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Interview with Krister M. Michl

Posted on June 13, 2005 by Flames

How did you get started in gaming?

Unlike most of my gaming friends, I got into the roleplaying scene rather late. It was during my freshman year in High School that a few of my new friends introduced me to the concept of roleplaying and roleplaying games. They mentioned that they were running Giovanni Chronicles – which is, for those of you who are new to the gaming scene, a Vampire: the Masquerade book series – and they asked me if I wanted to participate. I declined. I simply had no interest in roleplaying and it sounded rather odd to me.

A month or two passed and one evening I was visiting the above-mentioned friends and they were running a short story of Freak Legion (Werewolf: the Apocalypse supplement) and I thought that I might as well try it. That night I played a red-skinned, twisted bishop whose church was the center of some rather nasty activity. I enjoyed it so much that I decided to try playing again… and again… and again.

I played everything from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Robotech and homemade D&D settings to Vampire: the Masquerade and Werewolf: the Apocalypse. Yet I didn’t feel that I had as much fun as I could. I wanted to run a game, but what? All the games were “occupied” by friends.

While on vacation in Norway I went into a large comics and game shop in Oslo. My eyes landed on Changeling: the Dreaming and within minutes (and after asking a friend if anyone owned it) I purchased the 2nd Edition corebook and the Player’s Guide. With the purchase I was completely hooked in the gaming scene and I’ve been playing and running games for a little over a decade now.

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

Oh! Starting off with a good question to get my guard down, eh?

When Matt sent me the list of upcoming books for 2004, I noticed that there were plenty of books that I wanted to work on. However, Dark Ages: Fae immediately caught my interest due to my love for working with faeries in RPG format. I wrote Matt and asked him to assign me to that book even if it meant that it would be the only book I worked on that year. Months passed and I thought Matt had already assigned authors to Dark Ages: Fae. Then, shortly before New Year’s Eve 2003, I got a mail telling me that there were plenty of people who wanted the gig but I made the cut.

We (read as: freelance writers and Matt) immediately began to discuss the outline and the talk on how to flesh the wonderful outline into a fantastic setting. Now, the outline made it clear to us that if we weren’t able to separate ourselves from the vision of Changeling: the Dreaming, we should ask to be relieved of our assignments. This turned out to be no problem at all for me (to my great surprise). Just getting the opportunity to work with the fae again made it all worth it.

Most of the work in the early days was done via e-mail and chat sessions where we presented ideas and tore them to pieces before rebuilding them. In retrospect I see that the area where my ideas had most impact on how it turned out in the game was with the Sprites. I still have the sprite mails left and when I go back and look at them I feel proud of those ideas and discussions. While some sprite facts changed later one, I still see quite a few factors that remain from my initial suggestions (one being the concept of sprites turning into fae through the use of a cantrip).

The entire design process on Dark Ages: Fae is something that I hold close to heart because it was just such a wonderful time. I could spend pages upon pages discussing the process but it’s time for me to move on to the actual question at hand – my work on Dark Ages: Fae.

My assignment was to write the character creation and drama chapter (now known as Chapter Three: Characters & Drama). I had to come up with ways to explain the character creation process and adapt it to the Dark Ages standard presentation, in addition to explain what Mists and Weaving really was, what the concepts meant to the faeries of Dark Ages, and how Storytellers and players should utilize them. Yet, out of all sections in the chapter, the hardest part was to develop a working Feature system (and Features is, as you know, the most important part in character creation).

At this point, I might add, the Feature system consisted of a rating from 1-5, just as most other traits in the World of Darkness games. The initial idea was that fae grew more alien through their increased knowledge of Dominions. The closer they got to their primary Dominion (higher the rating), the more they embodied either their Court (or nature of the Dominion in case of Solstice fae). This system went into the playtest but was eventually scrapped and replaced with Lesser and Greater Features. (One idea that I still like from the old system is that Features could follow a system similar to the Beastmen Gifts in Exalted: the Lunars.)

When two of the original authors of the book had to drop out of the project, Matt assigned me half of the second chapter (the introduction and the three Origin splats). While it was sad to hear that the authors in question had to drop out, I was happy because it allowed me to get even more involved in the book. Also, because of this, Aaron joined us and thus I got to know another freelancer that I now call a friend.

Another event that made my assignment on Dark Ages: Fae special was when Matt contacted me, approximately halfway through the first draft period, and asked if I wanted to take on a chapter for the upcoming Brujah Chronicles. Although I wanted to accept immediately, I knew that Dark Ages: Fae and Brujah Chronicle’s deadlines wouldn’t be too far apart. Add to this dilemma that Bruce Baugh asked me if I wanted to work on an upcoming Gamma World d20 book that eventually became Beyond the Horizon (released last year). I sat down, thought long and hard about if I had energy and time for all of the projects and decided to accept.
When we got close to the first draft deadline, I felt as if there was something missing in the book. We talked a lot about the war between the Courts and the different agendas, but nothing about the regular lives of the fae. I took a small risk and wrote the section that talks about titles, marriages, oathcircles, and everything else that can be used to flesh out the daily life. Now, why a risk you may wonder. Well, the risk stems from that this is nothing that usually is in a character creation chapter, but to my advantage Matt read it and seemed to like it a lot (from what I could gather) and it got to stay. (Tidbit: There was a section on divorces but it didn’t end up in the book.)

I really don’t know what else to say about it. The work on Dark Ages: Fae is something that I will cherish forever since it was (and still is) unlike anything else I’ve done.

Talking about it makes me miss working for Matt. And to be completely honest, I miss it a lot.

What challenges do you face when writing for a historical setting like Dark Ages?

Honestly, I have to give two answers to this question.

When it comes to the writing process it’s when to keep matters all fiction, focus on historical accuracy, or mix the two. I constantly must ask myself where fiction works better than historical accuracy in a game.

With Dark Ages: Fae it was clear from the beginning that I had to work with fiction over history. Yet, the fiction had to be based on historical accuracy since the general Dark Ages setting is anchored in real life history. Naturally, the main source for Fae became old tales that I could locate in the libraries or encyclopedias. One book that I found especially useful for planning Features was “The Encyclopedia of Things That Never Were”. Borrow or buy it if you are interested in some good suggestions to new Features or fae creatures that player characters can encounter in your games.

My second answer to this question is: Where to locate historically accurate sources?

When I worked on Brujah Chronicles this turned out to be a real problem for me due to the nature of my assignment. Without going into details, it involved the power struggle within the Brujah Clan, the Baali, and the shadow inquisition; all set on the Isle of Love (Cyprus).

In the beginning my expectations were that it would be easy to locate information on Cyprus in the 13th century since there were plenty of things going on in the area. Yet, all of my initial information talked about the same events over and over again. I couldn’t find any substantial information on the social dealings or historical events that weren’t so focused with the “huge” historical incidents of Europe.

It was frustrating and I began to worry about how to get it to work. Eventually I decided that it was worth a shot and I contacted the library in the capital and asked them before proceeding with more and more libraries. In the end that helped me, but I still view this problem to be the factor that causes the most challenge when it comes to working on a setting like Dark Ages.

For anyone that is new to this business, regardless of if you work on something like Dark Ages or not, I have this to say: Make sure to try everything in order to find historically accurate sources before bringing out the fiction-pen. Research, research, research — I hear plenty of horror stories about newer freelance writers who just rely on their talent for fiction.

What can you tell us about your work on Changeling: the Dreaming?

This question brings back good and bad memories for me. I still miss Changeling and I’m still a bit sad that I didn’t get a chance to work on the Time of Judgment section for the game. However, I’m the first to admit that I’m happy with what Matt, Pete and Carrie did with the chapter. It’s a great toolbox – and stress that word, toolbox – for how to end your Changeling chronicle. The only thing that I missed (for selfish reasons) was a bit on the Aesin.

My works on Changeling are actually the first ones I did as gaming freelancer. During the summer of 1999, I came into contact with Nicky Rea and Jackie Cassada, who had just taken over the reins of Changeling: the Dreaming from Ian Lemke and Justin Achilli (developer of the Book of Houses 2). They asked me to submit a proposal for a Scandinavian noble house that could fit in an upcoming Changeling product, and I naturally jumped at this opportunity to contribute to a game I loved. At that point the house that eventually became Aesin was called Ivaldi — a house of nobles that were more violent and intolerant than the fae that appear in the Book of Lost Houses. That house version was scrapped by me once I began to write the actual drafts of my chapter.

When House Aesin began to take shape I realized that it was necessary for me to make it a Scandinavian house and not just a pure Norse-based Viking house. Unfortunately, it turned out that it was hard for non-Scandinavians (and even a few Scandinavians) to spot similarities to our modern society and what could stem from the Norse sagas and Viking history. However, there is a mix, even if not all detect it, and while I would have done things differently today, I still like the Aesin.

Also, I planned a bit ahead in case Nicky and Jackie would ever allow me to come back to the house in future publications. There are hints on how the house storyline would develop if I got it my way. One part is in the history section, two are in the write-ups of famous Aesin, and there are several more hints that need lines drawn to them. Add all and you get the truth behind a treachery, the fall of someone important, and a possible internal house war.

My assignment on Changeling after Book of Lose Houses was a few sections for the highly profiled Book of Glamour. I updated and rewrote Musing and Ravaging, but I also created the rules for Dark Glamour and, well, I’m not sure I want to go into detail about it now since it was meant to be a secret until release, a second way for fae to fuse Glamour into magic.

When Book of Glamour was in editing, we got message from Nicky and Jackie that the line had been put on ice. It saddened me deeply and left an emotional scar (even if I never thought about it at the time), if I may be that dramatic. The scar never got to heal until Matt assigned me to Dark Ages: Fae, but now I’m okay with what went happened. I have experienced cancellations several times now — about 50% of the books I’ve worked on have had the line put on ice just shortly before the release (including Brujah Chronicles and two Star Trek RPG books for Decipher that I was anxiously waiting to see in stores).

Will we ever see some of the ”unpublished” work for Book of Glamour?

As far as I know at this point the answer is yes.

Am I 100% sure? No. I’m afraid not.

Last year Chris Howard contacted me and said that he was trying to get Book of Glamour and Keys to the Kingdom released as PDF-files. I told Chris that he could use the stuff I wrote, since I’ve wanted the fans to have it for quite some time now, as long as WW were okay with it. Right now I don’t know anything more than the rest of you do since things have been pretty quiet during the past few months. Funny you should ask this question, though, since I mailed Chris a couple of days ago about this and I hope to hear something soon.

What can you tell us about your work on the Book of Bone & Ebony for Exalted?

Bone and Ebony is the second Exalted book I’ve worked on (the first being Exalted: the Sidereals). Compared to Sidereals, where I wrote the Storytelling chapter, I must admit that work on Bone and Ebony was way easier. I didn’t have to ponder things like “what would destiny say about this” or “how do you run people that can check what will happen in the future if they pull some strings”. Instead I had the good fortune of facing questions such as “what is a creature and how do I make it differ from regular ghosts” and “how are creatures viewed by the living/dead/or gods”.

My section was to be a flora and fauna over odd creatures that couldn’t really think for themselves. Creatures that followed a strict pattern and adhered to some sort of behavior dictated upon their creation. At first I planned on having 50 creatures from each direction (North, South, East, West, Stygia, and the Labyrinth), but once writing began, I noticed the word count getting smaller and smaller and the idea just died.

I was extremely focused on everything about the creatures. Where did they come from? How did they appear? Each section took hundreds of words when they should have been half the length. Geoff pointed this out in the first draft redlines and when I got back to cutting I suddenly got room for more creatures. One creature that I added is the Ferrymen (and I just love the image where a Ferryman battles Mirth), and I wish that I could have done more with them. I can honestly say that I added them as a tribute to the wonderful Wraith: the Oblivion.

The final part of the chapter details four possible scenarios that involve the development of the maggots inside Mask of Winter’s mobile fortress. There are million other ways that they could develop other than the four that ended up in the book, but they were the most varied in that they presented different power-scales and didn’t just stick with variations of the “Godzilla awakens” scenario.

Talking about this makes me a bit sad. I see forum posts that deal with this issue all the time, and it seems like there is a small group of gamers that feel a need to adhere to everything that is written in books. To them I say: Don’t do it. Do what feels right for you. If you want the Winter Clones in your game, then by all means use them. If you want to keep the maggots as … well… maggots, do that. I doubt they’ll listen to me but games should be fun and gaming books should a source for ideas – not seen as holy gaming scriptures.

Now for something more fun related to this assignment.

Trivia fact: The only creature that remained exactly as written in pre-first drafts is the Crystal Mice.

Trivia fact 2: Since I planned on having 50 creatures from each section, it means a total of 300 creatures. I never developed all of them but there are still creatures that never got into the drafts and they exist as undeveloped ideas on paper.

What’s next for you?

Right now I’m asking myself the very same question. During the last eight or nine months I’ve focused on dealing with matters concerning my life outside of gaming and writing. Since I’ve just returned to the writing scene, I’m looking for new assignments.

I recently turned in a short assignment for a well-known d20 line and I hope to work with that game in the future. I would also like to work on any of the new World of Darkness lines for White Wolf since I’ve always loved working with them and their games.

What’s next for me after this interview? Well, it’s a cup of coffee, the “Little Britain” DVDs I got the other day, and planning my upcoming Dragonlance d20, Exalted, and World of Darkness games.

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