Thoughts on Writing – Using a Roleplay Game to Develop a Novel’s Backstory

Now that Distant Horizon is out in the world (Yay!), I thought I’d talk a little about how the story came about–specifically, how a role-play game led to the creation of the backstory of Distant Horizon. Granted, a lot of the campaign stories aren’t visible in the first book,  but they still played a role in the backstory of the world.

It started in 2010…

Actually, no. Let me go back just a tiny bit further. It started with tabletop role-playing that involved a group of friends in college. We all lived in the same dorm, so we met in the evenings to play various games with different people taking the part of gamemaster. At times we had several games running throughout the course of the week. How late they went into the night depended on how early we had to get up for our first class the next morning.

I was introduced to RP games through the Savage Worlds system, starting with a fun-though-inevitably tragic (the sacrifice of my favorite giant zombie dog, Snuffles…) zombie apocalypse. I had intended to watch the other players while completing my physics homework, but before the game began, I was intrigued by the various miniatures and the gamemaster’s premade characters. He had extras, so I asked to join in.

The rest is history. I eventually decided to run a few of my own games. After the first failure (where I’d had a whole story plotted out… which was, of course, destroyed as players will destroy any plot by not going the intended direction), my primary games were a Star Wars game (I amassed quite a few of the RPG books and had them spread out across the table or floor during these games for reference), and a couple superhero games.

For the superhero game, I, Isaac, and a group of friends brainstormed what powers we might have. We placed the powers into four categories, then rolled a D4 (four-sided die) and a d10 (ten-sided die) to determine what our powers were. We fiddled with the system a bit (the base we used was Savage Worlds), and did a bit of “winging it” when determining how the powers worked.

Soon we had a team of well-meaning but absolutely terrible superheroes who caused far more destruction than good. One of them obliterated a bank robber’s head with sonic scream. (*Sigh. You were supposed to take him alive.*) One nearly electrocuted himself at a hidden night club after attacking a dancing mech. (Your job was to buy a special edition teddy bear from a vendor there, not assume the whole place was hidden front for a Japanese mafia.) One bent reality… (And he was the most sane of the group). The other kept getting distracted because he wouldn’t stop flirting (But hey, we need NPCs (non-player characters) who can help out with questions, right?). Needless to say, they drove their team leaders crazy… once by driving their car right out the top of the Super Bureau’s headquarters.

In relation to Distant Horizon, I can firmly say that these guys are part of the reason that the supervillains were able to convince everyone that the superheroes were the bad guys. But that story arc came later.

In a different campaign that ran about the same time, the superheros were a smaller team, and rather more effective at their missions… including to the point where they were sent to recover a set of special pendants that had strange powers, including the ability to slow time when four of the five pendants were in close proximity. *Cough.* These pendants make an appearance in Distant Horizon, as the most powerful members of the Community now have them in their hands.

In a different shorty-campaign that used the same power set but was run by my husband (mostly because I’d just had my wisdom teeth removed and I wasn’t in the mood to do much talking or heavy thinking), a group of airship pirates stole an airship and went through a few too many portals in attempt to uncover a precious jar of blueberry jelly… which might not have actually been blueberry jelly. They might be the reason the Community exists in the Distant Horizon universe. There was a lot of tweaking to that story arc, though the blueberry jelly reference remains.

In most these cases, there are a lot of seemingly random events (okay, it was probably pretty random even at the time), but it provided a rough basis for a background… one which Isaac later twisted and developed as the basis for Distant Horizon.

That being said, there’s a lot of stuff from the original campaigns that are not being included in the novels for the sake of plot and consistency, but overall, the games were a lot of fun and helped to build a semi-consistent world of powers. We could see which powers were broken (a much later campaign that used alchemy/enchanting proved where that needed a lot of fixing), develop out how different factions might interact, and then extrapolate from there to consider where it might go next. And now we have fodder to reference in regards to the origins of the world which can help enrich the setting.

Now, you won’t see much of these plots in the first book. Most of the characters are far enough removed from these events that all you’ll hear is an occasional reference. Still, it helped build the power system and let me drop clues that will become more relevant in later stories and companion novels.

Once I finish Little One’s story, (a Distant Horizon prequel I plan to work on after Glitch and Fractured Skies have been released) then you’ll see a lot more references to these campaigns. I had quite a bit of fun placing in those Easter Eggs in the rough draft. But that one also has a more quirky (though dark) tone than some of the other stories set in this world.

Isaac and I have continued to use role-play games to develop stories and worlds, but I’ll have to go into more detail about that in another post. For now, I hope you’ve enjoyed this one. Have you ever used RPGs to help flesh out a story?

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Thoughts on Writing – Using a Roleplay Game to Develop a Novel’s Backstory

  1. I wrote a reply a few moments ago, but lost it. If a second one appears, it will be that earlier one. I’ve never participated (knowingly) in a role-playing game but the idea fascinates me and I’ve been learning about them. I study them on line and in book stores and have characters who allude to them. I’m narrowing in. I enjoy your blogs and admire your sharing of process.

    • Thanks. I’m hoping that the progress sharing is informative. 🙂

      There’s a lot of various role-playing systems out there if you’re interested in reading more about them. In terms of not knowingly participating, if you’ve ever done improv acting or played make-believe with a kid, in a sense, you’re doing a loosely structured role-play.

      A lot of Isaac’s and my latest role-play games are entirely dialogue and saying what our characters are doing, all without ever actually rolling a dice. (Downside of not using dice, though, is having overpowered characters. That’s when it becomes helpful to have a grounded sense of what each character is capable of). 🙂

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