Hillfolk Bundle of Holding

When I saw that Robin D. Laws was launching a new drama-based roleplaying game via Kickstarter, I was among the first to back it. Robin is one of those designers whose new games I always buy, knowing there’ll include some genius new angle on RPG mechanics.

Later, Robin flattered me by inviting me to write a series pitch to be included with the main book. My humble contribution is “Shakespeare, VA,” a sort of collision between Justified and Slings & Arrows by way of Twin Peaks. You’ll find many other series pitches from other authors in the core book and in the Blood on the Snow expansion. They cover an amazing variety of genres.

Now you can get PDFs of both books plus many cool supplements, including three tracks of music designed for the game, via the Hillfolk Bundle of Holding promotion. The sooner you buy in, the lower the threshold for adding the bonus titles. I’ve bought several Bundle of Holding deals in the past, and I’ve always been happy with both the content and the easy delivery. You’ve got until March 12 to snap it up.


Favorite Classic RPG Artists

Especially in the 80s and early 90s, roleplaying games had a distinctive look because of the relatively small pool of prolific artists bringing their worlds to life. Giants like Larry Elmore, Jeff Easley, and Clyde Caldwell defined certain facets of the D&D lines with their iconic covers. Other talented artists defined the looks of other games, so much so that you’d see their work and immediately think of the game.

Some of my favorites artists were better known for interior illustrations or magazine covers. For instance, I was always more interested in reading a module if it included Jeff Dee artwork. I particularly loved his incarnation of the Elric-mythos characters in the original Deities & Demigods (still one of my prized gaming possessions).

Another favorite is Den Beauvais, who created the most enduring and memorable Dragon magazine covers. One of the thrills of my freelancing career was seeing a few new Beauvais pieces added to the Forgotten Realms Spellfire set I designed, expecting the cards would include only existing artwork.

I couldn’t possibly list all of the artists whose work I loved during that period, but I’m delighted every time I see something new from them. Check out Scott Taylor’s site for more on another editor’s love of that era’s artwork.

Who are some of your favorite RPG artists whose work you’d like to see more often?

Creative Colleagues: Crystal Frasier

Crystal Frasier

Crystal Frasier Photo by Lauren Tozer-Kilts

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.

Crystal Frasier is one of those insufferably talented people who don’t limit themselves to one artistic pursuit. Her maps grace the interiors of Pathfinder Tales novels, her graphic design work has adorned many Pathfinder game products, she’s written several acclaimed adventures, and her illustrations are adorable enough to give you a toothache.

I would say that we’re friends, but she has never baked anything for me.

Her most recent publication is the high-level conclusion to the Iron Gods Adventure Path, The Divinity Drive. Anyone with fond memories of the classic D&D module Expedition to the Barrier Peaks should check it out.

1. While I tend to think of you first as an illustrator, you’re also a mapper, a game designer, a graphic designer, and—just tell us, what are your many other talents?

I don’t know if I’d call them “talents.” I’ve just lived an interesting life and try to pick up whatever useful knowledge I can every time I drop into a new situation. Learning how to draw, how to map, and how to design were all just skills I picked up because I either didn’t know or couldn’t afford other people with those skills—the same reason I can fix my own car, cook my own dinner, and possess a detailed knowledge of human anatomy.

I think the only really natural talent I have is a gift for baking and candy-making. My mother taught me to bake when I was still little, so it’s sort of a background life skill I always possessed. From there, candy-making is just wet baking; it uses the same chemistry and similar ingredients, just in different ways. My delicate sense of smell gives me a huge advantage and goes a long way to making baking intuitive; It’s easy to avoid a lot of cooking pitfalls when you can tell if a batter is too alkaline or acidic before popping it into the over.

2. As an outspoken feminist and proponent of transgender issues, you’ve considered the sexism and intolerance among gamers more deeply than most. Do you see things getting better? Worse? Is the vocal minority giving gamers a bad name, or is there something about our community that reinforces these attitudes? Are there things all gamers can do to speed the decline of harmful stereotypes and hateful behavior both in themselves and among their peers?

That’s a complicated question. I don’t think there’s anything inherent about gaming or gamers that makes us prone to intolerance or hate, but I think our brand of crusading anger comes from the hobby we love. The core problem I’ve seen is that most of gaming—and to a lesser extent media in general—pushes the idea of good versus bad, heroes versus villains, scrappy underdogs battling against looming powers. And until recently, “gamer” was synonymous with “outcast,” “nerd,” or “loser.” We were picked on or ignored or beaten up by the looming powers. We were the scrappy underdogs. We were the heroes. But now women and minorities are coming along and saying things like “games have a sexism problem” or “some games push racist attitudes.” These people are calling us the enemy. And we’re the heroes, so they must be the villains.

That’s obviously an oversimplification, but a lot of the defenses I’ve seen of online harassment—from Facebook arguments on up to Penny Arcade themselves—come around to the defense of “I can’t be racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic. I’m a nerd! I got picked on! These people are just making up accusations or being overly sensitive to hurt me because I’m a gamer.” Some people just hold onto this attitude and sulk, or just keep making the same sexist or racist jokes as a point of defiance, but a small minority build entire quests around attacking these perceived enemies. That’s when you see those horrific campaigns of doxing and harassment.

We are making a lot of progress, though, in terms of inclusion. I think most gamers realize and accept that we all have a little evil inside us that we need to be aware of. I see harassment online, but also genuine curiosity from people who want to learn. I remember a time when just being the girl in the gaming group meant sexual overtures from half the table every week, but now I sit down with new groups or organized play tables and see other women, a variety of races, and out queer people. That’s a lot of progress, and I think that rapid progress is why we’re seeing very vocal pushback recently, as a particular segment of gamers starts to feel uncomfortable or displaced.

If individual gamers want to help speed our community’s maturation, then celebrate diversity and try to avoid cheap jokes at the expense of others. Let your favorite publishers know that you like seeing variety in their products. Follow a few diversity-focus blogs like Sarah Darkmagic or Medieval People of Color—at least start you thinking about “facts” you always just assumed to be true. You shouldn’t read or follow uncritically, but it always helps to reference a perspective different from your own.

Cover by Wayne Reynolds

Cover by Wayne Reynolds

3. You’ve designed the concluding volume of the Iron Gods Adventure Path, which is about the scariest design challenge I can imagine. What challenges do you face with high-level scenarios? Or are you the opposite of me and prefer high-level design? If so, how come?

The Divinity Drive was the highest-level adventure I’ve ever written, and it was terrifying. Most of my home campaigns tend to wrap up around level 12 or 14, so writing an adventure for 15th and 16th level characters was a new challenge. In my home games, we take a lighter hand with the rules in high-level encounters, playing out a lot of combats narratively more than mechanically. Players work hard to get to that level of prestige after all, and want to feel like badasses who don’t wiff mooks on a natural 1. Obviously that approach doesn’t work with published adventures, which need to follow the rules as written.

My biggest challenge was just trying to anticipate what characters can or would do. PCs leap from 7th level spells to 8th-level spells in the gap, and gain access to game-changers like limited wish and antimagic field; planning for finds like that is hard, and challenging characters with that kind of power (without killing them outright) is daunting. So instead I tried to focus on making funny, interesting, or weird encounters, more so than truly deadly fights. Divinity Drive focuses on exploring a crashed alien spaceship, after all, so there were plenty of opportunities for “weird.” I basically threw a giant box of tools at the GM and just said “You deal with them!” Any GM who nurses their group along through 15 levels knows them far better than I ever could, so all I did was provide useful maps and stat blocks.

4. What are some ways in which your various creative outlets interact with each other? That is, are there ways in which your visual art influences or is influenced by your game design? Do you conceive of game scenarios in terms of location and the appearance of characters and monsters first before moving on to plot? Or does plot guide the visual aspects of design?

I’m a very visual person. I have trouble with a concept unless I see a graph or a portrait or a map, and that extends into my writing. I can’t write an adventure until I’ve built the maps for it, then naturally it makes sense that the bandit queen would put a trap here and keep her pet cockatrice there. I have a lot of trouble getting into a character’s head unless I sketch them first, or find at least find a portrait to reference; The Harrowing came so easily to me because Kyle Hunter’s beautiful artwork wrote most of the story for me, and most of my NPCs from Empty Graves were inspired by visuals in Miyazaki movies (especially Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, which I made my wife watch for the first time while writing it).

I see a lot of my encounters as “wouldn’t it be cool if…” first, and then try to reverse-engineer game mechanics from that, with a lot of help from my visual references.

5. You’ve been both a freelancer and a full-timer in the game industry. Freelancing would seem to be by far the more challenging, but does it come with its own rewards and liberations?

Freelancing has been wonderful! It’s a lot more work, but I only have to work on projects I’m genuinely excited about, and only work with people I like. Unfortunately, I like way too many amazing people, so I don’t get to work with everyone I’d like to.

Question of the Week: Best Game Session

Because I’ve been busy with other matters, I’ve neglected the Question of the Week. And while I’ve often favored writing and reading topics, this time it’s back to another of my great loves, tabletop roleplaying games.

What is your single best memory of a one-shot game that you never played again?

For me, the choice is easy.

Joining TSR in 1993, I expected to play more D&D than ever. Perversely, the opposite happened. I was so full of D&D (and several other popular RPGs) after editing for 10-12 hours most days and running RPGA games on weekends that the last thing I wanted in my free time was more of the same.

That wasn’t true at first, because I leapt at the chance to play games with my colleagues, including those whose work I’d admired for years. And I still kick myself that for personal-life reasons I begged off an invitation to play a Call of Cthulhu game run by Dave “Zeb” Cook in a freaking observatory.

Worst “selfless” decision ever.

Anyway, after a year or so, my default answer to “Wanna game?” was “I have to wash my hair.” The exception was when Lester Smith asked me to playtest game for his review column.

The reason Les’s games were an exception was that he always did a different game, the session started with his walking us through character creation, and—except for one unforgivable event that occurred in the TSR offices over lunch break—the game was always rewarding.

The one that stands above all others in my memory was a session of Don’t Look Back: Terror Is Never Far Behind. Lester ran it at my rental house in Delavan, a short drive from TSR’s offices in Lake Geneva. The other players were David Wise, Thomas Reid, and Ted Stark.

As usual, we began with Lester reciting the essential rule and walking us through character creation, which included all the famous archetypes of high-school. We each made our choices silently, but it wasn’t much surprise that two of us picked nerds and two picked bullies. I was the trailer-park thug, while Ted went for a jock. Thomas and David picked slightly different spins on the nerd, and I’m sorry to admit I can’t remember which of them went with an incarnation of Steve Urkel (I think Thomas), but he was the one I bonded with. The jock “adopted” the other nerd as his protection project, and with our combined brawn and brains, we went to investigate a haunted house.

Out of consideration for my fading memory, I’ll share only a few scattered images: a nerd kicking along a trail of his own urine while his video camera dangles between his legs, recording the horror that pursues him; a bully lighting his cigarette off the flaming face of a ghoul; “Downtown” Julie Brown getting punched out on live MTV when she annoys a survivor of the “event.”

I liked Don’t Look Back, including its at-first-glance lame (but in play rather fun) +/- system of d6 stats, and I ended up with a coverless review copy (after it had been mangled for our low-tech scanner), but I never played it again. In a way, that’s just as well, because I had so much fun that one night that I can’t imagine replicating the experience.

Now I’ve showed you mine. Time to show me yours.

What was your best one-and-only-night session of a TRPG? Give us some details.

Creative Colleagues: R.A. Salvatore

R.A. Salvatore

R.A. Salvatore

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

Few authors become famous for their tie-in fiction. Along with Margaret Weis, Tracy Hickman, and a scant few others, R.A. Salvatore is an exception. While he’s written original novels, tie-ins for Star Wars and Tarzan, as well as other characters in the Forgotten Realms, Bob remains best known for the dual-scimitar-wielding Drizzt Do’Urden.

1. In games, the roll of a die often determines success or failure. How do you instill a feeling of uncertainty in your characters’ actions without it seeming random, on one hand, or pre-ordained on the other?

Well, there’s the $64,000 question. Of course it’s pre-ordained, since I’m writing a book (sometimes I might get surprised, but rarely to the level where someone loses a fight he/she was supposed to win!). Again, this is a point where writing is x and gaming is y and never the twain shall meet. I certainly wouldn’t sit around rolling dice to determine the flow or outcome of a battle.

2. Your work first became popular while D&D was in its second full edition. Now that the game has launched its fifth and you can look back on the changes to the setting and the development of your characters, how do you see them relating? That is, have some changes in the rules—or in the Forgotten Realms setting—had a big effect on your characters’ arcs?

Actually, the first books came out under 1st Edition! The changes to the game have created a love/hate relationship. When they went to second, I got a call from the FR Coordinator, Jeff Grubb, asking me how I was going to kill Artemis Entreri, since all the assassins were going away with the edition change. We argued for about 20 minutes when Jeff put his foot down and said that all the assassins had to go and if I didn’t do it, they would have to. So I told him that Entreri wasn’t an assassin, but a fighter-thief who takes money to kill people. Jeff thought it over for a moment, then agreed. And that’s the gist of my relationship between the writing and the game over the last quarter-century, where I’m constantly lurking in shadows and playing semantic games to keep my story flow as honest to the story itself as possible.

I mean, obviously jumping a world’s timeline 100 years is going to cause issues with a human character, since 140-year-old humans don’t fight very well.

3. At a writers’ group meeting, one of my TSR colleagues said that what he most wished for as a writer was to have one of his characters become iconic, like Burroughs’ Tarzan. As one who’s enjoyed exactly that sort of success, do you think it’s a good thing to wish for? Is it everything one might hope, or is there a Monkey’s Paw side to the phenomenon? Does the popularity of Drizzt have a downside?

It’s an amazing thing on so many levels that the downside is buried. Because of Drizzt, my work gets allowed into the lives of others, and that’s an amazing blessing. Let’s be honest, it also keeps me employed doing something I love with a character who has become more of a friend than words on a page.

The downside, of course, is that when an author has a successful series (much like a TV actor), he/she becomes locked in place in the minds of many readers. There’s a reason Robert Jordan stayed with Wheel of Time until he death, and it’s the same reason JK Rowling’s non-Harry Potter book didn’t perform as expected. The reality is simple: go away from your main series and you’ll have to pull readers along by the nose. I consider my DemonWars novels as good as anything I’ve written—in many ways better, honestly—but they remain under the long shadow cast by Drizzt. Even within the Realms, convincing Wizards of the Coast to let me do a novel that doesn’t feature Drizzt is a difficult fight.

4. You’re such a cinematic writer that I have to imagine you’re as influenced by films as much as by prose fiction. Who are some directors, actors, or just genres of films that inspire your work?

I think that’s a fair supposition! I go back to the old Dragonslayer movie with Peter MacNicol as one of my favorites (which is why I named the centaur in DemonWars “Bradwarden.” Also, the Rankin-Bass animated Hobbit stays with me to this day. I love what Ron Moore is doing with Outlander now on STARZ. Rome was another series that grabbed me.

 Going back to when I was a kid, movies like Jason and the Argonauts, War of the Worlds, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Robinson Crusoe on Mar, The Three Musketeers (the version with Michael York, of course!) all kept me enthralled on Saturday mornings.

5. If the writer is the Dungeon Master and the characters are the players, which of your characters is the rules lawyer? Which is the min-maxer? Which is the master thespian? Who’s the edition warrior? Who’s the one most likely to kick down the door? And who’s the first to loot the bodies?

Oh, boy… Catti-brie is the Rules Lawyer, Drizzt the munchkin and thespian, Bruenor the warrior, Wulfgar kicking down doors, and Regis looting the bodies before they hit the floor. And I’m not really the game master, Jarlaxle is. I’m just the front guy, really.

Creative Colleagues: Erin Evans

Erin Evans

Erin Evans

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

Erin Evans and I were presenters on the same panel at the Writers’ Symposium at Gen Con a few years ago. We exchanged pleasantries, but we didn’t get to know each other.

The truth was I was afraid of getting too close.

Erin had just released a Forgotten Realms novel featuring a tiefling protagonist, and I’d recently done the same in the Pathfinder Tales line. You’d think we’d want to talk shop.

It’s hard for me to explain the rest without referring to “Unaccompanied Sonata,” an Orson Scott Card story about a musician who’s raised in isolation from any outside influence interfere with his growth as an artist. While that idea is ultimately silly when applied to the real world, I guess that story stuck with me, especially when I see authors—often writers I like and admire—lifting lines, names, or other elements from the work of others.

Thus, when I discover someone has written something similar to what I’m doing, I get nervous that maybe I’ll steal their ideas, even subconsciously. The only way to be sure (no, it’s not to nuke them from orbit) is not to read their work.

Thus, my conversation with Erin began with ana confession.

1. While tempted by the good reviews, I’ve resisted reading your Farideh novels for fear that I would subconsciously lift your ideas about tieflings. Do you find yourself embracing or resisting reading novels similar to your own work? Or do you seek inspiration in non-fantasy fiction?

Me too: Heard nothing but good things about Radovan and the Count, but it feels so easy to do! (Even though the longer we both go, the more I think we nail down our respective paths, and the less likely we are to veer).

I panic every time I read a novel that has similar elements to one of mine, even if objectively it makes no sense to worry. I mean, once I panicked because The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin had “similar elements” and it’s so brilliantly done. I hovered on despondency. Then my editor pointed out that “soul is fused with a more powerful entity” and “is attracted to dark, dangerous non-human entity” are not exactly, you know, an entire novel. But then I’ve had people tell me titles that remind them of certain parts of my books, and I can’t read those. I’ll save them for later, when I’m onto something else.

2. What first drew you to a devil-blooded character? Which of her human qualities does her infernal heritage most emphasize?

I like tieflings because they’re weird. So often you get fantasy races and they feel like better humans. Tieflings are inarguably alien—especially the devilborn, Asmodean tieflings I work with. They can’t hide who they are and who they are isn’t something most people want to be or be around. They’re like the opposite of elves. But at the same time, deep down, they’re human. They’re just normal people who happen to have big horns and weird eyes and a tail, and so they’re marginalized for it. And because they’re not a homogeneous culture in FR, there’s room to look at how a variety of people would cope with that. Do you throw yourself headlong into the version of you other people respect? Do you fight it and try to change opinions? Do you just grit your teeth and ignore it? Do you hate right back? Do you internalize it and hate what you are?

3. I enjoyed your live tweeting of gaming with your son. How is running a game for him more challenging than playing with adults? How is it just plain better?

So what I actually do is tell an ongoing story to my two-year-old which we call D&D (or as he says, “D&D&D&D&D&D&D&D&D&D&D&D”) The Continuing Saga of Issy the Tiefling Fighter, if you will. There’s no dice, there’s no minis, and it never ever ends. Right now it’s mostly him choosing which inn to stay in—he’s kind of obsessed with what the signs look like, what the bedrooms look like, what’s for breakfast, etc. But we play it because I play D&D once or twice a month, and he gets so upset I’m going without him.

I’ve DMed for adults once. I was terrible because I ran it like a novel: Here is the adventure and so no you cannot try and pick that lock, I want you over here. But that’s not remotely an option with my son. I’ll have a pirate hand him a treasure map to Harpy Island and mention off hand that it’s smelly. And he’ll refuse to take the map because he might want treasure but he doesn’t want to go somewhere smelly. There’s no planning. It’s entirely made up on the spot. It’s a little like writing on a deadline, because if you get stuck, you have no choice but to get unstuck.

Fire in the Blood

Fire in the Blood

4. What was your background in writing and reading before you worked for Wizards of the Coast? Who were some of the authors who first inspired you to write?

I started telling myself stories very young. I had a lot of sleep problems due to anxiety and this was how I occupied my frantic little brain. I was in early high school when I started writing, trying to get these stories down, and by college, I knew it’s what I wanted to do, at least in some fashion. I read voraciously—to the point that I’m never sure who really influenced me. Those years are kind of a blur of books. I still find people suggesting a book to me and about halfway through the description, it’s like the sun dawns. Oh! I’ve read that!  But the vast majority was still fantasy and soft science fiction, with a sprinkling of literary/mainstream stuff (I had a serious John Irving kick in high school, followed by an Elmore Leonard phase in college).

But there’s one phase that I think must have made an impact: from the summer of 2003 through the spring of 2004, my now-husband and I drove around the country in an old RV. Up until then, my book habit was largely library-fed, but without a permanent address few libraries will let you borrow books. Our budget was obviously tight, but I found thrift stores were a good source of a book fix. One thing though: they sold paperbacks for 25 cents apiece or 10 for $1. So if you wanted more than three books, you really had to find ten books to buy. So I came to read my first western, my first vampire novel, my first true crime novel, my first chic-lit novel, my first military science fiction, and more. More than anything I think reading that widely made me appreciate what different genres do best. Romance novels are great to study for how to use character headspace. Mystery novels require a really tight structure, and the best ones know how to camouflage it so you don’t see the scaffolding, so to speak. I think Westerns are great for establishing character and setting quickly, but also for seeing how to use the tropes your readers expect without falling into the same story all over again. My writing from this period of my life is choppy and crazy and changing month to month, so fast that you can almost see these lessons synthesizing into a writing style. It’s a mess. But by the time I was invited to submit a story for Ed Greenwood Presents Waterdeep, everything had settled and I could write a book.

5. What draws you to fantasy as opposed to any other genre? What other genres do you feel you incorporate in your Realms novels?

For me fantasy is a way to make the internal external. Magic and monsters and strange happenings can all be metaphors for something bigger while still being just fun elements. I could probably argue that the Brimstone Angels Saga is an exploration on the anxiety around transitions and the social costs of marginalizing groups and how we handle mental illness—but it’s also about magic and devils. It can be both and it gives readers a way to approach these big, heavy, scary things without having to face them head on. The Adversary is, in a lot of ways, about depression—how it warps us and how we cope with it or don’t. I can’t tell you how many readers have told me that aspect of it spoke to them in a profound way, even though the “depression” is explicit in the big, scary shadow goddess of nihilism and her Chosen, the Nameless One. The way the characters cope with facing these threats in combination with their own demons still provoked a reaction.

And on the other hand, a lot of readers never mention it because they were focused on the Harpers and the prison escape story and all that fun stuff, but I have to believe it makes an impression regardless.


Erin’s latest novel, Fire in the Blood, hit book stores yesterday. Check it out, and keep track of her next release at her blog or on Twitter.