the Little Red Reviewer

GrandCon Worldbuilding panel with the masters of shared worlds

Posted on: September 23, 2013

Over the weekend we went to the GrandCon gaming convention in Grand Rapids, MI. See here for the photo dump post. There was gaming, there were demos, there were oversize plushy dice, there was a promise of kittens in a blender (relax! it’s a card game!), there was an excellent dealer room jammed with comics, artwork, boardgames and more, there was artwork and RPG’ing and cosplayers and epic amounts of geeky fun.

On a lark, I decided to go to the Saturday afternoon Worldbuilding panel. I haven’t read Dragonlance since junior high school, but seriously, who doesn’t want to hear Tracy Hickman, Ed Greenwood, Steven Schend, and Jeff Grubb talk about creating giant worlds for all their friends to come play in? And when I say “world they’ve created”, I mean shared worlds. A role playing world that is designed for other people to add to and build on. These guys give you the basic rules and foundations, and the other game designers get to go crazy (to a point) building scenarios.

Jeff Gruff, Steven Schend, Ed Greenwood and Tracy Hickman

Jeff Gruff, Steven Schend, Ed Greenwood and Tracy Hickman

Topics of discussion included what happens (for good and ill) when others begin making unexpected changes to your world, the difference between designers making changes to the world and gamers and DMs making changes to the world, why creators shouldn’t get too attached to anything in the space, the complexity of religion in role playing worlds, copyright and legal issues when writing tie-in novels, building sympathy for villains, and the limitations of computer games, just to name a few. The conversation was dominated by Hickman and Greenwood, which was fine, because Ed Greenwood is an excellent speaker with decades of experience. I want to buy this man a beer just so can tell me a story. Tracy Hickman as well, wonder speaker, a lifetime of experience, plus experience dealing with the publishing and marketing aspects of the industry. I’d like to buy both of them a drink so they can tell me stories all afternoon!

These two guys have been living the dream their entire life, and listening to Greenwood and Hickman bounce ideas off of each other was definitely a  highlight of the weekend.


A lot of time was spent on discussing changes made to the world. Ok, so you’ve created this amazing role playing world, the gaming company you work with is excited to get artwork commissioned, books printed, research started. Now what? Hickman related multiple experiences when other designers within TSR or Wizards of the Coast would make drastic changes to his world and to characters, changes that went against his original vision. It was agreed by all the panelists that the original designers have a responsibility to incorporate what others bring to the table while still maintaining the core vision. Everyone wants to be able to leave their mark on something they’ve touched. People working on game design need to balance advancing the dimensions of the world against changes that are too drastic.

Game players, on the other hand, should feel invited to throw curve balls to the DM, explore new options, push the envelope. Greenwood had nothing but good things to say about the happy surprises he’d had with what tie-in novel authors and game players sent his way. If a player suggests something unexpected to the DM, it’s the DM’s job to figure out how that can fit in. You’ve got to welcome non-scripted moments from both the players and the co-designers – figure out how you can make it work without disrupting the original core vision.

I wasn’t familiar with most of the game realms mentioned, I don’t know jack about roleplaying games, but guys, this is why you should go to panels and convention seminars, because this is your chance to expand your horizons with the help of some really, really cool people.

A really fun and humorous part of the panel was the discussion on media tie-in novels and publishing. Hickman is currently involved in a Batman novel series, and had originally been told he could do anything he wanted with Bruce Wayne’s character. With respect to what came before, he didn’t want to do anything too crazy, didn’t want to stray too far from the core vision. But he did want to do a prequel story involving Bruce Wayne’s father. The novel took place in the 1950s, there are some song lyrics when characters are listening to the car radio, the elder Wayne attends a costume party dressed as a Bat, and references to Zorro are made. Hickman said DC Comics loved the concept, but it was a no-go with Time Warner because they were concerned that Hickman was referencing media properties they didn’t own the rights to. Hickman tracked down the current copyright owner of Zorro (more difficult than you’d think), spoke to the man over the phone, gained verbal and written permission to make references to Zorro, and still, Time Warner said he couldn’t do it because they didn’t want to risk the possibility of legal entanglements. Another great story Hickman told was that he wrote a novel that didn’t have a dragon on it and didn’t have the word Dragon in the title and so his publisher categorized it as general fiction. After much back and forth, the novel was re-titled, given different cover art, and categorized as YA Fantasy, to much better reception.

I’m not into Batman, like, not at all. But after hearing him talk, I want to read his Batman tie-in novels! LOL, leave it to the DragonLance guy to get me into superhero fiction!

Ed Greenwood talked a bit about religion in Forgotten Realms and other worlds he’s worked on. This guy just exuded excitement and positivity about everything, so I’ll say it again – I want to buy him a drink just so he’ll tell me a million stories! In some of his worlds the humans believe in a pantheon of gods, but what about the non-human characters? Do they believe in the same humanoid gods? or do they have their own pantheon? He seemed very excited but a little overwhelmed with the possibility of having to develop dozens of gods and temple practices and what priests wear and methods of worship, and it’s never ending. And what about predestination? If everything is already written, if the gods know everything that’s going to happen, and no one has free will, is your character really a hero? This is something the DM needs to think about, that the players want to be the hero of their own story.

And speaking of heroes, even the villain thinks they are a hero from time to time. Everyone on the panel agreed that to gain sympathy for your bad guy, you need to make the reader or player believe the bad guy truly believes they are doing the right thing from day one. Give the person a history, give them a reason to become the person they are. Just like a hero, the bad guy has a past, and it is their decisions that will eventually turn them into a good guy or a bad guy.

there was a very quick and funny line about Darth Vader. Here’s a guy who had a crappy childhood, lost his parents at a young age, was lonely for most of his youth, he grew up to be . . . . Batman!

3 Responses to "GrandCon Worldbuilding panel with the masters of shared worlds"

Thanks for all the kinds words; glad you enjoyed the panel (and we hope to do more next year at Grand Con as well)!


no, thank YOU! and yes, more panels please!


Oh man, this sounds like a blast. Sad I didn’t make it. I really only knew Hickman by reputation, but getting to talk to him for about 15 minutes on Sunday was a lovely experience.


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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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