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From Selfless Warrior to Sinister Magician: Dave Gross on Writing Pathfinder Tales Novels, Part 2

Posted on February 27, 2012 by Flames

Welcome to part two of our talk with Dave Gross. If you missed part one, you may want to go check out Part One first.

Dave Gross continues the adventures of half-elven Pathfinder Varian Jeggare and his hellspawn bodyguard Radovan in Master of Devils. This time the oddly paired duo travel to the exotic land of Tian Xia, and Gross layers the storyline with a third narrative.

“Master of Devils is more about being trapped in a situation anathema to your desires,” said Gross. “What will it take to make you give up your pride or even your life?”

Below, Gross and I pick up our discussion of writing in general and writing Pathfinder Tales novels in particular with such topics as world-building, wuxia, and a little drake named Skywing.

How much building did you do in the mountains of Ustalav in Prince of Wolves? What were they like before you got there, and how did you develop them?

    One of the things that most appealed to me about Ustalav is that it had a rich outline of history, locations, and characters, but not an overwhelming amount of detail. Much of what’s cool about the mountains came straight from a line or two in the Campaign Setting: I didn’t invent the Sczarni, but I did imagine that a group of them were werewolves with a connection to Radovan’s ancestor. I didn’t come up with the Monastery of the Veil or the true nature of its monks, nor did I create any new characters back at court in Caliphas, although I did imagine their appearances and personalities. I didn’t invent the Cathedral of Pharasma, but I did make up the water ritual Jeggare witnesses. I certainly didn’t create Desna or Pharasma, but I imagined gestures and phrases used by their worshippers. I created Willowmourn and its inhabitants, but not Count Galdana. And I created the village of freaks, which Wes Schneider later named Ruwido in the excellent expansion of the setting, Rule of Fear.

    Can you talk a little more about the village of freaks, creating it, etc. And in what ways did Wes Schneider expand on it?

      While brainstorming Prince of Wolves, I had images of Universal, Hammer, and other early 20th Century horror films in mind. Tod Browning’s Freaks was definitely my inspiration for the village, both visually and with its message of bigotry against these folks who are afflicted by the poisonous magic of the nearby magic. In those villagers, Radovan has to face his own hypocrisy in resenting discrimination leveled at him but still treating others the same way.

      While Wes’ Rule of Fear expands Ustalav considerably, it includes only a few lines about Ruwido—enough for a GM to expand on it for a game. What’s even cooler is that Wes passed Prince of Wolves to all the designers of the Carrion Crown Adventure Path, asking them to include something from the novel in their adventures. I loved seeing how they interpreted elements from the Sczarni werewolves to a brief description of creatures seen only at a distance.

      How about Tian Xia? Was it worth all those miles of travel to get there? What did you find there? What did you leave behind?

        The choice to set the next book in Tian Xia came late in the drawing-board stage. James Sutter and I discussed where the boys might go after Prince of Wolves, but we were having trouble coming up with a location and a story that worked together. At some point one of us realized that the Jade Regent Adventure Path would be published at the same time as the new novel. I adore Asian fiction, especially kung fu movies (actually, a wide variety of Asian action and fantasy movies which I lump together under the familiar term “kung fu movies”). Once Erik gave his blessing, I wrote an outline based in Golarion’s equivalent of China, since the Adventure Path features Minkai, which is like Japan.

        One of the earliest decisions was that the novel would draw inspiration from film instead of literature. Not only are more readers likely to be familiar with the tropes of kung fu movies, but I believe those movies represent the fantasy RPG experience better than any others. Seriously! Where else do you see a prologue in which a man catches his wife with her lover, only to have his legs blown off by magic missiles? You’ve got swordsmen, witches, magic swords, haunted forests, trapped dungeons, goblins, walking dead, flying steeds, animal spirits, sorcerers, even the occasional dragon. You can watch some of these films while following along in a classic D&D module.

        Another advantage of seeing Tian Xia through the filter of kung fu movies is that it’s a broad lens. With two protagonists, I knew I wanted to show two different kinds of story: a brutal revenge actioner for Radovan, and a fish-out-of-water intrigue for Jeggare. I also wanted to show the really crazy high-fantasy aspect of kung fu movies, but it didn’t really fit the “reality” of either character. That’s where the third protagonist came in. The hope was to end up with one story with three wildly different paths to the finish.

        Can you talk some about the third protagonist here?

          I played coy about it when the book was first released, but it’s not much of a secret anymore. The third protagonist is Arnisant, an Ustalavic wolfhound (imagine a cross between an Irish wolfhound and a Great Dane) whom Jeggare adopts during the events of Prince of Wolves. Ordinarily I wouldn’t be interested in an animal as a POV character in what are otherwise fairly low-magic adventures, but Tian Xia includes big fantasy elements like the kami spirits. It seemed incongruous to have magical creatures interacting with Radovan or Jeggare, but a heroic dog fit perfectly.

          I was nervous about introducing a dog’s-eye view. Happily, the response has been overwhelmingly positive, with a startling number of readers claiming Arnisant is their new favorite character. While the next book doesn’t include his point of view—those who’ve read Master of Devils can suss out why that was a one-time thing—he’s still one of the boys. I don’t anticipate it now, but it’s conceivable that I’d one day tell another story from his perspective.

          In Master of Devils, you explore religion, especially in the warrior monastery. In what ways do religious dichotomies fuel the central conflicts of Master of Devils?

            I was less interested in religion than in the different perceptions of heroism or virtue. Some characters think of themselves as heroes, when those who suffer at their hands would consider them villains. In wuxia fiction, “hero” is a term that can describe anything from a selfless warrior to a sinister magician. It applies more to someone’s personal power than to whether he’s good or evil, although many of the bloodiest revenge stories are highly moral in depicting the senselessness of slaughter.

            That difference in perspective seemed a good way to frame my flawed protagonists. Radovan in particular worries about the effect of his violence on his soul. There was a time when he refused to kill, yet after escaping the life of a street criminal, he finds himself in situations where he kills to protect himself and Jeggare—sometimes in cold blood as a preventative measure.

            One thing that Radovan and Jeggare have in common is the goddess Desna. Like most deities, she has different aspects. To Radovan, Desna is Lady Luck, while to Count Jeggare she is the Tender of Dreams. The warriors and monks of Tien Xia are more likely to worship Irori, who represents enlightenment and self-perfection. Through the events of the novel, Radovan and Jeggare might pick up a little of the former, but they are both still far from the latter.

            What was the best part about collaborating with Elaine Cunningham on Winter Witch?

              Helping with Winter Witch was a great pleasure because I’ve long admired Elaine’s work and like her personally. Time pressure prevented us from making it a true collaboration. I was able to check in with her a few times about plot points, but mostly I began writing from her outline and early chapters. Our editor sent me some thorough notes with which I revised the outline before continuing. Also, a sourcebook on Irrisen had been published since Elaine first outlined the novel, so I included more details from its setting.

              If we’d started out working together, we’d certainly have done it differently. Elaine likes to say that one day we’ll collaborate on a story on purpose. I’ll be all for that.

              Most of the benefits of our collaboration were to my benefit. As a fan of Elaine’s work, I welcomed the opportunity to match my style to hers. I like to think that it worked, since none of the dozen or so readers who guessed without a hint could identify where the division lay. Still, there are definitely places where, if you know Elaine and me, or if you know our writing, you can tell where I made a decision she wouldn’t have done.

              One day Elaine asked me which protagonist, Declan or Ellasif, was my favorite. She had in mind that we should write a story, each taking one character’s POV. Unfortunately, I think we both have the same favorite character … although my real favorite is probably the little drake Skywing.

              What is it about Skywing?

                He’s fierce and loyal, and he’s a drake of few words, so when he does or says something, it stands out. While I like to make my human (and semi-human) characters flawed, whenever I’m dealing with an animal or a monstrous creature—like the kami in Master of Devils—I feel a certain license to make the characters broader. The comical ones are funnier, the spooky ones scarier, and the brave ones bolder. In that sense, Skywing and Arnisant are the most heroic figures I’ve written.

                What’s next for you?

                  I’m currently working on a new Radovan & Jeggare novel. I’ll spill the details when they’re ready at as well as on Facebook and Twitter (frabjousdave).

                  Sometime soon my story “Walker” will appear in Stoneskin Press’s Shotguns v. Cthulhu anthology, edited by my fellow Pathfinder Tales author Robin D. Laws. I can’t wait to see the stories from the other contributors. They’re all action-oriented tales of cosmic horror.

                  Adamant Entertainment has recently published a Tales of the Far West anthology. My contribution is a story called “Crippled Avengers,” which kung fu fans will recognize as the original name of a movie re-titled to appear as if it were a sequel. (It wasn’t.) It’s an unabashed homage in a steampunk version of the wuxia world.

                  Speaking of wuxia, where should I start? What are a dozen must see films and why?

                    Ask me the same question in a month, and my answers will be different. Many of these aren’t purely wuxia but fantasy movies with wuxia elements. In no particular order and with an emphasis on movies useful to gamers:

                    The 36th Chamber of Shaolin: Classic revenge drama that defined the “training sequence”

                    The Bride with White Hair I: Moody, sexy, magical tragedy with monstrous villains

                    A Chinese Ghost Story I: Comic romance with fantastic monsters and magic

                    Deadful Melody: A security agent vs. vengeful magicians

                    Detective Dee: Chinese Sherlock Holmes, only 10 times more fun

                    Hero: My favorite of Zhang Yimou’s art-house wuxia tragedies, beautiful fight scenes and great acting

                    Holy Flame of the Martial World: Crazy, wacky, goofy … yet strangely perfect as an example of a game session on film

                    Mr. Vampire I: An occasionally scary and always hilarious comedy with evocative magic and thrilling fights

                    Musa: A Korean escape drama evocative of a Kurosawa epic, no magic but great fights and characters

                    Reign of Assassins: A pitch-perfect blend of the best of wuxia: strong heroine, tragic setup, fabulous wire-work, excellent actors

                    The Water Margin: A great if overwhelming introduction to the original wuxia novels; no magic, but a huge cast of characters and an emphasis on brotherhood and loyalty

                    Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain: An often comic, often spooky exploration of a giant “dungeon” complete with an epic-level (if absurd) climax

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

                      Write because you love writing, not because you love the idea of being a writer. Write every day. Keep writing even when it sucks, because revision is where the magic often happens. Don’t be afraid to delete words, sentences, paragraphs, or whole chapters—but practice writing a solid outline so that happens less often. Read your work aloud with a red pen in hand, and find friends who can be usefully critical. It’s okay to keep one cheerleader for morale, but dump anyone whose feedback is negative without being helpful. Return the favor by critiquing your friends’ work; you can learn as much by giving thoughtful notes as by receiving them.

                      Interview by Jeremy L. C. Jones

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