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.

 

Creative Colleagues: Dave Barrett

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.

Fun and GamesDave Barrett’s It’s All Fun and Games is the first in a series of Young Adult novels from the Nerdist’s new imprint through Inkshares. It features the teenage players of a Live Action Role Playing (LARP) game who find themselves transported to an actual, factual fantasy world. We’ve seen that trick before, but Barrett breathes new life into the conceit. I imagine hordes of young readers discovering LARPs the way so many of my generation got turned on to tabletop RPGs after reading the late Joel Rosenberg’s Guardians of the Flame novels.

I had the pleasure of reading an advance copy of Dave’s debut, and he kindly agreed to answer a few of my geeky questions.

Please tell us about your earliest experiences with tabletop RPGs and LARPs.

My older brother, Jim, brought home AD&D from high school in 1981. My first character was a ranger named Fred (I was 8). I remember playing White Plume Mountain and the Against the Giants series as solo adventures—it was just poor Fred. Considering the modules were made for full parties, my brother must have pulled a lot of punches to get me through them.

Later during elementary school, it was the Sword of Damocles hanging over my head for math tests. Anything less than a 90, and no D&D for the rest of the week. I did really well in Math that year.

I still try to play whenever I can. I’m mostly playing Pathfinder now.

My LARP experience is a different matter. It didn’t even occur to me it was possible until I got closer to college and learned about groups like NERO. The lack of internet made discovering these things really difficult! During college and just after I attended a couple events I had been invited to by friends and had a great time, though with busy life and young kids, it’s not always easy to find time for RPGs, particularly ones that stretch over full days. I’ve attended Intercon in Massachusetts, and had a lot of fun.

Chance in the form of dice rolls plays a big part in games. Wandering monsters, after all! How do you create a sense of randomness in a story without allowing it to feel like a cheat?

It’s funny you should ask, because I actually bring this up in It’s All Fun and Games. Playing D&D in the RPGA (and other orgs), I’ve gotten used to the idea of Obligatory Thug Attack, or OTA—a combat encounter designed mostly to sap the party of some of their resources so that when they fight the final boss they’re not at full strength. So I actually included that in the story—before the kids cross over into the game world they get jumped by some random monsters, and someone explains the OTA to Allison.

Once they cross over, though, that’s a different thing. If a scene isn’t advancing plot or character, or providing some sort of backstory, I personally don’t want to read about it. Because I wanted to write the kind of book I like to read, things move pretty directly toward the climax. I’m not writing a module, I’m writing a novel.

Why do you think interest in LARPs has grown so much in the past few decades?

I think this is a function of two things. First, mainstream culture has embraced geekdom wholeheartedly in the last several decades. Between the Lord of the Rings movies and the Marvel Cinematic Universe on the Big Screen, the huge successes of webseries like The Guild and LARPs, and of course The Big Bang Theory and World of Warcraft, it’s become OK to get dressed up as your favorite character and go to a convention. For instance, SDCC sells out of passes within minutes each year!

Second, it’s so much easier to find like-minded individuals nowadays. Growing up in Houston, I was able to find our local SCA folks (they were in the Yellow Pages!), but if anyone was LARPing down there, I didn’t know about it. Today, if you’re interested in giving it a try, it’s just a couple clicks away to find a group that’s playing the sort of game you want to get into.

How do you find playing RPGs complements your writing?

Playing RPGs expands your imagination, and without imagination, there’s no writing. I’ve played characters from sneaky rogues to flamboyant pirates to an elderly grandmother who could knit as well as she could cast the evil eye. Getting into a character and interacting with the others in your group—taking what they bring and building on it—is a great way to experience others’ personalities. Personalities that you could then turn into characters!

On the other side, the RPG view does run the risk of making your foils one-dimensional. Players think of elaborate backstories that brought their character to this point in time and spend hours roleplaying with one another. Then, in six rounds of combat they run ramshackle over the baddie and his henchmen, loot the bodies, and move on. Those baddies must have had just as complex reasons for doing what they did, but because they only exist as a speed bump in the overall campaign, we never really think much about that.

For a Young Adult book, where do you draw the line on violence? How about sexuality?

In a fantasy adventure novel, violence is almost a given, simply due to the nature of the genre. Some baddie is going to be defeated by the good guy, who will use swords or magic or both. I’ve used my own kids as my guide—what would I be comfortable for them to read? In most cases, my descriptions are enough to get the point across without being something that will give my kids nightmares. The reader will be creating their own images in their heads, and if someone is envisioning a bloodier battle, their minds can certainly go there with what I’ve provided

Sexuality, I just punted. It’s All Fun and Games isn’t a romance novel (or even a fantasy romance novel). I left myself a little wiggle room if I really wanted to head down that route with sequels, but I’m pretty sure it’s the last thing on their minds right now. Only one of the characters is even old enough to drive, so even if I decide to pair off any of the characters, it’s going to be pretty tame. If readers want a novel that explores teenage sexuality, there are plenty of choices on the market.

Check out It’s All Fun and Games at Inkshares (or on Amazon) and keep an eye on the latest news on Facebook. For your bonus action, follow Dave Barrett on Twitter.

 

Creative Colleagues: Mike Myler

Mike Myler

Mike Myler

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.

Mike Myler and I have a few friends in common, but I had no idea how much our tastes overlap until we chatted about Mists of Akuma. Film noir? Check. Asian fantasy? Check. Steampunk? Well, we both like that a little, so let’s call that 3/3.

Yours is not the first Eastern Fantasy/Steampunk mashup I’ve noticed. Why do those genres go together so well?

I think that there’s a mystique inherent to both—a sense of the unknown and unexpected that pairs nicely. Also there’s a sort of ramshackle quality both genres can have which resonates when the two interact. The order of descriptors for Mists of Akuma is intentional: eastern fantasy first, noir second, and steampunk third.

It’s an eastern world with dark overtones, and there happens to be steampunk in it, but it’s not an overwhelming presence. I’m a Warhammer 40k junkie, and I adore the relationship that universe has with technology and heresy, so here we’ve combined them. In Mists of Akuma, one of the major elements of the setting are tsukumogami, objects that transform into creatures on their 100th birthday. Because most technology is from afar or antiquated, it inspires fear because that rifle you’ve got might wake up and try to kill you!

Why add noir to the mix? And what do you mean by “noir”?

I’m an early graduate from the University of Pittsburgh with a major in Film Studies, so my go-to answer on what qualifies as noir comes from a seminal article on the subject by Paul Schrader in 1971: Notes on Film Noir. You can read the whole bit here, though this link is to the specific part I’m referencing).

The thing to understand about noir is that it was a genre of film borne from circumstance. If you check out Schrader’s article, you’ll find several different stylistic things that tie all films noir, no matter how disparate, to the genre—scenes largely lit for night, a Freudian fear of water, oblique lines in the mise-en-scène. Think about Westerns with their big, wide horizontal landscapes and compare that to films noir—lots of vertical blinds, disruptive vertical shadows, and the like. These are the results of budgetary restraints and production realities, but most of the directors behind these movies (notably Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder) had fled from the rise of Nazism and were masters of German Expressionism. The lack of lighting that creates the dark ambiance of a film noir has to do with energy limits; there are stories of lighting techs breaking down into tears because their producers came down on them so hard. These are all reflective of the US wartime economy and the stylistic choices forced on those movies.

Why is Mists of Akuma a noir setting? The world is predicated for you to lose against a constant battle to retain your virtue. I had a hankering for a dark setting, not something borne out of old school horror but of desperation. The antiheroic roles of noir protagonists was a perfect fit, doubly so because corruption is a major part of the world. It became clear that noir was a term that fits what we want GMs and players to expect when they sit down for a game in Soburin. Victories are few, Pyrrhic, and usually involve a great deal of sacrifice.

RPG adventures come in many forms, from location-based exploration to plot-driven investigations and other variations. What sorts of adventures work best in the Mists of Akuma setting?

City-based adventures have proven the best so far, but we’re building the setting in such a way that quests will be easy to come by. To fight the demon-spewing Mists of Akuma that roil over Soburin, the Masuto Imperial Family has decreed that each of the 23 clans have “bengoshi,” functionaries able to deputize people to help keep order. There’s an obvious love for investigations, and GMs will find the detailed entries we’re focusing on very useful for those purposes. Our first stretch goal is for the DM of my youth to write an adventure to be included in the book: Will of the Palemaster, a module that takes place in a fort during a festival when the Mists of Akuma suddenly appear!

Mists of AkumaPeople who already love Eastern Fantasy are probably already sold on Mists of Akuma, but how do you tempt those who’re used to “classic” (European) fantasy?

I’d point out that this is not a steampunk world—it is a world with steampunk in it—and that Eastern Fantasy is the first descriptor because that’s what the primary focus of Mists of Akuma is. You can still get a lot of excellent use out of the samurai sacred oath, tsukumogami hunter, imperial dragons, oni monsters, 23 distinctive clans, eastern weapons, martial arts stance feats, more than two dozen new race options, character backgrounds, and more. Those who check out the free preview PDFs will find that there’s no shortage of material they can mine for a more traditional game. It’s also not hard to imagine Soburin before foreign technology arrived, so removing the influence of technology altogether won’t be difficult.

What’s a list of 10 films/comics/novels/TV show that inspired Mists of Akuma?

Jeez man, did you do a background check on me! Auugh! I’m just going to list these straight off the top of my head because, frankly, there’re so many.

Afro Samurai

Samurai Champloo

Ravenloft

Warhammer 40k (all the fiction)

Sin City (both the comics and movies)

Eberron (from WotC)

Rokugan (and the original Oriental Adventures)

Jade Empire (on the old Xbox)

The Maltese Falcon (I’ve literally lost count of how many times I’ve watched this movie—prepare for many, many double-crosses), Gun Crazy, Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, Detour, Kiss Me Deadly, Kill or be Killed, Ace in the Hole, White Heat (so sue me, there’s a lot of really good film noir)

Samurai Jack

Check out the Mists of Akuma Kickstarter.

Creative Colleagues: Paris Crenshaw

Paris Crenshaw

Paris Crenshaw

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.

Paris Crenshaw is one of the friends I first met at PaizoCon, back when I first wrote for Pathfinder Tales. I don’t think we ever discussed the coincidence, but Paris and I both grew up in Virginia, and we almost attended the same university.

When we met, Paris was already writing for Wayfinder in the precious little time he could find between his navy career and family obligations. Since then, he’s contributed to Champions of Corruption, Faiths & Philosophies, the Inner Sea NPC Codex, and other publications.

Now Paris has designed a five-chapter adventure sage for both Pathfinder and D&D. Trail of the Apprentice bridges a gap between introductory games, like the Pathfinder Beginner Box and D&D Starter Set, and the Pathfinder Adventure Paths and the D&D adventure hardcovers. Published by Legendary games, the series is aimed at younger and beginner players. It’s currently raising funds on Kickstarter, but since it’s already achieved its funding goal, the next three weeks are all about hitting those stretch goals.

Apart from simplified rules, what changes do you make to a roleplaying adventure to make it perfect for younger or novice players?

When I’m writing adventures for novice players, especially younger players, I focus on the structure of the story. I try to keep the story focused, with clear connections between events. Encounters need to flow logically from one to the next. An experienced gamer may criticize this approach as “railroading,” but a more linear adventure is helpful to new players. Games like D&D and Pathfinder are complex. There are a lot of moving parts, and many different components define a single character. When you’re still trying to figure out what things your character can do, having to figure out what your character should do adds another level of confusion. The sheer number of options can lead to paralysis and cause players to shy away from the game. For very low level adventures, I make it clear that certain locations are specifically designed to limit players’ choices. That way, they can focus on moving forward and figure out how their characters can face one challenge at a time. As they gain experience with the game, they can get more opportunities to make decisions that impact the direction the story takes.

Obviously, when working with younger players, content is also a consideration. Having grown out of wargames, tabletop RPGs have always had a tradition of fighting and combat, so I don’t want to try to remove that, but I do want to help keep things clear for players. I want to make sure that the player characters are portrayed as heroes and their enemies are clearly “bad guys.” I think it’s important that this “bad guy” status is based on actions, rather than just by nature of being a certain type of creature. The PCs need to be able to see that if they have to fight an enemy, it’s either because that enemy is trying to hurt them or because it’s doing something clearly very bad. As we get older, we can enjoy delving into the gray areas of morality, but that kind of thinking is challenging for younger players (admittedly, it’s challenging for many older ones, too). Trying to remove that ambiguity can be difficult, because I know that different players are going to have different values. I may not always hit the mark, but I hope I’m able to keep to a decent middle ground while still making things interesting.

What considerations do you keep in mind for the Game Master when designing these adventures? How much hand-holding is necessary? 

In terms of designing the module—the actual printed adventure—one of the things I decided to do was to place full stat blocks alongside each encounter. That stat block is slimmed down to present only the information the GM needs, but it’s on the page where the encounter happens. That way, the GM doesn’t have to go to a different book to find the information he needs about the creatures in that encounter. That’s a pretty significant difference from other modules. Usually, the goal is to provide as much story information as possible and word count is limited by the product’s format. Publishers often encourage writers to reference monsters or non-player characters who already have statistics in other books. Legendary Games let me try my own approach for Trail of the Apprentice, and I think it will help GMs be more comfortable with running the encounters. They can branch out to other sources later when they know the system better.

The other thing that designers can do when writing for new GMs is to rely on tropes. Modern media has really embraced much of geek culture, but gamers have always been the type of people who are exposed to a wide variety of material. We often try to stay away from familiar stories or concepts because we’re trying to offer our players something new and different. That’s great for players who’ve “seen it all,” but when you’re new to the game, especially if you’re very young, it’s actually better to rely on what’s familiar. The players can help you tell the story if they have a sense of how it’s supposed to go. GMs may be afraid that players will think they’re just copying a favorite book or movie, but the truth is that many people enjoy RPGs because they get a chance to be a part of their favorite stories. Embrace that concept.

With a willingness to borrow from tropes or familiar storylines, GMs don’t have to worry so much about forgetting where they’re supposed to go next. As an author, I know you’ve created intricate and original plots, and I’m willing to bet that you have to keep notes to make sure you stay on track. I’m also willing to bet that you have to refer to those notes and revise them as your characters evolve through the story. If it’s challenging to stay on track when you’re a writer who controls all the characters, it’s even more difficult for a GM who has a group of players all contributing their own characters’ actions. It takes a long time to learn how to handle that kind of complexity. By starting with something familiar, everyone can have a good time while learning the game together.

Cover by Beatrice Pelagatti

Cover by Beatrice Pelagatti

In both rules and settings, there’s a spectrum between generic and specific. How generic do you feel an adventure should be to appeal to the broadest audience without losing a sense of setting as character?

While I love world building, I have to remind myself that stories really are more about the characters than about the setting. A good adventure should have a story that brings out the PCs, no matter where it’s set, but many details that influence characters’ decisions are derived from the setting. It’s also true that many things that make an adventure interesting are the little details, which are usually derived from some kind of history or background. It’s hard to create those interesting details for a specific setting. On the other hand, if you base the whole adventure on something that is unique to one setting, it can be difficult to use that adventure somewhere else.

A good example of the latter situation is the The Whispering Cairn, the first part of Paizo’s second adventure path, Age of Worms, in Dungeon magazine. I loved that adventure path, but it was set in Greyhawk, and I’d always been partial to the Forgotten Realms. Without going into spoilers, a specific, legendary magic item features in that adventure. The item just doesn’t exist in the Realms. So, in order to make it fit, I had to come up with a similar item and create a whole new history. I actually posted that stuff on the Paizo message board. It was fun to create, but it took a lot of time and energy. Busy GMs don’t usually have the luxury of spending so much time on that kind of conversion.

Designers can make things easier by placing the adventures in areas that have analogues. Create situations where it isn’t too difficult to change some proper nouns and rearrange locations so that people can use the story in whatever setting the group it using. The Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, and even Golarion all have areas that are fairly close in terms of culture and theme. They have differences that make them unique but are similar enough that you can adapt modules for use in the setting of your choice. For example, if you’re a Golarion fan, it wouldn’t be at all difficult to play the Trail of the Apprentice campaign in that world’s River Kingdoms region.

Especially in my TSR and WotC days, I met a lot of military gamers. As a Naval officer, what do you think is the particular appeal of games like D&D and Pathfinder to military personnel?

My experience is through the lens of an officer, so it’s perhaps a little different. After college, my gaming took a precipitous plunge, because officers just didn’t admit that they were gamers. I had one or two friends who I knew were gamers, but we were scattered around the world. The rules against socializing with junior personnel to prevent fraternization made it unwise to get a group of sailors together. And ashore, as a Naval officer, building a gaming group with civilians was tough, because we would get underway for weeks at a time, making it even more difficult to keep a campaign going. It wasn’t until later in my career, around 2000 when I was at Monterey, that I met a bunch of fellow officers who were also gamers and we got a group going. Since then, I’ve managed to keep up with gaming, either via play-by-post games, online tools like d20Pro, or more recently, via a regular in-person game with friends I’ve made in San Diego. Now that I’m in my forties, I’m meeting lots of officers and senior enlisted folks my age who are avid gamers. It makes me wish I’d been more open about my geeky hobby when I was younger.

Regardless, tabletop gaming is much more visible and common among the junior enlisted personnel. For some reason, it’s more accepted among 18 or 19 year olds right out of high school than it is in 22 year-olds right out of college. I think the enlisted folks who pass the time with RPGs appreciate that it’s a social game that has some strategy and tactical elements. During long deployments, sailors and soldiers are going to see their comrades every day and get into set routines. For people who enjoy gaming, it can be a great opportunity to really make progress in a campaign. Another plus is that, unlike console or PC games, you don’t need electricity to play. There are tons of software-based tools to help manage campaigns, and most folks can take laptops with them on deployment, these days, but they aren’t necessary. Dice, paper, pencils, and some rulebooks are really all you need. Maybe a little more involved than a deck of cards, but still a great option for passing the time between watches and drills.

What are some of the classic roleplaying modules that influence your design sensibility? And what are a few “modern classics” gamers should seek out?

I didn’t really start playing D&D regularly until 2nd Edition, so I missed many of the true “classics.” But I did get to enjoy many early modules. I clearly remember that sessions from the module Wildspace, the Legend of Spelljammer box set, and the Ravenloft module Feast of Goblyns taught me a lot about dealing with players who weren’t interested in the module’s storyline. That probably wasn’t the fault of the modules, per se, but learning when the players just aren’t interested in what’s going on in an adventure is a skill that a good GM needs to develop. So is knowing that you shouldn’t try to argue too much about physics when you’re playing in a fantasy space setting where entire solar systems are encased in massive crystal bubbles.

Trying to run the Time of Troubles series and playing in the Curse of the Azure Bonds for the Forgotten Realms taught me how forcing the player characters to stick too closely to the events in novels can ruin the fun for everyone. Those modules were fun to read, but the Time of Troubles, in particular, cast the player characters in supporting roles for the story’s main characters. That should never be the case. Things can be going on in the background and the heroes may not be able to influence them, but the players should be the ones making a real impact on the world.

As for “modern classics”? That’s tough. There are so many great adventures being published these days. I love Paizo’s adventure paths. I’ve already mentioned The Whispering Cairn from Dungeon #124, and I think that’s probably one of the best. I’ve been a player in the Kingmaker story and in Legacy of Fire, and I enjoy both of them. Kingmaker in particular puts the player characters in the center of the story and allows the players to shape how that story moves along. However, it was designed as a sandbox, and I don’t think it’s the best choice for new players and GMs because there are so many choices and it takes a skilled GM to keep things “on track” toward the encounters in the later adventures. I also think that the adventures set in Darkmoon Vale for the Pathfinder setting are great: Hollow’s Last Hope, Crown of the Kobold King, Revenge of the Kobold King, and Hungry Are the Dead make up a fantastic series with cool dungeons and other adventure sites and a backdrop that feels like an old Western town. Kind of like living in Deadwood or Lahood (from Pale Rider).

You can keep tabs on Paris on Facebook. And don’t forget to check out the Trail of the Apprentice Kickstarter campaign. 

 

Creative Colleagues: Jane Lindskold

Jane Lindskold and friend

Jane Lindskold and friend

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.

Jane Lindskold and I first met at Gen Con about 20 years ago. The previous year, she had published her wonderful debut novel, Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls, coincidentally the same year as I’d made my first short fiction sale. We also discovered we’re both tabletop roleplayers, and my one regret of that convention is that we never got a chance to play together.

Jane and I exchanged letters and D&D books for a little while but eventually lost touch except for a brief greeting at a convention five or six years later. Since then, we’ve reverted, as so many have, to following each other on Twitter.

This past spring, a remark by someone at Tor prompted me to ask whether they’d send Jane a copy of my latest Radovan & the Count novel. Soon after, we resumed our correspondence and she asked me a few questions for her delightful blog. Our exchange was so much fun that I had to ask to turn the tables and continue the conversation here.

1. As a pragmatist, I’m of the opinion that writers aren’t born but made (or self-made). They come to the craft from many different vectors, including formal education, writers’ groups, the guidance of a mentor, and a thousand other angles. What was your trajectory?

“Trajectory” is a neat way to look at the process of becoming a writer. Let’s see…

For me, the launch pad to becoming a writer was telling stories—often based on my dreams—to my younger sister, with whom I shared a room until I was twelve. I also had a vivid daydream life, in which I would construct elaborate stories. And I’d play “pretend” with my youngest sister.

I’m not really sure when I started letting the stories out of my head and onto paper. By college, definitely, but my sister says she’d find fragments back when we were younger. I certainly never finished these, nor did I take them very seriously. At this point, I had no ambition at all to be a writer.

Freshman year in college I discovered RPGs. This was the year the AD&D hardcover guides came out, I believe. Gaming very much fueled my desire to actually write down stories. Often I’d construct an elaborate backstory for my character. These rarely were used, but I found myself stimulated by the process. Later, I’d write down portions of games—more or less unconnected fragments—but the attempt to put down on paper words that would convey to a reader something of the vivid sense of the characters and events from the game was there.

I even tried an epic poem in rhymed couplets.

At the same time, I was majoring in English, so I was reading a lot of wonderful material—or sometimes not so wonderful. Thinking about what stirred me and what didn’t helped shape me as writer as well, as did making friends who read SF/F and talking about books with them.

Basically, those four years when I was earning my undergrad degree in English, I was also, all unknowing, doing a second “self-directed” degree in fiction writing.

I did take one class, an elective, in short story writing. Honestly, the class didn’t teach me much that I hadn’t already figured out for myself, but it did force me to finish what I was working on. That—as I’m sure you know—is a huge step.

I went directly from undergrad to grad school, but even though I was intensely focused on my studies, I didn’t give up either gaming or fiction writing. When I finished my dissertation, I decided to slot fiction writing into the space where the dissertation had lived.

Above you mentioned “mentors.” If I had one, it was Roger Zelazny, who I met as I was finishing up my degree work. Roger read some of my early stuff and decided that I was already writing at a professional level. So, although we talked about writing a lot, he went out of his way to avoid making me, as he put it “into a cut-rate Roger Zelazny.” He never edited my stories or made more than the most indirect suggestions. Instead, he taught me about markets and various business aspects. Of course, I couldn’t have been as close to him as I was without learning a lot—I have a file drawer filled with his letters to me—but he never was in the least directive.

After grad school, I started teaching college English and writing fiction (and non-fiction) on the side. Eventually, I sold a short story or two… And even later, a novel (Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls). Twenty-four or so novels and seventy some short stories down the pike, I’m still at it.

2. I think you’ve both collaborated on fiction and finished someone else’s work, one of the things we have in common. How do those experiences compare with each other and with writing alone?

I’ve done collaborations with a couple of writers—two novels with David Weber (Fire Season and Treecat Wars) and a short story (“Servant of Death”) with Fred Saberhagen.

And Roger asked me to finish the two novels he was working on if he didn’t “make it” (as he didn’t). These were Donnerjack and Lord Demon.

I’ve also written stories set in other people’s “universes,” which—if you’re respectful of the source material—is a sort of indirect collaboration.

Each of the experiences was very different. “Servant of Death” was set in Fred’s “Berserker” universe, so he contributed the foundation. We talked over the story and I wrote the first draft. Fred then made some suggestions that he felt would draw the story closer to the “feel” of the universe.

Working with David Weber was very different. Since the novels were prequels to the Honor Harrington stories—set hundreds of years earlier—there was a lot of new material to come up with. Weber and I are good buddies, and he gave me a lot of room to play, as long as we didn’t violate anything he’d already established. One area he hadn’t done a lot with was treecat culture, since most of the treecats in the Honor Harrington novels are not exactly stay-at-homes. I came up with a long list of questions. If he didn’t have an answer, he gave me leave to come up with my own solutions.

Finishing Roger’s novels was completely different, since he wasn’t there to talk with. However, we had talked a lot about what he intended for both. He didn’t outline, so I had to go with what we’d talked about and what he’d already written. Earlier, I said he didn’t try to teach me how to write, but I feel that rising to the challenge of finishing novels by one of the greatest SF/F prose stylists of all time taught me an amazing amount.

Cover by Cliff Nielsen

Cover by Cliff Nielsen

3. More and more writers are open about being gamers, but you’ve never been shy about talking gaming. Is there still a danger of being “tainted” by association? And are there hidden or surprising benefits to gaming as a writer?

The other day, I realized that by my next birthday, I will have been gaming for two-thirds of my life… And it hasn’t been a casual hobby either. Except for a few breaks when moving between locations (and thus between groups) I’ve gamed the whole time. Right now I have a group that meets almost weekly, and I really look forward to Sunday evenings for that reason.

My first non-academic publications were gaming-related: two gaming scenarios for Call of Cthulu, published in Challenge Magazine. The second of these was badly messed-up in production, so I fear that any who tried to play it would have failed their Sanity roll at the outset.

I think that the danger of being negatively stigmatized for being a gamer is greatly reduced these days. I mean, when people realize that Hugo and Nebula award-winners like George R.R. Martin and Walter Jon Williams are gamers, it becomes really tough to justify equating gaming and poor writing.

Projects like the long-running Wild Card anthologies, and James S.A. Corey’s “Expanse” novels have their roots in games played by or designed by the authors. Neither of these are “game-related” but gaming had a positive influence on their development.

I think the benefits are myriad, especially for those of us who run games as well as just playing. When people ask me in what way a game is like a story, I explain that the Referee provides the setting—because even in those games set in an established gaming “world,” still the Ref is the one through whom the players “see” the setting. The Ref also provides most of the characters in the form of NPCs. The players provide the main characters. The Referee provides the start for the plot but—in a good game—the story’s plot is a result of collaboration between the Ref and the players.

4. What are some lessons writers can take from roleplaying games in handling magic and the supernatural? And/or what are some lessons one must never take from gaming?

Magic and the supernatural are a bit separate in my mind, so I’ll deal with them that way.

Despite reviewers who seem to frown at such, traditional magic is more often than not tied to a system of some sort. I wrote a long piece about this called “System = Unmagical” for Tor.com, that I revised for my own blog in March 2013 and included in my book Wanderings on Writing, so I’ll spare you why the “numinous” magics so beloved of critics are actually less “realistic” than magic systems that use spell components, gestures, and the like.

That said, a writer can’t simply tag a spell by its game name and leave it at that. One thing I’ve found amusing when reading Pathfinder novels is how often I can tell precisely what spell is being described—and I haven’t played any version of D&D for over twenty years! A creative description of a spell effect is great, but just saying “Chromatic Orb” or “Spider Climb” is pretty clumsy.

The supernatural is another thing entirely. Gaming universes often mix up elements that came originally from numerous sources—fictional, legendary, mythological, historical, even movies and TV—with no attempt to justify why, say, a creature from continental India would be in the same area as European-style werewolves. In the gaming context, that’s fine, because that’s the fabric of the universe.

However, when writing fiction not set in that sort of universe, a writer must be careful to understand where various supernatural elements originated. A Norse elf and an Irish elf have element in common, but they are different creatures—despite the contact between the cultures. The same is true of a host of other creatures.

The same story that might delight a gaming audience can seem a ludicrous mishmash in another context—and consequently subject to rejection from non-gaming publishing houses.

Coincidence is another thing to watch out for. Gamers are accustomed to how the dice shape the story, but the chance success of a one-in-a-million hit or an out-sized spell effect even if “It really happened that way, honest!” can make for a weak story, especially if the plot relies on repeated “good die rolls.”

5. You and I, and a great many other writers, have an obvious affinity for wolves. What is it about those animals that remains so romantic in our imaginations?

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I apparently imprinted on wolves at a very young age. One of my favorite imaginary characters had a wolf companion. When I’d speak about my enthusiasm for wolves, I was always told “Oh, you wouldn’t like real wolves,” but, in fact, I do.

Over the years, I’ve learned a considerable amount about wolves. What I’ve learned has not diminished my enthusiasm for them, but rather caused it to grow. I’ve even had a wolf in sit in my lap, been licked on the face by several, and the like…

This doesn’t mean I don’t acknowledge that wolves can be dangerous. I try to get out the word that wolves are not meant to be house pets. I do what I can to support the mission of Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary here in New Mexico, which provides homes for wolves and wolf-hybrids who have been unfortunate enough to be victims to humans on a power trip.

Wolves are not monsters—not werewolves or Pathfinder’s “winter wolves” or anything of the sort. However, they’re not Firekeeper’s “Royal Wolves” either. They’re creatures who deserve to be respected for what they are.

 

Watch for Jane’s latest at her website.

 

 

Pure Speculation Festival

The most exciting aspect of this year’s Pure Speculation Festival is that it’s safely nestled in October, when we seldom experience a monster blizzard. The weather forecast suggests a cool and cloudy weekend, perfect for staying indoors, taking in some panels, and hanging out with your fellow geeks.

If you’re in the area, I hope our paths cross this weekend. I’ll probably show up for the pre-Festival mixer on Friday evening and maybe to the party on Saturday evening. Otherwise, it’s panels, a game, and a Blue Pencil Massacre.

SATURDAY, 23 OCTOBER
1:15 Stealing History (discussing both historical and fantasy fiction)
5:30 Ungodly Horror (discussing religion vs. Atheism in horror fiction)

SUNDAY, 24 OCTOBER
10:30 Call of Cthulhu for Beginners (create a character and play a classic scenario)
2:45 Funny Ha-Ha (discussing humor in fiction)
4:15 Blue Pencil Cafe Massacre (bring me a few pages of your current work, and I’ll crush your hopes and dreams… or possibly offer advice and encouragement)