By Matt Forbeck
Adapting a game to a novel isn’t as easy as it might sound. When you work on other tie-in novels, like say a novelization of a film, the publisher sends you a script to work from, and often all you have to do is take it and fill in the descriptive bits around the dialog. Voila! Novel.
That’s much easier said than done, of course. I wrote the novelization of the Mutant Chronicles film that came out a few years back, and the film’s producers gave me a ton of leeway with it, allowing me to add in whole new scenes and characters not even implied in the script. That’s an exception, though, and one granted to me because I’d worked on the game that the film was based on too.
When you adapt a game, though — particularly something open-ended like a tabletop game — you don’t have nearly as much to work with. Most of the time, the only thing you’re given is the setting itself, the world in which things happen and the rules by which they occur. It’s up to you to come up with everything else: characters, plot, action, and so on.
That’s natural, of course, because most games — especially roleplaying games (RPGs) — are about the setting. That’s all the publisher provides. The players have to come up with all the rest of that material on their own, and — in fact — they want to. That’s where most of the fun comes in, after all.
The same is true when you sit down to write a gaming tie-in. You get to come up with the characters — heroes and villains and everyone else in between — and the amazing challenges they face. In this sense, it’s just like writing an original novel with the huge exception that someone else has already done all of the world-building for you.
As you might imagine, this saves a lot of time, especially if this is a world that you’re already a fan of. It also means that you have a ready-made audience in the rest of the people that are fans of the world too. The only drawback is that such novels are often work-for-hire, which means you don’t own the story when you’re done with it. It belongs to the people who own that world instead.
I’m facing a unique version of this challenge at the moment in the form of a trilogy of novels I’m writing based on the Brave New World Roleplaying Game I wrote back in 1999. (It’s a dystopian superhero setting, nothing to do with the Huxley book.) I sold the game to a publisher — AEG — in 2000, so I’m actually licensing the game back so I can write stories in it. Because of my unique relationship with AEG, though, I’m also the person who approves the stories, so I have free reign to tell whatever kinds of stories I like.
In the end, though, my responsibility to AEG is the same as they would be for any licensee. I can take the toys down off the shelf, but when I’m done with them, I should put them back in roughly the same shape I found them. That’s the exact same rule that guides most episodic TV shows: things can change, but slowly, and only with the approval of the owners.
The first step in writing a gaming tie-in is the most important. You must come up with an outline for the book that the publisher approves. Otherwise, you risk wasting every bit of time you’ve spent working on the book, only to have it shot down for reasons that you probably couldn’t even have known about at the time — at least not without asking. That’s the purpose the outline serves: an extended version of “Before I run off to write, is this all right with you?”
With an original book, this step isn’t necessary. You just write the book, trust to your own instincts, and hope that someone somewhere might enjoy it. Hopefully lots of someones prepared to pay you handsomely for your efforts.
Once the outline’s approved, you’re off to the races, working to beat the publisher’s deadline and turn in a polished bit of pulse-pounding adventure. If you manage that well, you still have to get through the final approvals stage, during which the publisher checks to make sure you wrote what you said you would. Assuming you stuck close to the plan, you can then bask in the glow that only successful novelists manage to enjoy: knowing that the book you just finished will — barring any disasters — be published.
Matt Forbeck is the author of countless games and many stories. His 16th novel, Carpathia, hits stores in March. He also has a man plan called 12 for ’12, in which he plans to write a dozen novels in 2012. His first Kickstarter drive for his Brave New World Roleplaying Game novels hit its first funding level, so he starts writing the first book in January.