Some hacks for writing scenery and characters

Published on , 1029 words, 4 minutes to read

Writer's block is a thing. It can feel overwhelming to flesh out the backstory of characters that players may only interact with once, meaning those things never come up. However, we're in the future and we have methods that we can use to work around this. Here are some of my hacks.


Stuck on writing what the inside of a potion shop, town square or active port looks like? Here's two simple questions that you can build on:

  1. What is there?
  2. What is it like?

This method is based on some overanalyses of the metaphysical method[1], but at a high level we can boil the mountains of pages down to those two basic questions, and answering them can get surprising levels of detail just by finding places that you want to explain better and drilling into them.

=> The metaphysical method

An Example

Here's an example of a bit of flavortext that I just used tonight to describe an Enchanter's shop:

Walking into the shop, you feel awe. The owner of this shop means business. The walls are not coated in inventory like the other shops, but what is there is of the highest quality. There is a painting of a large tree on the wall framed in gold. Kasula, a muscular middle-aged Elf, runs this shop and she continues to work on new and fantastic wonders.

  1. What is there? The enchanter's shop, it has very few items out but they are all high quality.
  2. What is it like? Things are taken seriously and the shopkeep looks like someone that you can count on for reliable goods.

The room opens up and you see a staircase leading to a door with a golden engraved name on it: Divae. The engraving looks like it's on some kind of door, but it's a kind of door that you've never seen before. There are torches on the walls that look freshly lit, but this is an underground temple that was supposedly lost to time. How can the torches be lit?

  1. What is there? A gold plaque on a door. Torches on the walls. An underground temple.
  2. What is it like? Mysterious, foreboding, but somewhat friendly and safe.

The rest is just extra flavor to flesh things out. The golden painting of a tree might end up being used as part of a quest or plot point, but it might not. It depends if it ever becomes relevant or if a character asks about it. Either way, it helps to establish the history of the shopkeep in a way that makes them a bit more believable. The golden inscription may not be in Common (but can be made understandable for the sake of the players, context is king, etc). Don't be afraid to take inspiration from fiction, such as The Thousand Year Door or the gate to Moira from The Lord of the Rings.

I recreate the area in my mind and just look around as if I was standing there, smell things that would be there, etc, but at a high level you can start from the "what is there" and work your way into the "what is it like" just by expanding on details that would realistically exist there. Take inspiration from video games, books, movies and TV. Say you have a magic shop run by someone that's gone a bit mad over the years. What would that do to how the shop is presented? Would things be in a slightly chaotic order? Would there be slightly more dangerous things there? Would it be cleaner or dirtier there? Etc. Answer this until you feel like there's enough detail that you can improvise anything else that comes up during the game. It may take a few tries to know where this balance is, but you'll eventually get there after a few attempts.


Now comes writing characters. This can be tedious. Some generators can help you like [2], however I find the best generator for this is actually a deck of tarot cards. Tarot cards each have two interpretations that represent common tropes or events in people's lives. You can use three of them to get the character's long term history, recent history and current feelings. Take this as an example:


An Example

Rilkef is a human bartender that has had a long history of heartbreak and grief. He lost his parents in wars, his grandparents were killed by bandits and his wife left him for another man after a fight about the price of crabapples used to make mixed beverages. Recently he managed to find someone else to live with him, so he's still adjusting to the changes involved. This upheaval has caused a lot of old hurt to come back to the surface, and he is talking with the town's cleric in order to work through it and help adjust to his new role in life: the bartender of The Amber Flagon.

Closing Advice

Also, if you are having consistent cases of writer's block that make you feel like you are straining to come up with ideas, stop for the day. You can only wet so much blood from a stone. Don't feel bad about not being able to come up with things. Consider this musical retelling of this Alan Watts talk Play on Demand. Treat writing as a spontaneous playful thing. In play, things may not come up in order. You can't just play on demand, you have to make it fun. If it's not fun, you can always come back the next day and try again.

=> Play on Demand

It's a game afterall :D

I hope these words are able to help you with your writing as much as they help me.

Facts and circumstances may have changed since publication. Please contact me before jumping to conclusions if something seems wrong or unclear.