Monday, February 4, 2013

Adapting Game Worlds to Novels

I forgot to post last Friday. I'm off my game. I haven't quite finished thinking about this, but I'll post what I have and hope that I entertain you.


My Endhaven novels began as the Endhaven adventure setting on the D&D Wiki. Translating one to the other, and back again, has been quite the educational experience.

The root problem, which is obvious once you think about it, is that you are changing mediums, and anytime that you change mediums, you change what works best. If you are lucky, you have a direct translation. Most often, you must resort to adaptation and inspiration. Just about any DM is familiar with this experience.

When you take a setting and turn it into a novel, you have far more material than you can deal with in a novel. A well developed RPG setting has a variety of villains, NPCs, and adventurers. Putting all of them into a single story would result in an epic story with

Not only that, you must integrate some parts of that environment into a story, and in doing so, discover all these cracks in your setting. These cracks are easily enough glossed over in a setting, but in a book, these little details matter far more. You must understand them better, and in getting to know them, realize how your setting has problems.

In addition, novels require immense amounts of detail. Even though you have taken great pains to create lots of world stuff, you will always find yourself creating more world stuff. The stuff that you invented for your game is good for gaming. There’s nothing wrong with it. However, good for gaming doesn’t mean good for novelization. You may have written a great great background on Treehugger elves, but when you plop that essay down into your novel, you find your narrative grinding to a screeching halt.

Going the other way, from novel to adventure setting, also has its challenges. A novel deals with a finite slice of your setting  and frequently includes explanations about the world. The problem with a novel is not creating gaming material, but in fitting that material well to the game. For an existing game system, you must adapt your novel to the peculiarities of that setting, or hack that setting to match your rules. For example, my lead character in Weeds Among Stone, Maran, can talk to gods, grow plants, and cook like nobody’s business. In D&D, what would Maran be? Besides a trainwreck, I just have no idea how she would translate. Is she a cleric, and if so, why can’t she do all sorts of normal cleric stuff? Would Zebra be an assassin, a rogue, or a swashbuckler? Is Altyn a wizard or a sorcerer? Not only that, what level would they be? And once you have all that designed, does that agree with what you read? Do their abilities suddenly make no sense, or do their classes imply that they should have other abilities?

When porting a game world to a novel, you also bring many restrictions. You normally can’t just change the rulers, or the gods, or the major players. There are other people writing in that world as well. What you can innovate on seems fairly narrow. Yet, how is that different from real life? Many folks write novels without ever worrying about who is president or what the major religions are. Yet, world creators will be world creators, and we just want to change what we can, when we can.

Step one is acceptance. In adapting a game environment to a novel, the adaptation will be imperfect. The purpose of a game setting is to entertain a group of players, while the purpose of a novel is to entertain a single person. That seems like a small difference, but that’s as big as the difference between chess and football.

Step two is implementation. A power or ability is easy to intone at a table, but how does that look in a novel? What implications does it have? How do normal people feel about such power? What advantages accrue to the character because of these powers?

Step three is to remain focused. You can't put everything into a novel. Pick and choose what works the best. When in doubt, pick even less. You'd be surprised at how quickly a reader loses track of which power is which. When a character has fewer powers and abilities, then the readers can track those characters easier.