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Interview with author Greg Stolze

Posted on March 11, 2005 by Flames

How did you get into gaming?

Many years ago, before my voice changed, I got the green box D&D set from… man, somewhere. I think I was in fourth or fifth grade. I think it had an Errol Otis cover and the sample characters had names like Morgan Ironwolf and Gutboy Barrelhouse. I also recall that there was an illustration of a wizard with some kind of burning eagle head coming out of his hand to smite his enemies, and it made me think “Wow! Where’s THAT spell? Can I just make up my own version of it?” As the twig is bent, so grows the tree, I guess. I got a secondhand version of the DMG, the one with the Efreet in a g-string, and went to town. In high school I was more into Car Wars and Star Fleet Battles, and then drifted away from gaming in college until a friend I knew from theater said, “You should meet this guy I know. He runs this game called Al Amarja. You’d like it.” That friend-of-a-friend was Jonathan Tweet. I seem to recall that, at that time, he was selling insurance.

What has been some of your most challenging work in the RPG industry?

Well, the worst part is working with people who screw you over. While I’d like to think these guys know who they are, I’m pretty sure in some cases they’re entirely oblivious. Anyhow, the hard part is when you work hard on something for a couple months and don’t get paid for it. I’m resigned myself to the idea that probably 20-25% of all the writing I’ll ever do will just wind up shitcanned. In some cases, that may be the proper fate, but… nah, I can’t make myself believe that.

What has been some of your most rewarding work in the RPG industry?

This question is much more fun. Anything where I’ve been given a really loose mandate and have been allowed to just go berserk has, as a rule, been delightful — starting way back with Spherewalker, on through City of Lies, most everything I’ve done for Unknown Armies, and the Demon novels. On the other hand, some projects that had much more directed development have turned out unexpectedly delightful. When I started out on Fall From Grace, I had no idea it was going to turn out as well as it did: I knew I was hyped about the characters, but, well, everything clicked.

Interestingly, I also find myself thinking about Mad Bull’s Run, which was an article I got assigned for SHADIS magazine way back when there was a SHADIS magazine. I started out fairly disinterested, planning to do the work and cash the check, but as I did the research I found myself more and more interested.

What can you tell us about your work on Unknown Armies?

Oh, well… gee, what do you want to know? John Tynes came to me back in the mid-nineties and said, “I’ve got these ideas that I think would be good for a game,” and I looked at them and started brainstorming mechanics. The next thing you know, my chocolate was stuck in his peanut butter and we had a draft of the game.

Here’s an interesting anecdote. (Well, at least I’M interested.) Tynes and I were talking about UA about halfway through its run and I confessed that I felt like a hitch-hiker. I told him that he’d had the brainstorm, he’d come up with all these core concepts, while all I did was fill in the details and do some modeling work. He blinked, hard, and said HE’D always felt like the goldbricker, like he’d handed me this grab-bag of vague ingredients and I’d cooked it into soup.

The lesson, I suppose, is that the best collaborations are the ones where each partner secretly thinks the other is doing all the work.

What can you tell us about your work on Demon: the Fallen and the Time of Judgment?

Demon had its frustrations, but getting in on the ground floor — being in the first-draft team and working on the signature characters and the most essential assumptions of the setting — that was a lot of fun. From the very first, I knew exactly how I wanted Hasmed’s story to end, and in the Wreckage of Paradise I got to do it. I think I wrote that part of the last chapter before I even started the second or third chapter.

As for Time of Judgment, that was just a full-bore hoot. When I was writing “Days of Fire,” no one actually came out and said “Here’s the whole damn toybox, you can take them ALL out and do whatever you like — you can even break ’em if you want” but… well, that was kind of my secret philosophy. It was fun. As was writing in the voice of Lucifer. Good practice for writing in the voice of Solomon Birch in “A Hunger Like Fire” and Dracula in “Rites of the Dragon.” They’re all very different characters, but they share the same absolute conviction that they’re right and everyone else is five and a half steps behind.

How did it feel writing the first Vampire: the Requiem novel?

I won’t like to you — it felt great. I had ideas that felt strong, characters who were passionately interesting to me, and the freedom to do my thing, within reason.

Writing the first Demon novel was the same way. Now, the second one was a bear: I had it half written when it jumped the tracks and just would NOT get back on the outline. I called my editor in a panic and asked what to do and he told me, very calmly, that he trusted my instincts and that if the book wanted to go somewhere else, maybe I should follow it. It worked. Later on, that same editor (Philippe Boulle) said that the second novel in the series was his favorite.

When writing A Hunger Like Fire, which elements of the Vampire: the Requiem RPG were challenging to “translate” over to fiction? Why?

Nothing really comes to mind, but I made a conscious decision early on to make sure the book worked first and foremost as a vampire novel, as opposed to a Vampire(TM) novel. I stuck to the basics — drink blood, sun bad, unwholesome urges — without getting overly caught up in the Requiem specific stuff. I mean, there’s stuff about several covenants, but I think only one clan gets mentioned by name.

The function of this novel, as I saw it was (1) be a kickass read, but also (2) introduce newbies to Requiem and help oldbies get a feel for what’s different from Masquerade. I focused on the night-by-night business of Persephone and Bruce, with flashes of what elders were doing for contrast. In a sense, its kitchen sink realism — you know, the genre of mainstream fiction in which people come to grips with the elements of ordinary life — for vampires who aren’t ordinary or alive.

What differences/challenges do you face when writing an RPG novel versus a sourcebook?

I think they’re very, very different. If writing a novel is like painting a picture, then writing a sourcebook is like making brushes and mixing paints and stretching the canvas so that someone ELSE can paint a picture. It’s an imperfect metaphor, and there’s lots of crossover in terms of the skills, but there are some fundamental differences in the two activities.

Specifically though: With a novel, everything has to align, and you have to put down everything you bring up. I can’t establish a character in chapter three, have her be really interesting, stick her in a thorny conundrum, and then drop her without ever mentioning what happened. (Well, I could, but unless it was handled really carefully and there was a REASON to do it that way, such as using her as a foil or to illustrate some point… without that reason, it would be a disappointing read.)

With a sourcebook, you can throw all kinds of crazy stuff at the wall, with the theory that some of it will stick for most groups. But there you have mechanical limitations, because if a set of rules is broken for one group, it’s probably broken for most of them.

What RPGs are you currently playing?

I just finished running a game I called “Instant Karma.” I used the nWoD rules, but the characters were all time travelers. At three points in their lives, they exchange consciousnesses with their future selves, at times narrowing in towards the year 2001, when they were in the experiment that set their consciousnesses adrift. So in the first session they were young kids who get tossed into the aged wrecks of their late-life selves, after there’s been a nuclear war and they get strong hints that they were involved, doing terrible things — treason, murder, et cetera. Then later, as teens they exchange with their middle aged selves and find that they’ve averted the war but, in the process, balkanized small nations. But first, they run afoul of the OTHER time travelers… It was a fun game, though much harder to run that I anticipated.

Next up I’m going to be a player in a modern Call of Cthulhu private detective game, run by Dr. Mark Keil. After THAT, Tim Toner’s running an Unknown Armies game in which we’re all agents of the House of Renunciation, but from different rooms. So lotsa modern horror coming up. After THAT I might try to run REIGN some more — that’s my fantasy game based off the mechanics I did for GODLIKE. Wish me luck finding a publisher for that, by the way.

That should keep me gaming until 2006.

What’s next for you?

Whole lot of the same thing, I expect, until at least 2007. I’m staying at home and parenting two small boys, and right now gaming buys a lot of diapers. Any other job I might take would mean leaving the house and shaving every day, plus I’d have to pay for daycare. There aren’t many jobs for which I’m qualified which would pay for that AND cover the cash I’m making writing RPGs part-time. So I’m content.

Directly, I’ve got another Vampire novel in the box, I’ve got stuff in a few more upcoming V:tR books, and I’m shopping around the One Roll Engine from GODLIKE to see if I can find another home (or homes) for it. There’s also Meatbot Massacre (http://www.danielsolis.com/meatbot) which is a bit of a distribution experiment, as well as being a fun tactical combat experiment. All those years of Car Wars and SFB coming back to haunt me, I suppose.

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