RPGs and Fiction: An Interview with Alana Abbott

I have spent the better part of the last three years with my head buried deep in the Forgotten Realms, a game world that lives and breathes at least as deeply through its fiction as through its game products.  My background and education are tied to fiction-writing, first and foremost.  As I become more familiar with the craft of designing games and adventures, the contrast and the synergy between the stuff of games and the stuff of fiction always leaves me pondering: What game design skills carry over from fiction-writing skills, and vice versa?  Can fiction capture the essence of a game system or a game setting, while still working as good fiction?

I have enlisted someone to help me look into those questions.  I first met Alana Abbott while writing adventures for the Living Kingdoms of Kalamar campaign, where she was the campaign’s director.  Even then, before I knew her well, I was impressed with her chops as a writer.  When I heard that she’d written a novel as a tie-in for an RPG game and setting, I was intrigued.  I read that first novel called Into the Reach, and I was taken with how much the characters and the story drew me into that world.  Despite my love of fantasy RPGs, I was never much a fan of fantasy fiction.  The field is no doubt full of talented authors, but the redundancy of the tropes within the genre just didn’t do it for me.

At the time, I was also teaching fiction writing at the college level, so my brain was engaged in a sort of “read and feedback” loop that led me to contact Alana, offer my admiration for the work, as well as providing some (hopefully) constructive criticism.  I was surprised and flattered when Alana suggested to her publisher that I take over as editor for the second novel in the trilogy.  It was a pleasure to do so.

Alana’s talents have been noticed by many others, and her resume speaks for itself.  As long as it is diverse, her list of credits includes the Origins Award-winning supplement Serenity Adventures for the Serenity RPG from Margaret Weis Productions.  She was also the writer for the comic Cowboys and Aliens II.  (A film version of the original Cowboys and Aliens hits theaters soon, starring Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig.)

The first two novels in “The Redemption Trilogy” — Into the Reach and Departure — are available now available as e-books at DriveThruRPG, and they are well worth the read for fans of well-written fantasy literature.  Alana’s vision of the setting, game, and characters is expertly rendered on the page, and I hold the novels up as an example of what can happen when a very talented writer finds a way to turn an RPG into excellent fiction.

I recently got the chance to ask Alana about the intersection of RPGs and fiction, as well as a number of other topics of interest to gamers, fantasy fans, and would-be writers.  I hope you find the results enlightening:

Shawn Merwin: Alana, thanks for taking the time to talk with me about your experiences with RPGs and fiction.  When did you first get involved with RPGs, when did you start writing fiction, and how do you combine the two?

Alana Abbott: I started writing fiction long before I was introduced to role-playing games (outside of the type of “let’s pretend” games kids play on playgrounds).  Like many young writers, I wrote what wasn’t yet called “fan fiction” (these were the days before the Internet) in elementary and middle school.  I typed up a script for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon on our electric typewriter, and later wrote about half of a Star Wars novel on our then-new Commodore 64.  I also wrote an original superhero novel, which I finished my freshman year of high school, and started writing fantasy short stories about humans with dragon powers around that same time.  It was, I suspect, passing around those stories that got me invited into a D&D group with some of the older high schoolers in my drama club. The activity of creating stories in a group was fantastic, and designing new characters every time one of mine died (frequently) was great fun. I still have a folder of dead character sheets somewhere that contains all those early characters—and prose profiles on nearly every one of them.

From this sort of background in playing in other people’s worlds and doing a lot of writing that tied into my own D&D campaigns, it was never a great leap to write D&D-related fiction. I wrote a few short stories based on characters during college, and even after I graduated and got a job in publishing, I kept playing D&D with local friends. My first real game-writing experience was for the Living Kingdoms of Kalamar campaign, and I got so involved in the writing and volunteering aspects of that campaign, I ended up as the director for two years. I also wrote a d20 campaign setting (Gallia) and was the co-writer on the Steampunk Musha campaign setting.  Then I later had the opportunity to contribute to Margaret Weis Productions’s Serenity Adventures. During this period, I got involved doing some work on the Realms of Eranon campaign setting for Chronicles of Ramlar, and the publishers liked my work so much, they invited me to write a novel trilogy.

The novels were meant to really feel like the game—which, since I’d worked on the setting, wasn’t hard to do!  I did work in some elements on purpose that I might not have without the game’s influence: there’s a scene in Into the Reach, the first novel of the trilogy, where the characters all get armor upgrades. In the system, armor was really important to how the mechanics of combat worked, so I wanted to show that importance reflected in the story.  I tried to focus on telling a story that would make people really want to explore the setting more in their own games, while also just telling a good story that resonated with my own interests.

SM: I’ve always had one issue with RPG-driven fiction: the work may capture the setting, but it rarely succeeds in capturing the game, or even the spirit of the game.  And too often when it tries to capture that spirit, it might even succeed, but often at the expense of it being good fiction.  Even in RPG-based fiction that is really popular and well-regarded, some aspects of it just fall flat to me.  For example, I am bored to tears with “fight scenes,” even though they are supposed to be the exciting parts.  I actually remember the armor-upgrade scene from Into the Reach, and I was amazed at how much it worked both as an element of the fiction and as an interpretation of the game.  Do you have any tricks or processes for turning those game elements into good fiction?

AA: One of the tremendously helpful things in making that particular scene work was the phenomenal artwork by Lindsay Archer.  I’d known I wanted to do something with armor because of the rules, but it wasn’t until I got early images from her work-in-progress that would become the cover art that I started to formulate what I wanted to do.  At the beginning of the story, Lydia only wears a leather jerkin—and it’s something she gets teased about by the other characters, because it’s not very good protection against the kind of threats she faces in the Reach.  In Lindsay’s art, Lydia has this beautiful armor.  Where did it come from?  What sort of significance did it have for her character?

That question really became the key for what I was doing with working in the flavor of the game—what does this particular element mean for the character?  If it’s a fight scene, what’s the emotional experience happening here, as well as the action?  If it’s shiny new equipment, why does it matter to the characters that they’re getting something cool—besides the fact that they’re getting something cool?  For Nara, getting her armor ends up tying her more closely to the rest of the party, because they’ve made her feel like one of them, included, and she’s been on her own for a long time.  For Lydia, it’s this element that brings her closer to the home she had to run away from—a way of embracing her history while also moving forward.

With fight scenes, along with the emotional aspects that drive them, I actually choreographed a lot of the footwork and strikes with my husband.  I’ve done a little bit of stage combat work, and we both study kempo karate.  Working out placement and targets helps the fights feel more grounded in what could actually happen than they feel like rolling dice.  So while that might be a step away from the game, I’ve always appreciated game masters who can make combat in the game feel more like a story.  You know the game masters I’m talking about—they’re the ones who look at your die roll and create an image of the moment, so it becomes about how your character has caused a gaping wound in the enemy’s side, leaving him only barely able to fight on, rather than about the number of hit points the boss probably has left.

With Nara, particularly, I tried to do the type of thing I would do as a game master with a PC who wanted to pull off all sorts of crazy stealthy stuff that would never work. The first thing she tries to accomplish in the Reach is designing a cover story, and she does it with her usual sneaky tactics. But she’s not in a big city, where she can create a back story and just blend in — she’s in this little town where the sheriff knows everyone, and, more than that, makes it his job to know everyone. So when he calls her out on her bluff — not with any particular animosity, but just in the way that he wasn’t fooled by any of her work — it’s like the game master saying to the arrogant, super stealthy character, “Well, sure, everything you did worked.  But it was so completely over the top that somebody was going to figure it out eventually, don’t you think?”

SM: Sparring as a way to write the fight scenes?  In the next book I want to see the disclaimer: “No spouses were injured in the creation of this novel.”  Speaking of families, you are now a proud mommy.  True gamer and writer test here: are you still playing RPGs and writing despite the obvious draw of family?  The final straw that led to my stepping down as an LFR admin was a sad-eyed daughter, soccer ball in hand, saying to me as I typed away, “Dad, why are you ALWAYS working?”

AA: Well, luckily my little girl can’t talk yet, so I probably have a few years before the guilt trips start…

Seriously, though, I am still writing — it’s a job I can do with flexibility, which enables me to be a stay-at-home parent. I’m not getting as much writing done, I’ll admit, but I have gotten more review work, and reading is an even more flexible form of work than writing.  (I’m a professional reviewer for Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal.)  My work as a history columnist appears weekly at Branford Patch, and I write articles for reference books and the occasional comic script.  Keep an eye out for Star Cruisers, coming out from Platinum later this year—if the first issue takes off, I’ll be writing space opera on a regular basis!  There hasn’t been a lot of game writing coming my way, but I’m working on a couple of fiction projects — along with the editorial stage of Regaining Home (the final novel in “The Redemption Trilogy”)—that I have high hopes for.

As for gaming, I run two monthly home games in 4e based on real-world mythologies.  One is set in mythic Greece, and the other is a Viking saga game that uses Celtic and Norse mythologies.  I’m a huge myth nerd, so it’s fun to be able to play with those old stories in a D&D setting.  My gamers are a great bunch, too, spread out between New York and Boston, and it’s fantastic to have an excuse to get together regularly and create a story together.

SM: Speaking of creating a story, on a scale of 1 to infinity, how excited were you to be the writer for the graphic novel Cowboys and Aliens II, and what did you think when you found out that they were making a movie based on the first one?

AA: I hadn’t caught the original comic run before getting asked to work on the sequel, so the initial excitement just came from being asked to work on an ongoing comic gig.  I had such a fantastic time, which makes getting to work with the Platinum team again on Star Cruisers a true treat.  Dan Forcey is a really fantastic editor to work with.  The best part about the movie coming out is how often my name winds up in articles about the film!  I literally have nothing to do with the Hollywood side of things, but every so often a Google alert shows up where my name ends up alongside Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig.  The fangirl in me squees every time.  I’m definitely looking forward to the movie release, and I’m particularly interested to see what they gave Adam Beach to do—it looks like they cut a lot of the role of the Apaches that had been in the initial comic, so I hope that Beach’s character has some real meat to it to at least open the conversation about the traditional “Cowboys and Indians” trope.

SM: With all the different projects you have worked on, from fiction to comics to adventure design, what would you say to people out there who love writing and love RPGs and want to get involved in creating content?  What have you learned over these years?  And what have you taken from RPG gaming that can be applied to any of your work?

AA: I got the best practice writing for games by volunteering to create content — and the volunteering lead to professional opportunities later on. Being willing to go around at a con and say, “Hey, I like your game – are you looking for writers?” was also a huge help in getting me started in the industry.

I do think some pieces of game writing translate over to fiction and comics, particularly in formulating the frame for a plot (which is something that’s never been my strong suit).  The big difference in the different mediums is space: in a game, you have to leave a lot of empty space so that the players are the ones who decide what to do – the plot isn’t set in stone until they make it so. As a writer for comics, you have to leave space for the art to tell the story – not every panel needs words, but every panel needs to show what’s happening and help things progress forward, and the writer and artist have to be able to communicate well on how that’s happening. In fiction, filling the space is pretty important, because all the reader has to go on is the words on the page and what they can infer from those words.  A little bit of inference is a good thing, but if you’re not clear enough, things you as the writer know about the story might never get through to your readers. I think learning how to delegate the space in the different forms is the key to keeping track of writing in all three mediums.

I would like to thanks Alana for taking the time to speak with me about her experiences.  Now I put the question to everyone: what are your best examples of fiction that best captures the spirit and play of RPGs, while still being what you would consider good fiction?

Comments

  1. I remember the old FR novel Spellfire as one that did a surprisingly good job of capturing what it might be like to adventure. Making camp, memorizing spells in strange places… it gave me a greater window into what this might all be like for my PCs. But, to be honest, I don’t read so much fantasy fiction because I play so much of it. I instead turn to reading cyberpunk or modern fiction.

    Alana is really talented, while being both cool and a great person to work with. It is really unusual to find that combination. I can only wish her the right level of fame and fortune, such that she continues to be who she is while still realizing dreams. Maybe if I am lucky she will recall the bit of work we did on LFR and let me DM a table of cool famous people some day!

  2. Thanks so much, Alphastream! What a wonderful wish. I had a tremendous time working on LFR and would be delighted to sit down at a table with you any time — famous or otherwise. 🙂

  3. Thanks! This post was very intriguing.

    I remember the Drizzt novels driving me crazy for the first few chapters – Homeland was the first fantasy book I read apart from The Lord of the Rings. I was frustrated that at times it seemed too flowery or archaic, then at other times it felt too contemporary. In the end I was converted, and I loved it against my will. Like all art, it comes down to looking at the world around us in a different way. You have to do that with characters that struggle with new obstacles, ones that haven’t occurred to us before, or at least not in that way.

  4. Serendipitous indeed! My wife and I were at a major bookstore chain minutes ago grabbing coffee and wandering around, and after visiting the RPG section as I usually do, I was shocked by how many new fantasy titles seem to come right out of fantasy game worlds! And these books were front and center– prominently displayed for everyone who enters the store to see.

    We are in a fascinating period where Sci-fi and Fantasy fiction are mainstream media.

  5. @DarkplaneDM — I’ve liked the Drizzt books I’ve read well enough, but I loved Salvatore’s Cadderly series (the Cleric Quintet). He tackles some really interesting issues about the nature of belief, and that’s a big idea to hit on in a shared-world novel! (Actually, several of the Eberron books hit on that theme, too, which was super exciting to me, since it’s one of my favorite topics in fantasy fiction. *g*)

    @Sunyaku — How nice to hear that they’re displayed front and center! I was/am a huge fan of the Eberron line of novels (though I’m behind these days, which is the only nice thing about WotC having slowed down the pub schedule), and I know that Magic, WarHammer, World of Warcraft, Vampire, and others all have semi-successful to successful fantasy lines.

  6. Shawn Merwin says:

    @alphastream: I think I read all of the old FR novels back in the day, and I remember Spellfire catching my fancy as I was reading it as being particularly interesting to me as a D&D player. Now I am in the same boat as you; if I actually carve out time to read, I am generally trying to escape from fantasy back to reality with novels that deal with real-world issues. Of course, fantasy fiction can obviously deal with real-world issues, but that’s another story.

    And I completely agree with you about Alana, obviously. In an environment when it can be hard to separate the wheat from the chaff in terms of talented story-tellers, it is our obligations to point out the wheat!

    @Darkplane: I had a similar experience with the Drizzt novels. When I read them I was at an age where I was just starting to leave the fantasy-stage of my reading life, so I think I was a little harder on them (critically speaking) then I should have been. Obviously they struck a strong and resounding chord with the reading public.

    @Sunyaka: Isn’t it amazing. Even 20 years ago I remember these novels being stuck somewhere behind the roleplaying games in a section in the back corner of the bookstore. I am by no means an expert on bookselling or marketing, and I wonder what has changed. Has the Computer game industry become mainstream enough to push the one-off books into mainstream as well? Has the YA explosion in fantasy franchises opened up new avenues for other fantasy? It is interesting. I need someone more knowledgeable than I to help me out.

    @Alana: I’ve talk to you enough! 🙂 Thanks again for taking the time to answer questions for me!