Posted on by Steven Savage

chessboard chess

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

A lot of people who wolrdbuild get into roleplaying games. I feel I can make this statement clearly; its true in my experience, and of course I’m not quoting any numbers so I have deniability. I’m covered here!

But seriously, it seems like people get ideas from, put ideas into, or think of ideas in forms of RPGs. I’m not just talking the freeform collective storytelling style of RPGs – I’m talking about the rules-and-dice type RPGs that we’re all familiar with.

We wonder what class a character would be in a given game.

We try and build a character we made in a given game.

We think of game rules as writing guidelines.

We get ideas looking over game rules.

And more . . .

You can see it in writing and worldbuilding culture – it’s far beyond “what class is Frodo in D&D.”  It’s when we talk about systems like “Magic Systems” that are straight out of RPG designs.  It’s when we debate esoterica of item pricing that sound like we going over RPG pricelists.  Thinking in game terms is built into the idea of worldbuilding.

However I’ve also had discussions with people concerned about the “gamification” of worldbuilding.   Why must we hear someone say “well, in terms of Warhammer . . . ” or hear characters descried by old D&D classes?  Is thinking in “Magic Systems” limiting us?  Is the use of RPG terminology, ideas, and even rules a hinderance or a help in worldbuilding.

So for those of you who are worldbuilders and gamers, I’d like to discuss the uses of straight-up RPG games, rules, and concepts in your worldbuilding and how they can help and hurt you. Let’s be honest here, we probably think of this more than we like to admit. Let’s get to it.

Let’s start with the good side.

System Thinking

RPGs are often people’s first experience with comprehensive worldbuilding. That’s useful because we all have to start somewhere to learn an important sill.

I find that using RPGs for inspiration, or for contemplation or for fun gets you thinking n term of what your world needs. You need to think economics or magic or whatever. RPGs provide, in many cases, enough rules, tables, guides, and so on to give you an idea of what a world needs to have.  OK maybe it goes a bit too far because you don’t need to contemplate the exact strength to bend a bar, but you get the idea.

The rules in an RPG mean (in theory) the world hangs together. It works and it operates. Or sure it may be bad or awful or poorly thought out, but at least there is a system that had to been good enough that people could play in it. Looking at a good RPG is great training to see what you have to think about.

Think of a good RPG manual as a guide to good worldbuilding you can learn from via example.

The Fun Of Translation

I recall in the old City of Heroes MMO someone had done a half-decent job of building Spiderman. This being a game where I once saw someone play Spongebob Squarepants (it had a very good character design engine that invited experimentation and abuse), it may not seem remarkable, but allow me to go on.

City of Heroes was a superhero game that used streamlined mechanics to make itself accessible, – one picked a type of hero, sets two powers, got some more powers along the way to flesh them out. Though obviously limited, I noted a few times that the game could let you build perhaps 80% of the Superheroes you my want if you thought broadly and accepted some limits.

In this case, “Spiderman” was simulated by making him basically a super-leaping martial artist with “darkness” attacks that confused and blinded enemies. For those of you who played the game he was a Darkness Attack Scrapper with Acrobatics and Leaping.  For those of you who didn’t, well the character was a bouncy-leapy-dodging-things guy whose attacks confused targets, so I figure that simulated webbng.

Now someone had to put some thought into this, and I realized that must have been rather entertaining and stimulating. Indeed when I translated a superhero character of my own from a previous work, and then started telling  fellow writers about the game, it was fun to imagine how our characters could be realized.

Yeah it’s fun.  Really.  That’s an advantage here because simply, it’s amusing.  Look, I think you can overdo making Worldbuilding too much like an RPG, but enjoy it and see how it gets you to think.

In fact, this fun of translating characters also leads to . . .

Rethinking Your Characters And Settings

Using RPG rules to simulate our characters, settings, and so on helps us think about them.  We ask who they are, how are they defined, how would they work – and how they’d play (what is it like to be them).

Constraints in RPGs may be there for a reason, rules are there for a  reason. When you try to translate the wild idea of a character or setting in your head into stats and rules it makes you consider them and what they mean.  Or perhaps the character sheets or equipment specs or nation guides remind you of what you didn’t think of or need to.

Perhaps you realize your character seems vastly overpowered when translated to rules. Maybe you forgot to consider some traits of wild animals in your setting when you look at “creature stats” for a game. The game rules give you a framework to think.

In the case of City of Heroes, my psychologist with supersensory powers pretty much came down to an acrobatic martial artist. Kind of dull really, but it simulated it well in the combat-oriented game. It also made me think about the character, because when it came down to action his real thing was hit/shoot/kick and not be hurt.

Get Some Rules

The other things that translating characters and events into RPGs, and indeed playing them in general, is it provides understanding of rules.

Now though when I talk worldbuilding, I mean building –  I love rules, but they can get overdone. You can build a system so tight that it ends up strangling itself and never comes to life – but you can also make something that’s so freeform it lacks meaning.

When you read a game manual, when you translate a character into a game, when you play a game, you have to think about rules and principles. It makes you ask how things run, how they’re simulated.

And may tell you when you need some or when you don’t.

Maybe you’ll realize you didn’t define magic, or an economic system. Maybe you didn’t ask just how skilled someone needs to be to uses a Neural Atomizer without melting the housepets. A game makes you think in those terms.

Or perhaps you realize that a game takes you into levels of details that are meaningless, or miss the larger context.  In a world where magic is a living force, mana points just don’t cover it.  The gods don’t fit well into character classes.  The Galactic Confederacy can’t be described as one of five kinds of civilizations in an SF game.

Thinking worldbuilding and RPGs lets you understand when the rules matter and find a sweet spot

As A Test To A System

A flipside to the fun and insight RPG systems provide us with is that building our own worlds and characters in them is a great way to test them and break them.  Hey, breaking is part of testing.

Just imagine moving beloved fictional character into the constraints of a system, or trying to simulate a great battle in a known wargame. Imagine what you can find that works . . . or goes wrong.

I always fund this method revealed the frankly hilarious limits of 3rd Edition D&D’s straightjacket of a class system. When Deities and Demigods came out (yes, I had it, I am old), seeing Fafrd and the Gray Mouser or other characters shoehorned into the system brought out its flaws. You couldn’t describe them in the simple D&D system so there was a lot of fudging (multiclassing for those who wonder).

RPGs are ways to simulate things, even imaginary things. So when you start with something you imagined without “the system” and try to make it work “in the system” you find out just how well that system works. Sometimes not too well (other times, like the aforementioned City of Heroes, surprisingly so).

Plenty Of Positives

So, me Im not going to diss using RPGs and ideas in your worldbuilding. I’m going to encourage them as useful sourcebooks and guides, and as a fun way to simulate characters.

Now I’ve got a few warnings, but that’s next column . . .
– Steven Savage

Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach.  He blogs on careers at, publishes books on career and culture at, and does a site of creative tools at He can be reached at

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