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Game Fiction: Why it Works (and Why it Doesn’t)

Posted on April 14, 2008 by Monica Valentinelli

If you go to your bookshelf and pick up your favorite gaming book, whether it’s from Apophis Consortium or Evil Hat Productions, reread the fiction or flavor text that’s used as chapter breaks or to enhance the setting. Now, check out your other books and see how many World of Warcraft-inspired novels or Forgotten Realms stories you have.

Do you remember what you liked about them? Disliked?

Behind-the-scenes, there’s a very good reason why you react to gaming fiction the way that you do. You see, game fiction is usually written for a specific reason – to highlight the game’s setting so that players can dig in and appreciate what the game is about. This is a bit different from the novels that are written, but there are similarities.

The reason why this can be a challenge for a lot of writers is that fiction – good fiction – tells a story. Gaming fiction doesn’t always accomplish this because it’s written for a different purpose, and often by the same writers who write the game. Sometimes, this can be a real detriment to the game simply because not all game writers can write fiction. Even the publishers sometimes make it harder to write because they’ll say things like: “Hey, I want you to use this ritual and describe what it does!” or “Can you create a character with this level of experience?”

The minute you dictate mechanical elements into a piece of game fiction it adds a layer of complexity that isn’t always successful. Writing RPGs or any other type of game takes a mixture of technical and research writing skills. In many ways, it’s always a good idea to write the flavor text last, because even if you’re the same writer who’s working on the game mechanics portion as the game fiction, there’s a definite shift in thinking that needs to occur in your mind.

The other challenge for game fiction is the idea of iconic characters. Every company is different; some understand that game fiction needs to tell a story, so they create iconic characters for their line that permeate books, games, blogs, etc. While those characters make sense from a business perspective, they also have to be useful for players. One of the best uses of iconic characters that I’ve had experiences with is White Wolf’s Vampire: the Requiem line. As a player or a Storyteller, you don’t have to use them in your game, but they are there to flesh out the setting and provide some appeal. The reason why White Wolf did a good job with the iconic characters is because they offered books written in the setting and didn’t make it mandatory to play them. Attractive to both gamers and non-gamers, the Vampire: the Requiem novels tell a palatable story and if you haven’t read the ones by Greg Stolze, you’re missing out.

So the next time you read game fiction, take a close look at it. A challenging medium to write, as a reader I hope you can appreciate this form of fiction for what it is trying to do. If you’re a reviewer, I hope that you do think critically about game fiction because truly, it is unique – even within the gaming world.

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2 Responses to “Game Fiction: Why it Works (and Why it Doesn’t)”

  1. Michael Erb says:

    My biggest issue with game fiction is when you cannot simulate the events in the fiction using the rules of the game. I was a long-time Palldium/Rifts player, and they often created comic strips or story elements that could only be achieved through GM fiat (such as a single shot taking out a suit of power armor, when the damages for that weapon could barely scratch it).

    On the other hand, good fiction, even if just a snippet, can really get you in the right mood for the game and generate a ton of ideas for players and game masters alike.

    You’re absolutely right, though: It is a difficult medium to work in, and one often added as an afterthought by game designers.


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