Fantasy World Building: Game versus Novel

World Building is a concept that is common to both the role-playing game (RPG) and literature. Of particular interest is the fantasy RPG and the work of fantasy literature. RPG’s come in two varieties: computer-based (like World of Warcraft) and pen and paper (like Dungeons and Dragons). Although I have computer skills, I have never designed a computer-based RPG so I can’t really comment on that. But I do have experience designing and running my own pen and paper RPG. It is with that which I will compare writing a fantasy novel.


The first major difference between the two concerns the number of creatures. This occurred to me quite some time ago when I was reading the Mistborn Series by Brandon Sanderson. It’s an excellent series that I highly recommend. If you like, you can read my reviews for Final Empire, The Well of Ascension, and The Hero of the Ages (the first three books of the Mistborn Series). Anyway, in the series I was struck by the fact that there were only about five different types of creatures that Brandon Sanderson used. However, the more I thought about it, the more clear the reason for that became. There simply is not enough room in a novel to develop large numbers of creatures. This is because each creature requires several pages to properly introduce in a novel. Then it has to be used and applied in the plot. I would say the first time this happens, it takes about five pages or so. And a novel is only five hundred or so pages long. And each of those pages is precious and many contain other things beside creature descriptions. You have dialogue and narrative and scene descriptions. Taken together, these imply that you only have so many pages to dedicate to creature descriptions and use. Also, there is the fact that you as an author do not want to overwhelm the reader. The reader can only handle so many creatures at a time. A novel that featured fifty different types of creatures would probably do poorly because it would just confuse readers and leave them lost.


Contrast that to the role-playing game. In the RPG, variety is the spice of life. You need as many creatures as you can make. In any given gaming session, the party will likely only encounter a handful of different creatures, but through the course of their gaming career, they will likely have many different gaming sessions and since each session is and should be unique, they will likely encounter many more different creatures. In a way, it is like each individual session is roughly equivalent to a single novel. And it is the sheer volume of sessions that dictate that the players face dozens, if not hundreds, of different creatures. After all, how many monster manuals and monstrous compendiums does the D&D game put out? I honestly don’t know, I lost track somewhere along the way.


Anyway, those are my thoughts for the day.

2 thoughts on “Fantasy World Building: Game versus Novel

  1. Alex

    One of the biggest differences, in my opinion, is that in writing a gaming world, you have the flexibility of being vague. I’ve heard it said about ‘the whistling rock’ (in the eberron setting, I think) that one of the reasons it’s so creepy is that you have no idea why there is a whistling rock out in the middle of nowhere, but if you’re going to work it into a game you’re running, you’d better have a good idea about WHY it’s whistling.

    The freedom you have when creating worlds in an RPG is that you can create all sorts of strange things with little to no explanation, because these can later be picked up on and used as ‘hooks’. But if you’re going to include information about a world in a book, it better have some degree of relevance to the story, or you’ll end up with a lot of unfired (Chekhov’s) guns.

    I hadn’t necessarily considered the ‘creatures’ aspect, but you make a very good point. Plus, consider in our real world how many bizarre, dangerous and even horrifying animals there are that don’t come up in day to day conversation or even writing, simply because they don’t have much bearing on our day to day lives (though I’d love to read the story where Amy Tan or one of her self insertion characters get attacked by an angry echidna).

    1. atoasttodragons Post author

      Good points all. I’m not familiar with the whistling rock, but it sounds pretty cool. But, like you said, in a book it would have to be explained.


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