Way With Worlds: The Game – Negatives

despair depression sad man

(Way With Worlds is a weekly column on the art of worldbuilding published at Seventh Sanctum, Muse Hack, and Ongoing Worlds)

So last we met I discussed how using RPGs was actually a boon to Worldbuilding. There were positives in stimulating thinking, in sheer entertainment, and of course using premade concepts to test the consistency of an RPG system.

Now let’s talk the negatives of using using RPG systems in your worldbuilding, be they mapping characters to classes or diving into them for ideas. Yes, there are negatives.

Hey, it’s not all sunshine and worldbuilding here.  Some stuff is just bad.

The core issue is that RPG systems are just that –  systems – and any use of a system can constrain you. That is actually the point of having a system. The problem is the system is an outside factor influencing your imagination.

Which is good. Sometimes.

In this case however, we’ll look at how it can go bad.

Stuck On The Map

Sometimes, once you use RPGs for inspiration, putting your characters and concepts into classes and categories and rules, you get stuck on that very map. The tool for examining and inspiring becomes a straightjacket.

One just has to witness how long fantasy games have given us Wizards unable to use weapons and the the physical endurance of overcooked spaghetti. That’s back to classic D&D’s Glass Cannon mages (and cannons with limited shots at that). Forget Gandalf* running around swinging a sword, or real-world tales of mystics blessed with health and immortality like European and Taoist alchemists. The idea of pointy hat== weak persists thanks, frankly, to D&D and its imitators.

That’s just characters. There’s also the mechanics of skills or technology, worldbuilding ideas, and more that come into play that can constrain you.  Your magic system looks all too much like one in a game that inspired you.  You think in terms of cultural classifications from a Sci-Fi game for the planets you design.

When you think in systems, the systems can end up being a substitute for thinking.  You can’t get off the map.  You might forget you’re on one.

In fact, as noted, it seems some stereotypes have been outright set by games, which leads us to . . .

The Easy In

Some RPG ideas, like the aforementioned Wizards of Wimp Street, have so soaked into our ideas and stories we’re vulnerable to them. How many times do you see the idea of mana thrown around in discussions of magic when it really is just a game concept for a magical fuel tank (derived from yet other concepts)? Some ideas are so prevalent we might not notice they trap us.

Thus when we use RPG systems for ideas, there’s a risk we’re already so close to using them we might not notice the system is trapping us. We’re already thinking in terms derived from RPGs that the right one can lead us right into a cage we can’t see.

As noted, we might already be in the cage.  Maybe you’re already thinking in RPG terms, and are in danger of getting drawn further in.

System Reliance

If you use an RPG for inspiration or to try out ideas in your world, you may also find yourself leaning on it too much. It may provide guidance or help or just plain crazy ideas, but it can also be a crutch. Too much of this and you’ll start needing a system to think or get ideas.

The worldbuilding becomes dependent by a system – when the worldbuilding should come first. If you’ve ever seen a game-master or player struggle to fit an idea into rules, you know what I mean.

Now imagine that happening to your worldbuilding, and you have an extra level of bad.

As a worldbuilder, the world comes first. The rules come as you develop it. Any external system is a crutch, an inspiration, a splint, an example. The world comes first.

Depend on yourself first.

Mechanic Panic

Another issue of using RPG rules and ideas to help you flesh out your world is that rules skew the stories told.

Many, many RPGs are just wargames wearing funny pants – indeed the grandfather, D&D, evolved from a wargame. The comment that most RPGs seem to be heavily based towards killing things and inventory management (indeed, I argue early D&D was survival horror) shows how ancestral ideas skewed current ones in games alone.  Now imagine that as part of your world.

At the same time look at open-ended story telling RPGs, or even freeform ones. There may not be enough details there, the mechanic may be “whatever we agree on” – leading you with less guidance to solidifying your world. Sometimes you want warm and fuzzy characters, but another time you need the economics of space travel in numbers.

Using RPG worlds and ideas means that the system you use may limit the ways you flesh out your world, and thus the stories you can tell. You may have an overabundance of detail that doesn’t help the story you want, or a lack of detail where you need it because you’re used to going freeform.

Language Barrier

Though RPG systems can be useful for explaining things to people, that very utility is also limiting. RPG systems have languages and terms to them – terms that may be useful for a game, but may not be good as a writer.  The language of the game can infect the language of your story.

Think how classifying a story as a genre basically gives people reading instructions. It sets expectations.  It affects writing.  Now if you lean on RPGs for ideas and inspiration too much, the language can become part of your writing and the world.

It could mean that your characters sound like they’re reading from rulebooks, as mentioned above.

If the language of an RPG doesn’t fit the story you’d like to tell, then it can confuse your audience.  Imagine being influenced by a combat-oriented RPG and trying to write a story that has a strong romance plot – but you keep thinking in “combat.”  Your audience may get confused.

Be careful about leaning on RPGs, they’ll affect how you write and think.

As Always – Tools

RPGs in the end are tools for worldbuilding. Tools for thinking and creativity and reminding oneself. Like any tool they should be used when appropriate – and don’t hurt yourself.


* Yes I know Gandalf was more than human, but still.

– Steven Savage

Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach.  He blogs on careers at http://www.musehack.com/, publishes books on career and culture at http://www.informotron.com/, and does a site of creative tools at http://www.seventhsanctum.com/. He can be reached at https://www.stevensavage.com/.