Each week, 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.
I first met Marc Tassin at a dinner celebrating the tenure of the previous organizer of the Writers’ Symposium, Jean Rabe, who hired me for my first editing job back in 1993. Jean was passing the baton to Marc, so that year he was her shadow. It was also the first year I’d been back to Gen Con almost a decade, so I was astonished at how much the Symposium had grown.
The next year, the transition appeared completely seamless. That in itself was impressive, but even more impressive was how often I saw Marc sit down to solicit ideas on how to improve the event. Over the next couple of years, I saw him implement those changes, expanding and improving on an already well-oiled machine until the little writing convention inside of Gen Con became rather a big convention in its own right. What really blew my mind was meeting people who were there primarily for the Symposium, with the backdrop of the world’s biggest game convention as a bonus.
Marc recently launched a Kickstarter campaign for his passion project, World of Aetaltis: The Temple of Modren. In addition to the already-completed adventure, for which he’s hired professional artists, designers, and developers, he has lined up fantasy writers from Ed Greenwood, Matt Forbeck,Mel Odom, Mike Stackpole, and of course Jean Rabe to contribute to a fiction anthology when the already-funded Kickstarter reaches a series of stretch goals.
1. In addition to game design and fiction writing, you’re a cat wrangler. That is, you coordinate the Writers’ Symposium at Gen Con. How has that experience made you more creative?
Each year the Symposium hosts a very diverse group of authors. Their writing styles, beliefs, interests, and values all vary, sometimes dramatically. I think that having positive, creative relationships with so many different types of creative people has really helped to enrich my writing and my creative process. When I sit down to write or to work on a game, I often reflect on what I learned from those other authors. It lets me say, “Is there a way to approach this creative challenge in a different way from the one I automatically gravitate toward?” I think this has really helped me to grow creatively.
2. Speaking of the Writers’ Symposium, can you describe how it differs from other writing-focused conventions?
Conventions often focus on either fan panels (“What’s next for Randland!”) or academic panels (“The impact of fantasy literature on late twentieth-century western society.”) I love panels like this, but when I first started writing I found it difficult to find panels like “How to write query letters to agents,” “Tricks for breaking into a new genre,” or “Writing amazing dialogue.”
That’s why these nuts-and-bolts style panels are the sort the Symposium specializes in. For new authors, they provide the education needed to achieve success. For seasoned authors, the panels serve to re-energize them, help them adapt to the changing market, and maybe answer some seemingly simple questions they might be too embarrassed to ask.
The other major difference is how little it costs to attend. More than 80% of our panels are free to anyone with a Gen Con badge. This is due in no small part to the generosity of the authors that take part in the program (so please be sure to thank them when you’re there!) For the price of a $75 Gen Con badge you can attend 30-40 hours of writing panels featuring some of the greatest SF, fantasy, and media tie-in authors alive today.
3. What sets Aeltaltis apart from the bajillion other fantasy RPG settings? In what ways do you play to the strengths of the familiar clichés, and how do you push against them?
I think the thing that sets Aetaltis apart from other fantasy worlds is that I happily embrace the tropes, stereotypes, and clichés that many other games and stories avoid. In fact, I think that’s part of what attracts people to the world. As soon as they get into it, they think, “Wow! I’m home!”
All those tropes, stereotypes, and clichés exist because people love them—but only if they’re handled the right way. Handle them wrong, and you get, “Oh, that old thing again.” Handle them right, and you get, “I love this stuff!” Based on the positive feedback we’ve received so far, it looks like we handled them right.
4. How do you see RPG design and fiction writing complementing and contrasting with each other?
RPGs work better when they’re supported by great tie-in fiction. Creating your own stories by playing an RPG is fun, but when you can imagine that your story is taking place alongside the events and characters of that awesome tie-in novel you just read, it takes the experience to another level.
Despite this synergy, writing great game material and writing amazing fiction require different skills. With fiction, you’re drawing the reader in and guiding them through the story you want to tell. With game material, you hand the reader a set of creative tools, but then you need to get out of the way. Apply the game writing method to fiction, and the reader feels lost. Apply the fiction writing techniques to games, and the players don’t feel like they’re in control.
5. The announcement of the Baen Fantasy Award has inflamed a political divide among fantasy authors and readers. As the organizer of the Symposium, which sometimes includes panels on (fantasy) politics and religion, how do you make the event inclusive for a diverse crowd?
We have an unusually diverse group of people speaking on our panels, and that creates an environment that helps everyone to feel like they belong. What’s funny is that, while I’m really happy our program is like this, I didn’t do it on purpose. All I wanted to do was to gather together the best authors I could find, so we could teach people how to be better writers.
In the end, I think that’s why it works. Even when we host a panel like “Writing the other,” it isn’t about whether you should or shouldn’t write about “the other” or who “the other” is. It’s just a panel where fantastic authors teach you how to do it really, really well.
The World of Aetaltis: Temple of Modren Kickstarter has passed its initial goal, but many stretch goals lie ahead. Join in to help create the fiction anthology, maybe even with a cover by legendary artist Larry Elmore.