When people ask for books I’d recommend to a fantasy newbie, ones that represent all the wonderful things the genre has to offer, I have a few go-tos. The Hobbit, obviously, and the Dragonlance Chronicles (really, is anyone surprised?), and, more recently, The Ventifact Colossus. Now I’m adding Paladin Unbound to that list, because this book would make anyone fall in love with fantasy.
The story starts with the main character, Umhra, just wanting to find work for himself and his band of mercenaries. When they are hired to find out what has happened to several missing people, they are thrust into a situation that is much darker and more dangerous than Umhra expected.
I was sucked in from page one, which begins at an ending. The ending of a war between gods, no less. The war ends with an asterisk, the sort that always leads to trouble down the road. What I loved about the opening is that it started huge, before moving on to the main storyline which is much more personal. It showcased a fascinating history, one that we continue to get snippets of throughout the book. I love when the history of a world or its belief systems is shared naturally like that, avoiding the dreaded info dump. I have to admit, though, I would actually read an entire book just dedicated to the history and mythology of the world of Evelium, I loved it so much. It was creative and well thought out.
As much as I enjoyed the world building, though, where Paladin Unbound shines is in its characters. There’s an excellent cast who build off each other in the best of ways. The interactions felt natural and allowed each character to grow and develop brilliantly. This was, in some ways, the typical adventuring group sometimes found in ttrpg’s – and that’s a great thing! It works very well, after all. There was Naivara the druid, Laudin the ranger, a mage named Nicholas (I have no idea why, but his name made me smile), Shadow the rogue, Balris the healer, Talus the fighter, and Gromley the warrior priest. While I loved all of them, I must say that I had a soft spot for Shadow.
Then there’s our main character, Umhra. Oh, how I loved Umhra! Being half-orc, he was distrusted, looked down on, or treated poorly quite a lot. He could have been bitter or angry and I wouldn’t have blamed him. But instead, he was an optimist, always looking for the best in every situation. He was, at his core, a good, honorable character. He was not your boring “lawful good”, however. He was incredibly nuanced and I loved reading about him. I haven’t been a huge fan of paladins in the past, but Umhra has me planning to make a paladin for my next D&D campaign.
This book would be perfect for fantasy newbies, ttrpg players, or readers who have traveled the length and breadth of many fantasy worlds and are looking for new adventures to go on. It left me excited and wanting more. Paladin Unbound is fantasy at its finest.
This review was originally part of a Storytellers on Tour book blog tour.
I am so excited to be joining Storytellers on Tour in introducing Dan Fitzgerald’s new book, The LivingWaters! Dan Fitzgerald’s previous series, The Maer Cycle, was fantastic. He’s an author with something new and unique to offer to the fantasy genre, and The Living Waters looks to be something completely original. Dan has described it as “sword-free fantasy”, the sort of world where “we use fantasy to explore relationships and the human experience through a different lens, one that doesn’t have to involve so much violence.” * Fantasy can be the perfect backdrop for something like that because it creates a place to question, wonder, learn, and explore. The Living Waters looks to bring something special to fantasy and I’m excited for it!
So, when can you purchase The Living Waters?
Are you ready to see the cover?
Here it is!
What is The Living Waters about?
When two painted-faced nobles take a guided raft trip on a muddy river, they expect to rough it for a few weeks before returning to their life of sheltered ease. But when mysterious swirls start appearing in the water, even their seasoned guides get rattled.
The mystery of the swirls lures them on to seek the mythical wetlands known as the Living Waters. They discover a world beyond their imagining, but stranger still are the worlds they find inside their own minds as they are drawn deep into the troubles of this hidden place.
The Living Waters is a sword-free fantasy novel featuring an ethereal love story, meditation magic, and an ancient book with cryptic marginalia.
About the author:
Dan Fitzgerald is the fantasy author of the Maer Cycle trilogy (character-driven low-magic fantasy) and the upcoming Weirdwater Confluence duology (sword-free fantasy with unusual love stories). The Living Waters comes out October 15, 2021 and The Isle of a Thousand Worlds arrives January 15, 2022, bothfrom Shadow Spark Publishing.
He lives in Washington, DC with his wife, twin boys, and two cats. When not writing he might be found doing yoga, gardening, cooking, or listening to French music.
Brooding and dark, Nothing but Blackened Teeth drew me in and kept me off-balance. Always on the precipice of scary, it never quite tipped over. Instead, it stayed an eerie book, one that has crawled its way into my head. I’ll be thinking about it for a long while, reliving bits and pieces of the creepy story.
Nothing but Blackened Teeth follows a group of friends who decide to rent a Heian-age mansion for an odd sort of wedding celebration. The thing is, they’ve heard it’s haunted. That’s the draw for them: they’re hoping to experience the otherworldly and the disturbing. Well, wish granted.
The story goes that originally a woman’s fiancé died on his way to marry her at the mansion. She decided to be buried alive so that she could wait for her husband like one does, I suppose. Women continued to be sacrificed, one per year, so that the buried bride wouldn’t be lonely. In all honestly, the origin story for the haunting is the part that I found to be the weakest. It just didn’t inspire that anticipatory shiver that I was hoping for.
None of the characters are particularly likable and at first, I found myself viewing them through the slasher-film lens. You know: this one will die first because they sleep around, this one next because they don’t believe in the danger, etc. However, such was not the case. The tropes became jumping-off points for complex, multi-faceted characters, each with their own flaws and fears. Half of the fun of Nothing but Blackened Teeth was watching the complicated relationships fray and slowly dissolve as the characters’ pasts caught up to them.
The story begins with Cat, a woman who is still coming to grips with an unspecified mental illness. It has affected her past and she is still in the midst of learning to cope with it. There’s Phillip, the charismatic and super rich sponsor of the mansion rental. There’s Faiz and Talia, the engaged couple. Cat and Talia have beef, and their issues with each other add to an already tense situation. Last, there’s Lin, who is a master pot-stirrer. It’s these tangled relationships and hidden emotions that really elevate Nothing but BlackenedTeeth to the fascinating tale that it is.
Author Cassandra Khaw played with motifs of relationships and mental health in ways that felt a little reminiscent of Shirley Jackson (if Jackson had a penchant for gore). There were times when I wondered what was happening and what- if anything was being imagined by one character or another. Nothing but Blackened Teeth is a riveting book, perfect for fans of creepy tales with a little extra bite.
This review was originally published in Grimdark Magazine. You can find that here.
Thank you to Netgalley for providing me with this book in exchange for my honest opinion. The Library: A Fragile History will be available for purchase on November ninth.
I was so excited to read The Library: A Fragile History! A book dedicated simply and wholly to the subject of libraries? Yes, please! This is an exhaustive, detailed dive into a subject that is dear to most book lovers: namely the history of libraries and the roles they have played over the years. I fully expected this to become a new favorite.
Unfortunately, that was not my final takeaway. This is the sort of book that does not benefit from a straight cover-to-cover read. It would be better taken in pieces over a longer period of time. There is simply so much information to take in. It is apparent that the authors took great care in doing their research and they spared no detail. And I mean no detail. Therein lies my difficulty. As much as the subject appeals to me, and as much as I’ve enjoyed other books about similar subjects, this book bored me.
It wasn’t for lack of knowledge on the authors’ parts. It wasn’t that the book was poorly organized. Rather, it was very well put together. There was just no excitement shown in the pages. I felt like the authors weren’t really all that invested in what they were writing. And that sort of rubbed off on me a little bit. This would make a great study guide, but as a book that is read for enjoyment, it just didn’t quite do it for me. I will admit that I might have enjoyed it more if I had read it in bits and bursts, instead of straight through. There was so much information to take in, after all.
If you don’t mind books that are a little dry, the information in this book might appeal to you. After all, if you’re taking the time to read a book blog, chances are high that you love books and libraries. I really wanted to love The Library: A Fragile History, but this book just wasn’t for me.
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.
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.
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.
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.