Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

11.05: Writing and World Building for Role Playing Games

Michelle Lyons-McFarland, Monica Valentinelli, and Shanna Germain joined Howard and Dan at GenCon Indy for an episode which is a thinly-veiled indulgence for Howard to glean advice from three people who know far more about the craft of RPG design than he does.

Our discussion centers around how world building for role playing games, and especially the manner in which the world is presented, differs from world building for novels. We don’t talk about rule sets or physics simulations. We’re after the things that players want and need to read in order to immerse themselves in the setting, and get “in fiction.”

Pro-Tip: There are two major things, listeners, that you can get from this podcast: first, soak up the incredibly valuable writing-for-RPGs information provided by our guests. Second, listen to how Howard abases himself when he has the opportunity to sit down with experts who have information he desperately needs.

Liner Notes: Howard habitually mispronounces the word “ablative.” The accent should be on the first syllable: [ab-luh-tiv]

Addendum: As of this posting The Planet Mercenary Role Playing Game is not yet available for purchase. Details about the project can be found here.

Homework: Write about a non-player, non-heroic character (say, the NPC who cleans the alley behind the tavern) in your setting. What do they want? What do they fear? What do they love? How might their story play out independently from the story told by the players?

Thing of the week: Perdido Street Station, By China Mieville, narrated by John Lee.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Writing an RPG is not writing a story or novel. Start with what does a player do in your game? Next, what do 3 to 6 players do sitting at a table, adventuring and telling stories? What do you want the characters to do? What is the reward system? Then, what needs to be in the book to play the game? How does someone who picks up the book learn to play the game and about your world? Who is going to read this book, play this RPG? Think about multiple types of character creation. Think about giving the players a road to learning, from small basic things they can do on up. Consider including a sample session, both to teach mechanics and show what it’s like to play in this world. What’s the reward? Other people getting excited and playing in your world. Mini-tasking, little chunks that you can get done! Chocolate is always good. Watching everybody else doing the hard parts!

[Mary] Season 11, Episode Five.
[Howard] This is Writing Excuses, Writing and World Building for RPG Sessions.
[Dan] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not smart enough to have set this up beforehand.
[Howard] We have three guests with us, up here on stage at GenCon. Michelle Lyons-McFarland, Monica Valentinelli, and Shanna Germain. All of whom are luminaries of various flavors in the RPG industry. I’m trying to write an RPG. But let’s take just a moment and have you guys introduce yourselves. We’ll start with Michelle.
[Michelle] Okay. I’m Michelle Lyons-McFarland. I’ve been working in the industry since about 2000. I’ve worked freelance and in-house at companies like FASA Corp., Wizards of the Coast, and I do a lot of work now for Onyx Path in my own company, Growling Door Games.
[Howard] Monica?
[Monica] Hi. My name is Monica Valentinelli. I write story games and comics. I celebrated my 10th year anniversary this year. Most of the work that you would probably know me from is the Firefly role-playing game line. I am also the developer on the Conan RPG, each is based on the literary works of Robert E. Howard.
[Shanna] I’m Shanna Germain. I’m still stuck on the fact that I’m a luminary of various flavors, which I really love.
[Shanna] I am the co-owner of Monte Cook games. We produce Numenera, The Strange, and the Cypher System rulebook, and currently I am writing No Thank You, Evil! Which is an RPG for kids, four through 12.

[Howard] Cool. Okay. I… I? Sandra and I and Alan Bahr, our designer, kickstarted the Planet Mercenary role-playing game a few months back. Successfully. But I’m probably 40 to 70 umpty thousand words short of finished. I’m working in an established universe. We have a great rule set. What I’m wondering is, as I’m writing, as I’m world building, what are the sorts of things that I need to be aiming at as I write? Because I’m not… There aren’t story points I can touch. I mean, there are, but it’s not like writing a novel, it’s not like writing a story. It’s something different. What… help me. Please?
[Dan] Can’t you just go to the creator of the existing universe that you are writing in and…
[Dan] Ask him for help?
[Howard] For those of you not benefiting from the video…
[Howard] Howard has just made an impolite gesture at Dan.
[Dan] I know I’m not going to say much on this episode, so I wanted to get that in early.
[Dan] Take it away.
[Howard] Monica? Hit me.
[Monica] Okay. So in a role-playing game, there are two questions that often I ask people when they tell me they’re designing worlds and they want to do this game. The first thing is, what does a player do in your game? Okay? What do they do when they sit around a table? What do you envision them doing? The second thing I ask them is do you know what 3 to 6 players would do sitting at the table adventuring and telling stories in your world, set with dice. If you cannot answer me those two questions, then you haven’t finished designing the game.
[Howard] What’s cool is that I already have answers for those questions.
[Monica] Awesome.
[Howard] That is the thing that we got on top of first. We ran a playtest last night and had a great time. Actually, the players behaved exactly like I wanted them to behave, and validated a lot of our design decisions. Which… I slept better last night than I have in months.
[Howard] But those… I love those questions. I love those questions. Shanna, you want to take it to the next level for us?

[Shanna] Yeah, I think in… For me, a lot of the question that I ask is, characters will do what you reward them for. So my question is always what do you want the characters to do? Do you want them to kill things, do you want them to explore, do you want them to tell stories, do you want them to become sort of more developed characters? So when you have a reward system, whether that’s through experience points or loot or some growth of the character, think about that goal, sort of general goal, or sometimes goals, and kind of help them get to that by making sure you’re rewarding them. I think typically you get rewa… You get XP and loot for killing things. If you want your characters to do something else, then consider what your other options are.
[Howard] We gotta have a reward system for whatever the something else is. Michelle?

[Michelle] Well, I’m going to take it from a production standpoint. It’s… You absolutely have to know what your characters do, and you have to know what you want them to eventually do. So you know how to reward them. But you also need to know what actually needs to be in the book to play the game. A lot of times, when creators especially create a game based on their vision, they want to dump everything into the book. All the back story, all the great rich tapestry of everything ever…
[Howard] I’m really looking forward to doing that. Are you telling me I shouldn’t?
[Michelle] I know. I’m telling you there may be supplements involved.
[Michelle] So basically…
[Howard] Wait, wait, wait. I… Supplements? Is that a thing that I can sell again later?
[Michelle] Potentially. Maybe.
[Howard] Right on. Right on. Okay. [Garbled… At conventions?]
[Michelle] Basically, what you want to do is always think about the book from the point of view of your audience, right? Of the eventual consumer who is going to pick it up. It is… It does have story in it, it does have background in it, but it also is effectively a textbook that’s about dragons or spaceships or whatever. It is… It has to be functional, in the terms of the game, for someone to pick it up and learn what they need to learn from that book. So it’s not just about I want to put everything I know about the world in it, it’s about organizing it and structuring it in such a way that it’s the most useful to your audience.

[Howard] That sounds actually kind of complicated. Now you’ve concerned me. Now you’ve concerned me. How would you, Monica, Shanna, Michelle, dog pile here… How would you go about structuring things? Let’s assume for a moment that you have 500,000 words worth of pictures and dialogue over the last 15 years in writing the comic…
[Howard] Of material defining the world in many ways. How do you go about presenting the material to accomplish what Michelle has said? How do you teach the players without lecturing the players? How do you reward the players without railroading the players at the reward? How do you finesse this, so that it’s a well written RPG book instead of Howard’s brain dump? I mean, your brain dump?
[Monica] Michelle talked a lot about the great production aspects of an RPG. One of the things that often happens with a game is figuring out who is going to read this game. Okay? In your case, you have fans of your setting that are going to pick up and play this game. I wouldn’t be as concerned about your fans, because I’m assuming they already love you.
[Garbled] [Dan] They certainly love his money. [Howard] That’s a big assumption.
[Monica] I would be concerned about the people that don’t know anything about you. That will pick up this game for the first time and be more familiar with other games like Pathfinder or D&D or have never played a role-playing game before, and identify what they want to get out of your game, and figure out how to structure it in a way for them. There’s lots of different ways that you can do that, depending upon how you present the material. One of the ways to do that is to do multiple types of character creation. Now you might ask me, Howard, how does that come back to setting? Well, if you have more than one type of character creation, you can expand your setting by giving the players something to do in your world. So it’s not you dumping your brain on them. It’s saying here’s the setting and the context of my universe, and here’s something the players can do.

[Howard] Okay. I actually… Shanna, you’re ready to say something, but I want to pause for the book of the week real quick. Monica, you had something to pitch to us?
[Monica] So I have this… I don’t know if it’s an odd habit, quirky habit, neurotic habit, help, help, I’m a writer. The… I read writers in sequential order a lot of time. I’m working on China Mieville. China Mieville does a fantastic job with the Perdido Street Station. That was the first book in the New Crobuzon series. It’s got, I mean, everything to like. Fantastic world building, it has a mad scientist, it has a crazy journalist, a mob boss, weird psychedelic drugs, moth creatures, and I’m just in love with it. It’s amazing.
[Howard] There’s three books in the series now, right?
[Monica] There’s three books in the series.
[Howard] Outstanding., you can start a free trial membership and pick up Perdido Station by China Mieville for free.

[Howard] I really love the direction you’re going with this. I want to give you a little bit of background. One of the character creation modes that we have is called ablative meat. Which is, when your character takes damage, you can actually spend a role-play point to have one of the grunts, a member of your fire team, take that bullet for you. When that happens, the game master hands you a card, and you write down the grunt’s name and you write down three things about them. Then, the game master flips a coin, and if the coin comes up correctly, the grunt took the bullet for you and lives, and gains some experience so that they might actually be playable and better than your own character later. If the coin comes up the wrong way, they die and the game master tears up the card that you’ve just written on before your very eyes. You get to role-play weeping for this poor grunt who took a bullet for you. I think… When you’re describing, when you’re talking about letting characters… Excuse me, letting players draw on your setting in order to create? I think this accomplishes that, because they should be drawing from the setting to build that character. Are there other things that I should be looking at? I mean, I’m in love with that mechanic, which is why I just told everyone about it.
[Shanna] I think sort of what Monica was saying, to sort of add on to that too, is… When I think about building a game, I think about it sort of as though I’m building something out of Legos, kind of because I’m a Lego freak. But also because it helps me really visualize what I’m doing. So when I think about it at first, I think, “Okay, what’s the simplest thing I can build with this thing of Legos that makes sense?” Right? So what is… What are the basic things that people need to know so they don’t feel overwhelmed, so they’re not completely flo… Sort of blown away and get confused, but that’s still intriguing? So I feel like I’m just… Okay, so here’s this little tiny thing you can build. Okay, now that… Here’s this bigger thing. So just kind of continuing to add on so that they are intrigued and they’re learning more and more as they go.

[Howard] Dan, you play a lot of role-playing games?
[Dan] I do.
[Howard] Are there game books that you’ve picked up that have hooked you in the way that Shanna described? Mostly I’m asking so that I know which books I should go out and buy.
[Howard] In order to do some homework.
[Dan] Oh, man. Now you’ve put me on the spot. I didn’t think I’d have to talk this episode.
[Dan] One of the… One of the ser… I am an unabashed, died-in-the-wool, Palladium Books fan boy from way back in the day. One of the things that I loved about their system was that they would have a couple of pages saying this is what this game’s about blah blah, but then they would say here’s a sample session of it. It was kind of there to teach you some basic mechanics of like how to roll for initiative and how to talk to the game master and things. But more than that, it was different for every setting. So when it was Beyond the Supernatural, their horror setting, it was a horror scenario. When it was their spy scenario or their Ninja Turtles books or all these different things. It gave you, while exploring mechanics, this wonderful description of this is what it’s like to play this game as opposed to this game. I always loved that. That was my favorite part of every book.
[Howard] I’m tempted to do that with a podcast, but not right now. We’re okay.

[Howard] It’s good. We only have a couple of minutes left. Are there words of encouragement that you can offer me? Because now I’m terrified. What sorts of things should I… Or should our listeners… No, really, it’s about you guys, I promise. This isn’t just about me. What sorts of things do we reward ourselves with when we’re writing? Where are the fun bits? What should we be aiming for so that this is enjoyable instead of an onerous, soul-crushing task that’s 70 umpty thousand words long?
[Michelle] I think that for me, it’s great to put it out there on paper, but what is really great… On the one hand, it’s terrifying that other people are going to play in your universe. That’s the point of an RPG. Then, that’s the amazing thing as well. Other people are going to play in your universe. Then their eyes light up and they get excited and then they tell you their stories. They share those stories with other people. So it continues, replicating and reproducing itself. That enthusiasm carries forward.
[Monica] I think a feedback loop is a great reward system. You definitely need to have that. That’s kind of built into gaming. When I’m writing, I like to do what I call mini-tasking. In many-tasking, I break a lot of things up into smaller chunks with my headers. Then, after I’m done with a certain section or what not… I rarely do both styles of writing at once. Because the rules writing and the setting writing, sometimes they’re a little bit different because you need to manage things like how am I clearly communicating this information versus is this in the style of the thing that I want to write. Which is very sometimes challenging for newer writers as opposed to experienced writers.
[Howard] Well, things like using the word damage in multiple ways. When it is a game term and when it is a word that’s actually kind of common, you have to take care not to confuse people. Yeah, we stumble on that all the time.
[Monica] [Our guys] help for that. Absolutely. So, when I’m writing, I do mini-tasking and I do mini-chunks. I break it up into smaller things. I like to say that I write on a regular, consistent basis, but really, I like to procrastinate. So then I’ll obsess about an outline, I’ll obsess about something, and then I’ll just get it all done. Then I’ll just take that big sigh of relief.
[Howard] Oh, I feel so much better now. All right, Shanna?
[Shanna] Chocolate?
[Shanna] No.
[Howard] I’m in!
[Shanna] I kind of… For me, actually, fiction is very hard because I’m a horrible plotter. Whereas, in game design, it’s all character and world building and sort of rules. Then it’s like a choose-your-own-adventure. Right? See, I get to make this baseline and then send it out and watch everybody else do all the plotting. So that’s the really fun part for me, is I feel like…
[Shanna] I’ve done the stuff I’m good at, and now I get to watch you guys do the hard stuff. That’s my big joy about writing games. I don’t know if that helps any…
[Howard] No, no, no. That’s fantastic. Thank you so much for coming and helping me. Here at GenCon, if I’m able to catch up with you tomorrow when we’re not being mic’ed, I’ll ask you the really terrifying questions…
[Howard] That I’m afraid to put on tape.

[Howard] Michelle, can you send our listeners home with a writing prompt?
[Michelle] Sure. So, think about what a player does in your game, or a character, right? Not Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, but the guy who works in the cantina and he’s cleaning up after everybody. Drill down to find one person who’s not your heroic character, and write that.
[Howard] Outstanding. You are out of excuses. Now go write.