Six Questions: Jeff LaSala

I know a lot of interesting people. Some I’ve worked with, some I’ve met while traveling the world, some just owe me money. My name may be on the website, but it seems kind of boring if I’m the only person whose voice is heard here. So I’m bringing some of my friends to the site, as time permits. I’m not a podcasty kind of guy, so I’m just keeping things simple: one guest, six questions.

My guest this week is JEFF LASALA. Eberron fans may know Jeff from his many DDI articles or his novel The Darkwood Mask. Others may know him from short fiction or his work with Goodman Games. Over the years I’ve gotten to know Jeff while discussing his Eberron projects, and back in 2011 he invited me to be a part of a intriguing project he was putting together… a cyberpunk anthology called Foreshadows: Ghosts of Zero. Foreshadows brought together writers, authors, and musicians; each writer chose a track of music that had been created for the anthology and wrote a story inspired by it. Other contributors include Ed Greenwood, Ari Marmell, and former Questioneer Don Bassingthwaite. But why don’t I let Jeff speak for himself?  

Foreshadows: The Ghosts of Zero is a cyberpunk anthology which brings music, art, and fiction together to create a sense of a world. What inspired you to create Foreshadows?

The sheer desire to combine music and the written word—something my brother (a musician) and I (a writer) have talked about for ages. It had always seemed to us that it was something people should do. Why weren’t they doing it? Hey, we should do it! Like adding the Z-axis plane to X and Y, a third dimension of awesomeness manifests when you combine the right sort of media. How different would movies be if they had no music? Or vocals at all? For Foreshadows, we went and combined music, fiction, and illustration. Win-win-win.

Where did “The Ghosts of Zero” come from?

The answer is more or less in the prologue of the book, which is in itself odd. Anthologies don’t generally have a prologue, since they’re a bunch of stand-alone stories. But ours sets the stage for the shared setting: a cyberpunkish, dystopian near future. In the lexicon of the Foreshadows future, zero often means death, defeat, or neutralization. And as for ghosts, well, you’d have to read the prologue to find out!

It’s also a subtitle to uniquely identify this anthology. Should there come a sequel, we can keep the Foreshadows main title.

What brands The Darkwood Mask as an Eberron tale? How would it be different if you placed it in the Forgotten Realms? 

Karrnath, absolutely. It’s a unique culture that feels vaguely familiar—militant, cold, grim, proud—but has some dark elements no one in real life can actually relate to. In Karrnath, if you’re a patriot and you “support the troops” and love your country, it means you’ll let your sons and daughters march off to war, where they might die and become property of the government. They just might be reanimated to bolster the crown’s skeleton and zombie armies; if they’re truly exceptional soldiers, the Ministry of the Dead might make their remains into one of Karrnath’s elite undead. It’s a nation that survived famine and near annihilation during the Last War and now enjoys a fearsome reputation because its king made some tough choices and some dire sacrifices. The Darkwood Mask is an Eberron tale because Karrnath is an Eberron fixture and that’s where both the protagonist and the book’s plot spring from.

In the Forgotten Realms? Tough one. It wouldn’t be the same. There’s cold war, espionage, and a delicate diplomatic climate in The Darkwood Mask that makes the story work. It would feel quite different, but I could see transplanting the character of Tallis (a MacGuyveresque ex-soldier) into a puppet state controlled by the Zhentarim. Soneste (the psionic-using inquisitive) would probably hail from Waterdeep; she’d be a wannabe noble socialite who possesses too much courage and skill to be be satisfied with that life. Maybe she’d become a Harper. And as for the villain of the story? He or she would probably aim to supplant Manshoon in the Zhentarim but not for the obvious reasons.

What’s the most difficult challenge you’ve faced as a gamemaster, and how have you dealt with it?

Meeting all player expectations. I’m a story guy, so the games I run are set up for—I like to think—interesting roleplaying dynamics, moral choices, and character opportunities. But I know not all players get into that so much. Some really just want dungeoncrawling and combat and will only tolerant a certain amount of talkie-talk from the story-based players. And this is just a simplification; there’s a whole spectrum of roleplayers and they’ve been the subject of numerous articles. I simply do my best to make my games diverse. You’ll get to slay monsters in my dungeons, but you’ll also end up in some situations where you’ll have to think hard about your alignment. Oh, and your character’s backstory will come up and be part of the long term campaign.

What’s your dump stat?

Strength, certainly. If you’re even half-decent in everything else, you’re in good shape for the snakes and arrows of life. When I make characters, Charisma usually takes the hit, but not because I play socially inept fighter types. Ironically, while I love deeply complex characters, they’re not usually big on talking—which, it should be noted, is not the same as not acting. I myself am not a natural orator, though, so it works out.

What’s next?

Some solo projects, I think. I’m exhausted with collaboration, even though I love it and will never stop doing it. Also, an eventual fantasy series with sci-fi and horror elements. That’s totally coming out of me in the—I hope—near future. And oh yeah, more DDI articles, as long as they keep letting me write them.

For more about Foreshadows, along with samples of the music, check out this post at SF Signal!

Six Questions: Matt Forbeck

I know a lot of interesting people. Some I’ve worked with, some I’ve met while traveling the world, some just owe me money. My name may be on the website, but it seems kind of boring if I’m the only person whose voice is heard here. So I’m bringing some of my friends to the site, as time permits. I’m not a podcasty kind of guy, so I’m just keeping things simple: one guest, six questions.

Today my guest is MATT FORBECK. I turned to Matt for advice when I was just getting started out as a freelancer, and his words of wisdom helped me get to where I am today. You might know Matt from his work with TSR, Pinnacle, AEG, Wizards of the Coast, Green Ronin, Games Workshop, White Wolf, Human Head, Reaper Miniatures, or an appalling number of other companies. Prior to 2012, Matt had written over a dozen novels, including The Lost Mark trilogy of Eberron novels. In 2012 he decided to up the ante and get Kickstarter support to write twelve novels in the course of the year. But let me speak for himself…

Hi Matt! So… what’s your story?

Which one? I got lots of ’em.

Oh, you mean this crazy project I’m working on in which I’m writing a dozen novels this year? I call it 12 for ’12 (a dozen books in 2012, see?), and it’s a way for me to get a whole lot of self-published books out fast. I’m a fast writer, and I’ve been wanting to do this for a while, but I didn’t know how I could take the time out of my schedule of writing books for regular publishers to do it. Then Kickstarter came along.

Kickstarter’s a crowdfunding platform on which you can post an idea for a project and ask people to back it with pledges of cash. If you hit your minimum goal for the project, you’re off and running. I decided to break 12 for ’12 up into four trilogies to make it a bit more manageable, and I ran a Kickstarter drive for each of them. They all went way past their goals, and I’m writing the books now as fast as I can.

How do you top it in 2013? Or do you just keep going with 24 for 24?

I think I’m going to top it with something entirely different. In addition to writing novels, I also design tabletop games, create toys, work on video games, and write comics. After a year of mostly focusing on novels, I may just go back to mixing it all up again.

Or I’ll do 13 for ’13 and work my way up to 24 to ’24. That gives me a dozen years, right?

What was the inspiration for the different trilogies? Did you sit down and brainstorm them all at once, or does each one have its own history?

Each has their own history. Like most writers, I have more ideas than I can possibly tackle. I always find it funny when people ask me where I get my ideas? I wonder how come they don’t have them, or what did they do to make them stop?

Let me run through the trilogies in order.

Matt Forbeck’s Brave New World. I created a tabletop roleplaying game back in 1999 called Brave New World, which has been out of print for a while, although you can now get PDFs and even the core rulebook in print through I hadn’t worked much in that world — a dystopian USA In which superheroes have been outlawed unless the works for the government — for years, with the exception of a script for a feature film that’s currently searching for funding. I wanted to get back to it and tell the stories it demanded.

Shotguns & Sorcery. This was originally a setting for the d20 RPG that I’d licensed to Mongoose Publishing back in 2001. My wife got pregnant with quadruplets in 2002, and that threw the plans for that out the window. I decided I want to return to it in novels and explore this fantasy noir setting in which the Dragon Emperor has set up a walled city that he protects from the hordes of zombies that scratch at its walls, all in exchange for his subjects’ fealty. It’s been a load of fun.

Dangerous Games. I made my living as a freelance game designer for many years, and I still go to Gen Con — the largest tabletop gaming convention in America — every August. As writers often do, I’d often wondered what would happen if things went horribly, terribly wrong there. That’s what Dangerous Games is: a trilogy of thrillers set at Gen Con, my favorite event of the year.

Monster Academy. I created the first YA series of novels for Dungeons & Dragons back in 2004 or so. As that wound down Wizards asked me to pitch them some ideas for new series. I came up with this one about a reform school for young monsters based in the center of a kingdom in which good has triumphed over evil. I decided to keep it for myself and pitch it around to other publishers, but I never got around to actually writing any of the books. Now I finally get to do that.

You’ve written in many, many shared universes. Which one was the greatest challenge for you?

The Guild Wars universe, I think. I had a wonderful time working on Guild Wars: Ghosts of Ascalon, but when I was writing it, the game wasn’t even close to finished. Things seemed to change on a daily basis. I’ve often said it wasn’t like trying to hit a moving target so much as an exploding target.

Fortunately, my pal Jeff Grubb was one of the main lore creators at ArenaNet, which develops the Guild Wars games. They brought him in as a co-author to help with the details I didn’t have a prayer of getting right, and it’s a much better book for all his efforts.

You’ve managed multiple successful Kickstarter campaigns. What challenges have you faced? Do you have any advice for people who want to dive into the Kickstarter pond?

The real trick is guessing how much you can line up in the way of pledges before you start. This helps define everything about the drive, from the kinds of rewards you can offer to your stretch goals to the length of the drive. It’s almost impossible to get exactly right, but some basic research and comparisons with other projects in the same category that are similar to yours can shed a lot of light.

As for advice, I have metric tons of it, and I get asked to share it all the time. I’m happy to do so, but I could hold forth about it for several chapters of a book. In fact, the final stretch goal for my last 12 for ’12 drive was to get me to write such a book about writing those books and running the Kickstarter, so look for that in 2013, after I’m done with the novels.

Finally, given the season… what are you thankful for?

I have a lot to be thankful for, not least of which is the fact I get to entertain people for a living, but in the end I always come back to my wife and kids. Ann and I struggled for years to have kids at all, and when they came, they were a bit more challenging than we could have expected — especially since four of them arrived at the same time as quadruplets.

Even in the hardest moments, though, I focused on the fact of how lucky we were to have them at all. While raising them has been the greatest challenge in my life, it’s also been by far the most rewarding and has given me a sense of purpose that nothing else ever has. I’m more thankful for that than I could ever express in words, so I spend a good part of my day trying to show them that instead.

Now look. I’ve gone and got something in my eye.

Six Questions: C.A. Suleiman

I know a lot of interesting people. Some I’ve worked with, some I’ve met while traveling the world, some just owe me money. My name may be on the website, but it seems kind of boring if I’m the only person whose voice is heard here. So I’m bringing some of my friends to the site, as time permits. I’m not a podcasty kind of guy, so I’m just keeping things simple: one guest, six questions.

My next guest is C.A. SULEIMAN. I had the privilege of working with him on the Eberron sourcebooks Dragonmarked and City of Stormreach, and he cowrote Faiths of Eberron with Ari Marmell. You may know C.A. from the many products he’s created for White Wolf, for his Egyptian Adventures: Hamunaptra setting, or perhaps you’ve heard his band, Toll Carom. But let me let the man speak for himself!

What’s your story?

I may not be that old, but I’d like to think my story can’t be told effectively in a couple hundred words. In the spirit of the question, though, I suppose my story is that I’m a musician, writer, and game designer who’s worked for most of the top companies in the RPG field. I’ve been a developer for White Wolf for over a decade, and I shepherded Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor property until his death in 2009.

You worked on City of Stormreach, Dragonmarked, and Faiths of Eberron. What’s your favorite thing that you’ve added to the Eberron canon?

I was lucky enough to get to work on a couple of the really seminal sourcebooks for Eberron, and I still feel a fond attachment to the setting and to its fresh vitality. My absolute favorite additions to Eberron never made it into the print canon, actually. One of the things I got to do was take the first crack at developing the Lords of Dust, and not just the cult, but its specific demonic overlords. Canon says there are almost 30 of the buggers, so it’s not like I got to articulate the entire pantheon, but I did create what I thought of as a ‘core group’ of about half a dozen of these rajas — the equivalent of the Lovecraftian big names (Cthulhu, Hastur, Nyarlathotep, etc.) — along with a detailed write-up of each one’s prakhutu (“speaker”) on Eberron. That whole chapter ended up getting cut from the book, and while I did get to sneak one of my rajas into a later book (City of Stormreach), the bulk of that material never saw the light of day. But I’m still most proud of it, I think, and I definitely had a blast coming up with it all. Of the work that ended up appearing in the books, I’d say my favorite stuff is probably my development of the Dark Six pantheon and the Blood of Vol religion. They say I’m good with the Bad Guys™, and I guess it’s true.

You’re the developer for White Wolf’s Mummy: The Curse. What can you tell us about it?

Yep, Mummy: The Curse is my World of Darkness baby. Like the other “relaunch” games (Requiem, Forsaken, et al), it’s a return to the Gothic form of the archetype. The starting point for the design philosophy is the classic mummy figure evoked in the tales of Bram Stoker and the exhibits of Howard Carter and his ilk. The characters’ context is wholly new and unique to my interpretation for the World of Darkness, but the game builds in plenty of opportunities to shamble, plot revenge, choke the life out of hapless tomb robbers, and all the other fun accoutrements we’ve come to associate with mummies.

Stephenie Meyer taught us that vampires sparkle and werewolves never wear shirts. What do you think she’d do with mummies?
What do I think Mrs. Meyer would do to mummies if she got a hold of them? Probably the same thing she did to the vampire and werewolf archetypes: “Borrow” the name of the archetype, and then not just promptly ignore everything that makes the archetype what it is, but to actually design a being that embodies the exact opposite themes. I’d have no problem with the supernatural creatures with which Meyer has populated her world; I simply object to them being called “vampires” and “werewolves,” when it’s pretty clear that they’re not. It’s one thing to offer a new twist or spin on a classic archetype; that’s a time-honored tradition. It’s another thing to effectively redefine an archetype as its own polar opposite.

How do you afford your rock and roll lifestyle? Tell us about Toll Carom.

Toll Carom is my band, though I gave up long ago trying to find a sub-genre/category/niche/thing into which we can feat neatly. Some folks call us alternative rock, and that’s as good a descriptor as any. I grew up an American kid who loved his rock n’ roll, but who was also steeped in the traditional music of his cultural heritage (Palestinian). So, most of my songs incorporate elements of both, with guitars, drums, and English lyrics, but also with traditional folk instruments, like doumbeks and ouds. Our last album, Night in the Sun, received positive notices in places like The Washington Post and Relix magazine, and we think the concept album we’re recording now is going to blow Night out of the water.  Folks can find us on Facebook at

What’s next?

These days, I’m excited mostly about my music, my World of Darkness line (the core set for which should be out any day now), and my novels, the latest of which I’m finishing up as we speak. The new Toll Carom album, The Word, should be out early next year, and our intent is to jump right back into the studio to record its follow-up after the usual round of local support gigs. (My muse is persistently vocal, so I’ve gotten way ahead of myself when it comes to songwriting over the last couple years.)

I’m also excited to be part of the new era in White Wolf publishing, with the launch of Onyx Path Publishing ( Moving forward, fans will get to see all kinds of goodies from OPP, with an aggressive publishing schedule over the next year and change, including not just Mummy, but Werewolf: The Apocalypse 20th Anniversary Edition and the return of the much-loved Trinity Universe.


Six Questions: Lee Moyer

I know a lot of interesting people. Some I’ve worked with, some I’ve met while traveling the world, some just owe me money. My name may be on the website, but it seems kind of boring if I’m the only person whose voice is heard here. So I’m bringing some of my friends to the site, as time permits. I’m not a podcasty kind of guy, so I’m just keeping things simple: one guest, six questions.

My next guest is Chesley Award winning illustrator, designer and art director LEE MOYER. You may have encountered his work in any one of the numerous RPG sourcebooks or card games he’s worked on, or in such diverse places as the National Zoo and the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum. You’ve probably seen some of his posters or book covers; one of my personal favorites is the poster/cover he created for the silent movie of Call of Cthulhu. Lee and I have collaborated on a wide range of projects over the years; thanks to him, I’m on collectible trading cards in Mythos and On The Edge. Recently he just finished work on Check These Out 2013, a literary pin-up calender (his second) created in coordination with author Patrick Rothfuss’s Worldbuilders charity.

We’ve collaborated on many projects over the last twenty years. What’s your personal favorite?

At Your ServiceAt Your Service – A sourcebook for the brilliant Over the Edge RPG.

This compendium of Mediterranean madness is not entirely our work of course (the redoubtable Doc Cross, Joughin & Spey, Neil Laughlin, and the Nephews joined in), but still holds a place of pride for me. As happy as I am with the wraparound cover design, illustrations, map, and logo I designed therein, our collaborations are what I most enjoy. Some highlights? It’s all highlights! The Midwich Family inside the Rose Hotel with their appropriate homage to John Wyndham and anagrams; the Lakshmis and the surprising appearance of an angry Lo Pan; the secrets of Marzipan and Morphine and its Painter of Light and Darkness ™; Gernsbach and Malloy who haven’t both been good guys since The Mask of Dimitrios, The Old Sods Club transporting the Junior Ganymede to Al Amarja: a voodoo-infused gang of nadsat malchicks too cool for skolliwoll; the mysterious shrieking prayer wheels of the Wind Farm; and the possible romance between a fallen angel and an accidentally incarnadine Golem: that adorable little girl from Venus; A macaroni factory that never made macaroni; and a restaurant that serves only fortune cookies.

Any similarities I might bear to Rose Hotel resident Dr. James Harris is a case of life imitating art, not the other way around.

What’s the story behind Check These Out? Why Literary Pin-Ups?

Check This Out: GaimanMy pin-up style poster for Moby Dick! The Musical proved the most popular piece I’d ever painted. I was surprised by the overwhelmingly positive reaction, especially among women, who were if anything more effusive than men. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to bring old-school pin-ups back in the service of something well worth advertising: Literacy! I wanted to honor the old, but freak the system from within if I could. The strictures placed on the early greats (George Petty, Gil Elvgren, Joyce Ballantyne, et al) could be ignored. I hope that what I’ve done with books, tattoos, ethnicities, muscles, humanity and even underarm hair pushes the stale old envelope in interesting ways.

Representing authors living and dead is a great challenge and honor (Ray Bradbury was my hero growing up, and his inclusion here still feels miraculous to me).

And it’s all for the amazing charity Heifer International!

You can pre-order them here!

Which pin-up was the most challenging, and which was the easiest for you?

Most Challenging: Neil Gaiman  

Why? Having a model before having a concept is unusual. Knowing that Amanda Palmer was the model, who among Neil’s roster of splendid characters, would we cast her as? Yvaine?  Coraline? Door? Delirium? Death warmed over? No. Amanda had been saying (and showing) for years that she WAS Media and who was I to disagree? And how does one show the fractal omnipresence of Media – with a very complicated and recursive image. And how would we arrange to get the reference shots we needed in a timely fashion? Happily I was invited to Readercon in Boston this year, and so was my friend, photographer extraordinaire Kyle Cassidy who’d already scheduled a shoot with his old chum Amanda in the window of time we’d need. But she didn’t have the time or costume for the second costume reference we needed. So I shot Venetia Charles in a Busytown costume that we borrowed from my friends and clients The Northwest Childrens Theatre. And to create the comic strip that fills most of the first week of June, I had to get more hints from Neil about what Shadow himself should look like. And then do the comic strip!

It was complicated. But as with most complicated projects, also deeply rewarding. Going in, I would never have even imagined doing an American Gods comic…. Easiest: Terry Pratchett

If I told you we’d shot Seth Green’s wife, that wouldn’t sound so good, would it?

But it’s true.

We went to LA and had the talented Allan Amato shoot reference photos of the Team Unicorn’s own Clare Grant. She was not only talented, but maybe the only model who comes with a large selection of wands to choose from (in addition to the big fluffy old bath robe I’d requested). The reference shoot was surreally short and the painting was very straightforward, in part because Terry Pratchett hadn’t asked for a specific character. So, as with Ray Bradbury and all the classic authors of the 2012 calendar, I had the leeway to paint an old-school pin-up in the Gil Elvgren tradition.

If you were trapped on a remote asteroid with only three pieces of your artwork for company, which would you choose?

1. 2013 Check These Out – Literary Pin-Up Calendar (See the previous questions)

2. Starstruck – I spent more than a year painting over the sublime inkwork of Michael Wm. Kaluta

3. 13th Age – the RPG I’ve just completed with Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet and Aaron McConnell.

Oh, you just mean artwork?

Given a choice, I would much rather be trapped with three pieces of someone else’s artwork – like the Paul Komoda sculptures, Stephen Hickman painting and all those Mucha prints that grace my living space. But if it absolutely has to be my artwork, the clearest choice is Theora. This good luck charm was created by the quixotic urging of photographer Kyle Cassidy with the help of model and costumer Megan Skye Hale. Art Director (and Hugo-winning Author) Mary Robinette Kowal placed it on the cover of Weird Tales, which in turn won me the 2012 Chesley Award for best magazine cover. My Art Nouveau poster for Smashing Pumpkins and Hole bassist Melissa Auf de Mar would probably come next – not least because we signed it with Sandman artist Michael Zulli’s accidentally-purloined (and clearly magical) pencil. And then, there’s the tall thin mural call Past Go which features lots of great games (from Dark Omens to Cosmic Wimpout) in one comparatively small space. It was commissioned for Looney Labs World Headquarters, and the gala at its premiere is one I’ll always remember. 

You’ve designed many of the most iconic symbols in Eberron, from the mask of the Undying Court to the symbol of the Silver Flame. You created the most important symbols of all: the thirteen dragonmarks. How did you come up with the look and feel of the Dragonmarks?

Art Director Robert Rapier had some very clear notions about what he wanted, and the colors and tones outside the designs were all him. But the biggest influence of the designs themselves came from Katherine Hanna. She and I had lived together for many years in Virginia and I was deeply familiar with a style of drawing she used wherein the shapes were indicated with short curvilinear line segments. While the lines I used were generally longer, more contiguous, and arguably more Nouveau-inspired, it was her example that stayed with me.

Can I stray for a moment here and talk about how happy I was to finally be able to map Eberron properly in the 4th edition books? What’s next?

A couple book covers for Pyr and Subterranean Press.

A painting for the wondrous Kennedy School. I don’t yet know exactly where it will be placed, but it cant be much more than 50 paces from where you (that is, Keith) got married!

Lots of travel. Two splendid Art Guest of Honor gigs: One at Norwescon (Seattle in March), the other at Keycon (Winnipeg in May); a seminar or two in Roanoke Virginia next summer; a trip to Brighton in a year’s time for World Fantasy Con; and the yearly choice twixt Readercon and the almighty San Diego Comic Con.

A Kickstarter more peculiar than any yet. It bears the tentative title of “There and Back Again” and promises excitement and adventure and really wild things! More details soon (I hope).

And lest I forget, a holiday card that I hope will answer all those difficult questions about Santa, temporality and causality.

Six Questions: Robin D. Laws

I know a lot of interesting people. Some I’ve worked with, some I’ve met while traveling the world, some just owe me money. My name may be on the website, but it seems kind of boring if I’m the only person whose voice is heard here. So I’m bringing some of my friends to the site, as time permits. I’m not a podcasty kind of guy, so I’m just keeping things simple: one guest, six questions.

My next guest is ROBIN D. LAWS. One of the great RPG designers of our time, Robin has been an inspiration to me throughout my career. You may know him from Feng Shui, the GUMSHOE investigative roleplaying system, Heroquest, the Dying Earth RPG, or one of the other systems he’s designed. You may be familiar with his fiction or his podcast. You may have heard of his Kickstarter, Hillfolk. Or you may say “Robin Laws? Who’s that?” Let’s find out!

Your favorite director knocks on your door and says that he’s got a multi-million dollar budget to create a movie based on one of your games. Which would you want to see? Why?

I would recoil in dismay to see Howard Hawks, supposedly dead since 1977, standing before me in what would surely have to be undead glory. After returning the beloved director to the eternal rest some wretched nosferatu cruelly wrenched him from, with a jaunty, “I love your work, here’s a wooden stake to the heart,” I would retire, shaken, and perhaps drink a quantity of port.

To further reframe your question, because it would take me the next two weeks to pick a single favorite living director, I’ll instead up its grandiosity several notches and imagine than an entire gaggle of auteurs shows up at my door demanding to immortalize my games on celluloid. I would assign them as follows:

Feng Shui: John Woo (duh)

The Dying Earth: Michael Winterbottom

Rune: Michel Gondry

HeroQuest: Steven Soderbergh

The Esoterrorists: Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Pulse)

Fear Itself: David Cronenberg

Mutant City Blues: Juan J. Campanella (an Argentinean who made a great movie called The Secret in Their Eyes plus many episodes of Law & Order)

Ashen Stars: Duncan Jones

Hillfolk: Nicolas Winding Refn

You’re currently running a Kickstarter for Hillfolk, a game using the DramaSystem rules engine. What’s the story of Hillfolk, and what inspired you to create it?

Hillfolk was inspired by an observation that arose while creating the beat analysis system for understanding narrative rhythm, as seen in Hamlet’s Hit Points. The basic building blocks of story mostly divide into two main types of scene: the procedural, in which the characters face external, practical obstacles, and the dramatic, in which they seek emotional responses from others they care about. In roleplaying we’ve always done the first really well—knocking down doors, fighting monsters, piloting starships. The second, not so much. And when we have, we haven’t gone back to look at the simple basic structure underlying all such scenes and applied it to our form. So that’s what DramaSystem does—as it says on the tin, it keeps the spotlight squarely on drama, using a simple yet powerful dynamic to ensure story flow.

Tell me about the DramaSystem engine itself. What are its strengths? What’s your favorite aspect of the system? And are you a wolf or a lion?

The core of the game is a simple token economy that encourages you, in an emotional confrontation, to give in about half the time and to stand your ground the other half of the time. In a dramatic scene, you have a petitioner and a granter—someone who wants something from the other, and the other, who either grants the petition or refuses it. If you grant me what I want emotionally, you get a drama token as a reward. If you refuse me, I get a drama token as a consolation. Tokens grant additional narrative power—I can use them to force a concession from you, to block you when you try to force a concession from me, to jump or evade a scene, and so on.

This like not only drama, but life, which drama is based on. We have to accommodate the people we love and care about some of the time, because we are emotionally compelled to do so by our ties to them, for good or ill. This dynamic contrasts with the usual roleplaying tendency to see a character as extreme but one-dimensional, never giving in to any proposal that might conceivably contradict that portrayal. DramaSystem PCs are created as contradictions, torn between two Dramatic Poles, so that you can always plausibly pivot from one stance to another without feeling that you’re breaking character.

My favorite element of the system lies in the play it engenders—longform group storymaking with characters you remember and care about long after the series has ended. I care much more about the people populating my in-house Hillfolk playtest, or the later Greasepaint series, than any other group of characters the same group of characters have ever generated.

As for the clan question, I would never take sides in a… who am I kidding? Lion.

What’s the story behind The Birds?

 I was looking for a staple feature for my blog, and started doodling with a green marker, and before I knew it, these queasy verdant avians flew, guns in hand, into bleakly funny comic strip form. It’s a pure personal expression, and I’m as delighted to have those two collections in print as anything else I’ve done.

You’ve provided a wealth of advice to gamemasters over the years, which has been collected in places like Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering. If you were stranded on a desert island with only three pieces of system-neutral gaming advice, what would they be?

One, observe your players and gauge their reactions. (This principle would warn me against marauding pirates.)

Two, react to those observations to find the sweet spot of mutual creative gratification. (This would help me in negotiating with the pirates if I failed to evade them.)

Three, always be ready to jettison what you thought would happen in favor of what the players are making happen. (This would aid me in suddenly betraying the pirates and emerging as their new savage warlord.)

What’s next?

The Gaean Reach is a GUMSHOE/Skulduggery hybrid based on Jack Vance’s classic SF setting, as seen in the Demon Princes series and many other novels. The players seek interstellar vengeance against Quandos Vorn—a galactic supervillain whose abilities and crimes they collectively design themselves at the outset of play.

That’s in layout.

In the writing stage is Dreamhounds of Paris, a Trail of Cthulhu campaign sourcebook in collaboration with Kenneth Hite and Steve Dempsey. It is both our Paris book and our dreamlands book. You play the major figures of the surrealist movement after they discover that their dream-haunted, subversive art allows them to directly manipulate the people, places, and landscape of the dreamlands. Goodbye crystal cities, hello melting watches.

Also check out my recently-released fiction projects: the short horror story collection New Tales of the Yellow Sign, and my Pathfinder Tales novel, Blood of the City.


That’s all for this week! However, since Robin and I talked, I’ve jumped on board to write a series pitch for the DramaSystem engine. If the stretch goal is met, I’ll be contributing a scenario I’m calling Dreamspace to the book. “In the future, the only way to reach other worlds is through the underspace of the collective unconscious. You and your fellow oneironauts are the best of the best, but what will you find in the dreams of alien worlds?” Want to see more? Then check out the kickstarter!

Six Questions: Don Bassingthwaite

I know a lot of interesting people. Some I’ve worked with, some I’ve met while traveling the world, some just owe me money. My name may be on the website, but it seems kind of boring if I’m the only person whose voice is heard here. So I’m bringing some of my friends to the site, as time permits. I’m not a podcasty kind of guy, so I’m just keeping things simple: one guest, six questions.

My second guest is DON BASSINGTHWAITE. He’s the author of seventeen fantasy novels, including The Dragon Below and Legacy of Dhakaan trilogies for Eberron. He’s also written numerous short stories, including “Too Much Is Never Enough” in the cyberpunk compilation Foreshadows: The Ghosts of Zerowhere you’ll also find a story by yours truly!

So, Don—what’s your story?

Do you mean why do I write or who am I overall?

I was born in small-town Ontario, grew up a hugely geeky kid, started my last year of high school preparing to go into science at university, switched to humanities for my first year, then discovered anthropology and switched to that second year because I knew I wanted to channel my geekiness into writing and anthropology is just more inspiring than English. I’m now a hugely geeky adult who gets paid to write (I know!) and work with books in my day job as well (I know!). All my current novels are RPG tie-ins so far, but I still have my eye on finally getting something original published.

Why do I write? Because I enjoy it. Because I like making stories out of things. Because I enjoy submerging myself in imagination.

In both of your Eberron trilogies, you’ve invested a significant amount of energy into developing languages. Why do you feel this is important, and what’s your process as you do it? What’s your favorite Goblin proverb?

Partly it grows out of my background in anthropology. Language is a key aspect of culture so using words and phrases out of another “language” makes a fantasy culture feel more real for me. It can be as small as a throwaway name for a plant or something bigger like abstract concepts. Language can suggest how interactions work between speakers (degrees of formality, for example) or the history between groups (conquest or trading or even just isolation changes languages). Just the sounds a language uses suggests something about its speakers to a reader.

The process pretty much depends on how rigorous I want to be and what I want to accomplish. For The Dragon Below trilogy, I worked out a basic grammar for the savage Bonetree clan because I wanted to be able to emphasize from the beginning that while they were human, they came from a very different, much more isolated background than more civilized characters – I wrote whole (short!) conversations in their language. For Legacy of Dhakaan, I built on previus sources and kept things simpler with just a lexicon of Goblin words and enough general ideas about the language to string pithy proverbs together consistently. With the goblins, I wanted to establish a baseline of familiarity, then blow that up with something startling to say “Hey, remember that these are goblins. They’re monsters.” I actually think the second approach worked better overall.

Favorite Goblin proverb? “Je’shaarat mi paa kotanaa” – A sharp sword hurts less when you fall on it.

If you were Dhakaani, would you be a goblin, hobgoblin, or bugbear? Why?

Goblin. I like the pride of hobgoblins and the brute savagery of bugbears, but there’s something really enjoyably sinister about Dhakaani goblins. In my mind, they thrive on cunning, they’re small and stealthy, and everybody under estimates them. If there was one character from Legacy of Dhakaan I’d love to go back and explore, it would be Chetiin, the old goblin assassin. He’s likable and honorable, but also very ruthless.

How did you develop your original cast for The Binding Stone? Why did you decide to make Geth a shifter, for example?

That’s going back a long way! My character development process is kind of free form but a lot of the choices I made were about picking out the pieces of the Eberron setting (then still under-development) that really appealed to me, then building those into the story. To use Geth as an example: Aside from shifters being more common in the rather wild region where the story began, I liked the duality of control versus savagery that shifters represent, and I felt like I wanted a character who was all action but not necessarily too smart.

That and typical shifter abilities grew into Geth’s style of fighting and his signature weapon (the great-gauntlet that is both weapon and light armor). Then it became a question of where did he get that weapon and why is he still in this wild, somewhat isolated region instead of elsewhere in the world – and that led to his background as a mercenary veteran on the run from his past and that led to the former friend who became one of the other protagonists in the book, Singe, the swordsman/fire wizard who is Geth’s foil because he is smart.

What’s a story that’s inspired you?

You mean stories rather than novels, right? And just one?? Okay, if I restrict myself just to stories and cheat a bit by naming two, I’d say Fritz Leiber’s “Ill Met in Lankhmar” and Tanith Lee’s “Red as Blood.”

“Ill Met in Lankhmar” is brilliant because it expresses both a whole setting (the city of Lankhmar) and a saga (of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser). It stands on its own but it’s the foundation for so much more. Plus it’s got a great solid fantasy feel. It’s real.

“Red as Blood” is almost the opposite because it’s very dreamlike and unreal, and Tanith Lee’s style of writing is so lush and rich. It’s a story that stands completely on its own. For me, I think it was inspiring because it was one of the first examples I read of something that took the familiar (the story of Snow White) and turned it completely around.

What’s next?

I’m not actually sure. I don’t have anything under contract at the moment but I’ve been saying for years that I want to get something original written and now I’m kicking around ideas. It might end up being a break for writing sword and sorcery style fantasy to try something different, or it might not. The problem with writing something original is that there are just so many possibilities, it can be hard to pick one and just work on it!

Six Questions: Andrew Looney

I know a lot of interesting people. Some I’ve worked with, some I’ve met while traveling the world, some just owe me money. My name may be on the website, but it seems kind of boring if I’m the only person whose voice is heard here. So I’m bringing some of my friends to the site, as time permits. I’m not a podcasty kind of guy, so I’m just keeping things simple: one guest, six questions.

I’m kicking this off with ANDREW LOONEY. He’s best known as the creator of Fluxx, a crazy card game about change (and the foundation for my recent release, Cthulhu Fluxx). Andy founded Looney Labs with his wife Kristin, and he’s the designer of just about everything the company has published. He’s also a former NASA programmer, a starship captain, a hippie, and the Emperor of the Universe.

So, Andy—what’s your Goal?
Our Company’s official mission is To Create Fun, and everybody knows that All You Need is Love, so I win if I have Love and Fun on the table in front of me. And Chocolate.

What’s with all the pyramids?
Pyramids are cool. I dunno, I’ve just always liked them. Then I had this vision of a game set using elongated pyramids, and the obsession really took off. I can’t explain it any more than that.

What’s your favorite game you didn’t create?
Hearts. I’m also a big fan of Texas Hold’em. And I’d like to give an Honorable Mention to Homeworlds, which is my favorite game for the Looney Pyramids that I didn’t invent (but which still seems disqualified because it uses my pyramids).

If you had a time machine for 24 hours (of time as you experience it), what would you do with it?
Great question! The way you’ve asked it makes me assume that I can make as many timejumps as a want as long as return the machine to it’s owner at the end of the 24 hour rental. Assuming I also have precise targeting, I’d just hit the “road” and see as many temporal sites as I could jam into those 24 hours. I’d just be a tourist — I think I’d be too afraid of unintended consequences to want to change history, and where would you even start? Saving John Lennon? Stopping 9-11? Killing Hitler? Unsinking the Titanic? In Chrononauts I also start by saving John, but with all of history to unravel I think I’d be afraid to do anything but look, as unobtrusively as possible. But to get specific, here are some I’d punch in right away:
• I’d visit the New York World’s Fair on the same spring day in 1965 when I attended as a baby. Ideally, I’d find my family at the Futurama and we’d have a Back to the Future moment.
• I’d go to Disneyland on July 20, 1969 and watch the crowd at Tomorrowland as they hear news of Apollo-11.
• Of course, I’d have to visit the future: 5 years, 10 years, 100 years ahead. I think I’d probably end up spending most of my time looking ahead, much as I’m also fascinated by the past.
• I’d look myself up when I was about 15, and tell myself a few choice bits of advice. I’d pass myself off as second cousin of one of my uncles, or something. But I’d be afraid of telling myself too much, again fearing the paradoxes.
• I’d like to watch an atomic bomb test, from a safe distance of course.
• Who am I kidding? Of course I’d have to save John Lennon!

What don’t we know?
I think the more important question is, what do we THINK we know that we are actually totally wrong about?

What’s next?
Fluxx: The Board Game! It’s gonna be big! No, really, the box will be huge compared to the boxes we usually make! Anyway, it’s very exciting. It’s playtesting really well, so look for it sometime in 2013!

That’s it for this episode! If you have more questions for Andy, go ahead and post them here. I can’t promise he’ll ANSWER any of them, but hey, it’s worth a shot!