Update: January 3, 2009



Unleashing Your Creative Genius!



Writing for RPGs

by Patrick J. P. Lawinger

The following is from an old series of posts I put up on the Necromancer Games forums. It, in turn, is partly based on material I wrote about writing games well before that. I have tried to edit it a bit and I am adding some tags to the right to make it easier to move back and forth. I was looking this over again while thinking about things from a publisher’s perspective.

You can find a number of discussions on the web about writing game material, in terms of technique, formatting, passive vs. active voice, etc. I am only going to hit the “ideas” that irritate some people as they get into writing gaming material. If you don’t like something I say, go ahead and tell me about it.

Mark Charke has a writer's resource page up here. It is a good place to go if you are thinking about writing RPGs. He has links to a number of company websites and other helpful sites. I figure why repeat that information here when I can just link to his page?

Why Write RPG Material?

People have a wide variety of reasons for wanting to write games, modules, etc. Some do this as a “first step” into writing fiction (novels, short stories, etc.). There is nothing wrong with this, some people are going to say bad things about this, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with this, or any other reason you come up with for writing gaming material. However, there is one very important thing to keep in mind; writing games (adventures, etc.) is NOT fiction writing. You’ll say, “But wait, it is creative, it is fantasy, none of these things are ‘real,’ how can you say it isn’t like fiction writing?” Ahhh, okay, here we go… 

Writing gaming material is more like technical writing than fiction writing. If you are writing rules material you need to be concise in your definition of terms, how the mechanics work, etc. Can you use examples? Certainly, in fact it is best if you DO use examples. If your example runs 3 pages and is some sort of testament to your creative writing teacher Sophomore year in high school, you’ll simply lose your audience. You need to explain a rule, not describe it. I don’t care if the barbarian smells of horses and his hair is clumped with the dirt and mud of countless miles of travel, I want to know what his “rage” ability does, how long it lasts, and what its penalties are. Essentially, you are writing a technical manual teaching someone else how to use the rules to play the game (whatever game that might be).

Are you writing an adventure? Great! It still is not fiction writing. This is a single, all-important fact while writing an adventure; the Game Master (GM) is the storyteller. That’s right, the guy that buys a book is the storyteller, not the author of the book. Give the GM options, detail what different characters would do in different situations. Want to describe a room? Go for it. If you create one of those cute text boxes describing it as brightly colored, with beautiful silken tapestries and ornate sofas, and the GM’s PCs happen to flee into the room without any sort of light source, or see only black and white, or are blinded, etc. your text box is simply wasted space for the GM. Describe the room for the GM, let them determine what the PCs see or don’t see. This doesn't mean you can't do read-aloud text boxes, but be careful how you do them. Take into account the GM and remember that he is the storyteller.

Any reason you have for writing RPG material is a good reason, at least a good reason for you to write. Whether or not you can sell what you have written and get it published is another question. That depends on a lot of factors. (Top)


A major concern for many people trying to write gaming material is the idea of their copyright. If you want to publish gaming material you have two choices, start your own company or “sell your copyright.” The gaming industry uses “work for hire” as a standard practice. This means that the company purchasing your work owns the copyright. If a new edition of game X comes out (now this couldn’t happen could it) and your adventure/supplement/whatever was a hit before and they want to update it, they can’t update it if they don’t own the copyright. If you die, go insane, end up in jail, flip out on drugs, and still “own” the copyright the company is screwed and can’t give its fans what they want. This is only one reason gaming companies use “work for hire,” there are other legal reasons, this is just a minor example that is, I hope, easy to understand.

“But it is mine! I want to be able to use Character X in my next novel (game supplement, adventure, etc.)!” First, most companies are going to be happy to let you use Character X in something else because it helps give whatever product they bought from you more exposure. Second, if you want to write games you need to have tons of ideas. A creative industry is still an industry. You need to be able to “turn it on” when you need to and come up with ideas. You also need to be able to discard ideas when needed. I have tons of notebooks filled with a wide range of ideas. I am one of those “nutters” that often carries a notebook with them and writes things down in it. I suggest having something around to write brief notes down in, it works great for me, might not work well for you. (Top)

“But Im a Gud Riter!”

Are you a writer? Here is a dirty little secret that nobody wants you to know. Anybody can be a good writer. I admit that not everyone can be a “great” writer, but anyone can be “good” or at least “moderately good.” Some of us just require a little more work than others. I am a “published author” and I only consider myself a “moderately good” writer, though I like to think I am improving. What makes me “good” is a willingness to edit myself, to throw away huge chunks of text and start over, and an ability to accept critique and use it to improve myself and my writing.

If someone tells you that your writing “sucks,” look at it yourself with an honest, critical eye. If you believe your writing isn’t “up to snuff” work on it. How? Write letters, emails, messages, posts, editorials, or whatever needs writing at the moment. The way to improve is to write. When you write, don’t start hanging on to abbreviations and slang, let them go, write without them. View every opportunity to write as an exercise to improve your skill.

Remember that game writing is really technical writing. Does it require creativity? Yes, but it doesn’t require excessively flowery language or “lot’s ‘o dem big werds.” Write to convey information, not to display your detailed knowledge of Webster’s and Roget’s. When someone reads your submission you don’t want them to say, “Hey, he’s smart, he can write, but this paragraph could be one sentence.”

Another way to improve your writing is to read. Read a wide variety of authors and materials. Novels, newspaper, non-fiction, biographies, or whatever ‘blows your hair back.’ Not only do you get exposed to different writing styles, but you also obtain information that can help you come up with new ideas. (Top)

“The editor sucks!”

Your work, whatever it might be, is going to be edited, if you’re lucky, several times. I have heard people complain that editors sucked, changed things, etc. A good editor can make even a bad writer look great. A bad editor isn’t going to make a good writer look bad. Sorry, just doesn’t seem to happen that way. If your work was edited in a way you didn’t like, sorry, but there was probably a reason for it. Can an editor do a bad job? Well, yeah, then again, so can a writer. If a product comes out “terrible” don’t blame the editor before looking at what they had to work with. (Top)

“Damn it! I don’t even know this guy, how did he get added as an author?!”

Most contracts include the possibility of additional authors, even if you are initially to be the sole author of a book. If an editor or writer has to change more than 10% of the book (this is a rough guideline and doesn’t really include stat blocks or things like that) then they are often added as an author. If you turn in a rough draft, but don’t get a final draft done on time, a publisher has the right to take that rough, give it to someone and have them finish it. Look at it from the publisher’s point of view, they need to get the product out, artwork, cartography, etc. costs money. The delay from final draft to printed product is shortened if the publisher trusts you and can assign artwork and cartography “early” in anticipation of the final draft. Almost all publishers wait for a final draft now, some do assign cover artwork early though. Cover art is expensive, if they have a cover, they are going to have a book for it, trust me, they have to. 

If another author is added to the list, you can believe that changes were made, often significant changes. Does this always mean that your writing was terrible? No. It might just mean that the producer/developer wanted something more, or something different, and for whatever reason (maybe your recent vacation) had someone else do the work. 

Remember, the publisher wants to put out a product, often a product they have already advertised and that NEEDS to be out on time to garner good sales. An author wants to be published. Ideally, these goals go hand in hand, sometimes something breaks down. Get your work in on time and follow the guidelines and problems like this won’t occur. (Top)

“What do you mean ‘follow the guidelines?’ It looks better this way!”

Different publishers have different guidelines. Know who you are writing for and what their guidelines are. If you follow proper formatting guidelines you save editors and layout people TONS of time. Time, as they say, is money. If you don’t follow the guidelines most people aren’t going to read past page 1. You’re the greatest writer in the world? Bully for you lad, it wasn’t formatted correctly, you didn’t follow guidelines, you didn’t get read. Get this, if a publisher needs to choose between a GREAT writer that can’t follow guidelines to save their left testicle (whoops, not very pc, er, left whatever) or a “moderately good” writer that follows specs to the letter and turns work in on time, they’ll choose the “moderately good” writer almost every single time. When they choose the “great” writer, they regret it later on. (Top)

“It’s better on-time than great.”

Need a few more weeks to add the finishing touches to your “okay” manuscript to make it “great.” Tough luck, get it in on time. That’s right, “It’s better late than never.” Does NOT apply in the publishing industry (unless your Stephen King or JK Rowling). Gaming material is more heavily dependant on schedules than most published work. Cartography, artwork, editing, layout, printing, binding, and shipping all eat up huge chunks of time. If you are 2 weeks late, the artist that was going to do the cover might be on to a different project, now they have to find a new artist, adding several more weeks, etc. Don’t be late. If you are late, you are expensive, you cost the publisher money and rapidly hit the “unwanted” list.

“Oh, but I need the extra time for my ‘artistic integrity.’” Get over yourself. If you want to publish something on the web, go for it, if you want to “get published” learn that this is a business and treat it as such. You can’t claim you need time for your “art” if you want to get published. Get it in on time, or don’t plan to do it at all. Art requires discipline. Despite the common views on artists being lazy, flighty, etc., virtually every good professional artist (be it music, painting, writing, whatever) that makes a living doing what they are doing is extremely disciplined. They have to be, and if you want to write, and be published, you do too. (Top)

“How much will I make?”

If you haven't been frightened away yet, this might do the trick. Do not go into this with plans of making money or getting rich. I am a freelancer and “stay-at-home” papa with 4 children. I am now setting up a publishing company of my own. However, if I really wanted to make money I would go back to consulting for biotech companies. I am doing this because I love it, and because it provides me with new and different challenges. This does not mean I don’t take it seriously and TRY to make money doing it. However, I am not banking on this for my retirement or college funds for my children. (Top)

“Can you believe what they said to me?”

Critique, can you handle it? If you want to write, you have to. Some critique is going to be politely worded and contain solid advice on how to improve. Some critique is going to be harsh, unforgiving, cold, brutal, and contain solid advice on how to improve. Some critique is going to be harsh unforgiving, cold, brutal, and completely worthless because it has no advice on how to improve. Learn to accept the first two and ignore the third. 

Sometimes the guy giving you the criticism has been reading for 12 hours straight and has just slogged through something dredged up from the deepest sewer before coming to your work. This can lead to rather, er, “tactless” wording. If they provide advice on how to improve, take the advice and run with it. If you have an easily damaged ego, don’t do this. 

If you persevere, someday you’ll have a published product and it’ll get reviewed. Some reviews might be glowing and good for the ego. Some are going to be harsh, possibly labeling your work as the “sewer sludge of a demented mind.” Some reviews (good or bad) are going to appear to ‘miss the point’ or even look as if the reviewer read only half the book (they might have, for that  matter, you might be lucky they read that much).  Face it, someone is going to like your work, someone isn’t. Live with it. At the same time, look for ways to improve your next book. (Top)

Perfection and Success

Perfection equals stagnation. There is no such thing as perfect. There is always room for improvement, always. If you think you are perfect, I feel sorry for you, you have nothing left in life to accomplish. Take every harsh critique and do your best to turn it into a positive improvement for yourself and your own work. Some people are going to hate you, hate your work, and say nasty things about you. So What? Move forward.

Success comes from Good Judgment, Good Judgment comes from Experience, Experience often comes from Bad Judgment. In other words, don’t be afraid to make mistakes.

Have you been scared away yet? No?!




Why Write?


Good Writing


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Be On-Time


Criticism/ Reviews


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