Creative Colleagues: Chuck McGrew

Chuck McGrew

Chuck McGrew

I’ve never met Chuck McGrew, and I didn’t even converse with him until recently. Still, I’ve felt as if I’ve known him for years all because I played one session of his game, Don’t Look Back.

While editing magazines at TSR, I lost interest in playing Dungeons & Dragons after hours, since I spent those long workdays living and breathing D&D. Fortunately, there were frequent opportunities to try other games, often when Lester Smith had a new game to playtest for review.

One of the many good things about Lester is that he actually plays a game before reviewing it, so he arranged an evening with four of us—David Wise, Ted Stark, Thomas Reid, and Yours Truly—and walked us through character creation verbally. As he listed skills and archetypes, we sketched out our characters. Despite the many options, we ended up with two bullies and two nerds, not exactly the classic fighter-wizard-rogue-cleric combo, but a great mix for exploring a haunted house.

While there were a lot of laughs and inter-party banter, there were some genuine scares, too. In the end, that session of Don’t Look Back turned out to be the most memorable of those one-night playtest sessions, and I was sorry when I though the game had gone forever out of print.

Yet like the zombie you thought defeated, it has risen again, this time through a Kickstarter campaign you still have time to join. Lester put me in touch with Chuck, and I asked him some of the usual horror/RPG nerd questions. Here’s how it went.

Some of the most popular horror roleplaying games, like Call of Cthulhu, The Whispering Vault, or the World of Darkness games, have very distinct identities. What’s Don’t Look Back‘s specific character?
I deliberately wrote Don’t Look Back to cover a broad spectrum of paranormal and supernatural horror themes. I pushed it more toward the paranormal side with corrupted technology—like a zombie virus or a flesh-eating amoeba or things from another world creeping into our own, as opposed to the supernatural—but the underlying conspiracies are probably the one thing that sets it apart from the others. I think the fact that your characters never know who they can trust—even each other—adds to the sense of horror.

You mention embracing a sense of paranoia. Can you list 10 books and/or films you think are great at capturing that feeling? While designing the game, were you conscious of any of them being an influence?

The original inspirations for Don’t Look Back were my fond memories of Kolchak: The Night Stalker mixed with a sense of paranoia from a movie called Race with the Devil, where two couples are traveling and stumble into a witchcraft ceremony in a rural area then later find out that it’s really everywhere. A few years later I read Orwell’s 1984, and the pieces started coming together.

During the creation of DLB and several of the first playtest sessions, players found their characters on the run from an establishment much more corrupt than anyone could have imagined. When I was a kid, my uncle used to take me to every slasher and horror movie that came out. Scanners still sticks with me today. It had secret government programs, conspiracies, and people with insane paranormal abilities. Firestarter from Stephen King added to those ideas about people on the run as well as the original Escape from Witch Mountain (don’t judge me).

Since writing the last edition of DLB, I can see inspiration forming from ideas sparked by The Matrix and Enemy of the State in terms of the technological challenges for people who want to stay off the grid. Day of the Triffids and the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers as well as John Carpenter’s The Thing are excellent at creating a sense of paranoia as the protagonist finds himself becoming part of a rapidly shrinking group who can be trusted. No discussion of paranoia could be complete without a shout out to Jacob’s Ladder and Shutter Island. Not knowing if you can even trust your own mind may be the darkest form of paranoia.

How have the mechanics for DLB changed? And how do you marry game rules to a horror setting?

It’s hard to maintain a sense of suspense in a game when your players have to flip through rulebooks, cross-reference tables, and make lots of dice rolls. Doing things like that basically pulls you out of the game, and that just isn’t what I wanted. I wanted mechanics that were easy to learn, intuitive, fast-paced, and as transparent as possible to help maintain the mood.

As much as I love the original DLB mechanics system, I am changing it in the new edition to something that I think works even better. The new DLB will be the first full-size RPG to utilize Lester Smith’s D6xD6 game mechanics. It uses regular six-sided dice like DLB and includes many of the same features as the original rules, like doing away with lots of complex scores and resolving actions with a single roll, but they are implemented in a way that makes gameplay even faster. You can learn the system in a matter of minutes.

The DLB version will include some tweaks to D6xD6, such as allowing characters to have advantages and disadvantages. I am also working on some new rules that will bring the effects of fear into the game. The nice thing about being part of a game ecosystem is that other D6xD6 settings may be able to take advantage of these tweaks, plus it will provide people who play DLB with access to other compatible settings and scenarios.

Tell us about a time you actually got scared during an RPG, or a time when you actually scared players.

To really scare players, I think you have to create a sense of immersion, a true sense of the unknown, and you need to make sure they understand that their characters are always vulnerable.

I like to use “feelies” like maps, old newspaper articles, and hand-written clues to give things a sense of reality. The adventures in the new edition of DLB include a lot of handout items. I also like to play in a quiet room and preferably at night. Passing notes to players and having PCs with different agendas helps to create an environment of distrust and paranoia. In Don’t Look Back, where you never know who you can trust and nothing is what it appears to be, that should extend to the PCs as well.

You don’t have to kill a lot of the PCs, but it really helps to have rules that make it possible for any one good shot to take them out. Many RPGs are about building up these super-powered invincible heroes of mythic proportions. That’s awesome if that’s your goal. It just doesn’t work for horror.

We were playing late one night, and after the game ended a player called me about 2:00 am to tell me he was certain he was being followed home. He said he changed his route multiple times to throw them off. He didn’t realize until he got home and was getting his game stuff out of the car that it was all just in his head.

What music and sound effects do you like to use to set the atmosphere for a horror RPG?

It’s hard to beat actual soundtracks from horror movies when it comes to setting the mood, and more recently the same goes for computer games. It’s hard to go wrong with either. Here’s my list of personal favorites:

John Carpenter’s original theme for Halloween is one of the scariest pieces of music out there. I’m a fan of his in part because he was a master of storytelling and did a great job with his own soundtracks but also because he’s from my home state and uses lots of town and street names from places I’ve been.

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have done an amazing Carpenter-endorsed new version of the Halloween theme, and it’s really good. They had Karen O do the vocals on a remake of Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo soundtrack that is pretty haunting.

Alex Otterlei has produced some creepy, mood-setting pieces of music over the years. I bought his Dark Themes From Beyond a couple decades ago at a gaming convention, and it still holds up. I tend to just play all the tracks. He has several more recent titles to sample on YouTube and has some done some cool video game soundtracks too.

Depending on the mood of the game, I really like the original Friday the 13th soundtrack. Everybody knows what that “che che che che” sound means. It provides a good undercurrent to something that’s more maniacal than diabolical.

I can’t leave this list in good faith without mentioning the soundtrack to The Exorcist. If you’re looking for dark mood setting. It’s a sure thing.

Check out the Don’t Look Back campaign on Kickstarter.

 

Don't Look Back

 

Writing 101 at the Edmonton Expo 2017

Join me and Edmonton authors and editors T.K. Boomer, Barb Galler-Smith, and Diane Walton for two delightful panels this weekend.

Today at 4:15 pm, we’ll discuss “Getting Paid for It,” tales of first sales, good sales, bad sales, horrible contracts, and all the sausage-making that goes into professional publishing.

Tomorrow at 1:00 pm, we’re talking “Writers vs. Editors,” not only the terrible conflict and glorious collaboration that can occur between two people, but also the same relationships inside your own Writer Brain and Editor Brain.

Both panels are in Room 101. Writing 101, Room 101–all you’ve got to remember are the times.

See you there.

Creative Colleagues: Ryan Schifrin & Richard Lee Byers

Ryan Schifrin

Ryan Schifrin

Every now and then, I pester my creative colleagues with five questions about their work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.

Earlier this year, a friend pointed me to the Basil & Moebius short film “No Rest for the Wicked.” I was amazed I hadn’t heard of it before, considering the star power involved and the delightful odd-couple heroes inspired by the same duos who’d influenced Radovan and the Count.

I was worried for a minute when I saw there was a monkey, but the damned thing could act! When I learned that the film’s creator was the son of legendary composer Lalo Schifrin, I understood where he’d got his talent—but it still didn’t explain how he’d persuaded Ray Park, Zachary Levi, Kane Hodder and the great Malcolm McDowell to star in this little film.

A little later I put two and two together and realized Ryan Schifrin was the director of Abominable and a story in Tales of Halloween. And soon after that, he told me about his Basil & Moebius stories, novels, and comics—whose co-writers were all familiar names. Among them was Richard Lee Byers, who I’ll henceforth think of as the Basil to my Moebius in Forgotten Realms, Pathfinder, and upcoming still-secret fiction lines. His most recent Basil & Moebius adventure is The Picture of Aleister Crowley, and his next is the graphic novel The Fate of All Fools.

Richard is one of the tie-in writers whose prolific output puts the rest of us to shame, so we’ve got a couple of Creative Colleagues interviews lined up for this fall. For this first one, we invited Ryan to join in as we discuss all things Basil & Moebius.

Ryan, what’s the origin of Basil & Moebius?

Ryan Schifrin: I was at a live professional tennis tournament watching a doubles match. A Frenchman and German were on the same team, and I noticed their camaraderie and imagined them in Europe at a pub, drunk and looking for all sorts of mischief to get into. I thought, what if they were thieves instead of tennis players—basically the characters imposed themselves on me out of the blue, and I had no idea what story I’d put them in, but they felt absolutely real to me. I later thought, okay one will be proficient at martial arts, a Queen’s Guard by day who looks like he’s got a boring job, but his nightlife is full of these wild adventures. My dog’s name is Mister Fox, and I remember reading about a Sherlock Holmes-type mouse named Basil of Baker Street when I was a kid.

Moebius isn’t named after the comic book artist but rather the Möbius strip, which my father tried explaining to me when I was very young. That name stuck in my imagination. Then Origin games, the people behind the Ultima games, made a game named Moebius which I bought because I liked the name.

Author Richard Lee Byers

Author Richard Lee Byers

Richard, you’re an old hand at tie-in fiction. What was it about these characters that made writing them appeal to you?

Richard Lee Byers: I’ve always loved rogues and anti-heroes, the kind of adventurers who are out for themselves rather than to serve some lofty ideal, but who are not without compassion and end up grudgingly doing the right thing when it really matters. If they’re witty as they go about their business, so much the better. Like Fritz Leiber’s Gray Mouser and Fafhrd (my favorite fictional characters ever), Basil and Moebius are very much in this mold.

I also like the world in which Basil and Moebius operate. The source material for the series is our modern mythology, the realm of fringe science, urban legend, and conspiracy theory. There’s a lot of fun stuff to play with.

Finally, the tone or range of tones in the series make it fun. I can blend action, horror, crime, espionage, fantasy, science fiction, and comedy. In the universe Ryan has created, it all works together.

Ryan, you’ve also written and directed a film featuring Basil & Moebius. Please tell us a bit about the experience of casting and shooting it.

Ryan Schifrin: My goal from the start has been to do a live-action film or television series with Basil & Moebius. When I was writing the very first story, Bloodstone, it was as a screenplay. I was randomly seated next to Ray Park at the Saturn Awards. I realized he’d be the perfect Basil. He’s a world-class martial artist, he’s got a wicked sense of humor, and he was Darth Maul! So I literally wrote the script with him in mind, and he later read it and said he’d love to play Basil.

I almost got the funding to do the feature a few times, but things would always fall apart and we could never get it off the ground. At this point, the comics were coming out, so I figured it would be fun to do a short film which could also be a proof of concept. Ray was still keen to play Basil, and I needed a Moebius. I had become friends with Zach Levi, from NBC’s Chuck through a mutual friend. Zach can do any accent, and he’s hilarious and can be debonair as well. I asked him, and he said yes.

For the villain, we needed an actor with gravitas and I’ve always wanted to work with Malcolm McDowell. He’d worked with my father in the 70s on Voyage of the Damned, so I was able to get in touch with him. Kane Hodder, who played the best Jason ever in Friday the 13th Part 7, plays one of the Ghoul Brothers.

Since I was self-funding this, we didn’t have a lot of time or money, we used my wife’s dad’s house as the location (it was supposed to be a penthouse in London), and we shot it in a few days. It was fun and it was stressful, because we had animals (a monkey), stunts, visual FX, make-up FX. All the stuff they tell you to avoid using on a short schedule.

The monkey, Crystal, was amazing by the way— she’d get everything on the first take. I think Malcolm McDowell had a bad experience once working with a monkey, so he was looking very dubious until they did their first shot together and Crystal jumps out of her cage, stands up in a karate pose and holds up a blade. Malcolm’s jaw dropped and he exclaimed, “My God! Who needs actors?!”

Cover by Ken Kelley

Cover by Ken Kelley

Richard, which of the duo is your favorite? Or, if neither, what makes them such a good odd couple?

Richard Lee Byers: I’m extremely fond of both of them, but if I had to pick one, I guess it would be Basil. I like the way his down-to-earth practicality and perspective play off the marvels he encounters. They also play off well against Moebius’s narcissism and supreme (and sometimes unwarranted) self-confidence.


Tell us a bit about your initial collaborating process and what, if anything, has changed about it over time. In what ways do you two complement each other?

Ryan Schifrin: Richard is one of those pros who has worked in shared universes, from Forgotten Realms, to Pathfinder, and so on, so he’s used to collaborating and playing in different sandboxes. My job was just to make sure he knew the voice of the characters, so his stories and my stories and Tim’s stories would all feel like the same characters are in them. I’m a big believer in giving as much creative freedom as possible, so I basically told him that he can write any story he wants. I gave him a list of some of the MacGuffin’s we’d used in other stories, and locations, so we wouldn’t be redundant, but otherwise he could do anything he wants—except kill off Basil and Moebius!

He’d send me an outline, I’d give any notes or suggestions, and he’d go off and write. I don’t think I ever hardly had any notes. On The Gold Bugs Affair, the main note I had was that I wanted the Collector to end up keeping two of the cyborg pilots because I thought they were so cool we should use them in future adventures—which we did in the Fate of All Fools graphic novel.

Since our collaboration is long distance, not a lot has changed, I think as long as I’m clear up front what the goals are, Richard then can find better and unique solutions than I can ever think of. The main thing is, I trust Basil and Moebius being in Richard’s hands. He knows the characters. Especially I think he’s got Moebius’s use of language and humor spot on. I try to focus on structure and action set-pieces—the frame of the house, and I can trust Richard to come in and furnish and decorate it with his impeccable taste.

Richard, now that you’ve written both prose and comic versions of these characters, how do you compare the experience of working in either medium?

Richard Lee Byers: When Ryan brought me onboard with Basil and Moebius, I was pretty much already an old hand at fantasy adventure told in prose, and I simply approached the novelettes in my usual way. Scripting a graphic novel, though, was a new experience for me, and as I set about it, I quickly became aware of just how few words the writer has available. I had to focus on what absolutely needed to be said, say it succinctly, and cut everything else. That was true for establishing character and all the other aspects of the tale. I also had to trust the artist to convey a lot through facial expression, body language, etc. Happily, that trust was not misplaced. The artist Ryan recruited is great. I am immodest enough to say I thought the script was a good piece of writing, but the art enhances it in spectacular fashion.

Ryan, you’re collaborating with a number of people on these stories. What are some of the surprising strengths of your collaborators?

Ryan Schifrin: Let me just say how incredibly lucky I’ve been to collaborate with these incredibly gifted people, whose work I’ve been a fan of—as in I’m a big fanboy myself. I remember reading Larry Hama’s GI Joe comics when I was eight years old, and reading Tim Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy when Star Wars was a dormant franchise. It was inspired work. And Richard, of course, I think Dissolution was the first book of his I read, and it was a twisted take on Fafhrd and the Mouser (which by the way, are also huge inspirations for Basil & Moebius). Larry is a master of condensing action and exposition, Tim is brilliant with detail and plotting, and Richard’s dark sense of humor always cracks me up.

Larry doesn’t really outline anything, especially in comics, he makes it up as he goes along, so I think he’s surprising himself and the reader at the same time. He literally doesn’t know how it’s going to end until he gets there, and I admire how he seemingly paints himself into a corner, and always finds a solution you’d never think of. With the prose short stories we’ve done, I’ve seen outlines from all the authors ahead of time, so there were no plot twists I was unaware of. Tim’s always done a job good writing about military adventure, especially his Hand of Judgement stormtroopers. So I did urge him to write Basil-centric stories, which would focus on his early career in the S.A.S. and loop in his old military buddies and things like that. Richard would then focus on more of the Moebius-centric stories, and his moral grey areas and twisted sense of humor. The other authors all did great work, but Tim and Richard wrote multiple stories, so I’m mentioning those specifically.

Richard Lee Byers: At the start, Ryan asked me to do stories analogous to the standard episodes of a modern TV drama. Basil and Moebius have an adventure that essentially leaves them where we found them. It is (if I did my job well) a whole lot of fun, but if it wasn’t part of the series, all the other stories would still be just the same.

After I’d written a couple stories and (I trust) not screwed anything up too badly, Ryan and I started talking about how the series as a whole could evolve, and in due course he invited me to work with him on a story analogous to the “mythology” episode of a TV show, a tale that addresses the characters’ basic situation and has the potential to change the status quo. The Fate of All Fools is that story. Basil and Moebius fans, this is what it’s all been building up to. It’s not the end of the saga (thank God), but it is the finale to the first grand movement of it.

What are the creative advantages of prose, comics, and film respectively? Have you encountered a story you felt could be told better by one of those media? Or do Basil & Moebius stories naturally lend themselves to visual more than prose storytelling?

Ryan Schifrin: This is a great question. First and foremost, to me the characters are the important thing, not the medium. In prose and comics, you don’t have to worry about the budget. You can be as epic as you want, can blow up all the stuff you want. Prose allows you to get into the thoughts and motivations of a character the most easily.

Comics are fantastic because they’re visual, and you can really show what you see in your head and anyone can instantly “get it.” Film allows you to have actors, who always bring something unexpected, and music, which can really add so much emotion. I never have a story and then try and figure out which medium would best fit it. I do the opposite—I first look at the medium and then decide, given the parameters, what story would best work within them.

In film, the main parameter is always money. How much can we afford to spend on actors, on sets, on renting equipment, payroll for crew, catering? The short film had to take place in one location, because of this. So that sets a creative challenge, to craft a story that works best in that setting. If you like the characters, I’d like to believe that the medium doesn’t matter, you want to go with them on whatever journey they are on.

Keep an eye on Magnetic Press for Basil & Moebius news.

 

Creative Colleagues: Brian D. Anderson & Steven Savile

Cover by Gene Mollica

Cover by Gene Mollica

Every now and then, I pester my creative colleagues with five questions about their work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a clever introduction to this interview. Then I made a rookie mistake while closing Word.

Today, all I’ve got is that Steven Savile is one of those prolific writers whose output makes the rest of us weep in envy. He’s also an awfully decent bloke, the sort with whom I chat about our expatriate lives on opposite sides of the pond. Perhaps one day we’ll meet in Prague to share that pint.

Brian I don’t know at all except from the glowing things Steve says about his character and the glowing reviews his readers write about his Godling Chronicles. His sales speak for themselves, and of course the fraternity of heroic fantasy writers demands that I stand him a pint one day. Probably not in Prague, but still.

I sent the boys a few questions on the release of their collaboration, Akiri.

Whether casting your mind back to your own childhood or when playing with your child, what do you think of the role of toys and games in developing storytelling skills? 

Brian D. Anderson and replacement unit

Brian D. Anderson and replacement unit

Brian D. Anderson: Interesting. I’ve never considered playing with toys to be a part of that aspect of development. But I suppose it must have contributed to some degree. When I think back, I don’t remember my games being any more imaginative than those of the other kids. Maybe we’re all storytellers when we are young. I absolutely believe games and toys facilitate our capacity for abstract thought. But as hard as I try, I don’t remember there being a beginning, middle, or end to most of it. I guess my games were more theme based, but without structure. I just played until I grew bored.

If I were to trace the original moment, the ground zero of me wanting to become a storyteller, it would have to be listening to my grandfather tell recount moments from his life during the Great Depression. I can still vividly remember trying to guess how a particular adventure would unfold, long before it reached a conclusion, and more often than not be absolutely wrong in my guesses. He was truly gifted when it came to making the mundane seem exciting. He had a wonderfully dry wit that combined with a southern flavor had me hanging on his every word and more often than not laughing my ass off. One of his adventures focused on the difficulty he had providing food for his family. I can still hear his words in my mind: “If someone would have tied a steak to my head, I’d have beaten my brains out with my tongue trying to get it.” After all these years, I still crack a smile thinking about it.

In the end, I think it’s a combination of many things. Toys and games, without a doubt, helped give me the tools. But everything was in the abstract, without form or function or any understanding of how it all fit together. It was other influences that gave it meaning.

Steven Savile

Steven Savile

Steven Savile: If I close my eyes and think back my earliest memories all revolve around make believe. I hadn’t really thought about it until you asked, but be it games of cowboys and indians, cops and robbers, my Six Million Dollar Man with bionic vision or my many Action Men replete with Eagle and non-Eagle eyes, their trucks and helicopters, HQs, towers and other stuff, we were always telling stories to each other that involved serious derring-do on behalf of our characters. I can remember when I was maybe seven or eight I had three Action Man tapes that told stories that ran about an hour, acted out. There was a jungle one, and I can still hear the narrator splashing through water and panting ‘Dogs… lose… the scent… in water…’ as gunfire exploded around him. You know what, those tapes were brilliant. They were probably my first exposure to tie-in writing of any variety, and probably one of the only gigs I’d go back into the tie-in pool to do, because of the nostalgia value.

I’m a kid of the 70s in terms of that kind of thing, obsessed with Starsky & Hutch, The Incredible Hulk and Doctor Who. Doctor Who and Blake’s Seven got us into the playground on a Monday morning pretending to be these guys. I just had a flashback to orchestrating a lightsaber fight between Obi-Wan (a lad called Dennis I haven’t thought about in decades) and Darth Vader (Scott, my best friend at the time) as they acted out the fateful scene where Darth strikes the old Jedi down, making him more powerful than he could ever imagine. The funny thing was they hadn’t seen Star Wars, and I’d been traumatized by the death, so I was completely making it up. It didn’t bear any resemblance to the movie. Boy, did they complain when they finally saw it, but I still feel my directorial debut was pretty strong,

I’m a weird one though. There’s a strong love of genre going way back, sure, but most of my childhood I was climbing rocks, falling out of trees, playing football and cricket and tennis and any other sport imaginable. When I was 19 I ran a half marathon just because a mate phoned up that morning and said one of their team had dropped out and they’d lose the sponsorship money. I was the first to finish from their group, which had been training for months. I was captain of the football, captain of the cricket for my age range, came second in the cross-country run, took first place in long jump, high jump, 100m, 200m, and 400m, and won the 1500 in the Under 16s age group.

For the longest time I didn’t read, didn’t play games, unless they involved balls, and generally figured my future lay in sport somewhere. Even when the writing bug kicked in it was a decision to be a sports writer, not a storyteller. The urge to tell stories didn’t really kick in until much later. I guess I was 21­–22 when I wrote and sold my first piece. The thing is, during one long summer vacation with nothing to do I checked a book out of the library—David Eddings’ Enchanter’s Endgame—and was blown away by it. Of course, I had no idea it was the fifth book in a series, so I went back and read the first four in a week. Then it was Hugh Cook’s Wizard and the Warriors, Louise Cooper’s Time Master Trilogy, Elric, Thomas Covenant, David Gemmell’s Legend, Waylander, and King Beyond the Gate, and with the same sort of relentless single-mindedness that had served well on the sports field I threw myself into discovering all of these new worlds. Then, somewhere along the line, maybe when I was reading Jonathan Wylie’s series or Lyndon Hardy’s (one or the other), I had a moment of “You know, I can do this.” I’d never been a campfire storyteller or a big entertainer, but something just clicked.

Reading a story is different from hearing a story. Especially with a work released first (or only) as an audiobook, how does that knowledge affect your writing choices?

Brian D. Anderson: It doesn’t. But I would agree it is different. I was skeptical at first when the popularity of audiobooks began to surge. I’m old school. I like an actual book in hand, complete with dog-eared pages, highlighted sentences, rips and tears from repeated reads, and a cover barely hanging on to the spine because I’ve been unwilling to leave it at home. For those of you who are aghast at such brutal treatment of a book, I only do that to mass market paperbacks. I still don’t own a Kindle, and it’s unlikely I ever will.

Given this, I was surprised to find myself genuinely enjoying audio books. More than that, I really love them. It’s so hard to find time to read these days. And the mountain of books I want to read is growing taller and taller. With audio, I can enjoy a story whenever I want. I’ve read three books—well, listened to three to be accurate—while walking on the treadmill. Two more while just running errands. It’s awesome!  Don’t get me wrong. It’s no replacement for curling up on the couch and reading. But if I had to wait around for those moments, it would take me weeks to read one book.

So while audio doesn’t impact the way I write, it has influenced the way I think about my readers. Having a quality audio book is important. More so than I would have thought only a few years ago. Though I can’t see myself writing a book for audio only, neither can I see myself writing one without audio as an option.

Steven Savile: Oh man, I can’t listen to my stuff in audio. I had the privilege of doing one of the first Torchwood audios with the cast narrating—I got Naoko Mori, and I’m told she’s fantastic, but I listened to the first paragraph, heard her put the emphasis on all the wrong parts of the sentences, and turned off. It was torture. In the writing process it had been interesting, too, from an editorial aspect—my first draft was sent back with a note asking if I was a sadist, basically because I’d given a bunch of ‘tough’ names like Katsani (I think it’s easy, but hey-ho) to characters, and written these long convoluted sentences that were tongue-twisters. So I was asked to rewrite it top to bottom and make it short punchy sentences, and to repeat crucial information because people don’t retain stuff when they’re listening.

Akiri‘s interesting in that we got a great deal from Audible, because Brian is basically the audio king when it comes to fantasy—but we always wrote it as a novel to be read the old-fashioned way. It does mean that I’ve had some really interesting emails from the narrator asking how I put the emphasis on these bizarre fantasy world constructions and naming conventions we’ve used. I kinda pity the guy, really. Brian has a habit of throwing a bazillion letters down and saying that looks cool, let’s have that. Honest. It’s him. It’s all him.

What draws you to heroic fantasy when crime novels and other genres have such a larger audience?

Brian D. Anderson: I would say it has to do with what inspired me to become a writer in the first place. I was about eleven years old and my father and I were spending the night at my grandparent’s house. As usual, I slept in my uncle’s childhood bedroom. The headboard of the bed had a bookshelf in the center with a small cubby hole on either side—completely packed with books along with an assortment of odds and ends that my grandparents had never thrown away, and uncle Bob had never cared to take with him. Among the various books was the entire Tom Swift Junior series. The house was deathly quiet at night, and I had a hard time sleeping there. So I would read the adventures of Tom Swift to put myself to sleep.

I had thumbed through nearly every book at one time or another, with the exception of one: A tattered paperback copy of The Fellowship of the Ring. Kids get excited by colorful covers and this particular edition was lackluster to say the least. But having read everything else, I gave it a shot. As you can imagine, I was enthralled. The next morning, I called my uncle and begged him to let me take the book home when we left. Naturally, he said yes. From that moment on I devoured any fantasy book I could get my hands on.

We didn’t have a local library, but fortunately the K&B drugstore across the street had a remarkably well-stocked book section. By the time I was thirteen, I was convinced that I would grow up and write the next great fantasy adventure. I suppose that in a small way I’ve realized that dream. I wouldn’t say I’ve written anything that belongs in the same conversation as Tolkien’s work, but I am a writer of fantasy novels. And I love every second of it.

Fantasy novels have a better chance of seeing screen adaptations these days, but it’s still a rare fantasy film or TV series that does the original justice. Apart from special effects, what unique challenges does fantasy pose to live-action adaptation?

With CGI there are very few technological limitations preventing screen adaptations from being made. The challenge for any film based on a novel is how to stay true to the story in a way that works on the big screen. The screenplay has to tease out the essence of a book in such a way that fans are not alienated by the changes necessary for it to translate to a movie. For Example: Peter Jackson did a fantastic job with The Lord of the Rings. But if you really examine the movie closely, it strays from the original plot quite a bit. Even still, Jackson was able to remain faithful to the story enough so that it was very much recognizable as a Tolkien epic.

Steven Savile: You’re asking the man whose latest novel is a collaboration with the excellent Robert Greenberger called Sherlock Holmes and the Murder at Sorrow’s Crown, released by Titan basically now… and whose next novel out in January, also from Titan is a standalone crime novel called Parallel Lines? Honestly, I’m my own worst nightmare—I write where the interest takes me. I’m an idiot in that regard. If I had any business sense I would have written Gold, the follow up to Silver, which was my best-selling novel by miles, when I wrote London Macabre (a sprawling dark Victoriana novel of golems and magic that really wasn’t steampunk when steampunk was hot) instead. I’ve got a bad habit of making weird choices. Fantasy though is where my heart is. It’s what I keep coming back to. It’s what shaped me. It’s where I feel most at home.

The first story I ever sold, “Coming for to Carry You Home,” was published twenty-five years ago. I sent a copy to my dad. He read the first line and locked it in a drawer, telling me it was filth. It was a riff on the careful-what-you-wish-for Faustus idea, but it was from the point of view of a woman in the deep south in the fifties and opened with her recounting some of the names she’d been called by white kids. Mum read it and said, “Well, it’s a bit… strange. You’ve got a funny imagination.” Neither of them read anything I wrote for years after that, but now my mum’s pretty much hooked. I love the fact she’s always like, “That was really good!” as if it’s a surprise that after thirty novels I’m beginning to get the hang of making shit up.

For the past couple of decades, “Grimdark” and antiheroes have become popular. Do we need an antidote to that gritty fantasy? Or do morally ambiguous protagonists make fantasy more legitimate somehow?

Brian D. Anderson: I don’t think we need an antidote. Nor do I think anti-heroes legitimize a fantasy novel. Readers like what they like. It’s that simple. My first series was considered young adult. Sex was always fade-to-black and there was very little profanity. The hero was very much a goody-goody and his friends people with strong moral convictions. It sold quite well and gained me a very strong fan base.

The next series had far more adult content. This did in fact upset a few of my readers. But overall, people didn’t seem to mind the grittier aspects. Some actually thought it to be an improvement. I have to admit that initially it felt odd writing sexually charged scenes to their natural conclusion. It was difficult to balance hot and steamy with tasteful and romantic. And strong language needed to be distributed in such a way that it didn’t lose its impact and didn’t read as if I was using profanity just for the sake of being vulgar. The situational content was probably the trickiest. Subject matter such as the abuse of women, murder, and torture needed to be relevant to the story. My intention was not to be shocking or edgy. I just wanted the story to ring true. And that meant adding a bit more realism than I had done previously.

My latest work with Steven is in some ways rather dark. Akiri is a pragmatic badass. He’d kill you without hesitation and not feel the least bit guilty about it. Yet he is not cold-blooded and needs to have a reason to kill beyond simple bloodlust. So in that respect he might be one of those anti-heroes you mentioned. But his sidekick, Kyra, offsets the brutality with idealism. She’s a bit of a crusader. I guess in a way she’s the antidote for what would otherwise be pure slash and hack, dark fantasy.

I personally enjoy stories that can strike a balance between realism and idealism. I suppose it reflects the way I try to live my life—taking a bit from column A and a bit from column B. Then washing it down with a double Jack and a Heineken. There are worse ways to live.

Steven Savile: You know, last time I was on here with Joe we were talking about Ghosts of the Conquered which came out under the Matthew Caine name—I think I told you how I wrote the original version in 2001/2 right? It was rejected by every publisher at the time who described it as great, but too unremittingly dark, too bleak, too nasty, fantasy isn’t meant to be like that. I’ve got great rejection letters for it. Then something changed and fantasy became grim and dark. I’d originally done a lot of horror stuff. so I brought my horror sensibilities to the fantasy novel. You could say I was ahead of my time, I guess, because a handful of years later Joe Abercrombie and others were turning the genre on its head and Grimdark was cool.

Me, I think I’m just a contrary bastard, because now I want to go back to a kind of writing where heroes are heroes, they face morally compromising problems and do the right thing, they’re the guy you hope has your back when the shit hits the fan. I want to go back to the wonder of first experiencing Eddings and Feist and Brooks, and see the marvelous, not just the mundane reality of shit and blood when someone dies. I’ve been talking with my agent for three of four years about it, and I’m constantly moaning about it, and she, wonderfully, says the same thing every time: “Maybe you should do something about it.”

Which is one of the great things about partnering with Brian. He’s got that kind of Eddings/Feist sensibility. He wants his stuff to be fast-moving, action-driven excitement, opening more and more doors to more and more trouble, though of course in Akiri we’ve got something of the R.E. Howard’s Conan about our hero, the stranger who rides into town, kicks ass, takes names and moves on. We’re looking forward to exploring more of the world with him as the series progresses. Audible have bought four novels initially, all to come out over the next 12 months, so we’re focused on the world right now, so maybe—just maybe—I’m doing what my agent kept telling me to do and offering a bit of an antidote to the unremitting gloom.

 

Hurry! Go right now and bookmark Brian’s blog and Steven’s website.

 

Akiri Giveaway

Cover by Gene Mollica

Cover by Gene Mollica

While I’m sitting on the interview until the release date on October 21, the authors of Akiri: The Scepter of Xarbaal are offering terrific prizes for signing up for Brian’s newsletter—including the actual sword used in the photo shoot for this cover.

Go sign up, then bookmark this page and come back on October 21 to read what Brian D. Anderson and Steven Savile say to my impertinent questions.

Don’t forget to check out Gene Mollica’s art page.

Creative Colleagues: Marc Tassin

Marc Tassin

Marc Tassin

Every now and then, I pester my creative colleagues with five questions about their work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.

It’s that Marc Tassin again, tireless organizer of the Writers Symposium at Gen Con and tireless creator of his own fantasy setting. He’s launched a third Kickstarter campaign after two successful antecedents. This time it’s not just an adventure or a story collection—it’s a whole world.

After the success of his Temple of Modren Pathfinder adventure and his Champions of Aetaltis anthology, Marc’s going full Greenwood by presenting an entire fantasy campaign setting for 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons.

Fortunately for his sanity, Marc has a team of talented collaborators in the form of Mechanical Muse. They’re hard at work spreading the word about this new project while simultaneously shepherding the massive project. Marc’s right in the thick of it, so let’s test just how tireless he is by throwing him a few impertinent questions.

I get the feeling this setting harks back to an era of heroic and epic fantasy that I felt was at its height in the 80s. Does that seem right?

On the surface, I can see it appearing that way. With Aetaltis I’ve definitely worked to create a new world that strikes many of the same chords in readers and players that you’d expect from a classic heroic fantasy setting like Faerûn, Oerth, or Krynn. The key, however, is that Aetaltis isn’t an homage or an attempt to copy the legendary settings of that era. Rather, I’m building a completely new world that draws on the same root sources and ideas that inspired the creators of those settings.

The end goal is to create a brand new world that can stand alongside those settings rather than a world that harks back to them. A tall order, I know, but that’s what I’m working to do. I’m just not convinced we’re done exploring worlds like these. There are still stories to tell and wonders to reveal!

What are the challenges in making the players of a game feel like epic heroes?

For me, the “epic” in Epic Fantasy™ really refers to the impact that the character’s actions have on the history and the world. I think of it like this: if someone was writing a history book about the world, would the events surrounding the characters’ adventure warrant its own chapter? If the answer is “yes,” then we’re talking about epic fantasy.

With that as the definition, the specific obstacles the heroes need to overcome become less important. Could there be a giant large-scale set-piece battle with gathered armies facing off in a final fight? Sure! But if the real events on which everything turns are a couple of tiny heroes sneaking up to a volcano to throw a cursed magic item into it, that massive battle is an exciting bit of background, but not fundamental to the epic nature of what the heroes are attempting to achieve.

One thing I don’t agree with is that heroic and epic go hand in hand. What makes an adventure epic is the scale of the consequence of failure. What makes an adventure heroic is why the heroes are undertaking the task in the first place. Aetaltis is more about the why than the what. For me, the tale of a shepherd who takes up arms to defend his village against a small goblin hunting party simply because it’s the right thing to do, is every bit as compelling to me as the knight that rides into hell to destroy the demon that threatens the world.

world-of-aetaltis

Art by Nic Boone and Mitchell Malloy

Of all the iconic locations in the setting, which one would you say is most original to Aetaltis?

The Newardine Cels are definitely something different from what players have seen in the past. The newardin are one of the races unique to Aetaltis. They are a strange, otherworldly people that are cut from a very different cloth than the other races of the world. They originally came to Aetaltis as off-world colonists, members of a group called the Atlan Alliance. In this alliance of different races, which included the humans, the newardins’ role was to operate the magical gates that the Alliance used to travel between worlds. When the gates cataclysmically collapsed just over three hundred years ago, however, the surviving members of the Alliance were trapped on Aetaltis.

The newardin did not adapt well to life on Aetaltis. They congregated in cities where they constructed tightly controlled compounds that reflected the architecture, culture, and ideals of their homeland. Strange spiraling towers, impossibly thin pillars made out of materials unknown to the rest of Aetaltis’ inhabitants, and unfathomable cultural norms make these cels a slice of another world thrust into the otherwise familiar surroundings of Aetaltis’ other environments.

In the background of the Kickstarter video, you can catch a glimpse of one of these structures.

What’s the perfect relationship between fiction and the canonical events of an RPG?

I think you can place equal emphasis on both. Since we have strong support from both gamers and non-gamers alike, there’s no reason we can’t continue to provide more than one path to Aetaltis. And that’s important to me. Our goal isn’t to create games or write books. Our goal is to create an amazing world that people want to be a part of and then deliver tools they can use to interact with it. Games, books, comics, apps: in the end they’re all just different portals through which someone can visit a world.

You’re producing a Player’s Guide, a Game Master’s Guide, and an Adventurer’s Guide—but conspicuously not a book of monsters. Is that because you want to change the paradigm of play? Also, what makes your Game Master’s Guide stand apart from others recently published?

The reason our first monster book is a stretch goal rather than a core book is that what’s important in Aetaltis is the origin of monster, the story behind it, rather than the monster’s stats. This is information we can convey in the three core books without stat blocks. If you understand these origins, you can pull monsters from any of the bestiaries already available fifth edition and fit them easily into the story of Aetaltis.

Don’t get me wrong, we love monsters, especially the wonderfully quirky creatures born out of roleplaying games over the years (owlbears anyone?)  And we certainly have plenty of unique creatures we’re excited to share. That’s why the monster book is the next one we want to publish after the core books. It’s just not a requirement to experience the world.

As for the game master’s guide, the key here is that our guide is designed specifically to help game masters run adventures set in Aetaltis. Whether it’s advice on where in the world to base a campaign that captures your groups preferred style of play or guidelines for introducing your favorite non-Aetaltan character race to the game, our game master’s guide is the key to doing that. This is information you can’t get from other guides.

What are ten things that make Aetaltis stand out from other settings.

  1. Magic, originally a gift from the fallen god Endroren, is as frightening as it is useful.
  2. Endroren is chained to the core of the world, desperate to break free and return to the surface.
  3. The dwarves hate the gods for using their home, the Deeplands, as a prison for Endroren and his minions.
  4. Goblins, trolls, orcs, and many traditional fantasy monsters have only just returned to the world after the wards that trapped them in the Deeplands began to fail.
  5. Adventuring is a respectable occupation thanks to the edicts of Lord Drakewyn of New Erinor.
  6. Humans are not originally from Aetaltis but are travelers from another world trapped there when the gates to their homeland catastrophically failed.
  7. When the gates collapsed, they drew all manner of creatures, landscapes, and beings into the world.
  8. Essence wells, ley lines, essence crystals, and blood magic mean that there is far more to Aetaltan spellcasting than simple spell memorization.
  9. The temptation and ease of entreating Endroren for aid means that every hero must struggle to stay on the path of light.
  10. Not everyone believes that the world gates can’t be reopened…

Join the World of Aetaltis Kickstarter, follow the project on Facebook, or keep up at the website.