Creative Colleagues: Steve Portillano-Barr

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.

Steve Portillano-Barr first hove into my view when he joined my Keeper’s Support Group for Masks of Nyarlathotep, one of the greatest roleplaying adventures ever published. The news that he was creating Syrinscape SoundSets for the great campaign thrilled those of us currently enticing groups of hapless investigators along the global path to madness and destruction.

Steve has designed SoundSets for the Peru, America, England, and Egypt chapters of the campaign, and they’re fantastic additions to an experience that already includes an embarrassing trove of high-quality supplements, like the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society’s Gamer Prop Box and Dark Adventure Theatre radio drama. When you put them all together, you can run an astonishingly immersive roleplaying experience.

Steve recently answered a few questions about his work and influences.


Are you more often thinking “jump scare” or “rising tension” when designing soundscapes? What’s the right balance?
Syrinscape lends itself well to both, with the Keeper easily able to switch between moods as the story necessitates. Many of the Call of Cthulhu stories focus strongly on the rising tension as the situation spirals ever closer to either madness or doom for the investigators. But it is important to also have those jump scare moments, where the Keeper can touch a button and all hell breaks loose. With Syrinscape, the sounds fade from one SoundSet into another, so when you have that jump scare it will make your heart leap. But, at the same time, the effect naturally flows from the previous sounds and not sound disjointed or like you have just stopped and started something.

Masks of Nyarlathotep is one of the most celebrated roleplaying campaigns of all time, and it’s based in historical times and events. How do you honor that history with your work?
I’m a huge fan of history and love reading about that particular time period, so working on the Call of Cthulhu soundsets and bringing the 20s to life has been amazing for me. With each of the chapters of Mask of Nyarlathotep, I’ve really tried to capture the spirit of the period and the locations. Each of the cities has been recreated using a mixture of foley work (by myself and the Syrinscape team), along with public domain recordings, audio shared as Creative Commons from various museums, and at times visits to some of the locations. Of course, period music really helps bring the scenes to life. The Old Bell Inn, which features when the Investigators head to Derby, is one of my local pubs, so I had to visit once or twice while drafting my outline for the chapter.

You can run Syrinscape from your computer, a tablet, or your phone.


Who are some of the sound designers or score composers whose work most influences you?
I am a huge fan of Hans Zimmerman and Lisa Gerrard. The soundtracks for Black Hawk Down and Gladiator are two of my favorites. Hans has such an amazing way of capturing the spirit of the moment with his music and he has such a distinctive sound that his work has always stood out for me. Lisa has an unforgettable voice and the ability to sings songs that make you feel as if you are listening to Arabic, Latin, or Croatian, yet she uses no true words to achieve that affect, just the tone of her voice.

For sound designers it would have to be Ben Burtt, who for me has worked on some of the most iconic films of my generation. He brought a more natural organic sound to foley work in a period when many of the sound effects for sci-fi films were electronic and computerized, one of the reasons why to me Star Wars: A New Hope still stands out as such an iconic movie.


Some of the most effective horror stories evoke not only visuals but scents, tastes, tactile feelings, and of course sounds. What are some of the stories whose non-visual imagery has stayed with you?
The use of the Goldberg Variations in the Hannibal franchise has always stood out to me. The mixture of the music, the imagery, and of course Hannibal’s unique character led to making Hannibal one of my favorite films despite its disturbing nature and violence. The opera scene accompanied by “Vide cor Meum” is one of the film’s most memorable scenes.

What’s some of your favorite music? How do you decide what influences get into your work and which ones you keep out?
I have an eclectic taste in music, ranging from classical right up to industrial rock. I’ve already mentioned Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard, but there are also other great artists like Regina Spektor and Trent Reznor that I like to listen to. To me, music and sounds can evoke such an emotional reaction. Often, my taste at any one given time depends on my mood or how I want my mood to be. That comes in really useful when deciding what music to use in my SoundSets as it helps me hone in on how I want the investigators to feel. Should the music be center stage or in the background, just loud enough to intrude on their thoughts?


Can you recommend five great horror films to watch this October?
I’m actually pretty squeamish when it comes to most horror movies, so I haven’t seen a lot. But my top five would have to be 28 Days Later, Resident Evil, Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal, and of course In the Mouth of Madness. I tend to prefer suspense thrillers over gore-fests!

You can sample and buy the Masks of Nyarlathotep SoundScapes directly from Syrinscape, who also offer many other sets for fantasy, SF, and horror RPGs.

Creative Colleagues: Marc Tassin

The inevitable Marc Tassin.

You’ve met Marc Tassin once or twice before on this blog. The former director of the Writer’s Symposium at Gen Con, he’s also a world-creating game designer. Half of his basement is a game room, and the other half is a shrine to Star Wars toys. A gamer since the 7th Grade, he designed his own RPG in high school and sold his first Dragon Magazine article in 2004.

His latest Kickstarter introduces the next wave of his grand opus, the World of Aetaltis. If you happen to be at Gen Con this year, you can find him at various events. If you whisper, “Dave sent me,” he might have a little gift for you.

You’ve mentioned learning from mistakes in previous Aetaltis Kickstarters. What would you have done differently?

I would have published the full campaign setting first. The books we put out got people excited, which is awesome, but when we couldn’t immediately follow up with the full setting it made it tough to keep people engaged. In fact, the more excited you get people with a thing, the more disappointed they are when they can’t immediately get more.

I’d also trust my instincts more. When we started, I ran with my crazy ideas, and it went great. Once more people got involved with the project, I got nervous. I grew conservative and tried to emulate what other companies did to make sure I didn’t let down the rest of the team. Instead of making things better, the safe path ground the whole project to a halt. It wasn’t until I stopped worrying about “the way the rest of the industry does it” and trusted my ideas that everything started popping again. And it’s way more fun doing it this way.

“Droth’s Blessing” by Russel Marks.

Aetaltis seems to have something for everyone, but what are some of the unique features of the setting? How do you balance the familiar with the unexpected in creating a world for gamers who are used to certain tropes but who don’t want the “same old” all the time?

There are a ton of new things to discover in Aetaltis—new races, new monsters, new lands—but I think the most unique aspect is the story I’ve wrapped around the world. It’s a story that is tied to the larger story of the universe where Aetaltis resides, and it hints at deeper mysteries that could significantly impact the world and its people (and thus the players).

And while it draws on traditional heroic fantasy ideas, I’ve added some modern twists. 

As an example, I included a clearly identifiable set of “bad guys,” the endrori. These are monsters who it is morally and unquestionably appropriate for the heroes to fight and defeat. At the same time, I’ve woven in more modern ideas about how something becomes “evil,” the issues of nature vs nurture, the question of personal choice, and the temptations of power. So you can still go out and fight the orcs without guilt or doubt, but there is a deeper story underneath it that taps into more modern concepts about the nature of evil.

As for making cool fantasy tropes and classic fantasy stuff work, I think it’s all about working out what made it a trope in the first place. Why is it that dwarves building grand underground cities is a requirement for us to recognize a fantasy race as dwarves, whereas other elements you can leave out and no one even notices? If you can work this out, and I’ve spent a ton of time working on this, you figure out what you can safely change while still benefiting from what we love about the thing.

Kevin Fiege (the guy behind the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe) is my hero when it comes to this. The guy has found the perfect formula for teasing out what makes Marvel and its characters part of the modern mythology of western culture. He knows which elements he can tweak, and which you don’t mess with. If I can pull of just a little of his magic with classic fantasy and Aetaltis, I’ll be thrilled,

Fiction for game settings seems less prevalent these days. Why do you think that is? Has something replaced it? 

I don’t think the problem is that something replaced the fiction for fantasy settings. In fact, I strongly believe that a market for it exists, maybe more today than ever before, but the state of the publishing industry makes it tricky for game companies to make it work financially. The things that made it possible to get amazing game fiction into people’s hands in the past aren’t there anymore. One of my goals with Aetaltis is to crack the code that lets us turn this around. Wish me luck on this one! I’m not the first person to try to solve this problem, but I’m going to try.

“Owlbear Attack” by Russel Marks.

More and more celebrities have become vocal about their love of roleplaying games, some of them even playing in online videos. Are the fans they’ve attracted different from “old gamers”? 

I love how many people are getting into roleplaying games. I couldn’t be happier. And it’s no surprise to me that this is happening. Roleplaying games are a blast. And the people discovering roleplaying games today aren’t any different from the veteran gamers. There are the usual generational differences, but that’s got nothing to do with the game. As gamers, they’re exactly like the folks who have been gaming for years.

What is the single most important element of a fantasy RPG adventure? A compelling villain? An intricate map? Gnarly monsters? Awesome treasure? Something else?

You need all that stuff, but the most important thing? A clear goal. If the heroes have a clear goal set before them, it drives the entire adventure. Every encounter is about that goal. Every creature they fight is an obstacle between them and their goal. And once they achieve the goal, they know they’ve won and have the satisfaction of having clearly achieved victory. And you don’t need to write the goal for them. If you can write the adventure in a way that compels the players to commit to a goal of their own right at the start, that works even better.

The World of Aetaltis Kickstarter has almost met its funding goal already with 24 more days to go. Go take a look!

Creative Colleagues: Jason Kapalka

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

In the summer of 2015, I noticed an intriguing Kickstarter campaign for an “experience” from The Mysterious Package Company. My perfect wife made me a gift of it, and I became an instant fan of the MPC. Even before the final “reveal” of my first experience, I’d become so enraptured that I subscribed to the company’s Curios & Conundrums, a periodical full of puzzles, stories, toys, and other sundries.

Much as I loved the subscription, the MPC’s experiences are the showstoppers. They range in complexity (and price), delivering a number of letters and parcels either to you or to an unwitting friend.

The creator listed for the Century Beast Kickstarter was Jason Kapalka, famous as the co-founder of PopCap games, through which he’d already stolen hours of my life with the games Plants vs. Zombies and Bejeweled. Oh, he claimed he was merely fronting the effort for the enigmatic Curator, but I had my suspicions. After all, it would take a mind as brilliant as the Curator’s to envision the Storm Crow Tavern, a nerd bar in Vancouver and later in Toronto. In addition to the MPC and Storm Crow, Jason is also currently creating “a series of comically violent horror puzzle games via Blue Wizard Digital.”

As Jason—or the Curator—has launched another Kickstarter, this one with the ominous name HASTUR. I thought it a propitious time to ask him a few questions about my favorite of his creations.

Curating The Mysterious Package Company must be like editing a magazine. What disparate talents must you gather to make that incredible thing work?

The Mysterious Package Company is a surprisingly large enterprise, with around two dozen full-time employees in a large, suitably ominous post-industrial warehouse in a bohemian district of Toronto. The employees, as you might imagine, are a varied lot, ranging from assembly-line packers of crates full of evil artifacts to artisans casting fake antiquities in-house to forgers of aged diaries and documents to assorted writers, graphic designers, e-commerce and website engineers, and—the really scary types—the odd accountant and procurement manager.

Most MPC experiences are collaborative and multi-disciplinary projects that involve a lot of odd specialties, from calligraphy to cryptography. They may start with a creative brief from me but usually end up as a joint project.

There’s a strong Mythos undercurrent to the MPC. What’s your history with the Mythos, especially in gaming?

I’ve been a fan of the Mythos from my teen years and was a rabid fan of the original Call of Cthulhu RPG. As a Keeper, my most memorable experience was a disastrous one-shot that ended with the entire party being ritually sacrificed by Deep Ones; as a player, I was the sole survivor of the Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign, who, half-mad, lame, and hideously scarred, gave his life at the climax to save the world, at least temporarily.

Most recently I was very proud of the Crate of Cthulhu that we offered at the MPC, which is a faithful “physicalization” of the Call of Cthulhu novella, including most of the newspaper articles and statues/bas-reliefs mentioned by Lovecraft, brought together in a reasonably plausible crate meant to have been abandoned in a basement of the Natural History Museum in London for decades.

MPC used to offer a subscription to Curios & Conundrums. What special challenges did that complex wonder pose?

C&C was a very strange project that evolved from a simple newsletter in the early days of the MPC to an elaborately themed quarterly box. In its latter incarnation it was envisioned as a kind of more demented, literate, eerie answer to the various Loot and Nerd Crates full of name-brand merch. Instead, we offered things like papercraft toys of burning Victorian insane asylums and pewter statues of unspeakable Egyptian gods of madness.

It was certainly a challenge creating an entirely new set of artifacts and storylines every couple of months, but I’m proud of the final results.

When you envision the ideal customer of MPC, what sorts of films, books, and games do you suppose are already favorites?

With the exception of our McElroy Brothers Adventure Zone collaboration on Taako, which has a pretty obvious media tie-in, our audience tends to favor horror and mystery material, as you might have guessed. A more divisive line is between the fans of narrative and collectibles and those who are more interested in puzzle-solving. The puzzlers really want intense, challenging riddles and secrets in their experiences to decipher, while the more narrative-inclined fans can be stymied or frustrated by codes and cryptograms. Trying to satisfy both types of customer in that regard can be challenging!

And of course, Lovecraft and related writers are favorites of many of our customers.

How did the first Storm Crow Tavern come about, and how has it expanded? What can visitors to expect to find inside?

The first Storm Crow Tavern was spawned in Vancouver in 2011 from an idea that me and my partners had: if sports fans have sports bars, why can’t “nerds” have a “nerd bar” that appeals to their own interests, from sci-fi memorabilia to board and card games?

The first Storm Crow was relatively modest in size and ambition, but each successive restaurant has expanded in size and, er, grandeur, with the most recently opened location, the Storm Crow Manor in Toronto, being housed in a grand 100-year-old Victorian manor with a seating capacity of over 400, including the patio. The Manor is basically a series of themed genre rooms, from a postapocalyptic cyberpunk lounge with faulty holograms and mysterious steam-blasting pipes, to an eerie asylum bar with haunted portraits and electric-chair seating, to a futuristic Warhammer 40k-inspired space dungeon sub-basement.

The Curator of MPC embodies the sort of courteous, formal correspondence one associates with a bygone age. What made you enlist such a personage in the age of email and video games?

Part of my interest in projects such as the MPC and Storm Crow post-PopCap was due to their real-world, analog nature. I love video games, but I think that many people miss the tactile experience when you get too tied up in digital realms. So the common thread of the Storm Crow and the MPC is that they are both real, physical things, whether that’s a bar or a nailed-shut wooden crate in your post box.

Given that throwback nature, it was natural for “The Curator” to affect a somewhat courtly and antiquarian prose style. That said, the MPC is still largely a denizen of the electronic world, with all of its sales being driven through a web site, so we are looking at ways to “modernize” the eeriness without losing that quality.

You’ve already presented an experience involving the Yellow King. Why have you returned with Hastur? Aren’t you afraid too many unwitting fools will say the name three times?

In fact, we have referenced the King in at least two experiences so far, including the original King in Yellow and then the later Carcosa. So HASTUR is in fact the concluding segment of a “trilogy” of sorts. While it’s perfectly suitable for new customers, longtime MPC fans may find some interesting linkages.

Creative Colleagues: Christopher West’s Big Castle

You’ve met Christopher West here before, but this time it’s for a project all GMs (and many others) will find interesting: a huge set of castle maps perfect for a home base or a villain’s lair. I’ve backed many of Chris’s previous Kickstarters, and not only because he made such beautiful maps for me back in the days of Star Wars Gamer. They’re great both for illuminating an existing setting and for inspiring a new scenario that you design yourself.

Here’s our brief chat about the Halls of Legend.

As a GM, how do you use maps (and miniatures) to create an adventure?

Both as a GM and as a mapmaker, I seek to create encounter locations that will be both memorable and exciting. With that in mind, I will often put together a story arc for my games designed to include specific environments that I’ve already mapped—and I will map specific environments that will support that sort of storytelling. There’s a synergy between the two activities that serves me well.

In essence, I plot my encounters around a cool location for which I have an interesting map, and then give my villains a reason to be there that grounds the story in that location.

You’re famous for SF and fantasy maps. What sorts of maps would you create for horror scenarios?

That depends a lot on the type of horror, honestly. For monster-themed horror, I like to take modern heroes out of their environment and drop them in lairs, either in natural or otherworldly—but far from help, in either case. My Forsaken Lands maps are mean to work for that sort of environment. But for more of an urban nightmare type horror, you can’t beat dark alleyways, slimy sewers, abandoned warehouses, condemned tenement buildings, or a nice slaughterhouse converted into a cultist hideout.

Some gamers hate the 5-foot-square grid, while others (like me) love it. What would you say to the naysayers to persuade them to try the grid?

That’s some treacherous ground on which to plant a flag! Both camps have valid arguments to make, so I try to stay as neutral as possible and invite both sides to meet me in the middle. I do include a 1-inch (5-foot) grid in nearly all of my poster maps, because there are a lot of tactical game systems which you can’t really play without it—but at the same time, I work to keep that grid as natural and unobtrusive as possible, preferring a subtle grid over one that distracts you from the environment. That way the players that want a grid can find it, and the players that don’t want a grid can ignore it.

But, to answer your question: I like using a grid because it can help to sidestep arguments that sometimes arise about cover, concealment, and line of sight during an encounter. If there’s a grid on the map and the objects showing on the map can clearly delineate the positions of walls and cover around your characters, it gives everyone a shared reference point and makes a lot of those arguments unnecessary.

Other gamers eschew maps and minis altogether, preferring “theater of the mind.” What do you feel maps & minis can add to the game?

I’ve run and played in satisfying games that eschew maps and minis, but I really do prefer to use them whenever possible—especially (but not exclusively) during action scenes.

In the middle of combat, in almost every RPG I’ve ever played, the GM has his or her hands full trying to manage the scene and communicate with each of the players, in turn, about the circumstances involving their characters. It’s a lot to keep track of. Along the way, the details of the scenery itself can become overlooked, forgotten, or muddled. But if you have a detailed map of the environment, the GM doesn’t need to remind each player, each turn, about that computer console on the far wall, or the stack of crates they could use for cover, the barrels in the corner that just might contain explosive fuel, or that rickety scaffolding behind the bad guys that a clever PC might find a way to collapse on top of them…

If a map has these details, it can add a richness to your storytelling that enhances your game-play and inspires the players to use the scenery instead of just making dice roll after dice roll until the opponents run out of hit points.

In my experience, games with maps and minis become much more cinematic experiences instead of a number-crunching exercise, and I just love that.

What’s the best moment from one of your own games that involved a map?

One of my favorite stories about maps and minis involves a Star Wars adventure I ran. The players were driving a cargo transport—a floating truck—through a canyon in the Jundland Wastes, when an act of sabotage dropped the truck to the ground and set up what would become a double-ambush encounter with both marauding pirates and opportunistic tusken raiders, on a canyon ledge with a sharp ravine on their left and a tall cliff wall on their right.

But first the player characters needed to unload the truck so they could try to repair it—which meant that when they were attacked, they had crates of various sizes scattered on the ground around the truck. The map in this encounter was hand-drawn, but the truck and the cargo crates were represented with my Sci-Fi Cargo Tiles as individual cut-out pieces on top of the map. The players had their own miniatures for their characters, and I had miniatures for the pirates, their speeder bikes and skiff, their E-Web cannon, and the sandpeople and banthas who crashed the party. It was a big, busy map with all kinds of cover and a lot of moving pieces by the end.

What made it memorable, though, was that all of those pieces of cut-out terrain changed the game in ways I couldn’t have predicted. The player characters climbed on top of them, and hid behind them, but they also moved them around, strategically. As they defeated several pirates, their crashing speeder bikes changed the battlefield dramatically, blasting crates across the map and smashing open one massive container with warning labels—which unleashed a hungry nexu creature that joined the fray and started eating people.

It was one of the most exciting combat scenes any of us had ever been involved in, and it culminated with a crazed bantha bull-rushing the party’s vehicle right over the cliff’s edge—which gave the party’s young Jedi a chance to shine, saving the truck and levitating it back to them with a timely and amazing critical success on her Force power check.

All of these twists and turns were made possible because all of these extra map features were physical objects on top of the map that the players and I could personally manipulate, and that real-world ability to move them around inspired us to do exactly that, narratively within the story. If everything had been drawn in place, the action wouldn’t have been nearly so dynamic.

Be sure to check out Chris’s latest Kickstarter.

Creative Colleagues: Ryan Schifrin & Richard Lee Byers

Ryan Schifrin

Ryan Schifrin

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.

Earlier this year, a friend pointed me to the Basil & Moebius short film “No Rest for the Wicked.” I was amazed I hadn’t heard of it before, considering the star power involved and the delightful odd-couple heroes inspired by the same duos who’d influenced Radovan and the Count.

I was worried for a minute when I saw there was a monkey, but the damned thing could act! When I learned that the film’s creator was the son of legendary composer Lalo Schifrin, I understood where he’d got his talent—but it still didn’t explain how he’d persuaded Ray Park, Zachary Levi, Kane Hodder and the great Malcolm McDowell to star in this little film.

A little later I put two and two together and realized Ryan Schifrin was the director of Abominable and a story in Tales of Halloween. And soon after that, he told me about his Basil & Moebius stories, novels, and comics—whose co-writers were all familiar names. Among them was Richard Lee Byers, who I’ll henceforth think of as the Basil to my Moebius in Forgotten Realms, Pathfinder, and upcoming still-secret fiction lines. His most recent Basil & Moebius adventure is The Picture of Aleister Crowley, and his next is the graphic novel The Fate of All Fools.

Richard is one of the tie-in writers whose prolific output puts the rest of us to shame, so we’ve got a couple of Creative Colleagues interviews lined up for this fall. For this first one, we invited Ryan to join in as we discuss all things Basil & Moebius.

Ryan, what’s the origin of Basil & Moebius?

Ryan Schifrin: I was at a live professional tennis tournament watching a doubles match. A Frenchman and German were on the same team, and I noticed their camaraderie and imagined them in Europe at a pub, drunk and looking for all sorts of mischief to get into. I thought, what if they were thieves instead of tennis players—basically the characters imposed themselves on me out of the blue, and I had no idea what story I’d put them in, but they felt absolutely real to me. I later thought, okay one will be proficient at martial arts, a Queen’s Guard by day who looks like he’s got a boring job, but his nightlife is full of these wild adventures. My dog’s name is Mister Fox, and I remember reading about a Sherlock Holmes-type mouse named Basil of Baker Street when I was a kid.

Moebius isn’t named after the comic book artist but rather the Möbius strip, which my father tried explaining to me when I was very young. That name stuck in my imagination. Then Origin games, the people behind the Ultima games, made a game named Moebius which I bought because I liked the name.

Author Richard Lee Byers

Author Richard Lee Byers

Richard, you’re an old hand at tie-in fiction. What was it about these characters that made writing them appeal to you?

Richard Lee Byers: I’ve always loved rogues and anti-heroes, the kind of adventurers who are out for themselves rather than to serve some lofty ideal, but who are not without compassion and end up grudgingly doing the right thing when it really matters. If they’re witty as they go about their business, so much the better. Like Fritz Leiber’s Gray Mouser and Fafhrd (my favorite fictional characters ever), Basil and Moebius are very much in this mold.

I also like the world in which Basil and Moebius operate. The source material for the series is our modern mythology, the realm of fringe science, urban legend, and conspiracy theory. There’s a lot of fun stuff to play with.

Finally, the tone or range of tones in the series make it fun. I can blend action, horror, crime, espionage, fantasy, science fiction, and comedy. In the universe Ryan has created, it all works together.

Ryan, you’ve also written and directed a film featuring Basil & Moebius. Please tell us a bit about the experience of casting and shooting it.

Ryan Schifrin: My goal from the start has been to do a live-action film or television series with Basil & Moebius. When I was writing the very first story, Bloodstone, it was as a screenplay. I was randomly seated next to Ray Park at the Saturn Awards. I realized he’d be the perfect Basil. He’s a world-class martial artist, he’s got a wicked sense of humor, and he was Darth Maul! So I literally wrote the script with him in mind, and he later read it and said he’d love to play Basil.

I almost got the funding to do the feature a few times, but things would always fall apart and we could never get it off the ground. At this point, the comics were coming out, so I figured it would be fun to do a short film which could also be a proof of concept. Ray was still keen to play Basil, and I needed a Moebius. I had become friends with Zach Levi, from NBC’s Chuck through a mutual friend. Zach can do any accent, and he’s hilarious and can be debonair as well. I asked him, and he said yes.

For the villain, we needed an actor with gravitas and I’ve always wanted to work with Malcolm McDowell. He’d worked with my father in the 70s on Voyage of the Damned, so I was able to get in touch with him. Kane Hodder, who played the best Jason ever in Friday the 13th Part 7, plays one of the Ghoul Brothers.

Since I was self-funding this, we didn’t have a lot of time or money, we used my wife’s dad’s house as the location (it was supposed to be a penthouse in London), and we shot it in a few days. It was fun and it was stressful, because we had animals (a monkey), stunts, visual FX, make-up FX. All the stuff they tell you to avoid using on a short schedule.

The monkey, Crystal, was amazing by the way— she’d get everything on the first take. I think Malcolm McDowell had a bad experience once working with a monkey, so he was looking very dubious until they did their first shot together and Crystal jumps out of her cage, stands up in a karate pose and holds up a blade. Malcolm’s jaw dropped and he exclaimed, “My God! Who needs actors?!”

Cover by Ken Kelley

Cover by Ken Kelley

Richard, which of the duo is your favorite? Or, if neither, what makes them such a good odd couple?

Richard Lee Byers: I’m extremely fond of both of them, but if I had to pick one, I guess it would be Basil. I like the way his down-to-earth practicality and perspective play off the marvels he encounters. They also play off well against Moebius’s narcissism and supreme (and sometimes unwarranted) self-confidence.


Tell us a bit about your initial collaborating process and what, if anything, has changed about it over time. In what ways do you two complement each other?

Ryan Schifrin: Richard is one of those pros who has worked in shared universes, from Forgotten Realms, to Pathfinder, and so on, so he’s used to collaborating and playing in different sandboxes. My job was just to make sure he knew the voice of the characters, so his stories and my stories and Tim’s stories would all feel like the same characters are in them. I’m a big believer in giving as much creative freedom as possible, so I basically told him that he can write any story he wants. I gave him a list of some of the MacGuffin’s we’d used in other stories, and locations, so we wouldn’t be redundant, but otherwise he could do anything he wants—except kill off Basil and Moebius!

He’d send me an outline, I’d give any notes or suggestions, and he’d go off and write. I don’t think I ever hardly had any notes. On The Gold Bugs Affair, the main note I had was that I wanted the Collector to end up keeping two of the cyborg pilots because I thought they were so cool we should use them in future adventures—which we did in the Fate of All Fools graphic novel.

Since our collaboration is long distance, not a lot has changed, I think as long as I’m clear up front what the goals are, Richard then can find better and unique solutions than I can ever think of. The main thing is, I trust Basil and Moebius being in Richard’s hands. He knows the characters. Especially I think he’s got Moebius’s use of language and humor spot on. I try to focus on structure and action set-pieces—the frame of the house, and I can trust Richard to come in and furnish and decorate it with his impeccable taste.

Richard, now that you’ve written both prose and comic versions of these characters, how do you compare the experience of working in either medium?

Richard Lee Byers: When Ryan brought me onboard with Basil and Moebius, I was pretty much already an old hand at fantasy adventure told in prose, and I simply approached the novelettes in my usual way. Scripting a graphic novel, though, was a new experience for me, and as I set about it, I quickly became aware of just how few words the writer has available. I had to focus on what absolutely needed to be said, say it succinctly, and cut everything else. That was true for establishing character and all the other aspects of the tale. I also had to trust the artist to convey a lot through facial expression, body language, etc. Happily, that trust was not misplaced. The artist Ryan recruited is great. I am immodest enough to say I thought the script was a good piece of writing, but the art enhances it in spectacular fashion.

Ryan, you’re collaborating with a number of people on these stories. What are some of the surprising strengths of your collaborators?

Ryan Schifrin: Let me just say how incredibly lucky I’ve been to collaborate with these incredibly gifted people, whose work I’ve been a fan of—as in I’m a big fanboy myself. I remember reading Larry Hama’s GI Joe comics when I was eight years old, and reading Tim Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy when Star Wars was a dormant franchise. It was inspired work. And Richard, of course, I think Dissolution was the first book of his I read, and it was a twisted take on Fafhrd and the Mouser (which by the way, are also huge inspirations for Basil & Moebius). Larry is a master of condensing action and exposition, Tim is brilliant with detail and plotting, and Richard’s dark sense of humor always cracks me up.

Larry doesn’t really outline anything, especially in comics, he makes it up as he goes along, so I think he’s surprising himself and the reader at the same time. He literally doesn’t know how it’s going to end until he gets there, and I admire how he seemingly paints himself into a corner, and always finds a solution you’d never think of. With the prose short stories we’ve done, I’ve seen outlines from all the authors ahead of time, so there were no plot twists I was unaware of. Tim’s always done a job good writing about military adventure, especially his Hand of Judgement stormtroopers. So I did urge him to write Basil-centric stories, which would focus on his early career in the S.A.S. and loop in his old military buddies and things like that. Richard would then focus on more of the Moebius-centric stories, and his moral grey areas and twisted sense of humor. The other authors all did great work, but Tim and Richard wrote multiple stories, so I’m mentioning those specifically.

Richard Lee Byers: At the start, Ryan asked me to do stories analogous to the standard episodes of a modern TV drama. Basil and Moebius have an adventure that essentially leaves them where we found them. It is (if I did my job well) a whole lot of fun, but if it wasn’t part of the series, all the other stories would still be just the same.

After I’d written a couple stories and (I trust) not screwed anything up too badly, Ryan and I started talking about how the series as a whole could evolve, and in due course he invited me to work with him on a story analogous to the “mythology” episode of a TV show, a tale that addresses the characters’ basic situation and has the potential to change the status quo. The Fate of All Fools is that story. Basil and Moebius fans, this is what it’s all been building up to. It’s not the end of the saga (thank God), but it is the finale to the first grand movement of it.

What are the creative advantages of prose, comics, and film respectively? Have you encountered a story you felt could be told better by one of those media? Or do Basil & Moebius stories naturally lend themselves to visual more than prose storytelling?

Ryan Schifrin: This is a great question. First and foremost, to me the characters are the important thing, not the medium. In prose and comics, you don’t have to worry about the budget. You can be as epic as you want, can blow up all the stuff you want. Prose allows you to get into the thoughts and motivations of a character the most easily.

Comics are fantastic because they’re visual, and you can really show what you see in your head and anyone can instantly “get it.” Film allows you to have actors, who always bring something unexpected, and music, which can really add so much emotion. I never have a story and then try and figure out which medium would best fit it. I do the opposite—I first look at the medium and then decide, given the parameters, what story would best work within them.

In film, the main parameter is always money. How much can we afford to spend on actors, on sets, on renting equipment, payroll for crew, catering? The short film had to take place in one location, because of this. So that sets a creative challenge, to craft a story that works best in that setting. If you like the characters, I’d like to believe that the medium doesn’t matter, you want to go with them on whatever journey they are on.

Keep an eye on Magnetic Press for Basil & Moebius news.

 

Creative Colleagues: Brian D. Anderson & Steven Savile

Cover by Gene Mollica

Cover by Gene Mollica

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.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a clever introduction to this interview. Then I made a rookie mistake while closing Word.

Today, all I’ve got is that Steven Savile is one of those prolific writers whose output makes the rest of us weep in envy. He’s also an awfully decent bloke, the sort with whom I chat about our expatriate lives on opposite sides of the pond. Perhaps one day we’ll meet in Prague to share that pint.

Brian I don’t know at all except from the glowing things Steve says about his character and the glowing reviews his readers write about his Godling Chronicles. His sales speak for themselves, and of course the fraternity of heroic fantasy writers demands that I stand him a pint one day. Probably not in Prague, but still.

I sent the boys a few questions on the release of their collaboration, Akiri.

Whether casting your mind back to your own childhood or when playing with your child, what do you think of the role of toys and games in developing storytelling skills? 

Brian D. Anderson and replacement unit

Brian D. Anderson and replacement unit

Brian D. Anderson: Interesting. I’ve never considered playing with toys to be a part of that aspect of development. But I suppose it must have contributed to some degree. When I think back, I don’t remember my games being any more imaginative than those of the other kids. Maybe we’re all storytellers when we are young. I absolutely believe games and toys facilitate our capacity for abstract thought. But as hard as I try, I don’t remember there being a beginning, middle, or end to most of it. I guess my games were more theme based, but without structure. I just played until I grew bored.

If I were to trace the original moment, the ground zero of me wanting to become a storyteller, it would have to be listening to my grandfather tell recount moments from his life during the Great Depression. I can still vividly remember trying to guess how a particular adventure would unfold, long before it reached a conclusion, and more often than not be absolutely wrong in my guesses. He was truly gifted when it came to making the mundane seem exciting. He had a wonderfully dry wit that combined with a southern flavor had me hanging on his every word and more often than not laughing my ass off. One of his adventures focused on the difficulty he had providing food for his family. I can still hear his words in my mind: “If someone would have tied a steak to my head, I’d have beaten my brains out with my tongue trying to get it.” After all these years, I still crack a smile thinking about it.

In the end, I think it’s a combination of many things. Toys and games, without a doubt, helped give me the tools. But everything was in the abstract, without form or function or any understanding of how it all fit together. It was other influences that gave it meaning.

Steven Savile

Steven Savile

Steven Savile: If I close my eyes and think back my earliest memories all revolve around make believe. I hadn’t really thought about it until you asked, but be it games of cowboys and indians, cops and robbers, my Six Million Dollar Man with bionic vision or my many Action Men replete with Eagle and non-Eagle eyes, their trucks and helicopters, HQs, towers and other stuff, we were always telling stories to each other that involved serious derring-do on behalf of our characters. I can remember when I was maybe seven or eight I had three Action Man tapes that told stories that ran about an hour, acted out. There was a jungle one, and I can still hear the narrator splashing through water and panting ‘Dogs… lose… the scent… in water…’ as gunfire exploded around him. You know what, those tapes were brilliant. They were probably my first exposure to tie-in writing of any variety, and probably one of the only gigs I’d go back into the tie-in pool to do, because of the nostalgia value.

I’m a kid of the 70s in terms of that kind of thing, obsessed with Starsky & Hutch, The Incredible Hulk and Doctor Who. Doctor Who and Blake’s Seven got us into the playground on a Monday morning pretending to be these guys. I just had a flashback to orchestrating a lightsaber fight between Obi-Wan (a lad called Dennis I haven’t thought about in decades) and Darth Vader (Scott, my best friend at the time) as they acted out the fateful scene where Darth strikes the old Jedi down, making him more powerful than he could ever imagine. The funny thing was they hadn’t seen Star Wars, and I’d been traumatized by the death, so I was completely making it up. It didn’t bear any resemblance to the movie. Boy, did they complain when they finally saw it, but I still feel my directorial debut was pretty strong,

I’m a weird one though. There’s a strong love of genre going way back, sure, but most of my childhood I was climbing rocks, falling out of trees, playing football and cricket and tennis and any other sport imaginable. When I was 19 I ran a half marathon just because a mate phoned up that morning and said one of their team had dropped out and they’d lose the sponsorship money. I was the first to finish from their group, which had been training for months. I was captain of the football, captain of the cricket for my age range, came second in the cross-country run, took first place in long jump, high jump, 100m, 200m, and 400m, and won the 1500 in the Under 16s age group.

For the longest time I didn’t read, didn’t play games, unless they involved balls, and generally figured my future lay in sport somewhere. Even when the writing bug kicked in it was a decision to be a sports writer, not a storyteller. The urge to tell stories didn’t really kick in until much later. I guess I was 21­–22 when I wrote and sold my first piece. The thing is, during one long summer vacation with nothing to do I checked a book out of the library—David Eddings’ Enchanter’s Endgame—and was blown away by it. Of course, I had no idea it was the fifth book in a series, so I went back and read the first four in a week. Then it was Hugh Cook’s Wizard and the Warriors, Louise Cooper’s Time Master Trilogy, Elric, Thomas Covenant, David Gemmell’s Legend, Waylander, and King Beyond the Gate, and with the same sort of relentless single-mindedness that had served well on the sports field I threw myself into discovering all of these new worlds. Then, somewhere along the line, maybe when I was reading Jonathan Wylie’s series or Lyndon Hardy’s (one or the other), I had a moment of “You know, I can do this.” I’d never been a campfire storyteller or a big entertainer, but something just clicked.

Reading a story is different from hearing a story. Especially with a work released first (or only) as an audiobook, how does that knowledge affect your writing choices?

Brian D. Anderson: It doesn’t. But I would agree it is different. I was skeptical at first when the popularity of audiobooks began to surge. I’m old school. I like an actual book in hand, complete with dog-eared pages, highlighted sentences, rips and tears from repeated reads, and a cover barely hanging on to the spine because I’ve been unwilling to leave it at home. For those of you who are aghast at such brutal treatment of a book, I only do that to mass market paperbacks. I still don’t own a Kindle, and it’s unlikely I ever will.

Given this, I was surprised to find myself genuinely enjoying audio books. More than that, I really love them. It’s so hard to find time to read these days. And the mountain of books I want to read is growing taller and taller. With audio, I can enjoy a story whenever I want. I’ve read three books—well, listened to three to be accurate—while walking on the treadmill. Two more while just running errands. It’s awesome!  Don’t get me wrong. It’s no replacement for curling up on the couch and reading. But if I had to wait around for those moments, it would take me weeks to read one book.

So while audio doesn’t impact the way I write, it has influenced the way I think about my readers. Having a quality audio book is important. More so than I would have thought only a few years ago. Though I can’t see myself writing a book for audio only, neither can I see myself writing one without audio as an option.

Steven Savile: Oh man, I can’t listen to my stuff in audio. I had the privilege of doing one of the first Torchwood audios with the cast narrating—I got Naoko Mori, and I’m told she’s fantastic, but I listened to the first paragraph, heard her put the emphasis on all the wrong parts of the sentences, and turned off. It was torture. In the writing process it had been interesting, too, from an editorial aspect—my first draft was sent back with a note asking if I was a sadist, basically because I’d given a bunch of ‘tough’ names like Katsani (I think it’s easy, but hey-ho) to characters, and written these long convoluted sentences that were tongue-twisters. So I was asked to rewrite it top to bottom and make it short punchy sentences, and to repeat crucial information because people don’t retain stuff when they’re listening.

Akiri‘s interesting in that we got a great deal from Audible, because Brian is basically the audio king when it comes to fantasy—but we always wrote it as a novel to be read the old-fashioned way. It does mean that I’ve had some really interesting emails from the narrator asking how I put the emphasis on these bizarre fantasy world constructions and naming conventions we’ve used. I kinda pity the guy, really. Brian has a habit of throwing a bazillion letters down and saying that looks cool, let’s have that. Honest. It’s him. It’s all him.

What draws you to heroic fantasy when crime novels and other genres have such a larger audience?

Brian D. Anderson: I would say it has to do with what inspired me to become a writer in the first place. I was about eleven years old and my father and I were spending the night at my grandparent’s house. As usual, I slept in my uncle’s childhood bedroom. The headboard of the bed had a bookshelf in the center with a small cubby hole on either side—completely packed with books along with an assortment of odds and ends that my grandparents had never thrown away, and uncle Bob had never cared to take with him. Among the various books was the entire Tom Swift Junior series. The house was deathly quiet at night, and I had a hard time sleeping there. So I would read the adventures of Tom Swift to put myself to sleep.

I had thumbed through nearly every book at one time or another, with the exception of one: A tattered paperback copy of The Fellowship of the Ring. Kids get excited by colorful covers and this particular edition was lackluster to say the least. But having read everything else, I gave it a shot. As you can imagine, I was enthralled. The next morning, I called my uncle and begged him to let me take the book home when we left. Naturally, he said yes. From that moment on I devoured any fantasy book I could get my hands on.

We didn’t have a local library, but fortunately the K&B drugstore across the street had a remarkably well-stocked book section. By the time I was thirteen, I was convinced that I would grow up and write the next great fantasy adventure. I suppose that in a small way I’ve realized that dream. I wouldn’t say I’ve written anything that belongs in the same conversation as Tolkien’s work, but I am a writer of fantasy novels. And I love every second of it.

Fantasy novels have a better chance of seeing screen adaptations these days, but it’s still a rare fantasy film or TV series that does the original justice. Apart from special effects, what unique challenges does fantasy pose to live-action adaptation?

With CGI there are very few technological limitations preventing screen adaptations from being made. The challenge for any film based on a novel is how to stay true to the story in a way that works on the big screen. The screenplay has to tease out the essence of a book in such a way that fans are not alienated by the changes necessary for it to translate to a movie. For Example: Peter Jackson did a fantastic job with The Lord of the Rings. But if you really examine the movie closely, it strays from the original plot quite a bit. Even still, Jackson was able to remain faithful to the story enough so that it was very much recognizable as a Tolkien epic.

Steven Savile: You’re asking the man whose latest novel is a collaboration with the excellent Robert Greenberger called Sherlock Holmes and the Murder at Sorrow’s Crown, released by Titan basically now… and whose next novel out in January, also from Titan is a standalone crime novel called Parallel Lines? Honestly, I’m my own worst nightmare—I write where the interest takes me. I’m an idiot in that regard. If I had any business sense I would have written Gold, the follow up to Silver, which was my best-selling novel by miles, when I wrote London Macabre (a sprawling dark Victoriana novel of golems and magic that really wasn’t steampunk when steampunk was hot) instead. I’ve got a bad habit of making weird choices. Fantasy though is where my heart is. It’s what I keep coming back to. It’s what shaped me. It’s where I feel most at home.

The first story I ever sold, “Coming for to Carry You Home,” was published twenty-five years ago. I sent a copy to my dad. He read the first line and locked it in a drawer, telling me it was filth. It was a riff on the careful-what-you-wish-for Faustus idea, but it was from the point of view of a woman in the deep south in the fifties and opened with her recounting some of the names she’d been called by white kids. Mum read it and said, “Well, it’s a bit… strange. You’ve got a funny imagination.” Neither of them read anything I wrote for years after that, but now my mum’s pretty much hooked. I love the fact she’s always like, “That was really good!” as if it’s a surprise that after thirty novels I’m beginning to get the hang of making shit up.

For the past couple of decades, “Grimdark” and antiheroes have become popular. Do we need an antidote to that gritty fantasy? Or do morally ambiguous protagonists make fantasy more legitimate somehow?

Brian D. Anderson: I don’t think we need an antidote. Nor do I think anti-heroes legitimize a fantasy novel. Readers like what they like. It’s that simple. My first series was considered young adult. Sex was always fade-to-black and there was very little profanity. The hero was very much a goody-goody and his friends people with strong moral convictions. It sold quite well and gained me a very strong fan base.

The next series had far more adult content. This did in fact upset a few of my readers. But overall, people didn’t seem to mind the grittier aspects. Some actually thought it to be an improvement. I have to admit that initially it felt odd writing sexually charged scenes to their natural conclusion. It was difficult to balance hot and steamy with tasteful and romantic. And strong language needed to be distributed in such a way that it didn’t lose its impact and didn’t read as if I was using profanity just for the sake of being vulgar. The situational content was probably the trickiest. Subject matter such as the abuse of women, murder, and torture needed to be relevant to the story. My intention was not to be shocking or edgy. I just wanted the story to ring true. And that meant adding a bit more realism than I had done previously.

My latest work with Steven is in some ways rather dark. Akiri is a pragmatic badass. He’d kill you without hesitation and not feel the least bit guilty about it. Yet he is not cold-blooded and needs to have a reason to kill beyond simple bloodlust. So in that respect he might be one of those anti-heroes you mentioned. But his sidekick, Kyra, offsets the brutality with idealism. She’s a bit of a crusader. I guess in a way she’s the antidote for what would otherwise be pure slash and hack, dark fantasy.

I personally enjoy stories that can strike a balance between realism and idealism. I suppose it reflects the way I try to live my life—taking a bit from column A and a bit from column B. Then washing it down with a double Jack and a Heineken. There are worse ways to live.

Steven Savile: You know, last time I was on here with Joe we were talking about Ghosts of the Conquered which came out under the Matthew Caine name—I think I told you how I wrote the original version in 2001/2 right? It was rejected by every publisher at the time who described it as great, but too unremittingly dark, too bleak, too nasty, fantasy isn’t meant to be like that. I’ve got great rejection letters for it. Then something changed and fantasy became grim and dark. I’d originally done a lot of horror stuff. so I brought my horror sensibilities to the fantasy novel. You could say I was ahead of my time, I guess, because a handful of years later Joe Abercrombie and others were turning the genre on its head and Grimdark was cool.

Me, I think I’m just a contrary bastard, because now I want to go back to a kind of writing where heroes are heroes, they face morally compromising problems and do the right thing, they’re the guy you hope has your back when the shit hits the fan. I want to go back to the wonder of first experiencing Eddings and Feist and Brooks, and see the marvelous, not just the mundane reality of shit and blood when someone dies. I’ve been talking with my agent for three of four years about it, and I’m constantly moaning about it, and she, wonderfully, says the same thing every time: “Maybe you should do something about it.”

Which is one of the great things about partnering with Brian. He’s got that kind of Eddings/Feist sensibility. He wants his stuff to be fast-moving, action-driven excitement, opening more and more doors to more and more trouble, though of course in Akiri we’ve got something of the R.E. Howard’s Conan about our hero, the stranger who rides into town, kicks ass, takes names and moves on. We’re looking forward to exploring more of the world with him as the series progresses. Audible have bought four novels initially, all to come out over the next 12 months, so we’re focused on the world right now, so maybe—just maybe—I’m doing what my agent kept telling me to do and offering a bit of an antidote to the unremitting gloom.

 

Hurry! Go right now and bookmark Brian’s blog and Steven’s website.