Darrin Drader has written for the top game companies, including Wizards of the coast and Paizo. With over 50 writing credits to his name, he’s got experience crafting stories and adventures.
I emailed Darrin and asked him if I could pick his brain about how he creates his adventures, worlds and stories. Here’s what he had to say.
Johnn: You have some game settings under your belt. What’s your best tip for GMs creating their own settings? And, how do you go about making each setting different?
I think when it comes to gaming settings, sometimes the goal is not to make them different, but rather, make them not the same. Some people refer to this as filing the serial numbers off, in which case what you’re really trying to do is tell stories in an established implied setting without copying copyrighted material.
I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Take the conceits behind D&D: you have humans, elves, dwarves, and halflings as your core races. You also have a technology level around the medieval level, as well as magic, dragons, undead, orcs, goblins. For a lot of people, they need look no further.
Put that onto different geography with different names, and different people fighting over different things and you’re there.
Now, say you want to push things a little further, you need to customize it. D&D is good about including everything that can be considered fantasy and working it into the world in one way or another. It includes everything from Greek myth to H.P. Lovecraft, and takes from virtually every intellectual property and mythology along the way.
So the thing isn’t to figure out what to include, but what not to include. If you’re publishing the world, there are things you can’t include because they’re owned, but there are so many things pulled from myth that they’re totally fair game.
Also consider there are the works that inspired D&D so old now they’re public domain. So, you can have elder gods, orcs, goblins, trolls, and many other mythological elements.
So, I’m kind of answering your question with a building blocks approach. It’s been said there’s no such thing as an original idea, and I tend to agree with that, so creation is a matter of finding the ideas you want to play with and then finding a way of presenting them that seems new.
Keep in mind Shakespeare didn’t come up with any of his stories, but he’s been famous for hundreds of years because he was able to put his own spin on them. I think that’s what every author or world builder should realistically aspire to.
Once you’ve decided, in a broad sense, what’s in the world, then figure out if there are any major environmental differences. Maybe the world is mostly desert or glaciated.
Once you have that, you need to answer what are the major conflicts? This is one area where you can get creative. Is it humans vs. humans? Elves vs. dwarves? Humans vs. dragons? Gods vs. the elder gods? Cowboys vs. aliens?
More importantly, how do the characters take part in this conflict?
Once you’ve figured out the answers to those questions, you’re well on your way to creating a new and original fantasy world.
Johnn: Tell us about your new book.
Which one? *laughs* I have a novel coming out soon called Echoes of Olympus, and it’s being released by Dark Quest Books, but I suspect that this isn’t the one you’re curious about.
First, let me make this clear – what I just released isn’t a novel. The Vacant Forge can be considered either a long short story or a short novella.
It comes in at 33 novel-length pages. It’s a self-contained story, but it’s also the first of a new series of stories I’m writing and releasing at a pace of one per week, at least for the short term.
It’s also set in a shared world created by Scott Fitzgerald Gray, who has written a great deal of fiction in this world.
The story starts with a blacksmith’s apprentice, Antilos, awakening one night to find his master murdered under bizarre circumstances. Although he’s an apprentice, he also helped fight off a tribe of orcs when they invaded a couple seasons ago, so he knows his way around a blade.
He is joined by two of his friends, an animys caster (similar to a cleric in the Endlands setting), Tanryn, and another friend, a half-elf rogue who has just landed in a great deal of trouble during a bungled robbery, named Nalgaar. Through their investigation, they learn about a major threat to the city that could have much wider consequences.
As I said earlier, this is the first part of a series, so even though the story is a self-contained tale of adventure, it also poses questions that will be answered in later parts of the series. Like a television show, or the dime novels of old, the stories will be episodic. It will help if you read them all, but you can also get away with skipping one or two without missing so much you won’t be able to catch back up.
Johnn: The book uses the setting of The Endlands, created by Scott Fitzgerald Gray and shared by the Monumental Works Group. Can you explain what this is about?
The Endlands is a setting that was created by Scott Fitzgerald Gray, who is a screenwriter and occasional Dungeons and Dragons contributor.
The Endlands is a large and complex setting of his design he has graciously opened up to other authors he’d like to work with. He has several novels and stories set in this world available for sale at Amazon.com.
The Monumental Works Group is a group of up-and-coming fiction writers, of which I’m proud to be associated. Many of its members have profiles posted to the main site, though some are choosing to lay low, at least for the time being.
Many of us have ties to the gaming industry, though there are a few members, such as Daniel Rider and Cara Maddy, whose work has more of a literary bent.
Johnn: What’s your writing regimen like? Do you write a bit each day or in bursts or….?
I was on staff as a writer for 38 Studios for the past two years. Sadly, the company ran out of money and is now in bankruptcy, so I’m between jobs at the moment.
That said, I was in the habit of producing a decent amount of output every single day. That does conflict with the writing I did in my spare time, where I would mainly try to produce a lot of material during the weekends, or at night after the kids were in bed.
Right now, given the demands of doing a story a week, I’m forced to either be outlining, writing, editing or producing material every single day, except for the weekends. So long as I’m keeping to that schedule, it’s a regular thing.
Johnn: How do you go about your writing? Do you create outlines, draw maps, make things up as you go?
I outline as much as possible and I try to look for logical holes and bad characterization as I go.
Good storytelling doesn’t have characters doing strange things or acting against their own best interest for reasons that are never explained (LOST). A good story should have a pre-planned arc, where eventually, something of world shattering proportions will happen, even if you get there one episode at a time (Babylon 5). The series shouldn’t just reset after every episode, but you should be able to catch up.
I plan as far ahead as much as possible. I outline the major plot elements and scenes.
Occasionally an idea will hit while I’m writing. Maybe a character will want to do something I hadn’t planned for, or a scene goes off in a different direction than I had originally intended. It’s cool when that happens, and I like to follow what the character wants when they’re trying to suggest things to me.
But at the same time, I follow the rule that whatever happens has to make sense based on things we know now or will know in the future. I will also draw maps if I feel the area where a scene takes place is complex enough that it needs it.
Keep in mind that a story isn’t the same as an RPG dungeon. You don’t have to explain that a character takes a left, goes down a corridor, into a room, through a secret door, down another hallway, into another room, and finally meets up with the orc king that’s trying to kill him.
Instead, you can summarize a lot of that because the reader doesn’t care to mentally map the dungeon. The reader is in it for the scenes and for the stories. And no matter how convoluted it looks on paper, it’s always a straight line from one event to the next.
Johnn: What was it like working for Wizards of the Coast? And what was a typical day like?
When I worked at Wizards of the Coast, I was at the beginning of my professional writing career. I was doing customer service by day, and then by night I’d put on the Bat Suit and become an RPG freelancer. I doubt you’re all that interested in answering customer emails, particularly those where some player was trying to get us to help them overrule their DMs (happened all the time).
As a freelancer, the key is to write, hit deadlines, get things turned in on time, and not suck.
It turns out when writing is your day job you pretty much do the same thing, and the emphasis on not sucking grows immensely. When you work freelance for a company like Wizards, you try to polish up your stuff as much as possible, and then that gets handed off to editors, and they make take it and make you look like a rock star. When you’re on staff, sometimes you are the editor, so the polishing phase needs to lead to a much more professional and polished piece than it does when you aren’t.
Aside from interacting with the creative people who were on staff whenever I could get a minute of their time, I couldn’t really tell you what it was like to be there at that time.
I can tell you I’d be nowhere if it weren’t for Chris Perkins, who assigned several of the projects I worked on to me, and who took me under his wing and taught me a lot of the fundamentals I now know – things like avoiding the passive voice, avoiding the “to be” verb as much as possible (it’s not always possible), and various other tips that you don’t get outside of a classroom (and sometimes within).
Johnn: What advice do you have for GMs who want to tell awesome stories?
When it comes to roleplaying, a lot of the time awesome stories happen not because of what you’ve prepared, but because of how the players react to the scenarios you put in front of them.
The key to telling good stories through roleplaying is the same as telling good stories through fiction: learn how episodic storytelling is accomplished.
If you want the textbook model of how to tell a huge story in an episodic format, watch all of Babylon 5, from beginning to end. People sometimes ask me who my influences are, and Joe Michael Straczynski is probably my greatest one.
To do this well, you have to have some idea of how long your series is going to be, then you have to plant hooks. Sometimes you build an entire episode around a plot point, and it doesn’t seem that important right now, but later it comes back and turns out to be an essential piece to whatever is going on.
When I was working for 38 Studios, we always looked back to Babylon 5 when we were putting things together. It’s a shame no one will ever get to experience that content, because it was unlike any MMO on the market.
We used to say that we wanted to build a world people would want to save. I think anyone building their own stories and settings should remember that above all else, because if you can accomplish that, you’re more than halfway to telling a great story.
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Thanks for the great advice, Darrin! Best of luck on your new series.
Roleplaying Tips readers, if you have any questions for Darrin, just ask in the comments below.