Posted on September 22, 2005 by Flames
How did you get into gaming?
Like a lot of current game designers, I skew pretty old school, though I think sometimes that I “remember” owning and playing rpgs before I actually did. I do know for sure that I actually started roleplaying with Dungeons & Dragons, but there were other games, mostly cheap war games, that fascinated me before that. I remember this one game in particular: it was this little, boxed set from some company in England, I think, that was a skirmish game with an Arthurian theme. The neat thing about the boxed set was that it came with 16 lead miniatures, all of these fanciful little knights in armour with the coolest helmets, and weapons. It also had this short, Xeroxed book of maps and scenarios, and I remember sitting and poring over that book for hours at a time, while I turned the little miniature knights over and over in my hands. So I guess my fascination was there from an early age.
I didn’t really get into doing anything with rpgs until my father died, when I was about 9 years old. When he was gone, there was just this big empty space in the house, and I was desperate to fill it, so I used my D&D books to write up my father as a fantasy superhero of sorts, and then he’d go off and adventure for me, killing dragons and all that sort of thing. In the early days, my mom also took the time to play with me, and she’d sit with me for hours while I drilled her with questions about the stupidest details. “Okay, what’s your character eating? Now what’s she drinking? Now what does she do at the store?” All that sort of stuff. Looking back, she had a lot more patience with me than anyone has a right to expect.
What has been your most challenging work in the RPG industry?
Without question, the most challenging work in terms of effort was the 6 months or so I spent working at Mongoose Publishing. 128 pages a month, every month, with no exception. That was tough, and I mean tough, and I remember staying up for more than two days straight on multiple occasions just to come close to hitting deadline.
From a creative standpoint, the most challenging work I’ve done was also for Mongoose. Stonebridge: City of Illusion was a real bitch to write for me, because I was trying, really trying to make a city that was different from anything else in D20 land, one that revolved around a completely different style of play. I suppose I succeeded, at least in some ways. Stonebridge is different, and I think it epitomizes all the things I love in fantasy, but at the same time I don’t think I reached the level of presentation I wanted to hit.
What advice do you have for hopeful authors trying to get into the industry?
I don’t know that I’m the best person for giving advice about working in the game industry. I’ve made so many mistakes, and blown so many opportunities that I think the best thing for an aspiring author to do would be to watch me, and never do what I do.
Um, that said, I guess I can suggest a couple of things. First, don’t whore yourself out for a chance. There’s a lot of work out there, and a lot of alternative publishing options – pdf, for example, is relatively cheap – so don’t take on any project just because it’s out there. As a writer, your reputation is everything, and it’s so damn easy to end up, through no fault of your own, saddled with a project that William Shakespeare couldn’t make a success.
My second bit of advice for a freelancer would be – and this is related to my first point – follow your muse, man. Don’t be afraid to write what you are interested in writing. This is especially true if you’re going the route of an independent publisher, or if you’re looking to write for a gaming magazine. The things that interest you are what you should start with, and what should always form the core of your portfolio, until the end of your career.
One other thing: challenge yourself, always. I try not to take on books that won’t challenge me, because I have no interest in running in place creatively. I try, with all my books, to stretch my own boundaries, because it’s that effort that keeps me writing when the mid-book doldrums hit.
What can you tell us about your work on Edge of Infinity for Scarred Lands?
Edge of Infinity was a fun book to write, because the Developer, a great guy named Joseph Carriker, was so willing to let his freelancers set their own path. I think he was willing to work this way because he had laid out such a strong vision for the book initially, strong enough that we knew our limits, and knew where we could push them.
The book itself was great, and I really lucked into getting sections I was really interested in writing. The domain of the Goddess of madness, witches, and darkness was immensely fun to do, because it was a land of perpetual Halloween. Halloween has always been my favorite holiday, and I’ve always been fascinated with gothic stuff, and spooks of all sorts – if it goes bump in the night, I love it. So for me, the chance to write about werewolves, and evil forests, and so on and so forth was like being handed the keys to Santa’s workshop.
I really got into that project, and just let my inner, 12 year old out to play. It’s funny, the material was so dark, but writing it was all sunshine playland for me. I’m totally guessing here, but I think I was in the same place that Tim Burton is when he directs films like the Nightmare Before Christmas: the idea of what you’re getting to play with is just so fucking cool that it’s impossible not to be happy while you’re doing it.
If you could have done more with the Scarred Lands setting, what would you have done?
Pretty much anything they wanted. That was (is) a great setting, with a lot of potential. Something involving the Carnival Krewe would have been nice, because I love Ray Bradbury’s novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. A module set in the Black Lands would have been a cool project too. It’s too damn bad the setting is on hiatus now, but that’s the way it goes.
What can you tell us about your work on the Demon Hunter’s Handbook?
Writing the Demon Hunter’s Handbook was a great opportunity for me, and one that I’ll always be thankful to Joe Goodman (of Goodman Games) for. It was mostly an open ended book, one that I could do what I wanted with, with very minimal editorial control. God, that was great.
The writing of it, though, took me to a place that was completely different than the one Edge took me to. With Demon Hunters, I wanted to approach the subject matter from an angle of despair, because most of the demon focused game books I’ve seen have taken a more heroic approach. Um, to give you an idea of the way I’m thinking, I’ll talk about it in music terms, because I tend to theme all my writing around particular groups of songs that inspire the feeling I’m going for with the work. For the most part, demon focused books have a heavy metal soundtrack, they’re big and booming, and full of fiery imagery of hardcore, badass combat. My intention with Demon Hunters, conversely, was to write something more like a funeral dirge, or maybe the gaming equivalent of Tool’s Stinkfist, or Maybe Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb. Still strong, still thumping, but personally nihilistic – that’s how I see those songs, which are incidentally two of my favourite tunes in all the world.
So when I got into Demon Hunter’s, I really tried to immerse myself in negative feelings, particularly when I was writing flavor text, or talking about the themes of a demon hunting campaign. Honestly, getting into that mode was easy for me, because I tend to be melancholy as a barrelful of Morrisseys. So when I was writing the book, I just tried to imagine what it would really be like to set yourself against absolute, squalid evil, and how that would take its toll on your body, your emotions, and your spirit. I see demon hunters as fundamentally damaged, unbelievably stubborn people – they wouldn’t be particularly brave or righteous, at least not after a few years of fighting demons, but they’d be stubborn and driven to a degree that other people couldn’t understand. Demon Hunters aren’t shining examples of morality, they’re the old priest from the Exorcist, or maybe Johnny Cash at his most man-in-black-preacherish: old, coastal stones, weathered and beaten by time and tide, but too damn strong to break.
Looking back, I like to think I got at least a little of that feeling into the book, and I hope the audience agrees.
What can you tell us about the Quintessential and Encyclopedia Arcane books you’ve worked on?
You know, those were a real mixed bag. The first two Quints I did, Monk and Sorcerer, are still some of my favorite work. The Quint Monk was my first “big time” freelance gig – I’d already done one book called Stormhaven: City of a Thousand Seas, but the Monk was my first 128 page solo work, and it was the first one that realistically had the potential to reach a fairly wide audience. Digging into that book was terrific: I have about 10,000 dollars worth of kung fu movies, martial arts training videos and manuals, and martial artsy anime films in my library, and so I had this incredible amount of material to draw on.
Quint Sorcerer was another great project for me, because I was lucky enough to get the chance to write material for what was, at the time, one of the most underdeveloped character classes. Really, the sorcerer just kind of existed in this nebulous place, because it was mechanically different from the wizard, but not really given a real tasty flavor. So when I wrote that, I tried to infuse the class with personality, and I admit I riffed shamelessly off a lot of my favorite novels when I wrote it.
For the most part, the other Quints were a mixed bag. Quint Chaos Mage was fun, but it was hard to follow in the footsteps of the Encyclopedia: Chaos Magic book which it was based on – that book was quality material, and I suffered a bit of performance anxiety. The rest are pretty much a blur, stuff I was contractually obligated to write (at the rate of one a month). Looking back, I think they’re okay, but nothing special. It’s too bad, really, since I would have liked to have had more time to develop the second Monk book. I wanted that one to be a bigtime follow up, but really it just turned out okay.
The Encyclopedia Arcanes were each written in 2 weeks, because that was SOP for 64 page books at Mongoose. Given that, I think they turned out pretty well. The Drow book was fun to write, because I was able to just play around with the idea of corrupt supermodels – and really, what else are the drow if they aren’t gothy fashionistas?
What RPGs are you currently playing?
Right now, I’m getting into Legend of the Five Rings, and I’ve always got a place in my heart for Unknown Armies, Nobilis, and Dungeons & Dragons. Really though, my big infatuation is with Green Ronin’s Blue Rose system, because it’s everything I’ve always wanted fantasy gaming to be. It’s beautiful, and relatively simple, and focused on the mystical, rather than the magical. It evokes images of Ray Bradbury, Ursula LeGuin, and Lord Dunsaney, my three literary idols. That’s good stuff, right there.
What keeps you busy when you’re not gaming?
Work, my kids, my obsession with video games. I still do martial arts, but I never have much time to get into my school anymore. Otherwise, I like to go out as much as time, and money allows. I drink and dance while I’m youngish, because there’s no time like the present to have fun.
Yeah, that pretty much sums me up.
What’s next for you?
Well, I’ve got another book coming from Goodman Games, this one for the Dragonmech setting. It’s about the city of Edge, and my chunk deals with drow, dwarves, and giant, clockwork robots. Man, writing about those robots was terrific fun. I tried to channel a bit of Miyazaki in them, and just a bit of DaVinci as well. I’m hoping people really like them.
Beyond that, I don’t know. I’m working a big project for Phil Reed and Ronin Arts, which has become the defacto home for most of my work. A great company, and a terrific guy. Much of my best work has been published through Ronin, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
And sometime in the future, though I’ve stopped assigning a date, the Summerlands will come out. It’s my own game, and it’s been my dream project for about 4 years now. It’s an rpg about fairytales, inspired by the art of Stephanie Pui-Mun Law, and I’ll get it done no matter how hard I have to bust my ass to do it.
Ultimately, though, I don’t know what’s in store. I fear sometimes the game industry has already passed me by, or that I was never that much a part of it to begin with. I’d love to branch out and get a shot writing for other games, but it seems sometimes like the work I’ve done doesn’t amount to much when it comes to getting offers, or getting accepted when I poke around for interest. So we’ll see, and hopefully a year from now I’ll look back on this paragraph and slap myself for letting my inner Morrissey out to play again.