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

16.24: Worldbuilding for Games

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

Worldbuilding is one of our favorite topics, and it’s a domain in which game design and novel writing share a lot of territory. In this episode we talk about how much we love it, and how much we enjoy letting other people love it enough to do the heavy lifting for us.

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

Homework: Take a story or game that you’ve written and drop in a few casual allusions to names you’ve just made up—places, people, objects. Don’t try to figure out what they are, just make the names as cool-sounding as you can—soultrees, the Babbling Throne, Kobishar the Unmoored. Then come back a week later and write a page of background on each of them.

Thing of the week: The Dune RPG, from Modipheus Games.

Powered by RedCircle


As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Your number one goal is to inspire curiosity, to create a place that people want to come back to, to explore, to wonder about, to invent stories over. You’re giving them a springboard to tell their own stories. Use the power of allusion, drop interesting details in without fully explaining them. Ask more questions than you answer. Think about adventure hooks, details or questions that people can use to tell their own stories. Work on narrative resonance, build motifs and themes into every component of the game. Ask questions, drop in allusions, adventure hooks, and random details. Then explain and expand later, justifying and exploring those details. Fill the well, then grab one of those old ideas and queue it up. Start by inverting things or pairing things that do not go together, then follow the logical causal chains. Why, how, and with what effect. Focus on the worldbuilding that your players will interact with. Watch out for your personal biases and norms. Make sure all kinds of people can say, “They’re like me.”

[Season 16, Episode 24]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses.

[James] Worldbuilding for 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 so excited to be talking about worldbuilding. This is something that we all do in our normal kind of fiction novel short story writing. But how is it different for games? Cass? What do we need to know?

[Cassandra] It’s actually very similar, I think, in that your number one goal with worldbuilding and games, like in novels and prose, is to inspire curiosity. You want to create a place that people want to keep coming back to. Not necessarily to stay, because some of these places can be absolutely terrible. But to explore, to wonder about, to invent stories over. I think this is especially true for tabletop role-playing games, isn’t it, James?

[James] Yeah. Because in tabletop, you’re often giving people the tools to tell stories, rather than telling them the stories. So the setting that you give them in something like Pathfinder or Dungeons & Dragons or whatever is really a springboard for people to tell their own stories. One of the things I love, as a writer for games like that, is I’ll have somebody come up to me at a convention and be like, “Oh, that lost city you wrote about. We’ve been playing a game there for a year. Let me tell you all about it.” They’ll get to the end of their story, and I’m thinking, “I wrote two sentences about that city.”


[James] They put all that detail in, it was them imagining it, and they think I’m a genius because they created all this stuff. So you’re really getting the audience to do your work for you. Which is why one of my favorite things when doing game design is what I think of as the power of allusion with an a. Where I will, just like drop interesting sounding details in there and not fully explain them. Let them, let the audience sort of wonder about it or decide for themselves what that could be. That’s fodder for them to tell their own stories. The same way as in like a videogame maybe you show some cool art off the edge of the map in the background.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. This is actually very similar to the way puppetry works. Hey, we’ve gotten six episodes in without me bringing up puppetry until now.


[Mary Robinette] But what you want to do is you want to create certain specific aspects of the character and then trust that the audience is going to fill in the rest. Like, we’ve all seen Miss Piggy bat her eyes at Kermit the frog, and she does not have working eyelashes. You, the viewer, puts that into your head… In… You build that mechanic from the world.

[Cassandra] Fantastic.

[Howard] The humor classes that I teach, I use a theater principle called noises off. Which is that the pie fight you imagine is way more interesting than the pie fight I can draw. James, what you said here about allusion, dropping a reference for something and getting you, the player, you the reader, to imagine whatever that was, whatever it is, that’s incredibly useful because I didn’t have to draw it. I didn’t have to build it. You did all the heavy lifting.

[Cassandra] I think that one really good example of that, if you want something to research, is the Bloodborne game from FromSoftware. One of the things that I remember most distinctly about it was there was this whole journey to a boss. You’re kind of going up this completely red river, there are just mountains of corpses everywhere, there’s no explanation, there’s no one giving you exposition. At one point, you see a gate. This guy, who has been completely skinned, he’s just red muscle and tissue, he’s holding onto the bars of that gate and just very gently banging his head against the door. Again, there’s no explanation and it never comes up again in the rest of the game. But I remember just standing there, like, “Oh, my God. What happened here?” My brain just went wild on that.

[Dan] I love that. I do want to give the counterpoint that as absolutely correct is all of this is, sometimes you do need to provide a lot of those details and fill in a lot of that allusion, which is kind of the big main job of worldbuilding.

[James] But, actually, I would… We’re going to turn this into a debate show.


[James] I think that that’s true, but you always need to ask more questions than you answer. You always want to make sure that if you give somebody the answer to a big mystery, you better make sure that you asked another one. Because the answers are rarely as satisfying as the questions, in terms of keeping somebody up at night thinking about stuff. Especially in tabletop. Which is why, when I’m writing for a tabletop book, I’m always thinking about adventure hooks. I’m trying to think, every paragraph, I want to be putting in a detail or a question that could lead a game master to go, “Oh. I can write a campaign about that.” I’m trying to give people tools that they can use to tell their own stories. So, if you give somebody an inn, you can have whatever details you want, but make sure that there’s something there they can work with. Because that’s what they’re paying you for. So even if all you need for your story is an ordinary basic tavern, make the tavern keeper have a criminal past so that at a moment, she’s worried her old colleagues could find her and kick in the door. That’s dropping something in that the game master doesn’t have to use, but they could use to start a game.

[Dan] Yeah. Absolutely, and I’m… I didn’t mean to imply that we shouldn’t be doing that. Phrasing it the way you did, ask more questions than you answer, I think, is a really good way to put it. But, as a game master, when I come to a supplement, if it’s putting all the work on me, well, then, I didn’t need to buy that supplement, because I’m the one doing all the work anyway.

[James] Right.

[Dan] So, I really like it when a game offers me enough tools to work with, rather than being so free-form that there’s nothing there.

[Cassandra] I think that’s one thing that is possibly, like, definitely necessary on the topic of worldbuilding. You can go as light as you want, you can be detailed, depending on the property, but narrative resonance, I feel, is vital. You should build your motifs and your themes into everything you do, including the mechanics themselves, like, every component of the game should carry its weight, doing double duty where possible. I think the Persona series is a really good example of that. They have something called the Social Links mechanics, which makes use of the tarot arcana and builds on the idea that each of the cards has different meanings. Each of these cards are associated with an NPC. You can be friends or romance or whatever. They’re fascinating, because mechanically, the Social Links are just a way of leveling up the personas that you get in the game. Even if you’re not necessarily into the idea of doing the side quests, you’re going to move towards them. Because you want to discover more, because you want to interrogate your understanding. There is this one character that I think of that is a really good example of this. Kanji Tatsumi in the Persona 4 game. His arcana is the Emperor. He begins as this really stereotypically rude, thuggish guy who yells at everything, who is very contrary. But he’s also hiding the fact that he’s an absolute sweetheart on the inside, and he is trying to compensate for the knowledge that he isn’t a typical guy’s guy by over exaggerating those traits. His journey becomes confronting his fears. That kind of ties to the Emperor, that sense of patriarchy and control. What happens when you have too much of it holding onto you? Even though vaguely wandering through this game, you know it’s related to terror. You know it’s related to the Emperor. So you sort of know what you should be doing. That is because of narrative resonance.

[James] We should pause there for the game of the week, which is Dan with the Dune RPG.

[Dan] Yeah. Dune is my favorite book of all time. It just got a brand-new RPG. By the time this heirs, it will be just a month old, maybe. It’s from Modiphius, it uses their 2D20 system, which is the same basic game system that we use on Typecast for Star Trek: Horizon. But what they’ve done here that ties into the world building is Dune is a… Has a really wide range of power sets. You’ve got very weak, physically weak, characters set up against characters with incredible magic powers versus characters who have incredible technology, who can see the future and do all these things. How could you possibly balance all of that worldbuilding together so the game is still fun? What they’ve done is a really brilliant mechanic where your motivations and your drives as a person directly affect how good you are at doing something. So it’s less about the powers that you have and more about why you’re doing the things that you’re doing. It’s a really clever twist on the system and they do a really good job with it. So, the Dune RPG from Modiphius.

[James] All right. So with all these things we’ve been talking about, with dropping… Asking questions, dropping in allusions, and adventure hooks and stuff. This is something that gives game masters something to build on. But it also gives you job security. If you can get the audience excited about something, then you can come back later and continue to write more about it. This explanation and expansion way of working, forcing myself to justify and explore the random details that I dropped before, is something that I really enjoy. A lot of my best work has come out of… I drop a couple of lines… Early on in my career, I wrote about a city called Kaer Maga, and just like through in a line about, like, “Oh, yeah, and it’s full of worm folk and bloat majors and sweet talkers who sew their own lips shut so that… Because they’re not worthy of speaking the name of God.” Like, I just sort of dropped these details in, and a bunch of fans went, “Wait! Whoa! What? Like, I want to know more about that.” That led to setting books and adventures and novels. That’s really my favorite way to work, is to just kind of throw out random ideas and test the waters. But I want to know, how do you all come up with interesting setting ideas? Setting details, specifically.

[Howard] At this point, I stopped coming up with them. I have… The well is too deep. I just reach in and grab something that I thought of 15 years ago and queue it up. I don’t have time for new ideas. I’m going to die before 90% of these hit the page. Wasting time thinking of new ones is awful.

[Mary Robinette] So, with that helpful piece of advice…

[Explosive laughter]

[James] Kill Howard and take his ideas.


[Mary Robinette] Yes. Some of the things that I’ll do is inverting things or pairing things that are unexpected. So a lot of times this’ll be… Like, I’ll take a single starting point… Like milliner assassins was something that we used in an earlier season. I’m like, “These two words do not go together.” Then chasing the logical causal chains out from that point. So I think about like, why do we have milliner assassins? How? So, for me, it’s why, how, and with what effect, and chasing these in the logical. The how is kind of how it exists in that moment, and the with what effect are the effects to the future and kind of to the sides. So that’s one of the ways that I will come up with interesting worldbuilding details. A lot of times, I mean, it really is that I will just fart words onto a page and be like, “Well, that looks interesting,” and then carry on.

[Chuckles, laughter]

[James] I love that.

[Howard] I love the causal chain idea. For Planet Mercenary, one of the worlds has too many metals in it, and I conjured up genetically engineered pigs whose metabolisms push the metals out of the meat so they’re actually safe to make bacon from. When we came up with an adventure in which someone is stealing the pigs, my daughter asked me, “Where do they push the metal?” I said, “Well, probably all the way out to the edges of their skin.” She said, “So they glitter?” I realized, “Oh, my gosh. Not only do they glitter, they shed glitter.” If you’ve stolen the pigs, you are now trying to steal animals that shed glitter everywhere.


[Why would you steal that?]

[Howard] It is now a game mechanic, and it grows out of the idea of causality. You had a cool idea. Make that idea causal for something interesting.

[Cassandra] I feel like causality is definitely a very good way of developing worlds. All of this sounds very much like how I do it. I tend to start with the idea of a primary food source in a world, and build from there. Like, why is it this way, is it a migratory let’s say protein? If so, do people… Are people largely nomadic? Do people settle down? What kind of world would have flying pigs wandering around? What kind of cities would come through? What kind of economies? How do you build a luxury item of it? What would pair with bacon on an alien landscape? Then I start building the flora and fauna and cultures just around that single idea to begin with. I also really like food. I don’t know if that’s obvious.


[James] I also love approaching things from that evolutionary standpoint, of always asking yourself why things are the way they are. Also, what are the evolutionary pressures, and where are they pushing things? I think it’s important when you’re doing all of this stuff, like, it can be very big picture. But focus on the worldbuilding your players will actually interact with. Also, it’s okay to do it patchwork. It’s actually, in some ways, better. You don’t have to just sit down and write the whole setting in a day. If you try to, you’re probably going to end up spreading your ideas a little too thin. So by zooming in and saying, well, I’m going to develop the city today, then, next week, I’m going to develop this nation over here that’s different, you’ll have a different flavor just because you’re different from day to day. You’ve taken in different stuff.

[Dan] Yeah. I was going to say the same thing about focusing on the worldbuilding aspects that players will interact with. I had to recently, for a science-fiction RPG that I was writing a scenario for, they really, for some reason, wanted it to have a diner. It’s kind of a noir style adventure, and there like, “Well, we need to meet the cop in a diner.” So, if I was going to put a diner into this science-fiction world, I wanted to make sure that it had an appropriate science-fictional sense of wonder to it, despite just being a diner. This particular world had brain… Everyone has a computer in their brain, and you can download memories. So I thought, well, obviously what that means then is the chef can make absolutely anything. Because he’s going to just be able to download your grandma’s recipe and then reproduce it for you because he can do the memories that way. Which then spun out, well, he needs access to an incredible amount of ingredients if he can make anything that a customer asks for. That started creating all these things. Then we had to think, well, how are the players going to interact with this? Not just they can get their favorite food, but are they going to be able to mess with the little drones that can deliver these ingredients? Are they going to be able to request specific different things? Keeping the players at the forefront of the worldbuilding changed how that whole scene played out.

[Cassandra] I think we’re slowly running… Well, we’re very quickly running out of time.


[Cassandra] One thing I want to throw in there is when we’re building worlds, it’s important, I think, to consider our own personal biases. A very large budget game that I will not name because I do not want its fans to go after me is absolutely brilliant it is a wonderful thing. Great quests. It’s also been rightly lambasted for only having white people, an entirely white cast. The developers pushed back, going, like, “Well, this is our country. The ethnic majority is X.” Everyone else is like, “No. Historically speaking, this is not true.” I understand everyone’s arguments here, weirdly enough. If you do not think about things, you just expect your norm to be other people’s norm, that can be incredibly alienating. So, when you’re worldbuilding, think about your own privileges and biases, and how it will interact with your players’ needs.

[Mary Robinette] This is true for prose as well. You’ve heard us talk about this.

[Howard] I’ve shared this before on Writing Excuses. My son, adult son, he’s autistic. We were watching Elementary and Sherlock is interacting with an autistic woman. My son, who rarely is interested in what I’m watching, stood behind the couch and watched that and said, “They’re both like me.” I almost wept. Because that is the only time I’ve heard him say that. Everything that we build… Everything that we build can easily be built to have room for people to have that experience. Where they can look at a character, an NPC, or whatever, and say, “They’re like me.”

[James] I don’t think were going to get a more powerful point to go out on. So we should probably wrap it there.

[James] Your homework for this week is to take a story or a game that you’ve written and drop in several casual allusions to names that you’ve just made up. So, places, people, objects. Don’t try to figure out what they are. Just make the names as cool sounding as you can. So you throw in soultrees, and the Babbling Throne, Kobishar the Unmoored. Just write those in there. Then come back a week later and write a page of background on each of those names to sort of justify what it is and explain why it makes sense.

[Dan] Cool. That sounds great. This is Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.