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Brandon Sanderson and Peter Orullian on Writing — and GMing

I went to a book signing last night to see Brandon Sanderson [1], one of my favorite authors, and got a double header: Peter Orullian [2], who I wasn’t familiar with, was also part of the event.

In addition to being incredibly nice, approachable, passionate folks, they both said some things that I wanted to get down right away — and share with you, because while they were speaking about writing, some of what they said also applies to GMing.

Sound advice from two very smart guys


The first thing to jump out at me was a comment Peter made just as I was walking in. He has a day job at a software company, so he works 10 hours a day and commutes an hour each way. Yet his first novel was just published — so how does he do it? He gets up at 3:30 in the morning to write. That’s passion, and it humbled me just to hear it.

Paraphrasing George R.R. Martin, they both spoke about gardeners and architects when asked about how they write. Gardeners are more free-form, letting the story and the characters guide the worldbuilding and not necessarily doing much up front; architects do a ton of worldbuilding before they start the novel.

Peter is a mix of both: He does some worldbuilding, but also creates the world organically as he writes. I found myself nodding at that; I also enjoy worldbuilding through writing fiction. (One quick aside, here: I’m a writer, but I’m not either of these guys — and I’m not comparing myself to them.) Brandon said he does a ton of worldbuilding up front, and then outlines what he wants to happen — but that it doesn’t always happen as planned, or in the same order; so he gives himself wiggle room.


Sound familiar? All four of those approaches — gardener, architect, Peter, and Brandon — are perfectly valid ways to run a game and address worldbuilding in your campaign. I thought that was pretty cool.

Peter also brought up a Heinlein quote: “The first million words don’t count.” And he meant it literally: Write a million words, and then you’re ready to consider publication as a novelist. In other words, writing is like anything else: you have to practice. The same is true of GMing.

Similarly, setting aside your early work is okay. Just because you wrote it, doesn’t mean it’s worth publishing — and that’s fine. Peter also tied that into being willing to fail big, and to sometimes ignoring everyone’s advice and just doing what you think is right.


Making mistakes is a big part of GMing. You’re going to make hundreds of mistakes over the years — thousands, if you’re anything like me. And they’ll make your games better.

Asked how he keeps track of such sprawling, epic worlds and stories, Brandon said that he uses a wiki — specifically, WikidPad [6] — to organize the hundreds of thousands of words he writes about the world outside of the actual text of the novel.

That’s more worldbuilding than most GMs need, but the approach sounds very useful for gaming. I use and love Obsidian Portal [7], and I’ve found that it really shines during prep and after long gaps between sessions.

The Mistborn RPG

During the Q&A, I asked Brandon about how involved he had been in developing the Mistborn RPG (which I preordered [8] yesterday). I half expected him to say that he wrote the short story that’s included in the book, but was otherwise not that involved, and I was thrilled to be very wrong.

Not only did he have several brainstorming sessions with the folks over at Crafty Games [9], but the book is about 50% game and 50% Mistborn worldbook. On top of that, Brandon said that he’d just been sent the whole game and was now reviewing it to make sure everything was right. It’s not due out until November, so it’s awesome that they’re handling it this way.

He’s not a game designer (and he explained that he left that to Crafty), but I love that he was that involved in a project that some authors might not really care about. If you’re a fan of the world, I suspect that will pique your interest as well.

A little diversion

Today’s the final weekday of GenCon, and our readership goes way down during the con. It seemed like a good day to play a bit and do an article that’s not 100% GMing-related. This signing — which also featured Isaac Stewart, who did a lot of the interior illustrations, and the maps, in Way of Kings, and who was also a great guy — was fantastic, but also sobering.

It was sobering because I left thinking two things. One, I want to be Brandon Sanderson. He’s a dad, a fantasy fan, a nice guy, and an amazing and successful author; he does exactly what he wants to be doing every day. And two, if I want to be him I’m on the wrong path. If I want to be a full-time author, I need to start writing and discarding novels until I hit upon one that could succeed.

Funnily enough, I asked Brandon to write something that one of the main characters in The Way of Kings might say in my copy, and he was kind enough to oblige. Here’s what he wrote: “Keep at it. They can only kill you once.”

From the writing advice to the GMing advice to the self-reflection it prompted, this signing really had an impact on me.

In any case, if you get the chance to meet any of these three guys — Brandon, Peter, or Isaac — I encourage you to do so. Thanks for putting up with this diversion — and hopefully, like me, you found some GMing advice in it after all!

16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "Brandon Sanderson and Peter Orullian on Writing — and GMing"

#1 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On August 5, 2011 @ 7:34 am

The gardeners and architect analogy is a good one. It’s funny, but if you listen closely to most author interviews, they’ll often criticize the approach they don’t use. (Not in those exact terms, but you hear it.)
Sanderson’s use of a wiki is indeed good advice for ANYONE trying to harness their creativity, whether it be for writing, GMing or any other endeavor. We all need notes that form the underpinning of the work.

#2 Comment By jaderpggm On August 5, 2011 @ 11:33 am

I’d never thought of applying the “First million words” principle to GMing, but you’re right–it does fit. And I’m definitely going to have to use the wiki idea for organizing my next game.

Thanks for posting this.

#3 Comment By Scott Martin On August 5, 2011 @ 12:41 pm

Like Jade, I hadn’t thought about discarding the first million words for GMing, but it’s pretty true. There was a lot of learning and many games only a high school version of me could love…

#4 Comment By BryanB On August 5, 2011 @ 12:51 pm

“Making mistakes is a big part of GMing. You’re going to make hundreds of mistakes over the years — thousands, if you’re anything like me. And they’ll make your games better.”

I just love that Martin. It is so true. The best GMs are the ones that learn from their mistakes and try not to repeat them. Like Scott, I ran many games in my high school years and early twenties that I would be completely ashamed to put on a table today. 😀

#5 Comment By MattLarkin On August 5, 2011 @ 3:09 pm

Sanderson is one of my favorite authors and Mistborn one of my favorite series. I’m intrigued by the game, more so now that I know he was heavily involved.

#6 Comment By Martin Ralya On August 5, 2011 @ 8:16 pm

[10] – I wouldn’t say either Brandon or Peter criticized other approaches, even by omission; they seemed like very straightforward guys.

[11] – The devil is always in the details, but the system in the preview PDF I got for preordering seems solid enough: d6 pool of 2-10 dice, target numbers of 1-5, and you look for matches. The number on the matching dice is your result, so two 3s is a 3.

Subtract the target from your result, and that’s how well you did: positive good, negative bad. Sixes are special: they’re “nudges,” which let you slightly alter the results in your favor.

Not much in the preview about the powers, which are one of the best parts of the books and seem — like Jedi powers in Star Wars — to be something that could be easily screwed up in the game.

But that’s just my inner cynic — everything about the preview suggests that this will be an interesting game, doubly so with Sanderson involved quite deeply.

#7 Comment By Lise On August 6, 2011 @ 8:41 am

Loved this post, as a writer and a GM. I’ve definitely passed the million word mark in fiction writing, but I am still struggling as a GM. Other than some lame AD&D2E games in high school, this campaign I’m running now is the first one, and it’s _hard_. One week I find myself saying, “Damn it all, I’m just going to end this campaign,” and the next I’m excited about where it’s going. Dunno. Still learning.

The comment by Orullian had me wishing I needed less sleep! I’m struggling with finding a regular time to write (or prep adventures) that doesn’t interfere with work or family/home life, and getting up in the morning would be an easy solution… iiiif I could drag myself out of bed one minute earlier than I absolutely needed to just to get to work on time. Lifestyles of the chronically underslept…

#8 Comment By GirlyGeekBlog On August 6, 2011 @ 9:53 am

Hey Martin, I was at that signing too. I had met both Brandon and Peter previously, but they never fail to impress.

I would love to chat about it more. Let me know if you are interested.



#9 Comment By Martin Ralya On August 6, 2011 @ 1:44 pm

[13] – Without energy drinks and sleep deprivation, Masks and Eureka never would have gotten published. 😉 I’d happily take a pill that let me avoid sleep altogether.

[14] – Sure thing, I’d love to hear what you thought about it! I don’t see a contact link on your website, so drop me a line if you like: martin gnomestew com.

#10 Comment By GirlyGeekBlog On August 6, 2011 @ 9:28 pm


I sent you an email earlier today. Let me know if you didn’t get it.

#11 Comment By rabalias On August 7, 2011 @ 2:35 am

What I like about role playing is, other people’s words can count towards your first million. Because, unlike books, which people only publish when ready and vetted, GMs frequently run games that either aren’t quite ready, or which go wrong in play. Many of my best games have resulted from seeing somebody else attempt a rally awesome concept, and fail. I learn at least as much from those as my own failures.

#12 Comment By rabalias On August 7, 2011 @ 2:37 am

PS 3:30? I didn’t realise the numbers went that low…

#13 Comment By Willj On August 7, 2011 @ 3:51 am

It’s funny, but just before heading here and reading this article I’d just read another about Michael Moorcock’s writing method for cranking novels out in three days. As a technique, it is about as “architect” as it gets:


It seems like a pretty hackneyed way to write, but at the same time, I loved those Eternal Champion novels. The format also seems to really lend itself to GM’ing. Both for folks pressed for time and even those who like to “wing” things.

#14 Comment By Adam Meyers On August 7, 2011 @ 4:02 pm

I’ve taken Brandon’s writing class at BYU twice now, and I love hearing what he has to say. And yeah, he even did a “Writing Excuses” podcast where he talked about how awesome roleplaying games was to his development and practice as a writer. I love getting to hear people talk like that about the things I love to do.

#15 Comment By Martin Ralya On August 7, 2011 @ 8:36 pm

[17] – Nope, no email and nothing in my spam folder.

[18] – That’s an interesting perspective. Watching others GM, well or poorly, is definitely a great way to learn.

#16 Comment By GirlyGeekBlog On August 7, 2011 @ 8:50 pm

hmm. Try emailing me at [19].