Hating Role-Playing Games
Posted By: SFReader
Subject: On Hating Role-Playing Games
Date Posted: Mar-09-2015 at 7:09am
On Hating Role-Playing Games
by Robert J. Santa

I will be the first to admit it: I'm a dork. I played role-playing games long before they came into the mainstream. I was devoted, in a way that seems obsessive to outside observers.

Throughout our gaming sessions I also taught myself the craft of writing. I found they would go hand in hand, as I was the Moderator of the games, never a Player. I would build the world, create the adventures, try to give some cohesion to the action that seemed the central focus. It was not enough to throw dice; I wanted to tell a story. It would take me weeks to fashion an adventure that made sense, something that had a beginning, a middle and an end. 

So I can understand how some editors would feel that fantasy fiction could "read like a gaming session." I have had rejections come back with that line attached. Some markets have a checklist form letter, and sandwiched between "not enough conflict" and "characters seem one-dimensional" is a reference to role-playing games.

I hate it.

I have never written a story with a role-playing session in mind. Sure, there might be a hero who carries a big sword. There might also be a young wizard or a crafty cutpurse. But there has never - not once - been a semi-immortal Elven archer, a taciturn Dwarven warrior wielding an axe, banded armor, a halfling, or worse yet, a half-orc. Not once, in more than twenty years of writing. 

Why is that? Could it be that writing about those subjects would be clearly derivative of RPGs? Sorry, it's not. It's quite the opposite: role-playing games are derivative of fantasy fiction.

There's no other way they could be. It is so obvious Gary Gygax (the main creative force behind D&D) based his game on the Lord of the Rings writings that I'm surprised Tolkien's estate didn't sue him. The only difference between D&D and LotR is that wizards are not permitted to wield swords (and who can picture Gandalf without Glamdring?). 

Gygax needed a familiar base upon which to set the rules of his new game. He turned to the kind of writing that's been around for decades: sword & sorcery and high fantasy. He created professions to make it simple for gamers to identify with their characters; in short, he pigeonholed the way players were supposed to behave. The fighters were easy. They could be anything from princes in shining armor to barbarians. So, too, were the wizards, as they were merely vessels for magical energy. Add priests that were basically Knights Templar and thieves that were variations of Bilbo and the Gray Mouser and he had 90% of what anyone would want to play covered.

With this foundation in place, Gygax launched a game that affected the lives of thousands of people. Other companies jumped on the bandwagon, and within a few decades there were dozens of other gaming systems. All of them ventured over ground trampled flat by their predecessors, to the point where little of the "new" material released in the last fifteen years is original.

Yet through it all, fantasy fiction has thrived. Its ebb and flow is tied with pop culture. From the Conan movies to LotR, D&D (and company) have been the link. RPGs have had their high and low times yet have never disappeared from the public consciousness.

RPGs are so pervasive that it is impossible to exclude them from any discussion of speculative fiction. Many writers have had success writing books based upon D&D and its offshoots. These are intentionally derivative of the game. They have heroic figures, quests, specific monsters, and a fixed world that is familiar to gamers. 

But if there was no D&D, these stories would still be epic fantasy. The heroes would not necessarily be questing after the Rod of Lordly Might, but it could be something similar such as the Staff of Law (which is, after all, what Thomas Covenant and High Lord Elena quested after in the novel of the same name by Stephen R. Donaldson). There would never have been an established fan base for the Dragon Lance novels, but they would still be fun stories. 

It is difficult to receive feedback on a thoughtfully crafted story that implies it is a journal of what happened at Saturday night's gaming session. In fact, it's doubly insulting: to the gamers for being thought of as uncreative, and the writer for the same reason. There was a time in my past when I would curse and rant and rail at the sky. In my older years I have learned that editors perceive stories as we all do: in our own ways. One editor's RPG derivation may be another's exciting sword and sorcery. The best we can do as writers is log the rejection, print out another copy of the manuscript, and mail it to the next market on the list.  

As a player, I love role-playing games. Given the opportunity - right now - to jump into a game with a half dozen dedicated players, I would play every week. As the Moderator, I would create the worlds, the adventures, the stories through which the players would travel. We would let the characters grow in a setting both mythic and fantastic. It would be wonderful.

As a writer, I hate role-playing games for the obstructions they put in the way of my craft. Merely because I have an elf and a dwarf wandering the countryside does not mean that they jumped off the pages of a D&D campaign. There might be an actual story involved. Heck, there might even be a story that came from a D&D campaign. But if editors can't get past the idea of RPGs = bad, then high fantasy is doomed.

So I will continue to write my stories of adventure and swordplay, put them in envelopes, and roll the dice. So to speak.


From the Other Side of the Slush
Editorial Addendum  
by Daniel E. Blackston

As en editor who specializes in heroic fantasy fiction, I'm always on the lookout for good RPG-inspired stories. I, too, spent a considerable part of my adolescence playing AD&D (or variants thereof) and, as a veteran gamer, I'm partial to adventure fantasy that utilizes the archetypes and mythos of RPG's. 

However, I have rejected far more RPG-inspired stories than I have accepted, and that is true for any other editor in the speculative fiction industry. It is important for writers who work in RPG-inspired milieus to keep a few key points in mind. As with any rules of thumb, your mileage may vary.

If you're determined to write and publish RPG-inspired fantasy here are a few pointers:

1) Put the story first.

In a game-session, minutiae like counting the number of available torches, checking the player-map again and again, or referring to in-party lore is part of the gaming experience. It's fun; it's crucial to having a good gaming session. In a story or novel this information is a dead bore. Remember, the reader at large is interested in the events of the story, not the day to day trivia of your gaming sessions. So, therefore, avoid needless exposition and avoid blocking your written scenes like gaming turns.  

2) Create unique enemies.

I have bounced many an RPG-inspired story due to the flatness of its villains. It is a problem even in many RPG sessions, that the enemies are more or less cardboard "baddies" to be sliced and diced by the players. When this happens in fiction it spells death for your story or novel. 

3) Combat is the meat of an RPG session, but it is the dressing of a story of novel.

This rule of thumb seems self-explanatory, but it may be more tricky than it first appears. Action is certainly an important parts of any story or novel, but lengthy descriptions of combat technique, weapons, wounds, blood splatters, and corpses is usually much more exciting for the writer to write than for the reader to read. Combat scenes should be highly polished, and they should maintain consistency with the surrounding story. 

4) Avoid lengthy history and geography lessons.

While your fantasy-gaming world is undoubtedly fascinating to you from the bed of every haunted creek to the tip of every enchanted mountain, most of your readers will be interested in your world as it applies to the characters and events of your story. And, no, it's not enough that the heroes of your story are riding past "Alanzo's Mystical Dome-Fortress" – that's not an excuse to give the audience a lecture on its history. Even if the characters are going there, readers should receive information on the setting much as the characters in the story, who are very unlikely to have a history lesson on route to their adventures.

5) Never refer directly to rules or descriptions contained in RPG manuals. 

That means – never.

While I can't guarantee that integrating the above guides into your narrative technique will greatly increase your chances of selling RPG-inspired fantasy, I believe that it will. 

Daniel E. Blackston



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