D&D vs. Fiction

One of my first novel attempts--which crapped out at 20,000 words and which you will never read--was a Dungeons & Dragons novel. I've been playing D&D and other games like it since 1989, and writing a novel was a natural extension of the worlds and characters I'd been making up all along.

But D&D does not necessarily make good fiction. It's sort of a running gag in the fantasy genre that you can tell which novels were really D&D games. This post is about why that is.

In D&D, there is no protagonist. D&D is not about one character, but about the party. They share the story and tell it together. This can work in fiction, but it usually doesn't.
In fiction, even if there are many major characters, the story is still about only one of them. THE LORD OF THE RINGS was always about Frodo, even though every party member had their adventures.

In D&D, the story and world revolve entirely around the party. Because D&D is half shared storytelling and half strategy game, it has to revolve around the players, otherwise they get bored. So when the mysterious stranger approaches the party with a quest, nobody asks, "Why us?"
In fiction, there needs to be a good reason the world can only be saved by the protagonist (especially in YA, where there are often more skilled and more experienced characters about). Anything else feels like it's happening because the plot needs it to. It feels fake.

In D&D, a character is defined by what they can DO. They're defined by their classes, skills, and statistics. Their character arc is the levels they gain and the equipment they pick up.
In fiction, a character is defined by what they WANT and what they CHOOSE. Their character arc is internal--what does the character learn about themselves and how does that change them? In fiction, a half-elf fighter is just a stereotype, but a half-elf fighter who wants to be a wizard, but whose human father wouldn't let him because he hates magic, is interesting.

In D&D, every world is essentially the same. Oh, the kingdoms and politics are different, and some DMs will come up with unique deities and monsters. But the races, classes, and rules are the same. They have to be so the players know what to expect from game to game, and can feel secure that the rules are balanced. Translated to fiction, this results in a feeling of sameness to the worlds. Everyone is a fighter, thief, cleric, or wizard. Primary cultures are medieval-European in flavor. Magic is just something certain people do (but only a limited number of times per day).

There's nothing inherently wrong with this. Some people want this when they read fantasy, and certainly there are DMs who get uber-creative with worlds and rules. But if you're not careful, this sameness is what will happen.

D&D revolves around the players, outside the game. They're the ones making the decisions and steering the story. You might think, then, that fiction revolves around the reader, but it doesn't. The reader is like a spectator to a D&D game, which is not terribly interesting. They have no decisions to make, but they want to root for someone who does. That's why fiction revolves around the characters.

Have you ever transitioned from D&D to writing? Or have you read a novel that felt like it did? Tell me in the comments.


Sherri Cornelius said...

Great post, Adam! I never could get into D&D despite trying several times to play with my D&D-obsessed brother. Reading this, I think I know why. I'm interested in relationships, emotions, subtext. None of these things are present in D&D. There is collaboration, but nothing connecting the characters to each other on a personal level.

You've given me something to ponder for the day.

Hepius said...

I played a ridiculous amount of D+D in junior high school (and into high school).

One thing about turning D+D into novels is the generic sameness of the worlds. The creatures and the magic are so standard as to make them very blah to the reader. D+D worlds also can have an awful mish-mash of creatures in them. They are basically Tolkien worlds with monsters drawn from every mythology imaginable. How about some creativity from the author?

The good part about D+D was the training in world building and story telling it gave me. Dozens of maps, drawings of castles and characters, and creating challenges for the players all transferred into writing.

I miss that game.

Ted Cross said...

My thinking has long been that everyone assumes D&D can't translate into a really good book, and they back up these assumptions by looking at the bad books that have been written. To me that was always a challenge and I never believed it had to be that way. I loved the D&D type worlds, so I wrote a story that I believe avoids all those pitfalls yet remains true to what I loved most about growing up as a gamer. Not once has any reader ever mentioned gaming when talking about my story.

Laurel Garver said...

Great post! I've always wondered what it was about the fantasy novel I wrote in HS that made it so sucky. Reading this, I can see it fell into so many of these pitfalls. I was entirely too caught up in D&D conventions. (I started playing in 7th grade--1981-- and was pretty die-hard through HS and college, which is apparently unusual for girls.)

I don't write fantasy at all any more, but contemporary YA, lit fic and poetry. So far, so good with avoiding D&D inspired storylines and characters. :-)

Joshua McCune said...

D&D always makes me think of those good ole days with my trusty grappling hook :)

Nick said...

I never found a decent D&D group until my early 20s. Don't get me wrong, it was really awesome, but I was so new at it I didn't really "get" it. All I could think of is "what would I do", not "what would my character do, in this position, with the knowledge he has".

But admittedly, that does take some practice. Anyway, the DM wouldn't ever give me good information so I ended up helicoptering my sword that was actually more alive than most people out into a river, only to have someone in the party immediately try to take me out. I quickdrew my backup (vorpal) sword and critted him, which was fun. By that point the party (except for me) was all evil pulling in different directions, so it was just a ticking timebomb anyway. I think the monk (who we geared up by taking out another, evil monk) ended up just killing everyone anyway.

But yeah, you'd definitely have to pick a perspective. I totally prefer 1st person!

Adam Heine said...

Nick, your game sounds way more interesting than ours ever were. Our biggest argument started because my bard decided to sing buffs on the party while trying to sneak through a forest.

Paul said...

D&D can be story driven with the right group, but its really rare. I've only had it once for any length of time, but for the portions where my PC was inactive (so I watched the others play)it was like watching a book or movie play out.

Secondly, you should have just finished the book. It couldn't be worse than the movie-that-shall-not-be-discussed.