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Writing RPGs vs Fiction

Yesterday I delivered the fictionalized version of He Who Laughs Last, which was the final remaining stretch goal for me to deliver on that Kickstarter project. Working on that fiction was the hardest I’ve ever worked on a piece of writing for a few reasons, which I’ll discuss below, but, more importantly, I delivered everything to my backers that I committed to, which we know is not always a sure thing.

The fiction was the final stretch goal that I came up with at the 11th hour of the campaign, and, like so many before me, it ultimately represented an amount of work that was both unmanageable and unforeseen. I very much fell into that classic trap of adding scope and effort to a campaign without actually meaning to. In my mind, I thought writing a fictionalized version of a scenario that I’ve already written would be a piece of cake! What could be so hard? I’ve already got all the scenes created along with the pacing and overall frame of the story. I just need to create a few characters, run them through the fiction (like PCs in a game), and I’ll be set. <waves hand> No problemo.

Famous last words.

I do take comfort that I’m neither the first nor last Kickstarter project owner who has over-committed with their stretch goals, but good God I don’t wish that mistake on anyone. My campaign ran from mid-February to mid-March 2014. I had the finished book sent out in PDF in July 2014, and I delivered the actual physical book, as promised, on time in September 2014. I wrapped up most of the other stretch goals by the end of 2014. It then took me an entire year more — one year! — to write the 16k word fictionalization of the scenario. That’s a pretty long dragging out of a project.

Sure, I have lots of excuses why it got delayed, but really it boils down to me not realizing that writing for RPGs is very different from writing fiction. I love writing RPGs and I love writing fiction, and a lot of the ideas are very similar in how you create worlds and characters. But so much of RPG writing is just telling how things should be, providing a framework for someone else to launch their own version of the story. There’s a lot of room to be vague and miss key elements of the story. In fiction, you are writing a very specific version of the story, with details and characters that have their own lives and speak and talk in very specific ways. Furthermore, those characters then need to talk and act just once in your fiction — their actions are what makes the fiction work — so you are putting down one specific version of the story, with no room for characters to be multiple things at various times.

Furthermore, after spending so much time working on the scenario, I was very tired of the story and found it hard to take a fresh view of the fiction. I knew how all the scenes and beats would work out, and had the story so internalized that I skipped over crucial details (in the first draft at least) and needed to make sure I added in excessive details to the story so the mystery was complete. This also took a lot of time and effort that I didn’t realize would be necessary.

Ultimately, I want to write fiction more than I want to write RPGs. I love RPGs and they have provided a bootstrap for my writing career. And writing fiction, for me now, is more difficult than RPGs. But the stories I want to write are not open world for people to explore. I want to write very specific stories with very specific characters taking very specific actions. I still have a few RPG projects to work through (including one more RPG), but I will start focusing on writing fiction soon. Very soon.

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