When Words Collide Pre-Convention Signing August 13

Cover by Alberto Dal Lago

Cover by Alberto Dal Lago

When I ran into my old comrade Erik Mona at World Fantasy in Calgary in 2008, I dragged him away from the convention to see a local game store. This sort of side trip can be irritating for those who visited for business, but I knew Erik would forgive me. You see, this wasn’t just any gaming store. This was The Sentry Box.

In my time at TSR, Wizards of the Coast, and Paizo, I visited a bajillion game shops. They ranged from the noisome cat-piss store to Hemingway’s ideal of the “clean, well-lighted place.” The Sentry Box starts with the latter paradigm and dials it up to 11.

The place is vast, with its own book store and large areas devoted to miniatures, board games, RPGs, card games, and even game-adjacent stuff like videos, manga, and the inevitable nerd-focused tchotchkes that infiltrate such establishments. But that’s only the downstairs. Upstairs there’s a large space for gaming. And beyond that is the military games annex.

An annex.

I’m going to stop right there. The web page doesn’t do the location justice, and neither can I. You must visit the next time you visit Calgary to understand the full scope of gaming awesome.

Anyway, since I first met Gordon Johansen, the proprietor of The Sentry Box, he’s been a terrific supporter of Pathfinder Tales, making sure there are always copies available at his table at Western Canada’s great literary festival, When Words Collide. This year Gordon’s going at step further and hosting a signing for Lord of Runes and the rest of my Pathfinder Tales novels at his store on the eve of the convention.

Vanessa Cardui

Vanessa Cardui

Better yet, Calgarian filker extraordinaire Vanessa Cardui will join us to sing a few songs and sign copies of her excellent CDs.

Come hang out with us after 6:00 p.m at The Sentry Box (map). Even if I’ll see you at the convention, I hope you—and all your local friends who dig sword & sorcery and hilarious filk songs—will join us at this pre-con event.

Creative Colleagues: J.F. Lewis

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’d seen the name J.F. Lewis on book covers but new nothing about the man until the good people at Pyr Books sent me a copy of his upcoming novel, Oathkeeper, second in a series begun by Grudgebearer. Instantly I was envious of his Todd Lockwood covers. As I began reading, I realized Jeremy and I had a little more in common than good fortune in cover artists. His epic worldbuilding gave me the impression that he too was a tabletop gamer, a suspicion confirmed by a quick search on his author biographies. Soon after we began chatting, we discovered we had even more influences in common. To wit:

1. Who are some of your main inspirations as a writer?

Corwin from Roger Zelazny’s Amber Chronicles is basically my gold standard when it comes to how first-person narratives ought to feel. If you’re going to put the reader in the head of a protagonist for fifty thousand words or more, that protagonist needs to have a certain amount of snark, wit, and natural-sounding internal commentary. Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett were very transformative for me, satire-wise. I think all writers tend to pick up story architecture and stylistic quirks from our favorite books as well as the world around us.

Whether it is readily apparent or not, each of my novels explores a series of philosophical questions that interested me at the time I was writing. My core goal is giving the reader a fun ride, though, so I’ve never cared much whether readers picked up on why I was writing something. I think it’s kind of obvious that The Grudgebearer Trilogy deals with questions about slavery, gender and race equality, and parenthood… but it can absolutely be read as an epic vengeance tale with cool fights and snarky heroes.

2. One of the reasons I admire Zelazny is that his writing bridges the divide between clear prose and poetry. When and how often do you feel a writer should indulge in a bit of lyricism for the most powerful effect?

One thing I love about Zelazny is the way he tells just enough for you to know what something looks like without getting lost in graphic word poems focused more on impressing than evoking. When I first write a novel, it doesn’t usually contain a lot of vivid detail. Maybe it’s a Hemingway influence or that I don’t have a movie in my mind when I write or read, but detail doesn’t come naturally to me.  Since many readers need more description than I do, I tend to add details with every pass, checking to see if a reader has a good sense of setting. When I start delving into visuals, it is usually because something complex is happening or the imagery is important to convey emotion, character, or plot.

3. Where do you think gaming can help one as a writer of narrative fiction, and where do you think the two arts diverge? That is, what’s a bad lesson one might take from gaming to writing fiction, and how do you resist the urge to indulge your inner gamer while writing a great story?

Basic Dungeons & Dragons in the red box was my first encounter with gaming. That was back with then whole “D&D is evil” thing was happening, and it was laughable how little most people understood about role-playing games. From there I quickly ran through the other boxes, moved on to second edition, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles the RPG, Paranoia, Call of Cthulhu, Middle-earth Role Playing, Rifts, DC Heroes, Marvel Superheroes (the FASERIP version from TSR), Westend Games D6 system, and into more modern systems like Cinematic Unisystem, Pathfinder, Numenara, and Fate Core. I even worked in a comic and gaming store for seven or eight years (the Lion & Unicorn). Amber Diceless Roleplay likely had the biggest impact on me, because the entire emphasis is on the storytelling.

One pitfall into which I’ve seen many aspiring writers fall is the idea of building a game setting and running a campaign set in it with the plan of then turning that into a novel. It can work but often doesn’t and winds up frustrating everyone involved.

Character is the avenue through which I approach story and the plot and world-building all follows from there. In Void City, the characters who defined the setting were Eric and Winter; everything else sprang up around them. In Grudgebearer, it was all about Kholster and Uled until Wylant and Rae’en came along. That’s a common thread for me. Sometimes I have to rewrite massively once I “encounter” the strong female protagonists that always seem to show up in my books. Learning to see through the eyes of a character who might have very different opinions and beliefs than mine clearly had its roots in gaming and was a huge help in writing.

Game balance also informs world-building from a laws of the universe standpoint. My years of Gamemaster practice help me make sure that threats are of the proper scale so that the protagonist, regardless of power level, faces a genuine threat. Since I have always leaned more toward roleplaying than “roll” playing, I don’t usually have to fight against my inner gamer; we’re on the same team.

Cover by Todd Lockwood

Cover by Todd Lockwood

4. Beyond acting as the adjudicator of player choices, how does the role of narrator of a story differ from that of a Gamemaster or Dungeon Master?

The narratives which are told within a roleplaying game are much more of a collaborative effort than the stories which unfold in a novel or short story. To capture the same group effort in a novel would entail handing over decision making responsibilities for the book’s cast to other people. While I do tend to let my characters (and my players when I’m running a game) drive and or change the plot, my characters are still all mine. Even though they don’t always do what I want them to do, it’s still me making the decisions and I can plan and adapt pretty easily.

When running for a group of players… Well, let me put it this way: If Raiders of the Lost Ark were a novel, we’d know that Indiana Jones is always going to go after the Ark of the Covenant and wind up in the pit full of snakes, but if it were a roleplaying game, there would always be the chance that Belloq would end up down in the tomb or that Sallah would leave his wife and kids to elope with Marian and her pet spy monkey who would turn out to have been a double agent all along.

5. The various species in Grudgebearer fit classic archetypes like elves, lizard men, and plant-people, but they are all a little different. Why do you embrace archetypes while other authors shy away from them? And how do you make them your own?

One of the drawbacks to creating something new is that, as people, we tend to look for familiar ways to relate to things. The Aern in my novels, for example, are metal-boned carnivores who exist as a semi-hive mind dominated by a leader who insists they have free will. If they break an oath, they are unmade. They shed and grow new teeth like sharks and have eight canine teeth (four on the upper jaw and four on the bottom). A whole subsection of their culture is developed to handle the need to keep track of the weapons and armor they forge from their metal bones and those of the dead. They have bronze skin, red hair, and eyes that work more like security cameras than biological eyes. They’re a lot like golems… But they have wolf-like ears, so “elves,” right?

On the surface, the Eldrennai are more typical elves and the Vael are plant people. The Cavair are bat people. The Issic Gnoss are insect people, etc.  I know that.  But if I’m doing my job right, down the line a reader may encounter someone else’s version of a dwarf or a dragon and think, “That’s not how that should work. In Grudgebearer…”  Archetypes are comfortable because of their familiarity, and then as readers learn the unique traits that set these species aside from archetypal forms, they get the chance to really get to know the Sri’Zaur, for example, and see them as something more than the “evil” reptile army they appear to be at first.

It’s up to me to make sure those differences are there and that they are interesting and genuine. As to how I do that, it all springs from character and, since I’m a Pantser, that often means a lot of rewriting as my characters reveal more about their cultural attitudes, history, biology, etc. with those facts informing their actions and driving the story while filling in the details of the setting so that we can see not only what they did, but why, and how, in many cases, they couldn’t have done anything differently while remaining true to themselves. That’s one of the main reasons there is only one actually evil character in the trilogy. Everyone else is just doing what they think is best for them on a personal level or for their people or country.

 

Look for more of J.F. Lewis’s previous and upcoming projects at his website.

 

Creative Colleagues: Jean Rabe

Jean Rabe

Jean Rabe

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.

In 1993, a buddy pointed out a job listing for an associate editor of Polyhedron Newszine. At the time I was teaching too many classes for too little money, so I figured I’d give it a stab. Long story short, after a few email and phone interviews, and then a bunch of waiting for a vice president’s signature, Jean Rabe hired me.

Jean ran the RPGA, and she was the perfect person for the job. Equal parts game nerd and workaholic, she somehow found time to design adventures, assemble the Gen Con program, and still manage her entire department despite the obstructive incompetence of her so-called superior. Kevin Melka and I did our best to help, but Jean was always the lynchpin of the organization. (No surprise that Kevin and I both transferred to other departments soon after Jean escaped to R&D.)

Even before I arrived, Jean had begun to make her mark as an author of fiction as well as of games. Her Red Magic was one of the standout volumes of the growing Forgotten Realms line at the time, and her enthusiasm for gathering fellow writers together led to her creation of the Writers Symposium, the surprisingly large, vital, and high-quality con-within-a-con each year at Gen Con.

Speaking of the Writers Symposium, its current organizer is Marc Tassin, whose Champions of Aetaltis Kickstarter Campaign features stories by both me and Jean, along with many other terrific authors.

1. You were the one who hired me at TSR, but I never asked how you were first hired. What’s the story?

It’s an odd story, actually. I was a newspaper reporter for the Evansville Press, a Scripps Howard paper as far south in Indiana as you could drive. I ran the news bureau that covered a chunk of Kentucky. One of my editors called me a “gore reporter.” He said: “If it’s bloody and within a hundred and fifty miles of your office, it’s yours.” I covered murders, drownings, kids dying in house fires, air plane crashes, and a serial animal killer. I was shot at once out in the country. The editor would occasionally throw me a concert to review…I think help make up for all the blood. Anyway, about the time I was getting tired of all the blood (seriously, some of the stuff I saw still haunts me), Penny Petticord had turned in her notice at TSR. She coordinated the RPGA Network, and she called me encouraging me to apply. So I did, went up for the interview (held at Winter Fantasy), and was offered the job the next day. It was a big pay cut, but it was something new and interesting and I said I’d give it a try. Two weeks after I’d been working there, the guy who hired me walked into my office and said he hadn’t wanted to hire me. Said he wanted a guy to run the department ‘cause most gamers are male and so would better identify with a guy. But said he couldn’t find a guy with my qualifications. Had I known that on the day of the interview, I would have not accepted the job. In the end, I’m glad I did it. Opened up some doors for me and gave me an education on producing magazines.

 

2. You founded the Writers Symposium around the time I joined you at TSR and kept it growing for more than seventeen years before passing the baton to Marc Tassin. What were some of the high and low points of that magnificent feat of cat-wrangling?

It started out as a couple of seminars attached to Lou Zocchi’s War College. But more people started coming to the writing seminars than to the war seminars, and so we outgrew the War College and I forged my own track. I’d coax more and more convention space out of TSR and later WotC, a second track, sometimes a third when they gave me the space, stuff going on in the evening. The shift to Indianapolis was tough at first because they kept us in hotel conference rooms; took forever to get them to give us a couple of big seminar rooms in the convention center proper. The high point was working with all the amazing authors. The low point was working with all the amazing authors. It’s tough to schedule so many people—many of who would want their schedules changed—and I would accommodate them ‘cause I was so happy to have them. The absolute best part was finding some great talent in the people who attended the seminars. I picked out a couple of folks each year and would mentor them in the months after the con, getting some of them published in anthologies I edited. Made me feel good, like I’d really contributed to someone’s future.

3. Speaking of Marc, what is it about the world of Aetaltis that most appeals to you? Why did you pick the location you did for your story?

Marc Tassin is great. And his Aetaltis is such a rich world. I’m using it as one of the planes in the Pathfinder game I run. I love writing about dwarves. Dunno why. Maybe ‘cause I’m short. I just like dwarves, and so when I read his material about the stone ships, I figured AWESOME. Ships and dwarves and monsters, I was on for that. So I wrote this short story for him, created statistics for the featured weapon, and then decided I would run this as an adventure in my Pathfinder game. Urgh. My players are really fixated on getting ALL THE TREASURE. They don’t know when to run away. However, one of their characters is now wielding that special weapon (but I toned it down a bit from the version I gave Marc).

4. As one who’s contributed to different settings, what do you look for in a fantasy world as a writer? How about as a reader?

It’s got to have something that sets it apart from everything else. I’ve read so much fantasy fiction, that anything new has to have a unique feel and a special spark. It’s not that I don’t like traditional fantasy. Geeze, I have all the Conan the Barbarian books (the original ones, anyway), and lots of Andre Norton’s stuff. I do like the traditional stuff. But life is short, my to-be-read stack is high, and I want something new and amazing. And that goes for reading and writing.

 

5. You’ve collaborated with others both as an editor and as an author. What are the most difficult parts of collaboration, and how have you overcome them?

Many times collaborations are more work than if you just went ahead and wrote the whole thing yourself. I once had to drag a coauthor through a project to make the deadline and ended up writing three-fourths of it just to get it turned in on time. Some collaborations are twice the work for half the pay. You have to be sooooooooooo careful when you get into a collaboration project. Your partner has to be as driven as you or it’s a big headache.

I’ve had two great experiences with fiction collaborations. I wrote a Shadowrun novel with John Helfers; it was a breeze, and he was awesome to work with. I’d never had so much fun bouncing ideas around. And I recently finished a novel with Donald J. Bingle, another dream project and a great guy to write with. Said book, The Love-Haight Casefiles, comes out late this month from WordFire Press.

I was also blessed to have projects with Andre Norton. I so admired her. We’d work up the idea together, I’d do the writing, and then I’d send it off for her to look through. One of my treasured possessions is a line-edited copy of Return to Quag Keep. I thoroughly enjoyed our brainstorming sessions.

Watch for Jean’s latest news 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: 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.