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Victories, Setbacks, and Character-shading Moments: Robin D. Laws on Writing a Pathfinder Tales Novel

Posted on March 13, 2012 by Flames

The Worldwound weeps. The living tower looms overhead. The demon Yath and his minions spread throughout the southern kingdoms. Trying times call for unlikely heroes. In The Worldwound Gambit by Robin D. Laws, the charismatic con-man Gad pulls together a band of roguish adventurers— caustic Jerisa, gentle Tiberio, haunted Calliard, pragmatic Vitta, and the mad fire magician Hendregan–to head north to face Yath and make the world safe for thieves and miscreants once again.

Heroic fantasy, mystery, horror, comedy, and dashes of swashbuckling romance… Laws wraps it all around a heist. Yes, dear reader, The Worldwound Gambit is a heist novel and it is glorious!

“If you read the book and find only a diverting fusion of disparate genres, I have done my job,” said Laws. “Heist tales let us indulge in the romance of competence, to delight in reversal and obstacles overcome with aplomb. If you find other matters tucked away below that surface, about the price of victory, the toll of leadership on the led, the limits of stoicism, or an exploration of tyranny’s lure on the weak-minded, well, you can tell yourself that you’ve stolen a little extra from the experience.”

Laws, game designer and writer, lives in Canada. His contributions to the gaming industry are vast and varied. He’s worked on such RPGs as Over the Edge (with Jonathan Tweet), Feng Shui, Hero Wars, Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth Roleplaying Game, and many editions of Dungeons & Dragons. He worked on the 4e Dungeon Master’s Guide II, wrote Robin’s Laws of Good GameMastering, and challenged gamers to re-think narrative arcs in Hamlit’s Hits Points.

Over the years, Laws has written in a variety of shared universes, including City of Heroes, Warhammer Fantasy, and now Pathfinder. With The Worldwound Gambit takes us to Golarion and throughout the journey we are, indeed, in the hands of a master storyteller.

What drew you to the world of Pathfinder? And how’d you come to write a Pathfinder novel?

    The element of Golarion (setting for the Pathfinder game as well as its novel line) that most appeals to me as a writer is the clear inspiration it draws from the American school of sword and sorcery fantasy. It has to have elves and dwarves and halflings and so on, because it’s a world created for a D&D offshoot. But given that constraint, Erik Mona and the rest of the Paizo design team have pushed it as far as they can toward the blood and thunder of Robert E. Howard and the elegant wit of Fritz Leiber. Its homage to pulp forebears allows for a punchier, harder-hitting approach to the thrilling escapism readers expect from a novel set in a roleplaying world. Those writer’s fantasy stories, set as they might have been in an ancient world of magic and adventure, unfold with a pulse-pounding urgency. For someone interested in stripping fantasy of its comfy faux-archaism, Golarion provides the perfect fit.

    My first Pathfinder fiction piece is the novella “Plague of Light”, originally serialized in the Serpent’s Skull adventure path, and now available in handy epub edition. It’s set in the Mwangi Expanse, Golarion’s jungle setting. The goal with that was to present its pseudo-African heroes not as foreign characters seen through the eyes of European-ish protagonists, but fully dimensional people who drive the narrative, and through whose point of view we experience the proceedings. It features a disparate group of adventurers who reluctantly reunite to transport a terrible gift to an angry godling. This led Paizo fiction honcho James Sutter to see me as the guy who can write about D&D-style adventuring bands. He asked me for a fiction pitch with a different set of characters, which became the blend of heist and swords & sorcery you see in The Worldwound Gambit.

    What’s the coolest thing about your Pathfinder novel?

      I am pleased with its immediacy, its style-forward prose, and the tonal blend between the lightness of the heist genre and its horror elements. The marks for this particular heist are demons, and part of the challenge of the book was to maintain them, and their environment, as genuinely frightening and nasty. It was essential that they not come across as absurd or comical.

      What element could only happen in the world of Pathfinder?

        Key to the action of the book is the Worldwound, a portion of the world being corrupted and devoured by a hole connecting Golarion to the Abyss, the otherworldly realm where demons come from. The geography of this half-material, half-chaotic realm—and a living tower that sprouts from it—propels the premise of the story. The book’s lead character, Gad, decides that the present demonic invasion of his home, the neighboring land of Mendev, makes it unacceptably hard to work as a con artist. So he gathers a team to engineer an operation to steal the item that anchors the tower in this realm, returning his homeland to the manageable level of disorder thieves prefer.

        And how’d you develop the novel from there?

          Heist stories require airtight plotting, careful set-up, and a touch of misdirection. After creating a suitably fun and varied cast of characters, I outlined first in diagram form. Using the beat analysis symbols and system I describe in my non-fiction book Hamlet’s Hit Points, and the Campaign Cartographer mapping software, I created a visual representation of each major moment, from dramatic scenes to the various set-ups and payoffs required by the heist plot. This enabled me to ensure that each member of the large cast got his or her share of victories, setbacks, and character-shading moments. From this I wrote a prose outline so James and company could see what I was planning to do.

          What makes for a compelling protagonist in general and a compelling fantasy protagonist in particular?

            Character is action—a protagonist must do things in pursuit of a goal. We as readers must hope for the character’s success and fear the consequences of failure. With the exception of experimental fiction, this is a storytelling universal.

            The fantasy bit comes in after you have a character who somehow reflects the human experience, however stylized or idealized your presentation. The tropes and trappings of the genre are an outer layer. They appeal to a reader’s prior investment in the genre, dishing out an ever-shifting mix of evocative detail, novelty, and pleasing familiarity.

            Most fantasy stories are procedurals, tales in which the hero pursues an external, practical goal. The heroes face problems and solve them. They way they solve them draws on these genre tropes—so Hendregan the fire magician solves problems by setting things on fire, whereas the master locksmith Vitta solves problems with her burglary kit. The creation of episodes within the story is often a matter of inventing obstacles for each character to overcome, using their distinctive, fantasy-flavored specialties.

            What unique challenges does the world of Pathfinder demand of your characters? And of you as a character-builder?

              Golarion was created as a vessel for any kind of fantasy adventure, particularly of the pulpy variety, so it doesn’t so much create challenges as solve them for you.

              There remain the core challenges of gaming tie-in fiction.

              For example, the reader coming at the fiction from the game side wants you to portray the character abilities, spells, magic items, monsters and so on to match their portrayal in the game. But at the same time they don’t want scenes to be too obviously reminiscent of game play, because that disrupts the essential illusion of fiction.

              You also have to be careful in any tie-in piece to present the absolute minimum amount of exposition the reader, who may not know the game at all, needs to follow the action. In other words, you have to serve the specific story at hand, and let the world in general take care of itself. Knowing how much background information is desirable, and where it goes, is much of the trick of this sort of work. Hence the vast diagram of set-ups and payoffs.

              There’s a big cast of interesting characters in your novel. Which ones are you most fond of, and which one are you most like?

                The author can’t play favorites, especially with a big cast, and must find something resonant in all of them. Gad is who we all want to be—smooth, confident, silver-tongued, insouciant in the face of danger. I feel for the knife-woman Jerisa, who struggles to check her impulses and often fails. And for the bard and demon-hunter Calliard, who makes a self-destructive sacrifice for the good of the mission. I admire Tiberio’s conscience and soulfulness, and relate to Vitta’s position as the voice of reason within the group. Hendregan is fun to write, both as a comic madman, and the scarier presence underneath the veneer—embodying the novel’s balance between lightness and horror.

                Fortunately, I can’t claim to much resemble any of these people. I get to sit in a temperature-controlled office making stuff up and typing it into a computer file instead of going out in a dangerous world seeking unlawful and life-threatening trouble.

                What’s next for you?

                  On the Pathfinder fiction front, “Treasure of Far Thallai”, a serialized novella of piratical derring-do, will appear in the upcoming Skull & Shackle adventure path series, slated for mid-March 2012.

                  Also, I just turned in the manuscript for an as-yet-unannounced Pathfinder Tales novel, of which I am only authorized to say that it takes place in the city of Magnimar, and features a new group of characters.

                  There Goes My Dream Job, the second collection of my webcomic, The Birds, is out soon from Pelgrane Press.

                  And my new game Hillfolk has now gone into outside playtest; it creates a new play dynamic by taking the basic building blocks of dramatic interaction from older narrative forms and applying them to the roleplaying form. That’s the first iteration of the DramaSystem rules set.

                  Any words of encouragement, caution, or mischief for aspiring novelists out there?

                    If you can see yourself doing anything other than writing for a living (novels or otherwise), do that instead.

                    I say this because getting published requires tremendous persistence and discipline. If you’re smart and determined enough to do it, you could apply those qualities to a field that makes a lot more money than writing.

                    Even writers you think of as successful probably struggle to get by.

                    If none of the above discourages you, you should accordingly train yourself to live well on a relatively modest income. Learn to cook. Live somewhere that doesn’t require car ownership. Ask yourself how much you really want to have kids.

                    Marry someone with a highly-paid, secure job. For my American friends, marry someone with health insurance.

                    Also, avoid the passive voice, minimize instances of the past perfect tense, and, wherever you can, replace the verbs “is” and “was” with action verbs. And your sentences could likely stand shortening.

                    Interview by Jeremy L. C. Jones

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