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.


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?

Perdido Street Station, By China Mieville, narrated by John Lee

11 thoughts on “11.05: Writing and World Building for Role Playing Games”

  1. Oh, hey, RPGs. That’s something I used to write a huge amount of, although it’s been a while since I added anything solid over at Mythopoetic Games (and those games are all dated, and sort of bloated, amateur and messy. Not worth checking out for design approaches unfortunately). I guess I have some thoughts. Of course, some of this is in line with things said during the podcast.

    Basic Questions to answer:
    1) What do the players do? (as mentioned in the podcast)
    2) What is the relationship between the players and the GM? Is is adversarial, collaborative, friendly, unfriendly? This varies more than you would expect among games.
    3) Where does the narrative control lie? Does the GM run the world, or do the players take over some aspects of narrative control from time to time? That is, to what extent is this a game in which the GM is show-casing their cool story and adventure ideas for the players, and to what extent is this a game in which everyone is collaborating to create a world? Again, this can vary hugely.
    4) How often should dice be rolling? Frequently? A couple times in a session? Almost never? Again, this varies a lot and sometimes needs to be made explicit. It’s easy for a GM to just defer everything to dice rolling, even walking down the street, when that wasn’t your vision.

    Also, as mentioned in the podcast, think about ‘Minimum Viable Product’. What is the bare bones that is needed for a fun and functional game? Create that first. Add to it.

    In terms of layout, go over and read Rob Lang’s guide to laying out RPGs. http://www.thefreerpgblog.com/2009/05/rob-langs-free-guide-to-organising-your.html

    In terms of playtesting, you *must* have some playtesters who have no direct contact with the author(s), and who cannot ask questions about rules or unclear passages. Allow them to work out the rules from the written work, then let them play, then after a few sessions, go and sit in and see how it is going. This is the only easy way to work out where written rules and passages can be interpreted in mutliple ways. It is essential to keep distance from some (though not necessarily all) playtesters, before getting feedback on the versions that are near-final.

    You have to also keep in mind that some variation is unavoidable. As is some house-ruling.

    In terms of design, the Dresden Files RPG does a good job of pulling off an in-world tone throughout. Because the werewolves in the Dresden Files are gamers, the conceit, or gimmick, of the game is that it has been written by an in-world werewolf character based on their real-life magical experiences. Harry Dresden scribbles notes into columns, like ‘You can’t write this!’ and then a section is blanked out. There are actually quite a few editorial ‘notes’ back and forth. Some of it is quite funny.

    Mousegaurd also does a good job. It’s a sort of stripped down version of The Burning Wheel.

    If you want to see a well designed, well laid out freebee rpg, Warrior, Rogue, Mage is pretty darned impressive, especially given it’s core simplicity and brevity.

    I guess that’s mostly all I have to add.

    Interesting podcast, as always.


    1. Three questions, three answers:
      1) The one that you like best, and find easiest to put words into.
      2) Word and Google Docs, depending on what I’m doing.
      3) Yes, assuming it matters to you that you’re using the one that works best for you.

  2. [My apologies if I mislabeled any of the speakers. I tried to match voices and names, but I’m not sure I got them all right. And thanks to Howard, for identifying them most of the time!]

    So… our intrepid adventurers at GenCon rolled the die, and got a winning roll! Which means they had three wonderful guests, who helped them explore just what goes into a great RPG. It’s not enough to have a big universe with 15 years of archives, you gotta figure out what the players do, the characters do, what the rewards are, and… how do you explain that, in a book? And keep yourself going, while you do it?

    One answer is chocolate. For more details, read the transcript, available in the archives and over here


    And just think, Planet Mercenary is coming this year! Played by the best people everywhere!

  3. To defend Howard’s use of “ablative”, his usage fits the second definition below the one you reference describing something that ablates, so he was pronouncing it correctly.

    1. I have two questions that I ask, and which then lead to long discussions of useful stuff:
      1) What’s the biggest problem you didn’t see coming, and how did you solve it?
      2) Where are the pieces where you felt clever, or which you’re proudest of?

      From there I just need to keep them talking and I learn all of the things.

  4. I’d like to plant a seed related to your occasinal references to the Marvel universe. I love the Marvel movies and TV series. The writing and characters work.

    I keep tying the DC universe of movies and TV shows, but apart fom Christopher Nolan’s Batman, the writing and characters fail for me time and again. Why? What are they doing wrong at an elemental level? (Assuming you agree with me.)

  5. So glad you did this cast. A lot of people are probably curious about the writing of an RPG book/story and it’s great to get your feedback. The questions that you ask us to ask ourselves are apt and deserving of further thought for those who want to get out and do it. Thanks.

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