Someone on the Paizo boards recently asked Pathfinder Tales authors our favorite question. My answer:
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.
John Helfers and I first met at or between panels at the Writer’s Symposium at Gen Con. (Incidentally, the Symposium is an amazing convention-within-a-convention, perfect for readers and writers alike.) While we hadn’t worked together before Champions of Aetaltis, for years I could hardly browse Facebook without seeing a mutual friend mention his latest anthology. He’s a busy guy.
Fortunately, not too busy to answer a few questions now that Champions of Aetaltis is available for purchase.
As a writer and editor, how do you adjust your approach from one task to the other? Perhaps you can offer us an Aetaltis example of how it’s different to write and edit in the setting.
The Champions of Aetaltis anthology is kind of an anomaly for me, as it’s the only project I’ve been involved with as both a co-editor and an author. Normally I don’t cross those streams on projects I’m involved in, as I want to leave as much room for the contributing authors as possible. But since this is Marc’s created world, and he specifically asked me to write a story when he first approached me about editing the project, I decided to go ahead and wear both hats.
It has been one of the best projects I’ve ever been involved with. Not only was my co-editor terrific to work with, but I got to work with some of the biggest names in the RPG media-tie in business; you, of course, as well as Ed Greenwood, Elaine Cunningham, David Farland, Mel Odom, Erin Evans, Jean Rabe, Elizabeth A. Vaughan, Steven S. Long, and many others.
Getting back to your question, my basic editorial rules were still in full effect each time I sat down to edit one of these stories: help the author make their tale the very best it can be. That’s pretty much my first and only rule, but for Champions, it went further than that, as I also backed up Marc in making sure that the stories stayed within the boundaries of his created universe. With such a talented, experienced group of authors, my editorial work wasn’t difficult at all; in fact, it was a joy. Everyone was eager to make sure their stories were the best they could be, and all were very comfortable discussing suggested edits and comments on their stories.
I was also the last author to write a story, as both Marc and I wanted to make sure that ours filled in places or parts of Aetaltis that hadn’t been covered by other authors. Of course, being the co-editor on the project made this part easy, as I got to see where everyone else had set their stories before tackling mine. Fortunately, the town of Thornwall (covered in incredible detail in the Aetaltis game supplement Heroes of Thornwall) was still available, and I used it as the setting for “True Monsters,” a story involving an orog (a huge, ogre-like creature that’s also a PC class in the world) and several of the townspeople’s children. It was a blast to write, and I think it holds up very well among everyone else’s wonderful stories.
What’s good about having a gaming background when writing fantasy fiction? And what are some pitfalls to avoid when thinking like a gamer?
I first met Marc through Jean Rabe, the previous organizer of the Writer’s Symposium, at Gen Con several years ago. He was a long-time gamer who was just starting to work on the business side of what would eventually become his company, Mechanical Muse. Of course, now he’s doing an amazing job of organizing and running the Symposium, and his company has been taking off as well.
In my opinion, the best thing about being a gamer and a fiction writer is the flexibility that roleplaying gives you to explore potential scenarios and outcomes in your story. Since you’ve already gotten experience playing characters that are (hopefully) different from yourself, it is much easier to take that experience and utilize it in creating characters and plots for your fiction.
The downside is that sometimes a game world or RPG scenario can bleed too much into whatever fiction you’re writing and actually become a constraint. If you’re having to bend over backwards to ensure that your plot makes sense due to how you think it should turn out (because that’s how you would have played the scenario out), or if you’re adhering too much to particular rules that you’ve created for your setting, and the world or story suffers as a result, that may be the time to step back from your writing and try to look at it more objectively. In the end, you may have to modify those restrictive rules that are hampering your story or find a different way for your protagonist to accomplish whatever they’re trying to do.
As an anthologist, what do you feel are the advantages (and otherwise) of sticking to a strict theme? With an anthology that’s linked only by setting, how do you choose the order of stories? Are you looking for rhythm? An interlocking of themes? Something else?
The main advantage of a themed anthology is that it points everyone in the same general direction; authors and readers alike. A good theme sets the mood for everyone—if you pick up an anthology of urban paranormal stories, you know in advance what you’re getting. Setting a collection of short fiction in a clearly defined setting such as Shadowrun or Aetaltis sets up some parameters without restricting the authors too much. With Champions, for instance, both the title and cover practically scream classic sword-and-sorcery fantasy—which is exactly what Marc was going for, of course.
Also, the lengths writers often go to create unique stories with their own creative spin is incredible. Every so often I get a writer who asks, “What have you gotten so far? I want to make sure I don’t inadvertently copy someone else’s idea?” My answer is always the same: “Don’t worry about it, just write the best story you can come up with.” Even when two authors happen to choose a similar theme, 9 times out of 10 their approaches to it are wildly different, so both stories can fit into the volume without concern that they might overshadow each other.
Once the stories were all in, then Marc and I sat down to figure out who was going where. Generally in a themed anthology, an author’s name is fairly important (both for status in the field as well as their potential audience), as well as the length of their story, as you typically don’t want to two longer pieces placed next to each other. Then there’s the rhythm of the stories themselves—some are quieter and more reflective, others are heart-in-your-throat nonstop thrills and action. Some contain sly humor or devastating emotion, others exult in the action and setting, featuring daring heroes pulling off incredible feats against impossible odds. And then some fall somewhere in between all of those. Sorting out who goes where is always one of the enjoyable challenges of assembling an anthology.
On the other side of the coin, when I had the chance to do an “unthemed” anthology called Recycled Pulp over at WMG Publishing with Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith as part of their Fiction River series, I thought it’d be fairly easy…but the reality was quite different.
The concept was relatively simple: I wanted to do a project that harkened back to the glory days of the pulp magazines, when stories were often written to order at an editor’s request, sometime with them supplying a title and the story written to order around it. I used an online pulp story title generator to create 250 titles like “The Spider Beyond the Stars” and “Beneath the Screaming Monolith,” total pulp stuff. The attendees of that year’s workshop selected three numbers at random, and those were the three titles they got. They then had to select one, and write a story using that title in any genre they wanted. The catch was that it couldn’t be a pulp story (hence the “recycled” part).
Well, I got some terrific stories, more than enough to fill the volume. But when it came time to actually put the book together, I realized I had kind of edited myself into a corner. I had to find some way to make all these disparate genres—from softboiled police procedural to urban fantasy to traditional fantasy to dystopian science fiction to even a Twilight Zone-kind of story—and figure out how to put them all together in a way that allowed each one to shine, but didn’t break the flow of the anthology as a whole. It wasn’t easy, but I persevered and came up with a table of contents that worked for me and, I hope, for the readers as well.
And that’s another thing I enjoy about editing anthologies—each one is different, every single time: different voices, different challenges. It’s never the same thing twice.
What are some current or recent non-prose fantasy stories (TV, comics, film, games, whatever) that you particularly admire? Is there a particular creator of fantasy fiction who’s done something new or distinctive to inspire your work or to change the way you view the work of others?
I haven’t had a lot of time to read recently (unfortunately) so I’m going to mention two television shows that might stretch the definition of fantasy, but which I still think both qualify, and then come back to one of my all-time favorite fantasy novel series.
For live-action television, my wife and I just finished watching the first season of Jessica Jones, and we were both blown away by the virtuoso storytelling, casting, and acting. The protagonist definitely has her own problems, including dealing with what is possibly the most dangerous villain I’ve come across in recent media. She does the best she can, but (along with her friends) makes mistakes and inadvertently causes a good deal of collateral damage, which the show actually deals with, instead of ignoring it or writing that incident or person out of the story entirely. I certainly hope the producers and writers can keep up that level of quality in the next season.
On the animated side, we also recently started watching Rick & Morty, which I would classify as falling into more of a science-fantasy cross-over. Again, the stories that Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland come up with, mixing out-of-this-world adventures (and danger and terror) with a B-story that often involved much more banal, everyday family life, and mashing all of that together into something that is quite simply unique in its take on family, relationships, growing up, love, aging, life, and well, just about everything. Beneath its madcap antics is a show that’s all about heart, and that’s the biggest selling point to me.
Finally, I want to give a shout out to a seminal series that affected me as a child, and was quite possibly the biggest influence on me as a writer, and that’s Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series. Instead of the vast scope and bombast of other fantasy series of the time, Alexander’s books felt more intimate, and on a smaller scale, even though they dealt with many of the same themes: honor, self-respect, heroism, friendship, fear, courage. They just seemed to effortlessly written, yet were so deep and moving. Apparently Disney is beginning pre-production on films of them (of course, they did the not-very-successful Black Cauldron animated film back in the 80s)—I hope they go live-action this time (and not muck around with the story too much); done right, those novels would make magnificent movies.
Back to Aetaltis, which I think of (in a good way) as a kitchen-sink setting—that is, one in which you can find a wide variety of subgenres within heroic fantasy—what qualities make the setting its own coherent entity? Another way of asking that is, what makes Aeltaltis distinct from other kitchen-sink settings like Golarion, the Forgotten Realms, Eberron, and the rest?
I completely agree with you regarding the term “kitchen-sink setting,” as it refers to Aetaltis.
I think the best RPG settings, particularly new ones, give players a combination of classic tropes they can really get behind, combined with something new that gives that particular world a different feel from everything else. Keith Baker’s Eberron setting did just that, using a backdrop of war, and adding a careful mix of technology into his world to create something very different from the standard fantasy settings.
In my opinion, one of the best qualities of Aetaltis is Marc’s careful attention to the world’s backstory, giving enough flavor for a reader/player to get a distinct sense of how this world came to be, which makes it feel both real for what he’s setting up in his game universe, yet distinct from other fantasy worlds. Even the hint of science fiction introduced with the gates, and the distinct new races, like the newardin, juxtaposed with the more classic fantasy races give the setting a different, fresh feel while still holding true to the best fantasy tropes.
The other interesting take is the continent’s slow recovery after a massive natural disaster, which has also served the double purpose of reintroducing evil back into the world as well. So the stakes are twofold—making sure that the various civilizations keep surviving and thriving while seeking to limit the damage that has been wrought by the Cataclysm, as well as mustering heroes and forces to battle the encroaching evil that threatened to overwhelm everything that is good in the land. All in all, it’s everything an RPGer would want to see in a game setting—but I may be a bit biased on that score.
Keep up with John’s latest work at his website.
Champions of Aetaltis is here! Originally funded by backers on Kickstarter, the heroic fantasy anthology edited by Marc Tassin and John Helfers is now shipping to backers and is available for everyone to purchase. I mention this not only because Marc and the entire Mechanical Muse team are great folks, but also in the self-interest that comes with having a story in the anthology.
I’m delighted to be in such lofty company as Elaine Cunningham, Richard Lee Byers, Mel Odom, Jean Rabe, Ed Greenwood, and Erin M. Evans. In that respect, it’s a regular Forgotten Realms reunion, but we’re fewer than half of the contributing authors to this massive tome. Check out the Table of Contents below, as well as the first page of my story, “The Undercity Job.” (Thanks to John Helfers for saving the title.)
In addition to the cover art and ToC, Melanie Meadors organized a first page of each story for us to share with you. Greedy as I am, I asked for more, and Marc okayed my sharing the first big section of my story with you. It’s a little less than a third of the finished story, so if you like it, you know where to get the rest—and plenty more stories to boot.
There’s something a little peculiar about the band of heroes I introduce in “The Undercity Job,” something I’ve done only once before. The first person to identify the previous story, what it has in common with this one, and post it here before the end of May 2016, I’ll send you a little prize. Hint: You won’t find it under my usual byline.
So check out the Table of Contents, then the first layout page of “The Undercity Job,” and keep scrolling down for the first big course of the story.
The Undercity Job
“Are you sure this is the place?” Wren clutched Norda’s arm. Even through armor, the sprite’s touch felt warm. Her huge eyes and tufted, fawn-like ears gave her an expression of perpetual innocence—a look balanced by the wicked angles of her coiling horns.
Norda grunted an affirmative. Judging by appearances, they stood at the mouth of Labor Lane.
Human men and women she took for hiring agents stood on either side of the narrow alley. Some operated out of the back doors of shops, others beside tables spotted with bird droppings. A few had posted signs, but most just called out the type of work they had to offer: “Porters,” “Carpenters,” “Mudders,” “Diggers,” and so on.
Norda eyed a rosy-cheeked man leaning beside a sign that read Guards. Returning her gaze, he noted the headless axe handle dangling from her hip, rolled his eyes, and shook his head. She bit down to suppress a swell of irritation, less directed at the man than at the reminder of her lost blade. It didn’t matter. He wasn’t the agent they wanted.
A human girl no taller than Norda dashed down the alley, dodging adults on either side of a runnel of waste. She held a scuffed leather ball out of reach of the three younger children chasing her, leaping the filthy stream to evade their grasp.
The children split to either side of Norda and Wren, who had to do a little dance to avoid stepping into the sewage stream. The smallest child bounced off the wooden shield slung over Norda’s back.
“Sorry!” she peeped.
“Watch where you’re going!” snapped Norda. “There ought to be a rule about children running in the streets.
With a wild grin, Wren started after the children. Norda grabbed the sprite’s doe-skin jerkin to hold her back. Wren wriggled out of her grip and pouted. “They were having so much fun.”
“We’re not here for fun,” said Norda. She realized she’d lost sight of their other companions. “Where are the Wiseacres?”
“Wherever they went, I bet they’re having fun.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of.”
Norda glanced up at the blue sky visible between the roofs. It took her a moment to spy Thistle perched on the eaves. The fairy was no bigger than a doll. Folded to her sides, her butterfly wings resembled a blue-and-gold cloak.
Norda crossed her wrists and wriggled her thumbs, their sign for the frisky halfling twins. Thistle pointed down the lane, indicating the side opposite her perch. She held up a number of tiny fingers. Norda squinted to count: eight.
Norda and Wren wound their way down the lane, avoiding the muck and the people seeking work. All of them were human. Norda hadn’t noticed anyone but humans since they had entered Hawk’s Crest. The dwarf and her diminutive companions stood out.
The only other small person in the lane was another young girl in a dirty frock. Her arms and legs looked as thin and fragile as twigs. She held up a lump that looked like a punctured leather ball to a man calling out for porters. When he shook his head, she tottered over and offered it to Wren.
The sprite ruffled the girl’s tangled hair and pointed. “Your friends went that way.”
“I’m hiring,” said the girl.
Norda eyed the child. Her hollow cheeks spoke of hunger, but that was a loaf of bread in her hands, not a ball. The girl held it to try to conceal the bites she’d taken out of the other end.
Wren was already looking up at Norda with the big, sad eyes routine. With a weary sigh, Norda removed the purse from between her breasts and dug out their last two silver coins. She handed them to the girl. “Go buy something hot to eat.”
“But that’s not—”
“Somebody gives you a gift, you say thanks,” said Norda. “That’s the rule.”
“Thanks. It’s just—”
Norda walked away, pulling Wren by the arm.
The strong smell of stale lager and tobacco wafted from the door Thistle had indicated. Inside, Norda saw a room full of casks, chains of sausage, and wheels of cheese. Through an open door on the far wall, she saw the taproom. Two big figures lounged near the untended bar. Only three other figures resided in the center of the room.
A woman with long flame-red hair leaned back in a chair, her heels hooked over the edge of a table. Beside her, a long spear with a head like a sword blade leaned against a pillar. On the table lay a few parchment pages and a wand with a bulbous head tipped with two horny spikes.
Across from the woman, the Wiseacres took turns interrupting each other as they made their pitch.
Norda cursed. The last thing she needed was for Darbin and Findle Wiseacre to make the first impression on the hiring agent. If they didn’t need the money, she might have left them there to humiliate themselves.
She glanced back up to see Thistle fluttering down to perch on the opposite roof. The fairy nodded at Norda, who nodded back. Despite the reputation of fey creatures as flighty things, Thistle was the one lookout she could count on. The others were far too easily distracted, as the boys were proving at that moment.
“Here they are!” said Wren. She dashed in to join the halflings.
Norda followed and took a better look at the men at the bar. Neither was human, and each was taller sitting down than the dwarf was standing up.
The bald orog rested his bulk across three creaking bar stools. A domelike head squatted neckless between round shoulders. The bar groaned under the weight of an iron-studded club. The brute chuckled, a line of spittle connected his two upper teeth with the three remaining on the bottom. “They’re all wee things!”
The drothmal leaned against a pillar, his face etched into a leonine snarl exaggerated by the swirls of primal tattoos on his cheeks and forehead. Where his companion was all bulk, the barbarian’s lean frame wound like wire around a sword’s grip. Norda nodded at him, one warrior to another. He looked away as if bored.
She turned back to the woman at the table, taking her for the hiring agent. The redhead glanced at the new arrivals before turning her amused face back to the halflings, whose body language told Norda the woman had them wrapped around her finger. The dwarf also noted that the woman was barely half a foot taller than she. That was something. In Norda’s experience, tall people looked down on her and her friends, figuratively as well as literally.
Norda’s relief turned to alarm when she spied the spider perched on the woman’s hand. Its hairy legs moved as the woman turned her wrist, but the worst part was the eyes. Instead of the glossy black beads of normal spiders, this one had eight grape-sized eyes with pupils and irises surrounded by bloodshot whites. The irises were matched pairs: two brown, two gray, two blue, and two yellow.
“Is it looking at me?” said Darbin.
“Don’t be afraid, little darlin’,” said the woman. “They’re just having a look-see.”
They?! Norda shuddered. She looked down at Wren who was looking up at her, mouthing, They?!
“I’m not afraid of spiders,” said Findle. He tossed his head to shake the curly hair out of his eyes and held out his hand. “Can I hold it?”
Darbin tossed his own head and held out a hand in echo of his twin’s gesture. “No, me first! I’m not afraid either.” The more competitive the boys became while trying to impress a pretty woman, the more they seemed connected by invisible strings.
The orog guffawed and slapped the bar top. “They’re barely snacks. Better feed it both.”
The Wiseacres stepped back in unison.
The redhead giggled and raised the weird spider to her shoulder. It crawled onto her leather pauldron and raised a pair of legs to the woman’s neck. She stroked its abdomen and nodded as if listening to its whisper.
“Don’t you worry none. They’re not hungry. Anyway, I reckon we’ve got business. Which of you boys is the boss of your little group?”
“Neither of them,” said Norda, shoving the halflings aside.
“Aw…” grumbled the Wiseacres.
Wren pushed between them. “Mind your manners, or I’ll pinch you both.”
Norda left the Wiseacre wrangling to Wren, who relished the task. “It’s a recovery, I hear. Who’re you, and what’s the item?”
The redhead offered such a pretty smile that Norda could almost forgive the smitten Wiseacres. Despite her brutish companions and that horrible spider, she had a certain charm.
“I’m Haley Green,” said the redhead. “And this here’s what’s missing.”
She turned around the top parchment. On it was a pastel sketch of a box inlaid with white gold in web patterns. Red and purple gems nestled between the threads like captured insects. “Contract’s for recovery undamaged and—now this is the important thing—unopened. The pay is …” She thought for a moment. “Two hundred.”
“I heard it was four.”
Haley shrugged. “Half pay for half size.”
The orog slapped his thigh and unleashed a terrifying belly laugh. Even the drothmal’s grim mouth turned up on one corner.
The spider leaned against Haley’s ear, stroking her neck as it whispered. Norda felt bile rise in her throat. She hated spiders.
“Also, they want the thief,” said Haley. “Intact.”
Norda frowned. “For the city guard?”
Haley shook her head and gave a lopsided smile. “Uh-uh.”
The drothmal cracked his knuckles.
Norda didn’t like to imagine what those bruisers would do to a thief. She looked straight at the weird spider and said, “We aren’t bounty hunters. And we’re not cut-rate anything.”
Haley glanced at her shoulder. The spider rubbed the tips of its palps together like a moneylender calculating risk. It whispered again. “Bringing them the thief’s what you call non-negotiable,” the redhead said. “Shame. You’re just the right size for where he’s run off.”
“And where’s that?”
“We got a deal?”
Broke as they were, and without better prospects for a job, Norda shook her head. “No deal.”
Haley looked surprised, and perhaps a little impressed. The orog looked confused, the drothmal bored. Before Haley could say something else, Norda walked out, trusting Wren to bring the Wiseacres.
Back out on Labor Lane, they formed a half-circle against the back wall of a chandler’s shop. Thistle flew down to perch on the top of Norda’s shield. The rustle of her delicate wings reminded Norda of the spider so close to Haley’s ear, but the fairy smelled of ripe blackberries.
Darbin wiggled his fingers. “One pass down this street can net us enough coin for supper.”
“Not on this street,” said Findle, eying the people looking for work. “Everyone looks as broke as us.” He peeked through the window of the chandlery. “But if you distract the shop owner, I can crack the cash box and—”
“No cracking cash boxes! No picking pockets!” said Norda. She looked around to see a few of the hiring agents looking her way. She lowered her voice. “No stealing from regular folk.”
“What if we take only half the cash?” said Findle.
“No,” growled Norda.
“What if we return it after we get a new job?” said Darbin.
Wren giggled. Norda shot her a warning glare. The mercurial sprite could shift roles from Norda’s enforcer to the Wiseacres’ enabler in the wink of an eye. “No stealing from regular folk,” said the sprite, mimicking Norda’s gruff voice. “That’s Norda’s rule!”
“You have so many rules,” sighed Darbin. “Sometimes I forget them all.”
“Not if you know what’s good for you,” said Norda.
“Hello again, cutie,” said Wren, turning outside their circle. “I’m Wren. What’s your name?”
The girl had returned, once again holding the sad-looking loaf in a futile attempt to hide the bites she’d taken—including two new ones. She held up the two silver coins Norda had given her. “I’m Myna. I want to hire you.”
Surprise gave way to regret that Norda hadn’t paid attention to what the girl had said earlier. Norda hated it when taller people dismissed her; she shouldn’t have done the same to Myna. “What’s the job?”
“A re-trie-val,” said the girl, pronouncing the word carefully, as if she’d only recently learned it. “I want you to re-trieve my big brother, Hebbet.”
“Where’d he go?”
The girl pointed down.
Norda glanced down the dirty runnel of waste water to the grate at the end of the lane. Norda frowned. The sewers were bad enough, but she’d heard rumors of the ruined city of Norentor, an ancient Alliance city, lying beneath the foundations of Hawk’s Crest. “What’s he doing down there?”
“People were chasing him because he was trying to sell a box.”
Norda glanced back at the tavern, but no one seemed to be eavesdropping on their conversation.
She took a bite of the pathetic loaf before passing the bread around. Her comrades each took a nibble before passing it back to the girl. Norda took back her silver coins and returned them to her purse.
Continued in Champions of Aetaltis, now available.
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.
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).
It took a while, but Prince of Wolves finally bested Lord of Runes in the number of reviews at audible.com. The latter was the first audiobook release for Pathfinder Tales, but the previous four Radovan & the Count novels soon followed.
In other news, the ringleader of the Pathfinder Tales book club at paizo.com hints that they may be ready to embark on a Radovan & the Count (re-)read, so if you’ve ever wanted to share your thoughts, questions, hopes, and dreams with others, here’s a golden opportunity.
They haven’t launched a discussion thread yet, but the point arose when I responded to the thread on Winter Witch. Speaking of which, they haven’t finished discussing that one yet.
Delayed by the busy aftermath of our holiday season, here’s the fourth and final Heroic Fantasy Roundtable. When you see an interesting answer, click through to the author’s website and see what other wonders await your inquiring eye. Those who missed the previous installments can find them here, here, and here.
One randomly chosen person who comments before the end of January 2016 here on the blog—not on one of the social media sites to which I push this notice—will receive a free copy of Prince of Wolves, Master of Devils, Queen of Thorns, King of Chaos, or Winter Witch from audible.com.
What was the first heroic fantasy novel you remember reading? Has your own writing emulated it or responded with an alternative take on the genre?
J.F. Lewis: Robert E. Howard and Michael Moorcock will have to share the blame for setting my brain on fire. Kholster (a prominent character in my Grudgebearer Trilogy) may not be an exact melding of Elric, the doomed albino prince with his soul stealing blade, and Conan, shouter of “Crom!” and way-smarter-than-people-assume-him-to-be-slayer-of-all-comers, but if you checked his DNA, I am sure the test would show them to be related.
I picked up the first of the Elric books and the first Conan collection on the same trip to the bookstore. Both were revelatory. Moorcock’s ideas of a multiverse were definitely the source of my initial thought around that concept (colored strongly by Zelazny’s thoughts on the shadow worlds trod by Amberites and Chaosites). Though, characters like Rae’en and Wylant (female protagonists from the Grudgebearer Trilogy) are seriously dangerous warriors, Conan’s oft glossed over deep intelligence and cunning, combined with excellent combat skills, shine through in the core of what makes them strong.
Jane Lindskold: My first response was “I don’t know.” My second was, does mythology count? I had read both The Illiad and The Odyssey by the time I was nine. Both are great heroic fantasy. Can you beat the casts? There are magical items. Meddling deities. Tragic fates.
Influence… Oh, yeah. I’ve written a variety of stories using mythic elements. My When the Gods Are Silent makes up its own myths. The influence of heroic fantasy is very strong on that one. I was at a bad place in my life, and needed heroes, so I made them.
The roleplaying game I’ve been running these last three years is very deliberately S&S, rather than epic or high fantasy, as so many are.
Nicole Luiken: The first heroic fantasy I remember reading was The Hobbit. I did a novel study on it in Grade 7. (I distinctly remember having to draw a picture Beorn’s Hall.) Honestly, I found it a bit of a slog until I hit the scene with the trolls. I don’t know that I have an alternative take on the genre so much as a more modern one: faster pacing and a 50/50 male/female ratio.
Douglas Niles: I had to think about the first fantasy I read. I came to Tolkien kind of late, as a college student, and he opened up the worlds of classic heroic fantasy. But I was already a fan of adventure stories and science fiction. When I read The Wizard of Oz and other books in the series as a kid, I really enjoyed them, and became aware of the whole concept of fantasy. Grimm’s Fairy Tales were also a childhood favorite of mine.
I was a teenager when I became a fan of adventure fantasy, and I primarily cut my teeth on the genre with Edgar Rice Burroughs—first with the Tarzan series, and then to ERB’s other works. Tarzan of course began as pure adventure but when the stories delved into mysterious Opar and other strange realms, as well as the world of the Ant Men and the hollow world of Pellucidar (which Tarzan visited, though Burroughs originally created it for another character) it definitely became fantasy. Other Burroughs series, notably John Carter on Mars, I think also qualify as fantasy, not science fiction.
Of course, I read Tolkien and Lloyd Alexander and other classics as a young man, and they inspired me a lot in my work—and they still do, right up to the era of J.K. Rowling whom I very much (and enviously) enjoy. It seems like the genre of heroic fantasy is primarily shaped by those British writers. But I think the formative works in shaping my career came from American authors. Their works are certainly less “epic” than, say, the Lord of the Rings; and Burroughs, with his in-your-face racial character typing, is a tough read these days. But I believe his works, and certainly L. Frank Baum’s tales of Oz, should fall under the umbrella of heroic fantasy.
Stephen D. Sullivan: I’m not entirely sure what my first heroic fantasy novel was. It may have been a fantasy book I read in 4th grade. I don’t remember the name of it, but I do remember that it had at least one knight and a friendly dragon named “Poof” that no one thought really existed until the hero found it. That year, I also read Secret Under the Sea (Gordon R. Dickson), which was about a boy a his dolphin trying to protect their sea lab—kind of a science-fiction fantasy novel.
If you discount books about monsters and SF, probably my earliest fantasy reading was about Greek and Roman myths, and then the Norse as well. Those formed the backstory to everything that came after. It was Lord of the Rings, though, that really changed my reading habits and put fantasy on my reading list equal to (or maybe ahead of) science fiction, monster books, and detective stories. Perhaps ironically, it was love of LoTR that kept me from playing that “knock-off” game D&D for at least a couple of years. I eventually started playing D&D to date the DM’s sister, who was also a player, in January 1977—and that was an even bigger life-changing event, as anyone who knows me (or checks Wikipedia) will attest.
Marc Tassin: In fifth grade, I stumbled upon Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories. I’m pretty sure neither my teachers nor parents would have approved of them for me at the time, but I found them mesmerizing. The intimate, personal stories were completely unlike the epic fantasy tales I was familiar with. The immediacy of these stories and their focus on the here-and-now of the character’s existence are something I strive for in my own writing.
Heroic fantasy is a blanket term that includes popular genres like epic fantasy and sword & sorcery. Do you feel epic and S&S are mutually exclusive? Or can (and should) we mix them like peanut butter and chocolate? Are there some other, overlooked subgenres of heroic fantasy? And does grimdark fit under this blanket or lie outside?
J.F. Lewis: Genre always gets me into trouble. I mix them together to suit the needs of the characters and plot, so, of course I enjoy it when other writers do the same. Books like K.J. Parker’s Engineer Trilogy and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld are both Fantasy novels and both enjoyable, but they are very different animals. A Discworld novel, in particular, may contain elements of sword and sorcery, police procedural… You name it.
Jane Lindskold: Not exclusive, but I think that epic tends to have a “cast of thousands” approach, while S&S is more focused on the individual. My preference is for the small casts, especially “buddy stories.” Elric’s story would not be so tragic without his desire for friends. Fahrd and the Grey Mouser play off each other in so many ways.
My fondness for Elric aside, I don’t care for grimdark. Elric was tragedy. Too much grimdark is self-indulgent. I have repeatedly heard anecdotes about authors who were out to “one up” each other, not tell a good story that happens to have dark elements.
Nicole Luiken: Rather than a blanket term, it might be better to look at heroic fantasy, epic fantasy, sword & sorcery and grimdark as overlapping circles in a Venn diagram. Before grimdark came along all of epic fantasy fit under heroic fantasy, but while grimdark can be epic I’m less convinced that its antiheroes belong in Heroic Fantasy.
I’ve been intrigued lately by the emergence of the fantasy romance subgenre, such as Grace Draven’s books or Jeffe Kennedy’s Twelve Kingdoms series. I would definitely argue that Kennedy’s Talon of the Hawk falls under both the heroic fantasy circle and the fantasy romance circle. (My editor asked me to play up the romance subplot in my Kandrith books so it could be marketed as fantasy romance.)
Stephen D. Sullivan: In my mind, Sword & Sorcery is a somewhat more intimate genre—and has more limited magic—than what we think of as Epic Fantasy. With my fondness for Conan and the works of Robert E. Howard, it’s perhaps not surprising that I really prefer S&S. Even my “epic” fantasies—like my L5R books, or Dragonlance, or even Tournament of Death—tend to be more intimate in nature than archetypal epics. (At least, I hope they are!)
Currently, I think epics are overdone. Why can’t we have smaller tales without a “the world is ending” overarching story arc? Frankly, I’m tired of the world ending in both SF and fantasy stories. Life isn’t like that, most of the time. Life is mostly dealing with your own issues while the bigger world rolls on. Fantasy, SF, and horror should be more focused on smaller stories, in my opinion. Unless, of course, you’re dealing with giant monsters. Then maybe it really is the End of the World.
So, I guess you could mix S&S and epic fantasy, but I’m not really sure I’m seeing a lot of that out there. Unless, of course, maybe I’m doing it myself, without entirely meaning to.
Marc Tassin: For me, monikers like Epic Fantasy or Sword & Sorcery are more about the setting, scope, and scale of the adventure whereas Heroic Fantasy is about the tone of the tale and underlying truths of the story’s universe. In heroic fantasy there are definitively right and wrong choices, even if the right choice isn’t immediately clear to the protagonist. Whether the protagonist stumbles upon the conundrum in a back alley or is thrust before it by destiny isn’t important. Rather, it’s the protagonist’s eventual recognition of the right choice and the decision to make the right choice that makes the fantasy heroic.
So a lot of different types of stories might be classified heroic fantasy—even grimdark. Just because the right action requires the protagonist to engage in unspeakable acts, that doesn’t mean it’s not the right choice. If the protagonist does what needs to be done because it’s the right thing to do, often at a time when no one else will do it, then the story is every bit heroic as one where the solution is more noble.
Dave Gross is the erstwhile editor of such magazines as Dragon, Star Wars Insider, and Amazing Stories. He has written novels set in the Forgotten Realms, Iron Kingdoms, and the world of Pathfinder Tales. His latest novel is Lord of Runes, and his most recent story “The Wendigo” in Gods, Memes, and Monsters.
J.F. Lewis is the internationally published author of the Void City series and The Grudgebearer Trilogy. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with a family he loves dearly and does not deserve. Jeremy will not bite you, though his characters might.
Jane Lindskold is the award-winning, New York Times bestselling, internationally published author of twenty-five novels, including the six volume Firekeeper Saga, the three volume “Breaking the Wall” series, and, most recently, Artemis Awakening and Artemis Invaded. Other new releases include Wanderings on Writing and the short story collection, Curiosities.
Nicole Luiken wrote her first book at age 13 and never stopped. She is the author of ten books for young adults and a fantasy duology for adults: Gate to Kandrith and Soul of Kandrith. It is physically impossible for her to go more than three days without writing.
Douglas Niles is an award-winning game designer and author of more than 50 books. His most recent work is A Noble Cause: American Battlefield Victories in Vietnam.
Stephen D. Sullivan has been a monster kid all his life, and a professional one since 1980, when he joined the creative team for Dungeons & Dragons. Steve is a frequent guest on Monster Kid Radio. His recent books include Daikaiju Attack, White Zombie, and Manos: The Hands of Fate.
Marc Tassin is a writer, a game designer, and the founder of the SF/fantasy entertainment company Mechanical Muse. Their first fiction title, Champions of Aetaltis, is due out early next year, and it contains eighteen new heroic fantasy stories by some of the best authors in the business.