Creative Colleagues: Josh Vogt

Josh Vogt

Josh Vogt

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.

Josh Vogt and I met in San Antonio, Texas, at a Worldcon room party. He’d already written “The Weeping Blade” for Paizo’s web fiction, and I had a hunch it wouldn’t be the last we saw of him in Golarion. Sure enough, he soon after published “Hunter’s Folley” and was hard at work outlining Forge of Ashes, the latest of the Pathfinder Tales novels. As if we didn’t have enough in common, I learned he’s also written for roleplaying games and was soon contributing to Privateer Press’s Skull Island eXpeditions.

Once we connected online, I was impressed to see how closely Josh keeps tabs on freelance opportunities, both those that look promising and those about which Admiral Ackbar would warn, “It’s a trap!” Josh is also passionate about fitness, especially encouraging his fellow writers to push away from the desk and stretch our legs now and then.

I loved the outline and the few chapters I was able to read while buried under my own deadline, but I’m excited to see the final version of Josh’s Pathfinder Tales novel, Forge of Ashes, available now.

1. Whether it’s a robot or a dark elf, a protagonist ends up being essentially human or else we can’t really sympathize with her. That said, in what ways do you make your dwarf heroine different from human? How about your other non-human characters?

With Akina, there are certainly going to be some “surface level” qualities that set her apart at first glance. Her dwarven strength and heritage, longer lifespan, a sensitivity to the earth itself and ability to see in the dark…all of those sorts of attributes. The dwarves of Golarion also have a fascinating history of how they came to the surface (and what happened to those left behind) and I enjoyed taking Akina through both a physical and inner journey as she discovers just how much that ancient history remains relevant to her. Her reason for fighting is more than mere survival or glory. It’s in her blood.

Ondorum, Akina’s oread companion, was also a delight to create. As an oread, with earth elemental ancestry, he has this inhuman patience that has been further honed by his martial studies. Even though they’re from different races—and possess extremely different temperaments—Akina and Ondorum actually relate to one another in deeper ways with their shared passions and protectiveness of those they truly care for. Some might view Ondorum as naive because of how he tries to treat everyone and everything as possessing of inherent value. It’s a bit of an odd perspective in a world where there are many divisive lines, be it through war, claimed territories, faith, simple banditry, or feuds that go back centuries.

2. You keep an eye on markets and job opportunities for writers, and sometimes I wonder just how much of your time that consumes. How do you balance hustling for work with writing for yourself as well as keeping up with contract gigs?

Actually, in the years I’ve been freelancing, I’ve gotten my gig-hunting process down to be rather streamlined. And I don’t have to be doing it constantly, as I now have past clients who keep bringing work to me. Those times that I do search for new contracts, if I put in a couple solid hours for a few days, I will often pull together enough work to keep me busy for at least a week or two, meaning I can scale back the job hunt again for a while.

With my personal writing, my fiction and all, I will often work to get freelance projects checked off and then give myself a couple days of just focusing on my stories. It lets me be more immersed in the process rather than constantly hopping all around. So it’s less like juggling and more just shifting into one mode for a stretch at a time. Obviously, my hope over the years to come is that I can start focusing more exclusively on my novels and other stories, but freelancing continues to pay the bills!

Cover by Eric Belisle.

Cover by Eric Belisle.

3. Likewise, you’ve a keen interest in fitness for writers. Apart from the obvious, that is the sedentary nature of the job of writing, how is fitness useful to the craft of writing?

Walking and being physically active in general helps me think. Sometimes when I’m trying to untangle a complicated plot issue, going on a run or hitting the gym can get more blood flowing to the brain. It also takes a little of my direct focus off the issue, so my subconscious might start processing it more and a solution will eventually emerge. I also think doing activities like obstacle course races, martial arts, or crossfit classes are excellent for introducing one’s self to new challenges and learn how to train and persevere—critical qualities for any career writer.

4. How much research do you do when writing for a setting like Pathfinder, which has thousands of pages of setting and rules material? That is, how much is enough without being too much? And how much did you absorb as a gamer before writing a Pathfinder Tales novel?

I’ve gamed much of my life and have been decently familiar with a wide variety of settings from when I was younger. I hadn’t done much since after college, so I did need a refresher. I read through every manual I could get my hand on, focusing first on locations, lore, and creatures relevant to the novel’s specific plot. Then I did some more general research so I could bring in details or mention things a bit further afield from the main action. The fun thing was, a number of items, like city layouts, hadn’t been nailed down in official canon yet, so I was able to develop those details along the way. I also read all the other Pathfinder Tales novels so I had a good idea what what other authors had explored and could see just how in-depth they’d gone. As I wrote, my editor, James, was invaluable and could easily answer any question I had or offer suggestions for particular scenes.

5. How much, if any, does writing for a shared-world setting inspire your original work? Do you ever find yourself reserving ideas for yourself rather than committing them to a project you don’t own or control? Or do you find yourself borrowing or slightly altering your own ideas for both original and work-for-hire projects?

It goes both ways. I always believe the story I’m telling, whether it’s an original setting or shared world, deserves my best effort. So if I have a big inspiration while drafting a tie-in story, I won’t hoard that by any means. There are always more ideas to be had. Honestly, sometimes I can’t use an idea simply because it doesn’t work within that specific world or isn’t allowed by the underlying nature of the game. But in original work, I make the rules!

Check out Josh’s latest news and advice at his website.

 

 

Creative Colleagues: Angel Leigh McCoy

Angel McCoy

Angel Leigh McCoy

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.

Since the mid-90s, Angel Leigh McCoy and I have had a sort of virtual nodding acquaintance. While we’ve worked and played with many of the same people, we’ve actually met only a few times, usually just long enough for a round of handshakes and collegial nods. The last was in the lobby at the World Fantasy Convention in Toronto, where we paused long enough to agree that it really was strange that we hadn’t run into each other more often, considering our past jobs and our many mutual friends.

Thus, I wasn’t terribly surprised to learn that Angel was launching a fiction magazine inspired by my favorite television show of all time. Her Another Dimension Kickstarter takes its cues from the great Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone.

That’s all I need to say, isn’t it? Hie thee to the Kickstarter campaign!

1. What is it about The Twilight Zone stories that makes you hold them up as an example for the fiction you’re looking to publish?

Over the past six years, I’ve read hundreds of short horror stories submitted to a couple different slush piles, and I’ve noticed a trend. So many of the stories I see have no teeth. They rely on gore, sex, or shock value to produce a sense of horror. They have no twist at the end that makes you cringe just that little bit more. They don’t take you anywhere you didn’t already expect to be going. So many of them are left open-ended, with the onus placed on the reader to “decide what happened.”

I don’t know what causes this. Perhaps the craft of writing the short story has gotten swallowed by the large number of writers who don’t understand that it is a craft. There’s the feeling today that anyone can write, and it’s just not true. The stories on The Twilight Zone were well-crafted tales of horror that began and, more importantly, ended. They didn’t rely on gore or shocking sexual/violent situations to be scary. They made you think and wonder if maybe this could happen to you one day. They were character-driven, not disgusting-new-way-to-torture-driven.

I know there are skilled writers out there who take their craft seriously and who don’t write in stream-of-conscious mode. They work and rework their stories, bring them to a horrifying conclusion that makes your belly drop. I’m looking for those writers.

I can be very specific about the things I look for in a story:

  • That it has a fleshed-out main character.
  • That it creates a sense of dread.
  • That it makes you examine your own choices and your society.
  • That it doesn’t leave the reader wondering what the hell just happened.
  • That it actually has an ending that ties the story off, usually a twist of some sort that makes it all the more horrific.

Rod Serling was a master craftsman. His stories had all these elements. Richard Matheson, as well, understood what makes a good short story. In more recent days, the TV show Black Mirror has hit the note I’m seeking. If I could impart their knowledge and their craftsmanship to all the writers striving to make it in this crazy publishing world, I’d be ecstatic.

2. How important is the twist to stories in general? Have audiences become too clever for the average twist to work? Or does “literary” fiction simply not value plot as highly as genre fiction does?

Those stories that manage to surprise me (and I will admit, they’re few and far between) make me instantly love and respect them. But, the surprise isn’t enough. It has to be a twist on what’s already been coming with the story, and it has to follow the logic of the story. You can’t just toss in a random scary clown at the end and say, “Boo!” You have to lead up to it.

The twist is as much about taking it one step farther as it is about throwing in a curve ball. An example in the horror genre would be in the Black Mirror television show. If you haven’t seen this, I strongly recommend it. It is on Netflix. In several of its episodes, there is a twist that I, at least, wasn’t expecting. In one episode, called “White Bear,” you think you’re watching a woman flee from hunters in a strange future world, only to discover that something completely different is happening, and even that she’s not the person you thought she was. I don’t want to give away spoilers. Just go watch this TV show. It’s very much The Twilight Zone evolved to fit a more evolved audience.

Audiences are quite clever (and world-weary, media-numbed, and cynical), but then writers are clever too. Good writers don’t just tell the obvious story but look for the added twist of the blade that will make it all the more interesting for the reader. They think about the meta of the story, the larger implications of it.

3. In terms of prose, do you cleave to the “clear window” philosophy or do you enjoy more poetic language?

Both have their time and place, though I will admit that the moment I can’t see what’s happening in my mind’s eye is the moment you’ve lost me as a reader. There’s both an art and a craft to writing, and the craft isn’t just about spelling. It’s about choosing the right words to clearly convey what you want the reader to imagine/experience/feel/know in any given moment of your story. If you feel that going purple is the right move, then do it. But, do it on purpose, and do it so that it works. Just spilling purple ink all over the page doesn’t make good writing. You’re not there to show your cleverness with rhyme, alliteration, metaphor, hyperbole, or an abundance of fancy adjectives. Those things can actually be quite distracting and short-sighted. You’re there to convey a story.

Cover by Anja Millen

Cover by Anja Millen

4. What are the scariest story, novel, and movie that you’ve ever seen?
Woo, this is the hardest question of all. There are so many! I have to admit that my choices are affected by the fact that I was an impressionable young woman/girl when I encountered them. They scared me and, dare I say it, even scarred me.

As an adult, I don’t get scared, but I do get horrified. And that’s an important distinction. I never really think that Hannibal Lecter is coming to eat me. And yet, there’s something about his personality as portrayed that takes cannibalism and makes it truly horrifying.

“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. This story may well have been the one that taught me not all monsters are hairy and have fangs.

The Exorcist. This novel stuck with me for decades, and I’ve never forgotten it. I read the book before I saw the movie.

This one gets a tie: Carrie, the original, not the remake. This movie had me so tense by the end that, when the (spoiler) comes out of the ground, I burst into tears and then cried for ten minutes. I was, admittedly, 13 years old at the time. But, I’ve never forgotten that moment. And the other was Jaws. To this day, I hate being in deep water and even have the occasional moment of panic in concrete swimming pools.

5. What advantage does prose fiction have over film and games?

With prose, the writer has powers and opportunities that the filmmaker and game designer don’t. You can be clearer about what’s happening, describing things that most people would miss if watching a movie or playing a game. You can build the reader’s experience with greater control of their emotional journey. You have more time and space to build to your climax with prose. And you can describe the invisible thoughts and feelings of the characters in greater detail.

With a film, you have to choose carefully what you show from moment to moment. Thus, they tend to have a narrower perspective than prose. It’s the old complaint that the movie doesn’t play exactly like the book. There’s a reason for this. The creative philosophy is often one of cutting to improve rather than one of embellishing to improve.

The same is true with video games. You’re limited in what you can show and share about a character’s thoughts, feelings, and activities, depending on the point of view (which is usually quite limited). You have to tell the story within a much smaller box than if you had a whole novel in which to allow it to unfold.

While the sight and sound is good and can relay a lot of information in a very short time, it’s still not as hardy as a good novel.

Keep an eye on Angel’s latest acts of horror at her website.

Creative Colleagues: Mike Selinker

Mike Selinker

Mike Selinker

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.

I first met Mike Selinker when he was wrangling volunteers for a convention, and I was on an embassy to smooth over some friction between RPGA contributors and the staff I’d just joined. It was a high-stress environment for everyone, not entirely conducive to the the best of first impressions. Fortunately, Mike’s charming wife, Evon, later went out of her way to offer me a home-made sandwich while I was running a game. Home-made sandwiches smooth over all manner of false starts.

A few years later, after I’d moved from Lake Geneva to Seattle, where Mike was already working for Wizards of the Coast, I’d got to know him better through a few social occasions but mostly through his design work, which I admired. I wanted his crossword puzzles in Dragon magazine, and he agreed to sell me some. That’s when we became actual colleagues. Since then, my respect for his work has only grown.

Mike and his team at Lone Shark Games made a huge splash with the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game a little while back, and now they’re launching their own game, Apocrypha, via a Kickstarter campaign.

1. For the lay-gamer, what’s the essential difference between a puzzle and a game? And what are some of the different design challenges of each form?

My definition, after years of trying to figure that out, is this:

A game is an activity where, if fairly constructed, two sides given the same advantages will have a roughly equal chance to win. A puzzle is an activity where, if fairly constructed, one side will have all the advantages, except that the disadvantaged side is expected to win.

I speak a lot on this subject here.

They are quite different to design for, of course. But I think they have very strong similarities. You are always aiming for elegance, interactivity, and the spark of brilliance. You get those three, you’ve got something great.

2. What’s so compelling about apocalyptic settings? Do they work better when they are linked to the dominant religion of the target audience? That is, is the Exorcist creepier than horror stories based on non-Judeo-Christian lore?

Apocalypses themselves are boring to me. The time right before the apocalypse, though, that’s the gold mine. When we are at a point of tension, where we don’t know what our way of life will become, that’s where the good stories come.

The religious aspect is interesting to me. There’s a little bit of “write what you know,” and because I know that stuff, it’s easy for me to write about it. It’s easy to wreck something that you understand.

But it’s also hardwired into the Christian culture. We have a lot of people who seem like they wouldn’t mind if the Book of Revelation showed up tomorrow with all its dragons and trumpets. Me, not so much. But boy, is it fun to write about.

That said, when there’s a set-up you give me, and you’ve spent two thousand years working on it, you shouldn’t be surprised when I leap on it and twist it to my purposes.

Art by Matthew Stewart.

Art by Matthew Stewart.

3. What are some of the differences between the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game and Apocrypha? And how do those differences reflect the difference in setting, tone, and atmosphere?

They’re siblings. They don’t talk a lot, and one of them moved into the creepy shack behind the Piggly Wiggly, but they definitely share the same DNA. You build a character, it improves over dozens of games, you beat scenarios, you get new stuff. But they depart from each other from there. Character growth through memories is a whole lot different than character growth through “level progression.” Pathfinder is linear, and Apocrypha is nonlinear (and occasionally non-Euclidean). In Pathfinder, exploration is easy and helping is restricted; in Apocrypha, investigation is restricted and helping is easy. All of that comes from the setting and atmosphere: In Pathfinder, we want you to feel like you’re in charge of the world; in Apocrypha, we want you to feel like the world is closing in on you.

4. You’re immersed not only in games but in geek culture. What are some of the most interesting overlaps you’ve found between games, fiction, music, television, and other geek media?

Somehow, I became the w00tstock Generation’s board game designer of choice. My games aren’t notably better than those of my friends, but I fit into that world really well. So I hang out with famous authors and geek musicians and TV writers and comedians, all of whom share a love of the same things I love. And when one of us has a crazy project, all of us get involved in that thing in some way or another. That’s why, at Emerald City Comic Con, I didn’t share a booth with another game company; I shared a booth with artist Patrick Race and musicians Molly Lewis and Marian Call. When you look at all the projects all these people do, we are kind of a traveling freak show, and you never know who’s going to show up.

5. Puzzles and games depend on rules, while many aspects of creative art seem to defy or at least resist such restrictions. How does the friction between structure and imaginative freedom hinder a creative work? How does it improve it?

I am a creator of boxes. To get through the day—to actually make anything at all—I have to close off some avenues of creativity and try to define what it is I’m making. But I can’t do it in such a way that limits the possibilities of the work I’m creating. So I start by making a box that is probably impossible to fill. And along the way I find the challenges of filling that box, and come up with solutions that fill it and expand it and change it from square to round. So while some people will say “Think outside the box!” I instead say “Make your own box!”

Also, I pay really creative people to figure out how to do the things I think are impossible. They usually wrack their brains to come up with something amazing, and then I say, “See, I knew it was possible all along!”

Keep an eye on Lone Shark Games at their website or on Twitter. Mike’s also on Twitter.

And don’t forget to check out the Apocrypha Kickstarter.

Creative Colleagues: Fred Fields

Fred Fields

Fred Fields

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.

I first met Fred Fields at TSR, when I was in periodicals and he in the art department. We didn’t spend much time together, but he was always friendly and cool, and nearly every month I’d see his latest work on the cover of one of our latest products. His was one of the styles that helped define the Forgotten Realms novel line.

Fred has recently launched a Kickstarter campaign for an ineffably beautiful and hideous Cthulhu dice tower, available unpainted, airbrushed, or painted by the master himself. Check it out, especially the video of his sculpting the tower.

1. As an artist who often uses life models, you also envision some unearthly subjects. Do you draw purely from your imagination? Or do you start with a real object/creature and add variations?

Well, you hit on an interesting point. Mixing photo reference and imagined things and making them look like they belong together is a challenge. If I take photo reference of people, props, costumes, and places, then how do you make the imagined creatures artistically fit into the mix? Early in my career I would just make up creatures. They never really looked like they belonged in the paintings with the other characters. I know that some illustrators would sculpt their creatures. I knew I could sculpt a bit so I started sculpting small maquettes. I’d sculpt monsters and photograph them in the same lighting that I shot the characters in. Suddenly the monsters seemed to not only belong in the painting but they became more believable. More alive!

2. Many illustrators of the fantastic are drawn to the Cthulhu mythos. What is it about those subjects that most appeals to you?

Well, I came late to the party. I was not a big reader as a kid. I started listening to audio books while I work. I decided that there were a ton of classics out there that I needed to explore. “The Call of Cthulhu” was one of those classic stories. When I worked for TSR, I did a painting for a cover depicting a mindflayer. At the time I’d never heard of Cthulhu. Once I became aware of the story that visually influenced the mindflayer, I really wanted to paint a Cthulhu. There are so many different ways that he has been depicted. The descriptions in the story are just enough so as to let the imagination fill in the dark and slimy blanks. I think every illustrator enjoys depicting a classic character while putting their own mark on it, especially if it’s been depicted by some of the great illustrators. It’s like walking in the footsteps of giants.

Sculpture and painting by Fred Fields

Sculpture and painting by Fred Fields

4. Since you weren’t a big reader, what attracted you to fantasy illustration? Who were some of the artists whose works drew you to embrace their subject matter?

I always had an affinity for Fantasy movies. I grew up on Jason and the Argonauts, The Seven Voyages of Sinbad, Dragonslayer, Bakshi’s The Hobbit and Fire and Ice. I was fairly young when my parents bought for me the first two Fantastic Art of Frank Frazetta books. I’m not sure why they knew I would like it, but it was my first glimpse into the world of fantasy art. In fact it was my only window. I pored over those books. I knew every brush stroke of every painting. My drawings began leaning toward what I was seeing. Every time Frank put out another art book, I bought it. I was really limited to the books that the local book shop carried. I later picked up The Fantastic Art of Boris and Michael Whelan’s first art book. It wasn’t until I was older that I began looking back in time at the works of the old masters.

4. Working in different media can require a writer to adapt mentally, but I can hardly imagine how difficult it is to move between sketches, paintings, sculptures, and other visual arts. How do you adapt?

I actually find each shift as a breath of fresh air. If I’ve done several paintings in a row and get a chance to do a sculpture, it’s a welcome change of pace. Sketching is the foundation for both paintings and sculptures, so I do that rather often. Honestly I see the different disciplines as different spokes of a common wheel. It’s all art to me. But if I go too long without painting, I get anxious and grouchy.

5. Just as writers draw inspiration from films, often for their scripts and performances, I imagine the same is true for visual artists. Are there particular filmmakers whose works inspire you? Art directors? Make-up artists? Special-effects? 

I draw from a lot of different places; paintings, film, stories, song lyrics. My favorite films don’t necessarily inspire me artistically. Some do but most don’t. The Godfather isn’t going to give me ideas of how to paint a wizard. I do sometimes seek out genre movie to fit a project. I appreciate CG art and effects when it’s believable. I appreciate directors who know how not to overdo the CG art and effects. CG art and effects should be used to enhance a movie, not overwhelm me or distract me from a bad story. I appreciate make-up special effects. Back in the TSR days, I had a subscription to Fangoria Magazine.

I think that when it comes to inspiration it isn’t so important where you get it from but that you get it and on a regular basis. You can’t just continue to take from the creative tank. You have to nourish and replenish the tank and do it often. I get more inspiration from a Museum than anything else. It makes want to rush home and paint.

Check out Fred’s Kickstarter, and keep tabs on his future projects at his website.

Creative Colleagues: Keith Baker

Keith Baker

Keith Baker

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.

While I knew him by reputation, I first met Keith Baker at the Calgary Comics & Entertainment Expo, where we indulged in that hoariest of author traditions and traded our novels. You may know him as the creator of the Eberron setting or the deliciously wicked Gloom card game. At the time of this post, he’s minding a Kickstarter campaign for the Phoenix: Dawn Command card-based roleplaying game, which I just noticed is now a Kickstarter Staff Pick!

When he’s not designing games or writing fiction, Keith walks the earth like Caine from Kung Fu, running games for the common people everywhere.

1. All roleplaying games have an element of story, and you’re a novelist as well as a game designer. In what ways do you approach story differently in prose fiction compared with a roleplaying game? And how about a card game? And other sorts of games? 

My favorite thing about RPGs is that they allow collaborative storytelling. When I write a novel, it is inherently my story. When I run a session of an RPG, it’s something that I am creating with a group of people. When I traveled the world in 2009, I ran a particular D&D scenario 59 times. No session played exactly the same, and it was always fun for me to see the new approaches and ideas that each group brought to the table. It also lets you tailor elements to the individual group—what do they care about? What frightens them? This is also what I enjoy about my card game Gloom. Storytelling isn’t required, but the game provides a framework that helps inspire stories, and the things that people come up with are my favorite aspect of playing the game. My current project Phoenix draws on both of these aspects—calling on the players to collaborate in the story, and providing lots of optional hooks for to inspire storytelling.

2. Tell us more about how death strengthens and defines the characters in Phoenix: Dawn Command? What inspired you to use death as such an integral element of the game’s story?

The defining element of the heroes of Phoenix: Dawn Command is the ability to return from death stronger than before. You don’t gain power by killing others; instead, you advance by dying and learning lessons from each life and death. Mechanically this is represented by adding cards to your deck—gaining new ongoing and short-term abilities, along with additional health and mystical energy.

However, there’s a few restrictions. You can only come back seven times. You don’t come back right away. Each time you die you become stronger, but you’re also getting closer to the end. In addition, the abilities you gain are based on the reasons for your death. We have six Schools in Phoenix, each of which have certain powers and each of which is tied to a different sort of death. If you died because you weren’t tough enough, you will learn Durant lessons—abilities that help with survival. If you died sacrificing yourself for others, you can gain Devoted powers that help you strengthen others in the future. And so on. So it’s not just a power bump; it’s about thinking of what brought you to death and what you’re taking away from it, which helps create a sense of character evolution.

Why death? In part it’s tied to the setting of the game. Phoenix takes place in a world that’s been fighting a losing struggle against a host of supernatural horrors. At the start of the game, even the true nature of the threat remains a mystery; one of the most important things players can do is to learn why these attacks are happening. As a result, you are regularly placed in situations where the odds are stacked against you and where success of the mission is more important than your own personal survival. It’s a setting that frequently calls for heroic sacrifice, but in most games choosing to die simply isn’t an option. In Phoenix there are consequences for death: again, you have a limited number of lives, you don’t come back right away or where you died, and most missions are time-sensitive and there will be consequences if the entire team falls. It’s not a trivial thing, but it’s a setting where sacrifices have to be made and a system where you can make those sacrifices without its being the end of your story.

Phoenix

Cover by Veronica Ewing.

3. Phoenix: Dawn Command is a roleplaying game that uses cards instead of the traditional dice. What advantages do cards offer this particular game? 

The most immediate effect is that cards offer the players a greater degree of narrative control. In a dice-based system I can see a demon, make a dramatic heartfelt speech, use my biggest attack… and then roll a one. In Phoenix, I can look at my hand and tell if I have the cards I need to make that attack successful… and if not, what I’d have to sacrifice to push myself beyond my normal limits. Card draw is random, and I may simply not have what I need to succeed in a particular moment. But if that’s the case I know that, and it becomes a question of how I can contribute with the cards I do have.

Essentially, this is a game where you may be laying down your life to make a last stand… but at least you have a sense of exactly what you can accomplish with that sacrifice instead of having that be entirely up to chance.

4. Now that you’re in the thick of a Kickstarter campaign, what has surprised you about it in either a good or a bad way? Does the platform aid your creative process (with backer feedback) or drain it (by making you act more like a business manager)?

The actual act of running the Kickstarter—handling day-to-day questions and communications—isn’t that bad. But frankly, I’d never have done this on my own precisely because of the amount of business management that’s involved around the Kickstarter. Getting quotes from printers. Figuring out domestic and international fulfillment. Warehousing. Distribution beyond the Kickstarter. I love writing and designing games, but this isn’t my strength. Luckily, I have a business partner who’s on top of all of those things and gives me confidence in our plans. But it’s not something I’d going into casually. Money can solve these problems—there are people you can pay to do all of these things—but it’s important to realize that there’s far more to a successful Kickstarter than just having a good idea for a game.

5. Many gamers and game masters are storytellers, but not all end up producing fiction, games, or comics themselves. Where’s the bridge that leads from gaming as a hobby to designing or writing professionally? Are the tools different? Is it a matter of butt-in-chair? Is it a question of talent?

One of the big questions is the motivation for making the leap. For many people, the best part about gaming is creating a story with friends. When I was running games around the world, one of my hosts described it as creating a “personal mythology”—stories that bound his friends together, but had no real meaning for anyone else. It’s much harder to create a product that anyone will like than to come up with a story that you know your personal friends will enjoy. Beyond that, it’s the same as any other sort of writing: starting with a good idea, having the discipline to see it through, and being prepared to deal with rejection or the need to make changes to meet the needs of the final audience.

So if there’s a gaming group that’s been creating amazing stories and having a fantastic time for a decade, I don’t consider them failures for not taking those tales to a wider audience!

 

Keep tabs on Keith’s latest projects at his website or on Twitter.

Creative Colleagues: Andrew Foley

Andrew Foley

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.

Andrew Foley scared me when we first met.

One look at his scowling visage across the “land yacht” we took from Edmonton to San Diego, and I knew he was full of grumps. Thus I gave him a wide berth on the way south. But then there was a Comic-Con miracle! The show cheered him up so much that he was not only approachable but actually fun and interesting on the way back, and so we got to know him and his lovely bride.

Since then, Andrew and Tiina have become occasional guests at our movie nights and geek parties. Andrew always shows up looking grim and forbidding as Mr. Hyde, but the moment he starts talking to people, the good doctor returns.

When I had to make a choice between continuing to work on Baldur’s Gate or writing a novel or two every year, it was Andrew I introduced to the boss as a prospective replacement. Since he took over, he’s managed to shame my productivity by not only keeping up with the day job but also continuing to write screenplays on the side.

Along with SG Wong, Axel Howerton, and Margaret Curelas, Andrew joins me for the Writing 101 panels at the Calgary Comics and Entertainment Expo this weekend. Visit us if you’re there.

1. As a writer of prose fiction, screenplays, comics, and video games, what’s one thing that each of those media does better than the other? And can you think of a time you took a lesson from one medium and applied it to another?

Prose lets you explore characters in a way other media can’t, from the inside out. You can delve into their interior lives with a specificity you won’t get in primarily visual media, without the word count limitations you’d encounter in comics or most video games, at least the mainstream ones.

Comics are unique in the way they allow creators to juxtapose and integrate images and text. Lots of video games have image and text, but for the most part the text’s purpose as a visual element is primarily utilitarian, and the images are dynamic and directly affected by each player’s actions, so combining just the right phrase with just the right image is hard to manage without removing the interactive quality that makes games games. Even in those instances that allow game designers to match word and picture precisely, text is usually going to be constrained within the limits of the user interface, rather than an integrated part of a specific image’s design.

Movies and TV shows have a huge advantage in terms of focusing viewers’ attention where the creators want it—you can’t get a jump scare out of prose or comics.

Games allow the player to participate in and guide the narrative to a degree the other media mentioned don’t. It could be argued that every individual audience member has a unique experience interacting with a given work, but traditional narrative media generally tell stories to passive audiences rather than cooperatively creating a story with an active one.

As for lessons taken from one medium to another, off the top of my head I can’t think of a time I took something and applied it, at least not in a way that got the best result possible. There’s a basic skill set that’s applicable across the board, but I’ve found the requirements of each medium are so specific that applying techniques that work in one to another is a risky business.

For instance, when I write screenplays or comic scripts, characters’ dialogue is constantly getting cut off by other characters. That works fine in those media. When I started in video games, I wrote dialogue much the same way. But having someone read half a sentence, then read and choose from three options for what their character says that interrupts that sentence before it’s finished requires some mental gymnastics and more good will than I’m comfortable asking a player for. A writer can’t build up a rhythm of dialogue in video games the way they can in media where one line is automatically followed by another. Even when a non-player character interrupts another NPC, outside of cut-scenes, Baldur’s Gate players generally have to actively choose to receive the next line. No actor is going to come in and cut it off mid-sentence; it’s not even in the next word balloon, which visually ties the first line and the response/interruption together. It’s on a whole other screen, completely in the player’s control, completely out of mine.

Realizing that kind of back and forth wasn’t going to work in the context of the game I was writing was extremely jarring. So was realizing that including specific angles for every shot wasn’t going to fly in a commercial screenplay the way it could in a comic script, because it’s the director’s job to figure out how to shoot a scene, not the screenwriter’s. And that I couldn’t have a 300-word inner monologue delving into a character’s thought processes in a comic like I could in a novel, because the physical space on a comics page couldn’t accommodate that. And that a sight gag that would work on screen wasn’t going to be funny if the only thing I had to convey it with was text. The degree to which things don’t carry over from medium to medium is a lesson I’m constantly learning.

2. Also, as a writer of both original and tie-in work, how does the “blank page” of the former compare with the “giant story bible” of the latter? Are there ways in which tie-in work challenges you more or differently than your original work? And of course vice versa.

The challenge of giant story bible work is producing something you’re happy with that’s recognizably part of the franchise you’re working on. People come to the Baldur’s Gate games looking for all sorts of things, but “something written by Andrew Foley” isn’t one of them. The job is to create work that fits as seamlessly into the established material as possible, and that’s usually going to mean modifying your authorial voice to some extent.

On the upside, you have access to a lot of resources you wouldn’t if you were starting from scratch. If you’re generating stories, you’ve got a wealth of material to pull ideas from. You don’t need to work out who runs the thieves guild or who’s on the Council of Four, that stuff is already there. I find it much, much easier to write dialogue for characters whose voices I can actually hear. Every time I’m going to write material for Viconia or Edwin or whoever, the first thing I do is listen to the characters’ sound sets. That’s a huge asset.

At least it is when it’s not a huge pain in the ass. You don’t end up in hour-long arguments over whether a character would ever use the word “depravity” when you created the character. I’ve had that exact argument in regards to Minsc in Baldur’s Gate (I lost because I was arguing with my boss, but in my head I can literally hear Minsc’s voice actor Jim Cummings delivering that specific line.) And the same material that provides so many ideas can also strangle stories if you’re careless and do something like, say, build a plot around a dual-classed cleric-magic user dwarf, for instance. I’m still kicking myself over that one.

The other thing you usually have in a tie-in situation is other people. I’m not a great self-starter. I’ll always produce faster if someone else gives me a deadline. And if I’m drawing a complete blank, having someone there to get the ball rolling is invaluable. When I’m generating material on my own, there’s usually several hours to several days of me mashing my head into my monitor before I finally hook into something that gets me moving. The difference between having a blank page and having a page with “Giants” written on it can be immense, especially when I never in a million years would’ve come up with giants on my own.

One other thing that might be worth mentioning: for me, the blank page and story bible divide hasn’t fallen along the same line as original and tie-in work. I’ve probably done as much or more work on unestablished franchises, where I’m contributing elements to what will eventually become the story bible down the line, than I have on properties that already have an established canon and fan-base. Original and unestablished franchise work have more in common with each other than established tie-in stuff—the big difference between them is I own more of one and get paid way more up-front for the other.

3. Like many of our friends and colleagues, you’re no stranger to horror, humor, or mixing the two. For instance, I know you’re not keen to write the romance story lines for video-game characters. When have you had to write a kind of story—romance, historical, Western, or whatever—that you just didn’t want to, and how did that crush or strengthen you in the end?

Before the torch-wielding mobs show up at my door, it’s not that I don’t want to write romance story lines for video games. My concern is their comparative relevance to the story—I’ve got similar issues with Hollywood’s tendency to jam romance elements into films whether the films’ story requires or justifies them or not (I’m picking on films specifically because they’ve got a tighter time frame to work with than television, so pieces that don’t contribute to the narrative whole tend to be more obvious and problematic than they might be over the course of a 10+ hour television season.)

In traditional narrative media, you have a greater control over the story, so there are opportunities to make a romance integral to the story, tie it in thematically, and generally justify its inclusion. For adventure-oriented video-games (which are the only kind I’ve written so far), romances are optional elements. Players can choose romance story lines with a variety of different characters, or ignore them altogether. Making romances meaningful to the narrative under those conditions is very difficult.

Finally, most romance story lines end with someone saying “I love you” and meaning it. That’s a huge thing in my world. The story has to earn it; if I don’t think it does, it bothers me. I don’t want to present something to an audience that would bother me if I was a member of that audience.

Having said all that, it’s clear a substantial percentage of players like having romance options—they like it a lot. And, despite what a few people online seem to believe, I honestly would prefer people enjoy the games I work on. I can’t see multiple optional romance storylines not being a part of any game I’m likely to work on in the foreseeable future. They’re an element of game design (and frequently movie screenwriting) I’ll admit I struggle with, but if it improves player enjoyment, it’s worth the effort.

I should also point out that when it comes to my video game work, I’ve been fortunate to work with people who are very passionate about the romances, specifically Amber Scott and Liam Esler. Liam contributed greatly to the Baldur’s Gate II: Enhanced Edition romances and Amber’s done the majority of the heavy lifting on the romance front (and a multitude of others) in what I’m still only allowed to refer to as “Adventure Y.” They’ve both made me a better writer in general and a better video game writer in specific.

4. What genres challenge you? What does trying them teach you?

Genre-wise, the most difficult things for me to write involve heavy research, especially of subjects I’m not interested in (which is most subjects—I’m a woefully underdeveloped person when it comes to almost anything that extends beyond writing or art.) Anything with a major historical element and hard science fiction are the ones that scare me the most. Whenever I find myself in those areas I feel like I’ve got a target on my back, I’m just waiting for someone to pop up and tell me how I got it all wrong. And once I do start researching, it’s way too easy to get lost in minutiae. From a strict cost/benefit perspective, working with worlds I either understand or invent is the smart play, at least until I run out of story ideas for those worlds or someone shows up offering a paycheck.

I’ve always maintained that it’s better to be writing anything than painting condos, which is the only other job I’ve ever been remotely qualified to do. Left to my own devices, there are subjects and genres I naturally gravitate toward, but there’s very little I’d say I actively don’t want to write. Even stuff that isn’t “me” I can enjoy as a challenge, if nothing else. The bigger considerations are what work will get the mortgage paid faster and how much time I can reasonably commit to something. I’m in a position where I’m not just able to say no to a project, but just plain can’t say yes to a lot of them. I’m incredibly fortunate, but I still feel bad having to turn stuff down. I want to write it all, but there’s only so many hours in the day.

So writing something I don’t want to, if that’s even possible, isn’t the worst thing in the world. It’s writing something that ends up not working that hurts. I sincerely believe everyone involved in the Cowboys & Aliens comic wanted to make something good. Everyone did the best they could inside the specific set of circumstances under which it was created. The result was… less than satisfactory, I suspect for everyone involved, certainly for me. That was disappointing. C&A went on to sell more copies than my other comics, Parting Ways, Done to Death, and The Holiday Men put together. That was crushing. I spent a couple years living in terror that it’d be the thing for which I was best known for the rest of my life. That may still turn out to be the case, but at least I get the satisfaction of knowing more people have played Baldur’s Gate II: Enhanced Edition, even if they don’t know who I am or what I did on it. I’ll feel even better when they can finally play Adventure Y.

5. Working in predominantly dialogue-based media, you have a lot of practice in creating different voices for your characters. What are a few simple techniques for doing that?

I’ll usually approach dialogue in one of two ways. The first and easiest way to go is to just cast the characters. They’ll start off in my head with the voices of friends or specific actors and as the story tightens up, they usually develop into their own thing. When things are going well, writing dialogue is more like transcription than creation–I can literally hear the characters talking to each other.

Things don’t always go well, though. I try to get characters talking and all I “hear” is silence. When that happens, I have to do things the hard way. I’ll figure out the purpose of a scene (if I haven’t already–I’m big on outlining so that’s fairly rare) and write the lines without any attempt to convey character at all. There’s no subtext, everyone just says exactly what they mean, which almost never happens in reality unless the speaker’s really comfortable or really angry.

When that’s done, I go through and start figuring out how the specific characters would try to communicate each line. With each line, you start having to answer questions about the character saying them. How important is it to them that this idea be understood? Will they be direct or subtle in conveying it? Will they let it go if they don’t think they’re being understood or will they hammer away at it until the other person gets it? What a character isn’t willing to say gives the writer as much insight into their personality as what they do. Each line becomes a building block, and eventually they add up to a character.

One thing I don’t do so much these days is create extensive back stories for characters. That was something I picked up from pen and paper roleplaying games, and it does help develop distinctive voices. But it’s labor intensive and for me there’s a real danger of missing the forest for the trees. I eventually figured out that I was coming up with a lot of cool stuff nobody would ever get to see because it wasn’t relevant to the story I was telling. These days, unless circumstances demand the creation of a detailed bio (they often do in video games, and it’s pretty standard in TV too), I’m fairly comfortable starting off with not much more than an idea of who a character is right now. The specifics of how they got this way I prefer to discover through dialogue as much as possible. It keeps things fresh for me and keeps the focus on the story the audience is actually going to get to experience.

Observe Andrew from a safe distance at his Tumblr.