Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Art of Writing for Games - Serving the Masters

By Timothy Brannan

It is my pleasure to speak (write?) here for the Insecure Writer's Support Group. I have seen links for this this groups on dozens if not hundreds of blogs. I just never felt I was a good fit for the group to be honest because the type of writing I do is kind of different. Sure I still deal with characters and worlds and situations of a purely fictional, if not fantastic, nature. But the characters are out of my control and the world is only good for me in that it allows others to play in it.

What's this mean?
I am a game writer. I write books for Role-Playing Games. The most famous of which is Dungeons & Dragons, but there are hundreds and hundreds of these games out there. I tend to write books that allow people to play in games that are very, very close to D&D but not exactly it. I do this via a license known as the Open Gaming License. It is a bit like Creative Commons, but more restrictive. Why would I opt for something more restrictive? Well it also gives me some tools that are great to use and the ability to use other works that help make my own work smoother. The OGL (and it's "Oh Gee El" never "oogle") is the first of many masters I have to serve when working on a game book. These Masters are the topic of today's post.

Serving Two or More Masters
There is an old saying that a person can't serve two masters. In game writing, two masters might the least amount I serve! Who are my masters and why must I serve them? Well some, like the OGL, tell what I can and cannot publish. I can never say "Compatible with the Basic Dungeons & Dragons game" but I can say, and have said, "compatible with the Basic Era of the worlds first Fantasy Role-Playing Game". Others are Masters I put on myself. I will detail them a bit below and talk about how it has affected and shaped my writing.

First Master: Is it a Good Game?
There are lots of great ideas out there. Lots of great stories. But not all of those stories make for a good game. Don Quixote is a great story. Macbeth is a great story. Neither would make for a good game book. To write a good game book I have to constantly ask myself what would the characters do with this. In Don Quixote or Macbeth those answer flow easier since the author is in charge of the characters. I am not in charge of the characters. I only provide the windmills. Indeed, windmills may be a bad idea. Let's compare this to Star Wars. I build a universe and a huge Galactic War with an evil Empire. What good is that is Luke says "nah...I'll stay on the farm." I have to think about what the characters could do and provide the means for them to be heroic. So Luke's Aunt and Uncle are killed, Ben convinces him, Stormtroopers shoot at them in Mos Eisley Spaceport.

Second Master: Does it Follow the Rules?
Don Quixote isn't going to pull out a rocket launcher to attack the windmills. Lady Macbeth isn't going to use a gun and if Luke escapes Tatooine I better know for sure if the ship he is in is capable of Hyperspace. This is the same as any other writer. We all do world building, sometimes that world building was done by someone else. In my case the rules are not abstract, they are codified in another book and I can't break those rules. Sure I can add to them, even bend them here and there, but never break. This is also where the OGL helps me out. If I say a spell "Dazes" a victim I don't need to spell out what happens, the rules in the books already do. If I say it "Frazzles" someone well then I better define that since that is not in the rules. Even then I have to follow the same format the "Dazes" or "Stunned" uses.

The road I have to navigate is getting narrower! What else?

Third Master: Historical Accuracy...sorta
I not only write fantasy games, but horror games too. One of my pride and joys is "Ghosts of Albion" a Victorian horror game. So ghosts, vampires, werewolves are all fine, but getting a date wrong? Out of the question! Yes I know that having creatures like this would change history, but I like to pretend their impact is minimal since they are trying to stay hidden. I would at least like it if someone opened one of my books and learned something useful. Maybe it is the former teacher in me. For other books, like The Witch, there is less historical accuracy to worry about. But I still want to stay as close to history as possible. So the "historical" witch form myth, fairy tale and folklore needs to be adequately represented in my books. At least to level I think is best.

Finally, The Fourth Master: What Works Best for Me?
I have to make sure the worlds I create work in terms of internal consistency and rules, I have make sure that it stands up to some external validity (history, myth, folklore, whatever is needed) but I also have to make sure that it works for me. I have to be behind it and it has to interest me. I have written a lot of game books for hire. I am fortunate in the fact that I can pick and choose my gigs. I usually find things that work for me or have people seek me out to write things in my area. But every so often I get a gig and the material is not a good fit. In any case I have be interested in the material, I have to be vested in it.

So who are your Masters? Do you know them or acknowledge them? What affects your writing the most?


Pat Hatt said...

I imagine the rules would be a bit of a pain at times, the cat wouldn't like that, needs to break free, no master for me!

kaykuala said...

The 4th master is of utmost importance. One should be interested to assume or even anticipate that it should all work to one's fancy. All others should then fall into place! Undoubtedly though being aware of all four would be advantageous! Thanks for sharing Tim, and Alex for having these made known!


kaykuala said...

The 4th master is of utmost importance. One should be interested to assume or even anticipate that it should all work to one's fancy. All others should then fall into place! Undoubtedly though being aware of all four would be advantageous! Thanks for sharing Tim, and Alex for having these made known!


Joylene Nowell Butler said...

Thanks for explaining gaming, Timothy. I've always wondered, not being a gamer myself. I've definitely been missing something.

Timothy S. Brannan said...

Thanks everyone for having me here!

I am hoping that I don't scare too many people off with my little niche area of writing. ;)


Timothy S. Brannan said...

The rule writing can be a pain. The books I show above are from four different games.

The biggest issue comes in though when the rules are so similar (as three of them are) that I make little "translation" mistakes.

But after a while it does get easier.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

It's all about being consistent. With RPG, that's a lot to keep up with.

Shame you can't say D&D, but I'm sure that would cost a bunch a money and time getting their approval.

Timothy S. Brannan said...


Yeah...but the freedoms I gain by not saying "D&D" out right are worth it. Besides in my area of writing I can say "d20" and means more or less the same thing.

It's a tradeoff. But one I can live with.

stu said...

I suspect there are some parallels with my own gig, which is ghost writing other people's stuff. That thing of having quite a lot of creativity, but only within bounds set by someone else.

J Lenni Dorner said...

This is a truly awesome post. Those types books always seem to have so much research put in. It's amazing.

Stopping by after the #atozchallenge - ROAD TRIP style. ;)

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

My husband was very much into this kind of thing and apparently has a D&D type story in his head--erm, I mean, "Basic Era of the worlds first Fantasy Role-Playing Game." Maybe one day he will write it.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Thanks again Tim for discussing such a unique topic!

Unknown said...

Wow, this was definitely different but very interesting to say the least! I never realized how meticulous the art and craft in game writing really could be. Ghosts of Albion seems super cool, especially being set in the Victorian age. Fantastic post, today!

Chemist Ken said...

Having the world you create mesh well with our world and our myths always makes it more real for me. Thanks for the post.

cleemckenzie said...

I've always been taken with those games and now I've "met" someone who actually writes them! I'm in awe.

I liked how you laid out the Masters you must serve. I hadn't thought about writing games in that way.

Thanks for the great post.

Christine Rains said...

Great post! I'm a fan of Ghosts of Albion too. My husband and I have a lot of game books on our shelves. We're both willing to give any game a try, but he likes certain rules and I like really great stories.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

Wow, I never thought about those restrictions as being masters. I like how you point out that some masters you create yourself. Very interesting insight into your writing world.