I was joined by several excellent authors, to talk about any possible connections between great fantasy writing and table top roleplaying games. I’ve gathered the posts here, so you can easily find any that you may have missed.
Thank you to Orbit Books and Angela Man for providing me with this book in exchange for my honest opinion. Wildwood Whispers is available now.
Wildwood Whispers was enchanting and beautiful. There was something special in the prose, in the way the book took its time, describing everything so well that I felt like I was standing right next to the main character. While I wasn’t entirely sure where the book was going for a good chunk of it, I was enthralled by the writing and more than happy to follow along as it twined together what originally seemed like two separate storylines, weaving them into a beautiful whole.
The book follows Mel, a prickly individual who has just lost her best friend- her lifeline, really. Mel travels to the tiny town of Morgan’s Gap, deep in the Appalachian mountains, to scatter her best friend’s ashes. There, Mel finds mysteries waiting to be solved and dangers lurking around every corner. She also finds the chance to heal, if she’s brave enough to take it.
I really enjoyed watching Mel grow into herself. Her interactions with others were fantastic, but just as great was her inner dialogue. She found the kind of strength that comes from being hurt and allowing yourself to care anyway. Add in the supporting cast and this small town seems both simultaneously cozier and larger.
The other characters include Granny, who kind of takes Mel under her wing. There’s Lu, who makes magic with her music, and Jacob Walker, who seems to be hiding something. There is also a super creepy cult, the sort of backwards group that Netflix makes documentaries about. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that it was based on an actual cult. The reverend shivered my skin. I wish that Granny played a slightly bigger role because I loved her so much. However, all of the characters were individuals with their own special things to offer.
I loved that, while magic was most definitely a part of Wildwood Whispers, the “big bad” wasn’t some sort of magical entity. Instead, the villains were all too human, which made things more chilling. Author Willa Reece wrote a beautiful and dangerous book, a treasure in literary form. I felt an immense sense of satisfaction at the way the different pieces in the book fit together neatly, but with room left for wondering.
Wildwood Whispers felt a little like a mystery and a little like a calm daydream. The combination was charming and surprising in equal measure. This book was unique and special. I highly recommend it.
I’m so excited to be able to talk about D&D with author Rob Edwards today! Thank you for taking the time to chat with me!
Will you tell me a little bit about your book, The Ascension Machine?
It’s a science fiction superhero novel, in which a young grifter impersonates a guy and in the process winds up enrolled at a college for alien superheroes. Grey, as he starts calling himself, stays for the novelty, but despite himself finds friends, and a place he belongs. It’s all based on his lie, so to stay at the Justice Academy Grey has to keep lying, even to his new friends. Things escalate, the team end up fighting gangsters and aliens, and investigate strange goings on. It’s an adventure romp with a large cast of characters all dealing with the difficult adjustment of starting college… with super powers.
How about your history with ttrpgs? When did you first start playing, and what drew you to it?
In 1983 I was about 12 or 13, and I came across an advert in some comic books which I became kind of obsessed with. A party of adventurers explore a dungeon, battle a monster then encounter some green slime. I cannot tell you for why, but when the elf rogue shouts “Look out, it’s dripping!” I knew I had to play this game.
I got the “Red Box” Basic set for my next birthday, and never looked back. I’ve played or run every edition of D&D since, as well as many many other systems.
Here’s the list of some of the games I’ve played in the order of them occurring to me: GURPS, DC Heroes, TORG, Amber Diceless, Golden Heroes, Marvel, Mutants and Masterminds, Hero, Star Wars d6, Star Wars d20, Star Wars Edge of Empire, Ghostbusters, Pathfinder, Starfinder, Spycraft, Fantasycraft, Tunnels and Trolls, MERP, Doctor Who, Song of Ice and Fire, Babylon Project, Wheel of Time, Call of Cthulhu, Arcanis, Seventh Sea, Shadowrun, Twilight 2000, Top Secret SI, Judge Dredd, TMNT… plus a few more for one shots that I’m probably forgetting).
Oh, my greatest Geek pride (as it says in my bio): back when Wizards of the Coast had the Star Wars license and were running the Living Force campaign for convention play, I got to write seven modules for the campaign, meaning someone somewhere at Lucasfilm (probably an intern) read something I wrote in the Star Wars universe and said “OK”. Meaning that, until Disney bought Star Wars, I was briefly, obscurely, canon.
Anyway, this answer is far too long. Suffice to say I’m almost always the DM these days, which I love, but my rare chances to play are solid gold for me.
That sounds like my husband. He always ends up being a DM. After a less-than -successful attempt on my part several years ago ( I failed to communicate to my players exactly what kind of campaign I was trying to run, which did not go well), I’m still working up my courage to try again. I might give it another go in a decade or so.
As DM, do you feel like your writing affects how you tell the story? Did your experience with gaming play into your writing at all?
Interesting question. Firstly, I think over time I’ve come to realise that my writing and my DMing, at least for home brew things, come from a very similar place, creatively. I’ve found the more I’m writing, the less I have in the tank for coming up with my own worlds and plotlines for games. And vice versa. As a result, since taking my writing more seriously, I’ve tended to stick to prewritten adventures. Perhaps not as engaging as creating my own world, but still a lot of fun.
I’d say my experience gaming has absolutely everything to do with my writing. I’ve always been a writer, always been a storyteller, for as long as I can remember, but for the best part of four decades, I honed my skills as a storyteller on all my many players. Sometimes triumphantly, sometimes not. When I started writing professionally, I had all of that foundation to build on. A sense of how much foreshadowing is too much. A sense of when the story needs a kick from an action beat. Why world building is important and how too much can be a distraction and suck the pace out of a scene. All of my instinct for that comes from my gaming. (Also reading so very very much in my youth).
That said, I have a D&D campaign world that I’ve run different groups in for…. Wow, is it twenty years now? … There’s a story to be told there, there’s a novel, possibly a trilogy in it. But actually writing the book of the campaign(s)… I’ve tried starting a few times but so far it has totally stumped me.
Wow, twenty years is a huge accomplishment! I bet the world development for that campaign is incredible. Do the characters being played change as the players do, or does each player bring a new facet to the same characters?
Most of the active world building happened for the first campaign — that was a lot — and the original sequel campaign. Those campaigns had the same players, playing different characters two decades apart in the campaign timeline. Since then, I’ve run three variations on the original campaign, always with different characters, always bringing new wrinkles to the way the world works. New characters bring new focus, it’s interesting to see NPCs (non-player characters) who were hugely significant in the original run fading into the background or taking very different actions and suffering very different fates in later playthroughs. By the same token, NPCs who barely got a name in the original version get the spotlight in later runs.
The most recent version of the campaign fell apart at about the time the pandemic hit. I’ve since decided it’s time to retire that campaign world and start something fresh. Though in this campaign, I’m trying to be a little more improvisational about it all, because I don’t want it to suck the energy out of my writing.
If anyone is super interested, you can get a hint of what some of the setting was like in my short story Virtue’s Blade in the Inklings Press anthology Tales of Magic and Destiny. It’s a new story not taken directly from any specific adventure in that world, but does give a flavour of some of the world building for that campaign. (Or listen to me read it on my podcast here: Episode 39: Virtue’s Pirate · StorycastRob (spotify.com))
You mentioned using your time as DM (Dungeon Master, for those who aren’t familiar with the lingo) to hone your storytelling skills, and how that helped with pacing and foreshadowing. One thing I really enjoyed about The Ascension Machine was that the pacing was never too rushed, nor was it too slow. Your practice definitely made perfect!
I hope this isn’t too much of a spoiler, but Grey was an interesting character in that, while he was conning everyone, at his heart he had a strong moral compass. Is that sort of “alignment” your go-to when gaming? And dovetailing off of that, do you have a favorite character class? Or do you prefer to shake things up when creating your own character (obviously, prewritten adventures are a little different)?
Oh yeah. I know people can get very excited by evil campaigns or characters, but they don’t really interest me. I’m always the good guy in games as a player, if I ever feel the urge to be evil, I have my DMing for that!
As for character classes, I like my characters to be skilled and versatile. They don’t need to be The Best, but I do prefer competence. In pursuit of it, I’ve dabbled in just about every class over the years, but my big go-tos are Sorcerer, Fighter, Bard. My least travelled are probably Druid and Cleric. My current obsession is Artificer, and I think I might actually get to play one soon.
Grey in The Ascension Machine could absolutely be one of my characters in a game. I’ve played plenty of rogues, swindlers and con artists in all sorts of settings, from Jack “Ace” King, a gambler in a Wild West game, to Agent Duchess, my Spycraft “Face” character. In The Ascension Machine, Grey’s plan on Bantus (no details, read the book!) was basically something I pulled in-character for a D&D game one time.
I am almost obsessively honest in the real world, so these characters are pure escapism!
Ah, you claim you’re obsessively honest. Perhaps that is what a dishonest person would say? 😉 I must say, I’ve never played an artificer. I bet it would be a blast, though. What would you say to someone who is curious about playing ttrpgs, but has never played before?
Give it a go! The hobby isn’t for everyone, but the only way to find out if it’s for you is to try it for yourself. Oh there are plenty of YouTube shows and let’s plays out there that you can watch to get a sense of how things work (Including our own DragonLance play, right Jodie?) but really you have to play it to be sure. Just, try and find a good DM, they really do make all the difference. If someone is asking me, I might well offer to run a session, if we can find some more players.
But if you’re asking how would I describe ttrpgs to somebody…? The grand description is that it’s cooperative improvised storytelling (with dice). It’s “Let’s Pretend” for grown-ups and kids (with dice).
Any other description can be contradicted (and even the dice thing, one of my favourite games is Amber, a diceless system based on Roger Zelazny’s books).
Because, yes, it can be an epic tale of heroes battling monsters, saving the world and getting loot (with dice), if that’s the story your group wants to tell. But it could equally be a disturbing tale of standing against unspeakable horrors where only madness and death awaits (with dice), or a political intrigue with backstabbing (and dice), or… whatever else you need it to be.
It is such a versatile hobby. As long as you can find a group of people who want to tell the same kind of story you do, it can be whatever you want it to be. Usually with dice.
About the author:
Rob Edwards is a British born writer and content creator, living in Finland. His podcast, StorycastRob, features readings from his short stories and extracts from longer work. He writes about coffee, despite not drinking it, spaceships, despite being down-to-earth, and superheroes, despite everything
His debut novel, The Ascension Machine was published in 2020. His short stories can be found in anthologies from Inklings Press and Rivenstone Press.
A life-long gamer and self-professed geek, he is proud of his entry on wookieepedia, the result of writing several Star Wars RPG scenarios in his youth.
Follow him on Twitter: https://twitter.com/StorycastRob
Check out his Podcast: http://storycastrob.co.uk/
Or YouTube: Rob Edwards
I’ve been talking about table-top roleplaying games with authors over the last few days. Today I’m joined by Ricardo Victoria, author of the Tempest Blades series.
Thank you for being willing to talk about D&D with me!
First, will you tell me a bit about The Tempest Blades series?
The Tempest Blades series is a story in progress (2 books published, 2-3 more to go, plus a few short stories) about this legendary hero Fionn, who after his final battle during the Great War found himself awakening 100 years later and after a few years of adjustment is asked to return to the role of hero to stop an evil from his past. In the way, he is joined by a new band of heroes: Gaby, Alex, Sam (who is Fionn’s great granddaughter and adoptive daughter), Fionn’s best friend Harland and Sid the Samoharo (later joined by Kasumi the demonhunter, Joshua, a mysterious man and Yokoyawa, Sid’s cousin). And Fionn finds himself in the role of mentor to this new band, preparing them for the challenges that they will face from now on. Every action has a consequence both in the large scale of the world they live in, and in a personal level, which is reflected in the second book with the fallout of the first adventure and the toll in the mental health of Alex. All towards saving the world from looming menaces from beyond the physical realm.
Bottom line, Tempest Blades is a story about getting a second opportunity, finding redemption and your place in the world amidst action packed adventures that actually read like a ttrpg campaing! I have to note that I’m writing each book as self-contained, even if they are in the same continuity, so readers get a whole story in each book along a larger arc. Again, kinda like a ttrpg campaign, composed of smaller adventures all linked together.
Now that I think of… basically I’m writing my ideal ttrpg with me playing all the roles and the DM.
How about your history with ttrps? When did you first start playing and what drew you to it?
I always wanted to play since I saw the D&D cartoon as a kid, but never had the access to the books or with whom to play until I got to college. There I got my copies of the three core books of D&D 3e. and a few of a system called BESM (Big Eyes, Small Mouths, which is basically a system to play anime style adventures). Then my best friend, who already had his D&D group at the time, started to run a game at college with his classmates and I sorta, kinda ‘forced’ my way to join the group at their second adventure. And we kept playing for the next three years. Sometimes to give him a rest as DM I ran games in Stars Wars D20, or BESM, or another player ran his homebrew Saint Seiya game. We also played D20 modern, where our DM adapted the first Resident Evil game. It was awesome.
Then when I moved to UK for my Ph.D. I joined the Roleplay and Wargames Society, as a way to practice my English in an informal setting and to meet friends (and this incidentally got me to know the guys with whom we created Inklings Press, but that’s another story). There I played D&D, Exhalted and Bureau 13, and ran a few sessions of an improvised BESM game.
I haven’t played since I came back to Mexico since a) my best friend passed away, so his group simply disbanded and b) the downside of being an adult with responsibilities is that finding the time and someone play with. But I’m trying to create a new group with a friend and his nephew and in the meantime I get my fix for ttrpg listening to a couple of live roleplay podcasts: The Dark Dice and Dumbgeons & Dragons, while I plan how to develop a ttrpg (or at least the setting for an established system) based on Tempest Blades.
Does your gaming experience have an effect on your writing?
I have come to realize that both follow the same kind of structured improvisation. I might have an overall plot I want to follow with a given story I’m working on, but how I go from the start to the end (and to the key scenes I have I mind) tends to be somewhat improvisational, just like in a game. The advantage of having a good grasp of who my characters are and how they tend to act allows me to improvise on the way to a key scene. Like the relationship between players and DM. Of course in this case my players are still me so there is nothing 100% unexpected about how things happen. Also I tend to world build my stories the same way I do for my games, creating the world as I’m needing it. And of course there is the fact that Fionn evolved from my first D&D character. On a more personal note, after my best friend suddenly passed away a few years ago, and with permission of the other players from the college group, I incorporated a few of his locations and characters into the world of Tempest Blades as a way to remember him and a homage. Fionn’s character arc was in part inspired by the plans we both had at the time of his passing to restart the campaign as I was ‘promoted’ to co-DM and was helping him with the world building and the plot of the campaign. Also Alex’s constant mentions in The Cursed Titans to a deceased friend are references to that personal event, because that’s the kind of things that remain with you, years after.
That absolutely stays with a person and I think it is a wonderful, very personal way to pay homage to your friend.
What would you say is your favorite thing about ttrpgs?
I love that for a couple of hours, you can be another person, with a different history and in a different world, able to have the adventures you won’t ever have in real life, just with the help of a set of dice, some pencils and paper and through the sheer power of imagination. For a moment you can be the hero (or the villain if you want), leave behind all the worries and weights on our shoulders and be as free as you imagined you would be when a kid. For me, that and the friendships you make through the game are what makes them truly special.
Yes, I agree that the camaraderie really is something special. And, as a reader, it’s already pretty obvious that I’m a big fan of escapism!
What would you say to someone who has never played a ttrpg , but is curious about it?
The best way to learn about them is playing them. That said, nowadays ttrpg is not the niche hobby it was 20 years ago when I was in college, it has even been showcased in some tv shows like in Community (which I believe is the most “accurate” depiction so far). It has become more accessible and there are more resources to learn about them: facebook groups, your local hobby store, youtube videos, podcasts. Personally, if you are still curious about them but don’t want to commit to play just yet, you can listen to actual play podcasts of which I confess I’m a big fan and there are several good ones. My personal favorites by far are The Dark Dice (which is a D&D horror themed game that includes in its second season Jeff Goldblum. Yes, that Jeff), and Dumbgeons & Dragons, (a more traditional story of adventure but the chemistry between players is off the chart and their comments are hilarious. It’s my go to show to listen when I’m feeling down and it always manages me to cheer me up). Or if you are more visually inclined, check some of the gaming sessions by Critical Role or Acquisitions Incorporated (from the guys of Penny Arcade, which also from time to time featured Wil Wheaton) in YouTube. Many games as well offer free or really cheap starter kits on their website or Amazon, like the D&D starter set, so you can get a sense of how it works.
Word of advice though: don’t believe that D&D is the beginning and the end of the hobby. There are tons of companies, games, settings to choose from: L5R for samurais/ninja, BESM/Anime 5e for anime inspired games, the White Wolf books for your supernatural or mythological inclined. Bureau 13 for those more into the X-Files/Supernatural kind of Stories. Basic Fantasy for a really simple game to play. Call of Cthulhu for classic cosmic horror or Cthulhutech for SF cosmic horror. There are as many settings as fiction subgenres there are, and within them, different settings to play with and within different price ranges for your needs.
But really, the only things you need to play are pencil, paper, a set of dice, friends and above all, a lot of imagination. No need for expensive hardware or software, just what your mind can create.
About the Author:
Ricardo Victoria is the author of The Tempest Blades fantasy series. You can find both The Withered King and The Cursed Titans (books one and two) now.
To purchase The Withered King:
To purchase The Cursed Titans:
Continuing on with my series on great fantasy authors and table-top roleplaying games, I’m excited to be able to talk with Jeffrey Speight, author of the excellent Paladin Unbound. Thanks for taking the time to chat D&D!
Will you talk a little bit about your recently released fantasy book, Paladin Unbound?
I’d be happy to. Paladin Unbound is a fast-paced high fantasy adventure that follows a half-Orc mercenary, Umhra the Peacebreaker, as he uncovers an insidious plot to bring the natural order of Evelium to its knees. In the process, he suffers tremendous loss as a result of his own reluctance to show his true nature and risks his own life in coming forth about his secret to guarantee he never makes such a mistake again. It’s a tale of self-discovery, honor, and lots of action.
How about your history with ttrpgs? Have you been playing for long?
I started playing D&D when I was in middle school in the late 80s. My first character was an elf ranger named Sage. I played rangers a lot growing up. Somewhere along the way, I shifted to preferring paladins. I’m a lawful good alignment, myself, so I think there’s a natural connection there. Several years ago, I started playing again to introduce my three sons to the game and get them off screens. Ugh. It got the creative bug going and led me to homebrewing Tyveriel (the planet where Evelium sits) and, eventually writing the book.
One of the things that I really loved about Paladin Unbound is that it has a bit of a classic D&D feel to it. Is any part of the book inspired by gaming at all?
Absolutely. As I said, the worldbuilding and some of the early character development came directly from a homebrewed D&D campaign for my kids. I way overbuilt for what they needed to learn the game and decided to keep going and really flesh it all out. I took a lot of what I had made for the campaign, elevated the worldbuilding and the characters and started writing Paladin Unbound. The book is very much a love letter to D&D.
I’ve noticed that many great fantasy authors play D&D. Do you think there is a connection between gaming and writing?
Without a doubt. I think there is a natural connection between the world building, character creation, and fantasy backdrop of D&D and other TTRPGs and the writing process. For many, it’s a direct connection as was the case for Paladin Unbound. For others it’s looser. But let’s face it, if you are spending your time creating a conflicted Dwarvish Sorcerer with a rich backstory, you’re well on your way to writing a fantasy book.
What are some similarities and differences?
I think the similarities are pretty straight forward. Creating a fantasy world with engaging characters and a storyline are critical to both. Where they diverge is in the craft of actually writing a book. It’s very different than designing, running, or playing a campaign. You can’t go off on silly side quests that don’t further the plot of the story (I totally endorse silly side quests that do further the plot of the story), you are seeing things from only one perspective per scene, you can provide the readers more context than the characters themselves are aware of, etc.
Does gaming help with writing creativity or vice versa?
For me, it flows both ways. It’s like working out (I’m not an expert in the field) in that if you flex a muscle, it grows stronger over time. Creating a world and characters and stories, whether it is for D&D or writing, will make you better at doing those things in both venues. The more we create, the better we get at creating. A virtuous cycle.
What do you love about gaming?
Oh man, where do I start. I love sitting around the table with a group and experience a story built cooperatively. I love the unexpected twists and turns a game can take due to a single decision or roll of the dice. I love how real it can feel when you are in the middle of a great session. And dice…I love dice.
Yes, the surprise twists are the best! I always smile a little when I find out later that a campaign that someone was running went in a completely unexpected direction and the DM spent the last little bit pulling things out of thin air. With the best DMs, I can’t even tell. As for dice: a certain first-time paladin needed new dice. Absolutely needed them. Nowadays, do you DM more often, or are you a player?
I was so excited to hear you were going to play a paladin. You’ll be smiting evil in no time. As most of my D&D time is spent with my kids, I often find myself the DM. They will walk in the room and ask, Dad, can we play D&D? I’ll say sure. Then they’ll tell me about the new characters they built and that they want to have the campaign based in a flying city run by an evil wizard. They just expect me to have that ready to go. I’d definitely like to join up with a crew for some adult game time, though. Maybe as a player…
What first drew you to writing?
The escape. I took up writing as a hobby and found that I really enjoyed and benefitted mentally from my time in Evelium. It’s relaxing to leave things behind for a moment and immerse yourself in another world. I had no intention of publishing a book. That came much later once the story was finished and a friend encouraged me to explore publication.
Is there a particular gaming memory that always makes you laugh or smile?
Every Halloween I do a one shot for my wife and kids. It’s usually a short, creepy storyline that involves us as the characters. We’ve built a lot of great memories around those sessions that I will always cherish. Then, there was the time my oldest son thought he could make friends with an orc guard. The party was hiding in the bushes and saw the orc guarding a keep we knew was hostile. He insisted on trying to persuade the orc to let us pass. I asked if he was sure and he said yes. He stood up and waved hello. He took a pretty bad hit from a javelin. We still laugh about that one.
That’s hilarious! Memories like that are the best. I remember the first time my husband and I gamed with my oldest. His wizard accidentally lit the tree my rogue was hiding in on fire. Surprisingly, that gets brought up a lot. Are the majority of your games homebrewed?
Yes. I’ve run a few modules for my kids. They are usually fun, but I actually prefer having more control over the world and the campaign plot. If I’m going to DM, I’d much rather build it all from the ground up.
What would you say to someone who hasn’t played before but is curious about it?
I think a lot of people don’t play TTRPGs because they seem so complicated. I’d say to go into it with an open mind, be willing to learn, and just have fun. A good DM and experienced players will help you out along the way. If you want to DM yourself, I wouldn’t get so wrapped up in all the rules. They are a guideline. Set the expectations accordingly for your table that you aren’t going strictly by the book and just go for it. You’ll have a blast and so will your friends/family. Oh. And be a Paladin…there aren’t enough of us.
About the Author:
Jeffrey Speight’s love of fantasy goes back to an early childhood viewing of the cartoon version of The Hobbit, when he first met an unsuspecting halfling that would change Middle Earth forever. Finding his own adventuring party in middle school, Jeff became an avid Dungeons & Dragons player and found a passion for worldbuilding and character creation. While he went on to a successful career as an investor, stories grew in his mind until he could no longer keep them inside. So began his passion for writing. Today, he lives in Connecticut with his wife, three boys (his current adventuring party), three dogs, and a bearded dragon. He has a firmly held belief that elves are cool, but half-orcs are cooler. While he once preferred rangers, he nearly always plays a paladin at the gaming table.
Where to find Paladin Unbound:
Literary Wanderlust: https://www.literarywanderlust.com/product-page/paladin-unbound
I’ve been exploring the connection between table top roleplaying games and great authors all week. Today I’m excited to chat a little with Thomas Howard Riley, author of We Break Immortals.
Thanks for talking with me!
Will you tell me a little bit about your book?
Of course, and thank you for having me on your site to chat.
My upcoming book is titled WE BREAK IMMORTALS.
It is full of swordplay, terrifying magick duels, mysteries, sex, riddles, kings, prophecies, battles, quests, murderers, and, of course, superhuman serial killer cult leaders. It explores themes of obsession, longing, self-reflection, vengeance, corruption, terror, loss, the bonds of friendship, the feeling of being outcast, and how even people who have no family of their own are able to find one among the people they meet.
It is an epic fantasy adventure, but one that threads the needle between what is usually considered High Fantasy and Grimdark Fantasy, what I prefer to call Rated-R Epic Fantasy. It is an adult fantasy, which does include things like graphic violence, sex, and drug use.
It is an expansive world, where people who are able to use magick are hated and feared, hunted and burned. Unless they are one of the select few who can buy or bargain their way into celebrity…or…the become powerful enough that no one can stop them.
My world has an expansive magic-system, however, the thing that defines this world is the magick-undoing system. The methods of stopping magick and those who use it is as in-depth and rule-based as the magick itself. More so even. To keep magick-users in check, and hunt them down when they go rogue, kingdoms employ Render Tracers, professionals who have accumulated secrets and loopholes that can stop magick and track those who use it.
The story includes multiple points of view, each character quite different from one another. It took a lot to juggle so many large personalities.
How about your history with ttrpgs? When did you first start playing, and what drew you to it?
I was drawn to it originally by two things. Firstly, most of my earliest reading was fantasy (and also sci fi, but mostly fantasy). I read every Dragonlance or Forgotten Realms novel written through at least 1995. And the local hobby store sold gaming modules for these series, including ones specific to the very books I had been reading. I still have some of them. It allowed me to insert myself into the stories that I loved to read, and to affect the outcome. It was awesome.
Secondly, it was a way to play knights and soldiers and wizards with your friends, but with rules to back it up. So there would be no more of the “you can’t beat my guy because he has more powers”, or “your knight didn’t kill my archer because he’s too fast,” etc. that always happened when we were little kids.
RPGs provided a structure, so that we would know for sure whether the knight beat the archer, or the wizard’s powers were enough to stop whatever-it-was. It made everything fair. We did not have to argue; the dice decided. It was up to us to know our characters so that we could make the right choices of how to target those dice, to maximize our chances of success. It was like playing toy soldiers and craps at the same time. It felt badass.
Eventually I played virtually everything that was around at the time: D&D of every variety, Warhammer 40k, Battletech, Space Fleet, Blood Bowl, etc.
I love that books were your gateway into gaming, so to speak! Did ttrps influence your desire to write at all?
I definitely feel its influence there. Being part of a ttrpg (back then we just called them rpgs because there was no option other than tabletop at that time) was like training wheels for storytelling. I not only had the opportunity to watch the GM weave a tale together while accommodating 10+ people with their own motives, but as a player-character I was able to participate in that storytelling, sometimes creating epic character arcs worthy of their own books. And when I did decide to pursue writing books, I was able to come to it with that experience. So it not only inspired me to storytelling, it also taught me some useful tools for it.
One of the key things I feel playing RPGs cultivated within me was the ability to wrangle multiple characters with different plans, hopes, motivations, and decisions. Seeing that different players did not always get along when on the same quests, or would get annoyed with each other, or would go on to betray each other, really helped guide me when creating my own characters, so that I pay great attention to make sure they are each their own person, with their own dreams, and their own way of doing things, and that their goals may not always align with one another.
I also am forever blessed/cursed with a love of crews, teams, clans, squads. I do write characters by themselves if the scene absolutely demands it, but I much prefer when characters bounce dialogue and actions off one another in a group. Even though I write multiple POVs in my own books, I tend to give each individual POV their own crew to belong to.
The best RPG I was ever a part of was run by, and in a world created by, a very good old sword-fighting friend of mine. (I used to sword-fight as well by the way. And no, I do NOT mean fencing. This was a very different thing). His name is Richard Marsden, who is incidentally also the founder of the Phoenix Society of Historical Swordsmanship, a HEMA organization that teaches sword-fighting techniques for heavy rapiers, sabers, and longswords (and who writes his own SF books actually – you can check out his humorous Traveling Tyrant SF series, or his acclaimed swordsmanship books Historical European Martial Arts In Context or The Polish Saber).
This was the longest running individual adventure I ever participated in, lasting well over a year, played on hazy afternoons in a smoke-filled alcohol-fueled garage. And from it I gained two things that jump out at me right away, one general and one very specific.
The general thing, was I learned that not everything ended neatly, and that emotions would rear their head, that things would get messy, and that adventures sometimes ended in tragedy. I learned there was a balance of humor and seriousness, of triumph and tragedy, that was real, and if I could walk that line, my story could be incredible.
This was a funny bunch of people, myself included (I have been told that I am, as they say, a real card). And we laughed a lot. But we were also serious. This game saw some of us start wars, or preside over atrocities, caused the downfall of thriving civilizations, ruined environments, and burned down religions. This game included player-characters betraying one another, and at some points even killing each other (literally taking them out of the game permanently). It included a player-character suicide in-game. This was not a G-rated dalliance. It was both heavy and light. But when it was heavy, it was very heavy.
The specific thing is one particular set battle, a siege really, of a vast city that our characters needed to get inside to stop something that powerful priests were doing. It included player-character in-fighting, murder, ingenuity, betrayal, and redemption. And the way I have plotted my own series, Advent Lumina, I have set it up so that particular part of our rpg, played decades ago around a card table in an empty two-car garage, will one day be immortalized in my books (obviously modified to fit within my own story framework, world, and characters, but you get the idea).
That feels like a lot more than you asked for. But I have never been known for my brevity.
In short, participating in rpgs gave me both inspiration and preparation for writing the kind of stories I wanted to write.
I think brevity is overrated. I love that you mention the love of teams/ squads. I myself prefer books with multiple characters that play off each other as I think it allows for a more natural way for characters to develop. But that’s just my personal preference.
I’m seeing some similarities between DMing and writing. What are some differences?
The key difference is control. Running a game as DM calls for a certain amount of control (one has to wrangle recalcitrant players generally down the path you have prepared for them after all) But the control ends where the players begin. They can make their own choices, and affect the story in their own ways. All you can hope to do is loosely shove them along in the right direction. This is part of the fun, seeing which way things will go, and what unexpected reactions will pop up as you go.
When writing, you have total control. You are the DM and the players. You are responsible for every aspect of the story. This is at once amazing and nerve-wracking. You have sole control, but also sole responsibility if anything goes wrong, if the story doesn’t not work right, if the characters don’t mesh, and so on.
That does not mean that you cannot still be surprised by your own story. No matter how much I plan out ahead, new themes and ideas and character motives and epiphanies may leap out of the background and make the story better. But even this surprise comes from the writer’s subconscious. There is no outside input, just your own ideas bouncing around in your head.
Another difference is the kind of pressure on you. A DM must wrangle the players along the story, but must also keep them entertained, making sure they want to come back again and again. It is difficult to keep someone’s attention for weeks or months on end. That requires a certain skill. You have to be interactive, fun, accommodating, and you have to think hard on the spot, under pressure. If one of the players (or all of the players if they are just plain rude) takes the party off the carefully manicured path you have set out for them, you have to be able to think quick on your feet to come up with ways to still somehow bring them back to that path. That is a somewhat different skill set than a writer. And also the degree of perfection is a bit different. Writing a finished product requires a lot of professional polish. Being a DM is inherently a bit more relaxed, as you are usually just playing with your friends.
Writing (mostly) takes place in private. You may find your characters wandering in your mind away from where you wan them to go. But you have time, alone, to come up with solutions. You are not the deer in headlights that a surprised DM would be. (I have seen some DMs sweat for a while, desperately trying to think of a way to get things back on track without looking like they ever went off the track in the first place.)
It is different for a writer. For a very long time you have no one to impress but yourself. The finished product is what matters, meaning you can write the story backwards from the end, or a bit from the beginning, middle, and end. You can jump around, and skip over parts that aren’t clicking and work on others, and come back to it later, without the pressure to make sure each piece is chronologically perfect before moving on to the next. There is much more pressure to make it perfect, but writers have the benefit of being able to draft, revise, and polish their story in total before anyone really sees it. A DM only has to work on creating one piece at a time as they are played, though they must make sure each piece is ready for play on a deadline.
It seems that more and more authors (and creatives in general) are playing or mentioning D&D. Do you think that it’s rising in popularity for any particular reason, or do you think it’s always been enjoyed, but not necessarily mentioned?
I think it has always been enjoyed. I think the stigma around it has changed. Much like comic books were looked down upon as a geek culture for much of the 70s, 80s, and 90s by the grownups and cool kids, D&D and fantasy in general was sneered at.
But then one day everyone who had spent their whole lives reading and playing got older and said, “You know what? This is fun and we like it and we don’t have to conform to anyone else’s version of cool or grown up. We have that money to spend, and we set the rules of what we want to do. And anyone who doesn’t like it? Well, bye.”
And the bigger that collective group became that was seen publicly approving of it, the more people found courage and feel comfortable talking about it in turn, and now here we are. (This is true of human nature in regard societal change in general)
Now comics and D&D and fantasy and sci-fi are mainstream. The most popular video games are D&D based. There are tournaments where real money is made. Kids now would never know it was ever something that used to be ridiculed.
How can you ridicule Final Fantasy? Or World of Warcraft? Or League of Legends? Or Marvel movies? Or the Walking Dead comics? That stuff is popular. You may not like one or another as a personal preference, but gone are the days when that subject matter could just be dismissed out of hand as geeky childhood dalliance. That stuff is mainstream now. It’s cool. And I’m glad for that.
What would you say to someone who hasn’t played before but is curious about it?
I would say go for it. Definitely. It’s a fun thing to do with like minded people. It’s like having a poker night only better because you can let your creativity shine. (And you are less likely to lose a lot of money)
But I would say make sure to go in with people you are comfortable with. Whether you go in for serious or silly or a little of both, it is best if you do it with people who you know will have a good time hanging out as well as gaming.
About the author:
Thomas Howard Riley currently resides in a secluded grotto in the wasteland metropolis, where he reads ancient books, plays ancient games, watches ancient movies, jams on ancient guitars, and writes furiously day and night. He sometimes appears on clear nights when the moon is gibbous, and he has often been seen in the presence of cats.
He always wanted to make up his own worlds, tell his own stories, invent his own people, honor the truths of life, and explore both the light and the darkness of human nature. With a few swords thrown in for good measure.
And some magick. Awesome magick.
He can be found digitally at THOMASHOWARDRILEY.COM
On Twitter he is @ornithopteryx, where he is sometimes funny, always clever, and never mean.
https://amzn.to/3hVPA3J Amazon US link
https://amzn.to/2UYvhtT Amazon UK link
https://bit.ly/3zU8qyq Goodreads link
http://thomashowardriley.com Author Website
Today Dan Fitzgerald, author of The Maer Cycle, is sharing his thoughts on D&D. Incidentally, he just released The Maer Cycle Omnibus, which I definitely recommend picking up.
Like many fantasy writers, I got my start playing D&D. When I was just a wee pre-teen, D&D was pretty much my life. Sure, I did other things—went to school, ate food, watched TV, what have you, but the thing I always looked forward to for days at a time and obsessed about afterward, the thing I could do for hours on end with no care for food or sleep, was play D&D. I would even stay up late some nights when I couldn’t play with others, rolling up random characters and taking them through randomly generated dungeons until they died. Ah, good times!
This was the early 80s, so we’re talking 1st edition AD&D, where a first level mage had max 4 hit points and only one spell, and if they somehow made it to level 2 they got another 1-4 HP and another spell. Surviving to level 3 was a miracle, and staying alive long enough to actually cast a fireball was damned near impossible. It was a blast.
Fast forward to today’s D&D 5E (that’s 5th edition for you less nerdy types), where mages are more powerful at 1st level than they used to be at level 3, where characters miraculously heal overnight from the most grievous wounds, where you can be unconscious and on death’s door one moment, then hacking and slashing a few seconds after a simple healing spell. This is not a diss on 5E (okay, well actually it is, but the original had its flaws too); it’s just a different way of playing, and of thinking about the game, and I think we may have lost something in the process. The old game was more nitty-gritty, more deadly, and to me, a lot more fun.
My gaming pals back in the day liked to power up and play high-level characters and fight everything in the Monster Manual (and later the Fiend Folio, the Holy Grail of D&D books), and I was happy enough to play along, but I always enjoyed the tough, early starts, the 1st level characters with nothing more than their wits and a longsword, and maybe a Magic Missile or Cure Light Wounds once a day, to protect them. When a handful of orcs or a gaggle of goblins was enough to make you think twice, and if you killed an ogre, you felt like a superhero. Nowadays a new character already feels like a superhero, and I miss that feeling of vulnerability.
What I don’t miss? The idea that each race had certain characteristics inherent to it, and limitations on what characters could or couldn’t become. The notion that orcs, goblins, ogres, and many other humanoid races were automatically evil. The gender binary. The heteronormativity. Whatever I may not like about 5E, it states very clearly in the Player’s Handbook: “You don’t need to be confined to binary notions of sex and gender. Likewise, your character’s sexual orientation is for you to decide.” That’s honestly refreshing, as is the lifting of limitations on what races can play what classes. I may not like some of the rules updates, but the overall tone is better, which matters quite a bit.
But I digress. Or rather, I don’t. Because what I love about D&D, at its essence, is the idea that you can pretend to be anyone you want, and you get to participate in a live story that’s never existed before. It’s all about a group of people sitting around a table (or in recent times, a Zoom and Roll20 screen) telling stories together. Sure, there are rules to guide you, and they can help streamline play, but they can also limit the role of your imagination. Honestly, if you’re not homebrewing your rules at least a little, are you even playing D&D? My favorite games are ones in which you can always deviate from the rules or make an exception when it makes for a better story.
It’s the same way with fantasy. There are “rules” to follow if you want to be traditionally published, but aren’t the best stories the ones that break those rules in innovative ways? And with the flourishing of small presses and independent publishing in contemporary fantasy, there really are no rules to speak of, only stories, writers, and readers. I can write whatever the hell I want, and someone is going to read it, but let’s be honest: as a writer, I don’t want just someone to read my books. I want a LOT of someones to read my books. I want to tell my stories to whoever will listen, and I always hope to convince someone who might not have read fantasy before to try my books.
In my Maer Cycle trilogy, I tried to write books that would appeal to fans of classic fantasy, to D&D players and nerds of various stripes, and would have that feel of the low-level characters gritting it out against well-matched opponents, with a lot more role-playing than fighting. And as their skills advance through the trilogy, I wanted it to feel earned. I also hoped to write something that felt grounded enough that it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch for readers who don’t usually read fantasy—there’s not a lot of big, showy magic, and the fantasy creatures are (mostly) meant to feel almost plausible.
Now that the trilogy is out in the world, I’ve got something totally different in the works, the Weirdwater Confluence duology, which I’m calling sword-free fantasy. It’s quite a bit more removed from D&D, but if I’m totally honest, one aspect of The Living Waters was inspired a little by a particular creature from the D&D universe. I won’t say which one, but old-school nerds may recognize something a bit familiar in the name of the duology.
However far I may roam, the bones of my writer’s soul remain grounded in the world of the imagination opened up by Dungeons and Dragons, which has influenced my storytelling as much as any book I’ve ever read.
You can read more about me or my books on my website, http://www.danfitzwrites.com, and my books can be purchased from the usual online vendors, which my publisher, Shadow Spark, has available on one easy page. I can also be found on Twitter, where I talk about fantasy, books, and general nerdery, and on Instagram, where I post way too many nature pics and the occasional bookish snippet or announcement.
You can find The Maer Cycle Omnibus on Amazon
This week I’ve been talking to authors about ttrpgs and great books. Many authors play and I’ve loved learning more about why. Today I’m sharing a conversation between authors Jonathan Nevair and Rowena Andrews.
*Goblins have been evicted*
Rowena: Hello! How are you doing this afternoon?
Jonathan: Great now that I am back from Philly, lol – thanks for moving back the meeting. Do we need to roll initiative? (lol)
Rowena: We could – but I usually roll really bad initiative so I think it’s an auto-win on your side
Jonathan: Ha! OK, well thanks for being flexible. I am ready to talk writing/D&D!
Rowena: Awesome, and thank you for agreeing to this and technically being my guinea pig as this is my first author interview/chat.
Jonathan: For real? I would have thought you’d done them before. I feel special. 🙂
Rowena: Yep, I was too new before to brave doing one. But, D&D is always great to talk about and you were my first thought when Jodie approached me to help out with the series.
Jonathan: It’s funny because I had already come across moments of “crossover” – usually how writing fiction novels has helped my D&D, especially as a DM.
Rowena: Is that in terms of worldbuilding? Or building the narrative in general?
Jonathan: Both. For one, after learning more about story building and narrative structures I definitely began to build things in a D&D campaign when I was the Dungeon Master. I became aware of how much more exciting and invested I could get players to be in an adventure when I put in plot points (the typical ones like the hook, inciting incident, pinch points, etc.) – and thinking about some classic character tropes and using them to create roles for NPCs that went beyond just being something to fight or an obstacle.
And definitely with worldbuilding too – thinking about multisensory descriptions when describing settings in a campaign – I have this informal “rule” to comb through each written chapter in a book I write and ensure there are at least two of the five (six? lol) senses in every scene – if possible. That got me thinking about my verbal descriptions of settings as a DM. And I could really see the way players came to life in terms of immersion.
Rowena: That’s really interesting – especially about the sensory details. It’s certainly something I like to come across in D&D (although I think we’re driving our DM up the wall asking if we can smell things at the moment in one group – as two of us have enhanced senses of smell due to becoming werebears). Do you find yourself, having to adjust the level of details? I know when I DM I have to try and keep things flexible because players will go off the beaten path – whereas obviously, characters in a book are a little more obedient.
Jonathan: Oh definitely – I totally get what you are saying. You need to be so careful when you are the DM – it’s so funny, isn’t it? You will mention something in passing that is basically irrelevant and then the party is fixated and convinced it is a vital aspect of the quest! It can be very funny, and then there is the way I used to be more of an “on the rails” DM and would have to figure out how to steer them back in the trajectory I wanted them to go, but over my time playing I have definitely become more of a sandboxer. But yes, it’s easier to control those things in fiction, right? But I do think that pacing is relevant here – in both writing and D&D. Don’t you?
Rowena: Absolutely. Although much harder to control again in D&D – although I have found that for things like fight scenes, for example, using D&D esque timing can help work out the beats.
Jonathan: Oh that is interesting. I can see how that would work for sure. I think for me to there is a way that some moments are like “catching your breath” in chapters and scenes and then others rush forward because you have the foundation of the world/space/setting to go on, then another new place and the cycles continues (and they get to short or long rest lol). But I do think of writing scenes and chapters like that – like an ebb and flow, a wave crashing in and then retreating to give players and readers time to catch their breath and experience what just happened and how it relates to what will come next. Does that make sense?
Rowena: Yes, especially with the emotional moments and close calls. (Also I love the idea of those moments being short and long rests, as well as the ebb and flow). It’s also those moments where you can play with some of the details that aren’t necessarily relevant to the plot, but just to live in the world.
Jonathan: TOTALLY! Those are some of the best moments where the PCs can RP and be able to perform their personalities, quirks, habits. As a player I love that – it might even be more exciting for me than the melee, etc. By the way, speaking of plot points and ebb and flow – I did something at the end of Forge of Fury recently as DM that was an example of one of those literary plot points – the resolution. I think for a while I was “ending” campaigns right after the Boss fight, like “OK you did, and we’re done.” And then I realized that in fiction writing and narrative you need closure, that moment to exhale and be able to have the character and NPCs demonstrate what they have learned from their adventure and experiences. What I did (this is really funny) is, I had just re-watched Star Wars Ep. 4 for the millionth time and that last scene when they are given the medals… I had the party return to a village near the Forge after completing their tasks and the villagers had a celebration waiting and had the town wizard erect a monument in the town square with their figures lol!!! They arrived to trumpets and pomp and they freaking LOVED it! They still bring it up – I realized that was a great crossover that really helped round out the campaign.
Rowena: That sounds amazing!! I’ve not actually reached the end of a campaign yet, but I would definitely want an ending like that. I love that it was inspired by Star Wars too. And, I agree that it is tempting to end it after the boss fight, but that quiet moment at the end (or trumpet filled) is so important.
Jonathan: Yes, and it can even be quieter, like the four hobbits at the Green Dragon raising a pint after it’s all over… that kinda thing.
Rowena: That scene is perfect.
Jonathan: You know I am a huge fan lol. The interesting thing is as a science fiction writer, as opposed to a fantasy writer, the “crossovers” are a bit different – more abstract in certain ways since it is a different kind of world from D&D – sure other RPGs are scifi, etc. but I only play D&D and it’s interesting, but one way D&D has helped me is, when I DM I keep a post-it note above my computer that says “What is your PC doing?” and it reminds me to make sure all players are engaged and remaining active – and I kept it there when I wrote Jati’s Wager (which has a large cast of characters on a heist team) – kinda like a D&D party, and it really helped me to “not forget” about some of them but be sure to mention (even if just in passing) what they are doing while others are in the narrative spotlight.
Rowena: Oh, that is an excellent idea. I know in bigger groups that can be an issue, but I hadn’t thought about how that then applies to characters.
Jonathan: I can’t remember if my friend, Steve, who plays in my group – or Matt Coville, recommended that (I really like his videos btw).
Rowena: I need to check his stuff out. I’ve actually just read the first of his books recently.
Jonathan: Oh wow, I didn’t know he had books out. He is a very engaged (fast talking!) tuber for sure!
Rowena: I need to look that up. I watch far too many D&D videos.
Jonathan: And buy too many dice. 🙂
Rowena: There is no such thing!
You know there’s also the “other” side too – and I have not thought about it before, but the whole “being a bad DM” or “bad PC” in some way and what those traits and actions are – but there is probably a lot to learn there about storytelling too. Like, not hogging the story, avoiding being a hobo – like how you might have gratuitous violence in a book that doesn’t have much of a purpose – no one should ever experience violence or combat unless it is absolutely necessary and no other option is left (at least in my stories) – I like the idea of thinking about how morality can fit into D&D with alignments. I’ve gotten pretty into sticking to RP’ing my PCs based on alignment. It’s a fun way to put restrictions on yourself “in-game” and really does match some of the ways I might say “well so-and-so” in this book would never do that so they can’t…. Does that make sense?
Rowena: Yes, it does. It’s interesting because none of my campaigns are particularly strict about the alignments – I tend to use them loosely, but I wouldn’t as a rule go out of my way to break them either (I tend towards chaotic – in D&D and in life). But, I like your idea about how ‘being a bad DM / PC’ could relate more generally into storytelling, and I very much agree that violence should only be when absolutely necessary.
Jonathan: Chaotic good is my favorite alignment lol. There’s a really cool website I found with lengthy descriptions of each of them that I ate up – got me super into it. Just a few weeks ago my current PC, Lutharian, a High Elf fighter/druid – made a bold move attacking a drow that had threatened her – the DM was shocked and actually asked me – “what is your alignment?” Because it didn’t seem to fit, but the chaotic was in there lol… but also – and this brings up something I think is a really cool crossover – there is backstory! In both D&D PCs and in worldbuilding in fiction. I am HUGE on writing back histories of my PCs in D&D. My friend Steve encourages this and it is so cool – because by doing it I built up a past where Lutharian had fought in two wars with the dwarves, one against the Drow, where they had killed her leader. She had a history of pain and anger against them and so it made sense for her to seek violent retribution like that – very cool moment. And I think about how much backstory you write for a novel right? Like I wrote pages and pages of events and history in the Wind Tide Universe from the First and Second Spans (the ages in that world) and also about events and cultures “outside” the story’s frame in the book. But you need it and then you can cherry-pick from it when needed and it really helps justify people’s attitudes, behaviors, fears, hatreds, etc. Do you write backstory for PCs? Or for your books?
Rowena: Firstly, I love how you included that for your character – and those moments where PCs act on something that not everyone in the party might know are fantastic, and usually great for the party as a whole – whether they go well or not. I do write backstories – I’ve been a little light with my PCs – one didn’t have a lot of memory due to ending up in the Feywilds as a child, so my DM has gone wild with that one – which is interesting in a different way. But, for my book, I have documents full of historical events between the two main countries, and then individually, and files on all the characters with notes on random interactions that I might never use but feed into them.
It really is so helpful. I never thought about how much crossover there is but it’s a lot.
Do you think playing/DMing D&D (and I’m assuming you played before you became a writer – correct me if I’m wrong) was one of the reasons for getting into storytelling and becoming a writer?
Jonathan: Hmm.. well, I played when I was younger, but that was back when 1st/2nd edition was out. Yes, I am THAT old!!!! But then I stopped by my mid-teens and only started again during COVID. So really writing came before D&D for me. I worked with someone at Moore College who is a Game arts Professor and we have become friends. He was hounding me for years to get back into D&D, and it wasn’t until COVID that I did. So writing first, then D&D. BUT – I will say that my desire to DM is definitely driven and inspired by being a writer and storyteller – 100%!
Rowena: That’s interesting! I really want to get some of the books for the older editions because I’m curious to see how much they’ve changed. I was the same way round – writing before D&D – but I’ve moved more into the writing since playing.
Jonathan: OMG some of those old books bring back such a flood of memories – someone posted a picture on Twitter recently of Fiend Folio and I was hit by such a rush of images from my early teens – you should check them out online. So different from what is coming out today with WoTC. The other thing is obviously we played in-person back then, at a table with the classic multi-page folded DM screen (LOVED THOSE!!!) and dice (your favorite lol) and we had figures we’d bought and painted, made drawings of our PCs, and had those classic character sheets. I do miss that because now I play on Roll 20 with people who are both nearby and far away. I really like aspects of Roll 20 a lot but I do miss the “brick and mortar” game. I know you play with Peter (another blogger/reviewer) – do you play in person or online?
Rowena: Online. Both my groups are online, but even if we didn’t have Covid it would be online because of distance. In my Sunday group, we have players across the UK and one in the Netherlands, so weekly games would be a problem. Although once we can travel more easily, we’re planning a weekend in the highlands to play in person for the first time. And the same for the group I’m in with Peter, a couple of the guys live close to one another, but the rest of us are scattered.
Jonathan: Highlands + D&D = perfection.
Rowena: It does. I think we plan to try and get minis made as well if only for that weekend.
Jonathan: Do you have a favorite class?
Rowena: Cleric is fast becoming my favourite, although boy is it stressful when multiple people are going down and you only have limited spell slots. I’m also a fan of Wild-Magic Sorcerer just because I love being an agent of chaos. What about you?
Jonathan: That is funny because as you were typing about the Cleric I knew you were going to say that! For me? I tend to be drawn to characters that have an ability to mix elements of combat/magic. I REALLY enjoyed playing a bard not too long ago. I know it gets a bad go of it from some folks, but I loved the RP potential of it. Probably the bard or maybe something in the tank area. I am playing a fighter/druid and really like that – I am BIG of Fey elements too.
Rowena: Bards are great (Peter played one in a recent two-shot we did and I know he really enjoyed it – he’s a Barbarian in our main campaign). I like the blend of magic/combat too, which Clerics are okay at. What about the different races? Do you have a favourite?
Jonathan: I definitely lean to elves, halflings, gnomes. What can I say, I am a forest child lol. 🙂
You? (I play with someone who always is like a Tiefling, or something like that – satyr, it’s interesting how our personalities point us to things).
Rowena: Tieflings are one of my favourites. My first character Niamh is a tiefling, and I will always have a soft spot for her for so many reasons (also I like having the horns and tail – not sure what that says about me). I also really like Dragonborn which is what my Cleric is. I’m also a huge fan of humans – just because it’s sometimes nice to have that point of normality amongst the chaos that is D&D (although not having darkvision sucks – this is a downside to Dragonborn as well)
Jonathan: My brother is playing a Dragorn monk in our current campaign and it is such as badass. We have gone from level 1 to level 14 now and it’s just out of control what he can do… We are hoping to take these characters all the way to 20. None of us have ever done that. OK – so since you named your favorite I will give you mine: Rumpletum Evergreen (aka “Rum Tum”) – a forest gnome bard. I chose to have him only speak in rhyme – which was INSANE and so much fun for about 5 sessions – and then I was struggling! So I had him “lose” his ability to rhyme lol and then it came back after their triumphant victory over the big bad at the end of the second campaign lol. So much fun to play such a small physical character with such big charisma and performative presence – there was a little bit of Tasslehof in him! (from Dragons of Autumn Twilight).
Rowena: Oh my god, that would have been amazing to witness – but I don’t blame you for ‘losing’ the rhyming ability. I loved Tasslehof. I did a read-along of the first book with Peter this year – my first time reading it – and we’re going to review it…at some point. Level 20 characters are insane – you think a level 14 monk is bad, wait until level 20. We did a Battle Royale recently with Level 20 characters – and there’s just so many abilities that they have!
Jonathan: I can’t even imagine!
Rowena: Did you say you were going to be playing a Paladin soon as well?
Jonathan: Oh yes – I am very excited. I already built him – backstory and all. He’s ready to go. “Trusty Jack” is his name and he will be an Oath of Vengeance Paladin. I am very excited, as I have never played one before. I’ve been working on my RP voice and personality while on walks with my dog lol (hope no one is out there listening to me lol). I am going for bold, loud, and just slightly overbearing with him. I’m very excited because like the bard there is that mix of combat/magic and I’m also interested in the way the oath brings in that element of alignment/morality we talked about. One thing that my friend Steve has really taught me is to embrace character flaws in D&D, whether they are ability score based or just personality – and I love it. I used to think of it as a “deficiency” but now I realize it makes a PC all the more real but also more interesting to RP. So much fun and I need to read the new book that came out, Paladin Unbound!
Rowena: Yes! It’s a great book. I really want to play a Paladin at some point, not sure what Oath I would go for though – although vengeance is very interesting. Character flaws are so much fun to play with too.
Jonathan: We have a dwarf paladin in our current party who has a Dex problem, lol – he has fallen down SO many things and tripped and exposed us during stealth so many times it is fantastic!
Rowena: My sorcerer is weak as hell, so anything that requires strength is just doomed to failure. Our group is now called ‘The Fellowship of the Glowing Potato’ because she tried to throw it into a cave to light the way, rolled a Nat 1 and instead hit the Ranger in her one good eye. I have never lived it down.
Jonathan: OMG that is what makes D&D so amazing. That is hilariously awesome.
Do you think we have enough content?
Rowena: Absolutely – and I think it’s almost as chaotic as D&D. And you’ve brought up some fantastic points about the crossovers (I may be making notes from this as I plunge back into editing shortly).
Jonathan: I never have a chance to talk D&D this in-depth. It is so much fun! Even just sharing our PCs, etc. 🙂
Rowena: I agree, although always feel free to shout at me on Twitter about anything D&D related!
Jonathan: I will! If you need to do any follow up for this lemme know! Thanks for asking me this was SUPER fun!!! And guess what? Tonight is my D&D night!!!!
Rowena: You are very welcome, thank you for taking the time to come and chat. And that is awesome! D&D nights are the best nights of the week.
So, I guess just as a final wrap up. Obviously, you have Jati’s Wager coming out next month (and I still can’t get over that cover!!) and then what does the future hold for you writing wise?
(D&D will always be chaos)
Jonathan: I know, that cover right? I love it. So, Wind Tide is a series, and as of now, a trilogy. The third book will release on Nov. 18th. Title: No Song, But Silence So that is my immediate writing future plans. Once that book releases I intend to write a stand-alone novel. Not entirely sure yet what it will be but I have been getting pulled to the lure of cyberpunk lately. I think because the Wind Tide universe is very “natural” in many ways in its settings I am feeling ready for some tech-based settings and stories – plus I love the aesthetics of cyberpunk. But we will see – I am writing No Song, But Silence now!
Rowena: I love that title!! And can’t wait to pick up the rest of Wind Tide. Cyberpunk is fantastic, the aesthetics are a lot of fun and if you go that road I can’t wait to see what you come up with!!
Jonathan: Thanks! I can’t wait for your novella which will be out about the same time! Wahoo!
Rowena: It will. I’m still in slight disbelief that I’m actually doing it lol.
Jonathan: Well, I can’t wait to read it. OK – I will sign off (Cricket wants a walk so I guess I get to practice my “Trusty Jack” voice lol). Talk to you soon!
Rowena: Thanks again, and may the dice be kind to you tonight. Talk to you soon!
About Jonathan Nevair:
Jonathan Nevair is a science fiction writer and, as Dr. Jonathan Wallis, an art historian and Professor of Art History at Moore College of Art & Design, Philadelphia. After two decades of academic teaching and publishing, he finally got up the nerve to write fiction. Jonathan grew up on Long Island, NY but now resides in southeast Pennsylvania with his wife and rambunctious mountain feist, Cricket.
Jati’s Wager (Wind Tide #2)
Published: August 18, 2021
About Rowena Andrews:
Rowena Andrews spent her childhood searching for Dragons and talking to animals and started turning that into words when she was bored in class. She wrote her first book at fourteen and while it lives forever in the bottom of the sock drawer, the encouragement from her English Teacher meant the writing bug took hold and never went away.
Rowena has a BSc in Geography and a PG Diploma in Coastal and Maritime Societies and Cultures. She moved to Scotland for University, fell in love with the place and never left, and now lives and works on the east Fife coast.
When she’s not writing or reading, she’s hoarding dice and playing Dungeons & Dragons, and submitting to the whims of a demanding cat and dog duo.
Fate belongs to the Gods. They Weave it. Sing it. Harvest it.
Ravyn was born between life and death, free of the weave of fate. She dreams of distant places and grand deeds far from the eyes of the Gods that she refuses to believe in.
Eleyn is thrice-sworn to the Gods, marked for death and cursed with the knowledge that the Gods are stirring and what that will mean for the world she will leave behind. Unless she can change things, and that means twisting the weave of fate.
But fate is a dangerous thing, especially when it is stolen from the Gods.
Published: 30th November, 2021
Preorder Link: mybook.to/TheRavynsWords
This week on Witty and Sarcastic Bookclub, I’m talking about authors and the love of ttrpgs. I’m fortunate to have several great guests throughout the week. Today I have the privilege to talk with Dorian Hart, author of one of my favorite fantasy series.
Thanks for being willing to chat with me about D&D and great fantasy. First of all, would you tell me a little bit about the Heroes of Spira series?
The Heroes of Spira is Hopeful Ensemble Epic Quest Fantasy, a subgenre I probably just made up but which describes the series pretty well.
Hopeful, because there’s a core of decency, humor, and optimism running through all the books, even when things seem bleak and perilous. My characters are flawed, but you’ll cheer for them the whole way. Ensemble, because it features a group of would-be heroes that mostly stays together, working as a team, across all five books. Epic, because the stakes are high, and the scope becomes quite wide by the end. Quest, because the aforementioned heroes are usually on some quest or other, many of them involving strange and wondrous locales, while helping save the world. And fantasy, because it has swords and wizards and talking gemstones and giant monsters and mysterious artifacts and magical towers and dire prophecies and dream-warriors and evil math-priests and a side-trip to hell and, eventually, a nine-foot-tall oracular toad. Also some other stuff, but that should give you a general idea.
The finished series will be five books. I’ve published four of them already, and am about halfway through the first draft of the fifth. The first four, should anyone be interested are: The Ventifact Colossus, The Crosser’s Maze, The Greatwood Portal, and The Infinite Tower.
Regarding Dungeons and Dragons: When did you start playing? What first drew you to ttrpgs?
My D&D/TTRPG journey has been ongoing for 43 years now, and featured two specific days of special significance set 16 years apart.
The first was in 1978, when as a 9-year-old I visited a book fair at my elementary school. I was there to browse the fantasy and science fiction section, but nestled among the books was the original “blue box” Dungeons and Dragons basic set. I read the back and realized it was a game, not a book, where you pretended to be a fantasy hero. Cool! I bought it (hoping my parents wouldn’t mind that I used my book fair money for a game), took it home, and showed it to my friend John who lived across the street. On that day, my love for fantasy TTRPGs (along with an unquenchable need for dice) was born. A year later, I convinced my parents to get me the PH and DMG hardbacks for Christmas, and that really cemented my D&D geekery in place.
Fast forward to 1994, when I was 25 years old. I hadn’t played much D&D in high school and college, lacking the time more than the interest, but on one fateful day some mutual friends introduced me to Kevin Kulp. Kevin is a brilliant game designer (his credits include TimeWatch and Swords of the Serpentine), a great friend, and, it turns out, a wonderfully talented GM. He invited me to play in his campaign, and watching his table technique inspired me to run a game of my own. My campaign, whose plots and characters inspired the Heroes of Spira series, lasted 15 years over about 300 sessions, and was one of the great experiences of my life.
I love that the first moment you were introduced to D&D was so memorable! What’s doubly great about your two special moments is that one took place in your childhood and the other as an adult. I think it’s kind of sad that, as children, we are encouraged to use our imaginations, but adults are sort of expected to set those things aside. I think that’s one of my favorite things about gaming: the ability to keep using our imaginations. But I digress.
It is so cool that the Heroes of Spira was inspired by your campaign! Was it tough to gather such a long campaign into a cohesive narrative? Or was it easier because you had so much history to jump off from?
My journey from D&D campaign to novels was highly unusual and probably not generally reproducible.
When I was running the game, I’d write up a summary of events after every session to help myself maintain continuity and consistency, not to mention recall the names of random NPC’s I’d made up on the spot. Eventually one of my players (the aforementioned Kevin Kulp) convinced me to post these summaries to ENWorld, a popular D&D message board that had a specific forum for “Story Hours” – basically campaign journals presented to the public. While at first my posts were extremely dry and not meant to be read as fiction per se, they inexplicably grew in popularity, and the more people were reading, the more I wanted to give them something entertaining to read.
As a result, over time, I started writing the campaign summaries more like they were chapters of an epic fantasy novel. With my players’ permission, I audio-recorded my sessions, so that I could play back the tape for more fidelity while I wrote up the summaries. A few years in, I was essentially writing a serialized novel that was also an accurate account of the game! It helped that my D&D style is very DM-story-driven, which I know is not for everyone, but my players bought into it wholeheartedly. I gave them a detailed, complex narrative, and they tacitly agreed to go where my adventure led them.
By the time I was done, Sagiro’s Story Hour (as it was called) had hundreds of regular readers, and I had written about 750,000 words of fantasy-novel-ish content.
So, in that sense, it was easy to go from games to books, but that coin had another side to it. Over the many years I posted my campaign’s story, lots of my readers urged me to turn the account into actual novels. I resisted, time after time, for a number of reasons. For one, the story was loaded with WotC proprietary terms, monsters, etc. For another, D&D campaigns don’t naturally translate into books; their pacing is all wrong, and their focus is often on combats and stats and character sheets, while going light on characterization, dramatic arcs, foreshadowing, all that good stuff. For yet another, it sure sounded like a lot of work!
Over the years, though, I came around to the idea. I worked out how I could strip out all of the explicitly D&D-ish terminology. I outlined and took notes and figured out what needed to be dropped, changed, or moved around chronologically. I mapped out character arcs, and how the books would move the focus of everything onto the characters and their development. I have spent a LOT of time figuring how to turn a TTRPG campaign into books so that they don’t *feel* merely like someone’s campaign notes written down.
It helped immensely that, as I said, I ran a very novel-like D&D campaign. In one case, I literally set up a moment that had been foreshadowed nine years earlier in real time, to the great astonishment (and joy, I hope) of my players. The game had emotional moments and lots of character development already baked in, because my players were all wonderful role-players who were just as invested in the game as I was.
And then, sometime in 2012 or 2013, I wrote the first words of the first draft of The Ventifact Colossus.
Wow, that is incredibly cool! It definitely seems like a ton of effort (not that there’s necessarily an easy way to write a book) , but as someone who’s read the books, I think it really paid off. It reads like old-school fantasy to me, but not as a campaign, if that makes sense.
Do you have a favorite character class to play, or do you like to switch things around?
I like variety, though it’s a quirk of my adult D&D career that I’ve played very few characters. That’s because the campaigns I’ve been in have been extremely long. The first, in which I played an old, crotchety, high-wis-low-str cleric, lasted 17 years. Following that I played a low-wis kick-in-every-door fighter in a “short” game that lasted only a decade or so. But I love playing anything, really, as long as I’m with a group of friends and having a good time.
The time spent goofing around with friends and kind of telling a group story is something special, I think. Is there a particular gaming memory that really makes you smile or laugh?
There are more than I can count, so I’ll just pick one.
During my long campaign, one of the characters suffered from a strange and sporadic magical effect: bits of a second world would sometimes manifest in his vicinity, overlapping with his own world. So, he might be out in a street, and then a forest would appear around him, with trees and buildings and roads and people all kind of mingled together.
I had that happen while the party was in an inn; for a few minutes, a wild jungle overlapped the rooms and hallways. Among the details of the jungle I provided was a monkey running loose in the corridors, and while I may lack any number of practical skills, I am a master of making realistic monkey noises.
Foolishly, I decided that when the jungle vanished and things returned to normal, the monkey would be left behind. A few extra minutes of silliness, I thought, before the adventure I had planned for the day would continue.
That’s not what happened. Instead, my players decided to spend THREE HOURS interacting with that monkey – chasing it around, feeding it, playing with it, teaching it tricks, involving it in some practical jokes, all obliging me to make myself hoarse from making monkey noises.
At the end of the session, one of my players asked me if that was how I intended the evening to go. I sighed, shook my papers at them all, and lamented “There’s no monkey in my notes!” We still use that phrase on occasion to denote when things don’t go as planned.
Ok… one more, since I can’t resist, and DMs out there, this is one you can use! The party was confronted with a password-protected tower door, and had just slain the beholder that was guarding it. One of the clerics cast speak with dead to learn what they could, and naturally one of their questions was “What is the password to get into this tower?” The dead beholder answered “I cannot remember the password.”
My players then spent about two hours trying to figure it out, becoming more and more frazzled and weary, until one of them had the lightbulb moment. Turns out, it was more of a pass phrase, and the phrase, of course, was “I cannot remember the password.”
My players literally threw bread rolls at me for that one.
I must admit, I would probably have reacted in the same way. Bread throwing seems like a perfectly reasonable response. I am awful at puzzling things out.
Switching gears a little bit, I’ve noticed that a lot of authors play D&D. Do you think there’s any correlation between writing and gaming? Does one strengthen the other?
While I haven’t done any scientific studies on the subject, I’d say it makes good sense that there would be such a correlation. After all, what is TTRPGaming if not storytelling by another means? I imagine that the type of person who wants to write stories will naturally search out other ways to be involved in storytelling, and D&D can be a very strong experience in that regard.
And I’m quite sure that gaming strengthens writing, because almost any consumption or creation of stories, in any medium or genre, will make one a better writer.
Good point! That makes perfect sense that they would sort of leapfrog off of each other. What would you say to someone who hasn’t played before but is curious about it?
The first thing I would say is “There’s no single correct way to play D&D. If everyone is having fun, you’re doing it right.” As a corollary, I would say “Try your best to play with people who you’d enjoy hanging out with if you were doing something else.” D&D is a social experience at its heart, and if you’re going to spend several hours hanging around with other folks being social, it’s better if you get along.
As for the game itself, I’d offer this additional advice: Try to make sure the DM and the players agree about what kind of experience they want, especially on the player-driven vs. DM-driven axis. Do you want the DM to craft a specific adventure for you? Or do you want a “sandbox” where the DM turns you loose to do whatever you want? Similarly, do you want a game where the players are Good and Righteous Heroes™ or ne’er-do-wells who scoff at the law and revel in violence? It can be off-putting for a new player if they go in expecting one thing and end up getting the opposite. D&D games work best when everyone’s expectations are understood.
That’s a good point regarding playing with people you like spending time with. I know every gaming group is different, but with the people that I’ve gamed with for years, we spend about half the time just joking around and half the time playing. Friendships forged in the heat of battle (or around a table rolling dice) are lasting friendships.
I agree that communicating expectations is important. I once created a homebrew campaign that I was very excited about and ended up being very discouraged when each player managed to make characters that would most definitely not work in that world. The fault was mine for not communicating and finding out what the players were looking for. That being said, I am much better at participating than I am at DM’ing. I have a knack for rolling low at the most hilarious of times.
Ha! In my gaming groups, we have two important rules. Rule 1 is: “Don’t give the DM ideas you’ll come to regret.” But Rule 2 — relevant to your last observation — is “Don’t gloat before you roll.” I’m personally (in)famous for uttering statements like “The only way I can miss this attack is if I roll below a 3!” Saying something like that increases my odds of failure by an order of magnitude, but I can’t stop myself..
Now I’m curious: do you prefer sandbox campaigns or specific crafted adventures?
As you might guess, I prefer the crafted adventure to the open sandbox — both as a player and as a DM. Not that there’s a single thing wrong with liking sandboxes! It’s an entirely subjective preference. But I’m partial to long-term plots, full of foreshadowing and recurring villains and a sense that there’s a deep, underlying narrative to everything. Those are easier to create in a less sandbox-y environment, I think.
Also, as a DM, my weakest “stat” — monkey noises aside — is improvisation. I spent way more time prepping my sessions than was probably healthy, and counted heavily on my players buying into my vision of the game’s story. Again, I know that’s not for everyone, and there are players out there who would become very frustrated with my style. But where a sandbox asks players “What problems would you like to solve?” I skip to “Here is a problem to solve. How would you like to solve it?”
One of the things I’ve loved about the Heroes of Spira series is the foreshadowing. There were a few times that left me floored at how things had been set up.
That was a huge advantage of having the entire five-book series (mostly) outlined before I started the first book. I’m writing the final book now, and it feels like the whole thing is scene after scene of paying off arcs started in earlier books.
[Minor spoiler example: One character has a habit, first seen in the third chapter of the first book, of writing his name on little pieces of paper, putting them in vials, and tossing them into rivers and oceans. It’s a half-hearted way in which he hopes to be famous someday. It’s not until book five that I finally pay that off in full, but I’ve known exactly where it was heading the whole time.]
I’ve been wondering why Dranko does that since the third chapter of book one! I can’t wait to see what happens next!
Thank you so much for talking D&D and writing with me! I’ve enjoyed it so much! Do you have any closing thoughts?
First, thank you so much for inviting me to be part of this event! It’s been a real pleasure chatting with you about something that’s been such an important part of my life.
Second: I know there are readers for whom “based on a D&D game” carries a huge stigma when it comes to fantasy books. To those people, I would say: Remember, some of the genre’s most beloved works had humble tabletop origins: Erikson’s Malazan, Feist’s Riftwar Saga, Brust’s Vlad Taltos series, even Tchaikovsky’s excellent Shadows of the Apt series, not to mention all the books by Hickman & Weis, and Salvatore.
I understand the concerns, since there are some potential pitfalls in translating a TTRPG campaign into novels. But if an author is aware of them, and understands what makes the two different, a fantasy series born from a campaign can be as good as any other.
Dorian Hart wrote an excellent essay on this subject for Storytellers on Tour. They have graciously allowed me to post the link here, if you would like to read it: RPGs and Novels.
About the author:
Dorian Hart is the author of the Heroes of Spira epic fantasy series, which currently includes The Ventifact Colossus, The Crosser’s Maze, and The Greatwood Portal. He also wrote the interactive science fiction novella Choice of the Star Captain for Choice of Games.
In a bygone century, Dorian graduated from Wesleyan University with a degree in creative writing. This led circuitously to a 20-year career as a video game designer, where he contributed to many award-winning titles including Thief, System Shock, System Shock 2, and BioShock.
Now he writes books in his Boston-area study, serves as the stay-at-home dad for his two teenage daughters, and happily allows his wife to drag him off on various wilderness adventures.