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Flames

Interview with Sarah Roark

Posted on January 19, 2004 by Flames

How did you get into gaming?

Well, it’s been quite a while, so I haven’t got the most exact recollection of things. I do remember coming across and buying one of those old bright red boxed sets for AD&D in the store back when I was in elementary school. I read it eagerly and talked about it with a couple of boys at school who also liked roleplaying, but we didn’t actually game. In fact, I didn’t succeed in finding a game till middle school — and that wasn’t the greatest experience in the world, unfortunately. It was a different world for female gamers back then. But all this time, despite not having a steady group, I was reading supplements and making characters. I used to read the old Dungeon Masters’ Guide at the breakfast table. I thought all the tables for everything from henchman generation to chances of contracting lycanthropy were the neatest thing in the world. 🙂

Finally, in high school and college, I managed to find people who actually gamed on a regular basis. In high school I played some D&D; in college I joined a Torg game that became the first long-term and involved campaign I’d ever experienced. Needless to say, I loved it. The same group of folks started me on White Wolf games when Vampire: The Masquerade came out in — what was it, ’91 or ’92? Then in graduate school I met Janet Trautvetter online through VAMP-L, and she introduced me to Myranda Kalis (also online), and we formed the first Internet gaming group I’d ever been in. That game is still going strong.

What advice do you have for hopeful authors trying to get into the gaming industry?

First: achieve basic writing competency. Even if you’ll never be Shakespeare, you can at least learn how to write paragraphs that flow. The less developers have to wrestle a writer’s draft to get it into shape for publication, generally, the happier they are. After all, we’re talking about some severely overworked people here. Be able to follow whatever the proprietary formats and conventions are for the company you hope to work for. Whatever your personal system for writing is (e.g., working in big marathon bursts vs. doing 700 words a day, etc), set up your schedule so that you’re able to finish a project within at least tossing distance of the deadline. Prepare yourself for the fact that much of the time you’ll be working cooperatively with other people — the developer, at least, and often co-authors — and that if you’re used to being the lone creator, you may need to adjust your working style.

Second: Should go without saying, but doesn’t — be familiar with the product. That means both reading the game supplements and playing the games. If you are a creative type (which you should be to do this kind of work), you’ll no doubt form passionate opinions on what is special and good about the game’s mechanics and setting and what should be changed. While my experience is that developers welcome writers who have passion for the work and the strong opinions that go along with that, they also expect writers to abide by whatever the decision from above is and write it up that way with no loss of enthusiasm. In other words, if you’re convinced the canon background of the Sky-Elves is silly and needs to be reworked, it’s fine to make an argument to that effect; but if the word then comes back that you must write the supplement with the background remaining as given, then that’s what you’ve got to do.

Third: Persist. Like anything having to do with the arts, getting into game writing is a combination of skill, luck, and tenacity. I got my first paid writing assignment several years after I first started knocking on doors and receiving rejections. If you’re shy and retiring, you’ll have to try and overcome that a bit (without crossing the line into obnoxious), because unfortunately, shy and retiring people usually don’t have the good luck to just get tripped over by someone actively looking for talent. RPG companies get lots of submissions, and the developers, as I said, are massively overworked. They don’t go out hunting far and wide for writers. Writers must come to them. Writers are also frequently recommended to them by colleagues and friends, so networking can be a big factor. A lot of people, including myself, are uncomfortable with networking, but a certain amount of it is necessary if you’re serious about finding work. If you have industry connections you can pursue, do so (again, without being obnoxious about it). If you don’t have connections, it might be a good idea to seek some. Also, look for opportunities to practice your craft, especially in public. For instance, submit a writeup to a fan website, or create one of your own. Write scenarios for convention games. Not only will this give you the chance to improve yourself and get some unbiased feedback, it’s always possible your work will come to the attention of somebody who knows somebody. When you do get feedback, pay careful attention to your reaction to it. If you find it very difficult to accept thoughtful criticism — or to shrug off hysterical or brainless attacks from the shallow end of the fanboy pool — then this might not be the line of work for you. RPG fans are vociferous when they don’t like something, and don’t pull punches.

How does writing for a game sourcebook work? What is the process?

Well, that probably differs from company to company. My personal experience is that some books are proposed by the writer, but many if not most are planned a good deal in advance by the developer and management. In the former case, you will probably be expected to write up a proposal and/or outline, which should contain sufficient information for the higher-ups to decide whether it is (fiscally) wise to publish the book. In other words, it should convey what the appeal of the book is supposed to be for the consumer/gamer and what needs of the game setting it will meet. In the latter case, you will probably be given a guiding document — possibly a fairly detailed outline, possibly a more general treatment. You read and digest this information; confer with any other writers sharing the project; bring the developer any questions, proposals or quibbles that occur to you at this point; and then write your first draft. It’s common but not universal for writers to share drafts-in-progress with each other. Personally, I feel that even if you’re not sharing drafts you should try to keep at least those people who are working on areas closely related to yours abreast of what you’re doing. First drafts should be spell-checked and proofread. Even on a first draft, a developer doesn’t want to have to mount an eye-bleeding effort just to get through the thing.

Sometime after turning the first draft in, you’ll get redlines back. By that point the developer should have a pretty good idea of what all the various writers have done, whether the book is covering everything it needs to cover, whether the wordcount is running too high or too low (usually it’s running too high because people tend to overwrite the count), etc. So the redlines will be geared not only toward improving your material individually, but also toward fitting your material together with the other authors’ work and bringing it more in line with the book’s overall needs. You revise your material in accordance with the redlines and turn it in. After that, the book is more or less out of the freelancer’s hands; it goes into development, proofing, playtesting, etc. If the developer discovers late in the game that something you’ve done doesn’t work or won’t fit, he/she has the right to go in and make changes as necessary without consulting you. That’s the nature of work for hire (i.e., writing for a setting that isn’t your own). You’re not the final arbiter of what goes in the book. I have occasionally had the experience of not agreeing with a change that was made to my material, but such is the life of the freelancer.

What challenges are there in writing for a historical setting game like Dark Ages?

Research. The Dark Ages setting, while not meticulously faithful to real-world history, is supposed to be close enough to it to remain plausible. It’s supposed to feel like a “realistic” and not a “fantasy” setting (notwithstanding the presence of vampires and other critters). That means that for every project, a lot of research has to be done. I have looked up everything from medieval scissors to guild law to the tribes of the ancient Asian steppes. I try to make a point of being both accurate for accuracy’s sake and respectful of real-world cultures, past or present. This creates a lot of extra work for me. And occasionally it causes a further difficulty when I’m given material to build on that already has inaccuracies or gross stereotypes in it. Don’t get me wrong. There are many Dark Ages authors who do very good historical research, especially given the time we have to do it in, the amount we’re being paid, and the fact that we don’t generally have medieval history degrees. There are many who get it basically right. And then there are those who should have at least done a Web search on the culture they were supposed to be covering. 🙂 In such cases, there’s a limited extent to which I can revise the canon, so I simply have to do the best I can.

There’s also the challenge of not letting the historicity of the Dark Ages setting ruin the gameplay. For instance, most gamers playing women characters want to play women adventurers, or at least women who find themselves in adventures whether they want to have them or not, and so you have to provide venues for that without destroying the plausibility of the setting, which happens to be a very patriarchal one that takes a dim view of adventuring women. That means finding the happy medium between creating chainmail-bikini-wearing, bastard-sword-swinging warrior babes, and insisting that lady vampire Eleanor should be continually denigrated by the male vampires in her coterie because medieval men were generally misogynistic — which may be true, but is bad troupe dynamics and also just plain No Fun.

What differences and/or challenges did you face when writing the Dark Ages: Ravnos novel versus sourcebook material for the game line?

Well, in a way it was much more free because while certain parameters were set down for the novel (it had to meet the demands of its niche in the novel series and the series’ grand plot-arc), I got to write the outline and determine most of the plot. I felt I had a lot more room to play than I do when I write a supplement. I also game in order to create interactive fiction — in other words, I tend to look at a chronicle as more of an interactive story than a competitive game — so writing fiction in the game setting feels very good and natural to me, and I’d already been doing it on my own for quite a while.

On the other hand, the novel had a lot of new challenges, because the needs of a novel are very different from those of a supplement. A novel must have a plot; a novel is aesthetically “bulkier” than a supplement even if its word count isn’t technically bigger, and so the structure has to be solid enough to support it. A novel must have characters that are sufficiently compelling to carry the reader through an extended story. I also had to balance my storytelling needs against the need to fit in all the things I’d been told I had to fit in. And my protagonist, Zoe, hadn’t been very well developed in the canon to date, although Dark Ages: Setite had made a good start on it. She was still basically a blank slate, and initially I found it hard to get excited about a character whose defining trait seemed to be teenage brattiness. However, as I continued to mull things over, and particularly once I actually started writing her, she came to life — so to speak.

There was also the simple fact that it was a first novel and I was scared. 🙂 However, as with so many things, this is one of those places where you have to acknowledge the fear and insecurity and just struggle through despite it. The novel you never actually write is always by definition more wonderful than the novel that finally comes out, imperfect, into an imperfect world, but you can’t let that attitude rule you or your novels will always stay unwritten. It’s very hard because most writers, myself included, tend to be obsessive and/or perfectionist.

What I didn’t feel was any great obligation to make sure the novel was clearly identifiable as “game fiction” (as opposed to any other kind of fiction). I didn’t think it necessary that gamers reading the book should be able to visualize every dice roll behind the story, even though I did make an effort to keep things within the known mechanics of the game. To the contrary, I thought it very important that the book should be just as comprehensible and enjoyable to a reader who had never even played a roleplaying game.

What can you tell us about A World Lit Only by Fire?

That everyone should go and see it for themselves if they’re curious. 🙂 It’s a fan site by Janet Trautvetter, Myranda Kalis and myself. Janet did the bulk of the webpage-building, though I helped, and we all supplied the material. It covers our Dark Ages chronicle, which stretches from the Embrace of the various characters (in medieval times) up through the present. There are character writeups of the vampires of Renaissance Milan; there are stories detailing the adventures of the characters, currently focusing on the years 1490 and 1526 but also reaching back further; there’s a picture gallery; and there are numerous other tidbits, such as snippets of in-character writing and essays on roleplaying. We’ve neglected it of late because we’ve all three been absolutely swamped with freelance work. (Janet wrote Dark Ages: Toreador, which has just come out; Myranda wrote Dark Ages: Brujah and is currently writing Dark Ages: Tzimisce; and I recently finished the final draft for Dark Ages: Tremere. Look for them at the store or online!) Still, I’m hoping to return to my serialization of the 1490 saga soon. I miss my personal characters and the rest of the Cast of Thousands. They’re feeling all abandoned and reproachful these days. I must amend that.

A Violinist in a rock band? Sounds like you keep yourself busy when you’re not gaming…

Oh yes. Music is actually my primary field, even though it’s not much more profitable than writing :-). I play violin as a freelancer for the Tacoma Symphony and other area ensembles, and I teach violin privately. I also play electric and acoustic violin for a heavy world-rock band called Delirium Fix. We’re presently mixing our first full album (and have material for a second album recorded as well), and hope to take it on the gigging trail pretty soon. Put together with the freelance writing, it more or less makes a living, and it keeps me busy. Very busy. Often too busy.

What’s next for you?

Well, ideally, some relaxation and a return to actual gaming, which I haven’t had much time for lately. 😉 Other than that, I hope to continue writing fiction and supplements for White Wolf as they revise their product line, and possibly someday to publish my own fiction in my own settings. I also plan to get more active with Delirium Fix in the next year as the album is completed, and to continue with my classical music work as well.

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