Or: Things I Wish I’d Known Before Writing My First Draft
I’m writing this on the cusp of my first novel, Buried Heroes,* making its way into the world. The novel was originally inspired by a DnD campaign with my husband, and it’s evolved so much from there.
I’ve spent the last year intensively studying indie publishing and the craft of writing, and I’ve benefitted from so many experts and authors who have come before. In that spirit, I wanted to share some of my best practices and lessons learned.
Along this writing journey, I’ve spoken to several people who want to take their DnD or other ttRPG character or campaign and turn it into a novel or fantasy series. I would love to see more fantasy novels, especially high fantasy, with diverse storylines, incredible worldbuilding, and mind-blowing magic. This post is for all of you.
Looking back over the writing process, there are things that work well in a ttRPG campaign that don’t translate as vibrantly into fiction. All rules have exception, and I don’t want to limit anyone’s creative expression, but, in what follows, I’ve compiled a list of five tips for translating your ttRPG campaign into a novel or series.
In my experience, following these guidelines will help streamline your writing process and decrease the amount of pages you’ll need to throw out in revision.
1. Keep shopping and other side quests to a minimum
After a Nat 20 Intelligence (Investigation) check, your PC finds exactly the magical artifact of monster slaying that they’ve needed this whole time, and now they’re one step closer to taking on the BBEG.
Or, your paladin finally has earned enough gold to buy plate armor and a +1 shield. Amazing!
These types of narratives that can be so fun to play out at the table, assuming you have vibrant NPCs and exciting settings to interact with, can fall somewhat flat on the page.
I think of Star Wars and how many times we see people milling about a market. Those scenes are a lot more exciting when someone is being chased and the stakes are high.
Which leads to our next tip:
2. Fiction needs to be focused
One of the best things about DnD and other ttRPGs is the openness of the narratives and worlds. So long as you can work out the mechanics for it, almost anything is possible.
But novels work differently.
As you dive into craft books (which you should absolutely be doing!), you’ll find again and again the treatise that novels should focus around a central theme, or your character should represent an ideal, and everyone else in the novel spans the spectrum of that ideal.
This focus on behalf of the author creates a gripping world for the reader to immerse themselves in.
Perhaps you’re like me and want to reject this idea at first—that’s fine! I would clarify that while your novel can have many themes, in the planning and/or the writing, you’ll want to tease out one that you want to focus on. That theme will encompass the story you’re telling.
To read about this in more detail, I recommend 13 Steps to Evil by Sacha Black.*
And if you’re looking for a faster read as well as an amazing character development exercise, check out this blog post by KM Wieland about creating a character truth chart. This was one of the best resources that I worked through between my content edit and my copyedit.
3. It’s all about the internal conflict
I’ve written about this for character development in DnD before, but readers stay invested in your novel for the internal conflict not the external conflict. This can be a big shift to make from DnD or other ttRPG depending on the gaming style at your table, but if we look at really classic, beloved fantasy, the outside world, even the BBEGs, tend to be externalizations of the main character’s internal conflict.
As a quick example, Sauron mirrors the internal conflict for control and domination that the ring inspires in Frodo. Going back to point number two, the ring also brings out that internal conflict in Aragorn and Gandalf—everyone’s hanging out at different places along the same thematic spectrum.
Lisa Cron details the why behind this principle in her book Wired for Story.* She argues that what’s going on psychologically when we become engrossed in a narrative—whether real or fiction—is that our brains are trying to figure out how to prepare us for that situation if we’re ever in it.
And maybe we don’t need to be prepared to take the ring to Mount Doom, but we do need to know how to persevere in the face of overwhelming obstacles and how to find the best in ourself and others no matter the darkness in the world around us. That’s Frodo’s internal conflict—externalized in his quest—but it’s his interior journey that continues to capture readers’ hearts.
4. Eliminate characters you don’t need
ttRPGs lend themselves to a different number of NPCs than readers will be able to keep track of in fiction. As a general rule, if they don’t absolutely have to be there, take them out. Characters whose names only appear once, for example, especially if they don’t speak, can be eliminated with little to no effect on the fiction manuscript.
Secondly, look for places where you can combine characters. Do you have three guides who appear along the first story arc to help the party along? What would happen if you smushed them into one character? What would your readers lose?
I found that eliminating characters increased the clarity of my story, made my remaining characters more unique, fleshed-out, and interesting, and heightened the novel’s suspense. A win, win, win!
5. Think about your readers
When you’re transforming a ttRPG character, world, or narrative into a novel, your obligation is not to the truth of what transpired in your campaign. Assuming you’re putting something together for someone besides your fellow players and GM, your obligation is to your readers. They don’t need to know exactly how it played out at the table. Your novel exists separately from that.
Entire pieces of your plot are going to disappear, whole arcs will be rearranged, important NPCs will vanish from existence.
But when you’re willing to make these tough choices, the magic of what transpired at the table will translate to your one-to-one conversation with your reader and immerse them in the narrative that’s burning inside you, the story you need to tell.
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