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A LitRPG Origin Story | Shadow Kingdoms

Updated: May 27, 2021

Let me tell you about the origin of my Shadow Kingdoms series.

As well as informing you about the book series itself, I hope this gets you thinking about creativity, and shows that it can pay to be patient when it comes to developing your own gaming and writing ideas.

After all, it took 30 years for my game world to make it from being a hand-drawn map on a page to the setting of a published novel.

The Beginning

It all started when I was in my mid-teens, back in the 1990s. I was very into fantasy novels (my favourite authors at the time included David Gemmell, Raymond E. Feist and Hugh Cook) and hugely into roleplaying games, too, from D&D to GURPS to Shadowrun.

While I did buy game modules from time to time, I’d come to really enjoy doing my own thing – planning and creating adventures and locations. I had almost as much fun drawing the maps and populating dungeons as I did playing the actual games.

Actually – wait a minute. That side of me probably started much earlier still... I loved drawing maps as a kid. One of the most memorable tasks I ever did at school was when we were asked to draw a map of a ‘secret island’, and then write a story about it. It’s the only schoolwork where I can remember doing more than was asked – extra voluntary homework. I drew multiple maps, invented monsters, species, shipwrecks and other dangerous locations...

If you love fantasy, then you get the idea.

Anyway – back to gaming. Towards the end of high school my roleplaying buddies and I had opened up our club to new players, and accordingly I had ended up playing as Dungeon Master for a group of newbies.

This had meant introducing kids to the game for the first time, and had led to me giving a lot of thought to how best to start off a fantasy roleplaying game for a group of inexperienced players who knew little about the rules and nothing about the standard settings.

It struck me that while the official sourcebooks and game modules were good, there was often an overkill of detail. And even besides the players themselves, most characters in the game wouldn’t know all that much about their world, or even about what went on beyond their own village. So in short, it can be overwhelming for new players who are just getting to grips with the rules, and it’s not really necessary for good game play.

So I developed a setting that would gradually unfold, beginning with a village and its surroundings. More depth and detail would then be added as the characters levelled up. I drew maps, created locations... And this was the genesis of the world that appears in the Shadow Kingdoms novels.

Moving on

But this all happened at a time when my friends and I were getting into our high school exams (and also into bars and parties), and to be frank, nobody had much time for tabletop RPGs anymore.

So, for a while, the development of this game world became more of a solo hobby for me – a bit of creative writing that I did in my spare time. I knew I’d get back to the gaming side eventually. In the meantime, I continued to work on locations, species and maps for my own enjoyment, and to file them away.

The Islands of Dubasa – a location that features heavily in the first Shadow Kingdoms novel – is one of these. I wanted to create a mercenary-focused culture who would train most of their young people to be soldiers, and then hire their armies out to other nations. I drew the map, wrote an extended description of how their society worked... and that was as far as it went for quite a number of years.

Fast forward to 2019. I was already a published author, and at the time I had begun to work on a series of historical-fantasy novels, 'The Druid Stones Saga’. I was also getting into LitRPG in my spare time, reading it avidly. Like a lot of people who discover the genre, my first reaction was, 'wow, I wish I'd known that this existed before!'. It also occurred to me that as a writer who loved roleplaying games, LitRPG would be the perfect genre for me to write in. But I didn’t yet have an idea for how to start the first story.

Then one night it came to me – the game world that I had created all those years ago would be the setting, and the plot would revolve around real-world corporations vying for control of this and other VRMMO game worlds. The corporations would treat the worlds like valuable property, behaving like imperialists who were trying to carve up newly-discovered lands between them, with little or no regard for those who lived there.

Fortunately I still had all the old maps and descriptions that I had written about the Shadow Kingdoms world. It was all in a folder in my home. All I needed to do was to open it and begin typing.

Refining the concept

I mentioned that the Shadow Kingdoms world began with a starter village, but I quickly moved away from that as a potential starting point for the main character in my story. The reason for this was that it just seemed too easy, and possibly too slow. I wanted to give her some difficulties – and I didn't want things to resemble a beginning fantasy roleplaying game too much. That was only meant to be an influence.

And so, as I mentioned, I chose the mercenary-focused Islands of Dubasa as the starting setting for The Knights of Dawn. In the second novel, The Call of the Coven, the main characters do pass through the original starter village – albeit quite briefly.

In the books, the characters also encounter the Varian Empire, a regional power which has recently conquered several other kingdoms (even in my original maps, I drew two versions of the Varian Empire – before and after its annexation of its neighbours), and which was a key part of the original concept. I still have all my hand-drawn maps of all of these locations, and I intend to share them with my readers at some point!

So, while the books are set in the original game world, this world is explored in a different way in the series. I think these changes just reflect the fact that a roleplaying game and a novel are two different things. RPGs are a fun collective gaming experience, with a lot of false starts and discussion. It’s not always fast paced, and nor is there always a particularly clear direction of travel.

But some of these aspects (at least in my view) don’t work all that well in novels. There has to be a clearer progression, major foes that you don’t face off against too soon, and a level of tension that gradually builds up as the story goes on.

Sprinkling in new ideas

I also came up with a lot of new ideas for the world, working these in as I moved through the planning, writing and editing process.

For one thing, the name – Shadow Kingdoms – came later. I wanted to convey the shadowy and covert nature of the game, the fact that it was in some ways a shadow of the real world. I also used the term ‘shadow’ to reflect the highest-ranked professions in the game. Someone can rise to become a ‘shadow knight’ for example, or a ‘shadow sorcerer’.

The name also hints at the plot of the LitRPG novels, because in the first book, Lucy (the main character) hacks a neural implant in order to allow her to play the game 24-7. This has the result of the game world appearing as a shadowy overlay across the real world. No spoilers, but as you might imagine, this plan doesn’t go as smoothly as she hoped!

The key enemies – the Knights of Dawn – were also a new invention. I wanted a mysterious and malevolent force who would track down the main characters and put them under pressure, but who would also be too high-level for them to face immediately. Because as ‘shadow knights’, these fighters are the elite in the game world.

Refining locations

I did make some changes to the details of the game world in the process of writing, too, although I did so reluctantly and only where necessary. I was always mindful of keeping the spirit of the original world alive.

I changed the names of a few locations – islands, cities and so on. For the most part, my aim was just to get names that sounded cooler and more memorable, but in some cases (this is a writer thing) I noticed that locations were too easily confused. For example, there were multiple places that began with the letter ‘L’ and also multiple places that began with the letter ‘D’. Similar place names can be confusing for readers, so I changed them where I could, while still maintaining the originals where possible.

As time went on, I also made some aspects of the game world less reminiscent of generic fantasy by adding some more unusual species. There are still elves, dwarves and so on, but I added a frog-like species called the Ranera, as well as a catlike species called Felaxians. In terms of the variety of species and diversity seen in the locations, sci-fi was probably more of an influence on me than traditional medieval fantasy.

Overall, though, the Shadow Kingdoms novels can still be seen as a collaboration between the ideas that I had as a teenager and the writer that I became many years later. A key aspect of the location was the struggle between the Varian Empire and the neighbouring Confederacy of Kingdoms, and this remains – and is woven throughout the plot, affecting all of the events of the story. What’s more, the struggle is mirrored in the struggle between different real-world corporations to control the game world.

How gaming continued to influence my writing.

Roleplaying has remained a major influence throughout my time writing Shadow Kingdoms. After a long hiatus, I once again play roleplaying games with the same friends that I went to school with as a teenager. Even though we are spread around the country, we now have a weekly game via Discord.

Another influence has been the beginner D&D sessions that I have run for my own kids. Although this follows 5e rules and is broadly speaking set in the Forgotten Realms, the locations where their characters have done most of their adventuring bear a very close resemblance to the village of Lorn and other locations that appear in Shadow Kingdoms book 2, The Call of the Coven.

And as it happens, my daughter has now read and enjoyed the Shadow Kingdoms books, and really enjoys seeing characters from our own games pop up.

From starting point to next step

I’m actually a pretty fast writer, but this is a story of having been very slow to start!

The first draft of ‘Shadow Kingdoms: The Knights of Dawn’ was written in late 2019, and (partly because I was focusing on my historical fantasy novels, and also because I was completing a part-time PhD), it took me until December 2020 before I had completed and published it.

The second book followed soon after (in late March 2021), and at the time of writing this post, I am hoping to get at least one more book in the series out within the same year.

I also have a number of other writing projects on the go. My 5-book historical fantasy series is now complete. I have also recently completed the first book of a new LitRPG series, 'Sparta Online: Nemesis'.

But I am certain that I will keep returning to and further developing the Shadow Kingdoms game world that I came up with all those years ago.

Read on!

Shadow Kingdoms: The Knights of Dawn is available on Kindle and KU, as is its sequel - Shadow Kingdoms: The Call of the Coven. Both can be accessed via the LitRPG Guild app.


About J. F. Danskin

J. F. Danskin is a Scottish writer of fantasy novels. His work spans several sub-genres and he is currently writing the fantasy LitRPG Shadow Kingdoms series and the historical fantasy LitRPG Sparta Online series. He has also published a complete series of historical fantasy books set in medieval Scotland, entitled the Druid Stones Saga.

Thank you for reading!

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