Whether you’re writing fiction, designing a game, or creating non-traditional extreme narrative experience that defies definition, you’re probably going to stumble onto a common world-building problem:
We’ve seen it all before!
- A fantasy world with some combination of elves, dwarves, dragons, and/or politics?
- A sci-fi setting with spaceships and laser guns?
- A world like our own, but with [some fantastic element]?
- A post-apocalyptic anything?
If your world ticks any of these boxes… it’s already been done. Probably hundreds of times. Probably by properties hundreds of times more well-known than whatever you’re working on.
Here’s the thing, though: while the world you’re working on has been done before, the fact that you are working on it is guaranteed to make it unique. Because you’re unique. No matter how well-worn the storyworld concept may be, your distinct voice–your history, your passion, your perspective–will make this specific interpretation of the world different from all those that have come before.
The question: How can you make sure your world is different enough?
The answer: Find your hook.
Your storyworld’s hook is the one thing that makes it stand out from the other worlds around it. This is the twist, the unexpected ingredient, the element that’s often preceded by the words “but with.” (“It’s cyberpunk, but with elves!”) This helps define your niche in the genre, and what differentiates your world from everyone else’s.
There are lots of ways to find your hook, but here are some of my favorites:
- Look Inside: The first and most obvious technique is examine yourself and see why you want to create this storyworld. What is it about this world that inspires you, excites you, or intrigues you more than the similar worlds that already exist? Identify that thing, and you’ve got your hook.
- Rethink Tropes: Recurring types of storyworlds (Tolkien-esque fantasy, space opera, etc.) are often full of common tropes. That’s fine. Tropes help make a world accessible to newcomers. But to make your world stand out, identify some tropes to twist, invert, or replace with a metaphorical smoking crater. Maybe your nigh-immortal elves aren’t aloof dispensers of cryptic wisdom, but gutter-dwelling drunkards always looking for a fight. Maybe your space opera doesn’t have spaceships. Maybe your modern-day vampires are closer to wasp colonies than clans of beautiful seducers.
- Twist the Characters: Insert new types of characters into your storyworld: mech pilots into your fantasy world, ninjas into your sci-fi galaxy, or accountants in your modern horror dystopia. Or twist an established character type. Maybe knights in your world are all women who have alien symbiotes ritually implanted onto their spines?
- Find a New Conflict: What if the conflict in your epic high fantasy world isn’t between the forces of good and evil, but between the rich and the poor? The land-dwellers and ocean-kind? The local nobles and the nobles from the moon?
- Tweak the Tone: Is your world funnier than those around it? Darker? More heroic, melodramatic, or romantic (in either sense of the word)? Maybe it should be. (For example, one thing that helps separate Ghost Punchers from other modern horror worlds is its darkly humorous tone.)
Your storyworld has been done before. Acknowledge it. Accept it. Then move on to find the hook that makes the world truly yours–and makes the world stand out from the crowd.
A few weeks back, I noted that my Packer’s Last Resort card game had reached a point where I could no longer playtest it solo; I need to get other folks to play it too. Turns out, that was easier said than done.
First, I made plans to test the game at the local game designers’ playtest night. But as I set out for the meet-up, the battery light on my car lit up, and the engine started making a most unwholesome groaning sound. Fearing being stuck on the road yet again, I returned home. Turns out, that was the right decision. The battery was fine, but the alternator and serpentine belt were both on their last legs, and had made a suicide pact that would have left me stranded.
A week later, I tried to attend another playtesting event. But I left the house late, the night skies were pouring rain, and the event was an hour away at a venue I’d never visited before. I was starting to feel cursed.
Despite everything, I did arrive safely, and had time to get a couple plays in with other people before the venue shut down. To my relief, those people enjoyed the game. They didn’t looooove it, but felt it was pretty fun, which is a good place to be at this point in the process. And based on that test, I think I’ve figured out how to shorten the game so that it ends before the fun runs out — which is an issue I’ve been struggling with since its earliest incarnation.
I don’t have an updated print-and-play file. Not yet, at least. If this is something you’d like to see, please let me know in the comments (or on Twitter) and I’ll add it to my to-do list.
I dedicated last weekend to punching ghosts and shooting robots. Last weekend was Tacticon, one of my favorite local game conventions. While attendance seemed down from previous years, it was great to see the extended gaming family again, and to run some Savage Worlds for players outside my usual gaming group.
I ran Ghost Punchers twice over the weekend. The adventure, “Biting the Hand,” had the players investigating a burned-out dentist office haunted by some truly creepy ghosts. (I had to smile whenever I described some phantasmal horror and the players visibly flinched.) The game went well both times. I think I’ll add it to the slowly-growing collection of one-sheet adventures.
Saturday night, I debuted a new pulp space opera setting: Challengers of the Oblivion Zone. (Think “bubble helmets and rayguns” and you’ll get the genre.) The game was an absolute blast, though that had more to do with the players–who threw themselves into their roles with breathtaking gusto–than anything intrinsic to the setting. Still, the setting helped. I reckon I’ll keep noodling away at it between other projects.
Running games at conventions is energizing. Oh, it’s exhausting too (I spent much of Sunday recovering), but it’s invigorating and inspiring to see your adventure come to life in ways you’d never expected. And I can’t wait to do it again.
The print version of Ghost Punchers is now available!
The metaphorical trigger I mentioned last week has now been pulled. Ghost Punchers, the roleplaying game of supernatural investigation and violence, is now available via print-on-demand at DriveThruRPG. I’ve got a copy of the soft-cover edition in my sweaty mitts even as I type this (which makes typing difficult, I’ll admit) and it looks pretty sharp. If you’ve been waiting for an opportunity to do likewise, here your chance!
Speaking of Ghost Punchers: A quick reminder that I’ll be running two sessions of the game on September 29 and 30 at Tacticon in Denver. So if you’re in the area, and want to see what the hype is about, swing on by and check it out! (And yes, I’ve ordered some hard copies of the book to sell at the show, but they take time to print and ship, so it’s not a sure thing.)
Update: Soon is now! The print version of Ghost Punchers is now available for purchase. Yay!
Why yes, that is a picture of the long-promised and long-delayed print version of Ghost Punchers!
But no, it’s not available for purchase just quite yet. This is my first outing with physical products, so I want to double-check that every detail is accounted for before pulling the trigger. But once that metaphorical trigger is pulled, rest assured I’ll be shouting it from the rooftops.
In related Ghost Punchers news, I’ll be running two sessions of the game on September 29 and 30 at Tacticon in Denver. So if you’re in the area, and want to see what the hype is about, swing on by and check it out! (And yes, with any luck, there will be hard copies of the rulebook at the con available for purchase. We’ll see how my detail-checking and trigger-pulling goes between now and then.)
I love writing fiction. I love the world of Ghost Punchers. So I’ve smashed these two loves together like a pair of Siamese twins joined at the fist in order to present a bit of ghost-punching flash fiction. If you enjoy it, please share it! (You can find previous ghost-punching flash fiction here and here.)
Two women sat across from each other in the back booth of Joe’s Sunset Diner at 11:35 PM. One was dressed in an aggressively-professional pant-suit. The other wore a police uniform. Each had a cup of coffee and a manila envelope in front of her.
“Did you do it?” asked the cop. “Did you dump him?”
“Oh yes,” said the suit. “You were absolutely correct. He was cheating on me.”
“The woman from his office?”
“No. An old girlfriend. You were right about that, too.”
The cop smiled slightly as she sipped her coffee. She tried not to look smug.
“Go ahead,” said the suit. “Say it.”
“I told you so?”
It was the suit’s turn to smile. “That’s right. You earned it. Say it.”
“I wish I hadn’t been right, though. Sorry. About him, I mean.”
“Nonsense,” said the suit. “I knew he was a cheater and I was foolish to go out with him in the first place.”
She glanced at the clock behind the diner’s counter and gave an almost imperceptible frown.
“Down to business, then?” asked the cop.
Without waiting for a reply, she slid her envelope across the table.
“Got some good stuff for your boss this week,” she said. “Couple of weird locked-door suicides that don’t quite add up. A guy complaining that someone’s rearranging his furniture in the middle of the night. And a whole string of folks reporting screams and ‘inhuman howls’ over in the Crown Crest building.”
“Crown Crest?” asked the suit. “That’s one of those exclusive new apartment buildings downtown, right? Where they won’t even look at your application if you make less than two hundred grand a year?”
“Yeah, that’s the one. Heard they got sued over that policy. Not sure how it turned out.”
“No doubt they settled. Those types of management companies are loaded with cash earmarked for throwing at problems until they go away.”
“Sounds like your kind of client,” said the cop.
The suit smiled. “You know my employer well. The suicides and the other cases I’ll pass along to Jackson and his amateur Scooby gang. But yes, we’ll definitely be talking to someone at Crown Crest.”
She slid her envelope across to the cop. “Your usual fee.”
The cop sighed, shook her head, and pushed the envelope back.
“Actually…” she started.
“Is there a problem?” asked the suit.
“No. Not with… not with our arrangement. But I was hoping that instead of the usual fee, you could help me with an… unusual problem of my own.”
“Of course,” said the suit. “Name it.”
“It’s my daughter. She’s been hearing things. In the walls, at night.”
“Yes, but other things too. Groaning and creaking. Heavy footsteps.”
“Is this at your home?”
“No. No, this is at her dad’s place in the suburbs. She comes back after a weekend out there and she’s exhausted. Can’t sleep at night, and of course he won’t believe her.
“She’s scared, Julia. She’s only nine and she can’t handle this sort of —”
“We’ll take care of it.” The suit—Julia—placed a reassuring hand the cop’s wrist. “I’ll talk to management. I’ll explain what an essential resource you are, and how… how you’re a friend. To the company. To me.”
The cop’s shoulders slumped with relief.
“Think nothing of it. By this time next week, your ex’s house will be ghost-free, and he’ll be none the wiser. That’s the Singular guarantee.”
My Patreon patrons already read this weeks ago, but for everyone else… Previously, I wrote about unique, individual “pillar characters” who appear in multiple stories across the storyworld and fulfill important structural roles within the world itself. Below is one such character from the Empire of Venom & Silk storyworld.
Varan Tull, High Priest of the Spider Gods
Before the invasion, Varan was a high-ranking priest of Alumesh, the goddess of peace and mercy. When the spiders swarmed across Namzi-Shun, Varan and his acolytes turned their temple into a sanctuary for those fleeing the invaders. They prayed to Alumesh for protection. They received nothing but silence in return, and the temple was overrun. Varan and a handful of survivors fled deeper into the city.
In mad desperation, Varan rejected the goddess and embraced the invaders as his new gods. He swore that if the spiders spared his life, he would dedicate it to serving them as their priest. When the spiders indeed passed over the house where he and the others were hiding, Varan took it as a sign. He carved the “sign of the spider” onto his flesh and commanded his acolytes to do the same. Those who refused were cast out to be devoured by his new gods.
Today, Varan leads a thriving cult of spider-worshipers in the ruins of the once-great city of Namzi. His theology is jumbled and contradictory, with an emphasis on human sacrifice, but there’s no denying that those who bear the sign of the spider tend to survive longer than those who don’t.
Varan is a powerful, charismatic speaker. He exudes an intensity that can inspire, seduce, or intimidate as he sees fit. Armed with this forceful personality, he prefers to stay hidden in his temple and send his minions out to collect food and sacrifices. He is too important, he says, to risk the dangers outside. Without him to speak to the spider gods, the cult would be enslaved or devoured like everyone else.
Role: In terms of the Empire of Venom & Silk storyworld, Varan’s role is that of the “famous villain.” His reputation is known throughout the the Fallen Realm, and even beyond.
Quote: “I know you’ve suffered. You’ve lost much. We all have. But we have also be given a second chance to experience beauty, wonder, and power such as we’ve never known. The crawling ones have stripped away our empty, hollow lives to reveal our true selves. Embrace it! Embrace your true self, take the sign of the spider upon your flesh, and become the higher being you know you were born to be.”
Like what you see here? Want to see more of it? Come join my Patreon! Not only do you get early access to world-building blog posts, but you get exclusive content too, and the warm fuzzy feeling that comes from knowing that it’s your support that allows me to keep writing this material.
The one-sheet Ghost Punchers adventure, Too Many Hitlers! Is finally available for download.
What’s better than punching ghosts? Punching Nazi ghosts!
The Gold Star Classic Eatery is haunted! Customers’ dinners are transformed into dishes of horror. Waiters are locked in the freezer by mysterious forces. And people are being assaulted in the restroom by what appears to be the ghost of Adolf Hitler.
The owner of the Gold Star has had enough! These ghosts need a good punching, and he knows just the heroes to administer it.
In other ghost-punching news… I’m cautiously pleased to note that the files for the print-on-demand version of Ghost Punchers are at the printer. This is my first time doing POD, so I suspect I did something wrong and the printer will be kicking the files back (thus the caution), but if not… hard copies could be available before Halloween. (Oh no! I just jinxed it!) Stay tuned for updates!
I’ve hit a milestone on my Packer’s Last Resort card game: I can no longer playtest it by myself.
Oh, I can still make sure most of the mechanical tweaks are working, and that my math hasn’t turned the game into a collapsing, flaming wreck. But as I simultaneously played four different hands during my last testing session, I realized that it just wasn’t working anymore.
Solo testing is great for two types of games:
- those with perfect information (in which every player knows the complete game state, like in chess), and
- cooperative games, since the players are all working together to beat the game.
(It’s also great for completely random games in which players make no decisions (like, say, Candyland), but if you ever see me designing one of those, it’s a coded cry for help and you should call the police.)
Packer’s Last Resort is none of those. Each player has a secret hand of cards, and plays a card in secret each turn. So not only is information hidden, there’s actually a bit of bluffing in the game as well. (“Did he really just play a ‘Fight’ card, or he merely messing with me?”) And trying to bluff when you’re playing the roles of all the players? That’s a bit rough. It’s safe to say it’s no longer an accurate representation of how a real game would play.
Fortunately for me, I’ve got a good community of playtesters and fellow game designers in the area. Unfortunately for them, the game’s still got some serious issues (there are approximate 10 minutes of fun in the 20 minute game), but I look forward to using their feedback to file off the most jagged edges…
…and move on to the next milestone.
I love writing fiction. I love the world of Ghost Punchers. So I’ve smashed these two loves together like a pair of Siamese twins joined at the fist in order to present a bit of ghost-punching flash fiction. If you enjoy it, please share it! (You can find previous ghost-punching flash fiction here.)
The bartender cocked a skeptical eyebrow at Jackson. “You sure?”
Jackson tried to answer, but found there was too much static on the line between his mouth and his brain. Instead he nodded and tapped the bar in front of him.
The bartender turned his eyebrow to Lori. She curled her lip at him.
“You heard the man,” she snipped. “Another shot.”
A moment passed. Jackson was afraid the bartender was going to cut them off.
“Fine,” the bartender grunted. “One more. But that’s it. I’m not losing my license over this. And if your dad pukes, you’re mopping it up.”
“Whatever,” said Lori. “And he’s not my dad.”
Jackson gave her a bleary-eyed look. “Close enough,” he muttered.
“Yeah, yeah. I’ll send you a father’s day card if it’ll get you back to work.” She slid the photo in front of him again. “Anything yet?”
Jackson focused on the image and let the alcohol penetrate the rusty hinges of his steel-trap mind. He saw what he’d been seeing since the client had given them the picture yesterday: eighteen children, all fourth-graders, standing on and in front of a set of playground equipment. A school building loomed in the background. He couldn’t see the name, but knew it was Keller Elementary, where the client worked. The kids were smiling. But one of them didn’t belong.
Jackson shook his head. “Nothing. Sorry.”
A shot glass appeared in front of him.
“That’s the last one,” said the bartender.
Jackson mumbled his thanks and wrapped his fingers around the glass. He raised it in a mock toast to Lori.
“To desperate measures,” he said, and slammed the liquor down his throat.
Jackson closed his eyes while the drink did its work. He could feel exhaustion creeping around the edges of his mind, like a hungry wolf circling a campfire. He hadn’t slept in three days. The booze wasn’t doing him any favors on that front.
He opened his eyes and looked down. There were nineteen kids in the photo.
The newcomer appeared the same age as the others, but instead of a smile, he wore a deep, dark scowl. He stood behind a grinning blond girl in a princess t-shirt. His hands were on her shoulders. Heavy. Possessive.
Jackson tapped the girl.
“That’s him,” he said. “Or… her. He’s the… the threat. She’s possessed.”
Lori pulled out her phone. “I’ll let the client know. He’ll need to keep her separated from the others.”
“The boy,” said Jackson. “He’s old. Nineteen fifties? Forties? Looks mad.”
“The school was built in 1952,” said Lori. She hit the “send” button on her phone and started digging through through her bag. She pulled out a photocopy of an old yearbook page.
“One of these guys look familiar?”
Jackson nodded and pointed at a black-and-white portrait. The boy in the picture had a different hairstyle and shirt than his counterpart in the class photo, but the scowl was the same.
“Him.” The word was surprisingly hard to push past his now-numb lips.
“Figured it would be. Charlie Alcott. He died there over Christmas break, 1955. Froze to death, apparently.”
Lori shrugged. “I guess? That would explain why he stuck around, and why he hits right before they shut the place down for break… Which is tomorrow.”
Jackson had a witty reply, but his campfire was going out. He slumped forward and cradled his head in his arms on the bar. From somewhere far away, he heard Lori whisper.
“You did good, old man. You did good.”