How To Turn Board Game Writing Into A Team Sport

Writing something like the world of Vrahode takes a lot of work! Everything from flora to fauna to the creatures that live in the world are original. To make all that come to life, you need a talented writer. Enter Shawn Allen Dressler.

Shawn is a published fantasy author known for his series, The Five. He and Jeff work together as a team to develop the campaign book for Vrahode. In this podcast, you can learn how that works.

Vrahode will be coming to Kickstarter most likely in quarter four of 2023. When that campaign goes live, you will not only be able to buy the core game, Vrahode: The Calteeryn Ascension, but its three expansions as well.

Learn more about Vrahode on the websiteFacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

You can find Shawn Allen Dressler on Facebook and Instagram.

00:00:00 How To Turn Board Game Writing Into A Team Sport
00:00:41 Progress so far on the Vrahode campaign book
00:04:18 Shawn Allen Dressler’s writing style + writing in a team
00:10:14 How to write for a world that already exists
00:13:30 Jeff, what’s it like to give up control over parts of the story?
00:19:02 Making gameplay rules fit the story without seeming abstract


Brandon Rollins: You just described writing Vrahode as Naked & Afraid.

Jeff Irving: I was getting ready to say the, the board game equivalent of what he’s talking about is Kingdom Death Monster. You start out as a, as a naked person with, with nothing, and you, your first weapon is a stick. 

My name is Jeff Irving, and this is the Vrahode Tavern Podcast. I am the creator of the Vrahode Game System, and in this podcast we’re going to do a deep dive into the lore and gameplay of Vrahode. I’m joined by Brandon Rollins, who will be acting as a stand in for you, asking many of the questions you might be curious about yourself.

We’re also joined today by campaign book writer Shawn Allen Dressler. Brandon, what is our topic for today? 

Progress so far on the Vrahode campaign book

Brandon Rollins: Hi, Jeff. Hi, everybody listening. So today’s topic, I was thinking, we’ve got Shawn Allen Dressler on and that’s pretty unique because we haven’t had Shawn on yet. Um, so I was thinking let’s just talk about the actual writing that goes into the campaign book of Vrahode.

So Shawn, first of all, thank you for coming on the show today.

Shawn Dressler: Yeah, really happy to. Thanks for having me.

Brandon Rollins: Yeah. And we’re happy to have you on because as I understand it, you’ve written, I actually don’t know the answer to this, but have you written the majority of the campaign book?

Shawn Dressler: Uh, yes. Um, I would say the vast majority.

So Jeff brought me on, uh, oh man, nearly a year ago now to be the lead writer for the Vrahode Game System. And, um, in that span, we’ve now written almost 220,000 words of game. Um, we’ve, we’ve had some help along the way and, um, we have a, a good writing team that, um, I get to work with.

But, um, yeah, it’s a pretty, it’s pretty streamlined and so the majority of the writing falls to me and, uh, with support from my faithful co-conspirator along the way.

Brandon Rollins: That’s really cool. And just for anybody who’s listening who doesn’t have a cont, have context for how big 220,000 words is, the average American novel or, like, the prototypical American novel is somewhere around 80,000 words. I think 220 is starting to get in the realm of like Dune or something.

We’re talking. That’s a, that’s a lot of text.

Shawn Dressler: Yeah, exactly. Uh, you know, uh, and to put it in context, before joining this project, I’ve written two of my own epic fantasy novels, and both were around a hundred thousand words. I would guess that this series, the four box series, ends up somewhere between 300 and 350,000. Um, so you’re thinking, you’re talking about like three, three and a half full size epic fantasy novels crammed into game.

Brandon Rollins: Yeah, that’s, that’s absolutely nuts. That’s just one of those things I have to like, stop and think about to really appreciate because you’re… it, it’s like you said, it’s more writing than actual, like standalone novels at this point, you’re talking about a novel series within a game. So if you’re at like 220 now and the whole game’s gonna end up the game and the expansions are gonna end up being around 300, 350, is it fair to say that you’re through the base game and maybe into one of the expansions at this point?

Shawn Dressler: For the most part, um, you know, the process of writing, the process of drafting a first, uh, draft is a, is both a back and forth process on the for, for this, uh, in specific on the core box. And also as you’re doing that, you’re really informing the expansions. And so you have to jump forward and you have to think through quests and think through mechanics and think through progressions.

And so there’s a lot of writing that’s already been done on, uh, lots of aspects of the expansions and before we’ve even really put a ribbon on the first draft of the core box. But that being said, I’m probably, um, maybe 95% done with the core box first draft.

Shawn Allen Dressler’s writing style + writing in a team

Brandon Rollins: Wow. Um, so I was just thinking in writing, I’ve heard this and I have no idea how common this is, so maybe you’ve heard it, maybe you haven’t, but there’s, um, there’s plotting and there’s pantsing, which are like the two approaches. Yeah. Okay. So this is ringing a bell.

Um, So, yeah, for anybody who’s listening and, and who’s never heard that, and if you’re outside of publication, it’s like, why would you? Um, plotting is basically where you start outlining things in great detail before you ever actually write ’em.

And pantsing is where you just sit down and you write, and what happens, happens. Um, I have to imagine that when you’re doing a campaign book, it’s very, very heavily skewed toward plotting.

Shawn Dressler: Yeah, you would be right. It’s, uh, you know, my normal style, if I’m writing any story is kind of in between, it’s called plotsing and, and, so I, I tend to create a loose framework and then I, I spend more of my time on the plotting side thinking about theme and story and characters and world and how all that fits together. And then when I jump into the actual writing process, I, I try to do it from a standpoint of understanding. Those characters, understanding their motivations and then let the story to a large extent, write itself.

Um, with the game, it’s definitely a little different because there are so many aspects of gameplay that affect story. And while, you know, Jeff is the game rules mechanics guru, I’m always trying to write the story in such a way that it either accommodates or is affected by those rules. And so there’s just no way to do that without a lot more extensive of a, of a plotting, uh, phase than I would usually use.

Brandon Rollins: Yeah, that makes sense. Especially when you just think about, forget even the requirements of building a game at this point. It’s like even dividing up work among two or more people requires I think some kind of organization like that.

Shawn Dressler: Totally, Totally. And right now our, our writing team is primarily me and, uh, one other writer. And you know, for those who have visited the Vrahode website or followed Jeff’s posts on various social media, you’ll know that there’s essentially, in this game, a campaign mode, which is the bulk of the writing and the main story of the game.

And then there are all the other Quest types that are either solo or one-off, or strictly procedural that are geared more toward the player who maybe they wanna play for a few hours today and they don’t want to take on the responsibility of diving into a multi-week, weekend, uh, story. And so for us as a writing team, it’s made a lot of sense with the, the outline at hand, uh, to break those responsibilities kind of down the middle.

And so I write primarily the story campaigns, um, quests, and, uh, my fellow writer, her name is, uh, Alexandra, she writes primarily the one off and procedural quests.

Brandon Rollins: Mm-hmm. So it, it makes sense that you would break them up between like core campaign and one off quests. I was also thinking how do you generally divide up the work within the whole team? Jeff included.

Shawn Dressler: Yeah. So, you know, it’s a, it’s a dynamic situation. already chuckling.

Brandon Rollins: Jeff’s laughing back there.

Jeff Irving: Well, my technique is called the slop-sling, and I tend to sling slop at at Shawn and then he distributes that to Alex and…

Shawn Dressler: Yeah, exactly. So that’s, there’s your…

Brandon Rollins: It’s wonderful for marketing. I mean, social all slop-slinging all the time. 

Jeff Irving: It’s… 

Shawn Dressler: No, but there is, there is a rhythm and a pattern, uh, to how we work together and it’s, you know, it’s evolved. Obviously we met each other at the beginning of this project, and you kind of have to learn how people work. And where I think we found our rhythm is Jeff is the, the, the mastermind behind how this game functions.

He’s also the person who spent decades thinking about this story and, you know, credit to him. He decided at a certain point that he just didn’t have the, the time or maybe the, um, the…

Jeff Irving: Shawn, I think the word you’re looking for is chops. I didn’t have the chops.

Shawn Dressler: To write it himself. Thank you, Jeff. I didn’t wanna say it, but I, I figured I’d give you the pause to, to jump in and say it. So, yeah…

and so he comes to, we come together and Jeff has basically a biblical understanding of this world. And so we spend, you know, imagine how many countless hours just on the phone chatting, and I’m feverishly jotting down notes. And then at a certain point, you start writing things down. And to fast forward through, you know, several iterations of figuring out how many weekly calls we need and, uh, how to, uh, structure our review process.

We basically come to a point now where, uh, we talk about once a week, you know, sometimes that, uh, gets a little flexible and I’m sure Jeff gets a little angsty. But, uh, we talk about once a week we, we go through the pro or the, uh, progress from the previous week. Jeff gives me feedback. I have what I call my “Jeff questions” baked into my, into my document, and then we just keep marching forward.

How to write for a world that already exists

Brandon Rollins: Yeah. Yeah, that, I mean, that’s, that’s really the, that seems like the only way you could do it is just keep taking calls and keep just chipping away at it piece by piece.

Jeff Irving: Yeah, it’s a lot of lore. It’s, it’s a, it’s, you know, it’s, I imagine it was tough for Shawn at the beginning, especially to try to, you know, as a established writer to kind of step into this, this world that’s kind of intentionally avoiding, you know, tropes and things that are well established. So, but he’s, he’s done a great job of… getting down into it, but it’s taken, it’s taken a little, little while.

Shawn Dressler: Yeah, it, it was kinda like being dropped into a dark forest with, uh, blindfold on and no light and being asked to find a particular point in it. I think that’s how I felt to start, and at least by this point, I feel like the blindfolds been taken off. The forest is still pretty dark and there’s no lights, but, We’ll…

Jeff Irving: I, I think the board…

Brandon Rollins: You just described writing Vrahode as Naked & Afraid.

Jeff Irving: I was getting ready to say the, the board game equivalent of what he’s talking about is Kingdom Death Monster. You start out as a, as a naked person with, with nothing, and you, your first weapon is a stick.

Brandon Rollins: Yeah. I, I, I was, there’s so many questions I want to ask along this line. Um, just like, what’s it, what’s it like to step into a world that’s been around and been crafted since 1990, rather than writing an entirely new one from scratch?

Shawn Dressler: It is rewarding in completely different ways, and it’s challenging in completely different ways than writing anything for yourself. Now, I have the benefit of coming to this project also as a ghost writer. And so I’ve, you know, I’ve written several books for my, under my own pen names, but I’ve also written several dozen books for other people on various genres.

And so, fortunately, I’m used to stepping into a world that’s not my own. Um, also fortunately because everything is a, is a opportunity, not a problem. Also, fortunately, um, Jeff has such an incredible memory, uh, for all of the ideas and characters and places and world elements that he’s imagined over the decades, that it is just no more than asking the question and he has the answer.

And then we talk about it and we kick around how we think that works in a game setting and land on what will hopefully be, um, board game magic.

Brandon Rollins: Yeah. One thing I’ve noticed just in doing the podcast with Jeff so far is that everything has a purpose in the world of Vrahode, everything has a reason for being where it is located. Where it is. The societies have a reason for functioning the way they do. So I think it’s very interesting that you say that when you need to know something, all you have to do is ask instead of actually having to kind of work backward and understand and come up with an explanation for why things are the way they are.

Jeff, what’s it like to give up control over parts of the story?

Shawn Dressler: Yeah, totally. And I’d be interested in hearing, uh, Jeff’s reaction to, uh, a similar question. How has the experience been, um, being by your own design, forced to let go of some of the control over those story elements?

Jeff Irving: I mean, well, obviously it’s, it’s a, it’s a leap of faith at the beginning, but you know, when you, when you’re ready to acknowledge that you don’t enjoy the process of writing, you know, but you love the world and you’ve, you’ve had this thing in your head for so long, you. You don’t really have the luxury of, you have, you know, you have to be kind of thick-skinned about letting it go because you’re admitting, Hey, I, I, I just don’t wanna do it this way.

And so you gotta bring in, you gotta bring in people that can. I think for me that it’s been, I mean, once I, once I let it go, I re, I, I recognize so fully and completely that this thing is a group project. It’s a group art project. And by art I don’t just mean visual art, but also the art of crafting. Good story.

The weird part for me, though, was that once I let you have it, once I said, Okay, you know this, it’s, this is in better hands because what Sean can make of it is, is something much deeper and and richer because he’s actually gonna be able to get those thoughts out. But to me the weird thing was, okay, well now that I’ve given this world up as story in quotes and now we’re looking at at it as a game series, I knew it was gonna take a series cuz one game wasn’t going to house it.

But the weird thing was is I’m not that experienced as a game designer. Yes, I’ve designed games before and I’ve sent prototypes off to fantasy flight games, but I’m not some super established game designer. So it was, like, I wanted to ask you questions about game design. You know, I wanted to ask Shawn these questions and it’s like, “Hey, you know, you gotta decide this stuff. It’s up to you.”

And so that was kind of weird that I, I gave up something I was so familiar with to put on this other hat of game designer. And then there was times when I just really felt like I wasn’t quite up for the task, but, but way more than writing the novels. So I would hit these little spots where the, the rules were unclear.

And Shawn really, he would smack me and be like, “This isn’t, I don’t understand how this is gonna work. This isn’t…” especially when it had to do with procedural play. It’s like, “I just don’t understand how these monsters are gonna appear and that’s actually gonna work.” And so I had to go back and think about it, and we had to talk about it and I had to convince him.

Then I had to convince myself, cuz I’m a consummate, consummate bullshitter. And so I had to like, you know, not only make those adjustments in gameplay, but then really play them out and make sure that they function so…

Shawn Dressler: Which was the harder of those two. Jeff, convincing me or convincing yourself?

Jeff Irving: Well, I, you know, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt with enough time and pressure that, you know, and, and caring, cuz I knew there was no lack of caring that this ended up being a fun, playable, well honed machine of a game, you know, a game series. So I, it was just, it was just those moments really, you know what I mean?

That I had to convince myself that, “Hey, can, can I do this?” And I’m like, Well, yes, I can do this. I’ve played, you know, I’ve played, so I’ve played dozens and dozens and dozens of games and, and, and it’s just a matter of kind of doing a lot of mental acrobatics and math in my head. And you know, and I’m really good at that from being a graphic designer, being kind of visual.

So I just kind of visually play these things out in my head until they, they start to, you know, form up.

Shawn Dressler: Yeah, totally. That’s been my experience as well. And I, I feel like, uh, a lot of our more enjoyable conversations, and I’ll just speak for myself, have been about the intricacies of the rule system. And I, and you know, I was a little bit hesitant and a little resistive at the beginning of this process to really get involved in the rules.

I think I had a mindset, which I know is flawed now, that I would be able to just have you give me the rules, you know, just give me the rules, Jeff, and then I can write the story and then we’ll come back together at the end. And this will all be great and we’ll make some tweaks. And what I realized very quickly, was that you cannot write a story without knowing all of the rules that govern it.

And you know, to my surprise, that has been, uh, uh, an incredibly enjoyable part of the process is just really understanding and writing out the rules.

Jeff Irving: This couldn’t have worked had Shawn not also been a gamer because, I mean, literally like he and his wife, one time we were talking had just finished playing, uh, some Gloomhaven, you know? So, so it’s like, this isn’t a guy that’s just a writer, he’s also genuinely a gamer. And, and that has helped the process, uh, as far as being streamlined and efficient immensely,

Shawn Dressler: Ah, thank you.

Jeff Irving: You know?

Making gameplay rules fit the story without seeming abstract

Brandon Rollins: One of the frustrating and complicated things about making a game like this is it’s kind of every single rule has to have some kind of basis in the story. Otherwise it feels too abstract, right? Like you don’t wanna make something that accidentally feels like Patchwork or something where it’s like you’re just doing things because the rules say you do things and there’s like kind of a vague theme on top of it.

Things have to make sense. It’s like those monsters actually do have to spawn in a particular place for a particular reason. And I have to imagine that’s per, that’s one of the really difficult things about writing for this. I also have to imagine it requires a lot of back and forth trial and error too, even before you get to play testing.

Shawn Dressler: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, Jeff and I just had a four hour, almost a four and a half hour call this past Friday, just running through rules and there’s still rules that have yet to be written because they are just things that are introduced, um, for example, at the beginning of the second box. But the, the back and forth is the only thing that makes it work.

And there’s, you know, there’s a, there’s a balance there because the more time you spend talking about something, the, the less time you spend creating it. But you can’t create it unless you know what it is.

Jeff Irving: Yeah. No, it’s been fun. It’s been a lot of fun. 

Brandon Rollins: So there’s actually a bunch of other questions that I would like to ask, and I’m sure there’s a lot of questions that Jeff would like to ask as well. Um, I think it would be a good idea to stop here, end this episode and start rolling right into the next one. What do you guys think? 

Jeff Irving: Yeah, let’s do that.

Brandon Rollins: Cool. Jeff, can you take us out?

Jeff Irving: Thank you for listening to the Vrahode Tavern podcast. If you enjoyed this show, take a moment to subscribe anywhere you get your podcasts. If you’re on Apple Podcasts, please leave a five star review.

It helps more than you. You can learn more about Vrahode on That’s V R A H O D E .COM. Link in the show notes. You can also find us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, where we are @Vrahode. Thank you again for listening. We really appreciate it. Keep an eye out for our next episode in two weeks,

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