19 min read

Designing Worlds & Stories with Keith Baker

In this interview, we have the pleasure of speaking with Keith Baker. Keith talks about his love for tabletop RPGs and the collaborative nature of the medium, and shares some of his techniques for engaging players in his games.

"Designing Worlds & Stories with Keith Baker", alongside a portrait of Keith Baker looking snazzy in a cowboy hat.

In this interview, we have the pleasure of speaking with Keith Baker, a professional writer and game designer known for creating the setting of Eberron for Dungeons and Dragons and the storytelling card game called Gloom, among many others things! In this interview, Keith talks about his love for tabletop RPGs and the collaborative nature of the medium, and shares some of his techniques for engaging players in his games.

Hi Keith, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us.  In case anyone is reading this and somehow doesn’t know who you are, could you please give a quick introduction about who you are and what you do?

Absolutely.  I’m Keith Baker, a professional writer and game designer.  I’m best known for creating the setting of Eberron for Dungeons and Dragons, and also the storytelling card game called Gloom.  I’ve done freelance writing for countless other roleplaying companies, and I’ve also done lead design for MMORPG’s - I’m currently doing story development for the game Wayfinder by Airship Syndicate.  I’ve also published 6 novels in Eberron.  Between novels, campaign settings, worlds for mmorpgs, collaborative storytelling card games and live action RPG’s, you could say I’ve covered a wide scope of collaborative game and story writing.

Amazing, thank you.  As you mentioned, you are most known for your talents as a worldbuilder and GM for tabletop RPG products.  What is it about this medium of gameplay and storytelling in particular that appeals to you?

As someone who has done MMORPG’s and novels, there are a couple of things that set tabletop roleplaying apart for me.  First, as an experience, I appreciate the fact that it is active and collaborative.  So much entertainment in our minds is passive, watching or reading things.  Even when we play things like computer games, we are basically limited by the imagination of the programmer.  If I’m playing a video game and I say “oh, there’s a tree, let me climb it,” I can’t do it unless they worked tree climbing into the system.  In a TTRPG, if I tell a player they’re walking down a treeline path and the player says they want to climb it, I can say “I never considered that you would do that, but let’s figure it out.”  You know, I like that fact that you can do whatever you can come up with even if you need to fudge the rules a little to make it work.

The other part I enjoy is that because of that creative freedom, even as the person who’s creating the game or adventure, I don’t know what’s going to happen, and it’s just as interesting for me as for the player.  I have an adventure that I’ve run about sixty times, and because of the way I write adventures, in every single session I’ve run, there’s been something unexpected and new that happens.  I could run that adventure for you tomorrow and it would be fun for me to do it, which is one of the great joys of GMing for me.

I’m glad that you mentioned collaboration in particular, because it was actually a conversation you had with my friend who’s a Patron of yours regarding collaboration that originally inspired me to reach out to you. In it, you talked about a collaborative approach to party downtime.   You said that instead of just telling the players what happened, you give them the opportunity to tell you what happened.  The example you gave was a two week train ride, and you would say, “Bob, tell me something that happens on the tenth day, or tell me about an interesting person you met on the train.”

I thought that was so interesting - what do you think is the virtue or the value of a collaborative approach to GMing?  As opposed to what you might call an expository approach.

It’s interesting you mention that in particular.  I definitely remember that conversation, and it’s an example from my book Chronicles of Eberron that we recently put out.  In it, there’s a chapter on what I call ‘travel by montage.’  What I discussed there is specifically the idea of travel in particular as something that often isn’t interesting.  You can do random encounters, “yippee, we fight some wolves,” but that doesn’t get the impression of the story across.  So the technique I described is rather than random encounters, or playing a whole adventure that’s just sitting in the train, give your players a prompt that’s about something interesting that happens and how they deal with it.  

As you said, an example would be, “Who’s an interesting person you met on the train?”  As an aside, part of it is to look at the characters and look at what they are good at, and give those skills an opportunity to shine.  Take the rogue, and say, “Bob, there are bandits in the woods.  What do you do to deal with the problem?”  Maybe he’s so stealthy he sneaks the party around the bandits, maybe he knows the bandit leader from his college days.  The point of it is that it’s not necessarily a challenge of a die roll, you can just say, “You’re getting us by the bandits, Bob.  Tell me how you did it.”  The bandits aren’t supposed to be a threat, this is just a chance to highlight what Bob’s about and show a cool feature of the character we might not know yet.  Part of the point of that is there are no essential stakes - we’re getting to our destination, that’s what the adventure’s about.  So there’s no real reason for me not to give some narrative control to the player.

It seems like what you’re saying is that the value of collaboration is engagement and investment for your players.

That’s absolutely true.  

Do you have any other advice for engaging your players?

One technique I wanted to touch on was describing elements of scenes.  A particular one that I do all the time that helps me is this: let’s say the party runs into a mob of zombies.  They’re in a small agricultural village.  The zombies are people from this village.  I’ll describe a few, and then I’ll ask each player to describe one of the zombies.  There are two advantages to this: first, it gives me something to use when I’m describing the fight beyond just muttering numbers.  The second is, by asking the players to describe them, they are clearly visualizing the scenario in their head.  It’s not just me telling them, it is becoming their story and they’re more invested.

One other thing - I know I’m sort of beating a dead horse here.  With most of the campaigns I run, I like to start off in a small town.  The idea is that I want the players to be invested in the town.  To do this, I’ll start by asking each of them why they’re in the town.  Do they have a stake in the town, are they hiding out there, etc.  I’ll start by saying there’s only one tavern in town.  It’s called the Cat and Biscuit, and they make the best biscuits in town.  I’ll ask each of them to tell me something about it.  The last time I did this, the first player said that there’s great acoustics and they have an open mic.  The next said they brew their own beer and it’s really popular.  The third player says, they don’t have a working toilet and it smells terrible.  Now, this is Eberron - for 200 gold pieces you can get a cleansing stone which is essentially a toilet.  So for the next three sessions, the party was basically trying to raise enough money to get a new toilet.  I remember one of the players at the end of the third episode saying, “I know there’s this demonic cult, but I love that we’re just trying to get a new toilet.”  Rather than me just telling my players about a tavern, by giving them these creative prompts, they care and have a more meaningful connection.  When possible, you should let your players live in the space and give them the freedom to develop stakes and relationships for themselves.  It’ll always be more impactful if it’s ‘our story’ than ‘my story’.

Now, there’s a balance to that, because a lot of people come to a TTRPG because they want you to tell them a story.  They want you to tell them what’s happening and they want to be surprised.  Usually, that’s why I will find a balance.  When I spoke about the zombies before, the first thing I did was describe a few of them myself.  I’m setting the scene, I’m paving the way, and then with that guidance I pass it on to the players to carry that on.  

The other thing that’s very important when using this kind of technique is that you never want to force a player.  Before I start running, I like to tell my players that this is my style of DMing and ask if they’re comfortable with it.  If they’re not, I honor that.  But even if they are, if you hit someone with a question in the moment and they freeze or stumble, just wave it away and move on.  You never want to make someone uncomfortable by putting them on the spot.

I know that you have an active Patreon with hundreds of members, and I know you have events and games that you run with them.  Can you tell me a bit about that process?

Yeah, so one of the main things I do for my Patreon is I run a few games for my patrons.  Now there are around 400 of them at the requisite tier and only a few slots at the table, and the players change every game.  It’s an ongoing story with an ongoing cast of characters, so what I do is I have a pool of ten available characters to play, and each patron gets to pick one and play them for a session in this shared narrative.  Between sessions, I will often post polls about what could happen next session and let the patrons vote to decide the direction we take.  I also do ‘story hours’ on Discord sometimes, where I do a bit of choose-your-own-adventure where I narrate a story to them and they get to choose what happens in a text-based-RPG kind of style.

The point of this is that only a few people get to play at a time, but everybody is still collaborating to add details to the world.

What’s the biggest challenge to running in this kind of format?

It’s hard sometimes, because the thing I love most about TTRPG’s is how the story develops over time.  When we’ve just sat down, we start with these basic concepts and don’t really know the world.  But the longer we play, the more it becomes ‘our story’ - the characters take on their own life, we develop the villains, etc.  So it was a real challenge to think about how to accomplish that when you’re running for 400 people. When I first started it up, I did a whole series of polls to keep it interactive from the get-go.  As an example, I knew one of the characters was going to be the ‘muscle’.  So I put out a poll with options - maybe they’re a former marshal, a blacksmith, the sheriff, or a paladin.  They picked the marshal and the blacksmith, so then we discussed the former marshal.  On and on it went, taking great care with each step to make it as meaningfully interactive as possible.  At the same time, I took care to give constraints like I said before.  It was a poll, not a forum.  

Setting constraints.

Right, I didn’t want to end up with Marshal Boaty McBoatface.  I need to be able to wrap my head around things and keep a certain integrity of the narrative so I can provide the best experience for my players.

I do think that’s the tricky line to walk - people are coming to a Game Master because they want a story that they might not have in their mind themselves.  But like I said, it’s about finding the places where they can add details that will pull them in without feeling like they’re just making the whole thing up themselves.  

You’ve been doing this for a long time - I know Eberron is almost twenty years old, and I know you’ve been writing before and beyond that as well.  What advice do you have for dealing with or avoiding burnout?

That’s definitely part of the appeal of the collaborative approach, is that it helps lessen that burden.  That and the variety that I spoke to before, about how I can run the same adventure sixty times and I’m still curious what they’ll come up with this time.  I think the point, to me, is that your job as a game master is to make a fun experience for everyone else, but it’s also to have fun with everyone else.  In designing a story, there is a degree to where I’m making it for myself as well as my players.  I include NPC’s I’m excited to run and parts where I’m excited to see what my players come up with, so I’m never just going through the motions.  The key part is always to think about what part of the thing you’re creating is fun for you, and what you’re hoping to get out of it.

So you’d say a key part of enjoyment is unpredictability?

Absolutely.  Some people might view that as a negative, but for me, that’s the real joy of the whole thing.  I get to react to my players and be creative in ways that I couldn’t expect.

And when you think about it, what other medium exists that can be unpredictable in that way?

Right, and that’s exactly the point to me. I love all kinds of video game RPGs, but in those games you can’t do something that the actual designer hasn’t already thought of and implemented.

I mentioned before that you’ve been doing this for a long time.  With Eberron in particular, how do you keep your story straight?  By that I mean, how do you deal with continuity in a setting that’s two decades old and going, and that has been contributed to by dozens of writers besides yourself?

An interesting note on that is that Eberron is particularly unique from other settings in that we never advance the timeline.  Over the course of twenty years, even when updating it for new editions, we’ve always started it at the same point in time.  We’ve created a lot of interesting situations that are ready to trigger, but as an overall setting, we aren’t tracking them.  There are 40 Eberron novels, but none of them are canon.  The novels are things that could happen, but we want them to merely be inspiration to you.  We have a mantra, “in my Eberron…”.  What that means is that we write the springboard for your story, but you make it your own.  If we were in Middle Earth, we would say, “You get the ring.  Now how do you solve the problem?”  The events of the Fellowship are a possible way to do it, but how does your character do it?

So what you’re saying is that what is canon about your world is this nexus point, the framework by which your audience gets to tell their own story?

Exactly.  Now as for keeping track of ongoing games, like my Patreon game that’s been going for a year and a half, we use a worldbuilding service, like LegendKeeper, and have our own kind of internal wiki with our cast of characters and major events.  So I think services like yours are a useful tool - I haven’t tried it myself, but I can see the value of having a way to track events and motivations behind the screen as a GM.

Wonderful, thank you.  On the topic of worldbuilding, one of the most impressive parts of Eberron to me are its rich and integrated cultures and ethnicities.  Could you talk about how you go about creating culture, and where you look to for inspiration?

One of the things that’s important to me as a world builder is to be inspired by real life, but never to simply copy real life.  I don’t want to say one thing is the Japan analogue, as an example.  Especially in Eberron, I want to avoid any country being directly analogous to any existing country.  On the other hand, there are certain points of inspiration.  Karrnath is a cold, icy, militaristic land that has incorporated necromancy into its military.  There’s no question that that’s drawing inspiration from the flavor of early twentieth century Russia/Ballkans, as well as some Dracula and Transylvania worked in there.  It’s not a direct analogy, but it’s a touchstone.  Thrane with the Church of the Silver Flame is a theocracy that’s preparing for some apocalypse, but it’s not the Holy Roman Empire.

A question I always like to keep in mind when creating a world is, “How is it not our world?”  Also consider the logical ramifications of the factions and entities that exist in your world.  In Eberron, Aundair is the nation with the greatest integration of arcane magic, and Thrane is the one with the most divine magic.  What would that do?  How would that change the lives of their citizens, or the tensions of those nations?  What would make that interesting?

Another thing to think about is why nations form in the first place, and why they succeed.  Why would this nation have survived hundreds of years?  Think about the resources they possess that allow them to thrive, what the driving force of their culture is, and how that would cause them to interact with other nations.

In terms of the ancestries and species of Eberron, the driving question behind designing them was “What makes them different from humans?”  Think about how that might affect them.  Take the Elven cultures in Eberron for example.  They are all very affected by the fact that they live so long.  It makes it hard for them to let go of things - once you’ve had a friend for a thousand years, it’s very hard to let go of them.  So all of the cultures of the elves, whether it’s ancestor worship or preserving their greatest people as undead, are about not wanting to lose each other and trying to fight death, essentially.

Another thing we played with regarding the elves is the idea that they’re all ‘like grandpa’.  Rather than them taking hundreds of years to mature, they actually mature at around the same rate as humans - they then just live another eight hundred years.  So the reason that Elven society is more advanced than humans at the present time is because they’re much older, by tens of thousands of years.  But humanity is advancing at a much faster rate.  The analogy I use it it’s like your grandpa learning how to use TikTok.  They’re really good at the things they’re good at, but it’s harder for them to learn new ways.  They lack the urgent adaptability of a more short-lived species.

Flipping things around, the Gnomes are one of my favorite groups in Eberron because when I was first writing Eberron, Gnomes very much only existed as comic relief.  Think about their abilities - they’re small, weak, illusory tricksters.  So I looked at that and thought, they’re smaller and weaker than those around them.  So they’re going to have to get by with wits rather than force.  They’re naturally talented in illusions and alchemy, meaning poison, so they’ll rely on assassination rather than war.  They developed this culture that’s a little bit inspired by renaissance Venice, with this secret council of ten and mailboxes where you could drop letters about fellow citizens committing crimes.  Zilargo (The Gnommish nation) plays this up in a Minority Report-type way, where they have such an advanced surveillance state where criminals are dealt with before they’re committed.  Their cities look like Disneyland, but it’s built on a foundation of murder and oppression.

So I’d boil it down to these points: first, what’s the touchstone? What’s the reference that makes this feel familiar even if it’s new?  Next, how is it logical? What facts of the world are we drawing on?  And third, how is it a satisfying story? What about this provides the potential for compelling narratives?  All of this is ultimately about creating stories with this material, so how do we make it a fun story for our players?  That’s the whole point, after all.

When borrowing from the real world in your writing, how do you avoid being reductive or engaging in stereotype?

I would say be generally mindful of course, but also talk to other people. We work with sensitivity readers on Eberron products whenever we’re not sure of how things might come across.  In Chronicles of Eberron for example, a portion of that book includes Sahuagin slavers.  Being that it was a discussion of slavery, we were careful to ensure that it was compelling while remaining sensitive to real world concerns.  Sensitivity is another reason why I feel it’s really important to take inspiration from the real world, but never copy from it directly.

I mentioned before that Eberron is a property that came from you, but there are dozens of other writers who write for Eberron, to the point where there’s canon material that you’ve had nothing to do with making.  How do you handle working alongside other creators in your world?

My approach to running the game, where I put creation in the hands of the players, extends the same way to other writers.  You have to be willing to share the toys and say ‘this isn’t my story, this is our story.’  I knew this when I was selling the rights to Wizards, letting go of control.  That’s why we baked the idea into Eberron from the start that canon is just a place to begin, and every play group gets to decide what their Eberron will be.  The point of the “in my Eberron” concept from before is that I get to deviate from canon whenever I want.  There are, like, three source books that I fully ignore, because they don’t agree with my vision of the world.  I never want Eberron to be something that limits peoples’ stories, but rather something that people can build upon and make their own.

You mentioned that there are entire source books that you disagree with.  This is an example that will lead to my question: In my Eberron game, I’m playing a paladin of the Church of the Silver Flame.  I know that historically, some other source materials by other writers have used the Silver Flame as a chance to… inelegantly air their grievances with real-world religion, which goes against the whole point of the Order’s existence.

I wanted to ask - how do you consider properties or source material in your own world that you don’t agree with?

Yeah, the Church of the Silver Flame is an excellent example of that for exactly the reasons you say.  To me, it’s a very interesting force with an interesting point in the world, and yet, as you say, in many source books that I did not work on, people either fundamentally don’t understand the concept, or use it to air out their biases against organized religion - but that’s not what the Order is.  So again, what I do with that, is I ignore the stuff I disagree with and keep pushing on.

In Exploring Eberron, there’s a section on the Silver Flame.  I didn’t defend anything in the face of Eberron that I disagreed with, I just said, “In my Eberron, this is how the Silver Flame works.”

I’m going to speak to this because you pushed the Silver Flame button - the thing that bothers me about the people who take the Silver Flame and go in the wrong direction is that they forget that Eberron is not our world.  One of the critical factors is that people tend to look at the Silver Flame and see the Salem Witch Trials.  But my point is, Eberron is a fantasy world - there are literal witches to hunt.  ‘Witch Hunter’ isn’t a superstition, it’s an occupation.  There is capital-letter, proper-noun Evil that demonstrably exists, and there needs to be people whose job it is to deal with those threats.

I always compare the Silver Flame more to the Men in Black or the Jedi.  They are selfless defenders who put themselves in harm’s way to protect people from very real threats.  I think that is the point that people don’t stop and think about, what it would actually be like in a world where there are aberrations that hide in the shadows and undead that stalk the graveyards.  These threats are real, and people don’t get their brain around that.

The other thing about the Silver Flame that I always hammer on is, they’re not here to tell you how  to live your life, they’re here to make sure that you can live your life.  Because again, that’s where people wrongly relate them to our world.  They’re not about human sin - they want people to treat each other well, but human evil is really the lowest on the rung of priorities for them.  Their idea is that they fight human evil by inspiring people to be better - we fight demons by stabbing them with a sword.

But that comes back to a bunch of things we said earlier, that the point in creating the Silver Flame, there is some inspiration from our world but it was never supposed to mirror a religion from our world because it isn’t our world.  They exist to fight threats that we don’t have.  And to your question, when I see these kinds of writings I don’t agree with, I ignore them - because that’s not my Eberron.

You’ve reminded me of something, and forgive me for editorializing a bit: from my perspective, there exists this false dichotomy in the minds of many people where they view the GM as the author and the players as the audience.  It sounds like you really do fundamentally believe that we’re all creating together - do you agree, and can you speak to that idea?

I do believe that, and in part, that’s because that’s what makes this form of play unique.  If you’re reading a novel, I’m telling you the story.  If you’re playing a video game, the designers are telling you the story.  What’s unique about this medium is that we get to do it together.  It comes back to the whole idea of, you’re watching a horror movie and you go “don’t go down the staircase!”  Well, in these games, you get to stop and decide not to go down the staircase.  And you can just limit it to the choices your players make, but I think it’s a great opportunity for things like that “tell me about a zombie” example from before that add to the experience.  I told you that this is a story about a zombie outbreak, but I’m giving you a stake in the creation of the narrative so that you feel more direct ownership than if it were just me telling it to you.

You talked before about GMing being for your own entertainment as much as it is for your players.  Can you think of an idea or concept that you have thought of that you love, but hasn’t yet made it into a game or a sourcebook?

Yeah, actually.  In Eberron, the Daelkyr are sort of Lovecraftian creatures that exist beyond time and space.  The idea is - and this actually came up in discussion with fans of mine, and I love the idea - that the Daelkyr could have created the Dragonmarks.  It’s an idea that makes a tremendous amount of sense because the Dragonmarks appeared only very recently in the world’s history, within the last thousand years or so.  They are tied to the Draconic Prophecy, but why did they manifest in this way to these people?  Well, the Daelykr are creatures that toy with and break the rules of reality.  Maybe one of the Daelkyr found the prophecy, which is a real force in the world, and basically said, “This is neat, but what happens if I yank it apart and stick it on a person?”  It’s not necessarily an act of malice, but it’s an interesting twist with a lot of potential - here’s this thing that we’ve all thought of as some kind of divine blessing, but actually it’s just some alien experiment.  I think that’s such a cool concept, and while it’s not something I would ever make canon, I would love to hear about how people might take it and run with it in their games.

Well Mister Keith Baker, thanks very much for taking the time to speak with us. Before I let you go, is there anything you’d like to shout out or bring to our readers’ attention?

For sure!  My primary website is twogetherstudios.com, and that’s where I’m doing all my current stuff, Eberron and otherwise.  I’m on Patreon as Keith Baker, so if you’re interested in being a part of any of the cool games and systems I’ve described, we’d love to have you. Aside from that, we have a new expansion for Illimat coming out, which is our card game with The Decemberists, and Chronicles of Eberron just came out in December on DM’s Guild.

If you’d like to find Keith on social media, you can find him as @Hellcowkeith, or @twogetherstudio.  Please check him out at Patreon or his work on the DM’s Guild, and stay posted for our next LegendKeeper newsletter!

Written by Carson Jones

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