Using TTRPGs to Worldbuild a Fantasy Novel
by Camryn Flowers
There are many different ways to go about worldbuilding. Most people have lists and spiderwebs and use all sorts of organizational tools depending on the genre that they choose to write. But for fantasy, I’ve found that thinking about my world in the context of a TTRPG helps make a consistent and compelling world for readers to fall into.
What is a TTRPG?
A TTRPG, or Tabletop Role-Playing Game, is a game in which players describe the actions of their characters through speech. There are many different types of TTRPGs, the most well-known of which right now is Dungeons & Dragons. In this game, you have a Dungeon/Game Master (DM/GM) and an average of 3–6 players. The Dungeon Master’s job is to create the world the players exist in. They design towns, monsters, and non-playable characters (called NPCs) to aid in storytelling and worldbuilding.
Now I’m not saying you have to be a D&D player to be a good fantasy worldbuilder, but it can definitely help. What makes the game so involved is how the world is built. D&D games will start as a single piece of paper with just a few sentences but can evolve into a story spanning months if not years (decades even, if you’re committed like these guys are).
If you are not a TTRPG player, you might be asking how they do it. How does one person create such a massive world that lasts decades? The answer is that they don’t. One of the things that makes TTRPGs so immersive is that the GM and the players create the story together. By allowing the characters to explore, do quests, and fight the dragon plaguing the countryside, they create lore for things seemingly minuscule to the overall plot. They’ll be the ones asking what kind of bread the baker sells, which opens up pathways into the types of grain used, if it’s grown in the region or imported, and if the cellar has a rat infestation caused by a disgruntled witch who for some reason hates the smell of rye bread. Players also are able to propose questions that the GM hadn’t thought of which gives them the ability to fine-tune the story to best fit the players’ interests. This partnership between players and GMs allows for worlds to have a “lived-in” feel (and that’s what we’re all about here at CamCat).
So how does this translate into writing a novel?
Well, I’m not going to say it’s simple, because writing isn’t simple. However, using TTRPGs can ease the process. When you think about planning a fantasy world, there are some things to consider.
Things like cultures, magic systems, geographical makeup, characters, enemies, transportation, quests, et cetera, are all important to the immersion of your novel. And don’t get me wrong, there is an infinite amount of things you should consider when planning your world. But I find it’s easiest to start small.
Like in the classic hero’s journey, most TTRPGs start in an easily described/familiar location where all the players can meet. It can be a tavern, a small town, or even a prison wagon transporting your character(s) because they angered the local mayor. The point of the small start is to establish who the characters are and start introducing small kernels of information about the overall plot. There are plenty of things to incorporate into the beginning of the story that the reader can become invested in.
A good start is essential. If no one is invested in the story you’re telling a few pages in, they’re likely not going to read the rest. This is true for every fiction genre, but slightly different with fantasy (and science fiction). There is loads more worldbuilding to do to make the plot make sense. And readers of this genre are more willing to invest a hundred pages before tapping out, such is the case with The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon. That titan of a book is filled to the max with worldbuilding, making it 848 pages. The beginning is slow, but well worth the effort.
Normally in storytelling, the author grants us those kernels through dialogue or descriptions of new locations. In TTRPGs, this is mostly the same, except the only dialogue being controlled by the Game Master is that of the NPCs. For example, a group of travelers could enter a tavern and ask the barkeep for a drink. When given a list of a few ales, a player asks, “Do you have any Sprite?” Because the Game Master allowed it, suddenly this small starter town had Sprite on tap for the players to drink. Now, no one knew where the Sprite came from, or what the strange drink was, but it opened up a new avenue for players to explore. Maybe the barkeep was a chemist. Or maybe an evil wizard poisoning the town through alcohol. Either way, deciding to figure out the mystery behind Sprite was an easy way to introduce players to the town and the people within it.
Think of your favorite story. What was the character’s main goal? What were they reaching for? That far-off goal is what’s called a main quest. What characters do on their journey to complete the main quest are side quests. For example, Frodo didn’t go straight to Mount Doom, he traveled the land, learned about the world, collected items to aid him on his journey, and met new people that assisted him for a short time.
Side quests are prevalent in lots of novels. Sometimes, they are funny moments to break up a serious overtone or a way for a character to grow aside from the main story. Oftentimes they introduce new things that are important for later. A good side quest is helpful to the story and the characters involved, like discovering the secret of Sprite.
In every fantasy story, there are rules to magic. How taxing is it for the character to cast a spell? Are there different rules for different types of magic? Is some magic forbidden? Are there consequences to casting spells? How do the characters get their magic in the first place? There are infinite questions to ask yourself to make your system of magic make sense to the reader.
Just as every novel has something that makes their magic different, each TTRPG has different rules that engage players and limit what they can do. Limitations allow for creative solutions and an interesting plot. So give your magic system some rules and ask your friends what they would do in a scenario. Who knows, they might come up with a wild outcome!
One of the purposes of a character’s journey is to get stronger. Whether that be physically, emotionally, or magically. So it’s not particularly wise to throw your fresh character into a battle with the main villain right at the start. In TTRPGs, there is a level system that players adhere to. When a campaign starts, player characters are typically level one (with more experienced players sometimes starting at level three). These level one characters are quite squishy and could quite possibly die from a few well-loosed arrows. As the campaign progresses, players get stronger and can subsequently fight harder enemies.
The max level a player can reach is level twenty, and when they get there, they are near unstoppable. Level twenty characters are fully capable of taking a fireball to the face and walking away with a few minor burns and some singed clothes. Essentially, a level one character might fight some small animals, some rowdy tavern goers who keep spilling their ale, or skeletons raised from the local graveyard. They aren’t going to be fighting the biblical angel bent on raining fire down on the world.
Knowing this, you’ll want to pace what challenges/enemies you throw at your characters. No one wants to read a novel where the hero is beaten repeatedly, they want the hero to win sometimes. On the opposite side, no one wants a hero that wins everything all of the time. Give them challenges, slowly increasing difficulty until they reach the goal you want them to.
There is no perfect answer for planning a novel, not just sci-fi/fantasy. Finding out what works best for you takes time and lots of trial and error. But I hope this helps you get some new insight on different planning ideas and insight into the world of TTRPGs!