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: 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

 

Creative Colleagues: Ryan Schifrin & Richard Lee Byers

Ryan Schifrin

Ryan Schifrin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author Richard Lee Byers

Author Richard Lee Byers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cover by Ken Kelley

Cover by Ken Kelley

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Creative Colleagues Roundtable: Heroic Fantasy Round 3

This December, my merry colleagues tackle questions on Heroic fantasy. Comment here on the blog before the end of December, and one of you will receive a free copy of Prince of Wolves, Master of Devils, Queen of ThornsKing of Chaos, or Winter Witch from audible.com.

If you missed last week’s responses, catch up here.

What was the first heroic fantasy novel you remember reading? Has your own writing emulated it or responded with an alternative take on the genre?

Jeff Grubb: Forgive me for kicking at your applecart, but I don’t know if I agree with the definitions of genre and subgenre.

But let me answer your question first: I started out reading mythology in grade school—no, wait—I started out reading about astronomy and wanting to know about the stories of the constellations and planets and from that got into mythology. From there I would say that my first Fantasy novel was Lord of the Rings, which for me came first, then backing up and reading The Hobbit (and then C.S. Lewis’ Silent Planet trilogy, but never Narnia).

But from looking at your second question, I think you’re using the broad definition of Traditional Fantasy as Heroic Fantasy, and then subgrouping it as Epic and S&S. I would divide Epic and Heroic as two separate parts of Trad Fantasy, and tuck Swords & Sorcery under Heroic. Under that definition the first Heroic Fantasy of the modern era that I encountered was Fritz Leiber’s Fafrhd and Grey Mouser stories.

Here’s my difference between the epic and heroic varieties: Epic is aimed at the outside world, Heroic and the internal and personal world. Epic is big stuff happening—The Illiad, the first Dragonlance Books, the Game of Thrones, Narnia, Lord of the Rings. You switch viewpoints often and individual characters may drop out or die entirely along the way.

Heroic Fantasy is dialed much further down, to the actions of individuals—Conan, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, The Odyssey, Cugel the Clever, and the vast bulk of Forgotten Realms books. (Yes, we have epics in the Realms, but even they tend to be strained through the Heroic lens.)

In any event, one has to run long and hard to escape the shadow of Grandfather Tolkien. So much of what is written in fantasy, particularly in the shared worlds we have occupied, are descendants from LotR, sometimes by several generations, but his influence is hardwired into us. Multiple races, strong moral or ethical concerns, mixtures of tech levels under myriad nationalities, changing the world through your actions—yeah, all of that comes JRRT.

I have written both—The Brother’s War for Magic: The Gathering is definitely in the epic category, and the Alias books are very heroic in nature. I have also played around with additions of other strains and varieties—The Wyvern’s Spur looks to another British Author—P.G. Wodehouse, for inspiration and characterization. Giogi and Bertie Wooster could get together at some pub and compare their awful aunts. Cormyr: A Novel was initially pitched as the fantasy version of a James Mitchner novel, where you get the history of Nebraska or some other land-locked state through the actions its people. I would go with epic for Cormyr, but its pieces are heroic.

Chris A. Jackson: I was much more into science fiction than fantasy as a kid, so the first novels that I read that could be called a heroic fantasy was the John Carter series by Edgar Rice Burroughs. That was a very long time ago, and a very long time before I started writing.

I think I’ve taken the heroic fantasy a different direction than Burroughs. I like my heroes to come from nothing, to struggle to attain their heroism, and to sometimes be on the wrong side of the “good vs bad” equation (at least as far as the law is concerned) at the beginning of the story. I also very much believe that heroes need to be flawed, fragile, imperfect, and fallible. I have difficulty with stories where the hero is always right, has the best solution to every problem, and always comes out on top.

Stephen D. Sullivan: I’m not entirely sure what my first heroic fantasy novel was.  It may have been a fantasy book I read in 4th grade. I don’t remember the name of it, but I do remember that it had at least one knight and a friendly dragon named “Poof” that no one thought really existed until the hero found it. That year, I also read Secret Under the Sea (Gordon R. Dickson), which was about a boy a his dolphin trying to protect their sea lab—kind of a science-fiction fantasy novel.

If you discount books about monsters and SF, probably my earliest fantasy reading was about Greek and Roman myths, and then the Norse as well. Those formed the backstory to everything that came after. It was Lord of the Rings, though, that really changed my reading habits and put fantasy on my reading list equal to (or maybe ahead of) science fiction, monster books, and detective stories. Perhaps ironically, it was love of LoTR that kept me from playing that “knock-off” game D&D for at least a couple of years.  I eventually started playing D&D to date the DM’s sister, who was also a player, in January 1977—and that was an even bigger life-changing event, as anyone who knows me (or checks Wikipedia) will attest.

Howard Andrew Jones: My first was Fritz Leiber’s Swords Against Death, which wasn’t exactly a novel, but it was a book, and I’m going to count it because it had a huge impact upon me. I still hold that it’s the finest of the Fafrhd and Gray Mouser collections, and it opened a whole genre of adventure for me. But if we must get technical, the first novel I read in a sword-and-sorcery vein was Roger Zelazny’s Nine Princes in Amber, which also blew my doors off. The two of those novels had such an immense impact upon my preferences in writing. I love the witty banter and camaraderie to be found in Leiber, and the astonishing world building and hidden secrets in Zelazny. In a lot of ways Zelazny remains the alternative take on fantasy; few have really followed in his wake. His influence isn’t as apparent in my tie-in fiction, but I think it will be immediately obvious to anyone reading my upcoming series. As for Leiber, at his best, say in “Bazaar of the Bizarre” he’s so damned good he’s nigh untouchable, and you can only stand back and marvel about how everything works on a sentence level and a paragraph level and plot and character level… We’re still trying to catch up.

I’ve tried to bring a little bit of that Leiberish focus on characters into everything I write, although I’m always more interested in heroes than rogues, which means, I suppose, that I’m stepping out of his mold a little. It’s hardly alternative, it’s just the application of some of the things I liked in his writing and twisting them a little to fit in with my own preferences.

Heroic fantasy is a blanket term that includes popular genres like epic fantasy and sword & sorcery. Do you feel epic and S&S are mutually exclusive? Or can (and should) we mix them like peanut butter and chocolate? Are there some other, overlooked subgenres of heroic fantasy? And does grimdark fit under this blanket or lie outside?

Jeff Grubb: I think Epic Fantasy and S&S are both parts of Traditional fantasy, and that it is more of spectrum than a binary switch. We can say that a story is more heroic or low fantasy or one tends toward the high fantasy/epic end of the scale. It is more of a measurement than a classification of type.

Does your definition of Heroic Fantasy (which I’m going to call traditional) include such Urban fantasies as the Harrys—Dresden and Potter. Harry Potter also heads up a horde of YA Fantasy. Grimdark has a booth at the Tradfantasy fair, and even New Weird Fantasy, like China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station or Jay Lake’s Trial of Flowers have something to say to greater discussion. Magical Realism like Umberto Eco also has its say.

What would I keep out of Traditional/Heroic Fantasy? I would probably put Horror in its own pavilion, though even that has fantastic elements—The American Fantasy/Dark Fantasy tradition with Poe and Lovecraft and King, all uses fantastic parts but finds its way to different part of the bookstore. Its attempt to evoke something different that traditional fantasy. The sense of horror as opposed to wonder—the awful as opposed to the awesome, the sense of dread as opposed to triumph, all set these stories into another category that ignores whether they have orcs and/or dragons in them.

Chris A. Jackson: I’m a big fan of both peanut butter and chocolate, and the analogy. The edges of genres are breaking down so much now that splitting hairs between subgenres like “heroic fantasy” versus “swords and sorcery” seems to me rather like picking apart the ingredients in a dish like chili and trying to decide if it should be characterized as “Southwest cuisine,” “Tex-Mex,” or something else entirely. As with the food analogy, from a culinary standpoint, I understand the distinction, but I’d much rather simply make my chili and enjoy it.

Subgenres, from my point of view as a writer, can be traps. When I draft a story, I don’t sit down and decide if this story is going to be swords and sorcery or epic fantasy. I think of the premise, the characters, and the plot that needs to drive the story forward in a logical direction that real people would take. If the story goes epic, the novel or series could fall into the epic fantasy category. If the story stays small and not world-changing, we’re talking more swords and sorcery. Having my work characterized into these subgenres, or labeled with marketing categories like YA (And don’t get me started by trying to tell me that YA is a genre.) is always entertaining. Arguing whether it fits into one genre or another is rather like arguing with a reviewer; it’s an exercise in futility. Without any effort on my part, my work has fallen into many subgenres. I don’t argue about this issue at all, and never will. If a reader prefers to call my work “romantic fantasy” because there are always human (and sometimes not so human) love interests in the story, that’s fine with me. As long as they have fun reading it, my job is done.

Howard Andrew Jones: I don’t think that they’re mutually exclusive at all, although I’d much rather see S&S elements in Epic than Epic elements in S&S. To my mind at least, Epic often means bloat, and I am so very tired of vast sections of books that don’t really do anything but add page count. I tend to be impatient with my reading, though. Now if you could grant sword-and-sorcery pacing and put that in an Epic length novel—stripped of sword-and-sorcery’s worst characteristics like frying pan to fire plotting and sexism—that would be something to read. I’ve been hammering away at something that I suppose is an approach on that, but even at 120k it’s not really Epic size.

If sword-and-sorcery is old school metal edged out by Epic’s glam rock, then Grimdark is sort of like the punk assault on Epic’s glam rock, with roots in sword-and-sorcery. I’m all for it, but I tire a little of too much grit on my heroes so that they’re not actually heroic. Also, I get enough nihilism and brutality when I read the news. I want to read about heroes who dare to rise above all that.

 

 

Dave B&WDave Gross is the erstwhile editor of such magazines as Dragon, Star Wars Insider, and Amazing Stories. He has written novels set in the Forgotten Realms, Iron Kingdoms, and the world of Pathfinder Tales. His latest novel is Lord of Runes, and his most recent story “The Wendigo” in Gods, Memes, and Monsters.

Jeff Grubb

Jeff Grubb

Jeff Grubb is a best-selling author and award-winning game designer. He is one of the founders of both the Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms settings, and has written for Magic: the Gathering, Warcraft, and Star Wars. He currently keeps and maintains the world for the Guild Wars 2 game from ArenaNet. He lives in Seattle with his wife Kate and two horribly spoiled cats.

Chris A. Jackson

Chris A. Jackson

Chris A Jackson’s genres of choice are nautical fantasy, magical assassin stories, and now contemporary horror/fantasy. His novel “Dragon Dreams” was just released by The Ed Greenwood Group, his next Pathfinder Tales novel, Pirate’s Prophecy, will release in February, and his award-winning Weapon of Flesh series will continue next summer with Weapon of Pain.

Howard Andrew Jones

Howard Andrew Jones

Howard Andrew Jones is the author of three Pathfinder novels, the most recent of which is Beyond the Pool of Stars, and a critically acclaimed Arabian Fantasy series. He can be found lurking at www.howardandrewjones.com, where he blogs about writing craft, gaming, fantasy and adventure fiction, and assorted nerdery.

 

Stay a while and listen…

Cover by Matthias Kollros

Cover by Matthias Kollros

When asked where to start reading the Radovan & the Count saga, I no longer go through the whole routine of figuring out whether the person asking prefers gothic horror, wuxia, high fantasy, demon wars, and so on just to direct them to a particular novel or story. Instead, I say, “Start with Queen of Thorns.”

Better yet, give it a listen. Paul Boehmer’s narration is outstanding. I may never again read these books aloud but simply point people to the download link.