February 04, 2004
Writing for Role-Playing Games By Peter Tupper | printable version
One overlooked area of science fiction and fantasy writing is novels and stories set in role-playing game worlds. While they don't get much critical attention, some of these novels have reached bestseller lists, and their writers have gone on to publish original works.
Writing fiction for a game company is work-for-hire, much like writing for television. The line editors keep control over their properties, and hand out assignments that fit their master plans. Fiction releases are usually scheduled years in advance to synchronize with game releases.
You will be working on assignment, must live with the rules of the game world, and you won't own the finished product. However, you will benefit from a ready-made audience that will buy the book because of the brand name attached to it.
As with all writing work, the trick is getting out of the slush pile and being noticed by an editor.
The RPG hobby is a small one, and inner circles are even smaller. Personal contact is a huge factor in getting the attention of an editor, whether through gaming conventions or having known them before they turned pro.
Game books sometimes include short stories or in-character descriptions in the setting, and writers may use those as a stepping-stone to conceiving story ideas. Submitting original novels on spec is pointless. The best way to approach these firms is to submit proposals and sample chapters or stories. While the sample stories will probably never be used, they show that you are a competent writer who understands the company's property. This can lead to consideration for anthology spots, flavor text in game products, and novels.
The typical RPG publishing company is small and broke. Only a handful of them are big enough to publish fiction, but those are usually stable enough to pay reliably.
Wizards of the Coast
In the RPG industry, Wizards of the Coast (http://www.wizards.com) is the 800-pound gorilla in a field of 10-pound monkeys. They own the oldest and most popular trading card game, Magic: the Gathering, and the oldest and most popular RPG, Dungeons & Dragons. Wizards publishes more than 40 fantasy novels and anthologies each year, some of which have made best-seller lists, plus short fantasy fiction in their monthly magazine Dragon.
White Wolf Game Studio
White Wolf Game Studio (http://www.white-wolf.com) is about the only RPG publisher that comes close to Wizards in sales and market share. Its mainstay is the World of Darkness, a parallel reality in which vampires and other supernatural creatures are real. White Wolf Fiction puts out between twenty and thirty novels per year, most of which are parts of series set in their established worlds, along with an anthology or two. They develop ideas in-house, and farm them out, with a little or a lot of specifications, to their pool of freelancers.
Games Workshop / Black Library
Games Workshop is actually a miniatures wargame company. Its Black Library imprint (http://www.blacklibrary.com) puts out novels set in their dark fantasy and science fiction worlds of Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000. Their site recommends the way to break into writing novels for them is to submit stories to Inferno, their bimonthly fiction magazine with action-adventure stories. The way to submit is to write a one-page synopsis and a few sample paragraphs to show you can write in their style.
Wizkids / Del Rey / Penguin-Putnam
Another miniatures company, Wiz Kids (http://www.wizkidsgames.com), releases novels and anthologies in their Mage Knight fantasy line, published through Del Rey, and Mechwarrior: Dark Age science fiction line, published through the ROC imprint of Penguin-Putnam.
The amount of editorial control the game company exerts over the writers varies considerably. As an example, Lisa Smedman, the author of several game novels, could create her own plots and characters in FASA's Shadowrun universe. With Wizards, she was given a character and a setting in an anthology, and told to imagine a family secret that would drive the plot. After that, she worked on a middle book in a series, where the characters and story arcs came from the series' bible. She had to rework her plot when the writer of a previous book turned in his version. As a reward, however, she was given an entire trilogy to write with only a few editorial requirements.
In some game universes, there are characters or types of characters that are off limits, because their popularity has made them overexposed, and because they are tightly controlled by their creators or the world's masterminds. In other cases, writers have to work with established characters and stick with the series' bible.
Writing in game universes like writing on a TV series, but less confining. With TV show script or tie-in, you must stick with the series' characters, and leave them unchanged. In RPG settings, you can often create your own characters, put them in the spotlight and do what you like with them.
Some game settings are decades old and have produced reams of support material. The game company should send you complimentary copies of the game books to work with. A writer can often find an underdeveloped region to explore and set his or her own stories in.
Know the universe you're writing in, not just the rules and the setting, but the mood and theme. The unofficial motto of Dungeons & Dragons is "men fighting monsters with magic". The World of Darkness is a "gothic punk" reflection of our own reality, while their Exalted game is set in a mythic realm of high fantasy. Games Workshop's worlds are rife with violence and decay.
Although Wizards of the Coast fantasy novels have been on bestseller lists, RPG novel tie-ins are a marginal sector of the already marginal science fiction and fantasy market. Don't expect great pay, and you may not get any critical attention at all. However, don't treat it as hackwork just because it isn't your baby. You've been invited to create a small part of a vast and intriguing structure.
Peter Tupper is a freelancer based in Vancouver, B.C. with work published in Wired magazine, the Vancouver Sun, the Computer Paper and more. See his blog at: http://www.blogstudio.com/mightyfastpig