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: Chuck McGrew

Chuck McGrew

Chuck McGrew

I’ve never met Chuck McGrew, and I didn’t even converse with him until recently. Still, I’ve felt as if I’ve known him for years all because I played one session of his game, Don’t Look Back.

While editing magazines at TSR, I lost interest in playing Dungeons & Dragons after hours, since I spent those long workdays living and breathing D&D. Fortunately, there were frequent opportunities to try other games, often when Lester Smith had a new game to playtest for review.

One of the many good things about Lester is that he actually plays a game before reviewing it, so he arranged an evening with four of us—David Wise, Ted Stark, Thomas Reid, and Yours Truly—and walked us through character creation verbally. As he listed skills and archetypes, we sketched out our characters. Despite the many options, we ended up with two bullies and two nerds, not exactly the classic fighter-wizard-rogue-cleric combo, but a great mix for exploring a haunted house.

While there were a lot of laughs and inter-party banter, there were some genuine scares, too. In the end, that session of Don’t Look Back turned out to be the most memorable of those one-night playtest sessions, and I was sorry when I though the game had gone forever out of print.

Yet like the zombie you thought defeated, it has risen again, this time through a Kickstarter campaign you still have time to join. Lester put me in touch with Chuck, and I asked him some of the usual horror/RPG nerd questions. Here’s how it went.

Some of the most popular horror roleplaying games, like Call of Cthulhu, The Whispering Vault, or the World of Darkness games, have very distinct identities. What’s Don’t Look Back‘s specific character?
I deliberately wrote Don’t Look Back to cover a broad spectrum of paranormal and supernatural horror themes. I pushed it more toward the paranormal side with corrupted technology—like a zombie virus or a flesh-eating amoeba or things from another world creeping into our own, as opposed to the supernatural—but the underlying conspiracies are probably the one thing that sets it apart from the others. I think the fact that your characters never know who they can trust—even each other—adds to the sense of horror.

You mention embracing a sense of paranoia. Can you list 10 books and/or films you think are great at capturing that feeling? While designing the game, were you conscious of any of them being an influence?

The original inspirations for Don’t Look Back were my fond memories of Kolchak: The Night Stalker mixed with a sense of paranoia from a movie called Race with the Devil, where two couples are traveling and stumble into a witchcraft ceremony in a rural area then later find out that it’s really everywhere. A few years later I read Orwell’s 1984, and the pieces started coming together.

During the creation of DLB and several of the first playtest sessions, players found their characters on the run from an establishment much more corrupt than anyone could have imagined. When I was a kid, my uncle used to take me to every slasher and horror movie that came out. Scanners still sticks with me today. It had secret government programs, conspiracies, and people with insane paranormal abilities. Firestarter from Stephen King added to those ideas about people on the run as well as the original Escape from Witch Mountain (don’t judge me).

Since writing the last edition of DLB, I can see inspiration forming from ideas sparked by The Matrix and Enemy of the State in terms of the technological challenges for people who want to stay off the grid. Day of the Triffids and the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers as well as John Carpenter’s The Thing are excellent at creating a sense of paranoia as the protagonist finds himself becoming part of a rapidly shrinking group who can be trusted. No discussion of paranoia could be complete without a shout out to Jacob’s Ladder and Shutter Island. Not knowing if you can even trust your own mind may be the darkest form of paranoia.

How have the mechanics for DLB changed? And how do you marry game rules to a horror setting?

It’s hard to maintain a sense of suspense in a game when your players have to flip through rulebooks, cross-reference tables, and make lots of dice rolls. Doing things like that basically pulls you out of the game, and that just isn’t what I wanted. I wanted mechanics that were easy to learn, intuitive, fast-paced, and as transparent as possible to help maintain the mood.

As much as I love the original DLB mechanics system, I am changing it in the new edition to something that I think works even better. The new DLB will be the first full-size RPG to utilize Lester Smith’s D6xD6 game mechanics. It uses regular six-sided dice like DLB and includes many of the same features as the original rules, like doing away with lots of complex scores and resolving actions with a single roll, but they are implemented in a way that makes gameplay even faster. You can learn the system in a matter of minutes.

The DLB version will include some tweaks to D6xD6, such as allowing characters to have advantages and disadvantages. I am also working on some new rules that will bring the effects of fear into the game. The nice thing about being part of a game ecosystem is that other D6xD6 settings may be able to take advantage of these tweaks, plus it will provide people who play DLB with access to other compatible settings and scenarios.

Tell us about a time you actually got scared during an RPG, or a time when you actually scared players.

To really scare players, I think you have to create a sense of immersion, a true sense of the unknown, and you need to make sure they understand that their characters are always vulnerable.

I like to use “feelies” like maps, old newspaper articles, and hand-written clues to give things a sense of reality. The adventures in the new edition of DLB include a lot of handout items. I also like to play in a quiet room and preferably at night. Passing notes to players and having PCs with different agendas helps to create an environment of distrust and paranoia. In Don’t Look Back, where you never know who you can trust and nothing is what it appears to be, that should extend to the PCs as well.

You don’t have to kill a lot of the PCs, but it really helps to have rules that make it possible for any one good shot to take them out. Many RPGs are about building up these super-powered invincible heroes of mythic proportions. That’s awesome if that’s your goal. It just doesn’t work for horror.

We were playing late one night, and after the game ended a player called me about 2:00 am to tell me he was certain he was being followed home. He said he changed his route multiple times to throw them off. He didn’t realize until he got home and was getting his game stuff out of the car that it was all just in his head.

What music and sound effects do you like to use to set the atmosphere for a horror RPG?

It’s hard to beat actual soundtracks from horror movies when it comes to setting the mood, and more recently the same goes for computer games. It’s hard to go wrong with either. Here’s my list of personal favorites:

John Carpenter’s original theme for Halloween is one of the scariest pieces of music out there. I’m a fan of his in part because he was a master of storytelling and did a great job with his own soundtracks but also because he’s from my home state and uses lots of town and street names from places I’ve been.

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have done an amazing Carpenter-endorsed new version of the Halloween theme, and it’s really good. They had Karen O do the vocals on a remake of Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo soundtrack that is pretty haunting.

Alex Otterlei has produced some creepy, mood-setting pieces of music over the years. I bought his Dark Themes From Beyond a couple decades ago at a gaming convention, and it still holds up. I tend to just play all the tracks. He has several more recent titles to sample on YouTube and has some done some cool video game soundtracks too.

Depending on the mood of the game, I really like the original Friday the 13th soundtrack. Everybody knows what that “che che che che” sound means. It provides a good undercurrent to something that’s more maniacal than diabolical.

I can’t leave this list in good faith without mentioning the soundtrack to The Exorcist. If you’re looking for dark mood setting. It’s a sure thing.

Check out the Don’t Look Back campaign on Kickstarter.

 

Don't Look Back

 

Writing 101 at the Edmonton Expo 2017

Join me and Edmonton authors and editors T.K. Boomer, Barb Galler-Smith, and Diane Walton for two delightful panels this weekend.

Today at 4:15 pm, we’ll discuss “Getting Paid for It,” tales of first sales, good sales, bad sales, horrible contracts, and all the sausage-making that goes into professional publishing.

Tomorrow at 1:00 pm, we’re talking “Writers vs. Editors,” not only the terrible conflict and glorious collaboration that can occur between two people, but also the same relationships inside your own Writer Brain and Editor Brain.

Both panels are in Room 101. Writing 101, Room 101–all you’ve got to remember are the times.

See you there.

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.