#RPGaDay: Best-Looking RPG Product

23. Best Looking RPG Product. So hard to pick just one! Lately Paizo has produced the most consistently beautiful books for its Pathfinder line, although Wizards of the Coast continues to give them a run for their money. And Monte Cook Games has showed with Numenera (and, I expect, also with The Strange, my copy of which should arrive any day now) that even a smaller company can produce a gorgeous game book.

But in an attempt to play by the rules, I’ll pick one product: the Al-Qadim boxed set. By today’s standards of full-color artwork, it might seem quaint. But the graphic design and material quality throughout the line stood head and shoulders above its contemporaries. And, I admit, I particularly like the setting, so having it in a deluxe format was icing on the cake.

Creative Colleagues: Todd Lockwood

Todd Lockwood by Todd Lockwood

Todd Lockwood by Todd Lockwood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cover by Todd Lockwood

Cover by Todd Lockwood

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

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

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

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

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


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


Creative Colleagues: Richard Lee Byers

Author Richard Lee Byers

Author Richard Lee Byers

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

I first encountered Richard Lee Byers when he and I contributed to The Halls of Stormweather, an anthology of novellas featuring members of the Uskevren household. My character was the younger of two sons, and Richards’s was our mama.

Since then, I’ve bought a story or two from Richard, and we bump into each other at Gen Con. So far, neither of us has challenged the other to a duel, but it’s only a question of time.

1. You and I have a few things in common: the Forgotten Realms, Pathfinder Tales, and a love of pulp fiction. Please tell us about your New Pulp series, The Imposter.

A few years ago, I decided to try some self-publishing. People said it was the future of the business, and some of the cool kids like Mike Stackpole were doing it. Partly, I did it by collecting previous published short fiction and releasing one of my early horror novels (interested parties should look for The Q Word and Other Stories, The Plague Knight and Other Stories [available soon], and The Vampire’s Apprentice), but I wanted to put out something original, too.

I decided to do a superhero series for two reasons. One was that I’m a lifelong comics fan and had always wanted to write superheroes. The other was that I didn’t feel like self-publishing something that might actually have a chance of selling to a traditional publisher. I wanted to do something that would be fun for me and that I thought readers might like, but which I was sure New York publishing would reject out of hand. I figured superheroes in prose fit the bill.

Here, by the way, you see the same keen insight at work that has served me so well throughout my career. Traditional publishing is doing prose superheroes now. But, oh, well.

Cover by Jamie Stubkjaer

Cover by Jamie Stubkjaer

Here’s the premise of The Imposter:

Matt Brown lives in a world of superheroes and supervillains, of mutants, sentient robots, and monsters, but none of that has anything to do with him. He’s just an ordinary guy living an ordinary life… until alien invaders attack the Earth, and all of humanity’s costumed champions go down fighting. By chance, Matt falls heir to their powers, but how can a fake hero save the world when the real ones have already failed? To find out, he begins a quest through a post-apocalyptic world where alien horrors and human supercriminals battle for dominion.

There are two volumes so far, The Imposter #1: Half a Hero and The Imposter #2: The Blood Machine. Each contains four novelettes plus a bonus story. People can also download The Imposter #0: Suiting Up for free. #0 is Matt’s origin story and the first of the novelettes from #1.

2. While I haven’t written a Realms novel in over a decade, you remained and have become one of the pillars of the setting. Which characters are you using in The Reaver: The Sundering Book IV? And how will this series change the face of the Realms?

Let me answer the last part of that first.

Several years ago, Wizards of the Coast, in an effort to create a great jumping on point for new readers, shifted the Forgotten Realms forward in time a hundred years. There was also a supernatural cataclysm called the Spellplague intended to introduce new challenges and wonders for gamers and the heroes of the novels to encounter.

To make a long story short, these maneuvers accomplished much of their purpose, but over time, it became clear that in the process, the Realms lost some of the elements that made the setting special. The Sundering will fix that. Its another big, transformative event, and without any cheesy time traveling and undoing history or waking up and finding Bobby Ewing in the shower, it will bring back what fans have been asking for.

I can’t go into much more detail than that because I don’t want to spoil the surprises.

There are Sundering-related gaming products that people can find out about on the Wizards of the Coast site. On the fiction side, The Sundering is a series of six novels coming out every other month. These are The Companions by R. A. Salvatore, The Godborn by Paul S. Kemp, The Adversary by Erin M. Evans (12/13), The Reaver by me (2/14), The Sentinel by Troy Denning (4/14), and The Herald by Ed Greenwood (6/14.) Each book tells us a self-contained story, but readers who read them all will get the Big Picture of what’s happening to Faerûn.

For the most part, the other authors used their established series characters. Bob used Drizzt, Ed is using Elminster, and so on. But Prophet of the Dead, my most recent Brotherhood of the Griffon novel, didn’t leave Aoth Fezim and his sidekicks well positioned to do what my novel needed them to do. So I wrote about new characters. My protagonist is Anton Marivaldi, one of those most notorious pirates on the Sea of Fallen Stars.

3. You’re one of several writers who have contributed to both the Realms and to Pathfinder Tales. What do the two settings have in common? What sets them apart from each other? Are there locations in either of them that you’d most love to explore in a new novel?

Well, the similarities are pretty obvious. They’re both worlds of magic and high adventure that connect to Dungeons & Dragons or a variant thereof.

To me, the primary difference is this:

The first Forgotten Realms product came out in 1987, and there have been hundreds since. There’s been so much development that while we can still see Ed Greenwood’s influences if we look for them, the Realms feels like itself and nowhere else.

In contrast, the world of Pathfinder has only been around since 2009. It has, of course, seen considerable development since, but I think the literary influences that went into it are still quite visible. You can look at one area and see that it drew inspiration from Edgar Rice Burroughs, observe that a different region reflects the work of Robert E. Howard and others. Since I love the great pulp writers myself, I don’t see that as a bad thing. I think that in its own way, it’s a strength.

With regard to pet areas, well, in the Realms, my last several books have dealt with the northeastern part of Faerûn, and I like it. If I’m offered the chance to do more Realms novels, I imagine I’ll keep hanging out there. I would like to get back to the Moonsea area specifically. I haven’t written about it since I did the “Year of Rogue Dragons” trilogy.

Pathfinder Tales: Called to Darkness is set mostly in the Darklands, and if I get the chance to do another Golarion book, I’d like to explore that underworld some more. There’s lots of cool stuff down there I wasn’t able to work into the first novel.

4. How does your experience as a fencer inform your scenes of sword fights?

Modern sport fencing is stylized, constrained by rules and conventions, and thus significantly different from the reality of fighting for one’s life with a sword. There are things I do with a fencing weapon that people couldn’t do with a broadsword or rapier (they were too heavy), and other moves I wouldn’t attempt if I were risking getting cut or stabbed and not just losing a point.

That said, though, the underlying principles of attack, defense, distance, tempo, deception, etc. are the same. On that level, learning fencing can help the writer write not just sword fights but any scene of hand-to-hand combat.

5. As an author of both novels and short fiction, what do you prefer about either form? Financial realities aside, if you could write only one form from now on, which would you choose and why?

That’s a tough question.

I like short fiction because you can hold the entirety of a short story in your head all at once and tinker and polish it until it works perfectly (or at least it feels like it’s this efficient little machine elegantly designed to achieve a particular effect without any waste motion.) Also, short stories are finished before the writer gets sick of them.

In contrast, novels are too big and complicated to focus on all the details at once and thus it’s impossible to fine-tune them with the same precision (or at least I find it so.) Thus, I never get to that same moment of feeling like, Yes, by god, that’s exactly what I meant to do. Plus, novels are not over before you’re sick of them. For me, no matter how enthusiastic I am about a novel, there’s always a point, usually around two thirds of the way through, when grinding out the damn thing becomes a slog.

On the other hand, though, when a novel is going well, I become even more immersed in that world than I am in the world than I am in the world of a short story. And that intense emotional involvement is part of what makes writing fun for me.

So, really, it’s a toss up.


Richard Lee Byers is the author of forty fantasy and horror novels including the urban fantasy Blind God’s Bluff: A Billy Fox Novel. He has published dozens of short stories and writes a monthly feature for the SF news site Airlock Alpha. He invites everyone follow him on Twitter, friend him on Facebook, add him to your Circles on Google+, and read his Livejournal blog.