Brandon Sanderson is the fantasy author that the tabletop gaming industry seriously needs.
Though he’s written a number of novels and novellas, Sanderson’s most well-known original series is The Stormlight Archive, a franchise with four mainline entries, two novellas and several more books to come. The Stormlight Archive is a series set on the planet Roshar, a world featuring many of the usual elements one might expect from an epic fantasy novel - a collection of varied cultures and races, a complex magic system, and an overwhelmingly powerful threat that the heroes must overcome, to name but a few.
However, despite Stormlight Archive’s rather conventional skeleton, its flesh is far more unique. Sanderson’s passion for worldbuilding is almost infectious, with the author reveling in presenting the reader with even the most unnecessary minutia – such as how Alethi women cover their left hand in public as a sign of dignity.
Rather than coming off as self-congratulatory or monotonous, Sanderson’s worldbuilding serves to provide the reader with a vivid picture of how the people of Roshar actually live. There might be an epic, apocalyptic event looming on the horizon, but Sanderson still wants his audience to know his characters outside of all the impending doom and crushing duty.
This is exactly why The Stormlight Archive would be such an excellent choice for a tabletop roleplaying game adaptation.
It’s the smaller details that lend themselves to being excellent roleplaying material.
Though Sanderson’s other epic series, Mistborn, has already been adapted into a tabletop RPG, The Stormlight Archive would be a much better fit because it’s really where the author came into his own as a storyteller and worldbuilder. The sheer size and depth of Roshar is undoubtedly impressive – and a huge reason as to why the books themselves are so massive – but it’s the smaller details that lend themselves to being excellent roleplaying material.
Sanderson regularly establishes empathy through perspective in The Stormlight Archive, presenting readers with a character or a group that initially appear alien or unapproachable, before adhering his audience to them by providing insight into their lives – often through mundane aspects that are not essential to the main plot.
Brightlord Dalinar Kholin’s son, Adolin, comes across at first as being incredibly vain due to his obsession with appearance. Yet, over the course of the series, Adolin becomes a lot more likable. This is in part thanks to his vanity blossoming into a genuine interest in fashion that’s shown by him excitedly perusing the latest clothing catalogues and accessorising his own outfits - something that men in his society don’t often do.
It’s often so easy to get wrapped up a tabletop RPG’s grand plot that smaller moments and details get forgotten, which is a shame.
These small moments do a surprising amount of heavy lifting when it comes to characterising The Stormlight Archive’s main cast, and could provide the perfect template for players’ own characters in a tabletop roleplaying adaptation. It’s often so easy to get wrapped up a tabletop RPG’s grand plot that smaller moments and details get forgotten, which is a shame. Writers like Sanderson understand their importance; applying that ethos directly to a TRPG would help players and GMs to better develop their characters and their place in their world.
Having the tools you need to develop well-rounded characters naturally makes for better storytelling, as when the characters we care about are put into dangerous situations the stakes are raised exponentially. You can grip an audience by simply establishing empathy with a character, before dangling them over a pit of boiling lava. This is something that Sanderson understands deeply; throughout The Stormlight Archive he takes the seeds of potentially engaging characters and allows them to grow into more fully formed beings for his readers to root for – only to hold a threatening knife over their heads.
Sanderson’s worldbuilding isn’t just great because of its sheer breadth and depth, but also because of the emotional intention behind it.
(Mild spoilers for The Stormlight Archive follow)
No other character represents this ethos more than Dalinar, who begins the series as a broken husk of a once arrogant and violent man, before becoming one of the most progressive and empathetic characters in the entire series. This change isn’t just found in Dalinar’s most heroic moments, but in the ways he develops as a person: beginning a new relationship with an old flame and even learning to read and write, another hobby that is traditionally pursued by women in the Kholin’s society. From this point onwards, whenever Dalinar steps into the path of danger, we’re immediately desperate to know his fate. That's just good drama, baby!
Sanderson’s worldbuilding isn’t just great because of its sheer breadth and depth, but also because of the emotional intention behind it. Providing moments for characters to live out the more mundane, deeply personal aspects of their lives in a tabletop RPG can help players and GMs to better engage with their narratives. The danger here is that a roleplaying publisher might get so lost in the vastness of Roshar that this ‘small moments and details’ approach would be forgotten. However, Sanderson comes across as an author who cares too much about his work for it to be misrepresented in an adaptation – I'd hope.
A true Stormlight Archive tabletop RPG developed with Sanderson’s worldbuilding philosophy at its heart would be a beautifully mundane breath of fresh air.