Later this week I’ll be headed northwest to attend GenCon in Indianapolis. I’ll be taking part in the GenCon Writers’ Symposium, where I’ll be sitting on panels on Shaping GM Experience Into A Career In Narrative Design, Getting Into Game Writing, Leading TTRPG Development, and Video Game Writer As Freelancer Vs. Employee. I’m also doing Write Club with the inimitable Alexander Bevier, doing a signing with the talented Sarah Hans, and taking part in the “meet the pros” session of the Symposium. I haven’t been to GenCon since 2016, and I’m really looking forward to it. It’ll be great to see old friends and meet talented writers, and just generally soak in the game-y good times!
This week I started my new job at Crytek, working as Franchise Narrative Director for Hunt: Showdown. I am pleased to say it was a great first week. I like the team I’ll be working with and I’m looking forward to doing great things with them.
There are rules lawyers, and then there’s Fred Wan, who wears two hats as a talented game writer and as an actual lawyer. A core part of the storytelling team for Legend of the Five Rings over many years, he brings his wit, wisdom, and charm to Five for Writing
1-What’s the overlap between your day job and your writing?
There is simultaneously a lot of overlap, and no overlap at all, between legal writing and gaming/fiction writing.
The big point where the two don’t overlap at all is that real life doesn’t try to create a narrative—we as people do. A case might have evidence missing, odd events that don’t match the overall pattern of behavior, or a weird hodgepodge of facts that defy being summarized in a just a few lines. Additionally, in fiction, I can create facts to fill my design and narrative objective—whereas in real life, I have to work with the evidentiary
record that’s on hand.
But having said that, a lot of techniques and frameworks translate between both disciplines. The idea that each component in a piece of work needs to both stand alone and contribute to the themes of the work as a whole rings true in all my writing. Ultimately, effective communication requires me to know what messages I want readers
to take away from my work. The choice of what I passages and images to put in to my writing—be it a legal document, short story, character dialogue bark, or set of tabletop rules–needs to be informed by what I want to emphasize and what I want a reader to take away.
2-You were part of the story team for Legend of the Five Rings for an impressively long time. How did that collaboration work?
A lot of my L5R work required me to be in tune with what various stakeholders were doing, what they wanted, and how they were doing it. I was the liaison between the Brand team, the CCG Design Team, the RPG Design team, the Story team proper, and the playerbase as a whole—because of the unique nature of L5R as a brand, the
players were active stakeholders in how the games and universe developed. Each had different objectives, and each had different tools and techniques to accomplish those objectives.
Collaborating in that environment meant listening to each, understanding what they wanted, then translating that into terms and concepts that other stakeholders could understand and implement. L5R—like any multidisciplinary or multi-stakeholder setting—needs people who are functionally multilingual.
3-Your work has crossed over between CCG and TTRPG releases. How do you balance the two?
In general, my philosophy was that both product lines described the same universe using different languages. So the issue wasn’t “balancing” them per se, but trying to make sure that the same characters, factions, and conflicts were narratively consistent even though they were being described in two different games. The equilibrium point
wasn’t trading one off against the other, but trying to make the concepts and stories be mutually supportive.
Where conflict or inconsistent portrayals were unavoidable, I tried to have the CCG and TTRPG point at specific geographic locations or time eras that were different—“this is true of THIS part of the Empire, covered by this expansion in the CCG, but might not be true of THAT part of the Empire, covered by this TTRPG supplement”. However, there was also an element of players each having their own takes on what the themes of in-game Clans or the setting as a whole should be, and that different players wanted different things from the brand, and different proportional influence from the CCG and TTRPG. My team and I often asked ourselves “ok, we can’t fully satisfy everyone, but can we satisfy most or all reasonable requests?”. I’d like to think we managed to do that most of the time, if never perfectly.
4-What says good tabletop RPG writing to you?
I’m of the view that in a good TTRPG game session, the players and GM collectively and corroboratively tell a story. The details, tone, and flow of that story should be responsive to what they all want. A TTRPG is ultimately a game where everyone involved is responsible for making the session welcoming, fun, entertaining, and
hopefully thought provoking for all participants.
Good TTRPG facilitates that. The narrative portions should help the group determine what kinds of stories the setting is best placed to tell. The rules should support the feel of the universe it is set in. Ideally, the game even helps explain how the rules help tell the story, and why*.
Ultimately, a TTRPG ruleset is a set of tools. Great tools help the playgroup accomplish what they want to do, efficiently and cleanly. Different playgroups want different things. Good TTRPG writing knows who it’s target audience is, and fulfills their needs. Ideally, they also say something about us, and our relationships with each other and the world.
*For example, the Hit Point system in D&D implies that even a badly wounded, tired PC can still function at full ability. That implies that D&D is more high fantasy, more heroic, than a system where someone who is badly hurt performs worse.
5-Where do you think the form (TTRPG) is going from here?
I think we’re going to be seeing much more meta-examination of the norms and assumptions that were baked into early RPGs. Implicit norms, such as bioessentialism, are currently the topic of discussion by many designers. We’ve got a generation of players and devs who grew up with games, have high game literacy, and are fluent in the languages of the various major settings and rulesets on the market. Now we’re seeing people look at TTRPGs critically, not just to point out what’s bad, but to identify what could be better—and many of them are rightly demanding those changes.
That process of improvement is not without its own flaws, because changes often have problems of their own, but I genuinely believe that we’re working towards TTRPGs with narrative content that is more consciously written to facilitate storytelling AND avoid accidental problematic aspects, and rulesets that are no more complicated than
necessary, and elegant.
I’m kind of looking forward to what’s coming, and getting used to being surprised.
It’s GenCon week, which makes it the perfect time to talk to the legendary Matt Forbeck. A game designer, best-selling author and all-around nice guy, Matt has untold credits to his name. Here, without delay, is his Five For Writing:
1-What’s it like to have written literally all the things?
I find that I haven’t quite written all the things, but the things that I haven’t written get harder to reach. I like to write in all sorts of genres and categories, mostly because it keeps me from getting bored and stale with any particular one, and that (hopefully) keeps my writing fresh and fun — at least to me!
It’s also part of a diversification strategy. If the work or audience for one particular kind of writing dries up, I have others I can tackle instead. It keeps me from having to worry too much more than normal about how I’m going to help feed my kids and <ahem> help put them through college.
2-You’ve written for TTRPG, video games, novels and more. What’s your favorite form, and why?
I like writing in all kinds of formats, and I’d hate to have to actually choose among them. They each have their own strengths. With video games, I get to work with (sometimes massive) teams and watch other folks bring my words to life, but I don’t have much control if any over the final product. With a novel, I get total control over everything, but I don’t get to rely on anyone else’s talents but my own.
Comics and tabletop games make a good balance between those two extremes. I get to work with a small team, and a lot of my vision shows up on the page. Tabletop games can get really complex, though, and require more skills than just writing, which lets me work other parts of my brain. Comics have some of the most stringent parameters. Writing for those is like writing 22-page haikus.
If I had to choose one, I’d probably go with novels, mostly because I like my independence. Video games pay a lot better though!
3-What are the different writing muscles you need to use for your different types of writing?
With video games, you often have to focus on the dialog over everything else. It’s one of the things you have the most control over. You can also wind up writing reams of background information that no one outside of the team ever sees, but they need that so they all know what the end result is supposed to feel like.
That dovetails nicely into tabletop games. With TTRPGs, you don’t have to worry about the dialog much at all, but you focus on that worldbuilding instead. You need to give the game master all the information about how things work so they can make decisions on the fly that ring true to the world they’re playing in.
Novels and comics require you to deal with worldbuilding, but character motivation and plot are often more important. Dialog helps sell all that and make it sing, but it needs to rest on those other aspects as a foundation.
The key to the whole thing — no matter what you’re writing — is developing a keen sense of storytelling. If you can keep a table of friends engaged with a story over a few drinks, that’s the core talent. You can learn the other skills to move into other flavors of the craft.
4-You’ve brought one of your sons into the family business. What’s it like working with him?
I love working with my son Marty, and my son Patrick is studying video game design in college, so he might wind up joining us at some point too. In addition, Nicholas helped Marty and me out with a TTRPG adventure that should be announced sometime this fall.
Marty is a sharper student of stories than I was at his age. He knows the tropes and references to other media inside and out. Part of that’s him growing up in the internet age, and the rest is his own natural love of stories.
It’s great to work with someone you know so well. You can skip over a lot of the explanations you’d have to offer someone else, and we’ve developed our own kind of shorthand that comes with being part of a tight-knit family.
My wife and I have apparently raised him to be unafraid to question us, and that’s really helpful too. He can skewer one of my lousier suggestions with a simple arch of an eyebrow and a single “Really?”
5-You’re one of the movers and shakers behind the Diana Jones Awards. What trends are you seeing in the tabletop industry that excite you?
The tabletop games industry is more vibrant and pervasive today than ever. The days of having to explain to adults what D&D is are largely over, and I see lots more people from a far more diverse section of the population not only enjoying games but creating them too.
That’s one of the things we’re trying to encourage with the Diana Jones Award. We recently formed into an official nonprofit and are applying for 501c3 status. The main impetus for that is so we can expand our Emerging Designer Program, which aims to bring new game designers to Gen Con to introduce them into and to the larger world of tabletop games.
Earlier this year I was cajoled into giving a talk at East Coast Game Conference. I hadn’t given a talk at a game conference with a powerpoint in years – mostly I’ve been concentrating on narrative roundtables at GDC, as well as helping put together the content for the Game Narrative Summit and ECGC. But this time I went ahead and did it, talking about the differences between writing fiction and writing video games. Enjoy!
Evan Skolnick is the go-to writer when it comes to learning about writing for games. An established and talented writer himself, he also teaches a legendary tutorial at GDC and is a professor at the University of Silicon Valley. Plus, he’s written an exemplary book on game writing, Video Game Storytelling.A former comics writer for Marvel, Evan has seen it all, done it all, and written it all. Now, without further ado, Five for Writing with Evan Skolnick:
1-How did writing for comics inform your game writing?
As most folks reading this probably well know, writing for games is a whole other animal vs. writing for more traditional media such as comics, movies, TV, novels, and so forth. Although I entered the game industry in 2001 as a producer, I almost immediately began contributing narrative content to many of the games in our studio.
And I had so much to learn about writing for this new (to me) medium! There really was no such thing as a dedicated “game writer” back then, and the term “narrative designer” was years off as well. There were no books or guides on the subject in those days. So, like many folks during that time, I was kind of on my own, figuring it
out as I went.
During this process, while I had a lot of new things to get my head around, there were some elements from my comics-writing background that did prove helpful. The first was that I noticed a significant crossover between super hero comics and video games in terms of the power fantasy aspect, and that both media forms often
included elements of science fiction or fantasy. The visual storytelling aspect of comics, including that age-old Hollywood maxim of “show don’t tell”, is quite applicable to many games. And squeezing a lot of story
into a small space — the art of being concise and economical with your storytelling — is definitely shared across the two media forms.
Finally, comics are a collaborative medium, and so that helped prepare me for the same aspect in games.
2-You teach game writing at the University of Silicon Valley and give an acclaimed storytelling tutorial at GDC. What’s the secret to teaching people game writing?
There are two separate audiences for these two examples, so I have two different
For GDC, it’s a one-day tutorial, and the audience members span all game development disciplines. So in that brief time I have with them, I focus on simply recognizing that game narrative is always a cross-discipline team effort, and try to give the developers in that room some basic storytelling knowledge to help them become better narrative collaborators, regardless of their role on the team.
At USV, though, the audience for our game writing and narrative design curriculum consists of aspiring game designers and writers, and it’s multiple semesters as opposed to just a single day. So it’s about giving these students capability and experience in as many real-world game writing and narrative design challenges as
they’re likely to face in the industry. I draw heavily upon my own 20+ years in game development to come up with these lessons, exercises, situations and challenges — for example, working in pre-established IPs, writing cutscenes, barks, and lore items, world-building, character development, choice design, voice recording support, collaborating with other team members, planning and scoping a game’s narrative elements, and so forth.
I’m not sure there’s a single “key” to teaching game writing, but the principle I probably emphasize the most is that game storytelling is an enhancement to gameplay, and should be working to elevate it, not elbow it out of the way or stomp all over it.
3-What does it feel like to have a game you’ve written (Cuphead) translated into a TV show?
Well, I didn’t create the world, characters or story structure for Cuphead, so I’m probably not as emotionally attached to this IP as one might expect from just looking at the credits. I came on late in the project, as we game writers often do, and so my job was to help the team — who already had a very clear vision of the game
they wanted to make — tell the story they wanted to tell.
It was a lot of fun, Studio MDHR was wonderful to work with, and I feel fortunate to be associated with what ended up being such a successful, high-profile game. But am I surprised that Netflix didn’t consult the game writer to participate in the animated show’s planning or write scripts? Absolutely not.
4-What advice do you have for aspiring game writers?
I get asked the “how do I become a game writer” question so often, a while back I wrote a blog piece providing my own answer. I think it still holds up!
5-What says good game writing to you, and how do we get more of it?
So many things are involved when it comes to good game writing, starting with itbeing good writing, period.
But that said, you can’t just hire any writer for this. If you take an award-winning writer from another medium and just drop them into a game project, they’re likely to struggle because there are so many unique aspects to game narrative development. It’s a bit like when F. Scott Fitzgerald tried to take his novel-writing skills to Hollywood toward the end of his career — just because he was a great novelist, it didn’t necessarily follow that he could adapt those skills to writing for the screen. It’s like that, but multiply the differences by a factor of five.
Unlike in more traditional media, where (in theory at least) “story is king”, game writing is generally a support role. This is a foreign concept to writers who are used to kicking off the creative process or simply handing off a script. Good game writing is expertly woven into the gameplay experience and enhances the player’s enjoyment. It adds powerful emotional stakes to what could otherwise feel like empty and repetitive gameplay experiences. When done right, it’s an intensively collaborative process across nearly the entire team.
So how do we get more of it?
Fortunately, it’s already happening. We’re getting more and more strong game writing, thanks to the increasingly accepted reality that having professional game writers and narrative designers involved and empowered throughout the process is the path to a better result.
Just some quick reminders as to what’s coming down the pipe….
There’s still time to pitch a talk at East Coast Game Conference, which happens in Raleigh April 19-21. I curate the narrative track, so if you have any questions, ask me!
I’m running three (count ’em) narrative round tables at the upcoming Game Developers’ Conference. I’ll be running those remotely, but they still figure to be a blast. That’s the week of March 21-25. And don’t forget the Game Narrative Summit content which I advise for!
And finally, there’s still room in my Game Writing seminar at Scares That Care Authorcon. Four hours of intense interactive game writing instruction from a guy in a sasquatch-patterned Hawaiian shirt (that would be me). Hope to see you there!
I am pleased and proud to announce that I will be giving a seminar on how to write for video games at the upcoming Scares That Care AuthorCon, in Williamsburg, VA. Attendance is limited to 20 folks, so grab your spot now! You can find out more about it here!
Gary Astleford has an entry on Wookieepedia, which automatically makes him cooler than I am. He’s also an experienced video game scribe, with experience on titles like Warhammer: Age of Reckoning and Wildstar, as well as the wildly successful Rainbow Six: Siege. Currently a Senior Narrative Designer at my home base of Red Storm Entertainment, he is currently working his mighty wordcraft on The Division: Heartland. Without further ado, I give you Five For Writing with the thoughtful and talented Gary Astleford.
1-What about game writing appeals to you?
As a long-time tabletop game master, I’ve always loved world building and telling interactive stories.
2-What do you think are the main differences between TTRPG and video game writing?
Tabletop RPGs have a dynamic edge that computer and video games lack. There’s always a chance for TTRPG players to do the unexpected, so a certain amount of flexibility is required to ensure that things run smoothly. Though printed adventures are often written with a central storyline in mind, it’s not uncommon to provide game masters with alternatives and suggestions for when things go off the rails.
Conversely, the stories told in video games are limited by available tools and game systems. They tend to be linear, scripted, and on rails to a large degree. While improvements have been made developing procedural content, as well as branching dialogue and storylines, we’ve still got some distance to go before we can emulate the dynamism of an imaginative human storyteller.
3-What were the challenges in writing for Rainbow Six: Siege, a game that doesn’t necessarily have a traditional narrative structure?
In Siege, the narrative elements are by necessity presented outside of the core game. Siege’s stories incorporate the game’s extensive and evolving cast of characters amidst a narrative backdrop delivered in an episodic fashion. Certain in-game features, such as special events, use a more traditional approach to delivering in-game narrative. However, more dramatic stories and interactions between characters are conveyed via other types of media—CGI and anime videos, comics, online articles, etc.
These various narrative assets are quite focused and specific. One challenge in creating them is to stay on-message, as there is rarely room to write in the proverbial margins. Another concern involves the scope and cost of the assets (which can be tremendous) and ensuring they are as polished as they can be right out of the gate. In this process, Narrative is only one of a number of key stakeholders involved in the creative process. Consensus and agreement across disciplines during production is vital.
4-What says good game writing to you?
I value internal consistency in game writing, as well as due consideration of the player’s agency and their role in and effect on the story. Players should absolutely feel as if their actions in the game make a difference. Providing tangible results for those actions is an important part of my own creative philosophy. While I don’t feel it’s necessary for all player actions or accomplishments to be broadcast or rewarded, there’s definitely a sweet spot I aspire to.
Beyond that, content should be internally consistent—any surprises or plot twists must make sense within the framework provided by the game’s narrative.
5-What are the next steps that need to be taken in improving game writing?
As creators I believe it’s our responsibility to usher in new perspectives rather than cling to those we’re
familiar with and accustomed to. While strides have been made in increasing diversity in games, we still
have a long way to go. Representation, both within our industry as well as within the content we create,
matters a great deal. There are voices we haven’t heard yet and they have their own stories to tell. The
inclusion of these voices can only improve the narrative tapestry of the games we make.
Many thanks to Gary for taking the time to sit down and answer the questions! Next week, tune in for five questions with science fiction novelist and all-around excellent guy Jay Posey!
Justin Achilli and I go way back. Like, to the mid 90s at White Wolf way back. It was a pleasure to work with him then, and it’s been a pleasure to work with him in his time at Red Storm. He’s one of the sharpest game designers I know, as well as an excellent writer and editor, and a thoughtful, eloquent advocate for games. Here he is now, the man who more than anyone embodies Vampire: The Masquerade – Justin Achilli.
1-You’ve been involved with Vampire: The Masquerade for over two decades. How has it changed in that time, and how has your approach to it changed?
For the longest time, Vampire (and all of the World of Darkness games) were made by a company that was a physical book publisher first and foremost. It needed to print and sell books to survive, so a lot of what went into the games served that end: Print stuff with a perceived value and sell that. We were writing and developing sequential periodicals as much as we were writing and developing games. Things like “metaplot” and “canon” emerged less from an intentional continuity and brand-building, and more from survival instinct.
Now, though, the company that owns the World of Darkness (Paradox Interactive), isn’t a physical book publisher at all. So my work on Vampire and other titles is refocused on building a sandbox in which people can tell their own stories rather than printing some-thousand words of plot advancements.
2-You’ve worked in both tabletop and video games. What did you carry over from one to the other?
Overall the thing that I find most important is to respect the player’s time. Audiences have a huge amount of options in terms of entertainment, so I think it’s important to realize what your game offers, whether it’s a TTRPG or a video game or whatever, and deliver on that promise.
I had been working on MMOs a while back and it used to bother me how a lot of MMO marketing was “you can be anything you can imagine in this enormous living world!” but their gameplay was built around three or four very distinct classes or roles and combat quests. That always seemed really disingenuous to me. Better to have a very limited scope and help the player tell the best story they can within that scope than to try to tick every box and deliver adequately on only a few of them. Pendragon is an amazing TTRPG, and characters are comparatively very limited in what they are: Arthurian-era, mostly knights. And look at, say, Stardew Valley — it doesn’t have one tenth of the feature list of, say, Star Citizen, but it’s made millions of people very happy by letting them tell a very distinct kind of story, and it doesn’t pretend to do anything else.
I think that’s the most important part. Let the player tell the story and live the fantasy you’ve promised to them. Games development is project management, so your resources should be scaled and devoted to fulfilling your promise.
Not a sexy answer, I suppose, but a good one, I think.
3-What do you feel is unique about game narrative, and have we been reaching its full potential?
The big difference between games and “one-way” media is the interactivity. In a game, the narrative is helping the player tell the story, so if the story relegates the player to making insignificant choices, it’s telling them that they don’t matter, that what the story “is really about” can happen without them. That does a disservice to the player, who’s playing to see the outcomes of their actions, to make choices and learn what those choices effected.
I don’t think we’re at the point of realizing the full potential there, and I think we’re still a distance away. Look at how long writing as a craft has existed, or creating visual art, or making music. Compared to those media, video games are in their infancy, and they’re a unique blend of all of those things and then some. Some of what’s limiting us is technical or technological — we can’t yet have an AI “game master” that’s as versatile as a human one, and we can’t ship an infinitude of digital assets to visualize or realize what a human game master can describe. But some of our limitation, too, is commercial, in that it’s really expensive to make games and the people funding them want to recoup their costs, so the expenses of risk-taking are much more controlled than in, say, an individual’s effort to tell the story that they’re burning to tell.
4-How do you think game design should be used to tell stories?
I think of game design as the “toolbox” the player has. A game effectively proposes a problem or a series of problems, and the design defines the parameters by which the player can attempt to solve those problems. So there are really two stories to every game (and sometimes they overlap very closely): the story of the player playing the game, and the story events that contextualize the game itself. The player’s story, and the world story that includes the character the player is portraying.
I think this is the part where I’m supposed to bring up the “does Tetris have a story?” exercise 😉
But seriously, I like the definition of a game as a series of interesting choices. “What happens when I do this?” is the source of myriad stories. They don’t all have to be epics or infinite. Some stories happen in a moment’s time.
5-Do you prefer open-ended or linear game narratives, and why?
As a personal preference, I enjoy open-ended narratives, because they make me feel more like I’m in charge of my own destiny. Especially when I’m able to create my own character, I feel like setting my own goals and realizing them is part of that open-endedness.
Which isn’t to diminish linear game narratives, of course, and I’ve worked on many of these. In complement to the above, when I’m playing a specific, named character, I tend to appreciate linear narrative smore, because I buy into the story that this is that character’s story and I’m helping realize it, as the player.
In the end, it has a lot to do with the promise that’s being made to me, especially in game worlds that are part of franchises. In a Star Trek game, I want to boldly go! But I also accept that I’m probably going to end up in conflict with the Klingons at some point. “Linear” doesn’t have to mean the player is resistant to being directed toward an outcome. If it’s part of what you buy into when you undertake the narrative, it’s reasonable to have some expectations.
Huge thanks to Justin for taking the time to sit down and answer these. You can find his wit and wisdom on Twitter, and in the continuing output of World of Darkness books.
Tune in next week for another interview!