It’s been exciting to see Dungeons and Dragons creeping up in popularity over the past decade. Podcasts like The Adventure Zone and Critical Role are drawing in people who would have otherwise only known the stereotypes of D&D. This also means that when I say my favorite books read like a well run tabletop RPG I have less explaining to do.
Tabletop RPGs Summarized
For those of you that aren’t aware, Tabletop Role-Playing Games (RPGs) are an act of collaborative storytelling. Traditionally, you have a single person running the game (Dungeon Master, Game Master, Storyteller, or some other label) who is responsible for creating the world, the conflict, and all the non-player characters (NPCs) the other players interact with. The player characters (PCs) each control their own characters, interacting with the world around them as part of an adventuring party. The majority of games have things that make the characters unique, granting them special abilities and ways of interacting with the world. Dice is often employed to determine success of non-trivial actions, with character attributes and abilities factoring in.
I’ve been playing tabletop RPGs off and on since elementary school, and there’s a unique quality you get from the way the stories play out. The DM can only control so much of the story when the main actors in it are each playing by their own script. Good DMs can give the PCs a reason to follow the story, great DMs build the story collaboratively around the PCs actions, but the friction and randomness create a narrative that feels organic.
The players may be a team of righteous mercenaries crusading for a cause or, much more likely, a ragtag bunch of super-powered idiots barely able to avoid committing murder. Regardless of what is unifying them in game, the personality of each player and their interpretation of their character factor in heavily to the game. Each player puts all their gaming effort into their character and having that character explore the world in an effort to achieve the goals they set in the world the DM creates.
That “RPG Feeling” in Fiction
The natural, chaotic feel of a D&D group or other tabletop game is hard to reproduce if you’re writing a story alone. You need to put the same effort and time into each notable character as a player would, while also setting up the story itself and running all the NPCs. I feel it’s important to note that the NPCs should be similarly nuanced in an RPG, but not to the same level as a PC. To really reproduce the effect, each character needs to be guided by their unique goals, they need to disagree and fight with each other, and they need to do the blatantly wrong thing sometimes. Maybe they also have a run of truly terrible luck.
The Dresden Files has this feeling occasionally, but Jim Butcher’s The Aeronaut’s Windlass is the clearest example in my mind. It’s a world you can tell he enjoyed building, and each of the characters navigates it with their own histories, hangups, abilities, and goals. Most of the characters are archetypes or specialists of some kind, with clear deficiencies in some scenarios and amazing advantages in others. It really feels like he wrote the book by having his closest friends play a tabletop RPG version of the story, then transcribed their interactions and cleaned it up.
The Wheel of Time also has this same feeling, that feeling that the author isn’t the one controlling all the pieces. That willingness to let the characters stray, to treat them each as unique entities with goals that may not be in line with the story you’re telling, and still keeping them pointed in the right direction is the hallmark of a great story.
The quality isn’t just well written characters who have their own goals, plenty of books do that. Most books don’t feel like a collaborative effort of multiple characters interacting within one person’s head. It’s not just an impression of sonder, the realization that everyone’s life is as unique and full as your own, that I’m referring to here. This “RPG Feeling” comes form a difference in the way the characters are set up, the importance and unique abilities of each, and an element of almost random luck or misfortune that plagues their adventure. The protagonist still has the spotlight, but the supporting cast is just as interesting and equipped to step up when needed.
I’d love to I write a character sheet for all the main characters in a novel that does this well this, anonymize the character names, and distribute the sheets around a table of solid RPG players to see if anyone can find the protagonist.
Not all books need to feel like this to be great, some books have a supporting cast that isn’t on par with the protagonist and serve to highlight them as different or special. Maybe there’s an ability gap in the characters, maybe the secondary ones don’t get as much screen time, but the story itself is awesome. Books like that are great, but I am particularly fond of books make the characters feel like a bunch of RPG players negotiating with each other as they’re swept along in the plot.
Putting it in Practice
My current primary work in progress is a LitRPG, with the main story taking place inside a game. This was the perfect setup to attempt to reproduce the “RPG Feeling” by making literal character sheets for the characters in the party. I used the personality traits they would exhibit, along with their in-game classes, to choose their stat and ability allocation. I mentioned in another post that this change streamlined combat in the novel, I’m hoping it’ll also help create that sheen of interpersonal chaos I enjoy in other books.