TEXT review

All together now: Conspiring in a new reality

review by Pablo Muslera


Trent Hergenrader
Collaborative Worldbuilding for Writers and Gamers
Bloomsbury Academic, New York 2018
ISBN 9781350016668
Pb 280pp AUD 35.67


Part thesis statement about the benefits of collaborative storytelling, part instruction manual on how to create fictional worlds through the patented structure available on his website (collaborativeworldbuilding.com), Hergenrader’s book is an interesting blend of writing theory, social commentary, and marketing. In terms of the latter, the tools for co-operatively building your version of a high fantasy world, post-apocalyptic narrative, or science fiction opera (to name a few), are available on Hergenrader’s website, to which the reader is directed at regular intervals.

The communal worldbuilding process was developed through Hergenrader’s creative writing courses at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), and the book is at its most engaging when it tackles the broader philosophy behind this process. Hergenrader argues that ‘collaborative worldbuilding projects engage contributors intellectually, creatively, socially, in ways that sole authorship does not’ (19). As well as reducing the time it takes to build a complex fictional setting through a division of labour, team creativity offers a ‘built in critique group’, and the increased diversity gained from multiple viewpoints (19). While admitting that many writers will prefer to pursue their own solo projects following the collaborative exercise, Hergenrader believes that the process will be useful in participants’ future endeavours, as it develops both creative and critical writing skills (19).

While obviously a champion of constructing fictional worlds by committee, Hergenrader also references objective arguments against it. He cites fiction authors M John Harrison and Lincoln Michel, who see worldbuilding as an indulgence, an exercise that interferes with storytelling by mapping encyclopedias of superfluous detail (5). Hergenrader rebuts this with a question: ‘does every form of creative writing always need to be in service of a story’? (5). This of course entirely depends on the purpose of an individual piece, as well as its intended audience. Hergenrader argues that such fictional inventories aren’t wasted efforts, but ‘[repositories] for story-making material that can be selectively drawn upon’ (5). He cites modern urban fantasy author China Miéville’s experience with themanualsfrom fantasy role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons, whosemania for cataloguing the fantastic’ inspired Miéville’s own creative process: his motivation for writing a ‘secondary-world fantasy’ was to ‘invent a bunch of monsters’, irrespective of how many ever made their way into his novels (6).

Having presented some support for his case, Hergenrader then outlines his process. His worldbuilding template is primarily defined by three broad terms: scope, sequence and perspective (34-38); these are useful as starting points for creative collaboration, where pivotal historical events, the limits of geographical detail, and narrative focus are commonly agreed. This theory is applied to existing texts, such as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Lucas’s Star Wars, and Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, to demonstrate the necessity of defining these boundaries early in the creative process, such as defining societal structures, and how social forces interrelate. Hergenrader argues that an engaging fictional world is always in flux (53-54), and dwells on the variable importance of governance and economic factors depending on the narrative. He cites Tolkien’s Middle Earth as lacking granular detail in governance, and the Death Star in Star Wars as ‘an enormous capital investment for the Empire’ (66), such that its destruction is an important plot point as a financial disaster as well as a major military defeat.

Hergenrader also makes some interesting points about the problematising of race relations in Tolkien’s world, with race tolerance between elves, dwarves and humans contrasted against the Othering of the treacherous ‘Easterlings’, an allegory for ‘Turkey, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East’ (67). Fantasy novelist Michael Moorcock’s critique of class relations in Tolkien’s world, with Sam and Frodo exemplars of its rigid hierarchical system, is also cited (67). Hergenrader himself criticises the patriarchal gender relations and a lack of diversity in the portrayal of sexuality in the Lord of the Rings (67-68): ‘Middle-earth is a rather chaste, sex-starved place to begin with’ (69). This is certainly a fair point in isolation, though applying contemporary values to a text published in the mid-1950s ignores the expectations of that society, and that a significant part of Tolkien's target demographic were children.

The rest of Hergenrader’s book focuses on demonstrating his collaborative worldbuilding process through case studies, where a new fictional world is created by a group of participants, who log their notes and concerns at each stage. This is revealing, as everything from initial genre (such as a vigorous debate whether a steampunk world could possibly include magic), to general scope of the narrative (decades, centuries, or millennia?), and more granular details of the nascent society are hammered out – in the main case study, sexual diversity and egalitarian gender relations are mutually agreed upon. Hergenrader recommends using a common wiki, where each participant can upload their allotted portion of the world’s common history, as well as their individual narratives within it. Templates for each section are also provided and compared to existing role-playing encyclopedias (such as Wizards of the Coast’s Monster Manual [2015] from Dungeons and Dragons 5e), to demonstrate the dramatic value of narrative description. The 350-word Kobold entry in the modern Monster Manual exemplifies this, with accompanying graphic and character details, showing the creature’s behaviour, common variants, and ability to be highly effective in numbers despite a lack of individual strength (96). While the major utility of such entries is obviously to serve as opponents to array against the players in a role-playing game, Hergenrader implies that such attention to detail in the narrative description can also provide valuable fodder for general creativity, to populate fictional worlds with believable antagonists serving as crucial foils to the protagonist.

This recalls Miéville’s comments on the value of inventing fantastic creatures as a creative exercise in itself (6). It also leads to the crux of the purpose of the book, and its possible broader scope. Inherent in the title is that collaborative worldbuilding is for writers and gamers, and while role-playing game enthusiasts seem to be the immediate audience for this book, Hergenrader’s collaborative worldbuilding website has served primarily as a vehicle to teach his creative writing classes at RIT. Hergenrader’s pedagogical method includes role-playing sessions in class, based on the collaborative worlds created, as well as the construction of several different worlds over the semester, contrasting different genres (222). He believes that this method can be useful for literary analysis of texts ranging from Pride and Prejudice to The Godfather (222).

Most creative writing lecturers wouldn’t dispute the value of any exercise which engages students and encourages them to analyse literature from different perspectives (though one might doubt the necessity of buying into Hergenrader’s patented method: literature has been successfully analysed for centuries without the collaborative worldbuilding card templates, for example). This begs the question about the wider utility of the book for independent authors not taking these classes. Hergenrader suggests that creating such a collaborative world could be useful as points of entry for individual narratives, such as in the yearly NaNoWriMo contest, where entrants are challenged to write a full novel in the month of November (216). He argues that with the collaborative world created, a ready-made setting is available to be populated by new characters and plotlines that feed off it, driving inspiration in the same way existing fictional worlds such as that in Star Wars have led to countless new narratives. As an alternative to the model of the solitary author spinning tales in a garret, or the embedded writer dutifully researching their genre monomaniacally, Hergenrader’s collaborative worldbuilding offers a broadening of scope, in-built critique at each stage of the process, but also all of the possible conflict that comes with any group exercise fuelled by a variety of personalities and motivations.

As if anticipating this final complication, he concludes that

A world’s history is not a single incontrovertible narrative, but rather an aggregation of a number of subjective viewpoints, where the points of greater overlap suggest to us some broad truths. (222)

Regardless of any complications inherent in collaborative creation, it's difficult to argue with this broad truth. Hergenrader’s coda argues for shared creativity as a way of ‘seeking to address today’s bitterly divided world’ (225). On that basis alone, the book justifies its publication.



Pablo Muslera is a writing lecturer at the University of South Australia, and co-edits the reviews section of TEXT. He has recently returned from running creative writing workshops for the New Colombo program in Malaysia. He has had a long-term interest in role-playing games, and is fascinated by intertextuality between fantasy worlds and literature, such as in Tolkien’s borrowing of Macbeth for Lord of the Rings.


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Vol 23 No 2 October 2019
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Reviews editors: Pablo Muslera & Amelia Walker. Assistant reviews editor: Simon Telford