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

16.19: Intro to Roleplaying Games

Your Hosts: Mary Robinette Kowal, James L. Sutter, Dan Wells, Cassandra Khaw, and Howard Tayler

For the next eight episodes we’ll be talking about roleplaying games, and how that medium relates to writers, writing, career opportunities, and more. We’re led by James L. Sutter and Cassandra Khaw on this particular quest.

In this episode we lay some groundwork, define a few terms, and hopefully get you excited about looking at games in new and useful ways.

Credits: this episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Spend some time playing a roleplaying game, either video game or tabletop. Take note of what’s fun and what’s not.

Thing of the week: Starfinder Tabletop RPG and Starfinder Alexa.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: A roleplaying game allows you to inhabit a persona (play a character) and live their life for the course of the game. The outcome of a roleplaying game, the course of the game, is not necessarily predetermined. When you’re writing for a roleplaying game, you’re writing a story, but someone else is writing the protagonist. You have to balance predestination, the writer as the invisible hand of fate, with free will, the characters’ choices. You’re turning a novel into an amusement park. Writing a tabletop roleplaying game is balancing between all games are physics simulations and all roleplaying games are improvisational theater. It has to be fun. Situations need multiple successful resolutions, a large possibility space. Game masters curate the experience the players want to have. The illusion of choice, or curating real choices? The choices need to be entertaining. A good visual model of narrative flow for tabletop roleplaying games is a pachinko machine. Pet peeves? Dead ends. Only one type for a gender. Long read-aloud sections. Other people telling me how my character feels. Game master versus players.

[Season 16, Episode 19]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses.

[James] Intro to Roleplaying Games.

[Dan] 15 minutes long.

[Cassandra] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[James] I’m James.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Cassandra] I’m Cassandra.

[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[Dan] We are very excited to be introducing for you all another one of our intensive courses for the year. This one is about game writing and interactive fiction. So we’ve got two really incredible guests who are both experts in this field. They’re going to be teaching us all about it for the next eight episodes. So, James and Cassandra, introduce yourselves. Let us know who you are.

[Cassandra] I’m Cassandra. I used to work in Ubisoft Montréal. I’ve worked on games like Hyperscape. I’ve also done indie work for titles like Fallen London, Sunless Skies, Wasteland 3, and I’ve done a little bit of tabletop work for D&D and World of Darkness. James?

[James] I’m James L. Sutter. I’m mostly on the tabletop side. I’m the co-creator of the Pathfinder and the Starfinder roleplaying games. But I’ve also done a little bit of videogame work. So, between us, we’re hoping to cover everything folks want to know.

[Dan] Cool.

[Cassandra] [garbled… saying that]

[James] Yeah.

[Dan] Yeah.


[Dan] We are very excited to have you with us. Mary Robinette and Howard and I also have a little bit, a tiny fraction, of game work, so at least we kind of know what we’re talking about. But let’s jump into this. Cassandra, our topic this week is intro to roleplaying games. What… Where do you want to start us?

[Cassandra] Well, let’s go back to, like, the bare basics of this, the very simplest definition of it. A roleplaying game is essentially a game that allows you to inhabit a persona and sort of live out its life throughout the course of the game. In other words, you could be Bob the accountant in your daily life, but in a roleplaying game, you might be Somarian the Elf. What differentiates a roleplaying game from, say, an action game or an adventure game is that the outcome is not necessarily predetermined. There are ways to get to the end, but in between you have side quests with different possibilities, different ways they might go. It might end horrendously in an ending you might not have been expecting, kind of like real life. There are also inventories, there are stat-based systems, and, depending on what you’re talking about, whether it is a AAA type or a tabletop game, those stats might come into play differently. It’s something that I think James might be very good at discussing.

[James] Yeah. Well, especially because in tabletop roleplaying games, you have to do a lot of stuff on the fly potentially, because the nice thing about it is that in something like Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder, every… Your characters can do literally anything. That’s the blessing, but also the curse. Because if you’re running the game, you need to be able to account for all of that. So the thing to remember, when you’re writing for a roleplaying game type thing is that you’re writing a story, but someone else is writing the protagonist. So you’ve got this balancing act, because it’s your job to make the story go where it needs to go, but it’s the players job to make everything makes sense, make sense for their characters, to make sure the protagonist is doing what they think the character should do. Usually, you’re playing with multiple characters at a time. So it’s that question of how do you guide the players through choices that feel meaningful an independent and sensible for the character they’ve chosen to inhabit, but also is guiding them along the right general story path. So, I’m curious, Cass, what do you feel like are some good examples of that?

[Cassandra] At least in AAA games, I think Mass Effect might probably be one of the easiest examples to look at. Because you have the paragon and you have the renegade route. Even though you are still giving the player freedom of choice to go and do whatever they want, once you have it categorized as, all right, this is light side work and this is dark side work, you kind of teach them to go along the path that you need them to go towards to fit the conclusion without ever feeling like you’re holding them on a leash. It’s all about balancing predestination and free will. You are absolutely the invisible hand of fate.


[Cassandra] Although occasionally you need to be a little bit less invisible, otherwise the players are just going to go off the rails. But what I think really is very interesting about writing for roleplaying games, especially, is that if you’re transitioning from like say novel writing, you… Well, at least I did. I had the trouble of constantly wanting to make things linear. I expected the players would want to go a certain direction, they would need to follow the beats that I’d given them. But the trick about roleplaying games and designing them is you’re giving them a setting, you’re giving them a sandbox, you might be giving them a little bit of a map, like a toolkit, some directions on what to do, and you’re kind of hoping that they will go in that direction. It is not necessarily true. To reuse a metaphor about novels, it’s kind of like turning your novel into an amusement park, and then setting the boundaries along with it. But what’s it like, doing similar things for, let’s say, tabletop games, because it’s so much more open ended with the game master’s and so on? With video games, you have all those things preset by design, by audio, by the visuals… Man. I don’t think those terms do exist with tabletop games.

[Howard] Years and years ago, 15 years ago, Steve Jackson said to me, “All games are physics simulations.” That stuck with me. I keep coming back to it and asking, “Well, wait. This game isn’t a… No, at some level, this is a physics simulation.” The second one, and I can’t remember who told this to me, “All roleplaying games are improvisational theater.”


[Howard] Talking about tabletop roleplaying games as improvisational theater. So, for me, writing or playing or game mastering a tabletop roleplaying game is a balancing act between this is a physics simulation and this is improvisational theater. I say improvisational theater rather than improvisational storytelling because we know we want the storytelling to happen, but the theater aspect is what suggests that this has to be entertaining rather than just narratively… Functional narrative. I want it to be fun.

[James] Yeah. I use that improv example a lot when trying to explain roleplaying games to folks. I often say, like, the game master, who’s sort of running the show, is kind of like the director. Then, all of the players are like actors, each inhabiting a character. So you create a character and then sort of go through the story that the director’s running, trying to just act as your character would act. Everybody’s kind of building off of each other. That’s what creates this loose fun story that can go in different directions. I think that one of the things about that is, like Cass was saying, you gotta be careful not to be too linear in your story. You want to make sure that situations allow for multiple successful resolutions. Right? Like, you want to think about… Even if you thought… Your first thought is, “Well, they’ll fight their way through this situation.” You also want to be ready for them to talk their way through the situation, or trick somebody, or cause a distraction. Really considering the whole possibility space, that’s what you’re creating as a game writer is sort of these situations. Yeah, Mary?

[Mary Robinette] So, something that occurred to me as you were talking is one of my favorite DMs, I’m going to do a shout out to David Spears, but he said something about roleplaying that I really… It resonates with me a lot, which was that as a DM, he felt like what he was responsible for was curating the experience his players wanted to have.


[Mary Robinette] For me, that made more sense than the improvisational theater director metaphor, because the director is trying to execute their own vision, and a curator is trying to shape it for the people, for the viewer. So, for me, it often feels more like that there’s a certain amount of second person… Or interactive theater. That there is this path and that on one hand, you can do a thing which I used to do in theater all the time which is that you can give the audience the illusion of choice.


[Mary Robinette] On the other hand, you can say, “Okay. No, you do actually have a choice, and I will go with you on this journey and I will curate this.” I feel like those are two different modes of roleplay.

[Cassandra] Definitely. I think…

[James] Yeah. I think they’re both crucial. Right, Cass?

[Cassandra] They are, definitely. Sorry, I think Dan was going to say something. I saw a finger there.

[Dan] I… Yeah, I wanted to jump in with this illusion of choice. Two of the best pieces of advice I ever got when I first started writing for roleplaying games was, first of all, somebody said that as you’re controlling this story, as you’re presenting the options, you can… If the characters come to a two roads diverge in a yellow wood kind of situation, and you need them to get to a castle, either road is going to lead to the castle. But they get to choose which one they’re going to go down. That’s kind of a blunt force illusion of choice. But then what you can do is add on to that, and present… Just make sure that the choices that you’re offering are entertaining. This is something that game master’s can fall into accidentally, where they make a choice they don’t want the players to make and they present it as being really interesting or entertaining, and then they’re stuck and they have to improvise something. But when you’re writing that, if you are presenting a scenario, you can just kind of fill it with a lot of interesting toys to play with that… And then the players are going to immediately latch onto the ones that are exciting to them. If they see there’s a giant fruit cart in the middle of the street, then they might think, “Oh, we could turn that over,” or we could do whatever. If you make sure to put interesting characters into the space, that will lure them into talking to them. If you make sure to include a bunch of security cameras, then they will think, “Oh, we might need to sneak around or find a way to disable those.” Giving them interesting choices instead of just choices is a good way of guiding them.

[Howard] If you ever wanted a physical model, a visual representation of storytelling, good storytelling narrative flow, for tabletop roleplaying games, it’s the pachinko machine.


[Howard] The balls can bounce left or right, but they always go down. The balls cannot escape the machine. They start at the top, but then there are little decisions along the way. At the end, yeah, there’s multiple possible places the ball could land. Tracy Hickman described this as narrative bumper pool. At any point, you have choices. But all of the choices are leading us in this direction, rather than in the open-ended, the world keeps getting bigger as my players running any possible direction.

[Cassandra] Oh, that makes me think of the first Walking Dead game, honestly. Which I think is a really good example of how that illusion of choice and that use of linearity just kind of worked… I remember articles just exploding after people started playing the game, because people were so infuriated that… With how they never really had a choice at all. The game would tell you that characters remembered what you did. It would set it up so that emotional resonance between one choice or another was just so harrowing. But, let’s say a character you decided not to helping one situation, you would eventually see them later. They would play a role in another set piece. But the thing that struck me most with that game, and how it implements that illusion of choice, is the ending. I think the game has been out long enough that a spoiler is fine.

[Go for it]

[Cassandra] Essentially, the end, you have this 10-year-old girl seeing her surrogate father slowly transform into a zombie. You find yourself with two choices, and they’re both incredibly horrible. One, you leave. Like, you run, you go as far as you can from this person you cannot save. Or you shoot him in the head. Mechanically speaking, none of this matters. The poor guy still dies. But the fact that this was presented to you with so much emotional weight. Like Dan was saying, like, these are toys. Very morbid [garbled] toys, but these are toys on each other side of the road. If you present things that are interesting and resonant enough with the player, it doesn’t matter that they know they’re still going to one ending.

[James] I think the big thing about that is that the choices need to be tied to the player. Right? Like in the example you just gave, both of those are things that really… Like, you’re making the call to drive the story. I think that’s something people often run into when they’re not used to running a game is it’s really tempting to make the players not the main characters. You’ll have that GM insertion character, the like helpful nonplayer character, the sidekick, who just happens to be better than the players in all these different ways. The player tries to go one way, and they grab them and steer them back on course. Like, you can do a little bit of that, but you really always want to make sure that your choices are being made by the players and that they feel significant to the characters.

[Cassandra] We’re all NPC scenario life, there’s no reason to continue being one in a game.


[Dan] That’s brilliant, and a little sad. But I love it.


[Dan] I want to interrupt here. I have let this discussion go on maybe a little longer than I should, because we should have paused several minutes ago for our book of the week.

[Oh, no]

[Dan] Or our game of the week is how we’re going to do it during this intensive course. I believe our game of the week this time comes from James.

[James] Yeah. So the game of the week is going to be the Starfinder roleplaying game, which I was the original creative director on. That’s all about… It’s a classic pen-and-paper roleplaying game. It’s all about space wizards and laser ninjas. It’s science fantasy, so you can kind of do everything from Alien to Star Wars to Fifth Element, whatever sort of story you want to tell. If you want to be a lizard with a grenade launcher or a bug priest of the death goddess, do whatever you want. But I wanted to bring this one up because there’s both the tabletop version that you can go find, and also there is an Alexa version, an audio single player version of the game that I got to write that is free that people can, if you have an Amazon Alexa device, you can just say, “Alexa, play Starfinder.” I’m sure I just turned on a whole bunch of people’s right now.


[James] But I have no regrets. You should play the game, because it’s produced by Audible Studios and has a full cast and it’s really fun.

[Dan] Well, as of this recording, just yesterday or the day before, you want a bunch of awards for that, didn’t you?

[James] Yeah, we won some nice industry awards. I think like best voice experience and best developers. So, yeah, it’s really a fun kind of a new medium. So it was nice to be able to bring this game that I love in tabletop into a voice version that people can play without having a group. You can just be playing it by yourself in your kitchen while you’re making dinner.

[Dan] Cool.

[James] Well, thank you.

[Howard] My first experience with the Starfinder tabletop roleplaying game book was opening it up and literally removing the pages so that I could use them as references, because I was illustrating the Munchkin Starfinder cards for Steve Jackson Games.


[Howard] It was easier to have the pages of the book all over the couch and the floor in front of me.


[Howard] Then to have to pick up the book when I was drawing. I felt a little bad about it. But not bad enough to not do it. I got another copy of the book for me, anyway. So…

[Dan] Oh, man.

[James] Officially forgiven.

[Dan] Well, I love this, and thank you for using this is our first game of the week, because I think it’s a great illustration of the fact that these… This is viable writing, like freelance or career employment opportunities. This is not just us talking about games because we love games. This is a job that people have, that people win awards for, that people get paid for. So, that’s kind of why we’re doing this whole class, is those writers who want to focus on games or on interactive… You know that it’s a real thing and that it can be made to work. 

[Dan] Anyway, we have gone a little over time, but I want to… This is our first episode of the course, so let’s take a little bit of extra time. Because I know that Cass and James want to talk a little bit about pet peeves in roleplaying games.

[Mary Robinette] I was going to say, if we don’t get to talk about pet peeves, I will…


[James] Yeah. Absolutely. We should open this up to everybody. Maybe, Cass, you want to go first, but I’m sure that everybody here has something they’ve seen before that they feel like, “Oh. Never do that.”

[Cassandra] Dead ends. I loathe… I grew up with the Sierra games, I grew up with King’s Quest, and never lost my absolute hatred for how the game would just stop if say you looked at the mouse at the wrong instant. With roleplaying games, I feel like… I guess it should be failure, but the consequences should be interesting. It should be fun to die. It should be fun to see your kingdom crumble away. Just so you know you can see, like, an octopus kingdom rise up from the ashes of it. What about everyone else? What are your pet peeves in roleplaying games?

[Mary Robinette] Mine is… So, I played D&D all through high school. And one of the things that was frustrating is that in this game in which I’m supposed to have all of these choices about who I can inhabit, there were all of these different body types, and just forms for male characters. All of the women were this single, very sexy, scantily clad type. Like, everybody had exactly the same model body. As a highschooler who was already dealing with all of the body insecurities, that was… It was like, “But what if I don’t want to wear a metal bikini?”


[Mary Robinette] So, for me, it’s writers who are not thinking about all of the different types of people who want to play a game and therefore shut them out.

[James] Yeah. Absolutely. I feel like that diversity of choices can also be a thing, like people… Even if folks go, “Oh, okay. I need to make sure that I cater to people in terms of what their character looks like.” You also have to remember to cater to all the different sorts of decisions that people might want to make. So, question your own things about like which characters get romantic subplots. Is it just the characters that you personally would be interested in? If that’s the case, then you’re making a mistake. Right? You need to remember that you are not your only audience.

[Dan] Yeah. I think Mass Effect, which Cass mentioned earlier, is a good example of doing that right. Because most of the characters are romancible, regardless of gender, regardless of species, regardless of anything else, and you can really kind of curate your own story that way as you go through it. Because they took the time to add in all of that extra choice. One thing that is a pet peeve of mine, I always used to think that I hated big read-aloud sections in roleplaying game campaigns, and then once I started writing them, I realized I actually like read-alouds, I just don’t like long ones. If something goes on for more than a paragraph, it, in my opinion, might be a little too long. I remember I played a D&D campaign with James, and it begins with almost a full page of here, let me read you this gargantuan introduction. We were all just laughing by the end of it, because we couldn’t even remember how it started. It was so long. Take the time… Use read-alouds to get across a mood or an ambience or to get across a really great character beat that you really want to be in there. But then, step back and let the game master and the players kind of tell their own story.

[Mary Robinette] That’s right. I forgot that it’s game master these days. I’m so old.


[Howard] My own least favorite is, and this is a sin that can be committed by the game master or by other players. I don’t like other people at the table telling me how my character feels about something.

[Oh, yeah]

[Howard] Don’t… No. You describe what happens and give me the opportunity to react. Because that’s why I’m at the table.

[James] I’d also just throw out, also, especially in tabletop where there is the game master and the players, there can sometimes be a feeling that it’s the game master versus the players. Like we were saying before, like, that’s never the case. Your job as game master is to make sure everybody there has a good time. That’s the goal, right? So you want to… You don’t want to be so easy that your players never feel fit… Never fear failure. Because that reduces tension. But you’re also not trying to kill off your characters. It’s not the characters versus you as the manifestation of their story. So, the number one thing is just make sure that everybody’s having fun. Similarly, don’t allow players to be jerks under the guise of, “Well, that’s what my character would do.” We’re all still there to have fun and tell a story.

[Dan] Cass, what were you going to say?

[Cassandra] Oh. No. I was just going to say that autonomy is just, like, the imperative in this situation. Having jerks try to force their ideas on you, that pushes against a player’s autonomy. Similarly, telling a player exactly how they feel… Nope. No. Those are just pet peeves of mine, too. I’m just sighing about them in the very short amount of time we have left on an episode that’s already run over…


[Dan] Yeah. We do need to be done now.


[Dan] But I believe we have some homework.

[James] Yeah. So, homework hopefully will be pretty easy and fun for folks. I just want you to spend some time playing a roleplaying game. That can be a videogame, that can be tabletop. But, play a roleplaying game and take note of what’s fun and what’s not.

[Dan] Awesome. That sounds great. Okay. Thank you very much for listening to our episode. We are going to keep talking about game writing for the next seven weeks. We hope to see you again. Thank you very much. You are out of excuses. Now go write.