Creative Colleagues: Mike Selinker

Mike Selinker

Mike Selinker

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.

I first met Mike Selinker when he was wrangling volunteers for a convention, and I was on an embassy to smooth over some friction between RPGA contributors and the staff I’d just joined. It was a high-stress environment for everyone, not entirely conducive to the the best of first impressions. Fortunately, Mike’s charming wife, Evon, later went out of her way to offer me a home-made sandwich while I was running a game. Home-made sandwiches smooth over all manner of false starts.

A few years later, after I’d moved from Lake Geneva to Seattle, where Mike was already working for Wizards of the Coast, I’d got to know him better through a few social occasions but mostly through his design work, which I admired. I wanted his crossword puzzles in Dragon magazine, and he agreed to sell me some. That’s when we became actual colleagues. Since then, my respect for his work has only grown.

Mike and his team at Lone Shark Games made a huge splash with the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game a little while back, and now they’re launching their own game, Apocrypha, via a Kickstarter campaign.

1. For the lay-gamer, what’s the essential difference between a puzzle and a game? And what are some of the different design challenges of each form?

My definition, after years of trying to figure that out, is this:

A game is an activity where, if fairly constructed, two sides given the same advantages will have a roughly equal chance to win. A puzzle is an activity where, if fairly constructed, one side will have all the advantages, except that the disadvantaged side is expected to win.

I speak a lot on this subject here.

They are quite different to design for, of course. But I think they have very strong similarities. You are always aiming for elegance, interactivity, and the spark of brilliance. You get those three, you’ve got something great.

2. What’s so compelling about apocalyptic settings? Do they work better when they are linked to the dominant religion of the target audience? That is, is the Exorcist creepier than horror stories based on non-Judeo-Christian lore?

Apocalypses themselves are boring to me. The time right before the apocalypse, though, that’s the gold mine. When we are at a point of tension, where we don’t know what our way of life will become, that’s where the good stories come.

The religious aspect is interesting to me. There’s a little bit of “write what you know,” and because I know that stuff, it’s easy for me to write about it. It’s easy to wreck something that you understand.

But it’s also hardwired into the Christian culture. We have a lot of people who seem like they wouldn’t mind if the Book of Revelation showed up tomorrow with all its dragons and trumpets. Me, not so much. But boy, is it fun to write about.

That said, when there’s a set-up you give me, and you’ve spent two thousand years working on it, you shouldn’t be surprised when I leap on it and twist it to my purposes.

Art by Matthew Stewart.

Art by Matthew Stewart.

3. What are some of the differences between the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game and Apocrypha? And how do those differences reflect the difference in setting, tone, and atmosphere?

They’re siblings. They don’t talk a lot, and one of them moved into the creepy shack behind the Piggly Wiggly, but they definitely share the same DNA. You build a character, it improves over dozens of games, you beat scenarios, you get new stuff. But they depart from each other from there. Character growth through memories is a whole lot different than character growth through “level progression.” Pathfinder is linear, and Apocrypha is nonlinear (and occasionally non-Euclidean). In Pathfinder, exploration is easy and helping is restricted; in Apocrypha, investigation is restricted and helping is easy. All of that comes from the setting and atmosphere: In Pathfinder, we want you to feel like you’re in charge of the world; in Apocrypha, we want you to feel like the world is closing in on you.

4. You’re immersed not only in games but in geek culture. What are some of the most interesting overlaps you’ve found between games, fiction, music, television, and other geek media?

Somehow, I became the w00tstock Generation’s board game designer of choice. My games aren’t notably better than those of my friends, but I fit into that world really well. So I hang out with famous authors and geek musicians and TV writers and comedians, all of whom share a love of the same things I love. And when one of us has a crazy project, all of us get involved in that thing in some way or another. That’s why, at Emerald City Comic Con, I didn’t share a booth with another game company; I shared a booth with artist Patrick Race and musicians Molly Lewis and Marian Call. When you look at all the projects all these people do, we are kind of a traveling freak show, and you never know who’s going to show up.

5. Puzzles and games depend on rules, while many aspects of creative art seem to defy or at least resist such restrictions. How does the friction between structure and imaginative freedom hinder a creative work? How does it improve it?

I am a creator of boxes. To get through the day—to actually make anything at all—I have to close off some avenues of creativity and try to define what it is I’m making. But I can’t do it in such a way that limits the possibilities of the work I’m creating. So I start by making a box that is probably impossible to fill. And along the way I find the challenges of filling that box, and come up with solutions that fill it and expand it and change it from square to round. So while some people will say “Think outside the box!” I instead say “Make your own box!”

Also, I pay really creative people to figure out how to do the things I think are impossible. They usually wrack their brains to come up with something amazing, and then I say, “See, I knew it was possible all along!”

Keep an eye on Lone Shark Games at their website or on Twitter. Mike’s also on Twitter.

And don’t forget to check out the Apocrypha Kickstarter.

Creative Colleagues: Keith Baker

Keith Baker

Keith Baker

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.

While I knew him by reputation, I first met Keith Baker at the Calgary Comics & Entertainment Expo, where we indulged in that hoariest of author traditions and traded our novels. You may know him as the creator of the Eberron setting or the deliciously wicked Gloom card game. At the time of this post, he’s minding a Kickstarter campaign for the Phoenix: Dawn Command card-based roleplaying game, which I just noticed is now a Kickstarter Staff Pick!

When he’s not designing games or writing fiction, Keith walks the earth like Caine from Kung Fu, running games for the common people everywhere.

1. All roleplaying games have an element of story, and you’re a novelist as well as a game designer. In what ways do you approach story differently in prose fiction compared with a roleplaying game? And how about a card game? And other sorts of games? 

My favorite thing about RPGs is that they allow collaborative storytelling. When I write a novel, it is inherently my story. When I run a session of an RPG, it’s something that I am creating with a group of people. When I traveled the world in 2009, I ran a particular D&D scenario 59 times. No session played exactly the same, and it was always fun for me to see the new approaches and ideas that each group brought to the table. It also lets you tailor elements to the individual group—what do they care about? What frightens them? This is also what I enjoy about my card game Gloom. Storytelling isn’t required, but the game provides a framework that helps inspire stories, and the things that people come up with are my favorite aspect of playing the game. My current project Phoenix draws on both of these aspects—calling on the players to collaborate in the story, and providing lots of optional hooks for to inspire storytelling.

2. Tell us more about how death strengthens and defines the characters in Phoenix: Dawn Command? What inspired you to use death as such an integral element of the game’s story?

The defining element of the heroes of Phoenix: Dawn Command is the ability to return from death stronger than before. You don’t gain power by killing others; instead, you advance by dying and learning lessons from each life and death. Mechanically this is represented by adding cards to your deck—gaining new ongoing and short-term abilities, along with additional health and mystical energy.

However, there’s a few restrictions. You can only come back seven times. You don’t come back right away. Each time you die you become stronger, but you’re also getting closer to the end. In addition, the abilities you gain are based on the reasons for your death. We have six Schools in Phoenix, each of which have certain powers and each of which is tied to a different sort of death. If you died because you weren’t tough enough, you will learn Durant lessons—abilities that help with survival. If you died sacrificing yourself for others, you can gain Devoted powers that help you strengthen others in the future. And so on. So it’s not just a power bump; it’s about thinking of what brought you to death and what you’re taking away from it, which helps create a sense of character evolution.

Why death? In part it’s tied to the setting of the game. Phoenix takes place in a world that’s been fighting a losing struggle against a host of supernatural horrors. At the start of the game, even the true nature of the threat remains a mystery; one of the most important things players can do is to learn why these attacks are happening. As a result, you are regularly placed in situations where the odds are stacked against you and where success of the mission is more important than your own personal survival. It’s a setting that frequently calls for heroic sacrifice, but in most games choosing to die simply isn’t an option. In Phoenix there are consequences for death: again, you have a limited number of lives, you don’t come back right away or where you died, and most missions are time-sensitive and there will be consequences if the entire team falls. It’s not a trivial thing, but it’s a setting where sacrifices have to be made and a system where you can make those sacrifices without its being the end of your story.


Cover by Veronica Ewing.

3. Phoenix: Dawn Command is a roleplaying game that uses cards instead of the traditional dice. What advantages do cards offer this particular game? 

The most immediate effect is that cards offer the players a greater degree of narrative control. In a dice-based system I can see a demon, make a dramatic heartfelt speech, use my biggest attack… and then roll a one. In Phoenix, I can look at my hand and tell if I have the cards I need to make that attack successful… and if not, what I’d have to sacrifice to push myself beyond my normal limits. Card draw is random, and I may simply not have what I need to succeed in a particular moment. But if that’s the case I know that, and it becomes a question of how I can contribute with the cards I do have.

Essentially, this is a game where you may be laying down your life to make a last stand… but at least you have a sense of exactly what you can accomplish with that sacrifice instead of having that be entirely up to chance.

4. Now that you’re in the thick of a Kickstarter campaign, what has surprised you about it in either a good or a bad way? Does the platform aid your creative process (with backer feedback) or drain it (by making you act more like a business manager)?

The actual act of running the Kickstarter—handling day-to-day questions and communications—isn’t that bad. But frankly, I’d never have done this on my own precisely because of the amount of business management that’s involved around the Kickstarter. Getting quotes from printers. Figuring out domestic and international fulfillment. Warehousing. Distribution beyond the Kickstarter. I love writing and designing games, but this isn’t my strength. Luckily, I have a business partner who’s on top of all of those things and gives me confidence in our plans. But it’s not something I’d going into casually. Money can solve these problems—there are people you can pay to do all of these things—but it’s important to realize that there’s far more to a successful Kickstarter than just having a good idea for a game.

5. Many gamers and game masters are storytellers, but not all end up producing fiction, games, or comics themselves. Where’s the bridge that leads from gaming as a hobby to designing or writing professionally? Are the tools different? Is it a matter of butt-in-chair? Is it a question of talent?

One of the big questions is the motivation for making the leap. For many people, the best part about gaming is creating a story with friends. When I was running games around the world, one of my hosts described it as creating a “personal mythology”—stories that bound his friends together, but had no real meaning for anyone else. It’s much harder to create a product that anyone will like than to come up with a story that you know your personal friends will enjoy. Beyond that, it’s the same as any other sort of writing: starting with a good idea, having the discipline to see it through, and being prepared to deal with rejection or the need to make changes to meet the needs of the final audience.

So if there’s a gaming group that’s been creating amazing stories and having a fantastic time for a decade, I don’t consider them failures for not taking those tales to a wider audience!


Keep tabs on Keith’s latest projects at his website or on Twitter.

Creative Colleagues: Andrew Foley

Andrew Foley

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.

Andrew Foley scared me when we first met.

One look at his scowling visage across the “land yacht” we took from Edmonton to San Diego, and I knew he was full of grumps. Thus I gave him a wide berth on the way south. But then there was a Comic-Con miracle! The show cheered him up so much that he was not only approachable but actually fun and interesting on the way back, and so we got to know him and his lovely bride.

Since then, Andrew and Tiina have become occasional guests at our movie nights and geek parties. Andrew always shows up looking grim and forbidding as Mr. Hyde, but the moment he starts talking to people, the good doctor returns.

When I had to make a choice between continuing to work on Baldur’s Gate or writing a novel or two every year, it was Andrew I introduced to the boss as a prospective replacement. Since he took over, he’s managed to shame my productivity by not only keeping up with the day job but also continuing to write screenplays on the side.

Along with SG Wong, Axel Howerton, and Margaret Curelas, Andrew joins me for the Writing 101 panels at the Calgary Comics and Entertainment Expo this weekend. Visit us if you’re there.

1. As a writer of prose fiction, screenplays, comics, and video games, what’s one thing that each of those media does better than the other? And can you think of a time you took a lesson from one medium and applied it to another?

Prose lets you explore characters in a way other media can’t, from the inside out. You can delve into their interior lives with a specificity you won’t get in primarily visual media, without the word count limitations you’d encounter in comics or most video games, at least the mainstream ones.

Comics are unique in the way they allow creators to juxtapose and integrate images and text. Lots of video games have image and text, but for the most part the text’s purpose as a visual element is primarily utilitarian, and the images are dynamic and directly affected by each player’s actions, so combining just the right phrase with just the right image is hard to manage without removing the interactive quality that makes games games. Even in those instances that allow game designers to match word and picture precisely, text is usually going to be constrained within the limits of the user interface, rather than an integrated part of a specific image’s design.

Movies and TV shows have a huge advantage in terms of focusing viewers’ attention where the creators want it—you can’t get a jump scare out of prose or comics.

Games allow the player to participate in and guide the narrative to a degree the other media mentioned don’t. It could be argued that every individual audience member has a unique experience interacting with a given work, but traditional narrative media generally tell stories to passive audiences rather than cooperatively creating a story with an active one.

As for lessons taken from one medium to another, off the top of my head I can’t think of a time I took something and applied it, at least not in a way that got the best result possible. There’s a basic skill set that’s applicable across the board, but I’ve found the requirements of each medium are so specific that applying techniques that work in one to another is a risky business.

For instance, when I write screenplays or comic scripts, characters’ dialogue is constantly getting cut off by other characters. That works fine in those media. When I started in video games, I wrote dialogue much the same way. But having someone read half a sentence, then read and choose from three options for what their character says that interrupts that sentence before it’s finished requires some mental gymnastics and more good will than I’m comfortable asking a player for. A writer can’t build up a rhythm of dialogue in video games the way they can in media where one line is automatically followed by another. Even when a non-player character interrupts another NPC, outside of cut-scenes, Baldur’s Gate players generally have to actively choose to receive the next line. No actor is going to come in and cut it off mid-sentence; it’s not even in the next word balloon, which visually ties the first line and the response/interruption together. It’s on a whole other screen, completely in the player’s control, completely out of mine.

Realizing that kind of back and forth wasn’t going to work in the context of the game I was writing was extremely jarring. So was realizing that including specific angles for every shot wasn’t going to fly in a commercial screenplay the way it could in a comic script, because it’s the director’s job to figure out how to shoot a scene, not the screenwriter’s. And that I couldn’t have a 300-word inner monologue delving into a character’s thought processes in a comic like I could in a novel, because the physical space on a comics page couldn’t accommodate that. And that a sight gag that would work on screen wasn’t going to be funny if the only thing I had to convey it with was text. The degree to which things don’t carry over from medium to medium is a lesson I’m constantly learning.

2. Also, as a writer of both original and tie-in work, how does the “blank page” of the former compare with the “giant story bible” of the latter? Are there ways in which tie-in work challenges you more or differently than your original work? And of course vice versa.

The challenge of giant story bible work is producing something you’re happy with that’s recognizably part of the franchise you’re working on. People come to the Baldur’s Gate games looking for all sorts of things, but “something written by Andrew Foley” isn’t one of them. The job is to create work that fits as seamlessly into the established material as possible, and that’s usually going to mean modifying your authorial voice to some extent.

On the upside, you have access to a lot of resources you wouldn’t if you were starting from scratch. If you’re generating stories, you’ve got a wealth of material to pull ideas from. You don’t need to work out who runs the thieves guild or who’s on the Council of Four, that stuff is already there. I find it much, much easier to write dialogue for characters whose voices I can actually hear. Every time I’m going to write material for Viconia or Edwin or whoever, the first thing I do is listen to the characters’ sound sets. That’s a huge asset.

At least it is when it’s not a huge pain in the ass. You don’t end up in hour-long arguments over whether a character would ever use the word “depravity” when you created the character. I’ve had that exact argument in regards to Minsc in Baldur’s Gate (I lost because I was arguing with my boss, but in my head I can literally hear Minsc’s voice actor Jim Cummings delivering that specific line.) And the same material that provides so many ideas can also strangle stories if you’re careless and do something like, say, build a plot around a dual-classed cleric-magic user dwarf, for instance. I’m still kicking myself over that one.

The other thing you usually have in a tie-in situation is other people. I’m not a great self-starter. I’ll always produce faster if someone else gives me a deadline. And if I’m drawing a complete blank, having someone there to get the ball rolling is invaluable. When I’m generating material on my own, there’s usually several hours to several days of me mashing my head into my monitor before I finally hook into something that gets me moving. The difference between having a blank page and having a page with “Giants” written on it can be immense, especially when I never in a million years would’ve come up with giants on my own.

One other thing that might be worth mentioning: for me, the blank page and story bible divide hasn’t fallen along the same line as original and tie-in work. I’ve probably done as much or more work on unestablished franchises, where I’m contributing elements to what will eventually become the story bible down the line, than I have on properties that already have an established canon and fan-base. Original and unestablished franchise work have more in common with each other than established tie-in stuff—the big difference between them is I own more of one and get paid way more up-front for the other.

3. Like many of our friends and colleagues, you’re no stranger to horror, humor, or mixing the two. For instance, I know you’re not keen to write the romance story lines for video-game characters. When have you had to write a kind of story—romance, historical, Western, or whatever—that you just didn’t want to, and how did that crush or strengthen you in the end?

Before the torch-wielding mobs show up at my door, it’s not that I don’t want to write romance story lines for video games. My concern is their comparative relevance to the story—I’ve got similar issues with Hollywood’s tendency to jam romance elements into films whether the films’ story requires or justifies them or not (I’m picking on films specifically because they’ve got a tighter time frame to work with than television, so pieces that don’t contribute to the narrative whole tend to be more obvious and problematic than they might be over the course of a 10+ hour television season.)

In traditional narrative media, you have a greater control over the story, so there are opportunities to make a romance integral to the story, tie it in thematically, and generally justify its inclusion. For adventure-oriented video-games (which are the only kind I’ve written so far), romances are optional elements. Players can choose romance story lines with a variety of different characters, or ignore them altogether. Making romances meaningful to the narrative under those conditions is very difficult.

Finally, most romance story lines end with someone saying “I love you” and meaning it. That’s a huge thing in my world. The story has to earn it; if I don’t think it does, it bothers me. I don’t want to present something to an audience that would bother me if I was a member of that audience.

Having said all that, it’s clear a substantial percentage of players like having romance options—they like it a lot. And, despite what a few people online seem to believe, I honestly would prefer people enjoy the games I work on. I can’t see multiple optional romance storylines not being a part of any game I’m likely to work on in the foreseeable future. They’re an element of game design (and frequently movie screenwriting) I’ll admit I struggle with, but if it improves player enjoyment, it’s worth the effort.

I should also point out that when it comes to my video game work, I’ve been fortunate to work with people who are very passionate about the romances, specifically Amber Scott and Liam Esler. Liam contributed greatly to the Baldur’s Gate II: Enhanced Edition romances and Amber’s done the majority of the heavy lifting on the romance front (and a multitude of others) in what I’m still only allowed to refer to as “Adventure Y.” They’ve both made me a better writer in general and a better video game writer in specific.

4. What genres challenge you? What does trying them teach you?

Genre-wise, the most difficult things for me to write involve heavy research, especially of subjects I’m not interested in (which is most subjects—I’m a woefully underdeveloped person when it comes to almost anything that extends beyond writing or art.) Anything with a major historical element and hard science fiction are the ones that scare me the most. Whenever I find myself in those areas I feel like I’ve got a target on my back, I’m just waiting for someone to pop up and tell me how I got it all wrong. And once I do start researching, it’s way too easy to get lost in minutiae. From a strict cost/benefit perspective, working with worlds I either understand or invent is the smart play, at least until I run out of story ideas for those worlds or someone shows up offering a paycheck.

I’ve always maintained that it’s better to be writing anything than painting condos, which is the only other job I’ve ever been remotely qualified to do. Left to my own devices, there are subjects and genres I naturally gravitate toward, but there’s very little I’d say I actively don’t want to write. Even stuff that isn’t “me” I can enjoy as a challenge, if nothing else. The bigger considerations are what work will get the mortgage paid faster and how much time I can reasonably commit to something. I’m in a position where I’m not just able to say no to a project, but just plain can’t say yes to a lot of them. I’m incredibly fortunate, but I still feel bad having to turn stuff down. I want to write it all, but there’s only so many hours in the day.

So writing something I don’t want to, if that’s even possible, isn’t the worst thing in the world. It’s writing something that ends up not working that hurts. I sincerely believe everyone involved in the Cowboys & Aliens comic wanted to make something good. Everyone did the best they could inside the specific set of circumstances under which it was created. The result was… less than satisfactory, I suspect for everyone involved, certainly for me. That was disappointing. C&A went on to sell more copies than my other comics, Parting Ways, Done to Death, and The Holiday Men put together. That was crushing. I spent a couple years living in terror that it’d be the thing for which I was best known for the rest of my life. That may still turn out to be the case, but at least I get the satisfaction of knowing more people have played Baldur’s Gate II: Enhanced Edition, even if they don’t know who I am or what I did on it. I’ll feel even better when they can finally play Adventure Y.

5. Working in predominantly dialogue-based media, you have a lot of practice in creating different voices for your characters. What are a few simple techniques for doing that?

I’ll usually approach dialogue in one of two ways. The first and easiest way to go is to just cast the characters. They’ll start off in my head with the voices of friends or specific actors and as the story tightens up, they usually develop into their own thing. When things are going well, writing dialogue is more like transcription than creation–I can literally hear the characters talking to each other.

Things don’t always go well, though. I try to get characters talking and all I “hear” is silence. When that happens, I have to do things the hard way. I’ll figure out the purpose of a scene (if I haven’t already–I’m big on outlining so that’s fairly rare) and write the lines without any attempt to convey character at all. There’s no subtext, everyone just says exactly what they mean, which almost never happens in reality unless the speaker’s really comfortable or really angry.

When that’s done, I go through and start figuring out how the specific characters would try to communicate each line. With each line, you start having to answer questions about the character saying them. How important is it to them that this idea be understood? Will they be direct or subtle in conveying it? Will they let it go if they don’t think they’re being understood or will they hammer away at it until the other person gets it? What a character isn’t willing to say gives the writer as much insight into their personality as what they do. Each line becomes a building block, and eventually they add up to a character.

One thing I don’t do so much these days is create extensive back stories for characters. That was something I picked up from pen and paper roleplaying games, and it does help develop distinctive voices. But it’s labor intensive and for me there’s a real danger of missing the forest for the trees. I eventually figured out that I was coming up with a lot of cool stuff nobody would ever get to see because it wasn’t relevant to the story I was telling. These days, unless circumstances demand the creation of a detailed bio (they often do in video games, and it’s pretty standard in TV too), I’m fairly comfortable starting off with not much more than an idea of who a character is right now. The specifics of how they got this way I prefer to discover through dialogue as much as possible. It keeps things fresh for me and keeps the focus on the story the audience is actually going to get to experience.

Observe Andrew from a safe distance at his Tumblr.

Pathfinder Tales Book Club

Check out the Pathfinder Tales Book club, a small but growing group of readers who’d welcome more voices as they discuss the novels. Lately they’ve covered Crusader Road, Death’s Heretic, and The Redemption Engine. They’re a clever lot with diverse tastes, so it makes for lively reading.

Now they’re deciding what to read next, and some of the titles mentioned include Chris A. Jackson’s Pirate’s Honor and Pirate’s Promise, as well as Elaine Cunningham’s Winter Witch, which I apparently aided by fetching her tea as she wrote, suggesting I am either a Time Lord or Kurt Wagner. (My money’s on the latter, since I live within driving distance of Banff!)

The more the merrier and, especially if you haven’t been on the Paizo boards before, I encourage you to register and get involved. It’s free, and you can easily opt out of the mailings.




Creative Colleagues: Robert J. Schwalb

Robert J. Schwalb

Robert J. Schwalb and familiar.

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.

Robert J. Schwalb is one of those Facebook friends I feel I know better than I actually do. We have never met, but we’ve worked with many of the same people, and by the way some of them clown around with him online, I get the feeling we’d get on like gangbusters. Also, once you see his head pasted on assorted bronies and unicorns, after a while you start to feel like he’s always nearby, waiting for his moment.

With games like A Song of Ice and Fire, Warhammer Fantasy, Numenera, Star Wars Saga edition, and several iterations of Dungeons & Dragons on his resume, Rob has become one of the grizzled veterans of game design in just over the past decade. Now it’s time for him to strike out on his own with a Kickstarter launching his Shadow of the Demon Lord horror-fantasy game, which after less than one day has already funded.

What creators of horror entertainment (movies, novels, comics, games, or anything else) most inspire the evil side of your imagination?

Gosh, there are so many influences, I really don’t know where to begin. Of all the mediums, films have had the most appeal to me. A film makes you a prisoner of the experience. You become trapped in the story until its conclusion, where a book is something you can put down, set aside until you’re ready to continue. Of course, 90 minutes of gripping weirdness is such a small time investment, I’m less inclined to stop it and do something else.

The best kinds of horror films are ones that present a familiar world and then, through the agency of the protagonists, demonstrate that world to be false, an illusion that conceals something far stranger, alien, and uncaring—cosmic horror. Some of my favorite films include In the Mouth of Madness, The Devil’s Backbone, Cemetery Man, The House of the Devil, Jug Face, Pontypool, and The Mist.

When it comes to books, I favor dark or weird fantasy such as Clark Ashton Smith, Machen, Howard, Lovecraft, Leiber, Moorcock, Gene Wolfe, Glen Cook, and Poul Anderson—specifically his excellent work, The Broken Blade. Right now, I have a major crush on Joe Abercrombie. I adore everything he’s written.

I also draw a lot of inspiration from music too. I listen to black metal and death metal while I work. Behemoth, Cannibal Corpse, Dark Fortress, Bolt Thrower, Rotting Christ provide the perfect soundtrack for the worlds and stories I create.

Combining horror and fantasy isn’t exactly a new idea. In fact, some might argue that the definition of horror—as opposed to the thriller or slasher genres—demands some element of the supernatural. Where do you draw the line on that definition?

I agree completely. Horror works well when it undermines what we believe to be true about the world and instills doubts by way of something outside the bounds of our experiences, whether the something is ghost, secret society, alien threat, or something else. For me, I’m interested in telling stories—or, rather, providing the tools for others to tell stories—that challenge what we think about the fantasy genre. The tabletop RPG hobby has a great many such games and settings. My favorite, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, I think did it best. D&D has flirted with the genre with Ravenloft and Dark Sun. FFG did Midnight. Dragon Age by Chris Pramas does a great job, as does Numenera by Monte Cook. You’ll find elements of all these games and others in my new tabletop RPG, Shadow of the Demon Lord.

My game focuses on the apocalypse, the end of all things, the unraveling of the shared universe brought about by a cosmic threat whose approach has spawned all the horrible things that run around and make life in the world’s final moments difficult, if not impossible, to live.

Most settings put the big, sexy cataclysmic event in the past or the far future. It’s something that has already happened and the PCs find themselves stomping around the aftermath. Or, the big event is the capstone for a grand campaign, a big menacing threat that will shape how the story evolves. With the former, all the really interesting stuff has already happened. In the latter, the end is so distant, few gaming groups can stay together long enough to ever reach the end. Rather than put off what I feel are the best parts of a fantasy RPG to conclusion that most likely will never be realized at the table, I made the apocalyptic, cataclysmic event the backdrop for the game.

The game posits that the apocalypse is happening or will happen. There’s no way around it, no matter how many golden rings get dropped into the volcano. The Demon Lord approaches and the world will die. What will you do in the world’s final days, months, or years? Will you struggle to survive? Will you search for a way to escape? Or will you surrender to the inevitability?

The game allows groups to decide what apocalyptic event threatens their world. Is it a zombie apocalypse, a global pandemic, corruption of magic, nature out of control, some elder god emerging from the ocean to Godzilla stomp all over civilization? You can choose any of these options and use them to shape the stories you tell. This might be a campaign-defining event, something that might evolve into another threat, or may be something that lurks in the background.

The Sanity rules in Call of Cthulhu are the most famous mechanic for representing horror in a roleplaying game, but there are many others. Have some of them inspired your design on Shadow of the Demon Lord? Have you added anything new in terms of game systems?

Yes, very much so. Shadow of the Demon Lord uses insanity and corruption to simulate what happens when characters encounter the awful and do awful things.

Characters may gain insanity when they see or experience something that strains the way they understand the world or something that harms them in a way that’s difficult to accept. Coming back from the dead, suffering a grievous wound, seeing a loved one brutally killed can all inflict insanity. Seeing a 30-foot tall corpulent demon riddled with drooling maws from which spill slime covered fleshy monstrosities as it waddles across the countryside might also shatter a character’s mind.

Gaining insanity normally causes a character to become frightened for a few rounds. (Frightened is an affliction that makes it harder to do things in the game.) Insanity, once gained, sticks around. Players may spend insanity to buy roleplaying traits—a drinking problem, facial tic, nightmares, and so on. If the player doesn’t buy RP traits, the character is at risk of going mad when he or she reaches maximum insanity. Going mad takes control of the character out of the player’s hands for a bit and can have some nasty and surprising consequences.

Corruption functions as a control mechanism for curbing excess in the game. Shadow of the Demon Lord is an amoral game. There is no such thing as good or evil. Players can play their characters in whatever way makes sense for their individual stories. Some actions and activities have lasting consequences. Murder in cold blood, torturing the innocent, learning Black Magic or Demonology spells can leave stains on the character’s soul. Corruption measures the degree to which a character’s soul is stained. A few points has little affect on a character, but accumulating several may cause some interesting developments to occur in the game. For example, a character with a handful of Corruption points might cause children in his or her presence to cry, animals to attack, food to spoil, and shadows to writhe. A character that gains Corruption from certain sources might suffer other effects. One of my favorites is from the Black Magic tradition. If you learn too many Black Magic spells your character might become so corrupted that once each week a child within 8 miles of the character simply dies.

Cover by Svetoslav Petrov.

Cover by Svetoslav Petrov.

The game designer is important, but I think we’d agree that the Game Master is at least as important, especially in a horror setting. What does a great horror GM do to elevate the material and genuinely terrify the players?

The cheap answer is to drop the “more art than science” cliché, but everyone knows this one. Instead, here are some of the tricks I use.

I reveal the elements of horror through the player characters’ actions. I let their inquiries, decisions, and explorations uncover the terrifying rather than beat them about the head and shoulders with gross-out descriptions.

I also seed horrific elements in unexpected places. The farmer the PCs help secretly keeps five dead halflings strung up in his barn. The priest has an extra mouth in his armpit that whispers vile things to him when he sleeps.

There’s also a balancing act you have to play as a GM between scaring the players and scaring the characters. Good roleplayers can play through scary and uncomfortable scenes as they would any other scene. Others, especially those more focused on the game’s mechanics, need to be nudged. I think it’s good for the story when you use opponents that are beyond the characters’ capabilities, environments that pose lethal threats, and introduce dangers that can alter how characters behaves in the game. Of course, I use these elements sparingly to make sure they pack a punch. In small doses, they work well. In large doses, they can be game killers.

Last, humor is critical. We play games, even horror games, for fun. Some of my most hilarious memories come from playing Call of Cthulhu. Laughter defuses the tension long enough to let you build it back up again.

Most fantasy games feature powerful heroes who overcome the enemy by force of arms and magic. Yet instilling horror in players is easiest when they feel their characters are vulnerable. How do you juggle those seemingly contradictory states?

This issue was the hardest one for me to overcome with Shadow of the Demon Lord. Everything I said above helps, but beyond those tips, I find horror works well when the players find their characters faced with no good options, when any decision they might make has nasty, sad, or disturbing consequence.

Back when I was working on 4th Edition sourcebooks for Wizards of the Coast, one of the last traps I built was an update to an older magic item—the mirror of life trapping. The original item, usable only by magic-users, would draw a creature into its surface. The item’s owner could call forth the image of the trapped individual or cause it to recede into the mirror’s surface. I love this item.

Characters in 4th Edition are hard to hurt, harder to kill, and almost impossible to scare. The game system insulates characters against death and even grants them the ability to overcome it on their own at the highest levels of game play. Love it or hate it, that’s the nature of the game. My mission for the 4E Book of Vile Darkness, the book in which my take on the mirror appears, was to create elements that could cause lasting harm to characters, to genuinely threaten them in ways the game hadn’t allowed before. Enter the mirror of life trapping.

The mirror attacks any sighted creature that starts its turn next to it and can see its reflection on its surface. If the attack hits, the mirror removes the creature from play. If there is already a creature inside the mirror when the trap is triggered, the new creature replaces the old one. If you break the mirror, you kill the creature inside it. Here’s how it might play out:

Fritz the Warrior and his companions explore an old mansion in a city. Fritz happens to see the mirror and looks at his reflection. The mirror attacks, hits, and draws Fritz inside the surface. Fritz can’t leave the mirror until someone else takes a look and becomes trapped in his place. What does the party do? Who do they doom to spend eternity inside the mirror? Whose life is worth more than Fritz’s? Of course, the PCs might find some “evil humanoid” to take his place, but what if they are under pressure? Do they sacrifice an innocent to the mirror to free their friend?

While not the most horrific thing in the world, the trap creates a difficult moral choice for the characters, an interesting and uncomfortable roleplaying predicament the characters must find some way to overcome while being true to the personas they adopt in the game. Fun stuff.

Check out the Shadow of the Demon Lord Kickstarter campaign and maybe help knock down some of those crazy stretch goals. You can also find Rob at his website. 

Speaking of Call of Cthulhu…

I agree with those who think it’s a mistake to play that game with miniatures, because the imagination is so powerful in interpreting “ineffable” horrors. However, I adore 1920s-era miniatures, especially those by the genius Bob Murch, who sculpted many of the classic RAFM figures and also his own line of Pulp-era minis. I have loads of Bob’s and other sculptors’s minis yet to paint, but once I’ve finished a hundred or so, I’ll be ready to jump back into Horror on the Orient Express and Masks of Nyarlathotep, two of my favorite roleplaying campaigns that I’ve never actually played to completion.

Do you play CoC with or without miniatures? What’s your opinion on using them without diminishing the power of imagining creatures and scenes that are best not reduced to game tokens?