Thursday, September 17, 2009

From Game to Novel

I'm excited to announce that my fantasy thriller Goddess Fire is now available for order from the publisher and for pre-order from Amazon. You can view the book trailer at

The idea for this book - the world, political dynamics, characters and twisted plot - grew out of a short Dungeons and Dragons campaign I created for a couple of friends. When designing the "dungeon" I had no thought of writing a novel. Yet in many ways, the goals of a dungeon master (DM) are very similar to those of a fantasy author. As DM, I wanted to create a scenario with sufficient suspense and mystery to grip my players and make the game exciting. I wanted them to be personally involved in the unfolding plot; I created a "story" in which their game characters would be seriously threatened and they would feel catharsis and triumph, as well as fear, pity etc.

Now I may not have thought about it in such Aristotelian terms while designing a rollicking good D&D adventure for my friends, but I did look for ways to introduce goal, conflict, obstacle, reversal - all the elements that make a gripping story.

A D&D adventure differs markedly from a novel in that the progress and outcome of the plot are not entirely in the creator's hands. Players have the ability to alter the course of the story. Their characters make choices and sometimes quite surprising ones, which may well alter the way other DM-played characters act. That's one of the reasons it's so much fun to play: you feel you are a character in a story, with at least some power to influence the outcome.

Creating a dungeon and writing a fantasy novel have an important similarity as well. In both cases, the scenario has to be believable. You may be in fantasy world, where the sky is red and people have magical abilities, but the sky must remain red (except maybe for the blue sunsets) and the magical abilities must have consistency, limits and logic. In a D&D adventure, the players force the DM to be scrupulously consistent in his/her logic. In a novel, it is easier to slip, leave things unexplained or include implausible events, but the reader will catch such lapses and be irked by them. Their willingness to suspend disbelief will diminish.

The problem with D&D as a creative exercise is that you design a whole world, people it with careful developed characters and spin elaborate plots - for a miniscule audience. Two people played in my Vleth dungeon. Although they loved it, it seemed an awful lot of work just to entertain a couple of friends. People gaped in disbelief when I told them about the time and thought I put into creating dungeons. Eventually I listened and decided to try my hand at turning a dungeon into a book.

I'd completed a lot of the groundwork. The settings were fully visualized, down to street maps of the city in which the action occurs. I had images in my head of the Vleth Complex, the Hall of Seers, the Library, the taverns where the dissenters met, the catacombs beneath the city. One of the first challenges I had to overcome was my tendency to set too many scenes in taverns. Taverns are a standard D&D feature. Players spend half their time in taverns, meeting each other, spying on others etc. Don't ask me why taverns are so integral to the game, but they are. I was oblivious to the inordinate prevalence of drinking and taverns in the first draft of Goddess Fire until an online critiquer pointed it out, coyly mentioning that taverns are all very well in RPG settings, but not so effective in novels. Chagrined, I immediately rethought a number of the scene settings.

I also had a fair idea of the how the main conflict, between the Vleth and the dissenters, would develop and play out. However, in the dungeon, the protagonists were player characters. For the novel, I had to create new characters. Once I had fleshed out the main characters, the plot started to change, because, for one thing, it only made sense for these people, in this world, to act in certain ways, not necessarily the ones that fit neatly into my plot.

One of the most fascinating aspects of writing the novel was that characters began to take things into their own hands, in much the same way player characters do in a dungeon. I'd be in the middle of writing a scene in which, for example, Taeja was going to turn her back on someone and suddenly I'd get this idea that she wouldn't actually turn her back because something else would happen, and before I knew I'd written quite a different scene, which seemed to have a life of its own.

In the end, the novel does not bear a huge resemblance to the dungeon, but the dungeon was certainly the inspiration. The hardest part of turning game into book was the actual writing: crafting language to convey my intention, to conjure that world or depict that character or moment. In D&D, no one is too fussed about the words you use. In a novel, they're critical.