It’s the return of friends Friday, a new feature for 2018 on the blog where the platform here is used to give some other great voices in fiction some attention they deserve. Today, we have Clara Storm, who you can follow on Twitter @TanukiHanabi and she’s also on Steemit here. Clara dives into the differences between RPG storytelling and fiction, a topic I’m supremely interested in as someone who contributes to both.
My in-progress novel started as flavor text for a Savage World setting book, which was (is) ready for play testing. A paragraph spawned an idea that morphed into 42,000 and counting words. What if instead of the standard bestiary with a brief description and a stat block, it was presented as the magnum opus of the most famous onmyoji of all time, Abe no Seimei?
Who was Abe no Seimei? How did he end up traveling around Japan recording all the yokai he discovered? Should he have his own NPC stat block? That thought derailed the setting book and a novel was born. While the novel follows the magic rule mechanics of the RPG, and Seimei is an onmyoji (an Edge from the setting), RPGs and fiction are two different styles of storytelling. Here are some of the differences I’ve learned so far:
1) A reader won’t understand the setting right away. In fiction, info dumps are jarring. In RPG’s they are called a “player’s handbook”. This novel is meant to be a stand-alone story, not a tie in to the RPG setting. The reader journeys along with Seimei’s daily life in The Capital. Readers learn magic at Imperial University and dust rooms of the library with him.
The setting was inspired by Heian Era Japan, right before the rise of samurai. Many people are not familiar with this era in Japanese history. Rather than a 20 page setting explanation, Seimei goes about his daily life. What he thinks about other characters and how he interacts with them develop his character and paints The Capital in reader’s minds.
2) Powerful characters are fun to play, weak characters are fun to read about. The novel version of Seimei is too weak to be a playable character. Not only does his increasing power over the novel allow the audience to learn about the magic rules in an organic way, it also provides character development. Learning magic is not his only character arc, however; he’s got more growing to do.
3) Some conventions work in both fiction and RPG’s. In the novel, the Head of the Ministry of Onmyodo gives Seimei a quest that he must prepare for. Seimei gathers a party of two and they go off on an adventure.
4) There are different types of stories to tell. Is it action driven, character driven, or a combination of the two? Which are you telling? For RPGs, it depends on who sits at the table, and who runs the game. What types of games does the GM prefer? What is their comfort level with the game going off the rails? How important is character interaction to the players around the table?
The same questions happen in fiction, but the writer makes all of these decisions. There is more space to have character driven action stories, develop side characters, and explore the world the characters inhabit. This brings me to number 5.
5) Race creation has different emphases in an RPG vs. fiction. In an RPG, a new race must be described enough to build a character while leaving space for gamers to put their own spin on it. This is generally a brief overview of game mechanics, characteristics, history, names, and stat block.
When I was developing player races for the Heian-kyo Dreams setting, I use several sources: a book of translated Heian era folk stories, the books by Matthew Meyer, and a bit of pop culture. Developing Kitsune was fairly straightforward because there were several Heian era folk stories for inspiration. My version of Kitsune is pretty true to those folktales: illusionist tricksters.
In fiction, the writer must know much more half a page of racial information, even if it’s not all explicitly explained in the book. Where did they come from? How do they interact with other races? For example, Kitsune create illusions. Why haven’t Kitsune taken over the capital? Why haven’t humans killed them all? Why are Kitsune a small minority? I know these answers. Writing with this knowledge helped develop The Capital into a living city, not just a map with various locations marked.
Tanuki had no Heian era folk stories, since their lore comes from a later time. However, my setting has Tanuki, just for the cute factor alone! Since they didn’t appear in the old folktales, I decided Tanuki live in the mountains. Only now do they travel to The Capital.
Tanuki had to be a family-friendly race. Instead of creating things with their scrotums, they use paper. In the setting rules each Tanuki character has five pieces of magic paper at the start of the game to build whatever they need. I can’t wait to see what ingenious uses players come up with!
The novel takes place in The Capital where Tanuki are rare, just like the RPG. Tanuki are so rare in fact, that they introduce themselves as their name for themselves: Papermasters. Their entire lifestyle is based around paper. Their houses and almost everything in them is made with their magic paper. Young Papermasters help make paper before they learn to walk. They will eventually get the moniker Tanuki, but only when it makes sense in the story.
Developing Tanuki like this was one of the serendipitous acts of writing.
6)I approach fiction and RPG design differently. When I write fiction, I’m a pantser. I only have the vaguest notion of where the story is headed and delighted when it changes more often than not. After I read the first draft, I figure out what sort of story I’m telling. Subsequent editing moves parts, cuts parts out the didn’t go anywhere, and adds parts where needed. All this produces a coherent story.
An RPG is pure world building. There is no plot to derail, no characters to flesh out. It is a beautiful backdrop for others to tell their own stories. If I’ve done my job, players and GM’s eagerly await their own adventures in Heian-kyo Dreams.