How RPGs Have Shaped My Writing (and Vice Versa)

Guest Post by Jon Sprunk

Author Jon Sprunk

I will never forget the first time I encountered Dungeons and Dragons. It was 1978 and I was eight years old. My family was visiting a hobby shop. While the others browsed the trains and model airplanes, I spotted a cardboard box on a shelf. The box’s top face had an illustration of a dragon battling a warrior and a wizard. I did not know it at the time, but this moment would change my life forever.

After some begging, my father agreed to purchase this “game for college kids” for me. I remember opening the box at home and finding paper booklets and these strange polyhedral dice. I wanted to play right away. However, my father informed my brother and I that this game was different than Monopoly or Pay Day. He needed to prepare. So, we waited anxiously. Finally, on a weekend afternoon, we played for the first time with my father fulfilling the role of our Dungeon Master.

It was so unlike anything I had ever played before. Like a game you made up with your friends in the backyard – fighting bandits or enemy soldiers – but with rulebooks to adjudicate what you could do and dice to determine the outcome of your actions. My first character was a fighter named Brandon the Bold, and my little brother played a cleric. Together we battled giant rats and spiders and an evil wizard. We won some gold and even looted a magic sword. It was amazing.

After that first session, I was hooked. It’s been forty-ones years since that day, and I am still hooked. I play D&D with a regular group of friends. I even have a room in my home devoted to gaming. Over the years I have played many roleplaying games, including Twilight 2000, Warhammer FRP, Top Secret, multiple versions of Star Wars RPGs. I have also tried my hand at writing a couple games from scratch.

While I was playing these games, I noticed something else was happening. I was reading more fiction. It started when a friend loaned me his copy of The Hobbit. I devoured it and wanted more, so I tackled The Lord of the Rings series next, and then others like Conan by Robert E. Howard and Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga. I began amassing a collection of fantasy novels in my room.

Eventually, I began writing stories of my own. They featured heroes battling monsters and winning treasure, just like I experienced in the RPGs I played. As I grew older and discovered a desire to write professionally, I drew many of my early ideas from those games.

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My first attempt at writing a novel began in high school. I was working at a local city newspaper and had access to a word processor for the first time. I started a story about a pair of demon princes – Orcus and Demogorgon – who challenged each other to find the perfect champion. They each killed a human – a wizard and a warrior – and brought their souls to the Abyss, and then proceeded to mold them into powerful servants, but the mortals had other ideas and attempted to escape their fate over and over. They battled dragons and demons and navigated the pitfalls of Abyssal politics. I wrote about 150 pages before I hit a wall. I suppose it was my first experience with writer’s block, because I got to a place where I didn’t know where to take the story, and I was too inexperienced to work through it. So, I just tossed the printed copy into a box and left it there.

At this point, writing fiction was purely a hobby for me. I didn’t take it too seriously, and I wasn’t aiming for an audience beyond yours truly. It was fun, and that was enough for me. That changed about a year later. During the summer between my senior year in high school and freshman college, I was struck by a bolt of creative inspiration. I wanted to write a trilogy about a paladin – a holy warrior such as found in D&D and other games – who suffered incredible tragedies and became disillusioned, losing his special divine status. It took me five years to write the first book. When I was finished, I was convinced I had written the best piece of literature since Shakespeare. I got a copy of Agents and Editors and sent my manuscript to everyone who listed ‘fantasy’ as a genre of interest. This was back in the days of snail-mail, so it took months to hear back from some publishers and agents. All in all, I received about seventy rejection letters and not a single acceptance.

Crushed, I didn’t write again for a couple years. Oh, I tinkered here and there, writing snippets when I had an idea, but not sticking with anything for very long. I convinced myself that professional publication wasn’t going to happen for me. I had given it my best shot and failed. Life went on. But then, I began to get that itch again. The itch to write, to create characters and worlds out of thin air. You see, when it works, it’s pure magic. And it’s also addictive.

I attempted a handful of novels over the next few years, but I could never achieve the results I wanted. Then, I started a story about a young assassin who had the power to manipulate shadows. The Fighter-Rogue had long been one of my favorite types of characters to play. In creating the character of Caim, I gave him superior athletic ability and dexterity. His weapons were a pair of long knives, but he was also a master of the bow and garrote.  I added the shadow power almost as an afterthought, but it fit the character so well that I knew it had to stay. As an assassin, Caim used shadows to obscure his arrival and departure from the scenes of his crimes. In later books, he would learn that this power could do much more.

I set the story in a medieval town that held some similarities to cities I had used in various D&D campaigns. Caim’s story ventured from the slums of the common folk to the royal palace and everywhere in between. He interacted with prostitutes, assassins, agitators, sorcerers, soldiers, and a princess. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but Caim swashbuckled his way across that stage like a gods-damned player-character.

I found a publisher willing to print it and ended up writing three novels in the Shadow Saga. After I finished the last one and sent it off to the publisher, I was at a loss what to do next. So, I went back to my RPG roots. I wanted to tell a big story with gods and goddesses and demon princes. Say, that sounds familiar . . . .

I went back to the very first novel I had ever attempted. Yes, it was bad. Very bad. But there were some kernels that showed promise. I took those elements and started over again, adding in a Babylonian-inspired setting. Instead of demon princes and deities, I had nigh-omnipotent sorcerers who ruled over a populace of worshippers. I kept the concept of two characters – a wizard and a warrior – and added a spy to create a triumvirate of heroes. The result was the Book of the Black Earth series. It has many D&D elements. Obviously magic, but also mythology, battles, demons, and other monsters for the heroes to overcome.

It’s easy to see how RPGs have affected my writing. From the creatures and characters involved, to the concepts of magic and gods. There was a time when I shied away from that, because I did not want to be viewed as a “dungeons and dragons writer”, but I have come around full circle. D&D and other games have been bolstering my imagination and storytelling for most of my life, and I’m proud to say that.

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But writing fantasy has also influenced how I play RPGs. Of course, I always try to assume the identity of my character when playing. However, it’s when I am DMing that my writing skills really show. I spend a lot of time creating adventures. I really feel like it’s every bit an artform as writing prose. It’s all in the choices you make as the architect. What kind of story are you trying to tell? Classic heroic? Superheroic? Grimdark? Mystery noire? Then, striving to match the setting to that story, using descriptions to set the mood. Once I have story and setting, I usually go on to filling the game world with interesting NPCs and creatures, and setting up encounters for the player characters to meet them. And, of course, I draw maps. Many dungeon maps!

My goal when running a game is to do more than simply set up a string of combats for the party to fight and treasures to win (although there’s nothing wrong with that). I strive to entertain and thrill. I want to introduce hardships so that the PCs feel a true sense of accomplishment when they win (hopefully). I want to create worlds that feel almost real, as if they existed long before the characters arrived on the scene and will continue long after they retire.

I owe a great debt to RPGs such as D&D. They have shaped me in more ways than one. They helped me forge the best friendships of my life, and even meet the love of my life. I will be a gamer and a writer for as long as I live. Or maybe a demon prince will steal my soul someday, and you might find me in a dusty corner of the Abyss, pouring over dog-eared rulebooks and trying to craft the perfect adventure campaign. Pull up a chair and get out your dice.

Connect with the author online!

Facebook: /JonSprunkAuthor
Twitter: @JonSprunk
Goodreads: /Jon_Sprunk

Paul Bellow

LitRPG Author Paul Bellow

Paul Bellow is a LitRPG author, gamer, RPG game developer, and publisher of several online communities. In other words, an old school webmaster. He also developed and runs LitRPG Adventures, a set of advanced RPG generators powered by GPT-3 AI. Here at LitRPG Reads, he publishes articles about LitRPG books, tabletop RPG books, and all sorts of DND content that's free to use in your personal tabletop campaign - i.e. non-commercial use. Enjoy your stay and reach out on Twitter or Discord if you want to make contact.

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