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Interview with freelance author Aaron Dembski-Bowden

Posted on September 19, 2005 by Flames

How did you get into gaming?

Damn it. I really wish I had some cooler-than-thou veteran story to start this off. I wish I had something slightly less embarrassing than the truth, which is that at age 9, in 1989, a moody, murdering Elf Ranger called Shandaric Darkspell Von Shadowblade kicked off my gaming career with a bang, two longswords and a cool blue hairstyle. I remember writing down on the back of his character sheet that he had blue hair. I don’t recall why that was important, though.

Shandaric was a troubled soul and had issues with killing everyone he met, purely in the plot-less quest for XP. He lived in an adventuring party of one, and had an assortment of stupid magical items to compensate for his shortcomings. With an uncomfortable glimpse into my memories, I now believe that most of these magical items were invented purely to keep the character alive, so that the guy running it didn’t have to stop the game for the only player to make a new character. In the end, Shandaric finally died when a large demon threw him into a pit of lava in some kind of made-up underhell, and it was voted that I didn’t have enough time to reach for any of my 3 Rods of Resurrection. When people say they cry in-character, I admire their acting skills and their dedication. However, the only time I’ve done it was when I was 11 and Shandaric Darkspell Von Shadowblade took a swim in lava, and I cried the way any kid cries when their favorite toy gets smashed.

And I swear that was his name. I’m not retconning it or rose-tinting it for humor. Discovering Vampire: the Masquerade when I was 17 was when I started taking RPGs seriously, and I finally clicked that taking it seriously was a great way to making it more fun.

Mind you, my first Vampire character was a handsome, half-Polish horror writer with a pistol and a Greek shortsword hidden under his trenchcoat. He had an Appearance 4 nurse as a ghoul lover. That’s hardly progress from Mr. Von Shadowblade, truth told. Ah, the follies of youth.

Wait a second, why am I even admitting this?

How did you get started at Morrigan Press?

I noticed an open call on RPG.net for writers who wanted to get involved with a project involving High Fantasy elements in the Middles Ages, and that was right up my alley. I got involved as a full-timer when they did another open call, and it had an insane “rising from the dead” test concept that applicants had to flesh out.

I like to think I slaughtered all the competition with my elite writing skills, but it was probably a close-run thing in the end. Either way, it was a scene with a great deal of “right place, right time” luck going on. Not many folks get to full-time it in this industry, and writing from home is about as blissful an existence as can be imagined.

My biggest fear is that I’m 25 years old now and already doing what I wanted to do with my life. Short of the occasional pay rise, I’m now wondering exactly how I can possibly go “up” from here. I keep hoping there’s a secret club of RPG high-ups that I’ll get invited to, but no RSVP has come in the mail yet. It’s probably for the best, as I don’t do too well at formal dress occasions. I look too much like a mugger, and if you dress me up in a suit, I look like a mugger attending his court hearing. No parent wants little Billy buying games written by a guy who looks like an extra from Romper Stomper.

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

This is one of those questions that highlights what a truly spineless creature I am, because I always think that every single new project is the hardest one so far – until it’s finished, whereupon I gleefully declare it the easiest and best thing I’ve ever had the pleasure of doing. At that point, a new project comes along and the cowardly cycle repeats itself.

To prove the point, what I’m doing right now is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, but that’s because there’s just so much of it. I’ll get to that later, if you’re still awake by the end of this thing.

What can you tell us about your work on Dark Ages: Fae?

I can tell you that I’d change quite a bit of it, now that I have the benefit of hindsight. I think that the way it reads, you can tell I was nervous writing it. Every line tries to have some significance, because it was my first real RPG gig and it was such an important project to throw a newbie on. The end result is that I think some of it reads like I’m trying too hard to make each and every sentence resonate.

I’d also liked to have tied the setting a little closer to the mortal game world, rather than focus so heavily on the fae-specific War of Seasons. I think I missed some chances to inject a little horror into the Middle Ages, there.

Matt McFarland (the Dark Ages ex-developer) told me at GenCon last month that if we could redo the book, he’d get me to do a lot more of it, which was a cool thing to hear.

What challenges did you face while working with a historical setting such as Dark Ages?

I had a great deal of trouble getting the history books back to the library on time. I have a pretty bad memory.

Hey, you asked.

What can you tell us about your work on Werewolf: the Forsaken?

That there’s a lot of it. This time next year, I think I’ll have been in perhaps half of the entire Forsaken game line. By early 2006, I’ll have contributed to 4 out of the 7 books released by then, and I have another 2 (maybe 3) getting released in ’06.

Now, the immediate thing this means is that I should have enough money to pay my taxes, which is a bittersweet fact indeed. It’s also (to get a little gooey for a moment) a massive, huge, gigantic rush to be so involved with a game line I love so much, especially considering how high-profile it is.

I think that come the end of my Werewolf tenure, I’ll have left my mark on some pretty vital chunks of the game. The Azlu and Beshilu (and the new Hosts) in Predators, were pretty funky and garnered a lot of interest. I was rough on a few of the rules then (the corebooks where just Word.docs suffering constant change, too), and I regret missing out a couple of biggies (like replenishing Essence from eating people and bugs) but overall I’m happy with it as a “first go” deal. The Firstborn totems in Lore of the Forsaken weren’t in such high demand, but the info on the Maeljin and the Maeltinet certainly was. The Bale Hounds getting fleshed out is another biggie project that Ethan gave me, and that’ll probably get a lot of use in people’s games once Blasphemies is released. I’d also like to think that my advice for creating lodges in the upcoming Lodges: the Faithful helps out a lot.

Actually, credit listing aside, it’s pretty insane to step back and look at what I’ve done, what I’m doing, and what’s coming up. I’m about as die-hard a White Wolf fanboy as you can get, but if you’d told me 4 years ago when I was starting out as a freelancer that I’d be one of the most hired writers in the entire Werewolf game line, I’d have called you crazy.

I keep pretending to be blasé about it, but the joy of getting a new project outline never really fades at all. But, see, it’s just not cool to gush.

What do you feel sets Werewolf: the Forsaken apart from its predecessor?

You mean, besides all that jazz I just said about me writing it?

Oh. You mean real stuff. No, no, I understand. It’s fine.

The tone between the games is very, very different. Curiously, I noticed this much more when I played the game, rather than just reading it. Played right, Forsaken scares me. The way walking around in the apartment after reading a good horror novel or seeing a good horror film scares me. Apocalypse never did that, and seeing as they were both billed as horror games, I think that says a lot.

The Umbra of Werewolf: the Apocalypse was somewhere the Garou wanted to go. It was a place to protect, to hide from your foes, and to preserve from evil. The Shadow of Werewolf: the Forsaken isn’t like that at all. It’s a nightmare of subtle perversions, predations, and twisted design; more like walking the mist-blinded, dead streets of Silent Hill, never knowing what perversion of the natural order will manifest into sight around the next corner.

There is no extended, vast support network of allies, mentors and reinforcements the way there was in Apocalypse. Back in the previous game line, you had septs of allied packs, elders teaching the young werewolves, a mandate from a living goddess and a spirit world that bent over backwards to help you, the knightly, heroic guardian army of the Earth. In Forsaken you have yourself, your pack, and any allies that you can bring to your side through your own skills and deals. It’s all about isolation, trust, and fear. And I dig that, because having no colossal support structure like the Garou Nation to run crying to for aid is a freeing experience. There’s no need to prove your independence from your elders – it’s about being independent or dying, and to Hell with what anyone else says. I love the chance to find your own way in dealing with the social details of the game world, too. Now rather than rigidly-defined tribes that tend to act in a certain way, I can customize the cities and wild lands of my games into the kind of places I want to tell stories. That was always a lot harder in Apocalypse, at least for me, as I didn’t find the struggles or the attitudes of many tribes all that interesting at times.

The divisions between ally and enemy were rigidly clear-cut in most cases, forcing a very strong good vs. evil ethos, too. I’m glad that’s gone. I’m all about the shades of grey when it comes to arguing and fighting with someone. Trying to work out just who is right and why is a cool part of meeting another werewolf pack.

What can you tell us about your work on High Medieval?

I can tell you that reading heavy history books in the bath makes your arms ache. True story.

High Medieval is a weird game line to work on. It’s a pretty niche setting, as historical gaming doesn’t usually sell too well, but it has elements of High Fantasy mixed in to appeal to some of the hardened D&Ders. Now, while that might sound like a great tagline, it makes finding the balance on how much fantasy to mix with the history a challenging premise. Too much D&D and you’ve lost the historical fan base. Too much history lesson and you’ve generated yawns from some of the High Fantasy players.

I love the game to bits and I love writing for the line (despite the heavy, heavy, heavy research required) but I shed no tears about it being a niche setting. It does what it was designed to do very elegantly indeed.

What can we expect from the upcoming The Celtic Lands?

Celtic Lands (Kingdoms of Britain is the final title we’re throwing around) is the sourcebook focused on England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. It’s a sourcebook that features a bevy on info on geographical descriptions just like you’d expect, but it’s got some surprises between the covers. The Celestial and Bestial Elves are presented in all their glory, highlighting the differences between their cultures, and the Cenedl (Halflings) get a big mention, too. Rules for playing these demi-humans are included, natch.

There’s also some advice on running games in the British Isles, using some of the historical coolness like ancient stone circles, plundering Bronze Age tombs, and how to manage the mixture of Celtic, Viking, Anglo-Saxon and Normal cultures that make up Britain in 1250.

It’s a killer book, and I’m dead proud of it. Out of everything I’ve written so far, Kingdoms of Britain is the one I can most confidently say “I’ll use this a whole bunch in my own gaming group.”

What RPGs are you currently playing?

The wrong ones, if you go by my work schedule. My Dark Ages: Werewolf game looks like it’s at a permanent close in the very near future, meaning that for my White Wolf needs, I’ll be back to Werewolf: the Forsaken very shortly. I’ve played that online a lot, and once at GenCon ’05, but getting my tabletop group into a game I’m so heavily in to will to kick ass.

The thing is, some of my group are completely new to gaming (though they are easily the best-looking gaming group on Earth, which is a strange and lovely bragging right) so we’re starting on something less intensive than Forsaken. That’d be Forgotten Realms, as it happens. I have a “walk around the Realms and recover your lost memories” game that I’m working on running for them, so that should keep the newbies interested without forcing the oldbies into a dungeon crawl when they’re not in the mood for one.

On the horizon are basically Werewolf: the Forsaken and probably Atlantis: the Second Age if factors like “workloads” and “real life” allow it. I want to wait for the Atlantis GM’s Guide at Christmas though, because I want the big fold-out map of the city of Atlantis itself on the table when we play. Morrigan Press had a framed one at the GenCon booth, and although stealing it was impractical given my return flight across the Atlantic Ocean, I decided I’d hold off on playing the game until I had one of those bad boys as a visual aid, because it was just that beautiful. I want to play High Medieval like a drowning man wants air, but it’s too grounded in history for some of my players, who like things a little more “out there”.

Other than those, John Wick’s Cat looks absolutely brilliant, and I have a bunch of playtesting to do for…

What’s next for you?

…Immortal, my own game.

I’ve told myself that I won’t gush here, but that vow can be broken at the drop of a hat.

Immortal is basically the vampire game I’ve always wanted to make. It’s my own spin on vampire myths and legends, and incorporating them into the modern world. I’ve had a lot of creative sway over the project so far, butting my head into the art contracting and the cover design, and getting stuck into the layout a bit, too. Mostly, I’m down in the trenches writing it, and (to be blunt) doing my best to make it just how I imagined it, and making sure it doesn’t tread on any toes. More specifically, it doesn’t tread on any of the wrong toes, as everyone knows there’s only one vampire RPG out there right now, and White Wolf haven’t exactly shown themselves to be shy about suing in the past.

Well, I hope to make it so there are at least 2 vampire games out there. I’m trying to focus much of Immortal on the ins and outs of being a vampire and your night-to-night existence, rather than the urban politics of the undead. In Immortal, you can start your own cult of enslaved, depraved worshippers, you can fight in gang wars against other vampires, or you can worry about the private investigator that seems to know much more about you than he should. The political side exists if that’s your thing, but the focus is very much on life (or unlife) as an unnaturally-powerful hunter. You feel no guilt for killing prey – the Change alters you into the ultimate predator, after all. And while something like Predator 2 might not exactly be classic cinema, the feel of the skillful, adaptable urban hunter with many tricks and powers at his disposal is a damn cool theme to go with in a game where you hunt humans in cities. The hunting aspects of Immortal are going to be like that – only without Danny Glover, aliens with ugly faces, and all that really bad dialogue.

Man, I’m going way off-course. What I meant to say, in professional and crisp tones, is that Immortal is all about offering you a personal insight into vampiric existence, and making it all matter to the individual character. That’s what I should’ve said at first, instead of being mean about Danny Glover.

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