I recently had the pleasure of writing some material for, ah, Bohemian Ear-Spoon Four Million (I’m sure that cunning code will evade any issues with non-disclosure). I’ve done a lot of licensed work over the years, mostly in roleplaying games. Deep breath – Babylon 5, Hawkmoon, Hammer’s Slammers, The Laundry Files, Primeval, Doctor Who, Middle-earth, Paranoia and probably a bunch I’ve forgotten or don’t have the lung capacity for.
Find The Intersection of Love. Not everything in a particular licensed setting is going to personally appeal to you. There’ll be parts you don’t enjoy, or just don’t see their appeal. There’ll be parts you’d do differently, parts you secretly wish could be erased. That’s fine – if you unconditionally loved everything about a piece, I don’t think you could add anything except hagiography (and if you are completely and utterly devoted to absolutely every bit of a setting and don’t think you’d change a single word ever, step back and think critically). What you need to do is identify the aspects that really fire your imagination, and the core elements of the setting that the bulk of the fans like, and find a story in their intersection. For example, Primeval‘s all about time travelling dinosaurs, and honestly, dinosaurs don’t do a whole lot for me. However, I’m always up for conspiracies and secretive government coverups, so I was able to slot the rpg into that intersection.
Be A Curator, Be A Historian. Adding to a shared world has to be an exercise in humility. This creation isn’t yours – even if you’re in charge of it for now, the time will come to hand it on to someone else. You’ve got to keep the thing intact, to grow it without twisting or breaking it. That means being careful with changes and additions – you can change and add elements, but only if you keep the core elements unchanged. Take Paranoia, for example – the core elements of that setting are The Computer, clones, secret societies, clearance colours and the like. You can play with those core elements, but you shouldn’t break them.
It’s often useful to go back to the earliest incarnation of a setting, and reread it. Understand the bones of a shared world, not just its present surface.
Know The Shibboleths. Every setting has a few stock phrases, descriptive elements, or familiar stories. Star Wars has laser sword fights, doomsday weapons with one weak spot, and small bands of desperate heroes. Middle-earth has walking through forests, jewellery MacGuffins, and sieges. Babylon 5 has big ship battles, seedy alien markets, and people muttering about shadows. Including these elements can make your story feel like it’s part of the setting – but if you just drop them in carelessly, it’ll feel like bad fanfic at best, a cavalcade of references. The trick is to take these stock elements and twist them so they show up in an unexpected way. For example, maybe you can arrange events in a Star Wars story so that the hero grabs a welding torch as an improvised weapon. That lets you have the feel of a lightsaber fight without having to wedge ancient laser swords into a low-key tale of smugglers.
For example, in one story for, er, Glaive-Guisarme 4 x 10^4, I took one core setting element – marines in powered armour – and presented it in a somewhat unexpected fashion (as a relic in a tomb on a low-tech world). The presence of the armour ensures the story feels like it’s part of the larger setting and doesn’t just have the Falchion 200-squared logo across the top, but the unusual way it’s encountered means the story feels fresher. The shibboleth of the armour lets the story ‘pass’ without degenerating into cliche.
In particular, writing for Middle-earth was an incredible joy. I came to fantasy – and tabletop games – through Tolkien, and getting to explore the shadows of Mirkwood was a dream come true. It’s not just play – it’s riding on the shoulders of giants.
(For another slant on writing & Middle-earth, the Plot Points podcast recently did a fascinating episode on the last days of TSR, including their attempts to strike a deal with the Tolkien estate)