Inspiration Point: How Can Narrative-Driven RPGs Help Write Better Fiction?

by L. E. Torres

One day in 1986, after concluding an exciting Dungeons & Dragons campaign with my high school friends, I decided to write a novel telling their exploits. The game had been a roaring success, all non-stop action and nail-biting excitement, so how could its novelization be any less of a triumph? The result was a piece of hopeless dreck which I still keep around as a reminder that no matter how terrible I think my latest draft is, it will never be that bad.

It took me decades to understand that my incipient writing skills weren’t the only reason my story didn’t work. The collaborative, emergent storytelling experience that has hooked millions of people into tabletop role-playing games (TTRPGs) frequently produces results that, while fun, don’t organically develop characters’ arcs and don’t structurally generate story beats that raise the tension (a.k.a. make our characters’ lives miserable).

Why is this? Can TTRPGs help you craft absorbing, classically-structured fiction? Which TTRPGs successfully marry traditional fiction frameworks with collaborative storytelling—while staying fun? And, perhaps most importantly, what TTRPG should you bring next weekend to play with your professional writer friends?

Narrative-driven RPGs

A good first step to better align the worlds of TTRPGs and storytelling is to explore alternative games designed with rules that incentivize players to act in ways that foster traditional narrative beats. Imagine Lavendry, an uncannily accurate elf archer who stealthily approaches a ridge and discovers a bored and distracted orc sentry. Lavendry sets her arrow, coolly aims at the orc, and, after a long breath, shoots.

How would TTRPGs simulate the benefits of Lavendry’s careful aiming? If you’re playing a traditional RPG, your gamemaster would provide bonuses to Lavendry’s player based on factors such as distance, cover, and aim. Then the player would make a roll with two broad outcomes: Succeed or Fail. However, if you were playing a narrative-driven RPG such as Dungeon World, Lavendry’s careful aiming would bring no additional mechanical bonus to the player’s roll.

Get your characters in trouble…even when they succeed

But wait, you say: Why doesn’t accurate aim give the player a benefit to the roll? Because while the physical odds of hitting the enemy may be higher, the narrative odds of the character getting into trouble because of their actions haven’t changed. Dungeon World is one of several games based on a set of rules called Powered by the Apocalypse, or PbtA, which prioritize fiction over physics. To emphasize narrative impact, a PbtA roll has three broad outcomes: succeed, fail, or succeed at a cost (which is the statistically most probable result). If she rolled this result, Lavendry would indeed kill the orc with a single arrow…only to have its body fall into the chasm, clanging against the cliff walls, alerting the orc camp below. Or, perhaps, as the orc crumples to the ground, Lavendry notices its arm tattoo and realizes she just killed the orc spy who was supposed to tell her where the tribe has imprisoned the hostages she came to rescue. This complication is not a gamemaster whim but a rule-mandated hindrance. Not only does this narrative twist make for a tense, exciting moment at the table, it’s easily translatable to a complication that could fit any written story.

Go where the action is

Many narrative games replace the sequential turn order of traditional RPGs with a system immediately recognizable to fiction writers: go where the action is. In a typical PbtA combat, the gamemaster constantly jumps focus between characters, setting up a cliffhanger moment before switching to another character, or using a character’s “succeed at a cost” roll outcome as a springboard to get yet another character in trouble. The result is a hectic, high-adrenaline rollercoaster, more akin to the chaotic action in the Mines of Moria battle from the Lord of the Rings movies than a monotonous board-game-like turn cycle.

Rewarding characters’ flaws

Another RPG called FATE takes a different approach to narrative frameworks. One of its many, many features is the use of Fate Points, a scarce resource that allows players to activate their characters’ and environments’ features, called Aspects, for bonuses. Fate Points are so valuable that players are incentivized to look for ways to obtain more. Enter Compels, which allow the gamemaster (or the players themselves!) to propose a narrative complication, usually based on the character’s traits. The player can accept the complication and receive a free Fate Point, or refuse it, and pay one. Thus, FATE motivates players to look for ways to get their characters into trouble, or highlight their flaws, so they can gain more Fate Points that will help them be exceptional afterwards. The result is player characters who behave similarly to those on the written page, and thus are easier to write about.

Live to fight another day

Have you ever run a combat in which the players, about to be defeated by the enemy, voluntarily surrender? Me neither! Enter FATE’s Concession rules: When a player concedes a conflict, not only do they get several Fate Points; they can also dictate concession terms. Maybe a tremor shakes the battlefield and distracts the enemy, allowing the badly wounded party to make their escape. Or perhaps the enemy dumps the captured characters in a cell, tied up and unarmed except for the push dagger hidden in Lavendry’s boot, which they inexplicably missed. Now the players have moved past their defeat and created new plot opportunities while receiving lots of Fate Points to fuel their comeback. Thus, a staple of written fiction stories, and an important dramatic beat, is organically embedded in the game as well.

The best of both worlds

The rule frameworks built into narrative-driven RPGs foster stories with greater depth, re-conceive plot twists as a welcome development, and turn characters’ personality flaws into game advantages. As you familiarize yourself with these games, you’ll start applying these concepts in all kinds of fiction works. I can’t count the times I’ve silently mumbled Compel! Invoke! Concede! while watching a movie or reading a book.

And, if you have a group of writer friends who are also players, now you have new games to try. Who knows, the seeds for your upcoming story might come from your next weekend’s gaming session. Happy writing, happy gaming!

L. E. TorresL. E. Torres writes gritty, thoughtful space operas grounded in our societal realities and infused with South American cultural themes. He has played RPGs for the past forty years and has spent twenty of those years writing or editing published role-playing game adventures and modules for alternative RPG systems and settings like Savage Worlds, Achtung Cthulhu, Mutant Chronicles, Sundered Skies, and Daring Tales, among others. His self-published hard SF RPG, Seven Worlds, was nominated for an ENNIEnie award (RPG awards) for Best Campaign of 2018 and was awarded the Atomic Rockets site’s Seal of Approval for Scientific Accuracy. Originally from Perú, he currently lives in the greater Seattle area, and by day works on cloud computing technologies at a large software company. Find out more about him at