Gazing into the Abyss: Lessons in World-Building from Marvel, DC, and Paizo

Hello All,

Those of you that follow our blog know we lost all of our website a month or so ago. I had been blogging for Fat Goblin Games for over a year weekly on Thursdays by that time, switching to semi-weekly with a Steampunk Musha Design Blog on Tuesdays as of the first week of 2016.

When the site “went away” we lost everything, and our service provider said that they couldn’t recover ANYTHING. The SpM Blog was related to a commitment to our fans of that setting, so I tried much harder to “find” old blogs on sources like the Internet Archive or going through my own records, but there were many, many, MANY pages just lost.

Most of these, I don’t worry about – a lot were me introducing writers that we’ve since released product for in the Call to Arms line, or giving previews for books still coming out in many different lines. I was able to give the entire Call to Arms line a thorough review over the previous two weeks, using some old blog post, but also using reviews of many books by Endzeitgeist of the line!

But some blogs, some were more… personal. I even had a specific line, Gazing into the Abyss, that started with the following quote:

He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you. – Aphorism 146 from Beyond Good and Evil, by Friedrech Nietzsche

… and was meant to be my only semi-serious navel-gazing about all things related to RPG Industry en masse. Original blogs in the Gazing into the Abyss thread were things like:

  • Small Publisher Dilema – Design for a Broken System, or Try to Fix Broken Systems
  • Unchaining Knowledge (Nobility) and Knowledge (History)
  • The Best-Laid Schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
  • Questioning Art and Storytelling in Tabletop Roleplaying Games

And then there was a blog I had done before that first one back on June 5th, 2015 about “Lessons in World Building from Marvel, DC, and Paizo” and it’s this blog I was able to raise from the dead and am reprinting now.

Only, in its original form, the blog was talking in the future tense about what I thought was going on or would be going on in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and the what is now known as DC Extended Universe (DCEU), as well as Paizo Publishing’s own Golarion through their various Pathfinder Campaign books.

As “a lot has changed” in terms of what we know about these Universes in the past year, I am not merely “reproducing the blog” but going to try to “update it” to the best of my ability, as what I was talking about then mostly bore true and the lessons apply, if anything even more, still to “world-building” as I work on various projects for Fat Goblin Games.

For clarities sake, the Marvel Cinematic Universe includes:

  • The Movies: From Iron Man to Captain America: Civil War; but only those produced by Marvel Studios and Disney; so NOT films like Fox’s Xmen series, or the old iterations of Spider-Man produced by Sony.
  • The TV Shows: Specifically ABC’s Agents of SHIELD and Agent Carter, as well as the Netflix series like Daredevil and Jessica Jones, as well as planned TV series like Marvel’s Most Wanted, Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger, and the entire Defenders Netflix series, like the upcoming Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and Punisher
  • Other Transmedia: Which includes MCU specific comic books, specific MCU “official” video games, and the Marvel One-Shots, a set of shorts filmed specifically for release with the DVDs for the MCU movies like “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Thor’s Hammer.

For clarities sake, the DC Extended Universe includes only the movies, so those that have been released (Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice), and the many planned movies like: Suicide Squad, Wonder Woman, Justice Leagues Part I & II, The Flash, Aquaman, Shazam, Cyborg, and Green Lantern Corps. It does NOT include the DC TV-verse from shows like Arrow, The Flash, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, Supergirl, or Constantine, which have all been shown to share a single multiverse (and in turn for the following discussion, are a better example of “the MCU approach” than “the DCEU approach”).

And for clarities sake, the Paizo Campaign Setting includes all the books featured on the world of Golarion, and specifically tied to it or its multiverse, including all the books from the Pathfinder Adventures (modules and Adventure Paths, etc), Pathfinder Campaign Setting, Pathfinder Player Companion, and Pathfinder Societies AND many of their non-gaming or non-tabletop materials like the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game and Pathfinder Fiction.

Ok, assuming now we’re all on the same page, lets begin…

<Rambling Babble Warning — You’ve Been Warned>

While I’m mostly known for being the Line Developer for the Call to Arms (CtA) line published by Fat Goblin Games, I am also a Project Manager and Editor now for a number of other projects for the Fattest Goblin. And while CtA is largely a crunch/mechanic focused book, I have been needing to think a lot about “world-building” as I write for Steampunk Musha and help the Janitor and His Fattness manage Shadows over Vathak with John Bennett.

BUT, like many people, I’ve been even more obsessed with something else — the MCU! I’m a fairly voracious consumer of the MCU as a whole, enjoying the movies, the TV Shows, and especially the One-Shots. I’d likely enjoy the comics and other minutia if I could find an easy sources for it all (the Internet has a lot, but not everything).

While the MCU and the people in charge of it (Kevin Feige, and the Russo Brothers to a point) of course have a massive, decades-long back catalog of another medium of storytelling to dig into (the comics), I still think that Marvel has some lessons applicable to building a larger world with smaller installments that, as a game-designer, we can all learn from.

To illustrate the point, I’m going to make a number of analogies and comparisons to Paizo’s own world-building efforts with Golarion and their entire Campaign Setting: the Adventure Paths (APs), modules, Pathfinder Society, Campaign Books and related works. These are comparisons aren’t perfect of course — the change in medium and method changes things dramatically, but in broad strokes I think it’s possible. In part, my comments are informed from a convention panel Jason Bulmahn of Paizo Publishing fame made at AMKE Convention this in Feb 2015 on the matter of world-building, so if you’d like — let’s blame him. And compare this method to the one the DCEU is attempting as a counter point.

Start Small and Personal, Establish a Fan-Favorite, then Go Back to it to Progress the Story

The first movie in the MCU was the classic Iron Man released in 2008, which focused on the story of one, fairly relatable character in a circumstance that felt almost believable to our world and quite comfortable for the genre of “superheroes.” After just the second film, The Incredible Hulk, they continued the development of their world with Iron Man 2. In that film, they made a single cameo appearance after the credits of Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury from Iron Man into major plot development with involvement in the second film. They also introduced new characters, like Black Widow, and explored the SHIELD agency and how it was going to relate to the budding superheroes of the world MCU was constructing. They showed, by adding a little clip at the end of The Incredible Hulk where Stark approaches Thunderbolt Ross (which was expertly re-interpreted with the One-Shot “The Consultant,” that #ItsAllConnected, even way back then and set down that things introduced in one movie would help to establish the others.

Paizo by comparison, started their first AP Rise of the Runelord in the itty-bitty town of Sandpoint, which they detailed fairly well. That first AP is an interesting one in a few ways. While the original one was released in 2007, they returned to a minor character 4 years and 8 AP’s later, that was tucked into Sandpoint the begin the Jade Regent AP, which would launch the characters to literally the other side of Paizo’s world, detailing so much more of it. Another way in which Rise is special is that they were able to go back and republish it, recontextualized and made only stronger by the 5 year’s worth of publications about their world.

Small Bits of Storytelling Work as Well as the Big

Going back to the MCU, many if not all the other films and TV shows that came out after Iron Man have variously “filled in” the world of the MCU.  Agents of SHIELD stands out as the most extreme example of this, but that makes sense when you consider they get to have 22 45-min. episodes a season instead of just a 2+ hour movie. One of the more interesting aspects of the show is even how they were able to make an almost insignificant character, Agent Coulson, into essentially the “star”, and in my own opinion, Phil is-all-of-us. He’s reprimanded billionaires, fan-boi’d over war heroes, worked along-side fellow super-spies, rubbed elbows with “gods”, and so much more — he’s still just a normal guy (though by Season 3, one with alien blood in his body, a bionic hand that can project a shield, and director of a secret spy agency – so I guess not THAT normal). Despite having come back from the dead, been affected by alien influences, and other of incredible things,  I feel that one of the cores values you see in even the most recent  episodes of Agents of SHIELD is that having seen and done all that he has, he still seems the “humanity” and tenderness in everyone; from the real monsters, like Grant Ward/HIVE and Lash, to the misunderstood, like Daisy/Skye/Quake.

While Paizo releases massive amounts of additional material for their game-world, and the stories told in even one module is “more” than you’d see in a movie, the most similar comparison I can see to Agents of SHIELD would be the PF Society adventures done in “seasons” as well. Even more than APs, which do come out regularly, each of those is almost needed to NOT change the world, where as each year of PFS play pushes the world of Golarion 1-year further ahead.

Both Agents of SHIELD and PFS in their scenarios offer us little, bite-sized pieces of the world that are as equally canon as anything else released by either company, sometimes more so. Both also might seem “too focused” on something, with Agents for instance looking almost exclusively at SHIELD and it’s more human enemies, while PFS is very focused on “The City at the Center of the World” because it is where the Society is based, but from that narrow focus we still learn about the much wider world. I’m hopeful that new shows like Marvel’s Damage Control and Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger, being produced for ABC-affiliated channels, will add to this by giving us even more content – like adding the Pathfinder Player Companions or

The world of the MCU has been happily getting “fleshed out” a bit more by other avenues as well, like the various Defenders of Daredevil and Jessica Jones showing more personal stories of “street level” heroes, even getting to feature some of the others like Punisher, Elektra, and Luke Cage. If the APs are the “movies” of the MCU, and PFS scenarios are the “ABC shows” like Agents of SHIELD, then the Netflix shows feel more like the adventure modules where they focus on some key area, develop it well, and give us a richer view of it overall, but are also consumable all on their own.

Counter-Point Method – the DCEU

There are certainly “more lessons” that could be learned. For instance how it was important that Iron Man 3 was the launching point for Phase 2, because it brought us back again to that familiar character, but showed how he and the world had changed, and using a “key character” for launching Phase 3 in having Captain America: Civil War “set up” what seems like it’s going to be the “civil war” phase of the MCU. and there are certainly flaws in my over-simplifications and comparisons above. But let me circle back to comparing MCU and DCUE, then relate that to world-building for tabletop RPG gaming.

While the shared DC world has Man of Steel (2013) as an “origin” for the shared world, their immediate follow up – Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice – wasn’t just a “team up” movie, where in the established character of Superman got to bring in Batman and/or Wonder Woman, like how The Avengers were able to bring together existing characters of Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk, Thor, and others. Instead, they tried to not only have Batman and Wonder Woman “ride the coattails” of Superman, and include not just one villain (Lex Luthor) but also a classic nemesis of Superman, Doomsday, AND have Superman pitted against Batman, and vice versa.

Now I could ramble on and on about various aspects of BvS: DoJ,  but for my own argument, the key components are that they had one successful film (Man of Steel) then tried to go from Iron Man to Avengers in one step. This, in turn, means that we don’t get a fully fleshed out Batman, or Wonder Woman, and that other aspects of the world (The Flash, Aquaman, Cyborg, etc.) are comparatively getting that one paragraph reference in the back of the book that mostly has to focus on the “big three” aspects.

And so, Dawn of Justice feels like a very different way to introduce a world — One Big Book – that tries to cover it all. While there are a number of companies that have successfully used this very method, I look at Paizo’s successful run and it wasn’t until they were releasing their third Adventure Path, Second Darkness, in August 2008 that the original Campaign Setting book for their world was being released, over a year after they’d started publishing books in that setting.

Campaign Book vs. Focused Books in Tabletop RPGs

So how does this relate to me and Fat Goblin Games? As I stated at the beginning of this post, I’m currently working with the Fattest Goblin on the long-promised, terribly delayed Steampunk Musha campaign setting. But I understand why it’s been so long trapped in “development hell”. I don’t think I’d even started developing my first Call to Arms book when the original Kickstarter ended, and in my tenure with FGG, we’ve had big changes on the various product development teams (Endzeitgeist tracks some of the changes in his reviews of Call to Arms books as their tone and quality changed from my first to the most recent releases in the series), like myself moving from just a lowly freelancer to a Line Developer to a Project Manager with a roster of my own freelancers (The Goblin Hoarde!), some of whom have even moved on themselves to be Line Developers, etc. 

In my time here and as the Project Lead on Steampunk Musha, we’ve developed quite a few other books, like a revamped Shadows over Vathak: Player’s Guide – Book 1 in a redesign of the Shadows over Vathak setting, and breaking up what was originally One Big Book into a planned minimum of three smaller books, a Player’s Guide, a GameMaster’s Guide, and a Bestiary. As it is, that Player’s Guide is still likely to clock in at over 400 pages by His Fattness’ most recent estimation!


Likewise, the Steampunk Musha Design Team and I have been applying this kind of logic to SpM. Trying to “do it all” in one huge book has been a problem. It is, first of all, a MASSIVE undertaking. With the SoV PG looking like it will be 400+ pages long, that IS an entire One Big Book all by itself (the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Core Rulebook is ~575 pages in comparison). Even just “developing” that much text is an insane undertaking. But we’re locked into doing Steampunk Musha “a certain way” and I’m still hopeful that we’re making solid and positive movement on that book.

In the future, once the rerelease of SoV line and SpM are behind us, We Three (The Fattest Goblin, The Janitor, and I) have a number of additional plans for future lines and releases, but the expectation is to try to take to heart lessons learned and copy a model more similar to the MCU method, not the DCEU. Start with something “small” and “focused,” release it as a starting point, develop out from it, and build the world around it. There are dozens of ways to do this. Start with adventures or modules, for instance. Try to plan “simpler” passes at the world, rather than one big “everything you need” just give single perspectives. You could even “break up” the standard chapters of the books like the Player’s Guide – classically covering Races, Classes, Character Options (feats, spells, etc.), and a general overview, etc. into stand-alone texts.

You can already (or will soon) see “some” of this stuff going on in how we approach other lines and ideas here at Fat Goblin Games. Our Fat Goblin Games Traveler’s Guide to Hell IS the Hell of our shared world (which has the Vathak and Rosuto-Shima from our various existing campaign settings in it), and is a much shorter, tighter book that gives a more general overview in less than 60 pages. And we have a new line of expanded options related to our older Return of the Drow line, written by Jeffrey Swank, that will be a series of related books each focused quite small and tight, but packed full of excellent options.

If you have any suggestions, ideas, or examples of other companies in the RPG biz that have done this successful (or unsuccessfully for that matter) I’d love to hear about them.

I hope you’re all able to enjoy your weekends, be it watching the Avengers or playing Pathfinder (or hopefully both!) Thank you for reading to the end.

Lucus Palosaari, Babbling Fan-boi


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