Game to Narrative (part 2)

Hello again.  I know we’ve talked about how to take your game into a narrative before.  That was a broad sweeping overview.  This time, I’m going to take us down a little closer, and look more at the nuts and bolts of the process.

Game vs. Narrative

I’m approaching this from a Game Master’s viewpoint.  It can also work from a player’s view point as well.  From either side, make sure everyone involved in the game allows you to use their concepts – the character, or the story itself.  If they don’t, then you’ll have to make some changes to make it your own.

When you sit down to a game session, typically you have a series of encounters planned for the time you’ll be playing.  Not only that, but you have a time limit for the session.  This can be for anywhere from an hour to an all nighter, or even something planned to take over an entire weekend.  When you write a book, you have the space between the front and back covers.  But, you also have those pesky things called “chapters”.

When you take a game into a narrative, the easiest way to figure out how to space your chapters is to use one game session as its own chapter.  Unless, that is, you are a sadistic game master like I was.  My group may have only played for an hour or so, but we typically finished an entire chapter in the planned game story in a session, and my players were able to walk out because of the adrenaline still running in their systems because I’d wrung them out to dry.  If you do something similar, then you may want to think about where the natural pauses in your game occurred, and use that as your chapter breaks.

Making the setting and characters yours

This is something that can get a little tricky.  Drawing from a particular game system is always acceptable.  However, there is drawing, and there is lifting from the system.  Changing racial names is always a good first step in making the concepts your own.  Changing how the races and/or characters look is another good step.

For the setting, if you are using a pre-built game, such as a Dungeons and Dragons module game, then you will have to change the names of your towns, encounters, world, and NPC characters.  If you don’t, then expect Wizards of the Coast to come hunting you down once you’ve gained enough popularity to pop through their filters and demand you cease and desist.  (Best case scenario.  Worst case, they’ll take everything you’ve made, hit you with a fine, and other legal fees.  You do NOT want to cross these guys.  They’ve been burned once before, so are extremely sensitive and vigilant about this.)  If you are using your own creation, then you can take off and start running.

Even if your players agree you can use their characters, do yourself a favor and use the character CONCEPTS, not the characters themselves.  So, if you have a player running a rogue fighter elf named “Jeramiah”, in your book, you’ve got a fighter with some thief skills named “Fernado”.  Your character can still most of what your player’s can, but there are a few differences.

The last point that will need to change names – the classes.  Sure, it’s easy to think in terms of “fighter”, “ranger”, “paladin”,”cleric”, etc.  If enough of the other parts are changed, you might even be able to pull this off.  But, to be safe, if you aren’t certain, get one or more of these character class names changed.  Drawing from my own character, Nameless, when I built his character sheet, he is a fighter/cleric cross class.  However, in the book, he is described as a Silk (slave class), gladiator (fighter), and the cleric is never mentioned, except he has some gifts granted by his goddess.  Once in a while, I am forced to use “fighter”, but that is because that is what a gladiator IS.  Though, it is usually qualified as “potential”, “champion”, or something similar.  This gets into the idea of “show don’t tell”, which I admit I have some difficulty with still.  But, I think you get the point.

Once you’ve made all the changes to the characters and settings, then it is time to sit down and consider the other huge difference between the game setting and the book narrative.  Games are typically in the present tense.  Books are most often in the past tense.  Oh, believe me, that can be a major tripping point.  Settle in your mind when your story takes place.  Then, make sure you’ve got someone enlisted who can go through and double check you aren’t changing tenses sporadically throughout the narrative.  Even as I work into the third installment of my own work, which falls between the game settings I had the character in, I still catch myself changing tenses between past and present.  Sometimes, in the middle of a sentence.  If it weren’t for my editor, I’d have lost readers from day one without a hope of getting anywhere near the small success I have so far.

Arranging the narrative flow

Now, you’ve got the setting and characters established – either through an outline, or with character sheets.  You’ve decided when your story is happening.  Now, it’s time to figure out how to make it flow together.  This would seem to be the simplest part, but some find it to be the hardest.  Some will depend on your preferred writing style – do you like to plot out everything, or do you like it to grow up organically on its own? If you are lucky, you can use the notes (or transcripts) from your games to guide you as you start working on this part of the process.  If you aren’t, because you have to change the story concept in order to ensure you stay out of infringement territory, don’t despair.  You can still accomplish your goal.

For starters, you know where the characters started from.  Usually, from a level 1 character.  (Some game masters allow you to start as high as level 4 or 5, this works just as well.)  You also know where those characters ended when the campaign ended.  And, along the way, those characters leveled up – new skills, new abilities, new stats.  If you are reading through the transcripts, you’ll note how each new session has a jagged edge that leads from the last session.  In game, this is fine.  YOU know the other player, so the changes flow smoothly.  Also, the challenges are stepped up along with the characters.  (And, for a well run game, this jar between sessions often goes unnoticed because you are trying to figure out how to stay alive and solve what ever problem your game master has set up for you this time.)  However, for the reader, this proves to be a big point of contention.  In the last chapter Janice was struggling to handle a dagger, and now she can sing, fight, and throw it with a good expectancy to actually HIT a small moving bunny?  How?

So, plan on at least a third of each chapter being given over to the characters learning their new skills, or honing the ones they’ve got to new levels of expertise.  Don’t just throw the radical changes at the reader.  The exception is if you have a time laps along the lines of “Janice was tired of being the weak link in the group, always having to be protected and guarded.  She knew she could be good, and to carry her weight.  At least once she learned how to fight properly.  When the party reached town, she slipped off to find that mysterious master she’d heard of that was supposed to live here.  Through several hours of pestering, she managed to get him to take her on as his student while the group found local work to build up enough money to resupply for the next leg of their journey.  When they left a month later, she still wasn’t the world’s best knife fighter, but at least now she knew she could hold her own against the regular riffraff they were likely to run into on the road.”

Even in this example, Janice didn’t go from dagger expertise 1 to dagger expertise 5.  She might have boosted her skill to around 3.  So, when you look at the character sheets for your advancing characters, know what the absolute best mastery of the skill is.  It could be 10, it could be 100.  That’s up to you.  In this, the White Wolf characters have a very handy character sheet, and reference pages.  Out of five possible “dots” you can get for each skill, each dot has an example on the reference page about what can be accomplished.  Some of the DnD spells have a similar example (silence a radius of 5′ plus skill level for character level plus skill level minutes.)  As you gain skill in magic lore, or spell casting, and your character advances, your silence spell covers more ground and has a longer duration.  The physical skills should have the same type of learning curve.  Besides, working with the character to learn new skills, or to improve the ones they’ve got can also prove a wonderful place to interject some humor.  Ever seen someone learning the war ax?  Sure, it is a devastating weapon when used properly.  But, it can also prove to be just as dangerous to the student while they are figuring out how to handle the mass in motion.

Hopefully, these tips and tricks will help you make that outstanding campaign everyone likes to hear you describe take the next step into a well developed book.  The quality of writing, I’m going to leave in your capable hands.  The last installment to this series HERE is designed to help smooth out any remaining rough edges.

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