Of Dice and Men: Modern Fantasists and the Influence of Role Playing Games
“I’d like to throttle Frodo.” Gary Gygax (1938-2008)
Take a group of socially awkward souls, a few gallons of Mountain Dew, a bag full of funny-looking dice, some sheets of paper, a rulebook or ten, add an argument about vorpal blades and Umber Hulks, and you have a scene that likely strikes a chord with most people involved in speculative fiction.
Since 1974, when Dave Arneson and the late Gary Gygax created Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), role-playing games (RPGs) have had an impact on genre fiction for good, ill, and geeky. Some fantasy fiction magazine guidelines even warn writers against sending “your most recent D&D adventure in prose.” Yet the gap between role-playing games and speculative fiction is narrow, and many similarities exist between the art of crafting fantastic fiction and the imaginative play of RPGs.
We decided to ask some modern fantasists about their experiences and thoughts regarding the games they played and their vocation of letters. We think Mr. Gygax would be pleased with their responses.
Jeff VanderMeer, two-time World Fantasy Award-winning author of Shriek: An Afterword, began playing D&D in grammar school. “I was a Dungeon Master, but I was soon putting too much time into details that had nothing to do with the games. Basically, I was world-building as background to stories and novels.” While enjoying the game, VanderMeer felt that it took away from his writing time. “I enjoyed the adventures, but it was a bit of a relief to go on to fiction—that’s really where I wanted to be, in terms of creating things. Ultimately, playing D&D seemed like a waste of time. It wasn’t, but it seemed like I could be creating something of my own and not just playing around in someone else’s universe. One day I looked up and D&D was in the past and I was a fiction writer.”
Paul Witcover would agree with VanderMeer on gaming being a time-suck from writing, but gaming was also an inspiration. Witcover’s novel Tumbling After features a D&D-type game and explores “the philosophical and existential implications of gaming.” The novel’s twin protagonists, Jack and Jill Doone, share an almost telepathic connection. While vacationing with their family on the Delaware shore, they become play-testers for their Uncle Jimmy’s role-playing game, Mutes & Norms. After a near death experience, Jack finds himself developing unique powers. Soon his story and that of his sister becomes entwined with that of Kestrel, a mutant from the future whose world resembles that of their Uncle’s game.
“If the act of imagining something could cause that imaginary thing to exist in some alternate universe,” Witcover wondered, “then there is a moral dimension to imagination and creation, a responsibility. We are responsible for what we imagine, what we create.” However, he went on to caution writers by saying: “Gaming and game designs are analogous to certain elements in the writing process, and can thus be helpful for writers, but gaming is not writing. Too many writers approach writing as if it were simply game design. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but such books leave me cold. I would rather play than read them.”
On the other hand, Tim Pratt, multiple award-nominated author of Blood Engines, enjoyed absorbing the fantasy of RPG source books alongside other reading habits. “I read Stephen King novels and Ravenloft sourcebooks, I read Deities and Demigods and Charles de Lint stories, I read Unearthed Arcana and X-Men comics. I didn’t make much of a distinction, and often read source material for games I never even played—and in some of my early teen stories I flat-out stole characters and monsters from D&D sources (which is only fair, since they stole many of the same characters and monsters from genre fiction originally—circle of life!).”
This amalgam of fiction and source books not only fueled his imagination but gave him early experience in storytelling techniques. “I’ve been accused of crossing genres a lot in my work, and I think I got that from RPGs, largely . . . RIFTs combined fairy tales and robots and mythological monsters and aliens, and that kind of freedom and weirdness always rubbed me the right way. Creating RPGs helped me become comfortable with doing big, crazy, wild things—which is a definite advantage in writing fantasy fiction.” Pratt’s writing would attest to that. His collections Little Gods and Hart & Boot feature stories that play fast and loose with elements of the fantastic and the mundane. Punks, magic, detectives, hell-hounds, and ghosts abound in stories set more often than not in a mimetic world. However, the benefit was not entirely in subject matter. Pratt mentioned another skill learned through gaming. “It also helped me learn to improvise on the fly, and, strangely enough, taught me that plot derives from character—you can create a setting and plan an adventure, but the people playing their characters will make their own unexpected decisions, and push the game in new directions.” Pratt also had to put games down to devout time to his writing career.
Catherynne M. Valente’s Orphan’s Tales series dives deep into the mythic well that inspired Leiber, Howard, Tolkien, and Vance, all of whom were seminal influence on Gygax. However, RPGs had no influence on her early development as a writer. “I think whether or not you get into it at a young age is dependent on having that one friend who’s really into it, and I never did.” She did play a lot of console games such as Final Fantasy and learned the mechanics and terminology through them; so when her fiancé lured her into pen and paper gaming she already knew much of the lexicon. What made her reluctant was the effect this might have on her writing: “I spend most days coming up with characters and back-stories. I didn’t want to do much more of that.” She also feels that “a lot of fantasy novels take far too much from RPG tropes. They read exactly like campaigns—densely detailed weapons and political situations, flat characters who are little more than their races and either ‘spunk’ or ‘sullen’. I didn’t want to be tainted by that, to let it into my head on a weekly basis.”
Ultimately, these concerns became a non-issue for Valente. As simply a player in someone else’s game she can enjoy the entertainment of playing and stomping monsters without any drain on her own creativity. If she were GMing, however, she believes it would be an entirely different story: “I don’t think I could justify expending material on a campaign setting that could go into a novel. That would be incredibly hard not to do.”
The major problem RPG-influenced authors face, Valente argues, is an inability to identify cliché. “The world of RPGs is more forgiving of cliché than the world of literature is. Familiar settings and characters help players to locate their function and acclimate to surroundings. . . . To create a truly wonderful piece of fiction, you have to aim above the familiar, the tired, and the overused. As an author, it’s my job to have a discerning eye: what is game, and what is book? What is vivid and visceral, and what is cliché? I don’t feel RPGing affects those things, but that is probably because I am a player, not a GM.” (Incidentally, she plays a blunderbuss-wielding tiefling chaos mage in the D&D Planescape setting—using the Heroes system, so no levels.)
Unlike Valente, Jay Lake, Campbell award-winning author of Mainspring, found D&D a great companion to his imagination, perhaps because it entered his life at a young age. “RPGs developed my ability to create narrative flow. They also reinforced my already strong love of fantasy. All of that fed the nascent writer in my head . . . they’re also good for learning to get in character, a valuable trait for any writer. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they reinforce your sense of wonder. That is the key to genre fiction.”
Lake also sees the influence of table-top games being significantly different than video or online RPGs. The environment of meat-space RPGs is, like that of a book, live in the mind. “Tabletop RPGs put most of the creative effort on the player, who must visualize the characters and their environment. Online RPGs feed the player a high-impact visualization of the characters and their environment. . . . I think the effort of worldbuilding which players of my generation went through has been replaced by the immersive experience. That in turn has substantially changed the relationship between RPGs and the creative process. Whether that change is for the better or the worse remains to be seen. I am suspicious of it, but that might just be middle age talking.”
Unlike the authors mentioned, Tim Waggoner, surrealist-horror author of Cross Country, also writes novels based on RPG properties. He sees a connection between the character and environment of RPGs and print storytelling. RPGs “showed me that the richer the world your characters live in, the more story possibilities there are. When I create worlds of my own — even worlds that are closely aligned with contemporary reality — I try to develop them in as much detail as possible. Gamers read a lot, so interacting with other readers, learning about what they were reading, exposed me to different writers.”
Waggoner also agrees with Lake that RPGs provided early flexing of his narrative muscles by creating characters and dealing with exposition. “As a player, you know a great deal about the world from the various manuals and guides. But your character only knows whatever is part of his or her background, and discovers anything else as the game plays out. I learned a ton about how much information to give readers and exactly when to give it to them from gaming.” As with Pratt, the improvisation of working with players with their own frames of references was also instructive. “Characters can make wrong assumptions and make bad choices. So many writers plot out a story, march their characters through the plot, and then reach the outcome. They forget to leave room for the unpredictable, for the joy of surprise. Gaming taught me that what goes wrong for characters makes for the most interesting stories.”
For Black Gate publisher John O’Neil, Gygax and his game acted as a catalyst for the interest in the fantasy adventure for which the magazine is known. “For someone discovering much of this for the first time,” O’Neil said, “[D&D] was an embarrassment of riches. All of it contributed to a fascination with pulp fiction in general, especially the period from 1930-1950.” Like others he admits that game-mastering served as his apprenticeship in storytelling and he offers some advice for writers gleaned from the gaming table. “No one cares about your 80-pages of background description. Give them something to care about before your start to pull back the curtain on all that homework.
Black Gate managing editor Howard A. Jones notes that lots of new writers, weaned on D&D, may not know the fantasy antecedents of the game’s well-known tropes: “The author doesn’t realize that the fire and forget spell list came from Vance, or that the elves and hobbits came from Tolkien or that thieves’ guilds came from Lankhmar because they’ve never read the source material . . . These games wouldn’t exist if Gygax and Arneson hadn’t loved the source material.”
Arthur C. Clarke award-winner China Mieville has had an unabashed love of RPGs since he was a kid. While not a conscious influence on his desire to be a writer, RPGs had a powerful effect on his subconscious in what he referred to as the “awe/system” dichotomy. “Many of us who love the fantastic, particularly the generic fantastic (as opposed to, say, what you could loosely call the ’haute literary’ fantastic (scare quotes deliberate) of Gogol, Bulgakov, Kafka, etc.) is an oscillation between two aesthetic gravitational pulls. One is what is sometimes called the sensawunda. From this perspective, what draws us to the fantastic (including sf and, in a ’bad-numinous’ version, horror), is the awe at the unrepresentable. The vasty strangeness, the ’Real’ (in Lacanian terms), that which is definitionally beyond our power to successfully represent. You see that in everything from the appearance of Cthulhu to the apotheotic monolith of 2001 to the sudden Becoming at the end of Tiger! Tiger! That’s the side of the fantastic that puts it in a lineage with the visionary and ecstatic.
At the other end of the pole, however, is “our obsessive love for systematization, for categorization and rigid and rigorous taxonomy. This you see in the profusion of bestiaries, of spurious encyclopedias, and above all in the ’stats’ and rules of fantasy RPGs. A lot of what we think of as genre fantasy seems to me a fascinating crossbreed of those contradictory pulls. What we love about Cthulhu is that it is beyond our ken, as Lovecraft repeatedly points out. Then, in an act of Promethean heroic vulgarization, the Call of Cthulhu RPG neatly laid out Cthulhu’s ’Stats’ - Str, 100, or whatever it is. This is not a dis of RPGs. My point is that that desire to systematize even the fantastic, the point of which is to evade systematization, is a kind of geek honor, a ludicrous and incredibly seductive and even creative project, an almost majestic point-missing, that in missing the point, does something new.”
Mieville views his own work as oscillating between these poles. “I see that tension between wanting to remain true to what I think of as a M. John Harrisonian fidelity to the inherently unstable and evasive nature of the fantastic — his Viriconium, after all, changes its names and its boundaries, and its refusal to submit to RPG-style rules is part of what makes it magnificent — and the passionate D&D-style desire to rulify and systematize the world — to have stable maps, a set of bestiaries, a timeline, etc. (Perdido Street Station includes a party of cheerfully psychopathic and amoral player-characters, as an affectionate internal swipe at my inspirations.) For me that system/awe dichotomy is key to genre fantasy, and the systematization of the system half of that dyad is the RPG-tradition’s great feat. We can react against it, surrender to it, argue with it, or whatever, but it’s part of the mulch in which we grow.”
Finally, when asked what other fond memories he might have of the game, Mieville made sure to state: “They left me with an intense crush on Morgan Ironwolf, iconic character from the D&D basic rules. I cannot be held responsible for the libidinal drives of my 11-year-old self.”
Of such things fantasy literature is made.