The following is an unedited excerpt from the “Laying the Groundwork” section of theReadWriteRollmanuscript: Create What You Need

Inside-Out Worldbuilding

What you’ve been doing in ReadWriteRoll so far is sometimes referred to as inside-out worldbuilding. You only create elements as you need them. Although you may tug on a thread and explore some event or location or supporting location in more detail because they’re interesting and you see a deeper story there, you explore it within the story. If you’re reading a novel, it’s rare that the author will stop and give you a long chapter on the history of the country the story is set in, or a detailed analysis of the culture and customs of the people. It will come out within the story, as characters experience things, as people have conversations and mentions those things. It’s the cardinal storytelling rule of showing things, rather than telling things.

The other style of worldbuilding, which is a more traditional approach for tabletop roleplaying, is outside-in. You start big. You create the place first, a city, a kingdom, an entire world, and then you start filling in the details. Somewhere in there, you find the stories to tell. Instead of the characters (and the players) driving the stories, they have to go find the stories and claim them as their own.

In many cases, the two styles happen at once and hope to meet in the middle. You build a setting, or use one from a novel, a TV show, a movie, or a game, and the players create their characters and try to find personal stories that tie into the events of the world.

Local Color

Color is any interesting, peculiar, and ultimately trivial information about the setting. It’s intended to make the setting unique, but also to give it texture and realism by adding details that don’t affect the story in any way.

Emotional Resonance

Details that add resonance are there to help people to make an emotional connection with the setting, so that they can better relate to it. Resonance means evoking familiar elements, sometimes from life, sometimes from familiar works of fiction, television shows, and movies.


In fiction, verisimilitude refers to how realistic and plausible the story is. Details make the setting seems lifelike, situations seem as they could happen, and characters act the way real people would actually behave. It also means that the story follows the rules of the genre consistently, as well as any special rules unique to the setting, when it is set outside of what we’d consider to be normal reality.

Leave Out the Kitchen Sink

Focus on what matters. Why elements are necessary to tell the story? Add one or two additional details to those. What elements are necessary to round out the major characters? Add a detail or two there.

Your game doesn’t have to have something for everybody. It only has to have something for the people at your table. If you gain new players, you can add the elements of interest to them, that support their characters and the new character arcs. You can also have them develop some of those elements as well.

The following is an unedited excerpt from the “Laying the Groundwork” section of the ReadWriteRollmanuscript: Create What You Need


Create What You Need

What you’ve done so far is to create a set of filters, or decision switches. Anything you’re tempted to include in your story can be compared to these filters, and you can ask yourself (and your group) whether these elements fit, yes or no?

You’ve also started a list of the things you absolutely do need in order to tell the story. This is the bare minimum that you need to prepare. If you have these things, you have enough to begin play. You can create more than you need, to add some extra realism or just in case the story makes a sudden turn in another direction, but we’ll get to that in a bit. For now, let’s stick to the essentions.

Identify Needs

Go back and look at the plot structure you’ve chosen, and the list of elements it contains. It’s your ready-made list of things to create.

  • A Goal – What’s are the characters trying to accomplish?
  • A Protagonist – Who are the central characters?
  • A Supporting Cast – Who is helping the characters?
  • A Antagonist – Who is trying to keep the characters from the goal?
  • Specific Locations – Where is this story taking place?
  • Tools and Technology – What sorts of items do the characters have?
  • Obstacles – What needs to be overcome to reach the goal?
  • Rewards – What do the characters and players get for reaching the goal?

Create Characters

At this point you will know what roles need to be filled, and what types of characters are possible and reasonable. For one-shot games the gamemaster can create the characters and allow the players to choose, but that’s a lot less fun. It’s usually best when all of the players can sit down and create characters together, bouncing ideas off of each other, compensating for each others’ strengths and weaknesses, and figuring out how they all fit together.

What Do Character Look Like Within the Genre?

The genre of the story will open up some possible character types and limit others. Think in terms of occupations and the necessities of life. What does a soldier look like in this genre, that makes her distinct from a soldier in another genre? A doctor? Lawyer? Teacher? What’s does the average person do? What do the most powerful and respected people do? How do the lowest of the low fill their days? Are there types of characters very specific to this setting?

What makes each character a perfect for this genre?

What Are Characters Like In This Time and Place?

Some character types will be more appropriate than others. Even within the same genre, members of the same occupation will look very differently in various eras and locations, have distinct experiences and aptitudes, and use specific types of tools and technology. A lawyer in 18th century New York and a lawyer in 20th century New York are going to have different abilities and context. The same with a doctor in modern Los Angeles and a doctor in modern Mogadishu.

What makes this character a perfect fit for this time and place?

How Does This Character Relate to the Story’s Theme?

Each character, or at least each protagonist and probably each antagonist, has to have some hook to link them to the theme. If the theme is “crime does not pay” that may be law enforcement agents or gangsters, but they may also be more-or-less normal people with something in their background that gets them drawn into illegal activity or the seedy underworld. If the theme is mankind versus nature, they don’t have to be a ranger or a camping enthusiast, but there has to be something in their personal story that makes it logical for them to intentionally or accidentally come face-to-face with elemental forces.

What makes this character a perfect fit for the story’s theme?

Create Specific Locations

Every scene in your story has to happen somewhere. You can make your life easy by keeping specific locations down to a handful of recurring locations, and only creating new places for something special. At the very least, you will need some personal locations (homes, workplaces), communal spaces (team headquarters, bars, restaurants), and public spaces (parks, town squares, shopping centers).

What Does This Location Look Like Within the Genre?

A house in a horror story will probably have some moody elements to it, but a house in a science fiction story will probably be filled with gadgets. A bar in a romantic comedy won’t be the same sort of bar that fantasy adventurers will be hanging around it. Jail in a drama is going to be a far cry from jail in a drama.

What makes this location perfect for this genre?

What is This Location Like at This Time and Place?

Fashion and style change every few years, and each culture has its own tastes and traditions. More than just looks, each time and place will need different types of locations. Some things would exist in the past but not in the present, and vice-versa, because needs change. There’s also a change to switch things up by using locations from the past in the story’s present. The manor estate that’s been preserved the way it looked hundreds of years ago. The old building that’s been updated technologically, but still shows off the original architecture. The villain’s lair decorated entirely with artifacts from another era.

What makes this location perfect for this time and place?

How Does This Location Relate to the Story’s Theme?

You can pack a lot of theme into location. If you’re toying with the power of family, you’ll spend more time and put more detail into homes and places where families gather. If your theme is that crime doesn’t pay, you’ll be more likely to need a police precinct office, a prison, a dive bar, or a seedy strip club. It the theme is the power of love, you might add more romantic and lyrical details to the locations you use.

What makes this location perfect for this theme?

Create Tools and Technology

All of the things that characters will wear, use, and need have to be considered. As with specific locations, this is where you can add a lot of custom detail to make the setting of your story very distinct from other settings, and add touches that make things fun and interested but don’t have a lot to with the story directly.

What Do Tools and Technology Look Like Within the Genre?

Sometimes the main difference between genres are the trapping. What distinguishes science fiction from fantasy is often as cosmetic as a spacesuit and raygun as opposed to a suit of armor and a sword. A note tied to the leg of a trained bird is unusual in the modern day, and a cell phone is impossible in medieval times. Horses are probably more a form of recreation than a necessary means of transportation in a future where teleportation exists. Make the objects fit.

What makes these tools and technologies perfect for this genre?

What Would Tools and Technology Be at This Time and Place?

When you’re dealing with historical eras and actual places, there’s plenty of information to work with. Even if you’re playing with odd combinations of genre with your time and place, you need to make the tech look like the setting. A science fiction tale in Victorian London isn’t going to have gadgets that look like they came from the classic Apple store; you need to fit the style and materials.

What makes these tools and technologies perfect for this time and place?

How Do Tools and Technology Relate to the Story’s Theme?

The types of resources, and their scarcity or abundance, can play into the story’s theme. If the themes are balance or sacrifice, characters will gain items at opportune times, and lose them at the worst possible moment. If you’re using motif and symbolism, items can carry those symbols or even be those symbols.

What makes these tools and technologies perfect for this theme?


No good story is a milk run. If there aren’t problems to overcome and dangers to be faced, a story is boring. If two people meet, fall in love, and live happily ever after without complication, no one cares. Characters have to face trouble, individually and together.

What Do Obstacles Look Like Within the Genre?

Genre will dictate the form of a lot of troubles. Some things are only a problem is certain genres. Some things will have some alternate forms and special elements in different genres; a person might get poisoned with drain cleaner in a soap opera, but it ought to be a cursed potion in fantasy, or a radioactive isotope in science fiction. Genre will give the obstacles interesting twists, and obstacles help sell genre.

What makes these obstacles perfect for this genre?

What Would Obstacles Be at This Time and Place?

Tool and technology are your friend here, as well as your biggest creative limitation. Society, culture, and beliefs are also ripe to be leveraged. Love of different races and religions will face different obstacles in 1950s American than they will in the America of 2025. Con artists pulling a heist will face different issues sticking up a casino in modern Las Vegas than the will hitting a resort in modern Lapland.

What makes these obstacles perfect for this time and place?

How Do Obstacles Relate to the Story’s Theme?

You can pretty much build your obstacles around your theme, especially if you’re doing a “compare and contrast” theme or have the word “versus” in there. Each character will be one one side of an issue or be the advocate for a concept, and te obstacles will pit them against the power of the opposing concept or test the validity of the ideal they champion. One more reason themes are awesome.

What makes these obstacles perfect for this theme?


Every reward should fit the story goal as well as each individual character’s personal goal. The shape of that reward is going to be tailored to all of the other setting elements. You need to be conscious of what these are so that the rewards feel like the natural conclusion to the achievement of the goals.

What Do Rewards Look Like Within the Genre?

In the Bestowing Rewards section we’ll go into detail on intrinsic versus extrinsic rewards — bragging rights for slaying a dragon versus taking possession of the dragon’s gold. What the character gets out of things, personally and professionally, versus how the benefit materially, will vary widely between genres. In a future where money’s not a thing, gold is no good, but the rare mineral that fuels the spaceship is a huge gain. In a horror game, coming out of the story with your life, all of your limbs, and most of your sanity intact is the only reward you probably care about.

What makes these rewards perfect for this genre?

What Would Rewards Be at This Time and Place?

Setting is going to dictate what sorts of things will bring a character honor, prestige, and pride. Getting a medal from the President can be more, or less, exciting depending on who the President is. Money in a form you can’t spent is worthless, and giving a poor character the means to survive for a few more months can be more meaningful the a fortune bestowed without context.

What makes these rewards perfect for this time and place?

How Do Rewards Relate to the Story’s Theme?

The reward has to represent the moral of the story, the lesson you were preaching, the point you were making. It has to be symbolic. The lovers get to live happily ever after because love conquers all. The detective captures the criminal because crime does not pay. The crash victims survive to be rescued, with a newfound respect for the power of nature.

What makes these rewards perfect for this theme?

Delegate Responsibilities

As a gamemaster, you can share the responsibility for creating some of these things with the other players. Each player should be responsible for determining what their character’s home looks like, for example. If a character has family and friends in their supporting cast, another player might design and even play those characters. If there’s only one player with an alien or an elf, they get to be the team leader when it comes to designing the culture and customs of that race; other players can have input, but they have veto power, because it affects their character the most. One player might take on doing research into the fashion of an historical time and place, while another might look into the tool and technology. It should be a collaborative process, so that one person isn’t doing all of the work.

It also means that different viewpoints and opinions will add some texture and variety to the creation, but there might be conflicts and disputes. This is the true role of the gamemaster: facilitator and moderator. If people can’t work things out for themselves, the gamemaster can step in and declare what’s canon.

As a writer you may feel that you’re entirely on your own, but you’re not. There’s this amazing thing called the internet, where people have already done a lot of research for you. There are also wonderful things called books, an often overlooked resource filled with stories and pictures and factual information waiting to be used in your story.

The following is an unedited excerpt from the “Laying the Groundwork” section of the ReadWriteRoll manuscript: Pick a Theme

Theme is what your story is about on an emotional, intellectual, or philosophical level. On the surface it might be a swashbuckling action story set in 17th century France, but it’s really about how love is the worthiest pursuit. Your crime drama set in 1930s Chicago might really be about man’s struggles with societal pressures. Your science fiction story set on a starship in the 23rd century might actual be about the needs of society versus the needs of the individual. Let the story be the story, though. Theme is color. Theme is detail. Theme is a unifying concept. Theme is the subtle nudge. It’s not a blunt weapon to be wielded with a heavy hand.

As if mixing up genre, time, and place weren’t enough to make things interesting, theme can really give you some good twists to work with. It provides an opportunity to have a message, add a moral to the story, or communicate an idea. It doesn’t mean that it’s lofty or pretentious. A theme just gives you a little more direction, a bit more focus, and helps you narrow down the elements you should be playing around with. Theme can happen on an individual story level, or on a campaign level, or both. The campaign might have a single overarching theme, with individual sessions and adventures having different themes.

Themes are universal, and can help to make it possible for everyone to relate to the story. I don’t know what it’s like to live in space, but I know that heartbreak will drive a person to do strange things. I have no idea what living in a magical city filled with unicorns and talking bunnies would be like, but I know the power of making sacrifices to protect your family.

The theme isn’t a question, it’s your answer to a question expressed as a clear statement. For example, a common theme in literature and film is “crime does not pay”. Period. Not a question, does crime pay? No. It does not. The story will show you, clearly, in brutal detail, all of the reasons why and how is does not. When someone tries their hand it crime, it will end badly.

Common Themes

There are a handful of common themes found repeatedly in literature, film, and television. You’ll probably recognize most of them, although sometimes you may need to tilt your head and squint a little. These themes are ripe for use in your own stories.

Mankind Versus Nature

Nature is a huge topic, so this them could pit man against the wilderness in a tale of survival, man versus extreme weather, man versus the inevitability of aging, and any number of other iterations.

Mankind Versus Society

Societal pressure always tries to drive the way we behave, and often limits what we are able to do. The struggle against this might make one a pariah, a revolutionary, a criminal, or a hero. There are a million causes to rebel against, or take a stand for.

Mankind Versus the Universe

Throughout the ages mankind has tried to determine its place in the universe. This theme is the struggle of comprehension, of developing and understanding religion and philosophy and science.

Crime Does Not Pay

Honesty is the best policy. Good and honorable people will always succeed and thrive in the end. Criminals will eventually be caught and punished. The crimes don’t have to be major, and may only be metaphorical. Moral and ethical lapses will have consequences, and selfish choices with come back around to bite characters in the behind.

Overcoming Adversity

Everyone loves characters that care able to rise about a tough situation to find success. It may be the standard “rags to riches” tale, or someone who starts out high, falls low, and find their way back or learns what really matters in life.

Friendship Requires Sacrifice

The way to gain and keep friends is to be a true friend. If you don’t treat your friends well, they won’t be there for you when you need them. If you make personal sacrifices, people will rally to help you in your time of greatest need.

Family is the Most Important Thing

No matter what happens, family will always be there. They might be crazy, they might create problems, but whether things are going well or have taken a turn for worse, they’ll be there for you. Taking care of family is more important than personal goals and dreams.

The Universe Seeks Balance

When things are going too well to be true, something bad will happen. Just when things seem their darkest, something good will happen. Extremes seem to have a way of balancing themselves out, or possibly fate just likes screwing with people.

Love Conquers All

Working together, believing in each other, and providing each other with support, romantic partners can overcome adversity, survive hard times, and even achieve greatness. Unconditional love is the most powerful force of all.

The Circle of Life

All things end, but new things behind. People die, literally or metaphorically, but new people are born. Similar to The Universe Seeks Balance, but with the idea that all lives have meaning and life will go on no matter what.

Sacrifices Bring Reward

Anything worthwhile requires hard work. No matter how many obstacles appear, or how insurmountable those obstacles may seem, in the end the dedicated and diligent who are willing to make sacrifices and persevere will succeed.

The Human Experience is Universal

Rich or poor, powerful or humble, educated or simple, all people have the same hopes, dreams, desires, and needs. Through numerous obstacles dissimilar people are thrown together, and have to work together and learn about each other, and in the end discover they’re not so different after all.

Other Themes

Those aren’t the only themes available, of course. You’ll find many others, and can make up your own based on the story you want to tell. Themes do follow certain patterns, which you can use to find something that’s just right.

Compare and Contrast

You’ll notice that many of the common themes had forces inconflict. A variation is to highlight the differences between two things. This might take a neutral stance, not judging one thing to be better than another, only different. It might promote one idea over another, by demonstrating the relative virtue of one against the relative failings of the other.

Examples: darkness versus light, faith versus doubt, good versus evil , individual versus society, life versus death, man versus nature, pain versus pleasure

Crafting a Theme

From the lists below, select an Exploratory Statement, a Focus Element, and an Area of Impact. Combine them to create an infinite number of theme examples that you can use in your story. Add your own words. This is just here to give you ideas as to the possiblities.

  • Dangers of technology on society
  • Role of virtue on relationships
  • Effects of totalitarianism on women
  • The necessity of hope on the will to survive

Exploratory Statements

Beauty of, Blessings of, Complications of, Complications of, Crisis of, Curse of, Dangers of, Downfall of, Effects of, Illusion of, Necessity of, Oppression of, Power of, Quest for, Rise of, Role of, Significance of, Vulnerability of

Focus Elements

Aging, Betrayal, Capitalism, Change, Communication, Companionship, Conformity, Corruption, desire, Destruction, Discovery, Disillusionment, Displacement, Empowerment, Establishment, Experience, facing reality, Failure, Family, Fatherhood, Fear, free will, Fulfillment, Greed, growing up, Honor, Hope, Hypocrisy, identity, Ignorance, Innocence, Isolation, Judgment, Justice, Knowledge, Loneliness, Love, Materialism, Men, Motherhood, names, Nationalism, nature, Optimism, Patriotism, Poverty, Power, Pride, Progress, Racism, Rebellion, Rebirth, Reunion, Sacrifice, Salvation, Self-awareness, Self-preservation, Self-reliance, Silence, Simplicity, Sin, social mobility, Technology, Temptation, Totalitarianism, Tradition, Tragedy, Vanity, Vice, Virtue, war, Weakness, Wealth, Wisdom, Women, Words, Work, youth

Areas of Impact

on children, on government, on happiness, on individuals, on men, on minorities, on relationships, on religion, on society, on the will to survive, on the working class, on women

Plot Twist: Motif

A motif is a repeated element that conveys some sort of symbolic meaning, usually used to help set the mood or reinforce a theme. Image, words, and phrases can all be motifs.

As an example, if the theme of the story is that sacrifice brings reward, a recurring motif might be supporting characters giving things up to get something else in return. A man might be remodeling his home gym into a nursery, because he’s excited by the impending arrival of his first child. A woman might sell a prized possession to help pay for a beloved relative’s medical costs. A character might get hit by a car saving a child from getting run down. At the end of the story, the protagonist should then have to sacrifice something in order to accomplish the story goal.

Plot Twist: Symbolism

Symbolism is using an image to metaphorically communicate a concept. It may or may not be related to the theme, and can also be used as a foreshadowing technique. A symbol can be obvious, but should never be presented in a heavy-handed manner. They work best when they’re just part of the description of the characters’ surroundings.

For example, if the protagonists are lost in a barren desert with no water or shelter, but find a single flower growing in the wasteland, that’s a symbol that they’re going to survive. When characters are walking into deadly danger, they may see a crow flying in the direction of their next obstacle.

The following is an unedited excerpt from the “Laying the Groundwork” section of the ReadWriteRoll manuscript.


Using This Section

The very first thing you need to do in ReadWriteRoll is establish the type of story you want to tell, and how you’d like to tell it. You’ll begin by selecting basic elements, which will open up a number of options while closing off others.

  • Pick a Genre
  • Pick a Time and Place
  • Pick a Plot Structure
  • Pick a Theme

It’s admittedly a little formulaic, but it’s meant to get you into the right frame of mind and determine what you want and what you need. You’re establishing what is canon, and laying out the tools you might use. That doesn’t oblige you to use them.

When you know what sorts of details you’ll need, and what possibilities exist, you can begin creating specific elements that your story will require, like locations, organizations, antagonists, and things that make the story interesting, relatable, and more realistic.

  • Create What You Need
  • Color, Resonance, and Verisimilitude
  • Assemble a Bibliography
  • Now Write Your Logline

Finally, you need to determine how your group will work together, what roles the people (as opposed to their characters) will play, and establish some basic agreements and ground rules.

  • Establish Group Logistics
  • Address Player Needs

Storybuilding V. Worldbuilding

Traditional roleplaying games put a lot of emphasis on worldbuilding, which is interpreted as creating a detailed setting first. Things that characters might encountered are fleshed out and developed, just in case they go that direction or decide to pick up a plot thread and follow it. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, and it can be a lot of fun. It can also be a lot of work, especially if you never get around to using any of that material.

ReadWriteRoll focuses on storybuilding instead. You decide what sort of story you want to tell, then develop the elements of the world that are necessary to telling that story, or which make the story more interesting. It’s a far more improvisational. You don’t need to know that there’s a tribe of orcs living to the west of the village unless it’s part of the story. It might get dropped in as a bit of color, to establish something about the world, and hang there as a hook for some future story, but you don’t need to sort out all of the details of the orc tribe until and unless you decide to put them into the story.

As a Gamemaster

The basic assumption for tabletop roleplaying games is that one person, the gamemaster, will do most or all of the groundwork for the game, establishing the story that will be told, the essential elements of the setting, the possibilities open to player characters, and so on. This book is written from that perspective.

The strength of having the gamemaster do all of the heavy listing is that the story and the group will have more consistence. Think of the gamemaster not as a dictator, but more of an editor who insures that all of the elements and each of the players’ contributions fit together into a functional whole.

As a Group

It’s possible to use ReadWriteRoll as a collaborative tool, where everyone in the group has input in laying the groundwork for the game. While the book is written from the assumption that the gamemaster will do most of the heavy lifting, some it’s easy to divide up responsibilities and put different people in charge of different elements. There are note on how to do this scattered throughout various sections.

There’s still a gamemaster, but he’s less of an editor and more of a facilitator. Creative challenges arise in trying to make things fit, but it can be fun trying coming up with explanation for seeming disparities and contradictions.

As a Writer

While ReadWriteRoll is written as a tabletop roleplaying game, it can also be used a a creative writing tool. This section in particular can be leveraged to help you assemble the outline of a short story, novel, or even a screenplay. Wherever you see the word “gamemaster”, think “writer”. The major difference is that you’ll be creating the protagonists yourself, rather than sharing those duties with other people.

The following is an unedited excerpt from the “Laying the Groundwork” section of the ReadWriteRoll manuscript.


“One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.”

T. S. Eliot “The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism

Human beings learn to do things by mimicking and copying the things that other people have already done. As infants we learn language by listening to adults speak. We learn to do math by working out problems that teachers and textbook writers have already solved. We learn how to draw by copying and tracing pictures we like. We learn to tell stories by repeating the stories we’ve already heard.

Through it all is a desire to do those things ourselves. Infants want to communicate, so they learn to speak. Whether we like math or not, we know we’ll get graded on it. We find drawing and storytelling to be fun, even when we’re not particularly good at it. Once we learn the written and unwritten rules, we can start branching out. We begin to combine elements, introduce new pieces, and put our own spin on things based on our various influences and experiences. Nothing is entirely original, made from whole cloth. Everything is a synthesis of what we’ve learned before.

The point being, don’t beat yourself up for stealing plots and characters, monsters and gadgets, costumes and locations, from other works. Everyone does it. Over time, you just learn to do it better. You’re in good company. If people accuse you of being unoriginal, shrug, go back to what you were doing, and ignore them. Polish it to the point that no one notices that you steal, or even better, they love it so much that they don’t care that you’ve stolen it.

Many of the things that we really love, many of the creators that we praise as being innovative, swiped ideas with reckless abandon and remixed them into brilliant, exciting things that we hold up as shining examples of art and culture. George Orwell’s 1984 was inspired by Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We, which similarly detailed the dehumanizing effects of modern society. Benjamin Franklin lifted, re-wrote, and compiled all sorts of clever and witty sayings from a range of other authors when he wrote Poor Richard’s Almanac. Shakespeare took the idea for Othello from a story by an Italian writer named Giovanni Battista Giraldi, and was inspired by a 1562 poem by Arthur Brooke titled The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet to write a tragic love story of his own. Gatien de Courtilz de Sandras wrote about characters named D’Artagnon and Milady de Winter before Alexander Dumas lifted them for his books about the Musketeers. George Lucas lifted all sorts of influences from myth, movies, and pulp magazines when he created Star Wars. It’s practically a game to figure out all of the movies Quentin Tarantino stole from, sometimes shot-for-shot. And everyone steal with both hands from H.P. Lovecraft these days.

I read a lot of books in order to write this one. I can’t deny the influences and inspirations, but this books isn’t those books.

Roleplaying games are especially subject to what’s called folk process. Songs, poems, and stories are passed from person to person, region to region, generation to generation and are changed and adapted to reflect the current times and situations. While we all read the rulebooks and sourcebooks for roleplaying games, where we really learn to tell stories and play characters is sitting around the table doing it. We bring our own influences and experiences into the game, and other people bring their influences and experiences, and when we combine it all with the rules as written and the setting elements detailed in the manuals and novels, we’ve got something new.

We need to learn the rules in order to know how to bend them, break them, and make them do our bidding. We do that by walking in the footsteps of others. But we’re never beholden to obey those rules. Most roleplaying gamers create house rules to change things they don’t like, cover gaps in the rules as written, and add new elements that rules weren’t designed to cover. We remix and adapt and hack rules, with or without the permission of the creators and copyright holders, and some of the most popular and most critically acclaimed games are derivative of previous games that have simply been remixed with elements from other games and improved upon.

As you head into your experience with ReadWriteRoll, don’t be shy about stealing ideas and lifting concepts from other things. Use the pieces to build something new, something better, something uniquely yours. Your game is your game, for you to do with as you please. Never let anyone tell you otherwise.

Here are the featured worldbuilding for writers and game designers, based on Amazon sales rankings. Have an opinion about any of the books on this list? Leave a comment below and join the discussion!

kobold guideKobold Guide to Worldbuilding
Wolfgang Baur

Roleplaying games and fantasy fiction are filled with rich and fascinating worlds: the Forgotten Realms, Glorantha, Narnia, R’lyeh, Middle-Earth, Barsoom, and so many more. It took startling leaps of imagination as well as careful thought and planning to create places like these: places that readers and players want to come back to again and again.

wonderbookWonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction 
Jeff VanderMeer

This all-new definitive guide to writing imaginative fiction takes a completely novel approach and fully exploits the visual nature of fantasy through original drawings, maps, renderings, and exercises to create a spectacularly beautiful and inspiring object. Employing an accessible, example-rich approach, Wonderbook energizes and motivates while also providing practical, nuts-and-bolts information needed to improve as a writer. Aimed at aspiring and intermediate-level writers, Wonderbook includes helpful sidebars and essays from some of the biggest names in fantasy today, such as George R. R. Martin, Lev Grossman, Neil Gaiman, Michael Moorcock, Catherynne M. Valente, and Karen Joy Fowler, to name a few.

advanced worldbuildingAdvanced WORLDBUILDING: A unique guide & journal for every writer 
Jaime Buckley

Advanced Worldbuilding provides you with the tools to craft your own “world journal,” and does so in a simple, straight forward way. Wanted Hero creator Jaime Buckley provides tips, templates and methods he uses to organize the notes you already have, while unveiling a system to develop whatever your heart desires. Create continents, races, governments, religions, technology, magic, plant & animal life—all with a check lists of what readers will be looking for.

worldbuildingWorldbuilding: From Small Towns to Entire Universes
Kevin J. Anderson

In Worldbuilding: From Small Towns to Entire Universes he describes his techniques in creating a rich fictional setting, leading writers through the countless questions and topics one must consider. Whether it’s geography, climate, politics, economics, society, religion, science, arts, or history, all of these ingredients form the basis for a believable setting for your story to unfold.

Stephen L. Gillett

This book is designed to give science fiction writers the background they need in real science to make their fiction read like fact. World Building is a blueprint in words, calculations, tables and diagrams to help writers transport readers from one world to another.

One of my favorite pieces of game design comes out of Victory Games’ James Bond 007 roleplaying game. It’s the concept of Fields of Experience. Characters in that game, if you’re not familiar with it, have standard attributes and skills, but also have a narrative bit that guides how the character can use those abilities. Fields of Experience are things like biology, chemistry, and forensics, tennis, snow skiing, and even wargaming. They have no mechanical function, but exist so the player can say “my character should know this” at the appropriate times within the story. They’re a “gimme”, really, to make the character’s background mean something and facilitate more roleplaying. The gamemaster might wave his hand and say okay, or a roll might be required, but having a particular field means that your character has expertise in something another character with the same attributes and skills may not.

Multiple Intelligences

Something else that I’ve been fascinated with for a long time is Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. It’s not a game thing, it’s a psychology thing. Gardner postulates that intelligence isn’t a single unified ability, but a spectrum of aptitudes. There is no generic “smart”. Some people are good at math, others excel at music, or have outstanding people skills. There are a range of these intelligences, including spatial reasoning, motor skills, linguists, and even things like introspection, spirituality, and an affinity for nature.

Rather than try to emulate more traditional attributes and statistics for characters, ReadWriteRoll will have character aptitudes that more-or-less parallel Gardner’s multiple intelligences, with some tweaks. They’re broad categories of the sorts of things a character is good at, but they’re only half of the equation. The character’s background will give them context.

Aptitudes Require Context

Two characters with the same score in, say, Reason, will use it differently. A theoretical physicist on a starship will use it to solve the complex equations necessary to plot a course with the hyperdrive, while a thief in a fantasy city will use it to solve a riddle or suss out how to disarm a trap. Neither the physicist nor the thief can do what the other one does, not because they don’t possess the aptitude, but because they lack the training and experience required. They might, given time and resources, be able to learn, but they couldn’t just call up the ability on the spot and do it. It can’t be justified in the context of either the character’s history or the setting.

Who the characters are, the things you know about them at the start of the adventure, the details you fill in along the way, and the things that happen to them during play, matter as much as the numbers on their character sheet. Think about the characters in novels, movies, and television shows who start off not knowing squat, but put a sword in their hand and point them toward a monster and they figure things out quickly. Before long, they’ve got the hang of it, and become decent warriors. They had the aptitude, but what they lacked was opportunity and guidance.

The other thing about tempering aptitude with context is that different characters can achieve the same results in different ways. Let’s say there are three samurai, all trained by the same master. They all attack with their swords. One uses her aptitude with motor skills, so she’s faster than her opponent, controls her blade as if it’s an extension of her arm, and strikes that way. Another has an aptitude for spacial awareness, and uses that to identify how his opponent moves and where he leaves himself vulnerable, and strikes that way. The third has an aptitude for reason, and has also studied anatomy, so he strikes by targeting the areas that will do the most damage to his opponent. These three characters are made possible by different aptitudes, but they also tell different stories. The player and the gamemaster will describe their actions differently.

Aptitudes in Character Creation

Right now I haven’t finalized the what the aptitudes will be. I’ve playtested with as few as 6 and as many as 10, with varying combinations and names. I’m not sure what will be in the playtest document, but I’m leaning toward all 10. The beautiful thing is, it doesn’t actually matter. Assigning attribute modifiers is a zero-sum system; whenever you give a character a +1 in something, you need to balance that with a -1 in something else, so all attribute modifiers added together total zero. Because of that, you can use or discard any combination of aptitudes to fit the game you’re running. You can also rename them to suit, as long as you keep the definitions intact. If you want to call the Social Skills aptitude “Charisma” or “Presence” or something else entirely, have at it. It’s your game, after all, and you get to tell the story in whatever way works best for you.

Read Write RollHere is a chapter-by-chapter overview of the ReadWriteRoll layout, including descriptions of each section’s contents, and my design goals for the game. Everything is open for discussion, and subject to change, as playtesting and development continue.

Laying the Groundwork

Begin by deciding on the sorts of stories you want to tell. Determine the genre, tropes, setting, and source materials you’ll use. Make a list of the things you like and have to include, and the things you dislike and will try avoid or leave out entirely.

What’s in this section?

  • An explanation and sampling of genres
  • An explanation of tropes
  • Deciding what you do and don’t want in your game
  • Establishing basic elements – a goal, who the protagonists are, determining what sort of supporting characters are needed, finding the right antagonist and their support system, obstacles, rewards
  • Creating a bibliography/filmography/soundtrack
  • Establishing social contracts and group logistics

Designer notes for this section

ReadWriteRoll is “generic” in that there is no specific genre or setting. The gamemaster gets to work that out individually, or the group can do it collaboratively. Laying the groundwork is about determining what sort of stories you intend to tell, and putting down some ground rules around how your group will work.

Most games have a token section about what a game is and how it works, with the emphasis on how the rules work or how to create characters. I wanted to begin with the foundation of storytelling and social dynamics.

Structuring Your Game

Determine what types of plot structures and game session organization best suit your story and your group. Create a dynamic that is both logistically free from stress and creatively fulfilling for everyone involved.

What’s in this section?

  • The 3-Act Standard – beginning, middle, and end
  • Several types of story structures
  • How to structure encounters, adventures, and entire campaigns.

Designer notes for this section

My best moments as a gamemaster have come when players give me background information on their characters that I can turn into plots and subplots, use to create antagonists, and leverage to flesh out parts of the world. My most frustrating moments as a player have been when I create a background for me player and the gamemaster completely ignores it, making the game and my character generic.

I think it’s important to talk to players, and not just gamemasters, about how stories are constructed, so that players can contribute and know how to participate.

Games need structure, and plot is structure. Building the game around a familiar plot structure is intended to make both prep and play easier.

Creating Characters

Populate you story with player character protagonists, challenging antagonists to test the mettle of your heroes, an interesting supporting cast to interact with, and ordinary people to bring the world to life.

What’s in this section?

  • Character archetypes based personalities and story roles, rather than abilities.
  • Writing character backgrounds
  • Establishing relationships between characters
  • Determining character aptitudes
  • Aptitudes in context of background
  • How injuries and complications work
  • Overview of character advancement

Designer notes for this section

I wanted to reverse the standard roleplaying game methodology of determining a character’s statistics and abilities first and then, maybe, figuring out who they are and why they do what they do. When we model characters from books, comics, movies, and television, we look at who they are and what they do and then try to figure out how to translate that into game terms, so why not do the same with player characters?

This section not just player character/protagonist focused, but also covers character creation for antagonists and supporting cast, further blurring the traditional division between “sections for players” and “sections for gamemasters”..

Managing Success and Failure

Use the rules to help tell the story, leveraging the uncertainty of success or failure inherent in the tasks characters perform to create dramatic tension and move the game along in unpredictable ways.

What’s in this section?

  • The core mechanic
  • Reasons to roll the dice
  • Interpreting degree of success and failure
  • Assigning injuries and complications

Designer notes for this section

This is the section I suspect most traditional roleplayers will flip to first, and that’s fine. I think establishing setting and types of stories, and the types of characters necessary to inhabit those worlds and tell those stories, comes before learning how to resolve tasks and adjudicate character actions.

Enforcing Game Balance

Design encounters to insure that every character has something to do. Learn to not only play to character strengths, but create tension by touching on their weaknesses.

What’s in this section?

  • Playing to characters’ strengths
  • Acknowledging what players want from the story and the game
  • Exploiting character flaws for dramatic effect
  • Keeping players engaged and participating

Designer notes for this section

My philosophy is that game balance doesn’t require making every character statistically equal or equivalent. It’s about making them equally interesting by giving them each things to do that play to their individual strengths and prey on their individual weaknesses.

This is more or less the equivalent of the gamemaster’s section, showing how to design encounters, adventures, and campaigns with the player characters/ protagonists in mind. It’s not about worldbuilding, it’s about using the world elements already established to tell a story and present the characters with challenges and obstacles.

Bestowing Rewards

Advance the characters, allowing them to increase their skills, learn new abiities, and fulfill their story goals. Create satisfying closure to character arcs, stories, and ongoing plot points.

What’s in this section?

  • Intrinsic and extrinsic rewards
  • Character story resolution and growth
  • Character mechanical advancement and improvement
  • Creating a satisfying experience for your players/readers

Designer notes for this section

“Leveling up” and becoming more powerful mechanically isn’t the typical character progression in fiction, and it isn’t here, either. Sometimes the protagonist just wants to get the girl, save the city, or slay the dragon. Progression and advancement — rewards — are based on accomplishing story goals and giving the characters what they need to tackle the next challenging in the story. Ultimately, it’s about giving them the means to write a satisfying end to their character’s story.

Give Me Your Feedback

Drop by the comments or contact me directly. I want to know what you think. I recognize that this game will not appeal to everyone, but I know that the tribe that will love this approach is out there and I want to hear from you. Please share with everyone you know who might also be interested, and be sure to subscribe to the newsletter to gain access to the playtest files as the become available.

Normally I try to avoid saying things in public that might be taken as inflammatory or confrontational, but sometimes you just need to say what has to be said and deal with the consequences if and when they occur. 

A Curmudgeonly Writer’s Manifesto

I work in a field that pays very little and requires a lot of hard work to eke out a modest living. Neither of those things — the pay or the work — bother me because I love what I do. It’s also a field filled with armchair critics, immature trolls, and uninformed people who presume to tell you how to do your job. Maybe they’re well intentioned and offer some useful and even valuable feedback. Sometimes they’re just trying to tear you down and mess with your head. Most of the time, they have no idea what they’re talking about, assume your job is easy and anyone can do it, and either intentionally or unintentionally make it clear that they don’t place a lot of value in what you do.

Now, I can listen to these people, pander to them, try to make them happy by doing things their way, and give their squeaky wheels the grease they desire, but in the end I’m still going to be in a field that doesn’t pay particularly well, surrounded by people picking away at my work and my qualifications. I will have let them know that I’m willing to cave in to their taunts, jibes, and demands by changing my vision and altering the way I work, and I’ll end up creating something that I’m really not happy with.

Or, I can just ignore everyone, do what I’m going to do, and place my trust in my own training and experience and instincts. The pay will still be miserable and those people will still be out there, but I’ll have my integrity intact and I’ll at least have the sense of satisfaction that I created the thing that I wanted to created, to the best of my ability, the way I wanted to create it. If people like it, if I find a small tribe of folks who get what I was going for and appreciate it, great. If not, oh well. I didn’t make it for everyone. I made it for me.

Recently I came across a discussion of Appendix N, it’s place in the canon of fantasy roleplaying, and whether things can or should be added or removed from it. A lot of people like to compare and contrast the original list compiled by Gary Gygax with lists in later editions and other games, debating omissions and the worthiness of newer works. It can be an interesting conversation, and I’m always in favor of recognizing the influence literature has had on table top games and vice-versa.

The argument that really got to me was from a pretty hard line purist. If Gygax put it on the list, it belongs on the list, period. If he didn’t put it on the list, it doesn’t belong on the list and shouldn’t be added, period. Even though Gygax apparently stated in later interviews that he’d missed a few things that he thought could be included, this person declared that if it wasn’t in the book it doesn’t count. Appendix N as compiled by Gygax is forever immutable, and is one of the things that should be reproduced without change. Even though the rules may change, the works that inspired Gygax to create the game should not be tampered with, in other to preserve the spirit of the game.

I’m not going to link to that discussion, because I obviously disagree with it. The original Appendix N is perfectly preserved where it belongs, in the edition of the book that it inspired. Later designers are free to add or remove things to reflect the works that inspired the game or edition that they worked on. That Appendix N continues to be a topic of discussion almost 40 years later is adequate tribute and as faithful a curation of its legacy as it could possibly get. In short: don’t overthink it.

Such purism really misses the point of Appendix N. Gygax never really explained why he listed those books or how they influenced him. Sometimes it’s obvious, other times people are left scratching their heads trying to figure out what possible connection there could be. People seem to be looking for direct, literal, one-for-one connections. They want to see the class ability, the monster, the spell, or the magic item that got lifted whole cloth for the original game, but it simply doesn’t work like that consistently. Inspiration is more than mechanical parts to be stripped and converted, a subtly missed by people who complain that they read this-or-that book from Appendix N and didn’t find a single monster or artifact that they could steal for their home game.

The very fact that purists even exists sort of cracks me up as well. I’m not laughing at anyone, because everyone is free to roleplay however they want, but the concept of a canonical Appendix N in relation to the legacy game that started the hobby is absurd. Everything is a remix. Gygax lifted bits and pieces of other peoples’ work and made something he could call his own, but don’t you dare try to do the exact same thing with Gygax’s work. The literary works of Lieber, Moorcock, Tolkien, Vance, et. al. aren’t sacred and untouchable, but the game design Gygax created from the essence of those works is.

Here’s the thing: Every time you sit down at a table to start rolling dice and telling stories, you’re creating something new. It’s not Gary’s game, any more than Gary’s game was the books in Appendix N. We each bring our own influences and experiences, and we each take those and transform than into something that is unique to us. That, to me, is the point of Appendix N. It’s not the destination, it’s a sample map to get us started on our individual journey.