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Writing Excuses 7.36: Writing Gaming Fiction with Monte Cook

Writing Excuses 7.36: Writing Gaming Fiction with Monte Cook


Key points: When you are writing prose, you are the storyteller. When you are writing for a role-playing game, you enable someone else to be the storyteller. When you are writing a role-playing game module, you're not telling a great story, you're covering all sorts of contingencies and making them all equally valid. Good nonplayer characters are memorable. Good world building for role-playing games means a setting that is interesting for multiple stories. Creating tension and humor in a role-playing game campaign and a story are often very different.

[Mary] Season seven, episode 36.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses. Writing gaming fiction with Monte Cook.
[Howard] 15 minutes long, because you're in a hurry.
[Mary] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[intermingled] [Mary] I'm Mary. [Howard] Well, I'm…
[Brandon] Dan leaves and we just fall all over ourselves.
[Mary] I'm like, I'm waiting for Dan.
[Brandon] Yes. Dan Wells is in Germany right now, and the rest of us are at GenCon with Monte Cook. Monte, say hello.
[Monte] Hello.

[Brandon] Monte, will you tell us about yourself? I don't think you actually need an introduction, but… You are one of the greatest luminaries in role-playing. Just tell us a brief sketch on your career.
[Monte] Wow, I'll just take that and go with that.
[Howard] Thanks for the cover quote.
[Monte] So I've been working as a game designer for about 25 years. Which means I've never had a real job. I've worked on a lot of different games, but I'm primarily known for D & D.
[Brandon] Okay. You worked on 3.0.
[Monte] I did.
[Brandon] What was your role on 3.0? [Garbled]
[Monte] I was one of the three core designers along with Jonathan Tweet and Skip Williams.
[Brandon] Okay. You have also done a lot of prose as well.
[Monte] Not as much, but yes.
[Brandon] So what we want to talk about with you really is… A lot of our listeners are probably interested in role-playing games. We want to talk about the differences between writing setting for a role-playing game, writing… World building for a role-playing game, and maybe the difference between that and regular prose. Also kind of if you have a game, how you can turn that into a good story. Because I run into a lot of new writers who have played this great campaign they had with their friends and now they want to write the book of it. They've seen that it's possible, because that happened with Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, it happened with Stephen Erickson, they took their campaign and turned it into a novel. But most of them are complete disasters. So… My first question is, what is the difference between the two? Like what differences do you notice?

[Monte] Well, so, the easiest way for me to describe what I think are the differences is when you are writing prose, you are the storyteller. When you are writing for a game, you are the person who enables someone else to be the storyteller. It's a very different approach to things.
[Brandon] Okay. So if you… Let's say that someone wants to write a game module. Do you have like some rules of thumb you can give them? I mean, it's a big topic, but for the world building, not for the gaming part, but for the storytelling aspect of it. What would you suggest?
[Monte] I think that… To take a step back and don't think of yourself as I've got this great story to tell. So that you begin to look at… Rather than looking at things linearly, right? My characters are going to go from point a to point B. You have to think about things like well, the characters might decide to go to point C, or they might decide to go to point J. You have to cover all of these sort of contingencies, and make them all equally valid.
[Brandon] Okay, okay. In these sorts of modules and things, what are… Do you usually try to give them the characters that they can put in many different places, or… How are you approaching characterization?
[Monte] Well, see… That's another big difference, right, because as a prose writer, you're going to be the one who creates the characters as well as the story. When you're writing for games, someone else is probably creating the characters who are going to be the main characters in your story.

[Brandon] Right. What about the NPC's?
[Monte] The NPC's, you'll be creating them.
[Mary] Since we will have people listening who are not gamers, let's make sure we define jargon.
[Brandon] Okay. We should probably define jargon. So, NPC… These are the people… The side characters, so to speak.
[Monte] Non-player characters.
[Brandon] Nonplayer characters that the players will encounter. I feel personally, I really… One of the things I look for in a module when I pick one up, they're going to give me NPC's that are memorable and evocative that I can use in the story that the players and I are going to come up with. What is the mark of a good NPC in your opinion?
[Monte] It's definitely… That's very similar to creating a prose character, because I think the mark of a good NPC is one that you're going to remember. Just like a regular character. It's somebody that once you leave that game session, the players are all going to say, "Well, remember that guy, he was really entertaining or funny or tough or whatever."
[Howard] The one thing that I've found to keep in mind with NPC's is that the player characters are all being voiced, performed if you will, by the players. The NPC is typically being performed by the GM. If you have two really interesting NPC's, and part of the story requires them to interact with each other, your module is stupid because now the DM is talking to himself and the players are listening. I've been in a number of games where that's happened, and the GM has stopped the game and said, "Okay, look. We need to move the story forward. This shouldn't have fallen out this way, but what I want you to do…" And he'd hand one of us a note and say, "I want you to play the part of this character for a little while." Which was fun for us as a group, but I rarely see commercial modules that are built that way because it is a little silly.

[Brandon] So how do you build a story when you don't know what people are going to end up doing?
[Monte] Well, it's a lot like when you're at sort of the formative stages of figuring out what your story is as far as prose goes, and you start just sort of exploring all of the possibilities of things that could happen. But you then have to embrace all… When you're prose writer, you just choose one. When you're writing an adventure module, you choose all of them.
[Brandon] Wow. That seems really scary. Really daunting.
[Monte] It can be. You have to sort of realize that you're never going to cover all of the possibilities. But that's why you've got a game master, who is a… He's the guy, he's the real  storyteller, or rather, the whole group is really the storyteller. But you got a living, breathing person who's sort of the story's advocate there taking care of things.

[Mary] There's something that you had talked about on your website about side quests and the importance of side quests as a way to have stories move forward and be more interesting. I cannot remember the example that you used.
[Howard] Which is good, because Monte's right here, and he'll remember. Go, Monte.
[Monte] Well, I think what I was talking about, and maybe I'm misremembering, but is the idea that much like in a good piece of fiction when you are dealing with multiple story arcs you start building the second story arc in the middle of the first story arc. So that there is never sort of this period of downtime in between them. You're always just sort of going and finishing, finishing one but you've already started the next one and you just keep going.
[Brandon] Now we've talked about plot and character. Setting. Do you do a lot of the world building for things like this or is that basically… Do you focus more on like, your own personal experience, do you focus more on rule sets or have you done the world building thing, too?
[Monte] I've done both, and I would hate to have to choose, because I love them both.
[Brandon] Okay. So what makes good world building for gaming fiction… For gaming? For role-playing games. What, in your opinion, is going to work well?
[Monte] again, you're probably looking at… Well, you're looking at sort of two things. As far as a setting for role-playing games go, you've got to create a setting that is an interesting place for multiple stories. Middle Earth, for example, although there have been very successful Middle Earth role-playing games, Middle Earth is challenging because Middle Earth is a setting that's really good for one story to be told in it. But you actually need something where you need to be able to have a lot of different stories, multiple villains, lots of things going on. The other thing is you have to have an extraordinary level of detail. Probably even more so than when you're world building for writing fiction. Because again, you don't know where the characters are going to go. They might go explore that town that you really didn't think too much about. All of a sudden, they're going to spend their whole campaign in this place that you only devoted a half an hour thinking about.

[Brandon] Let's go ahead and do our book of the week. Mary, you've got that.
[Mary] Yes. This is Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. I'm in the middle of listening to it right now. It's wonderfully narrated, and of course it's a fantastic book that has won ridiculous numbers of awards. But one of the things that I particularly enjoy about it is, the… His approach to narrative and the nesting of the stories. He has created a really compelling, very interesting world.
[Brandon] Excellent.
[Mary] Again, very beautifully narrated.
[Brandon] Howard?
[Howard] Head on out to You can start a free 30-day trial membership and have a listen to Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon absolutely free and get a second look at a big discount whose finer details I can't remember.
[Brandon] You're fired.
[Howard] Finally.

[Brandon] Mary, you had something you wanted to jump on.
[Mary] Yeah. Well, one of the things that I was thinking about as Monte was talking about the world building and that there are a lot of different stories that you want… That the world is capable of supporting, is that that is also, I think, one of the hallmarks of successful series in prose, is that the world building is interesting enough that it can support multiple different stories. So that's, I think… one of the things that you were talking about was having multiple conflicts and villains and that is… That's a hallmark in either.
[Howard] In the past, in this, we've cautioned people against world builder's disease. We've said world build up to a point, but then you need to start putting characters in there, you need to start telling a story, you need to start writing some words that are going to stay on the pages. It seems to me that for game design, you can let your inner world builder loose, and say, "Hey, you know what? I don't know who the people are who are going to be running around in this town fixing the things that are broken, but I need to drill down and find all the things in this town that are broken, and how the town works, and I need to name the shopkeepers…" So your inner world builder can go crazy.
[Monte] Yeah. But the other thing that I would say though is that you still need… Because role-playing games are a creative exercise, you still need to leave a little bit of room for the game master to expand on things, create his own people, and his own adventures. Give him a little room, too. Or her.

[Brandon] Now the thing I want to jump on next is, and we can just do this briefly, but… As I said at the beginning of the podcast, I've seen people try and take their D & D campaign that they had and write it as a novel. I've tried to figure out why it is that so often that turns out to be a complete disaster. One of the things I've kind of noticed is that what is funny to your gaming group is informed a lot of times by the context, or what was really exciting is informed by the context of "we got the natural 20 the one time we really needed it." But if you translate that to fiction, it's just like, "Yes, he actually managed to stab the creature." There isn't that… To you, it's only a 5% chance. But in the fiction, the reader's like, "Of course he's going to stab the creature, that's what the story is about." So creating tension, and creating humor, is very different. I've seen them write it, and they'll like include all the inside jokes from their gaming group, assuming it will be as hilarious to everyone outside of their gaming group, not understanding how much of that experience is about the context.
[Monte] Right. I think part of the problem is that when you're playing a role-playing game, no matter how interesting the characters are that are taking part in the game itself, a lot of what's going on is actually going on the table. So every character is really a fantasy character and also a real living human being. When you just have the fantasy character, it quite possibly could lose a lot. A lot of that.
[Brandon] Now have you ever written any of your own campaigns that you've played or any of your own characters into fiction?
[Monte] No. I think of them as so different that I would never really even want to try that.
[Brandon] Do you have just a few reasons for those differences? Or examples of those differences?
[Monte] Well, a lot of the things that you're talking about are exactly what I think of. That the things that are interesting and dynamic in a role-playing game are not interesting and dynamic in fiction. Going into the next room and fighting another three orcs can be really fun playing D & D, but reading about that? Probably not. So that I think is… It can be a problem. Because…
[Howard] I look at it as the try fail cycle. In a book, it's very, very interesting for us as a reader to have a protagonist who tries and fails, tries and fails, tries and fails, tries and fails, small success, tries and fails, tries and fails, tries and fails, figures something out, big success at the end. Gamers will not put up with that much failure before they say, "This game is no fun, I keep almost dying. You need to make me awesome."
[Mary] I want to…
[Monte] Well, role-playing games are… I'm sorry.
[Mary] Go ahead.
[Monte] Well, role-playing games are also very episodic. Because you play for a few hours on Friday, then you might not meet again for two weeks. So doing the same things over and over again doesn't seem nearly as repetitive as if you were reading all that, chapter after chapter after chapter.
[Mary] Do you think some of it is also related to the stakes that are… Because in fiction, you've built up, "Well, I have to do this or my poor widowed mother with all of us are going to starve and die!" There's personal stakes, and that sometimes the thing that is at stake in a game may be the game.
[Monte] Yeah. I think that that is really true. None of the drama… We… I sometimes use the term that when I'm reading fiction that is clearly been coming… Comes from a game or is game related, when you can actually hear the dice roll as you're turning the pages, I think that's problematic.

[Brandon] I have one more question for you. It's actually a very big question, so feel free to say we just can't cover that. But if you… I'm going to assume that somebody out there listening, probably multiple somebodies, has a dream of publishing their own modules or campaign settings or things like this. I see a very kind of explosion of indie publishing, not… In gaming, in fact, much more so even then fiction where it's been exploding also. Can you give just a few tips to that new budding game designer writer who's like, "I want to do my own role-playing games?" What can they do?
[Monte] So, what I usually tell people is, if you have a… Your own game, you have your own campaign setting for D & D or Pathfinder or whatever it is, to start out trying to get those things published is like deciding I'm going to work at Microsoft and I'm going to take Bill Gates's job. It is starting at the top. It is so much easier to start lower and work your way up.
[Brandon] So what would that be?
[Monte] That would be something like working for a company that uses freelance work or publishing in magazines. There's Kobold Quarterly, there's Dungeon and Dragon Magazine Online, they all look for outside submissions.
[Brandon] Okay. So you can just submit to those unsolicitedly?
[Monte] Those three you definitely can.
[Brandon] Okay. That's actually great advice. I had no idea you could even do that. All right. Well, Monte, thank you so much for being on Writing Excuses. Now I usually do this to guests. I make them come up with a writing prompt. So I'm going to talk like in circles for like 30 seconds…
[Brandon] While you think of a writing prompt for our listeners, but give them something. What can they do? What are they going to write?
[Monte] Uhm…
[Mary] Something involving…
[Howard] Stick the landing, Monte, stick the landing.
[Brandon] You can make them kill me. [Garbled]

[Monte] How about… The writing prompt is, for some reason, a character is put into the head of… Into the body of another character.
[Brandon] Okay. Great writing prompt. Thank you so much. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
[Mary] Thank you. That was great.
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