Never submit a story to a market without reading the submission guidelines first. It’s also important to read work previously published in that market so you can get an idea of what types of stories the editors like. I always do the former, but tend to neglect the latter unless samples are offered online.
I was reading through the submission guidelines of a fantasy e-zine recently and found this:
“We are not looking for . . . retellings of D&D campaigns.”
Granted, this particular market doesn’t publish epic fantasy or sword-and-sorcery. Of the five short stories featured, all of them were set in our modern world and contained a single, fantastical element or theme. I’d label them as literary stories with fantasy aspirations. However, this isn’t the first time I’ve seen Dungeons and Dragons used in the guidelines of a fantasy market as an example of what not to submit.
It’s not Dungeons and Dragons that’s really the issue, though. A D&D adventure uses many of the same plot elements found in classic fantasy fiction. Wizards of the Coast publishes three lines of successful fantasy novels based on D&D campaign settings.
The real culprit is the quality of writing. Many Dungeons and Dragons players harbor hopes of becoming a fantasy fiction writer, and their games provide easy fodder. Unfortunately, they lack the skills necessary to turn a game into a story. (Don’t despair. As Hollywood can attest, there’s actually a market for such people.)
I’ve played my fair share of Dungeons and Dragons, and it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say the game influenced my understanding of the fantasy genre as much as those first fantasy fiction authors I read (C. S. Lewis, Tolkien, David Eddings and Terry Brooks). In fact, I believe I started reading fantasy fiction at about the same time I was introduced to D&D.
The point of that little history lesson is this: both Chronicles of Jord and Janner Kohl are deeply rooted in my Dungeons and Dragons games. The Chronicles of Jord is set in the world I created for a campaign I DM’d back in high school and early college. Many of the plot points are direct descendants of those adventures I ran.
Janner Kohl was born of my love for the Moonsea region of the Forgotten Realms, and Phlan and the Pool of Radiance game in particular. Of course, in both cases, the stories have greatly evolved from their roots. And that’s what it will take to turn your Dungeons and Dragons campaign into a legitimate novel (or short story). Here are the evolutionary steps my stories took:
- Change the names to protect the copyrighted. Unless you’re under contract to write for WotC, you can’t use their intellectual property in your story. If you’re using a homebrew setting, like I did for Chronicles of Jord, you can skip this step.
- Avoid the dwarf-elf-orc cliche. Nothing screams Dungeons and Dragons more than the fantasy race trope. Changing names isn’t enough. You need to develop unique cultures. Good fantasy fiction has a depth that most D&D games lack. Culture is one of those areas that will help you flesh out your story.
- Add characterization. Dungeons and Dragons is an action-oriented game. Later editions emphasize this style of gameplay even more. Your players may have written detailed backstories and been the “Greatest Roleplayers EVA”, but you’ll still need to fill in some holes that will make their characters viable protagonists. Dialogue that establishes clear and unique voices for each character is probably the greatest need.
- Don’t forget the NPCs. Where you had the benefit of your players fleshing out their characters, NPCs are most likely two-dimensional. They probably don’t need as much depth as the protagonists, but the antagonist and major support characters deserve some attention to voice and personality. Remember, you can shift the spotlight off the protagonist(s) in a story, at least for a while, whereas it remains firmly on the PCs in a game.
- Lose the combat rounds. Perhaps the biggest complaint about game-based fantasy fiction is the handling of combat. It was something I struggled with in Maiden of Pain. Years of initiative and rounds had been ingrained in me, but they sound stilted and artificial in writing.
- Build a railroad. A strong, connected plot, where events foreshadow greater events, makes for an exciting story, but often a boring game. Players like to have a sense of freedom to go and do what they want. If you want to turn your Dungeons and Dragons campaign into a novel, you’ll likely need to trim some of those side quests.
Many a Dungeon Master has taken inspiration for their D&D games from fantasy fiction they’ve read. There’s no reason a fantasy fiction writer can’t flip the process around to create a wonderful story. It just requires a little tweaking. What do you think it would take to turn a Dungeons and Dragons campaign into a legitimate fantasy novel?