Behind the Scenes: Turning an RPG Campaign into a Book Series

I may or may not have mentioned this before, but The Slaughter Chronicles is inspired by a World of Darkness (White Wolf) campaign that Mr. J and I played back in 2015. Well…I started back in 2015, the story of the campaign was something Mr. J had been working on since he was in high school.

For role-playing games like Vampire the Masquerade, Dungeons and Dragons, and World of Darkness to be successful, the players need a really good story to interact with. Otherwise, you’re just rolling the dice and killing imaginary monsters. (Which can be fun on its own…but I play for the story.)

Telling a story for an RPG and writing a story as a novel or a series of books are two very different things. They involve different kinds of storytelling techniques. Things that work on the tabletop do not work in “fiction” and vice versa.

In this post, I’m going to talk about some of the challenges I faced and still face as I write my grimdark paranormal fantasy series, The Slaughter Chronicles.

Before I get into my writing experience I want to say that the books that I write and the books that you will get to read (eventually) are maybe 5% like the original campaign story version and the remaining 95% is vastly different. The game and those first character designs were extremely bare-bones rough drafts that formed the structure of what my story is today.

Here’s a little bit of backstory for you:

The Slaughter Chronicles happened when Mr. J and I were wrapping up the campaign and we came to a place where Regina was separated from her love interest. I got the idea to have Regina write down her feelings in a journal so that she would have a record for said love interest if she died.

At that time, I didn’t think I could write fiction. I thought I could only write poetry–little fragments of thoughts, incomplete narratives–the broad strokes of sweeping fiction were way beyond me. But I could write Regina’s diary because that version of her had very disjointed thoughts. I wrote six pages of Regina babbling to herself about how much she loved and missed [NAME REDACTED] and how bad she felt about all the things that happened (in life, not just their relationship).

I showed this writing to Mr. J, feeling very embarrassed about presenting him with word vomit, and to my surprise he liked it. (I was seriously expecting him to laugh at me and tell me how stupid it was. Confidence, y’all.) That inspired me to try writing more. So I wrote the story of the campaign, exactly how Mr. J started it and all of Regina’s decisions and how they shaped the world.

And it was terrible because there was no magical game master on stand by in my brain to make Regina’s life easier or worse depending on the situation. I had to abide by fictional laws of realism, I had to come up with my own supernatural biology and magic system to make the world plausibly function.

Here’s some of how I did that:

1. Copyright and Popular Culture Character References

The first and probably the most important things I had to consider (and still rears its ugly head every so often) were copyright infringement and piracy of intellectual property. Unless I wanted to write fan fiction, I had to change a lot of conceptual elements of Mr. J’s story to make it an original work of fiction. My werewolves are very different from the World of Darkness werewolves.

For me, this issue has only caused problems with my character names. Mr. J relies heavily on video games for inspiration and I’ve had to change many, many supporting characters’ names to something not blatantly recognizable as coming from Dark Souls or World of Warcraft.

There were also some events in the game that were Mr. J’s versions of certain boss fights. An underling of the main villain would look suspiciously like a video game villain. Now, I know next to nothing about video games. I don’t play them, sometimes I watch other people play them but I don’t pay attention.

So there would be a boss fight in our RPG and afterward, I’d say something like, “That was super cool!” and Mr. J would reply, “It’s from [insert game name here].” and I’d go, “Dammit!” because I knew I had to then research said boss and make the necessary changes to not write that character into my books.

Coming up with how werewolves and vampires are created and making up other aspects of the supernatural community was a very fun and rewarding worldbuilding experience.

2. The Storytelling/Story Structure

I wasn’t the DM. Or GM if you prefer. Some of the characters were mine but the story wasn’t. So, I had to add, subtract, and reinvent parts of the world and the storyline to create the narrative.

There were some world building elements that I didn’t need to know for the game (because not knowing didn’t hurt my character) that I really needed to understand for parts of the novel to function.

In RPGs there’s usually a main story arc and then there’s what they call “side quests.” Side quests are either the best adventures ever or they’re the DM’s way of punishing you for some imaginary, baseless slight. There are NPCs (non-playable characters) that you, the player, think are important but they aren’t and, three hours into the game, you realize that you’ve been chasing shadows and have in no way, shape, or form achieved any of your objectives.

I had to decide what I wanted to include and what needed to be thrown in the trash.

Side quests make great inspiration for sub-plots but only in moderation.

3. Inside Jokes/Game References

I had to take out and revise a lot of my supporting characters because when we played with them in the game, they were only there for comedy. Or as Easter eggs or inside jokes we could build personality and story line off of. For example, in one of Mr. J’s D&D campaigns, he has a Goblin Shaman character he modeled off of Doctor Rockso from Metalocalypse. Because everyone loves Metalocalypse. Was that reference relevant to the story of the game? Maybe not, but everyone playing altered their behavior and choices to interact with that NPC more.

(Note: An unexpected plus side of adapting things like this was the opportunity to create more involved backstory for characters that I had before considered cardboard cut-outs.)

Writing inside jokes that either only specific readers will understand or only you, the writer, will understand is a big NO-NO in my rulebook. It alienates the reader and if I feel like I don’t understand something I’m going to stop reading.

This does not mean I don’t approve of homages or Easter eggs. Or that I don’t have my characters make connections and references to things that other characters don’t understand. Those are fine if they’re done right.

RPGs and gaming culture have a lot of fandom elements that, unless a reader follows said fandom, readers won’t pick up on right away.

Going back to the Doctor Rockso example, some of Mr. J’s players got the TV show reference right away and had fun with it, but others did not and, while they didn’t have any problems playing, they didn’t get the same level of humor.

I want to write more about this topic because RPG-Lit is its own genre and some of my favorite books are based on tabletop games. I could go on and on about the mechanics and philosophy of game storyline vs. novel storyline but I’m tired now and I need to stop.

If you have questions or want to bring up a point I haven’t mentioned, please do so in the comments. I’d love to hear from you.

The most important thing I’ve learned from this creation and translation process is that it’s very easy to suspend belief in-game but not so easy in a novel. I can believe five random people wake up in a room together and have no idea how they got there for a game but if I’m reading that in a book and I’m either not expecting it or don’t get the how and why right away, I’m going to be confused. While you want your reader to have questions, you don’t want to throw them out of the story.

You don’t need to know how World of Darkness works to read and enjoy my books. You don’t need to like games to read my books. Liking werewolves might help but…*shrug*…it’s not a requirement.

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Photo by Samantha Lam on Unsplash