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.