Dungeons & Dragons is one of the most well-known role playing games in the world, but their methods for creating the game are a bit more obscure. I chatted with Alison Luhrs, the person who builds some of the worlds and writes some of the stories of D&D about how she does it.
HOSTED by Moiya McTier (@GoAstroMo), astrophysicist and folklorist
Alison Luhrs is the Narrative Design Lead of Digital Publishing at Wizards of the Coast. She's responsible for making sure the worlds, storylines, and characters make sense together and are coherent with what's been written before. You can follow her on twitter at @alisontheperson
Hey there, and welcome to Exolore, the show about facts based fictional world building. I'm your host Moiya McTier, and I'm bad at making decisions. I'm an astrophysicist who studies planets outside of our solar system. Those are called exoplanets. And I'm also a folklorist who specializes in creating imaginary worlds. And this podcast is my way of sharing those worlds with you. Before I get started, I really want to thank my new patrons. Megan, Nick and Agnieszka. I'm really sorry if I said that wrong. I also want to thank my centaur level patron, Michael. If you want to join these awesome ranks, go to patreon.com slash go Astro mo to support my work, I would really appreciate it. Okay, on to the show.
Playing Dungeons and Dragons is in my blood. When I was little, my mom worked at a Girl Scout camp where she had to go by a nickname in front of the campers, and her camp name was Keena. When I asked her what it meant, she said it was the name of the D&D character she played in college. And I didn't understand what she meant, until I played my own first game of D&D 10 years later. And eventually, when I joined my second party, I created my own character named Kena. So you know, I'm a second generation D&D player. My guest for today's episode is Alison Luhrs, and as the narrative design lead for digital publishing at Wizards of the Coast, she knows a thing or two about Dungeons and Dragons herself. Allison studied Collaborative Creation and Theater in college and after starting her own theatre company called Mirum Mirum Productions, she started working at Wizards of the Coast. She's written 24 short stories for Magic: the Gathering, and written thousands of pages of world building text. She's pretty much my hero. I don't want to keep you waiting for this interview, so let's get started.
I loved looking into your background and your past because I don't know if it was intentional. I feel like it couldn't have been unless you're, like clairvoyant or something, but looking backwards, it seems so directed. Like, was that intentional?
You know, I've been very recently trying to train myself to not say, "oh, it was a total accident. I just stumbled my way into this" because I have treated my career kind of like aiming with a shotgun rather than aiming with a pistol. Like I always knew that I wanted to tell stories in some way. And so I would kind of turn towards whatever opportunity allowed me to do that more. So I started off doing that on the side. I was a theater artists, chose improv comedy. I was scratching the edge in my day job was doing social media and stuff where I could tell you know, tiny stories and you know in 280 characters or less. And after I got the job at Wizards, I found out that there were people in the building who were trained and paid to write about elves and dragons and stuff. And I was like, "well, I can do that sure", and because I've been doing all this work on the side, I had my portfolio ready to go. So I was able to march down to the gal who's in charge of the magic creative department and say, "hey, here's my stuff can give me a shot"?
I strive to have that amount of earned confidence.
Oh, yeah, it's all fake. No, that's the secret. You just kind of like fake it and then just assume, "well, the worst that can happen is, you know, they'll say no, and then I'll just go do something else.that's cool".
Yeah. I love that. That's a really positive way of looking at the world.
There's always something cool that you can also do in other ways.
Oh, I just really want to be your friend. Okay.
Well too bad. We're friends now.
Okay, great. You said you've always wanted to write stories do you remember like the first stories you wrote? Like the the first worlds you built?
Oh my gosh. Yeah. So Oh, my goodness. Um, okay. I was a huge Pokemon fan when I was a kid. I loved Pokemon more than anything. It came out, I was like just the right target age demographic to go absolutely bananas for Pokemon. And I remember when I was like, seven or eight, I wanted to make my own, and so I got a little notebook. I think from like the dollar store or something. Ithad like an old cover. It was so cheap, but I filled this thing up with these goofy doodles of these creatures that I made up and I decided it was my own Pokemon. It was my own Digimon. And I remember like, I carried that thing with me everywhere and no matter what like goofy dumb idea came in my head, I would jot it down. I had no idea what happened to that thing, but from a really early age, I remember like wanting to make up stuff. I found the real world to be very boring.
Same. Do you remember any of the Pokemon you made?
No. I remember being like really, really into the one on first page, which, in retrospect looks exactly like Kirby, but as a seven year old, I thought it was genius because it was so simple and I could draw it super fast. Not sure what its name or powers were, it was probably identical to Kirby.
That's okay. I mean, yeah, what is it? Re-creation is the highest form of flattery?
Exactly. Yeah, yeah.
So Kirby's just really flattered.
Yeah, you know, that little pink sphere is capable of so much. Kirby's power set is ridiculous. That's a topic for another time, though.
True. Um, I feel like I want to work kind of chronologically and learn more about that path that you took. So in college you studied not just like broadly speaking theatre and playwriting, but specifically like collaborative theater making and that is so interesting to me. Can you tell me how that works, because I've only ever made stuff up by myself.
Oh, sure, yeah, so um, in theater, the hierarchy of what is considered most important typically includes the script at the very top. So when the text is written, that means the director and their creative staff usually follow what is written in the text as law. Then the actors and other technicians are brought on, and they all kind of followed within this really strict hierarchy. So I studied devising. So device theater is taking away that hierarchy and just kind of flattening it out. So instead of beginning with a cortex, you begin with a central idea or theme, and then an ensemble works together to collaboratively create the script and the production from scratch. So what you'll typically have is not necessarily like one director who's in charge of everybody else, but multidisciplinary artists working across their mediums, to all shape of story at the same time. The Laramie project is probably the best example of device show. So that was created from the core idea of what happens in Laramie, Wyoming to Matthew Shepard and then building it out into a theatrical experience that you know millions of people around the world see. So I studied working with a team to start from an idea and build out and experience of production. I had no idea that game development was a possibility, until I really had this job. It feels like there's a really huge barrier to entry that you have to know coding, you have to be an engineer, you have to have a really analytical mind in order to create games. These are all false things that I thought at the time. And so I thought that, "well, I want to tell stories, and I'm good at making stuff up with friends. And I like working with people who all like to make things together. So let's just do theater", and I really wish I could travel back in time and tell me from 15 years ago, that she was literally learning how to make games, but with like a way smaller budget.
In the moment, how similar does it feel to improv?
Like making a devised show?
It's pretty much identical. So the kind of connection between both of those mediums is the idea of listening in the moment and trying to learn what the group wants to do. So I'm an improviser. I've been doing unscripted theatre, since 2008, way too long. The secret to making a show happen where you get one suggestion, and then you go for an hour and a half without ever talking to the audience again, revolves around being able to understand what multiple people want to do, and recognize that your own ego doesn't really matter. It's being able to listen to what the story wants you to do, and then react to that. And so in the process of creating device theater, you do a lot of these sort of improvisational like moment work scenes to try and "okay, we're gonna improvise something around the theme of blank. We're gonna go for 10 minutes and then stop, take a break and then discuss what we found while we were improvising". This is the same kind of process that a lot of different kinds of theater use. If you have ever seen a show at Second City in Chicago, or a lot of these other sort of sketch based comedies, they'll also begin from a place of improvisation, then take a step back and try and realize, "what can we take from that experience and then commit to a text that we can recreate later on"? Yeah, the secret to storytelling with lots of people is learning how to listen to what the collective is wanting, what the collective is searching for. And in game development, it's very much the same thing. You're working with a huge team of people and trying to understand what each individual meetings needs are and how you can help match that using what you're good at. It's the same thing with a tabletop experience playing D&D. When you're at the table, you are playing as your character and dm is dming for the folks who are sitting there, but collectively, you're all sharing the same storytelling experience. And so being able to like listen and have the grace to allow other people to do things, and will to step forward when it's time for you to speak is important. It's funny using the terms like will and grace, because it's like a TV show, but it's kind of one of my favorite collective storytelling ideas, that you have to have both on the will to make a choice and to make moments happen, and the grace to allow everyone else in the room to have their turn as well. So you need both if you're telling a story with lots of people.
I think that's so beautiful. One because I've been in plenty of D&D situations where there's like one or two people who are bulldozing over everything and it's so hard to enjoy those experiences.
Absolutely, and usually that person who's doing the bulldozing isn't having a great time either. Yeah, like when you feel yourself being the one who's steamrolling everything you can tell when other people in the room aren't having a good time. And that's a moment when it's okay to take a step back and utilise your grace and realize we're sharing an experience. And so it's okay if you take a step back and just see what happens next.
I recently read a book by Kate Murphy called, "You're Not Listening", so this feels very timely, this conversation. And one of my goals after reading that book was learning to be more comfortable with silence in conversation, to really give myself a moment to internalize what was just said, and respond thoughtfully; because I think one thing that happens if you aren't comfortable with silence, you feel like you have to jump in right away. And that means while the other person is talking, you're not really listening, you're just thinking of what you're going to say immediately after the other person stops.
Absolutely. Silence is such an important expression of grace to and especially in, like a performance aspect of it, whether it's theater or whether it's games, being able to pause like just stop is such a powerful tool. To allow the player or the audience to kind of take a moment and really allow something to sink in. If you're nailing your audience again and again and again, with things happening, or choices, or someone saying something, they will never have a moment to actually sit and observe. In our everyday life, we don't really get chances to stop and pay attention, and sometimes it's nice to have an experience force you to stop, listen and pay attention. Whether you're observing something in a game or whether you're making something with other people. Otherwise, you'll miss perspectives that you may not get if you're just continually filling the gaps of conversation.
I love that so much.
Yeah, you've made a career out of it, of like helping people have these experiences and getting opportunities to create something really beautiful with other people, so thank you for that.
Can you talk a little bit about your time at Mirum Mirum Productions and like what you did there?
Yeah. So that was the theater company I co-founded. Right now as we speak, I am dog sitting for one of the other co-founding members of the company. So we produced a bunch of original shows between 2011 - 2015. So right after we graduated from school, we weren't sick of each other, we loved each other, and we want to keep making art together. So we decided to form our 501c3. So we made three original productions, so like full-length plays. Our company was, I believe, eight members total, and we would bring in some other friends and collaborators. And I'm so proud of the work that we did there. I think that keeping up the momentum and recognizing that we can make the art that we wanted to see in the world, ourselves. We didn't have to wait for permission. We didn't have to get cast in somebody else's show, I think really allowed us all to grow as artists, and as people too. Forming a company without a professor being in charge, or without someone being elected, the leader is really hard. And the fact that we survived our first year alone, let alone five is kind of a miracle. Now we're all in each other's weddings, and dog sit for each other.
Oh, nice. You said that it helps you grow as an artist and as a person. Can you identify any specific skills?
Totally. I learned how to trust my own writing through that process. When I was in actual theater school, it was largely for performance. And doing devised theater, you do write a little bit, but I think Mirum was the first time I really realized that I could write and I could come up with good ideas and document them down and other people recognized that they were worth reading out loud. And that was I think, the most important thing career wise that I learned. The other important takeaway that I think is just as important was learning how to have a constructive argument with lots of people. It's creating a story with lots of other people means everyone's going to approach it in a different way. And so learning how to not necessarily like win an argument because nobody really wins in a creative situation like that. But rather learning how to be flexible and adapt and build with each other to come up with cool ideas, doing that in the safety and trust of our group, since we all care about each other a lot allowed us all to take risks. I don't think any of us would have taken if we'd just done it solo.
Nice. Do you think that that's a really common type of space that a lot of people can access?
I think you have to make it. It is a situation I think that only really comes from an active decision, rather than just kind of happening upon it. I mean, I've been lucky enough to end up in creative groups where everyone gets along, but I think that it takes work to make a collaborative space where lots of people can feel like their voices are heard and feel like they are empowered to be honest with each other. You are constantly listening and constantly doing what it takes to make sure that that trust exists. It's not a given, and it should never be treated as a guarantee because it's not.
You're just dropping truth bombs. Um, let's move on to your time at Wizards. You've been there for six and a half years, you worked your way up from being a social media manager, which is just incredible. And now you're the narrative design lead, or a narrative design lead?
I am the narrative design lead for digital publishing. Yes.
Fuck yeah, you are! Um, when I think of narratives, I think of that as an umbrella term. And underneath that there's story crafting, there's writing and there's world building, but I'm wondering how, if at all, you see the boundaries between those things existing.
You are 100% correct. That's kind of the three buckets that it breaks down into. So for game writing, in particular, when you think about narrative, it's ... very systems based. So the way you experience story in a game can come in a lot of different forms. If you're playing like a text based game, where I open the chest and pull out the sword, and you're typing everything out, the narrative system is going to look a lot different than if you're playing something like Mass Effect or Baldur's Gate when you're running around and making lots of different choices. And lots of different choices come from those choices, and the branching is a lot more intense. So the system is part of narrative design is one bucket. Writing, so what goes in those dialog boxes and what describes the art that you might see on a magic card? Oh, so that's kind of a separate bucket, and the writing bucket of narrative design versus the narrative systems design uses two very different parts of the brain. But they're both really valid in how you kind of approach building out the story of a gaming experience. And then you also identifed world building, which is the part that a player will usually only see maybe 10% of your work. World building is building the iceberg and knowing that the penguins are only going to hang out on the top, like one meter of it. But in order for those penguins to hang on one meter of the very tippy top, you have to make sure that the entire rest of the iceberg exists. And so world building is honestly most of what I do, nowadays. So translating the worlds in our IPs from a tabletop experience into a digital experience usually means a lot of fleshing out needs to happen since there's things that a digital game can do that a table top game really can't. One of my favorite problems, especially with D&D, is that it's an auditory experience. When you sit down at a table and your DM's walking you through and they describe the spine of the world, or they describe what Candlekeep looks like, the description that they give you gives you a picture in your brain to figure out what it looks like. But if you're just to go to an artist and say, "okay, I need you to draw me Candlekeep," usually, what they'll get is describing or painting, whatever it was that was described verbally. So figuring out like, what do these places actually look like, can be really challenging, especially since now we also have to think about like, okay, how does an owlbear move? What does magic sound like? Does the magic produced by a warlock sound different than the magic produced by a wizard? It probably does, because they're kind of different sources. So how do we show that? And so those kinds of weird questions are what I get to spend most of my brain juice answering and stuff the player will probably never notice, but it has to exist in order for these complicated systems to be rich and feel like you want to stay in them.
Absolutely, yeah, I 1000% want to talk more about the process that you use to decide what magic sounds like. But first, you're building on top of stuff that other people have already built because this is a world that's existed ... how old is Wizards of the Coast? Since like the 70s?
Wizards is like 30ish years old.
It has been around for 47 years.
Got it. Yeah. So you came in six years ago, and you're now building on top of stuff that already exists and how does that feel? Do you feel limited? Do you ever change stuff?
I have to like actively stop myself from freaking out about it sometimes. I imagine it's what museum curators feel like, they have to handle something that's really, really, really old and treasured. Like you want to make sure that you don't mess it up, but you also want to make sure that you contextualize it when you're sharing it with the public. And making sure that when you're writing what that little plaque is that's going to go next is precious, precious item, that you're describing it for a modern audience in a way that helps them to understand why it is the way it is. And to help also to show like, hey, maybe here are some more modern artifacts that are related to this thing that you see here. So, I think treating a brand like a thing that's alive is really important, and understanding that in order for it to stay alive, it grows and it changes. And so my job is finding, what are the parts that are innate? What are the bits that don't change, that are constant? And that constancy can be a familiar touchstone for audiences. So as I'm recognizing that, you know, I'm going to vary this precious brand into the stories for the next 45 years. How can how can we do that and build it in a way that it still feels innate to what the fans who are already there see it as.
What is an example of something that's been part of D&D since the beginning?
The classes. I think the classes are the most important part of Dungeons and Dragons, like the party is such a defining feature of the game, and the brand and the idea of Dungeons and Dragons. The concept of teamwork and found family is so core to that story and world that it has to be in every single expression of that game. Um, I always get like a little bit teary talking about it, because Western media has so few examples of teamwork, like actual teamwork being the central part of a story. We have plenty of examples in superheroes and like the superhero genre of like, oh, here's a broad group of people all working together to accomplish things, but every title is about one. Like every movie typically is just about one or when they all work together, they're all arguing and sometimes not really getting one cohesively. Whereas, the D&D party is about different classes, and different people from different backgrounds and making up for each other's weaknesses, and helping to support one another to accomplish a goal at the end. I think that that is the innate part of D&D that has not changed since it really started and will not change as the brand moves forward.
Do you think the average D&D player recognizes that, either consciously or subconsciously as like the heart of the game, and as like a lesson to take away?
I think definitely because as soon as you remove the idea of the party, then it's just ... generic fantasy. It's just like a whole bunch of other games, but it's the idea of a team and of that found family that makes it what it is. I think that if you were to ask, you know, Jenny Magic player on the street to, you know, try and like look at two images of a fantasy setting and decide like, which one is D&D? It's gonna be the one with the team, with the party. Magic similarly has its own core, that cannot really be altered, and that's the color identity. The color pie is the most important part of magic. So Magic: the Gathering is a trading card game. And it is wonderfully complex, but it all breaks down to most cards in the game being part of one aspect of a different color. And that color dictates not just mechanically what it can do, but also, what's the flavor of it? Like what's the... Lore-wise, what is red? What is white and black? And there have been many wonderful essays and and talks about the subject, but being able to drill down a brand to something really core like that and understanding what the core is, can help you understand how to push it and how to pull it and how to grow it narratively through story.
Yeah, and with world building.
And with world building, exactly.
Which you do a lot of. So yeah ... how do you do it? That's just like a huge question. I guess first, can you maybe explain like, you walk into work on like Monday morning, and what do you do? Like what what's your job description?
Sure. So, um, I work in digital publishing, which means that we make video games. So whatever video game expressions of our brands we have, I'm kind of the person to go to, to help make sure that the characters and the story and the worlds match up with what we imagined them as. So I work with a couple of outside studios and with our internal partners. I also help run writers' rooms internally for different projects. Right now I'm managing a team of writers working on this, you know, fun, secret stuff. And yeah, so my job is to kind of have a lot of hands on a lot of pies, but all of it is making sure that our stories and characters and worlds all feel cohesive and all feel true to our brand, while also you know, finding ways to make sure that it feels current and part of the real world that we live in.
Cool. So when you start to build a new thing, is there a series of steps that you follow or, or questions that you always answer in the same order?
Yeah, so I feel really fortunate that my world building training came through working on Magic: the Gathering. So on that team, I helped work on nine different worlds. Yeah, Magic turns out like three new worlds a year like two or two or three, like they are, like constantly creating new worlds. That goes for everything from like, text to like piles of concept art. And it ultimately results in the book that we'll use to produce 250 pictures of people, you know, doing magic and fighting each other for every new separate release. It's so much work and luckily, because they do so much world building, they've got it down to a science for like, "okay, we start here, then this and this and this and this." So I feel really fortunate that that's where that's where my training came from. Um, but the way that we work or at least the way that I work is always to start at the top. And so the top is always like, what is the goal of this particular game or set? And that can mean a lot of things. That can mean like, "okay, we know that this is going to be" - and we'll just play believe for a moment, "this is going to be a first person shooter", or "this is going to be a party strategy game". Or if it's a tabletop setting, "this is going to be us exploring the horror genre," for example. So that top can be everything from genre to, mechanically, what do you want to do? But it should be like, what is the foundational experience that we want the player and audience to have? If we're exploring the horror genre, okay, we want them to be scared. We want to make sure that this place feels cool and fresh. You know, stuff, like that, and so once you've identified your top, then we typically identify the biome and environment first. And so that environment must be in service to whatever we decide that that top goal is mechanically.
Right, you're not going to set the horror world in a land filled with cotton candy and rainbows.
Exactly. Or you could and it's gonna be a really specific genre of horror, but you're right. The both of those ideas have to work together, they can't really contrast in a way that doesn't move the natural. And so when we're deciding what the overall like biome-y environment is going to be, and how that works mechanically with what our goals are, that's when we can start building out from there. And so depending on which kind of world or game that you're playing with, this can kind of go in some different directions. So for magic, we always begin with the color pie since like I said, that's kind of the basic part of it. Once we've identified like, okay, what's our tippy top goal? What's our biome? What are the five expressions of the color pie through here? What will be like the white version of this? What will be the red, the blue, the green, the black? Breaking down of that top idea into categories underneath it is what makes it approachable. It can be really easy to try and start from just like a general idea and then just come up with like a mono wash of stuff underneath. But breaking down into category based on what you want those categories to achieve makes it a lot easier.
And so you break it down into the categories according to the color?
Yeah, according to color for doing Magic. For D&D, I think because there's just so much stuff existing, it's a little bit more challenging. And so from there, rather than breaking it down by a gameplay aspect, since D&Ds, just kind of a more of a broad, less strict experience, than magic is, you would probably want to break it down sort of like a Wikipedia page. And this is what we do with our magic brands too. But thinking of like the Wikipedia entries for countries is kind of the easiest way to go across this. So if you look up say, Colombia or Tibet or Bangladesh on Wikipedia, the structure is the same for each of these. You identify what is the major environments of this region? And so once you have the environments, what are the resources that come with this region? And once you have the resources, what are the things that people can make? What are the construction materials? What are the fabric materials that people use for clothing and costuming? And then looking holistically at that environment and at those resources, you can ask yourself what kinds of people or what types of people would really thrive here. If there's a lot of water do people usually like to congregate around the areas with more water and not really hang out in places where that doesn't exist? If there is a lot of one very special type of rock, how did the people who live near there treat that? Is it special? Is it so abundant that no one really cares about it? So learning how to listen to the different resources that are given, and then building a culture out of that. And then kind of the most important part really, for kind of everything that I work on is, how does magic fit in? Magic is an important part, and it's kind of like the cheat-y easy answer for when things get hard. So like, you know, why does the sun never come up and it's night all the time in his horror world? I don't know, magic. That's a good enough answer. As soon as you explain it, then it's science fiction. Um, but magic is the key to what makes a fantasy world special. So learning how your magic works, will tell you what your worlds look like. Is it more of a sciency magic that has very strict rules that only certain people can follow? That's going to tell you a lot about the kinds of people who live there. Is your magic poetic, does it not have any rules? Does it just kind of do whatever it needs to? That world is going to have a much different flavor and tone.
Hey friends, I'm interrupting Alison's awesome insight to bring you some exciting news. Exolore and I have officially joined the good folks over at Multitude Shows! Multitude is an independent podcast collective and production studio. Aside from Exolore, the Multitude team produces seven different podcasts, so they know their shit and they're sharing it all with me. It sounds gross, but it's making Exolore great. Check out some of the other Multitude shows by typing "Multitude" in your podcast player. Maybe start with the show Meddling Adults, a mystery game show for charity. They just launched season two yesterday, so if you listen now, no one can spoil it for you. Now onto some housekeeping. If you're hearing this, you've obviously found the show, so congratulations. But you probably also want other people to hear the show too, right? Hopefully. A great way to do that, aside from sharing it with your friends is to rate and review the show on Apple podcasts. Shows with more reviews are more likely to be suggested by Apple's algorithm, so please help the show out by telling the world what you think of it. Also, to stay up to date on the latest Exolore news, follow the show on Twitter and Instagram at @ExolorePod. I don't think capitalization matters. Okay, now let's get back to Alison and her amazing thoughts about world building, but be sure to stay till the very end of this episode so you can hear a fun creative prompt.
Are there types of worlds that you enjoy building much more than others? Like have you ever had a memo come across your desk that's like, "build a world where magic is super scientific and people have to do calculations and write geometric shapes to do it", and you're like, "ahhh fuck. I don't want to do this."
Oh, man, not in that sense. The stuff that ... really like gives me pause and makes me wonder, "what am I doing here" is when I have to come up with, like fantasy astrophysics to figure out like, what are the universal rules of magic? And how does it affect different planes of existence or dimensions? How do we account for the fact that you can't go to another planet in this place? Even though we can see the night sky? Like figuring out those sorts of answers ... I know you are an astrophysicist, you would love to do this. As someone with no training whatsoever, it always gives me a headache.
Well, if you ever need some astrophysics questions answered, I'm happy to chat. Is that something Wizards does? Do they consult scientists?
Oh, yeah, actually. We have a lot of cultural consultants that we reach out to during the world building aspect, but that's mostly more for making sure that we're representing different peoples and cultures, in a respectful way. Reaching out to scientists is something that I want to do more of. I think that we have worked with some folks in the past on some of our more like science fictiony adjacent things, but worlds are more rich when the rules inside of them makes sense. And I think sometimes a lot of the headaches that we run into in fantasy come from not understanding what our own rules are. Not being strict around understanding how the world works, what you can and cannot do, because once you sit down and once you establish those understandings, you can figure out how to bend them and how to have fun with those rules. Especially when magic is involved because magic means you can do literally whatever you want, so long as there's an explanation for it. Maybe someday because man, D&D cosmology is something else. It's a trip. Both Magic and D&D have truly fascinating and complicated cosmologies. Okay, fine, we'll go there.
Okay, thank you!
All right. So Magic: the Gathering is a multiverse. So what makes it special are people who are able to walk between the different planes of existence. So it's not really dimensions and it's not really parallel universes that are copies of one another. It's just sort of a multiverse of millions and millions and millions of different worlds that all exist kind of nestled up next to each other.
I have a very specific question.
This is my job.
What is the shape of these galaxies? Are they like flat and like they're stacked on top of each other? Are they little like bubbles and, like a Venn diagram, sometimes the bubbles overlap?
It depends, and that's the thing that's nuts. Some places exist unto themselves, and they may contain an entire planet within or they might just contain an endless plane that just kind of like caps off at an end. So places like Dominaria are a full sphere, a full planet that you can traverse all the way around. And then there's places like Innistrad that have a moon and stars and a sky, but from what I can tell it is not a sphere, it is just sort of an endless, endless thing. And then you have other places like Olara, that was broken into a bunch of different planes, sort of, but they're also connected to each other. Like, it really kind of depends on which one and that is fascinating. And I think the reason that that exists is because the creators didn't want to feel bound to just one answer. Having the freedom to create whatever world that you want, so long as it fits within the rules of, it's a plane of its own that you can get to by planes walking, when you planes walk you can't really traverse with anything super organic, really. Like, the rules have all been defined in wonderful ways, but because magic exists, it allows us to have like kind of different ways for it to work. And then D&D is a is a whole other thing. [It] kind of depends on which edition that you're looking at, but the world itself is also split into planes of existence, but those aren't necessarily like separate bubbles. They're overlapping, kind of like Instagram layers. So you may be able to walk from one place on the material plane, and accidentally stumble into the plane of fire, or like the plane of water. And suddenly, everything's lava. When I first came on to digital publishing, and I started working across all of our different brands, having to switch from understanding Magic cosmology to understanding D&D cosmology like hurt my brain. It's hard to grapple with lots of different forms of cosmological systems and then understanding how that ripples down into what the average person in these worlds experiences. So knowing that someone you know, some poor schmuck living in Baldur's Gate can, you know, decide to go on a walk and whoopsie daisy, they found a [portal] to hell. Like that's a thing that can happen. Whereas in Magic, you have to be a very specific kind of person to be able to decide to walk away and to walk into one of these many different places. It's a trip, man.
I have so much respect for your brain because one of the questions I often get when I teach world building workshops is, how do I keep track of it all? Like, when I make the decisions for my world building, how do I make sure I don't contradict myself later on? And I can't even imagine how much information you keep in your brain all the time. So how do you keep it all?
So much documentation. So, so, so much documentation. You document everything. And that was one of the tougher lessons learning how to work with the lore of D&D is that so much of it is very spread out. And so much of it is kind of belonging to the community, there isn't really a central resource of documentation to firmly tell me once and for all, please, what is the difference between the material plane in the astral plane, and these other different like forms of existence. So as you are creating a world, I think defining what those rules are very plainly and very clearly will save you so much a headache later on, like having a document that you can control f through like while you're working on your cool stuff to make sure that you're not breaking anything is really helpful, especially when you're working with people outside of yourself. So when I need to work with an artist, and I need to describe, hey, I need a character to accidentally walk into the plane of fire. Can you help me show that? And the answer I get is like, "what the hell does that mean," I have a document I can hand over and say, here's how the world works. Please help me.
Great. Yeah, that sounds important. Is that document that you use to search through the same document that gets published for players to use?
Never. Yeah, so those internal rules are typically never shared with the audience, like me, and, you know, fun documents and books to be released down the road. But we typically don't lay out the specifics of how everything works, because as soon as we do, that means that we're beholden to it. So if there is a rule that it starts to feel kind of complicated. One time, I was writing a story for Magic and I wanted to planeswalker to depart her home plane and go somewhere else, and bring a snack for later. Then, I know that if someone is traveling, if someone is planeswalking with organic material, it falls apart. And so when she shows up, her tamales have totally rotted. But if we know that later on, we need someone to planeswalk and still be wearing the same wool coat that they were wearing when they left, we're going to make sure that they can still wear their wool coat, you know. So being able to know what the rules are internally and also knowing that you as a creator are flexible to those rules if it hinders you from telling the best version of this world or the best version of the story. I think that flexibility is really important. That's kind of hard to understand from a fan point of view because like, "what, you guys have all these rules. Like that sounds so cool. I want to read all your work and you know, see how the sausage is made." As the sausage maker, you know it's messy sausage. You know, when I tell you the recipe, it kind of ruins all the secrets.
Yeah, I am that nerd who makes enough of my own sausage that I want to see how other people make theirs.
Oh same. Yeah, no I love diving into like codexes and you know all that real crunchy encyclopedias and stuff. But I have learned over my years, as a creator that learning how to keep your secrets and how to disperse them in interesting ways is a skill.
This brings an interesting point up because I think one of the differences between the type of world building I've done for like writing books that people just like consume as I provide it, and what you do, which is like constructing a world that is meant for other people to like, do their own thing in it... How does that make you feel? Do you ever feel like people are going to use your world incorrectly?
No, because I'm building a sandbox, and I'm building the little figures that I'm going to leave in the sandbox for the kids to come and play with later. So it's my job to make sure that I know the size of that sandbox. I know how tall the barrier around the sandbox is, so the kids can't get out. And I know how cool all the little action figures I've left for them are inside. Um, so it's my job to make sure that I am describing a world as it is in a current state, and making sure that there's lots of hooks and possibilities and like adventures that a player could have, if they want. So it's setting up the rules for someone else to come figure something out. And weirdly enough, it's kind of identical to the process for creating an unscripted show. So when performing improv, especially the way that we do it here in Seattle, you get it a suggestion from the audience, like maybe one word, maybe brief story or an idea, and then you go for an hour and a half. Just not stopping, just creating as you go. And ideally, the output is identical to a scripted play. And the way that you direct a show like that is not by coming up with, okay, in act one, we want a group scene, we want to meet the protagonist, we want the protagonist to get a romantic partner. You can't really like schedule it out like that, you can't think linearly. But you can think structurally. We know we want a conflict here, we know that we want a resolution here, we know that we want all of our cool fight senes to happen right here. But how that happens, and what order it happens is up to the players, it's up to the moment. And designing a world for a game is very much the same way. I can't dictate what happens linearly, but I can set up ideal examples and hooks that a player can see and go, "oh, that sounds fun. I want see what happens here."
Yeah, how much of that is random? How much of the world building is just a random decision? Like, you have to decide what the range of a certain spell is and you're like, "I don't know, make it 30 feet." Is everything based on precedent and logic and stuff?
Fortunately, I don't have to decide the specifics of mechanics, which I love. Someone else gets to worry about the math of that. But as far as, like coming up with like, random choices when world building, typically, no. I want to make sure that I can justify as much as possible within the world that I built. And I think you get that by making sure that your world building is tight and cohesive and comprehensive. So when we're coming up with these world guide documents, I cover everything from like what is the political history of a place to the factions within this place to the economy of the world. Since if this is going to be like some kind of game where someone buys things, I need to know what the coin is called... And so ideally, I try to avoid, just like making a random call on something. And I like to do that by always referring back to, when I'm building a culture specifically, what is the moral foundation of this place? What is the one or two things that this place really like binds itself to, whether that's loyalty or care or sanctity? Moral foundations theory is a thing that exists outside of world building, but I think it's really helpful since it is a universal concept. So moral foundations theory is the idea that all of human experience and human culture values in one of six or seven different things, and they're fairly universal values, but expressed in very specific ways. And so when making a decision of like, okay, well, we know that there's going to be some kind of summer fair that happens in this world... What kinds of food can you find there? If I know that one of the core values of this culture is loyalty, I can think of, what are communal foods that people might make? What's something that requires another person to make or consume? How many variants of hotpot and buffets can I fit in here? So making sure that you can justify even small choices by relating it back to that top, that tippy top you build everything out of is really just an umbrella for the breadth of cool ideas you come up with.
That's so cool. Where do you find the inspiration for this? Do you find yourself going back to the same muses all the time?
No, I read everything I can. I think that to make good fantasy, the worst thing you can do is to only read fantasy. I believe it's really important to be as aware of our own world as possible, so I read a lot of nonfiction. I try to watch a lot of documentaries. I try to get out and see as many plays by as many people as possible to just stick to the old heavyweights of fantasy is very limiting. Um, so while there are those comfort stories that I return to whenever I need a little bit of a hug, I think it's also important to make sure that I get inspiration from a breadth of things that aren't just my sphere. So there's a lot of anime, there's so much anime. A lot of documentaries, a lot of YouTube. Yeah, just trying to get out of my bubble as much as possible since fantasy is about exploring the other in a safe way. And in a progressive way, allowing yourself permission to feel like the other.
Yeah. I love that. What are some some things that you're reading or consuming right now?
Um, I just finished Harrow by Tamsyn Muir which is the second book in a trilogy. It's the craziest best book I've read in like the last like two years.
Is that the sequel to Gideon the Ninth?
It's so stinking good.
I didn't realize it was out now I'm gonna have to buy it after this, so thanks.
Good. I just started Fly Away earlier this week. I apologize, I can't remember the writer off the top of my head.
I just checked and there's Fly Away by Lucy Christopher and there's Fly _space_ Away: A Novel by Kristen Hannah. So you can check both of them out.
Um, let's see what else? I just finished Educated, which was a really wonderful nonfiction memoir, and There There by Tommy Orange, which is fully deserving of a Pulitzer nomination. That book was decidedly not fantasy, but a really great example of reading a book that challenges your comforts in a really smart way. It was a lot of fun.
And when you read them, do you feel like you can actually turn your brain off and just consume them? Especially when you're reading the nonfiction stuff, are you constantly thinking about, oh, that's a cool little tidbit that I can incorporate into my world?
I try not to, but sometimes I do kind of catch myself going like "oh that's a fun nugget" later. I'm very guilty of that when watching TV. I think TV is easily the place where I'm like, "Ooh I'm gonna snag that little tidbit away for later." I was watching this documentary on... I think it was the FBI's Most Wanted. They're like still like out and about and there was one episode about this drug lord from Mexico, and I remember the guy who was speaking was talking about the way that this man would act in meetings. And they described how the boss would never speak in front of his chief folks like at a meeting. If he wanted to say something, he would tap his right hand man and go outside, and then come back in and then his right hand would speak for him. This dude was that paranoid of like secret recorders. And I was like, "oh, that's good. I'm doing that. Like, that's power!" So, moments like that watching like nonfiction TV is where I think you can make fantasy worlds more rich by taking those nuggets that sound unreal in how a person would act, but it is rooted in reality because it is real. And so yeah, finding ways to find that tangible element in fantasy is so important. My least favorite thing in the universe is fantasy that goes so far into the deep end, it forgets that human experience is at the core of fantasy. Yeah, having those tangible elements is really important.
How do you feel about sci-fi then that doesn't deal with humans? Do you feel like the same rule still applies?
Ah, sci-fi is permission to talk about the issues that we feel uncomfortable using humans to describe stuff. Sci-fi is kind of the same thing as fantasy, right? Like it's our way to talk about issues that frighten us, in a way that feels safe. In a way that feels approachable. It allows us to think about those big ideas that we normally kind of shut out of our everyday life and deal with in a way that feels like, okay, I can grapple with this since it's a little bit divorced, but the root is still there. I think that both serve a very important function. The function of stories is to allow a person to feel things they normally wouldn't.
Yeah feel things, learn new things.
Yeah, exactly. Experience the world in a different way. Totally.
Yeah. Nice. I don't have many friends who are as into storytelling and like the mechanics of storytelling.
No, no, this is great. Yeah. The mechanics of story and learning how to identify the weird fractals that go into world building and go into how that world building effects stories is really, really fascinating. Um, but for me, yeah, it all kind of begins and ultimately ends with knowing what is the message that you're trying to convey to your audience? The marker of good art, for me, is a clear communication of ideas from one brand to another. It's a kind of telepathy right? So what an audience feels about a work is up to them. It's a subjective experience, but if I can tell that my idea has been communicated clearly through my world building or through a story, then I know I've done a good job. So the success of story and world building is making sure that you are saying what you need to say and that it is being clearly received on the other end.
Yeah, and to do that you have to have such an intimate knowledge of how people both actually experience stories and how they expect to experience stories.
When do you feel like you learned that? Was it in school when you were studying playwriting? Or was it through experience?
Yeah, it was the early years of performance. Learning that sometimes when I would make a choice in a scene, that it would be interpreted by the audience in a different way. At first, that really like shocked and repulsed me, like "you rubes! How can you not appreciate the art that I'm making?" When in reality, learning how to read what your audience wants and what they expect tells you what you can do to surprise them, and how to make them feel like they've been listened to, and also surprised in unexpected ways at the same time. I forgot the most important part for me and my world building process. After I've identified what that top is for me, whether it's genre, or whether it's like mechanical, whatever the top that we're building down from is, I like to start with a list of assumptions. And so that's assumptions, either by the audience or by me or by my team. So if we were making some kind of a noir, for example, we know that the audience would assume it's in a city. They would assume that it is a mystery. We would assume that it is like 1940s-ish/1950s-ish in its vibe and its tone. We may assume it has a splash of misogyny, because of those decades. We may assume that it probably has mostly white people in a noir. And so then I can look at these assumptions both by the creators [and] by the audience as well and go, okay, what are the ones that I care about? And what are the ones I don't care about? I don't really care about those last two. And I know that this isn't in the 1940s and 1950s. So I know that what I want to do is going to be kind of spooky, it's going to be a mystery, and we know that we want detectives to be involved. So by listing out the assumptions, you can identify, what are the parts that are janky that I don't want to deal with, and where I can push back at my audience on while making sure I meet their assumptions of what the core of this place is? And so keeping that list of assumptions throughout the process can be really helpful. So I can try and find ways where I can challenge them and also meet them at the same time.
Great! I mean, I love being surprised and I also love when that surprise is rooted in something that I expected.
That is stupid, because of course surprise is always rooted in something you expect, but like, it's just really nice to see when people can do it well and identify that core that you talked about and wrap the surprise around it.
Yeah, a term that we use in the building when approaching world building is the idea of a conflict engine. And this is kind of particular just to games, but when we build a new world, there may be multiple instances of it. So when we build a world, it's typically not like a one and done. It's a place that we'll want to come back to later in a future product. And so to make sure that when we come back to it, it still feels like the same place that we were -- since it's a game and games rely on conflict -- we want to figure out, what is the engine here? Like, what is the conflict that will never be solved, so that when we come back here, a conflict is still never solved, it's still going on. Ravnica is probably our best example of that. So Ravnica is a world in Magic: the Gathering and also, you know, that is kind of like the fantasy Prague. So it's fantasy Prague with 10 different guilds that run the city. And so the conflict engine of Ravnica is the guilds. Guilds will always be fighting with each other. They will never stop, it will never go away. So that means whenever we come back here, that place can have something happen to it. That place can be altered by a lesser story on the tier, but that core conflict engine of, "the guilds control the city, they will always fight with each other. No one will ever win this fight" is the thing that keeps it familiar. So that means we can come back to it again and again and again. That sounds terrible, but a human experiences conflict and especially games, in the world of games, when you finish the conflict, you win, or you lose and that's it. And so making sure that your conflict can sustain itself in a way that influences the stories that you tell within it, but doesn't necessarily conflict with the conflict of your story. Then you'll be fine.
Okay yeah, I see that. Do people ever ask you to build a conflict-less world? Or do they ever request utopias?
It was one of the things I really wanted to do when I first started making worlds. Like the idea of building a utopia, I think is something that every world builder wants to do. To build a place where things work and function and do the things that we wish that they did in this world. It was a bit of a wake up call when -- god, I love Doug Beyer so much -- one of my coworkers has been making Magic worlds for years, for decades. He gave me the feedback of, "our game is 250 pictures of people fighting each other," which is a cruel reality, but it's true. In a game where the mechanic is conflict, the world has to be able to enable that. And so what that means is that the conflict can take lots of different forms. The conflict doesn't have to be a wizard punching a warlock in the face. The conflict can be more poetic, the conflict can be more personal. And so I think realizing that conflicts didn't have to be violent is what made me realize what games are capable of doing, tabletop games in particular, and ultimately digital games too.
Both D&D and Magic are so big, and they've been going on for so long and there are so many worlds. How do you keep things fresh? Where do you find the new ideas?
You keep things fresh by bringing in new brains. You keep things fresh by making sure that as you create and expand upon worlds, that you are looking to different sources and inviting new voices into the conversation. I think that the reason that these games have been around for so long is because we have grown into brands that allow for new stories to be told. I don't think we'll ever run out of ideas because we haven't run out of brains to work on them yet. There's lots of opportunities to continue to grow. But yeah, it's challenging, though. Like warm, fuzzy answer aside, it's real hard to come up with new ways for, you know, elves and warlocks and everybody to you know, run around the world. And I think that's why bringing in new voices and new ideas is the way to do it because, I mean, I know I can only come up with so many ideas. That's why it's important to be able to work with a team.
Yeah. Do you ever switch the combinations of team members just to get like new conversations and new relationships?
Um, it depends on the project, but I like to, depending on what I'm working on. So when I staff for a project, I like to bring in folks who maybe specialize to whatever that genre - whatever that top is that we're working on. And I think that can help create both a more cohesive experience, and also one that deals with those assumptions lists in interesting ways. Since they may be more familiar with what it is. Sometimes you do have teams that have worked together for decades in the company and they are a well oiled machine, never to be interrupted from their work. So I think it kind of depends, but for me and my personal tastes when I'm world building, I like to make sure that I work with a team. That's what I was trained in, and those voices to challenge my own and for mine to challenge in turn, makes better stuff in the end.
Yeah. I just really admire your ability to not hold on too tightly to your ideas of how a world should be, and to feel so comfortable letting other people come in and like build it collaboratively. That's a skill set that I'm still working on.
Absolutely, yeah, ideas are temporary. And like, in order to create something with a team, you have to be okay with the idea that sometimes you're gonna have bad ideas, and you're gonna think they're great, want to hold on to them and make them last forever. But entropy is the only guaranteed thing in existence and we're all gonna die. So like who cares? It's an idea. You'll have a million more.
That's so beautiful. Um, on that note, do you have any other advice for aspiring world builders? What are some skills or maybe specific pieces of knowledge you think they really should have?
Oh, yeah. Um, man, watch documentaries about places that aren't where you live, and read books by people who don't live in the same place that you do and who don't look like you want to speak the same language. The more that you can be introduced to the world that we already live in, the more that you can find cool ways to build new places to explore and understand why it's important to create places in a way that recognizes those real world sources. I think that being expanded to the world that we have is really important. Fantasy, I don't think should be dependent on only reading fantasy or only watching fantasy. Good fantasy comes from real lived existence.
Yeah, I agree. 100%. Do you feel like you know people from the worlds you create like almost too intimately? Do you ever run into something where you're like, the people you make almost feel more real than the people in your life?
Just trying to make sure I'm not alone.
Oh, no, you are not alone no. When you create a world from top to bottom and you try and figure out who's going to live there. I think it's kind of impossible not to feel an intense understanding of the people that you make inside of it. Character building is very much similar to world building, it kind of follows the same flow and function, at least for me in building from a top which in a character's case is objective. What is the thing that they want and then letting everything spill out of that. It also might be a side effect of like some of these worlds that I build for, I also write experiences within and so I got to work on some of the world building for Ixalan in Magic: the Gathering and I ended up writing like 15 stories set in that world. I know those people too well. It's dangerous and you are not alone.
Great. Do you ever write stories set in worlds that you don't build?
Yes. In my personal life, I like to you know, stay stay fresh try and, you know, write some 10-minute plays, or write some short stories just for funsies. Um, but I also think this is a good place to plug that fanfiction is a wonderful place to start writing. Yeah, that was my first exposure to writing when I was a teenager. It's learning how to play within the rules somebody else built. It's so important, especially if you want to do what I do and write for a brand, which is kind of one of the only like ways to make guaranteed money as a world builder. Learning how to play with someone else's rules will only make you stronger as a world builder because you get to see how that sausage is produced because you're writing within the sausage. That metaphor really got away from me.
No, we're writing in the sausage now.
WWe're inside the sausage. You can see all the little chunks and go, "ah, yeah, I see where that chunk came from." That's so gross. I'm so sorry.
No, I'm loving this.
Also, make an AO3 account. Write fan fiction, fan fiction is good for you.
Yeah, I love that advice. I wish I wrote more.
Yeah, me too. I'm jealous of kiddos nowadays who you know had a community of fanfiction exist their entire life. Like there is no better way, truly, to get your work out there, have it seen by lots of people, and like get like kudos and feedback. That's so so so important and rare to find outside of those communities.
And some people take their fanfic that they write, or the stories that they post on AO3 and they get published book deals out of it.
Real talk, some of the best world building I have ever seen has been in fanfiction. Like, yeah, this shit's free! Like what the hell? It's not free, go donate to their ko-fis or patreons or whatever, but man. Yeah, it's just such a great resource.
Absolutely. All right, I think that's an amazing note to end on.
Alison had so many great things to say, so I actually wrote down a couple of my favorite quotes. One, "fantasy is about exploring the other in a safe way and in a permissive way, allowing yourself permission to feel like the other", and two, "to make good fantasy, the worst thing you can do is only read fantasy". So if you take nothing else from this episode, remember that ideas are temporary. That's one thing she said that I really admired. And that you should learn more about how our real world works. Lucky for you, you can learn more about our world by listening to more Exolore episodes. And to learn more about Alison, you can follow her on Twitter @Alisontheperson. You can also immerse yourself in some of the worlds that Alison has built by playing Dungeons and Dragons or Magic: the Gathering. I am looking for a new DM. Just putting that out there. If you're looking to start a creative project, but need a little help getting the juices flowing, here's a prompt inspired by my conversation with Alison: Tell a fanfic story set in your favorite fictional world, but tell it in a noir style. And when I say "story", I don't just mean writing. Stories can come in the form of drawings, poems, songs, you name it. So please share your work on Twitter or Instagram and tag @ExolorePod. Or you can send it to the email firstname.lastname@example.org. I kept all of the usernames the same to make it easier for you because I'm a gracious podcast host. If you want to support my worldbuilding work, you can head on over to patreon.com/goastromo. Or, if money's tight right now, which totally makes sense, you can rate and review the show on Apple podcasts. It really makes a difference. If you liked this episode, be sure to share it with your friends or family or coworkers. Probably not your enemies because let's face it, this episode was too good for them. But please share it around and subscribe to the show. That way you can catch me next time on another world.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai