People who are interested in both speculative fiction and gaming are no doubt aware that there are a number of games and novels that share settings, characters, or even plotlines. What might be less apparent is just how big that number is, and how deep and complex the connections between the different types of media can get. The gaming and fiction products from some franchises, more than just having a lot in common, are actually inextricably connected in increasingly recursive ways, and rely on one another to spur production.
Personally, as someone who loves reading and gaming in near-equal measure, I think this is awesome. It's also pretty fascinating, especially since these connections have been going on from the very beginning of the development of tabletop roleplaying and computer and video games alike. So let's take a look at some of them, shall we?
If you've ever considered submitting a piece of fiction to this fine publication, you may have noticed that one section of the "Stories We've Seen Too Often" page reads:
15. Story is based in whole or part on a D&D game or world.
- A party of D&D characters (usually including a fighter, a magic-user, and a thief, one of whom is a half-elf and one a dwarf) enters a dungeon (or the wilderness, or a town, or a tavern) and fights monsters (usually including orcs).
- Story is the origin story of a D&D character, culminating in their hooking up with a party of adventurers.
- A group of real-world humans who like roleplaying find themselves transported to D&D world.
I'm sure there are several excellent reasons for this, and two come immediately to my mind. First, that the things that are fun to experience from a first-person perspective during a roleplaying game only rarely make for compelling storytelling after the fact, and second—wow, there are a lot of D&D-campaign-esque stories out there, aren't there?
One could fill a shelving unit with the classic 1980s and 1990s TSR fiction lines—like the Dragonlance series, which spun off of tabletop gaming sessions, and the Forgotten Realms books, which had their genesis in Ed Greenwood's home-brewed gameplay setting—and not even scratch the surface. The massive Record of Lodoss War franchise in Japan got its start in author Ryo Mizuno's gaming group, and originally consisted of what were essentially transcripts of gaming sessions serialized in a magazine.
Fiction inspired by roleplaying games has made appearances in genres beyond high fantasy, as well, including sub-genres of science fiction: cyberpunk via FASA's Shadowrun (itself drawing clear influences from preceding novels in the genre), and a medley of dystopic SF elements via Games Workshop's Warhammer 40,000 (which may be considered more of a wargame than a roleplaying game, but if I start splitting hairs this article will take weeks to read), for example, both of which have associated fiction lines. Going back to the adventuring party in a quasi-medieval second world setting milieu, there are, of course, plenty of books inspired a little more indirectly by D&D-style games, too. Joel Rosenberg's rather metatextual Guardians of the Flame series, for example, follows gamers who have—you guessed it—been transported into the world of their fictional adventures.
But the game-to-published-fiction stream doesn't flow just one way. The basic Dungeons & Dragons setting owes a pretty obvious debt to the works of J. R. R. Tolkien, for starters. And TSR's novels were designed to feed right back into the campaign worlds that generated them, inspiring gaming modules that were intended to appeal to readers who would want to experience their own adventures in Faerûn and Krynn.
And once they'd expanded beyond the tabletop, it didn't take long for gaming novels and settings to start spawning computer and video games. Pool of Radiance, set in the Forgotten Realms world, came out for IBM and Apple II computers, as well as the Commodore 64, in 1988, and made the jump to a video game console—the Nintendo Entertainment System—in 1992.
The stream metaphor starts looking more like an estuary when you consider computer games like Curse of the Azure Bonds, which was released in 1989. It's a sequel to the preceding Pool of Radiance game, with a storyline that is, at the basic level, the same as that in Jeff Grub and Kate Novak's novel, Azure Bonds, which was published the previous year. Oh, and there was a tabletop gaming module, too. Bizarrely, the novel Azure Bonds is unrelated to the game Pool of Radiance (except inasmuch as it is connected to the game's sequel), and the adventures of the characters in Azure Bonds continue in other novels (the Finder's Stone trilogy, and Masquerades), which are completely unrelated to the next computer game, Secret of the Silver Blades.
The Forgotten Realms have been the setting for other computer games, like BioWare's Baldur's Gate in 1998, with a plot following on from the Realms's semi-reboot concept of The Time of Troubles. Said troubling time was first introduced in the late 1980s in a series of novels and tabletop gaming supplements, and timed to coincide with a revision of the D&D gaming system. (The release of the latest edition of D&D was matched with another major change in the Realms, a new worldwide event called the "spellplague," and a jump forward in the timeline.)
BioWare continued to use the "Infinity Engine," the software developed for Baldur's Gate that allowed for that title's appealing, isometric graphics and pausable real-time play, to design sequels, as well as unrelated games set in other campaign worlds. The success of that software sparked development of the "Aurora Engine," which allowed for more realistic lighting for 3D character models, among other advancements, and was used to power another set of games set in the Forgotten Realms: Neverwinter Nights and its expansion packs and sequel. The first Neverwinter Nights was released between a pair of revisions to the D&D tabletop rules, and players who were adapting to the new ruleset could make use of the computer game's character generation system to quickly set up character sheets for tabletop use.
Are you confused yet? I am, a little, and I have notes and diagrams sitting on the desk in front of me. So let's leave the Realms and check out some more gaming/speculative fiction connections.
Going back to the Record of Lodoss War series, Ryo Mizuno began to revamp his serialized gameplay transcripts into novels and then manga in the late 1980s and early 1990s, making a major splash in what was at the time a tiny pool of high fantasy being created in Japan. Though the original gaming sessions were conducted with D&D rules, the world of Lodoss Island needed to move on if it was to continue to expand without legal repercussions. So Mizuno and his players, formalized as Group SNE, developed their own tabletop gaming system. And then they replayed some of their adventures with the new rules.
Gaming sessions went to fiction to new gaming system to gaming sessions to fiction . . . to animated series. In an interesting twist, the OVA ("original video animation" show, produced for direct-to-video release) series was being produced as novels were still being written, leading to the anime having an ending different from that in the books. Naturally, the franchise also expanded into computer and video games released in Japan, and earlier this year it was announced that there will be a Record of Lodoss War online game, to be released worldwide. If there aren't players recording their online gaming adventures in the Lodoss universe in text form within weeks, I'll eat my keyboard.
The connections between games and novels are often blatant, if a little confusing, but there are some more subtle connections to be explored, too. For example, earlier I mentioned the Aurora Engine that BioWare developed for Neverwinter Nights. The game developers continued to refine that tech, using the next version when they produced Knights of the Old Republic, a game set in the Star Wars, in 2003. And then, having cut their teeth on games set in pre-existing universes, BioWare moved on to creating their own franchises. One of these, the Mass Effect series, is a particular favorite of mine. The speculative fiction in this series began with the video games, and has transitioned into novels and comics.
Speculative fiction and games sometimes draw on each other in less sprawling ways, as well. A couple of works by author Piers Anthony illustrate this nicely. Anthony wrote a novel not associated with an actual game, but inspired by online computer adventure games (not, many would contend, realistically inspired, but still), called Killobyte, in 1993, providing one small example of a massive trend. I can't even begin to count how many novels inspired by the idea of online computer adventure games exist, spanning pretty much every speculative fiction sub-genre.
Another work by Piers Anthony, one of his Xanth novels, is parallel to a computer game called Companions of Xanth in much the same way that Azure Bonds and Curse of the Azure Bonds are related. Companions of Xanth uses much of the same plot as the novel Demons Don't Dream, including characters (the player plays Dug, the hero in the novel). Companions of Xanth doesn't have a sequel, though the major characters go on to have adventures in later Xanth novels.
More recent entries in the ever-swirling whirlpool of high fantasy games-and-related-fiction, where we started today, include the Pathfinder series, which was launched by Paizo Publishing after the cessation of print magazine Dungeon in 2007. Pathfinder products include rulebooks, gaming modules, and serialized adventures for the tabletop, as well as novels and stories set in the same world.
So while you can't sell your tabletop roleplaying story to Strange Horizons, there are other options out there—as well as a lot of history, variation, and current competition. It's probably bad for aspiring gaming session recorders, but great for those of us who like to play and read products that feed into and expand each other. And it makes for an interesting way to look at connections between novels and games in multimedia franchises—about which you'll certainly be hearing more from me in future columns—even for those who don't.