RPGs are great. Sometimes I wish real life was like a Role Playing Game, i.e. you could go into the woods and train all day and by the end of you’d get level up points which you could use to improve your strength or speed. How great would it be if we could all walk around with health and mana bars above our heads, where magic wells hidden across the landscape healed our injuries and recharged our powers. And who wouldn’t love to break up a hard day’s work by earning some gold pieces for clearing a nest of Kobolds from an elderly couple’s basement?
From RPGs to writing. Bring the inspiration suitcases
It’s no surprise that people who play RPGs often go on to write, and write fantasy or science fiction at that. Most people like RPGs because of the control they have over the game world. Us creative types usually don’t like being restrained, spending hours trying to get into a sealed building instead of finishing the level, shouting ‘I wanna get in there’. Soon, customising a character’s appearance and abilities, doing random quests and completing the game’s story as and when we like becomes not enough.
I think we’d all say that when we first started writing, we copied something. For me it was the style of Terry Pratchett. The first things we write tend to be more copies of what inspired us to write than our own work, as we naturally draw from what we know, like and admire. Which means if you started writing after falling in love with the Godlike powers of an role playing game, you might accidentally bring aspects of that across into your writing.
Long explanations are only fun if you get to kill trolls by pressing ‘X’ afterwards
Fantasy has a lot of explaining to do, and I don’t mean for the Twilight saga. Everything is a new and foreign idea that needs to be spelled out to your reader; history, politics, society, culture, bread (Lembas, people). One of the most important parts of this is how magic works. Who has it (Only one gender? Only the rich?), where it comes from, how powerful it can become, how you train it; all of these may need to be explained if magic features in your story heavily.
You find this RPG seepage a lot on writing forums, in the work of younger writers or people who haven’t been writing for very long. You end up with pages and pages of complex descriptions of magic, almost as if you are reading the instruction booklet that comes with Skyrim. RPGs are fantasy, yes, but they are games, which makes them a different format. I’ve read a lot of scenes in work-in-progresses that almost run like this:
Rargarr kicked the lid off the chest and peered inside.
Cortho, his bow slung over his shoulder, stepped up next to him.
“What?” he asked.
“Heavy armour,” Rargarr sighed. “I really need to upgrade my padded leather to boiled leather at the least, but I’m a wizard so I can’t wear heavy armour. My class prevents it.”
“You could always switch abilities,” he suggested. “True, you’d lose 100 mana points, but you’d still have all your basic heal spells, as well as fireballs and lightening.”
“What about summon werewolves?” Rargarr whined.
“The last time you used that you gave Gressor a heart-attack,” Cortho said.
“Did not,” a voice from nearby muttered.
The mage and the ranger looked around.
“Gressor, why can’t we see you?” Rargarr asked.
“’I’m an assassin,” the voice replied. “I’ve got 99 stealth points.”
“But it’s broad daylight and all your clothes are black!” Cortho protested.
Magic systems are boring
It’s worth asking yourself if you actually need to explain how your magic works. Note that the Harry Potter series ran to seven volumes, yet it was never really explained where magic came from. If it’s a common fact of life in your world, is there really any need for exposition?
Where things get a little tricky, and where people tend to very closely walk the line between writing and RPG is when a young character has to be taught how to use their magic by an older man/woman/owl. They are usually mysterious, and at some point in the story will feature a dramatic ‘twist’ that runs like this:
“I have often told you of the great mage, Arborrafful”, Noname said. “Well, I have something to tell you, now that you are old and wise enough to know it.”
He stood up and flung off his cloak. His white tunic seemed to glow in the sunlight, the insignia of the Mages Tower in gold twinkling upon his tunic.
“I am Arborrafful,” he declared.
“Oh my god,” Young Protagonist said.
“I know, it’s an unforeseen twist in the story,” Arborrafful said.
“Not that. It’s just you’re not wearing any pants…”
At some point in their relationship, the teacher will sit the pupil down and explain how magic works. It often ends up being defined in ways that very closely mimic your standard RPG magic class system:
“Listen here. There are three kinds of magic; offensive magic, defensive magic, and inoffensive magic-”
“Inoffensive? Isn’t that the same as defensive?”
“Not, it’s magic that no one will complain about. Have you ever seen someone use mana to write a rude word in the sky? Well that’s offensive magic. Now, stop interrupting. As well as the three types, you have levels of each; Grand master, master, mage, magi, apprentice, assistant.”
“Yeah, y’know, someone who hands the wizard his staff, picks volunteers from the audience, does the padlocks on the water tank for the submerging trick, etc. Anyway, then there are the genres of magic. Fire, ice, wind-”
“Tornadoes and that. Grow up. Where were we? Oh yeah, ground magic, water, diet.”
“Look, this example has already gone on way too long. This is only making it longer.”
“Exactly, now – bugger, we’ve overrun into chapter two…”
Is it really necessary?
The important thing to ask when reading back your 4,000 word explanation of magic is; is it vital to the story. If the plot doesn’t hinge around the fact that your character must become a Grand Master, then it’s likely there is no need to even include ranks. Even a story in which a character becomes magically powerful does not necessarily have to feature some kind of grading system. If they need to be able to boil an egg with their mind, then we know they’ve got there when their mind boils an egg. It doesn’t need to be that egg-boiling is a Class II attribute, so that character has to reach Class II.
At the end of the day, all that matters in writing is ‘does this matter’? If you can remove your pages of explanation regarding magic, politics or society, without affecting the story at all, then it doesn’t need to be there.
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