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Worlds of Design: Games vs. Novels - Part 1

There’s a big difference between novels and role-playing games. If you want to to make the RPG much like a novel, you remove it from the realm of “game”: that is, something that you can fail at/lose, something where the opposition is dangerous.


Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Not the Obvious

Ask someone to compare an RPG to a novel, and the first thought is likely “they’re both extended stories.” True, but what kind of story?

Novels are controlled, directed, authored by one or two people. Games are, by nature, free-form—a player can (try to) do anything within the rules—and there are usually several participants. Novels emphasize character, plot, conflict, setting, climax and denouement, and point of view.

The RPG GM can’t control all of these, and controls some quite weakly. So the typical RPG adventure or campaign, even if players are “led around by the nose” by the GM, is not much of a short story or novel. Similarly, when a video game is turned into a film, the film has a new plot and story, because the games are usually weak “novels.” Here is Jordan Mechner, creator of the video game Prince of Persia, talking about the movie version (a good movie, by the way):

In fact, while there might be a film to be made from the story as the game presented it, according to Mechner, "it's a B movie." There's also an important business reason the two are different, says Mechner. "Ubisoft was doing the games, and Disney was going to be doing the movie, and these were separate endeavors."

We’re really comparing adventure novels with role-playing games here. Games as in something with opposition, with real struggle, with a possibility of failure/loss. Specifically, I’m referencing opposed game RPGs to differentiate them from storytelling RPGs, where people collectively tell one another a story. How do opposed game RPGs compare with novels in:
  • Character
  • Luck
  • Plot
  • Conflict
  • Setting


Novelists must present characters that the reader cares about. If there’s nothing to care about, how can the story affect the reader emotionally?

In RPGs, each individual player (usually) cares a lot about their character(s) - unless the game is a one-shot. We can hope they care about the other players’ characters, as well, but sometimes that’s not true.

Novels usually protect important characters (George R. R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” series notwithstanding). In RPGs the GM (usually) protects important characters, that is, the player characters. In most games, the GM’s purpose isn’t to wipe them out characters but rather threaten them with a chance (however slim) for survival. Contrast this with other kinds of games, many of which don’t even have characters.

The “Lucky” Part

Most adventure novels, especially ones written more recently, are testaments to good luck. The protagonist(s) are immensely lucky, or would not succeed. That’s part of what makes it a novel, something out of the ordinary. It’s the same in RPGs, owing to the subtle action of the GM.

Though the actual dice rolls of the players may not be out of the ordinary, things tend to fall their way. Otherwise, they’d die in many instances, and that won’t work for tabletop games. I recently read a young adult book series, The Pillars of Reality (Jack Campbell) and while the heroine and the hero are wonderful people and do great things, there are times when it's just impossible to believe that they're as lucky as they are, especially toward the end. But in a novel it can happen.

In video games, of course, they DO die, frequently, but respawn—the ultimate good luck.


Often when people say “story”, they only or primarily mean plot: the course of what happens, the narrative. A narrative, which can be as simple as telling someone how you went to the grocery store, may not be much of a story; but a good plot must be a good story. Nonetheless, a professionally-written story is a lot more than just plot.

RPGs have plots, though some are devised by the GM while others happen through interaction of the players with the situation set up by the GM (or with the commercially-published adventure). Even if the GM imposes a plot, players tend to deviate from it. Nor is the GM likely to be as good at plot as a professional novelist, quite the opposite. This is an important point: if I want to “consume” something with a really good plot, I want to get that from a (usually curated) professional novelist or film writer or playwright. I don’t expect an RPG GM to be a professional level storyteller!

In comparison, video games that are highly linear ("on rails") control the plot lines much as a novel might, but are more "experiences" than stories. While "sandbox" video games are quite unlike novels.


Traditionally, novels, like games but not like puzzles, require some kind of conflict, often between a protagonist and antagonist. Today lots of games (and even novels) have replaced conflict with puzzles. Opposed game style RPGs are much like novels, good at personifying conflict, for example having an “arch-villain” who is clearly the antagonist, and clearly dangerous.


This is an obvious element of RPGs, but it’s much more important in some campaigns than in others. Just as in novels. It’s a place where RPGs and novels are often similar.

I'll continue the comparisons in the next article with a focus on point of view, climax and denouement, games with multiple related stories, "story machines," and vagaries of chance.

Your Turn: How much do you, as GM, fudge the dice and the circumstances to try to make the game "a better story?"

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio
The longer I run games, the more I run away from any efforts to try and control how events will roll out. Since D&D is a game of random numbers, and I don't have too much control over the success or failure of the characters, the greatest stories will be the results of chaos, not in the control of it.

That being said, I am someone who loves the narrative side of D&D. I love the epic stories, the twists, the vile villains, the beloved NPCs... And yet almost none of the stories my friends and I remember from our 20+ years gaming together come from me or any other DM's carefully calculated narrative choices... they come from the players' decisions, mistakes, and just-in-time Natural 20's.

I think the best way I, as a DM, can set up a "good story" is by setting out clear choices and transparent consequences for the players, and then let them go at it. If I had to sit down and create a one-shot with a memorable story, I would simply do this:

"You see two doors in front of you. One is heavily trapped, magically protected, and guarded by monsters, but leads to treasure. The other is unguarded, but leads somewhere else. What do you do?"


Dying in Chargen
I almost never fudge dice.

RPG's share narrative elements with novels, because they were developed in novels and then applied to RPG's. One sees this in other fields, similarly, the principles of engineering were first developed in mechanical engineering and the applied to other disciplines merely because they were first developed in mechanical engineering. Computers are a good example of this, in the 1920's are mechanical gear sets, or hydraulic valve bodies; eventually after the dominance of integrated circuitry, they go over to electronic engineering.

That being said, there is rarely a one to one direct comparison between all novels, much less different RPG's or campaigns. I find myself using combat more as filler, and not the meat of play, except we drift back to it, for various reasons. Not that I want to run a railroad where the players are merely passengers enjoying the scenery as they shuttle from one scene to another. Nevertheless, structure is good, and I find if I do not provide it, the players will. That is great, I like to be surprised, and just sit back and let them play. One reason I look at RPG's as a collaborative story telling space, versus a typical novel.

Your Turn: How much do you, as GM, fudge the dice and the circumstances to try to make the game "a better story?"
If a game is making me fudge the dice on other than the most absurdly unlikely events then that game is not fit for the purpose I'm using it for. This might be a criticism of the game not doing what it claims or it might be that I'm trying to use a hammer as a screwdriver but either way it's a message that I shouldn't be doing this with that game. And you can bake a lot of luck into the rules of an RPG

There is one exception I make. Death I handle on a case by case basis. It's always something of substance when the rules claim that a character dies - but I'm normally inspired by the Apocalypse World rules for death that state When life becomes untenable mark one:
  • The character takes +1 Weird
  • The character takes -1 Hard
  • The character comes back with a different playbook
  • The character dies
(You can only pick each once).

The D&D 5e campaign I was running before the first lockdown had had two PC deaths by the dice, both of new players. So I spoke to each of them and asked. The first was to a basilisk - with two natural 1s on saving throws in a row. I asked what she wanted and she was still getting used to the character, so the statue of a cleric was carried by her companions back to the only temple of the god she was the only cleric of. And then, instead of any sort of resurrection she became an animated statue which was sometimes a blessing and other times a curse but always a thing. The player of the other character, who was killed largely by friendly fire via the warlock casting Hunger of Hadar on the area she was being grappled by the Otyugh chose for her character to stay dead and the rest of the session was the funeral. But in both cases there were strong lasting consequences.


That's my dog, Walter
The point about GM's not being professional storytellers goes to the heart of my dislike for most 'storytelling' games. By all means, everyone should spend their time how they wish, but most gamers I have played with over the years are not nearly imaginative enough for that style of play.

One aspect that you can also explore is the loop back created when people create fantasy based on the current rules of an RPG. What happens when rules change? What is the difference between fantasy supported by folklore and tales vs fantasy supported by a rules set.

Keywords: games and randomness.

When I run my RPGs always ensure dice rolls are public to emphasize the randomness of games as different from a novel where the author can create whatever with no adverse consequences the author did not want.

With rules based RPGs that respect dice rolls, the randomness is the best part, especially when it derails the plot. That is when you pull out the Dungeon Master's Guide and Monster Manual for alternative challenges.


People are natural story tellers, which is why we'll even start to add personality to monopoly pieces. I think of RPGs as a way to engage in story. It's different from novels, as in there is no author overseeing the details, there's no editing or rewrites, and it's not usually geared to readers or audiences. The popularity of streaming, however, does demonstrate there can be an outside audience. How much story is crafted differs from group to group.

Earlier versions of D&D are the only games I ever fudged dice. The swinginess of the d20 coupled with the frailty of low level characters made it a necessity for me, as I'm not fond of random, frequent deaths and resurrections.


Bad rolls can make a much better story than all good ones. A tragic death like Boromir's can be the result, rather than if he managed to win.
For sure, although I'd argue that Boromir's death was crafted. He was briefly corrupted by the ring, tried to take it from Frodo, then died attempting to save the hobbit from the orcs, thus redeeming himself.

For sure, although I'd argue that Boromir's death was crafted. He was briefly corrupted by the ring, tried to take it from Frodo, then died attempting to save the hobbit from the orcs, thus redeeming himself.
Agreed, but my point is that having such a death in an RPG due to the dice can create the same level of drama. With invested players, this can be one of the most amazing things.

In my first 5E campaign my players blitzed through a line of fire giants to get to an NPC ranger who died tragically due to a 1 on a stealth check (she only needed a 4 to succeed). They had revivify via the paladin, but no access to any other resurrection magic, so they HAD to get the paladin to her in 1 minute. They made very poor tactical decision to draw their attention away from the paladin, with the sorceress even deliberately drawing an attack of opportunity to spend a fire giant's reaction. The paladin got to her on round 8, which was 9 rounds from her death, saving her (the paladin also shielded her while she fled).

I was impressed by my players devotion to this NPC as they would have done the exact same for another party member. If I hand waved the check due to the likely success or to keep the NPC around for the love interest story she added, this magical moment wouldn't have existed.

Jimmy Dick

Conflict within the party can drive some of the story line, but conflict between the players can absolutely ruin a campaign. I find that often, the players are the ones who have to want to their characters to be in a story. That means going beyond the mechanics of the game system and into the realm of role-playing. I've ran for players who are far more engaged in roll-playing and they have a massive tendency to ignore the story, the lore, the elements of intrigue, etc. in favor of combat encounters. This is why developing the session or campaign to the player type is pretty important.
On the other hand, I've had players far more engaged in the social aspect of the game where role-play takes on the biggest part of the session and combat is not the focus of the players. They prefer to engage foes with social skills whenever possible. That group takes a bit of work to design for, but you end up with a much richer campaign.

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