Creative Colleagues: Paris Crenshaw

Paris Crenshaw

Paris Crenshaw

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cover by Beatrice Pelagatti

Cover by Beatrice Pelagatti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Prince of Wolves > Lord of Runes

Cover by Dan Scott

Cover by Dan Scott

It took a while, but Prince of Wolves finally bested Lord of Runes in the number of reviews at 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 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.

Creative Colleagues: Heroic Fantasy Round 4

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

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 B&WDave 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

J.F. Lewis

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

Jane Lindskold

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

Nicole Luiken

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.

Doug NilesDouglas 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

Stephen D. Sullivan

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

Marc Tassin

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.


Creative Colleagues Roundtable: Heroic Fantasy Round 3

This December, my merry colleagues tackle questions on Heroic fantasy. Comment here on the blog before the end of December, and one of you will receive a free copy of Prince of Wolves, Master of Devils, Queen of ThornsKing of Chaos, or Winter Witch from

If you missed last week’s responses, catch up here.

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?

Jeff Grubb: Forgive me for kicking at your applecart, but I don’t know if I agree with the definitions of genre and subgenre.

But let me answer your question first: I started out reading mythology in grade school—no, wait—I started out reading about astronomy and wanting to know about the stories of the constellations and planets and from that got into mythology. From there I would say that my first Fantasy novel was Lord of the Rings, which for me came first, then backing up and reading The Hobbit (and then C.S. Lewis’ Silent Planet trilogy, but never Narnia).

But from looking at your second question, I think you’re using the broad definition of Traditional Fantasy as Heroic Fantasy, and then subgrouping it as Epic and S&S. I would divide Epic and Heroic as two separate parts of Trad Fantasy, and tuck Swords & Sorcery under Heroic. Under that definition the first Heroic Fantasy of the modern era that I encountered was Fritz Leiber’s Fafrhd and Grey Mouser stories.

Here’s my difference between the epic and heroic varieties: Epic is aimed at the outside world, Heroic and the internal and personal world. Epic is big stuff happening—The Illiad, the first Dragonlance Books, the Game of Thrones, Narnia, Lord of the Rings. You switch viewpoints often and individual characters may drop out or die entirely along the way.

Heroic Fantasy is dialed much further down, to the actions of individuals—Conan, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, The Odyssey, Cugel the Clever, and the vast bulk of Forgotten Realms books. (Yes, we have epics in the Realms, but even they tend to be strained through the Heroic lens.)

In any event, one has to run long and hard to escape the shadow of Grandfather Tolkien. So much of what is written in fantasy, particularly in the shared worlds we have occupied, are descendants from LotR, sometimes by several generations, but his influence is hardwired into us. Multiple races, strong moral or ethical concerns, mixtures of tech levels under myriad nationalities, changing the world through your actions—yeah, all of that comes JRRT.

I have written both—The Brother’s War for Magic: The Gathering is definitely in the epic category, and the Alias books are very heroic in nature. I have also played around with additions of other strains and varieties—The Wyvern’s Spur looks to another British Author—P.G. Wodehouse, for inspiration and characterization. Giogi and Bertie Wooster could get together at some pub and compare their awful aunts. Cormyr: A Novel was initially pitched as the fantasy version of a James Mitchner novel, where you get the history of Nebraska or some other land-locked state through the actions its people. I would go with epic for Cormyr, but its pieces are heroic.

Chris A. Jackson: I was much more into science fiction than fantasy as a kid, so the first novels that I read that could be called a heroic fantasy was the John Carter series by Edgar Rice Burroughs. That was a very long time ago, and a very long time before I started writing.

I think I’ve taken the heroic fantasy a different direction than Burroughs. I like my heroes to come from nothing, to struggle to attain their heroism, and to sometimes be on the wrong side of the “good vs bad” equation (at least as far as the law is concerned) at the beginning of the story. I also very much believe that heroes need to be flawed, fragile, imperfect, and fallible. I have difficulty with stories where the hero is always right, has the best solution to every problem, and always comes out on top.

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.

Howard Andrew Jones: My first was Fritz Leiber’s Swords Against Death, which wasn’t exactly a novel, but it was a book, and I’m going to count it because it had a huge impact upon me. I still hold that it’s the finest of the Fafrhd and Gray Mouser collections, and it opened a whole genre of adventure for me. But if we must get technical, the first novel I read in a sword-and-sorcery vein was Roger Zelazny’s Nine Princes in Amber, which also blew my doors off. The two of those novels had such an immense impact upon my preferences in writing. I love the witty banter and camaraderie to be found in Leiber, and the astonishing world building and hidden secrets in Zelazny. In a lot of ways Zelazny remains the alternative take on fantasy; few have really followed in his wake. His influence isn’t as apparent in my tie-in fiction, but I think it will be immediately obvious to anyone reading my upcoming series. As for Leiber, at his best, say in “Bazaar of the Bizarre” he’s so damned good he’s nigh untouchable, and you can only stand back and marvel about how everything works on a sentence level and a paragraph level and plot and character level… We’re still trying to catch up.

I’ve tried to bring a little bit of that Leiberish focus on characters into everything I write, although I’m always more interested in heroes than rogues, which means, I suppose, that I’m stepping out of his mold a little. It’s hardly alternative, it’s just the application of some of the things I liked in his writing and twisting them a little to fit in with my own preferences.

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?

Jeff Grubb: I think Epic Fantasy and S&S are both parts of Traditional fantasy, and that it is more of spectrum than a binary switch. We can say that a story is more heroic or low fantasy or one tends toward the high fantasy/epic end of the scale. It is more of a measurement than a classification of type.

Does your definition of Heroic Fantasy (which I’m going to call traditional) include such Urban fantasies as the Harrys—Dresden and Potter. Harry Potter also heads up a horde of YA Fantasy. Grimdark has a booth at the Tradfantasy fair, and even New Weird Fantasy, like China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station or Jay Lake’s Trial of Flowers have something to say to greater discussion. Magical Realism like Umberto Eco also has its say.

What would I keep out of Traditional/Heroic Fantasy? I would probably put Horror in its own pavilion, though even that has fantastic elements—The American Fantasy/Dark Fantasy tradition with Poe and Lovecraft and King, all uses fantastic parts but finds its way to different part of the bookstore. Its attempt to evoke something different that traditional fantasy. The sense of horror as opposed to wonder—the awful as opposed to the awesome, the sense of dread as opposed to triumph, all set these stories into another category that ignores whether they have orcs and/or dragons in them.

Chris A. Jackson: I’m a big fan of both peanut butter and chocolate, and the analogy. The edges of genres are breaking down so much now that splitting hairs between subgenres like “heroic fantasy” versus “swords and sorcery” seems to me rather like picking apart the ingredients in a dish like chili and trying to decide if it should be characterized as “Southwest cuisine,” “Tex-Mex,” or something else entirely. As with the food analogy, from a culinary standpoint, I understand the distinction, but I’d much rather simply make my chili and enjoy it.

Subgenres, from my point of view as a writer, can be traps. When I draft a story, I don’t sit down and decide if this story is going to be swords and sorcery or epic fantasy. I think of the premise, the characters, and the plot that needs to drive the story forward in a logical direction that real people would take. If the story goes epic, the novel or series could fall into the epic fantasy category. If the story stays small and not world-changing, we’re talking more swords and sorcery. Having my work characterized into these subgenres, or labeled with marketing categories like YA (And don’t get me started by trying to tell me that YA is a genre.) is always entertaining. Arguing whether it fits into one genre or another is rather like arguing with a reviewer; it’s an exercise in futility. Without any effort on my part, my work has fallen into many subgenres. I don’t argue about this issue at all, and never will. If a reader prefers to call my work “romantic fantasy” because there are always human (and sometimes not so human) love interests in the story, that’s fine with me. As long as they have fun reading it, my job is done.

Howard Andrew Jones: I don’t think that they’re mutually exclusive at all, although I’d much rather see S&S elements in Epic than Epic elements in S&S. To my mind at least, Epic often means bloat, and I am so very tired of vast sections of books that don’t really do anything but add page count. I tend to be impatient with my reading, though. Now if you could grant sword-and-sorcery pacing and put that in an Epic length novel—stripped of sword-and-sorcery’s worst characteristics like frying pan to fire plotting and sexism—that would be something to read. I’ve been hammering away at something that I suppose is an approach on that, but even at 120k it’s not really Epic size.

If sword-and-sorcery is old school metal edged out by Epic’s glam rock, then Grimdark is sort of like the punk assault on Epic’s glam rock, with roots in sword-and-sorcery. I’m all for it, but I tire a little of too much grit on my heroes so that they’re not actually heroic. Also, I get enough nihilism and brutality when I read the news. I want to read about heroes who dare to rise above all that.



Dave B&WDave 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.

Jeff Grubb

Jeff Grubb

Jeff Grubb is a best-selling author and award-winning game designer. He is one of the founders of both the Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms settings, and has written for Magic: the Gathering, Warcraft, and Star Wars. He currently keeps and maintains the world for the Guild Wars 2 game from ArenaNet. He lives in Seattle with his wife Kate and two horribly spoiled cats.

Chris A. Jackson

Chris A. Jackson

Chris A Jackson’s genres of choice are nautical fantasy, magical assassin stories, and now contemporary horror/fantasy. His novel “Dragon Dreams” was just released by The Ed Greenwood Group, his next Pathfinder Tales novel, Pirate’s Prophecy, will release in February, and his award-winning Weapon of Flesh series will continue next summer with Weapon of Pain.

Howard Andrew Jones

Howard Andrew Jones

Howard Andrew Jones is the author of three Pathfinder novels, the most recent of which is Beyond the Pool of Stars, and a critically acclaimed Arabian Fantasy series. He can be found lurking at, where he blogs about writing craft, gaming, fantasy and adventure fiction, and assorted nerdery.


Creative Colleagues: Heroic Fantasy Round 2

This December, my esteemed colleagues tackle questions on Heroic fantasy. Consider their answers a starting place to continue the conversation in comments. One randomly determined person who comments by the end of the month here, on the blog—not on one of the social media sites advertising this post—will receive a free copy of Prince of Wolves, Master of Devils, Queen of ThornsKing of Chaos, or Winter Witch from

If you missed last week’s responses, you can catch up here.

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?

Matt Forbeck: When I was an asthmatic kid being hauled back and forth from the specialists in Madison, Wisconsin, my dad took me to a bookstore and asked for a recommendation. The woman behind the counter gave him The Riddle-master of Hed by Patricia McKillip. I absolutely loved it, and I devoured the entire trilogy. After that, I discovered Terry Brooks’s Sword of Shannara and later The Lord of the Rings. I was hooked good.

When I was starting out, I think my writing emulated many of those high-fantasy tropes those books created and propagated. That’s especially true since my first published novels were Dungeons & Dragons books, which lean heavily on those tropes.

However, I also wrote Blood Bowl books back then, and those gleefully take those tropes apart and send them cartwheeling around the room. So there was clearly some room in my head for alternative takes. That likely came to a head with my Shotguns & Sorcery series, which blends heroic fantasy and detective noir tropes into a tasty cocktail that kicks like a hanged man’s boots.

Jaym Gates: First heroic fantasy novel: David Gemmell, and he  influenced not only my writing but also my life. There are few things that make me happier than that a favorite character—Jaim Graymauch—and I kind of share the same first name. I ran into Gemmell at the same time as Tolkien, just as I was headed into my teens. I learned a lot about antiheroes from him, and while I’d already tended to the dark side, he taught me how to create a morally complex antihero.

Kate Elliott followed not long after that, and blended Tolkien and Gemmell really well. I was an absolutely voracious reader as a teenager, so there’s no way I can remember everything, but those two stand out.

Scott Fitzgerald Gray: As I suspect is true of a lot of fantasy fans of my generation and white-bread English-speaking heritage, the first heroic fantasy novel I ever read was The Hobbit, at about nine years old. I actually consumed it twice in quick succession at that age—first when my third/fourth-grade class had it read to us aloud by our teachers, the awesome Mrs. Smith and Miss Vesterback, and then immediately afterward when I read it again for myself. And though I like to think I’ve pushed beyond the boundaries of Tolkien in my own writing (as one must), I do emulate The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in the same way a lot of other fantasy writers and game designers do — with an insufferable passion for detailing fictional worlds.

I’ve read The Hobbit a lot of times since third grade, but I still remember that initial exposure and the way the things that dragged me into Tolkien’s world were often far removed from the main plot. Rivendell and Elrond’s moon letters. Beorn’s story. Dale and Laketown. Those and so many of the other snippets of history and culture that Tolkien weaves into his narrative opened up my nine-year-old mind to the notion that great fantasy doesn’t just exist in the vacuum of the moment. Rather, great fantasy is built on all the other unseen and unheard stories that came before it, just as it should set up a sense of all the stories that might yet come.

Whenever I’m writing, I’m conscious that every tale of heroic fantasy is, in some way, the middle of some larger story. I’m conscious of the shape of the world I’m creating, and all the different cultural and historical threads from which that world is woven. Heroic fantasy is about the process by which the present churns up the past to generate the future. No matter how focused the short tale, no matter how long and convoluted the novel series, any fantasy story one can tell is effectively also a single act in some larger history. Of all the things Tolkien did that I loved—and as a counterpoint to the number of things he did in his fiction that I’m not crazy about—I think that’s the most significant for me.

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?

Matt Forbeck: No genres are mutually exclusive. They’re just sections on shelves in bookstores, ways we categorize individual works to make them easier to talk about as a group. We should mix and match them with undaunted delight. That’s how we come up with new and fresh ideas and stories out of even the most common ingredients.

Jaym Gates: I absolutely think we should mix them! I’m the first to say I can’t stand Game of Thrones, and this coming from the woman who still reads a lot of very dry politics and history books. When I want fantasy and SF, I want it to be different from life. S&S, on the other hand, can often be a wee bit shallow—again, Gemmell was one of my foundations, but I like some meat on the bone.

Phillip Jose Farmer’s The Magic Labyrinth is a great example: it’s epic in scope, but has all that gorgeous weirdness I love in Clark Ashton Smith and some of the other S&S luminaries. Most of the authors in the Pathfinder Tales novel line are doing rollicking good tales in an epic setting, which might be the best blending of the two subgenres.

I also think that there’s been a more subtle crossover. Epic fantasy is lightening up, and S&S is getting some meat on its bones. Baen and Pyr put out some really solid S&S offerings over the last few years and were recently joined by Angry Robot. The fantasy coming out of Orbit and Tor, meanwhile, has some pretty awesome action and adventure in its epic settings—particularly authors like N.K. Jemison (Dreamblood is as dark and nasty as anything from Clark Ashton Smith, but as rich and deep as any of the epics I grew up on!), Victor Milan (Dinosaur Knights), and Martha Wells (Stories of the Raksura). Epic is having more fun, I think, and S&S is growing up (this is not to cast shade on any of the previous works—see my bases of Tolkien and Gemmell!), and we all win.

More Epic S&S for all!

Scott Fitzgerald Gray: I’m always a big fan of shooting genre conventions in the head whenever possible, and as a result I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the different subgenres of heroic fantasy, either as a reader or a writer. I understand and appreciate them mechanically, and I think it’s entirely reasonable to be able to say, “I’ve read too many end-of-the-world multipart epics; recommend me something that’s more straightforward action and adventure.” But my big problem with subgenres is that for a lot of readers and writers, they can become an effective barrier to free creativity by creating a sense of boundary and exclusivity.

I think that sense of subgenre-as-limitation can work two ways, both of them potentially harmful. From the perspective of the writer, it’s counterproductive to say, “These things aren’t allowed in this subgenre, so I need to limit the scope of what I’m doing.” And from the perspective of the reader, it shortchanges the genre as a whole to have the expectation, “This particular subgenre doesn’t deal with [fill in the blank], so I’m obliged to ignore it.”

Looking at it another way, both epic fantasy and sword-and-sorcery have specific strengths. To cite the two most foundational examples, epic fantasy typically allows for maximum intensity in world-building, while sword-and-sorcery often provides better access to gritty character story. And to my mind, if one can identify both those things as individual strengths of the overall genre, why try to make them mutually exclusive? Fantasy is a genre built around the notion of bringing the imaginary to life. And as such, it shouldn’t bog down under notions of, “If you like reading A, you’ll hate reading B,” or “If you’re writing X, you’re not allowed to do Y.”

Matt Forbeck

Matt Forbeck

Matt Forbeck is an award-winning and New York Times-bestselling author and game designer. His latest work includes Halo: New Blood and Marvel’s The Avengers Encyclopedia. For more about him, visit

Jaym Gates

Jaym Gates

Jaym Gates is an editor, author, and communications specialist. In other words, she gets paid to use a lot of words. More info can be found at, or on Twitter as @JaymGates, because she needed more places to talk.

Scott Fitzgerald Gray

Scott Fitzgerald Gray

Scott Fitzgerald Gray (9th-level layabout, vindictive neutral) is a writer of fantasy and speculative fiction, a fiction editor, a story editor, and an editor and designer of roleplaying games—all of which means he finally has the job he really wanted when he was sixteen. His latest novel is Three Coins for Confession, the second book in the high-fantasy trilogy The Exile’s Blade.

Dave B&WDave 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.