Turn your Dungeons and Dragons campaign into a novel

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?

14 comments

  1. Ben Overmyer says:

    A friend of mine actually attempted this with an Exalted campaign, and succeeded to a fair degree in turning the campaign into a viable story. It was rough, but passable – certainly more so than the Dungeons & Dragons movie or other such tripe.

    I’ve had the benefit of being interested and educated in creative writing as a discipline for quite some time, and I frequently write very short pieces set in the game worlds I play in. They’re not whole stories, but they explore concepts that are more at home in fiction than gaming – for example, complex character interaction over generations.

    A D&D campaign could be turned into an interesting novel only through careful cutting and embellishing. While wading through kobolds to get to the buried treasure can make for a fun adventure, it’s a horribly boring story. It needs a lot of attention and creative exploration to make it interesting. Writing a short story about a conflicted tribe of kobolds and their struggle to survive in a world that seems bent against them, now THAT is readable!

    Ben Overmyer’s last blog post was Keep things in perspective

  2. Ravyn says:

    I’ve been in a few campaigns (like Ben, mostly Exalted) that could probably be turned into decent stories, and even written a couple things that could qualify as stories that branched off of my games; then again, I was a writer first, so much of what I run I try to make story-quality. And one of the best D&D campaigns I’ve ever been in, aside from the fact that we’re referencing the setting’s gods almost constantly, could probably serve as the beginnings of a novel; admittedly, a lot of that is that most of it so far has been character development and player-side worldbuilding.

    For me, it’s mostly what the writer’s doing that steps away from the standard conventions; D&D in general, and 4E in particular, tend to lean most people into the combat end of things, and that results in stuff that is more trying to parse a bunch of dice rolls than trying to tell a story.

    You’d need a story that isn’t just “Go to this dungeon and fight these monsters”, and you’d need a group that aren’t PCs first and characters second. It’s doable, it’s just difficult.

    Ravyn’s last blog post was Letting Go

  3. [...] My new blog Paths of Adventure is another matter. One of the reasons I started this new blog was to record the play sessions of the 4E game I’m currently playing in, but a dry, mechanics-based report didn’t interest me. So, I decided to take a page from my experiment with play-by-post roleplaying and fictionalize the game. [...]

  4. [...] D&D fantasy fiction is influenced by the rules of the game. Fans appreciate when authors ground their stories in the setting by referencing classes, spells and other game features–descriptively, if not literally–along with established world lore. I remember reading Dragons of Autumn Twilight as Raistlin tossed out a handful of sand, uttered his magic words and watched their pursuers drop to the ground, and thinking to myself, he just cast sleep. It’s a fine line for writers to tread; it’s supposed to be a novel, not a campaign log. [...]

  5. This may not be helpful if you dream of becoming a paid, published writer with your D&D game, but if you’re not…

    Having a bard in the party makes this easy, particularly if the player is attentive to the overreaching story (and maybe has DM’d himself), detail-oriented, and truly creative.

    I have a blog (www.theadventuresoffloydfiftynames.blogspot.com) that is meant to be a “recording the game” blog, similar to Kameron’s, but like Kameron, reporting the mechanics isn’t that interesting to me.

    Through the character of the bard (Floyd), I am able to tell the story as a puppet theatre musical – precisely the sort of thing a bard might do, but no one other than a participant in the game OR a true D&D enthusiast would really find it interesting. Forced to present the story in character gives me a restraint that keeps me from making meta-references or giving specific numbers and stats to the spells, weapons, etc. that are encountered in the game. Plus, since your bard’s 1st person account can be treated as an unreliable narrative, you are free to trim the fat and take artistic license with the story as you see fit, which makes it more interesting to read.

  6. dungeon 420 says:

    i wrote a few choose your own adventures a while back using 3.5e in fights where it basically walks you through roll for roll. It was intended to bring new players into the game and level up their characters a bit. In total about 25 adventures of varrying level and a main campaign connecting them all.

    i was thinking of mapping out a world over serveral books (greyhawk or eberron) but it might just be a waste of time?

  7. Kameron says:

    That depends on what you want to do with it, dungeon 420. If it’s just a game aid for your D&D campaign, it might be entirely worthwhile. If you’re hoping to publish it as a game product, you’ll need to stay away from using WotC properties like Greyhawk or Eberron. If your plan is to make these into fantasy fiction novels, you’ll probably want to follow the steps I outlined in the article above. None of these would be a waste of time if it’s doing something you enjoy, however.

  8. dungeon 420 says:

    tahnks

  9. mike kelligan says:

    hi i was thinking of submitting short stories to wizards of the coast about a group of characters i and my friends have been playing for over twenty five years many of whom have become gods…the characters,not the friends…ha ha ha but anyway these characters in our campaign are more than a bit evil,is there a market for the anti-hero out there?…p.s the githyanki are my favorite monsters in the d and d universe has anyone ever wrote about them?

  10. Kameron says:

    Hi, Mike. I do believe there was a recent novel trilogy that featured the githyanki, but I can’t remember the title or author. I haven’t kept up with the FR novels since the 4E/Spellplague transition. Wizards does have some writer’s guidelines posted, but you will notice that they are not looking for actual manuscripts to publish, novel or short story. They want writing samples to judge your ability. If they want to work with you, they’ll contact you and assign you something to write about. That’s pretty standard for shared settings that contract work-for-hire.

  11. [...] received some recent emails and comments related to my post on turning your Dungeons and Dragons campaign into novel. It gives me the warm fuzzies to know that people are still reading this poor, neglected blog. It [...]

  12. Doug Ward says:

    I was wondering what you can’t use from WotC? I mean do they own (have the rights to,) magic items? Monsters? Spells? I have about a third of a D&D book written and it flows better with stuff like Dust of Dispel in it.

  13. Kameron says:

    Hi, Doug. I’m certainly no legal expert, and but using the names and descriptions of items and spells lifted directly from gaming source material will likely get you in trouble. Most D&D monsters are rooted in cultural myths, and those are public domain. Of course, the more you can put your own spin on something, the better you’ll be able to distinguish yourself from all the other authors writing about orcs, dragons, and vampires. In the case of using Dust of Dispel, you definitely want to remove the D&D label from the item. Just describe your character using the item and what the effect is.

  14. Doug Ward says:

    Thanks Kameron. I believe you are right. It is a older work of mine I was thinking about reviving. I think your answer has given me a plan.

    Thank you very much and keep writing.

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