Question of the Week: Best Game Session

Because I’ve been busy with other matters, I’ve neglected the Question of the Week. And while I’ve often favored writing and reading topics, this time it’s back to another of my great loves, tabletop roleplaying games.

What is your single best memory of a one-shot game that you never played again?

For me, the choice is easy.

Joining TSR in 1993, I expected to play more D&D than ever. Perversely, the opposite happened. I was so full of D&D (and several other popular RPGs) after editing for 10-12 hours most days and running RPGA games on weekends that the last thing I wanted in my free time was more of the same.

That wasn’t true at first, because I leapt at the chance to play games with my colleagues, including those whose work I’d admired for years. And I still kick myself that for personal-life reasons I begged off an invitation to play a Call of Cthulhu game run by Dave “Zeb” Cook in a freaking observatory.

Worst “selfless” decision ever.

Anyway, after a year or so, my default answer to “Wanna game?” was “I have to wash my hair.” The exception was when Lester Smith asked me to playtest game for his review column.

The reason Les’s games were an exception was that he always did a different game, the session started with his walking us through character creation, and—except for one unforgivable event that occurred in the TSR offices over lunch break—the game was always rewarding.

The one that stands above all others in my memory was a session of Don’t Look Back: Terror Is Never Far Behind. Lester ran it at my rental house in Delavan, a short drive from TSR’s offices in Lake Geneva. The other players were David Wise, Thomas Reid, and Ted Stark.

As usual, we began with Lester reciting the essential rule and walking us through character creation, which included all the famous archetypes of high-school. We each made our choices silently, but it wasn’t much surprise that two of us picked nerds and two picked bullies. I was the trailer-park thug, while Ted went for a jock. Thomas and David picked slightly different spins on the nerd, and I’m sorry to admit I can’t remember which of them went with an incarnation of Steve Urkel (I think Thomas), but he was the one I bonded with. The jock “adopted” the other nerd as his protection project, and with our combined brawn and brains, we went to investigate a haunted house.

Out of consideration for my fading memory, I’ll share only a few scattered images: a nerd kicking along a trail of his own urine while his video camera dangles between his legs, recording the horror that pursues him; a bully lighting his cigarette off the flaming face of a ghoul; “Downtown” Julie Brown getting punched out on live MTV when she annoys a survivor of the “event.”

I liked Don’t Look Back, including its at-first-glance lame (but in play rather fun) +/- system of d6 stats, and I ended up with a coverless review copy (after it had been mangled for our low-tech scanner), but I never played it again. In a way, that’s just as well, because I had so much fun that one night that I can’t imagine replicating the experience.

Now I’ve showed you mine. Time to show me yours.

What was your best one-and-only-night session of a TRPG? Give us some details.

Creative Colleagues: Lisa Stevens

Lisa Stevens

Lisa Stevens

Every week or so, I’ll pester one of my creative colleagues with five questions about his or her work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.

I first attended Gen Con a couple of years before I went to work for TSR. Then I missed almost the entire first decade of this century until I returned thanks to Paizo and my association with Pathfinder Tales. Since I’ll miss that glorious convention for the first time since 2010, it seems only right to experience it vicariously through a few friends and colleagues who’ll be there this year.

It’s entirely possible that Lisa Stevens and I first met at a convention, either through the Role-Playing Gamers’ Association (RPGA) or in the exhibit hall. But only after I moved out to Seattle did I see her very often. Usually she was talking Greyhawk or wrangling a team for brand management meetings. I saw even more of her when I moved from Dragon Magazine to Star Wars Insider, since she and her partner Vic Wertz are superfans. Then when Lisa, Vic, and Johnny Wilson formed a new company, our team went with them as part of the original Paizo Publishing.

Lisa and Vic have a country estate I like to call “Wayne Manor,” but really it’s more of a Star Wars museum with one of the best home theaters I’ve ever seen. They invested some of their Hasbro buyout money to hire Doug Chiang to design it for them, and a fairly easy Google search should net you a few photos of the amazing setup.

Parties (and the Indiana Jones pinball machine) at Vic and Lisa’s are one of the things I most miss since leaving the Seattle area, but for the past few years I’ve been able to see them once or twice a year at conventions. Not this year, alas, but I did manage to ask Lisa a few questions about those conventions and her long history with Gen Con.

1. What’s your earliest Gen Con memory?

My first Gen Con was the last year it was at UW Parkside in Kenosha. My friend Rich and I drove all day from Minneapolis and arrived at the campground near the convention in the dark. Back in those days, most of the attendees stayed at the campground because of the lack of hotels in the area. Rich and I proceeded to set up our tent by the lights of our car, only to find we had forgotten the tent poles and the stakes. We scavenged a somewhat straight and sturdy stick from the campground and found a few screwdrivers in the car, and ended up with a wobbly tee-pee for our lodging that first year. Of course, we didn’t plan to spend hardly any time there, so it didn’t really matter. And when you are exhausted after a day of gaming, you hardly noticed. Thank god it didn’t rain that weekend! Gen Con was amazing! I got to have my first character, Erwyle Antella, drawn by Clyde Caldwell, and discovered the RPGA, where I had the chance to watch Rich play in the finale of a tournament with Harold Johnson DMing. The highlight for me though was the dealer’s hall. I had never seen such a huge selection of gaming stuff under one roof. I spent many hours going from booth to booth and spending way too much money. The only let down of the con was the various games we had registered for. They all kind of stunk except for the RPGA one, so Rich and I became card carrying RPGA members and never played a game at Gen Con after that which wasn’t run by the RPGA.

2. Looking back on all the years you’ve attended, about how much of Gen Con was “just for fun” and how much was for business? These days, do you get to blend the two?

It is pretty funny that you ask this. I went from all out, nothing but solid RPGA gaming from the moment I got up until late into the evening, until 1987, when I went for the first time with my company, Lion Rampant. That year, I didn’t game at all. Just worked the booth and started getting to know folks in the industry. Since 1987, I really haven’t done much gaming. Gen Con has become almost entirely a business convention for me. I hope to change that this year with the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game. We do marathon games of it at the various conventions, which is very conducive for me to jump into a game between meetings. You can’t do that with a long RPG game that might take 4 hours. At PaizoCon this year, I was able to play the ACG quite a bit and it was a blast! Save Ranzak for me!

Erwyle Antella by Clyde Caldwell

Erwyle Antella by Clyde Caldwell

3. What were the high points at Gen Con for each of the several companies you’ve been associated with?

Lion Rampant: The first year we went as a company, we just had Whimsey Cards. And Dave Arneson came up to our booth, talked to us and bought a pack. We were all just standing there with our jaws on the floor. Holy crap! That was DAVE ARNESON! The next year, we won the RPGA’s Gamer’s Choice award for best new RPG for Ars Magica and it catapulted us into the industry, with new distributors coming out of the woodwork and translation opportunities appearing from nowhere.

Wizards of the Coast: Our first year with a full booth at Gen Con was very cool. Jesper Myfors created a life-sized castle based on our first logo design. We also shared the booth with a small tech start-up called America Online. Of course, the high point for WotC was the release of Magic: The Gathering in 1993. We almost didn’t have the game at the show because of delays in airplane flights, but by the time it arrived on the Saturday of the convention, we sold it as fast as we could take someone’s money and write receipts. Everywhere I went in the convention center that year, you saw folks playing Magic. It was crazy!

Paizo: It would have to be the year we launched the Pathfinder RPG. We had no clue what the reception was going to be for the game, and to have that wave of humanity descend on the booth and to sell out of the stacks and stacks of Core Rulebooks we brought was exhilarating!

4. Tim Nightengale founded Paizo Con, impressing you so much the first year that you had the company take it over from him. How does the Paizo Con experience differ from Gen Con?

PaizoCon is much more intimate. Every year, I get to see a lot of the same folks over and over again. There is a lot of camaraderie and friendships made amongst the attendees. PaizoCon is also a great show for the whole Paizo staff to take some time and talk to our customers. Gen Con is just so much go, go, go, go! It is a whirlwind where I rarely get time to just sit back and enjoy the show. PaizoCon has many more chances to do that.

5. What is your greatest convention gaming memory?

That is a super tough one for me. So many memories over the years! Having dinner with Gary Gygax one evening and talking about Greyhawk for hours! Working in the TSR Castle the year WotC bought TSR. Seeing the line for Magic: The Gathering stretch all the way around the dealer’s hall in 1994. The big nerf gun fight at the TSR Castle in 1989. The crazy White Wolf parties we threw in our rooms during 1989 and 1990. I could go on! Gen Con is one of my favorite moments on the year. I get to see old friends and make new memories.

 

Creative Colleagues: Todd Lockwood

Todd Lockwood by Todd Lockwood

Todd Lockwood by Todd Lockwood

Every week or so, I’ll pester one of my creative colleagues with five questions about his or her work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.

Unfortunately, Todd Lockwood joined TSR during the last of that company’s death throes. Fortunately, he came out to Seattle with the rest of us who joined Wizards of the Coast. Unfortunately, the geniuses at Hasbro decided we didn’t need artists on staff. And fortunately again, Todd remained in the area as an active freelancer, so we saw each other now and then.

It was at the 2008 World Fantasy Convention in Calgary where we reconnected after I left the States six years later. Over a few glasses of wine, I confessed that one of my unrealized dreams in publishing was to have a Todd Lockwood cover on one of my books. Todd enthusiastically agreed that should happen one day.

When I bumped into him at Gen Con a year or so later and reminded him of our “agreement,” he was more circumspect. “It would have to be the right project,” he said. As brush-offs go, it was fairly nice, but it taught me two things. First was that wine is a useful lubricant. Second was that, in the absence of wine, I was going to have wait for the right time, and then I’d use guile, deception, and perhaps a little tough-guy stuff. 

Fast forward to 2013, when R. Scott Taylor asked me whether I’d contribute to the sequel to his critically-acclaimed Tales of the Emerald Serpent anthology. The art in the first volume floored me, including the fantastic interior illustrations by Jeff Laubenstein and Janet Aulisio, whose work I’d long admired, but especially Todd’s fabulous cover painting. I agreed to contribute to Scott’s anthology on one condition: I needed Todd to paint my character on the cover.

After I explained that Todd had already “promised” and that the alternative was that I send a few of the boys around for a visit, Scott agreed. And lo, there’s Atzi on the left of A Knight in the Silk Purse, now available in print, .mobi, and .epub versions. Ironically, I’ve another story appearing under a Todd Lockwood cover this fall. (More on that later.) The point is: guile, deception, and tough-guy stuff for the win.

1. When did you first start writing? How did your own art, and the art of others, inspire your stories?

I truly first started writing about the same time I started drawing. I learned to draw mostly making my own picture books and, later, comic books. In the first case I was definitely riffing off of other picture books, but when I drew comics, in my mind I was telling a movie or a TV show. Those were the sorts of stories that drew me—full of action and spectacle. I wrote stories, too, throughout my childhood, and began a novel when I was out of high school that’s still kicking around here somewhere. It’s a good story, I think, though I doubt I’ll ever go back to it. It’s in longhand, for one thing, so I’d have to transcribe it all. Yeah… not going to happen.

Anyway, all the above influenced all the above. If I had grown up in California, I might well have gone to film school. My folks pushed me to be an artist, and I liked drawing and painting, but the invention of the doing in every case is what drew me in.

2. Since you’re cover artist, interior artist, and contributing author to the Ghosts of Taux series, how do you find yourself shifting gears creatively? Or if it’s all a continuum, how does each challenge influence the others?

I’ve been working on a novel since about 2004, with most of that time spent in workshops and at seminars, reading books on the craft, exorcising bad habits, expanding on my strengths, picking the brains of other writers, and making new friends along the way. Through much of that time it took me a good week to switch gears and be my best at either discipline. For a week after finishing a cover painting, I needed at least several days of writing before I hit a stride. That improved over time. When I did the cover for the first volume, Tales of the Emerald Serpent, I was also writing the story. The shift takes less time these days.

Meanwhile, I see very clearly what things look like in my head. My writing style is understandably very visual. When I have a setting to describe or an action scene to write, I only have to look at it and describe what I see. But the other stuff takes more work: plot, character, emotion. I spend more time rewriting there than with descriptions.

Incidentally, I sold the novel to DAW Books. I had envisioned six short novellas, thinking that readers today have less time for reading, and I’d like to give them more smaller plates. But my editor, the exceptional Betsy Wollheim, asked that I combine each two books into a single volume. That meant that instead of six books there would be three, and that I now had to write the second half of the first volume, or Book 2. I’m nearly done, but there’s no release date yet.

3. Thinking back to some of the writers and visual artists who most inspired you, do you find they are often associated with each other? For example, are you a fan of both R.E. Howard and Frank Frazetta, and do you think something about their connection attracted you? Or did one simply draw you to discover the other?

Interesting question! I’d never thought about that before. I don’t think I ever bought a book only for the cover art, but certainly good cover art made me pick a book up. I do associate Frazetta more with Howard than any other author he covered, perhaps because I loved Howard’s writing. I associate his paintings with books of action and energy, so they were well paired. My other early idol was Michael Whelan, whose authors tended to be more complex and even cerebral. I associate him with Larry Niven especially. As a lover of science, I adored hard-science speculative fiction, like the Integral Trees and its sequels, which Michael covered brilliantly. Every detail was bang on. 

I did buy other Niven books with covers by other artists, though. So I guess artists led me to writers more often than the reverse.

Cover by Todd Lockwood

Cover by Todd Lockwood

4. You’re one of the central contributors to the Ghosts of Taux anthologies. What kind of role do you play in the basic concepts of the setting and of the over-arching story of each volume?

Very little. This is really Scott Taylor’s world, based on his very comprehensive history of thirteen or so ages in the span of Man. Taux is in the Fifth Age, if I remember correctly. He and I do sit down at Comic Con every year and talk about possibilities, but whether my suggestions influence or gel or hit the reject pile is beyond my ability to say. I do think that the success of the first volume was in part to the success of the weaving of the stories between writers, something that we pulled off especially well (IMHO) with “Three Souls for Sale” (Mike Toussignant), “Between” (me), and “Charlatan” (Scott Taylor). It made Scott anxious to make that a feature of the next and future volumes. It’s one of the things that makes these books so exciting; they’re not just a string of stories (though each stands alone), they also weave together into a bigger tale. And that’s fun.

5. Do you find that your writing habits mirror your painting habits? That is, do you outline in ways similar to how you sketch? Do you write at a different time of day from when you paint?

Very much so. When I paint, I start with a thumbnail drawing, expand it out to find pose and inertia and compositional balance, then shoot reference, tighten up the drawings, then lay in the color. When I write, I outline everything, but the first outline is little more than a few random sentences or ideas—like a thumbnail. From there the progression is very similar: important moments placed, then connected, threads discovered and integrated, and the last pass to tighten up the prose and get the right gloss on everything.

There are artists, like the amazing Rick Berry, who will start a painting that is one thing, and before it’s done it’s something else entirely. He can’t be contained by the original idea—it has to be fluid. Similarly, Nancy Kress once told me that if she knows how a book is going to end she loses interest in it. She just writes, with no idea where it will go, just an unerring instinct for when it works and when it’s off the rails a bit. 

 

For news on Todd’s latest work, and to buy prints, check out his website.

 

Creative Colleagues: Lester Smith

Lester Smith and his happy face

Lester Smith and his happy face

Each week, I’ll pester one of my creative colleagues with five questions about his or her work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.

Upon my arrival at TSR, Lester Smith soon became both one of my favorite contributors to Polyhedron Newszine and one of my favorite people in general. In support of his “Weasel Games” column, he invited me to his monthly playtest sessions that still stand out as some of my favorite game sessions. That’s where he rekindled my interest in mechanics with games like The Whispering Vault and Don’t Look Back: Terror is Never Far Behind.

He and his wife, Jenny, had me over to play games just for fun one time. Unfortunately for Les, I had learned more than he expected from his column. It took no time at all to pit him and Jenny against each other, and I won every game that night. I still don’t understand why they never invited me back.

True to his character, Les weaseled my questions to merge two of them into a single answer. Rather than perform acrobatics to separate them, I’ve merged them into questions 1 & 2 and revised the question better to suit the answer.

1 &2. I’ve fond memories of your one-night playtesting sessions back at TSR. How much have you kept up regular gaming? And how has your creative output changed and returned home over the years?

During my few years at TSR, gaming in “Research & Design” was not merely encouraged, it was subsidized. Which is to say that the company both kept a well-stocked games library and allowed us a 1 1/2-hour lunch (1/2 hour of that paid) if we would spend it playing. Other companies’ products were “fair game,” so to speak. Add a night or two a week for role-playing or board-gaming outside of work, and it was sort of like “game grad school.”

Those were also years in which a few companies dominated the scene: TSR, Avalon Hill, FASA, West End, SJG, and later White Wolf and WotC, with a considerable number of hobby presses putting out experimental items released mainly at local conventions or available only by mail. I’ve always loved the mystery of exploring those things (my first ever publication was a “capsule review” of the Wizards’ Realm RPG, in Space Gamer magazine), and although TSR was pretty jealous of its R&D members’ work, I managed to keep a freelance gig as a “small press” reviewer for Dragon Magazine. Much of what games I ran, the Lost Souls ghost RPG, for example, was partly “research” for those reviews.

When TSR began to disintegrate—starting with Zeb Cook leaving, I’d say—my gaming dropped off. More significantly, when Tim Brown and I left TSR, the nature of company secrets left us somewhat outside our former gaming circles. Then TSR itself pretty much collapsed, WotC bought them, and most of the staff moved to Seattle. I took a job for an educational design house in 1998, and my gaming pretty much dried up.

Much of my creative efforts returned to poetry. But my day job also made me aware of burgeoning possibilities in e-publishing and growing print-on-demand technologies. I launched Popcorn Press, originally mainly for poetry and some fiction, but with an eye toward a couple of role-playing releases. But writing role-playing books takes considerable time, which is difficult with a full-time job. Board games and card games require much less text, though more art and a greater mastery of “crunchy” mechanics. Fortunately, I’ve had some experience with those sorts of things, from design work on GDW’s Minion Hunter, Temple of the Beastmen, and Test of Arms board games, to designing TSR’s Dragon Dice, co-designing Blood Wars (with Steven Schend), and editing Spellfire (designed by Steve Winter, Jim Ward, Zeb Cook, and Tim Brown), as well as my own Demon Dice (edited by Tim Brown).

In the fall of 2012, I learned of OneBookShelf.com‘s plans to launch DriveThruCards.com, a print-on-demand card company. Between poems, I’d already designed a half-dozen card games using poker decks, and I’d tried a Kickstarter campaign. So I thought, “Why not see if there’s enough interest to fund a campaign to illustrate one of these decks?” The result was Invasion of the Saucer People (my grandson’s favorite), which also funded Wolf Man’s Curse (one of my two favorites). I followed with Monster Con (four different decks) and Clashing Blades! and spent virtually all my 2013 vacation time attending game conventions. I also signed a couple of dice game contracts with SFR, Inc., which got me back to Gen Con after many years away.

Which is to say, I’m gaming more than I have in a dozen years, but still nothing like the heyday of TSR. Most often I manage one board game a weekend with my wife and our live-in daughter, and I game my brains out at conventions. I also do one three-day game-a-thon with an old college buddy and a mutual friend: We rent a hotel suite and bring games, booze, and cigars. But most of my free time is either designing something or looking for ways to better expose Popcorn Press.

2. More than most of our fraternity, you are attracted to poetry more than prose fiction. What’s the allure of a form that so few readers seem to appreciate these days? What can those who love poetry do to increase the audience?

Game design is poetry. (You can quote me on that.) Code is poetry. (That’s a WordPress quotation.) In each case, you conceive a wish and structure it within available rules, and something magical results.

Language is poetry. Thought is poetry. Former Wisconsin Poet Laureate Bruce Dethlefsen said, “If a novel is winter, and a short story is a snowstorm, then a poem is a snowball, squeezed.” It’s all a matter of degree. But whichever, there’s something magical about water in crystalline form, white in the air and on the earth. There’s something magical about language, the way such structure conveys meaning.

If I may extend the metaphor, sloppy execution of language is the sludge that gathers in gutters.

In summary, I can take hours of delight in one well-turned phrase (like Bruce’s) or an adeptly crafted game. The highest compliment I can give is a jealous groan of “Oh, I wish I’d have conceived of that.” On the other hand, my life is growing too short for poems with no sweat invested in them (which is why I prefer the rigor of formal poetry—see what Philip Larkin did with rhyme, for example) or for merely pretty games with lots of art and toy value but lazy rules.

One final word, regarding why poetry has fallen out of favor. I believe that about a century ago, academics stole poetry from the rest of us. Or more accurately perhaps, poetry diverged into two camps: heart and head. Poetry publishing became devoted to cleverness and demonstration of education; anything of emotion was looked upon as schmaltz. At the same time, the general public began to disdain “artsy” poetry as putting on airs, so they stuck to the classics, until the language of even those poems grew too outmoded to understand and became suspect as academic as well.

Happily, a few major poets—Carl Sandburg, Philip Larkin, Billy Collins, and Ted Kooser spring to mind—continued to write in language regular people could at least understand. It may not have been enough to keep poetry popular, but it at least kept it alive. More happily, songwriters continued to marry head and heart in lyrics that people actually loved (maybe not academics, but, you know, people). And happiest yet, hip hop and rap have spawned a recent surge in spoken-word poetry that ignores academics altogether and takes the power of language back into common hands.

I would be remiss not to mention as well that countless local organizations like the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets have sponsored every sort of public poetry—including funding for the Wisconsin Poet Laureate, when our current governor decided to discontinue state support of the position.

3. You are a notorious weasel. Weasel gamer, that is. Can you tell everyone what that means? And what’s the difference between being a weasel gamer and just playing to win?

You put your finger on the issue when you asked about the difference between playing to win and being a weasel. Playing to win is pretty self-explanatory: Take every opportunity to remain ahead of the pack and cross the finish line first; devil take the hindmost. Being a weasel is about taking pleasure in someone else’s loss—not a stranger’s, because that would be sociopathic, but a friendly rival’s. Lots of card games, in particular, have that back-stabbing, screw-your-neighbor sort of feel. (Might I recommend my own Wolf Man’s Curse?) But the twisted soul of a true weasel may be best revealed in the moment of his or her own downfall.

Confession: Once, when playing Formula D, I pushed my car a bit too hard on the last lap, in a desperate effort to stay in the pack. The die punished me, and I realized that the only way to save my battered wreck would be to spend my last point of brakes, spin out, and start the next turn in first gear. That would effectively take me out of the race; there was no way of getting back up to speed and catching up again. Then it dawned on me that if I chose not to spend that last point of brake, I’d move one extra space, which would crash me into the back of Ken Whitman’s car, destroying his last body point, and taking him out of the race as well. Need I say which I chose?

Wolf Man's Curse4. You have an especial love of horror, for which I love you all the more. Can you recommend five horror games that every gamer should have on the shelf?

For roleplaying, Call of Cthulhu (any edition) is my favorite. It avoids the Scooby Doo aspect of too many horror RPGs; that “Sanity” rating is one of my earliest “Wish I’d thought of that” memories.

The free Lost Souls RPG is also a favorite, placing players in the role of people who have died before their time. My only caveat is that it sometimes has a bit of a split personality, with aspects of the movies Beetlejuice and Ghost in competition. Or maybe that’s a strength: you can play up the comedy or the horror, as you see fit.

I’m a huge fan of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer board game. With a bit of online searching, you can even find fan-designed expansion scenarios. (Don’t forget to check any broken links with the Wayback Machine.

For sci-fi horror board games, I’ve never been able to decide a favorite between Aliens and Space Hulk. 

Finally, if you can find it, the old Dark Cults card game (1983) is a two-player masterpiece. One player is life, the other death, and cards have a sort of “grammar-based” sequence of what can be played when. Death is trying to kill the protagonist for points; life is trying to put the protagonist in chancy situations then rescue the character. It’s a great early example of competitive storytelling.

Track Les to his weasel lair at Popcorn Press.

Creative Colleagues: Jeff Grubb

Jeff Grubb

Jeff Grubb

Each week, I’ll pester one of my creative colleagues with five questions about his or her work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.

Before I went to work at TSR, I’d met a handful of the designers and editors at conventions or RPGA events, but not Jeff Grubb. Oh, I’d seen him on a panel or two, but I’d never worked up the nerve to approach him. Alone among the designers of TSR, he intimidated me. You see, I was a Jeff Grubb fanboy.

His name appeared on some of my favorite unconventional game products, like the Manual of the Planes, Spelljammer, and the then-recently released Al-Qadim, which vied for Ravenloft and Oriental Adventures as my favorite D&D setting. But where he’d really impressed me was with the Forgotten Realms comic and the Alias novels, the first of which, Curse of the Azure Bonds, made me think game tie-ins could also be terrific novels.

Jeff maintains my devotion by being one of the several members of the Alliterates who always make time for a few pints when I’m in town, and because he follows my lead in hat fashion.

1. I probably never told you that Azure Bonds was the book that made me realize that game tie-in fiction could be really good. Looking back on those characters, what do you think set them apart from those we were used to seeing in tie-in fiction?

I think part of it was that we didn’t know any better. We weren’t trying to write tie-in fiction so much as we were trying to write fiction. Our models were Tolkien, Twain, and Wodehouse (the Wyvernspurs are very close to the Woosters).

But another component was the fact that we did not have major characters that we had to write to. In those first years we were all pitching characters and concepts hard and heavy—we didn’t have to write about a particular character from the movies or earlier books. You look at the early strata of the Realms, and you see a wide variety of characters, and would be hard-pressed to say at the outset that this dark elf supporting character was going to be the break-out star.

2.   You are also one of the folks who really turned me on to kung fu movies with your Mad Monkey vs. Dragon Claw module. In your fiction and game design, where else do you draw inspiration from other media (like Chop Sockey movies)?

Ah, Mad Monkey. I was so the wrong person to be assigned that one. Here’s the tale: In those days, we had to lay out the entire year’s publishing in advance, which often meant giving titles for projects before we knew what was going into them. One of the titles was Mad Monkey vs. the Dragon Claw. I had no idea what that meant and, once I drew that in my queue, campaigned to change it. Jim Ward, our boss, not only refused, he told the upper management that I really wanted that title and would resign if they changed it. No, really. Thanks, Jim.

But, rising to the challenge, I corralled some of Zeb Cook’s old martial arts films and watched a lot of “Kung Fu Theatre” late in the evenings. Since I had already done a more traditional adventure with Ochimo: The Spirit Warrior, I was able to throw in some more of the outrageous nature of the genre without fear. It was trying to ape the vibe of an old Run Run Shaw film.

That one was a case where I was looking at a particular genre, but I more often like to pull from multiple sources when I’m working on a project. Al-Qadim has a lot of the historical Middle East in it but also has the Arabian Nights as written by Burton and the version as understood by Americans, Harryhausen films and Sinbad. I really like to delve into the histories when I’m working on something; there are reasons things are the way they are, and I like uncovering them and presenting them in a new light.

3. After Lord Toede and the Forgotten Realms comic, you’d firmly established yourself as one of the funniest writers in the genre. Have you ever felt a danger of being typecast as the funny guy? Or do you welcome the recognition of one of your talents?

Absolutely. I did not want to be (just) the Funny Guy, which is one reason that my novels after Toede, like The Brother’s War, were of a more serious, epic vein. Yeah, there were funny bits and characters, but it wasn’t the hijinx capers that I presented earlier. So there is a lot of swinging back and forth between madcap and serious in my work, but even my serious stuff has a lot of human nature and amusement in it.

Scourge4. You’ve been writing for video games for quite a while. How does the process differ from your years at TSR?

It is more crowded, and you are less in control. Even with large projects at TSR you had a small team: you, maybe a co-writer, an editor, maybe an artist that had already been assigned, and what playtesters you could round up. That was because we were doing so much product that everyone had their own projects and their own strengths.

In a video game we’re looking at a much larger team—everything you see on the screen is there because someone sweats bullets to put it there. As a result there are many voices in the mix. Concept art comes in at an earlier place in the process, and the limitations of the programming will often determine what you can and cannot do within a computer game. Plus, changes can be made in the middle of the game that require continual piecemeal revisions—you never really get to say “there, we’re done,” particularly now that DLC and updates allows us to create ongoing stories in the computer space.

5. You’re one of the few writers I know who’s done successful collaborations, notably with your wife, Kate Novak, and recently with Matt Forbeck. What are the perils and advantages of collaborating?

Big advantage? You are not alone. Big disadvantage? Ditto.

Each of my novel collaborations has been different. Working with Kate was working together every step of the way. We would go to new restaurants to discuss plot because if we then had a big argument about it, we would just never go back to that restaurant again (and yeah, some of the wait staff overheard very odd statements, like “Okay, you’ve reanimated the body. Now what?”)

Working with Ed Greenwood on Cormyr, we had a very strong initial plot that broken into past and present arcs. I took the history, while Ed wrote the present-day scenes. Then we switched and rewrote each other. The editor in charge said after his initial review, “This is much better than I had any right to expect.”

As part of the Guild Wars 2 team, I was part of the initial plotting with Matt on Ghosts of Ascalon but was not originally an official writer. Matt was working long-distance as the ground was still changing underneath him for an as-of-then-unpublished game. I came in after a number of drafts to bring his vision together with that of the company’s.

Each was a different situation and a different process. And if I do another team-up, I’ll probably deal with it in a different way.

You can follow Jeff’s blog at Grubb Street.