Using RPG Mechanics to Balance Written Characters

One of the two panels I did at ICON 43 this year was Using RPG Mechanics to Balance Written Characters. This panel focused using RPG games to supplement the writing process. Along the way, I got to bounce ideas off the audience and crystallized some of my thoughts.

Choosing a RPG System To Use

Any game system, from ShadowRun to Amber, can be used to supplement the writing process. Personally, I've used HERO 6th Edition and Fate as my go-to systems but I've also used Dungeon and Dragons 3.x, Exalted, and ShadowRun.

The choice of system can result in changing how characters react or the things they can do. This is basically Sapir–Whorf hypothesis as applied to mechanical systems. (I think the same about programming, Haskell developers solve problems differently than C# who solve differently than Perl developers). For an example, the Forgotten Realms novels were pretty influenced by the system behind them. Dragon Lance? Less so because the books came well before the game (from my understanding).

Since the choice isn't too important, it is what works for players. Fate works for how I see characters now, so I use Fate. If I wrote a superhero novel, I'd pretty much go with HERO.

Mechanical Systems as Supplemental Character Creation

Many authors create sheets or details about a character. They can range from eye color, hair color, birthplace, and even their star sign or blood type. Those details are used to help figure out what a character can do, their personality, or purely descriptive. Knowing someone is short and muscular (somewhat vague) means they might handle a door differently than a tall and delicate. A ISTJ character will interact differently than a ENFP.

The level of detail is based on the author. I know that Rutejìmo is 161 cm in height because it was relatively important to me to visualize the character but that height never shows up in the novels.

One of the easiest ways of using RPG systems in writing is to add a character sheet to the mix. It had introduces harder values (such as D&D 2's STR 18/00 or HERO System's END 17) that can be used to reflect the characters appearance (slender but fast) or capabilities (breaking open that door example).

Some systems, like Fate, have less mechanical attributes and use aspects or personalities. In my case, Rutejìmo has a core aspect of “Slowest and Weakest of the Shimusògo.” It's the point of the character but “Wishes He Was a Warrior Like Desòchu” also drove him as a character.

Publishing Character Sheets

At the panel, I talked about my love of seeing character sheets at the end of books (or in magazines published after the novel came out). In specific, the stats for Shandril and spellfire from Ed Greenwood's Spellfire which was in a Dragon magazine after I fell in love with the novel. I also loved the god pug statistics in Nodwick after the “There Can Only Be Me” adventure.

A lot of the audience also had a fondness of character sheets. Since I'm considering creating a source book for my world, I had an idea of sending the character sheets to my patrons as I go until I make a decision one way or the other. However, I like character sheets in general, so that would work for me.


I've done a number of one-on-one stories. Usually these are single-player campaigns over email but they have a more narrative bent and cycle. The flow was I'd write 5-10 paragraphs, they would add 1-2, I'd write 5-10 in response.

In these cases, it is sometimes fun to let the dice decide what is going to happen. I don't like stories where everyone always succeeds, so having a character sheet let me pull out the dice, figure out what happened, and then come up with a narrative description. Overall, I thought it gave the story more of a unexpected “feel” to it and it seemed to be well-received.

Tracking Evolution

I watch a lot of Power Rangers, the boys love it and I don't mind the endless drama with the occasional battles. One thing Rangers has, much like other shonen, is that there is always a constant increasing of power. Naruto spends a few episodes, gains a new power and then uses it. Power Rangers have a cycle of gaining new powers, it works for 1-3 episodes, they lose, and then they gain a new power. (Side note, if you watch Power Rangers without sound or being hard-of-hearing, the fighting doesn't really change, just the special effects on the super final ultimate ending strike, still watch it though).

For long novels and shows, having this measured and continual improvement gives a sense of a living character. They aren't just awesome and then even more awesome. Naga Saillune from Slayers is an example of a character who didn't really improve, she had powers but was relatively static in power level. Amelia at least did improve as the series went on.

Gaming systems can help give a framework for that. Showing increase of a character, either by the gain of experience or “spending points” in the story, helps break up a sharp increase in power for the plot without showing the character's improvement. For example, Sing from Kung Fu Hustle goes from a relatively low-powered character to getting a beat down and then suddenly having large amounts of power to save the day.

When I did Glorious Saber, I planned on three experience points per comic. I did it to give me a framework of how the characters advanced in the world, to give a steady improvement within the game. I also had those point expenditures in story because it felt right (this before LitRPG was really a “thing”).

I find using the system for improvement over time really only works with the long projects, like the half million word commissions or the comic (if I continued it).


One thing systems bring to writing is consistency. If you have a magic or technology system, having “rules” behind it helps the reader because there is less of a chance where the writer does something that doesn't make sense. ("Wait a minute, lead didn't cause a problem in chapter three but now it does?")

Balancing Characters

For larger projects, RPG mechanics are a good way of balancing characters. Since my current plan are the R5-D4 Plots, I have a wide variety of characters who I'm planning on writing over years with their interactions being down the line in some cases. I like to have a common basis for those characters so I don't have too much of a power mismatch when they finally do come into the same story.

Likewise, when working with others, having a more strict form of coordination helps with the “your character can't do that”. I've used that pretty heavily with some one-on-one novels and stories. The game system helped let them know what they could do, the mechanics guided them into something that gave us shared expectations, and generally it reduced the friction of writing together. Knowing a character had third-level spells (even a custom one) gave us the ability to have things fit.

I could saw the same with larger, shared worlds. I think Forgotten Realms worked as a novel because it had that mechanical system (D&D) behind it. You had many authors who were writing but since they had this shared expectation and guidelines (“your characters are in the 3-5 level range”), it fit better together. I'm sure other shared universes have something like that, but it might be less mechanical and more of an oversight editor who tells them to tone it down. However, shared rules have the possibility of reducing the effort (or back and forth).

In my case, I gave bonus experience for creating short stories of side characters during my Exalted game. Having the rules made it easier to avoid the “I destroy the world” powers (well, sort of with the solars). I really felt framing their stuff around the mechanical system let us create something balanced and lowered the effort to take those stories and make them canon for our world.

When to Create Character Sheets

My personal writing style is to have a rough character sheet when I start the novel and one for what I expect to have at the end. I don't track chapter-by-chapter but I have had points where the end of an arc changed a sheet, which I then document. In Fate, these map to the milestones nicely. The end of the novel is the major milestone while there might be 1-2 minor or significant ones. In novels, I have up to one significant, in the longer pieces, about one every 100-200k words.

With HERO, I usually went with one experience every 10k words or so but that was based on the first draft (edits didn't count for improvements) and I only paid attention at the 50-100k word points.

Limitations of Mechanics

There is a danger of using game mechanics in writing. The biggest is letting the rules drive the plot. There are times where characters don't follow a strict system. Using the system is to help frame development and characters, not to prevent them from doing something that makes sense (unless you are writing LitRPG or want to).

In these cases, you have the golden and silver rules:

The Golden Rule: Decide what you’re trying to accomplish first, then consult the rules to help you do it.

The Silver Rule: Never let the rules get in the way of what makes narrative sense.

I find that I write what fits the rules (see Sapir–Whorf above) but when I want to do something beyond the edges, it is usually better for me if I figure out how to make it work and then make sure the character has a justification to be able to do that before it becomes important. So, if the sudden twist requires a high-level Exalted charm with a prerequisite, then showing that prerequisite helps avoid that sudden power ramp to save the day. It also may change the plot to show progression earlier, but the end result is less jarring for readers.

Filing the Serial Numbers Off

Another danger of using RPG systems in writing is making it obvious. A lot of the novels I picked up at GenCon refer to characters as “Rogue” or “Fighter” complete with the capitals. It basically points a big arrow saying “this is a D&D campaign”. Not always a bad thing, but it throws me off. You can contrast that with Elizabeth Moon's Deeds of Paksenarrion, one of my favorite novels, which had paladins, rangers, and fighters but at least the edges were blurred enough that it didn't feel like a RPG game put in book form and more of a novel that could be seen as a game.

The exception to this is LitRPG. This are books where the characters know they are in a game or view the world in game terms. My favorite in this genre is Andrew Rowe's Sufficiently Advanced Magic which had a RuneQuest-like system of improvement. The other is J. Zachary Pike's Orconomics. Both of those books are great for fantasy characters who pretty much know they are in a game.

Like Order of the Stick, Glorious Saber is a LitRPG comic because characters are aware of their systems. I would say Grrl Power is also a LitRPG comic, mainly because you have characters with a skill tree and farming for experience, various power frameworks, and basic rules. Both of these comics are pretty fantastic to read also.


Using RPG games to write is a tool. It isn't much different than creating character sheets or plotting out advancement on paper. The mechanical system may be easier for some authors to work with. In that regard, it also allows for a shared set of rules for multiple authors to create things that fit together in a balanced manner without needing as much effort by a world or setting editor.

There are some potential pitfalls of using the system also, mainly exposing the underlying game rules to the reader. That may be intended or may not, it is just something to be aware of.

As usual, feel free to chime in with opinions, what you like or don't like.