Writing a novel, you’re telling your story. Writing an RPG adventure, you’re telling a thousand stories, none of which are yours. They’re both fantastic mediums, but they’re nothing alike.
I’ve been writing stories for roleplaying games like the Pathfinder RPG and Dungeons & Dragons for more than fifteen years, and as the editor-in-chief at Paizo Inc., my team and I create the former. While RPG players always love new options for their games, published adventures stand at a pinnacle of tabletop RPG design. These adventures look something like a giant outline, detailing monsters, settings, and the behavior of a story’s minor players. But main characters, those run by the game’s players, are complete mysteries. As the writer of an RPG adventure, you’re telling a story without knowing the main characters and have to predict various outcomes for every scenario. It sounds crazy — and it sort of is — but these stories are designed to allow players to create any characters they want and send them in to experience the adventure. Adding to the challenge, the adventure’s author isn’t the one telling players the story, that’s the Game Master’s responsibility. So, on top of these stories’ complexity, the author ultimately hands the story off to someone else to tell. It’s a challenging way to tell a story — and that’s before you even factor in that you have to include game rules.
All that unpredictability can make adventure writing fantastically rewarding, though. Every one of those variable factors allows the story to change — sometimes dramatically — in ways you might never have expected. That means everyone who plays the adventure has a completely unique experience. While the gist of the story remains the same, how the heroes face challenges, who they befriend or spurn, and what they win or lose is distinct to every group.
As an adventure writer, this can make it hard to take credit for a story. Occasionally players approach me to say how much they loved some plot twist or a particularly villain, and it’s all great. Other times, they’ll do the same… and I’ll have no idea what they’re talking about. In those cases, they’ve obviously enjoyed some element their own Game Master added in. In those cases, I usually ask them to thank their narrator for me. By the same token, these adventures occasionally get harsh criticism, sometimes justly, sometimes based on elements that don’t exist in the printed text — which can be really frustrating. The whole adventure writing experience is a weird puzzle, but knowing your story’s players each get an experience customized to them is pretty fantastic.
On the other side of the spectrum, writing a novel is more like the experience of playing an RPG than writing for RPGs is. As a novelist, you get to control everything. Every character, setting, action, it all plays out exactly how you want. That’s hardly revolutionary, but it’s a distinct change of pace from the wildly branching possibilities of RPG adventures.
In writing Pathfinder Tales: Bloodbound, I often found myself thinking about the story like an RPG campaign — picking elements like I would for a game. That means it’s probably more than a little indulgent. The story’s set in Ustalav, the Pathfinder world’s nation for gothic horror and a county I’ve been detailing for years — a while back I even wrote a whole setting book on the place, Pathfinder Campaign Setting: Rule of Fear. One of the two main characters, Larsa, is a dhampir — a half-vampire race I created rules for — while the other, Jadain, is a cleric of Pharasma, goddess of birth, fate, and death — one of my favorite goddesses, while clerics are one of my preferred Pathfinder RPG classes. Throughout the rest of the book, the various monsters, settings, and villains are all elements I’d include in my own creepy Pathfinder games, which means readers can expect a fair bit of intrigue, pointed sarcasm, a whole spectrum of vampires, and some Pathfinder secrets I’ve been holding back for a long while.
But Bloodbound’s still a novel, and so doesn’t need to adhere by the strict rules of the Pathfinder RPG. The story and game are set in the same world, but for a novel, it’s far more important that the characters feel vital — I never felt like I needed to make the game’s stats take center stage. That doesn’t mean the game elements can just be ignored, though. While writing, there was one point where I needed a magic spell to work in a way the Pathfinder RPG’s game rules didn’t support. Rather than just breaking the game feature, I managed to write a new spell into Paizo’s recent Pathfinder RPG Occult Adventures hardcover — one called repress memory — that specifically serves the needs of my novel. Not every Pathfinder Tales author gets to do it, but sometimes working on both sides of the game has its perks.
Ultimately, there’s a gulf of difference between working on novels and RPG adventures, even if they both are set in the same fantasy world. Adventures are all action, all the time, while novels give you a chance to explore a setting from the inside. I was hoping that, after writing Bloodbound, I’d have a clearer sense of which I enjoy more, but both have plenty of charms. Often, after writing one, I’m very much in the mood to swing back to the other, which is why my next Pathfinder RPG adventure, “The Hellfire Compact,” hits in February. But, the pendulum being what it is, I’m already jotting down a few notes for what my next fiction project might be.
F. Wesley Schneider has published countless gaming products for both Pathfinder and Dungeons & Dragons, and is a former assistant editor of Dragon magazine. Bloodbound is his first novel. For more on Schneider’s work and novels, be sure to check out his website, and follow him on Twitter and Goodreads.