One of the ways that I’ve expanded my portfolio over the past couple years is to write games. I get quite a few questions regarding my game writing experiences, one of which is, “What does it mean when you say you write games?”
Writing games, whether you are writing video games or tabletop role-playing games, has some commonalities. All games need rules, otherwise known as mechanics. Many games, especially role-playing games, need a “world” to play in, and characters to play with.
Video games and computer games require a writer to understand script (or screen) writing. In this particular arena, I do not have the experience to speak to what the game writing process is. I do know, from looking for jobs in the video game design field, that there are several, different requirements that go beyond writing the script for a game. You can see on this list of video game positions that writing is typically not offered as a separate job. I say typically, because not every game company is structured the same way, and I am associated with people who write for video game companies.
Narrative or tabletop role-playing games (RPGs), differ greatly from video games. While I can’t make comparisons about the process, there are, what I would define as, three tiers of writing for game design. The first level, would be to write for a well-established RPG that has its own set of mechanics. In this instance, you, the freelancer, would be writing setting-related material with little-to-no “mechanics” design. You provide the setting and the characters, and simply use the mechanics you have available to support your game or adventure. If you were to tweak a mechanics system, creating new rules to fit your adventure or game, then I would consider that to be the second tier. The third tier is the most time-consuming and, in some cases, the most fun. Not only do you help build the world and create characters and conflict, but you also help set up the framework of rules.
What are game mechanics? In any game, these are the “points of logic” that you and your players need to play the game. Mechanics can affect the plot, determine how strong your character is, how far you can run, what your character knows, and how fast they heal. RPG-style video games, like Knights of the Old Republic utilize behind-the-scene mechanics. Whenever you take an action, it affects your character, but you don’t have to roll the dice to see what the outcome is. Tabletop games, on the other hand, often require you to roll the dice in order to see what happens when you try to shoot a gun, climb a tree, open a lock or even change the direction of the plot.
Unlike video games, writing RPGs requires a lot of technical writing skill. Often, you’ll work through an outline before you write, in order to integrate rules and mechanics in a systematic way to present to the reader. There is room for some fiction, but writing RPGs is primarily about fleshing out a skeleton to provide a playable setting. In fiction, you opt for a seamless story that engages your readers; in RPGs, you commonly break out protagonists, antagonists, scenes, plot seeds, characters, etc. in order to inspire others to participate in the game you’ve created. While there is a lot of debate over how RPGs should be written, several RPGs are based on the concept that the players and the Game Master (GM) or Narrator of your game, drive the story. As a freelance writer for the RPG industry, you provide them with the tools to do just that.
Of course, there are several exceptions to this concept, the easiest example is to point out games like the Army of Darkness RPG. Writing for licensed games requires writers to know the setting they are writing for and often, the process can be pretty tricky.
So there you have it; that’s my opinion on Game Writing 101. As this is a huge topic for discussion and debate, I encourage you to read other articles about game writing for the RPG industry if you’re interested in learning more about it. Over the course of this blog, I’ll be writing about more specific aspects of RPG writing, rather than a generic overview. I will tell you that many game designers are extraordinarily friendly and will be honest with you about the pros and cons of the industry as a whole, which might help you understand your market before you dive, feet first, into it.