In this, the first instalment of the Private Companion blog, we speak with Richard Lee Byers, author of the latest Pathfinder Tales novel, Called to Darkness. This Private Companion ties into Know Direction 54, in which we review Called to Darkness.
When a story is too big for the podcast alone, or we need to follow-up on something we said in an episode 3.5 Private Sanctuary or Know Direction, Episode Companion is there. Each entry in this blog is meant to enhance an episode on the 3.5 Private Sanctuary gaming shelf of podcasts for 3.5 loyalists and Pathfinder enthusiasts.
Private Companion (PC): Writing fantasy RPG tie-in fiction is a dream job for so many gamers. How did you first get signed, and what do you think brought you to the attention of Paizo fiction editor James Sutter?
Richard Lee Byers (RLB): I’ve been writing game-based fiction for a long time. I wrote novels set in White Wolf’s original World of Darkness, and I’m still producing a steady string of Forgotten Realms novels. So James knew who I was, and when I approached him about doing Pathfinder fiction, I probably seemed like a likelier prospect than if I didn’t have that kind of a track record.
My audition piece, so to speak, was “Lord of Penance,” http://paizo.com/paizo/blog/v5748dyo5lbk0?Lord-of-PenanceChapter-One-Reunion a webfiction serial. James apparently thought it came out okay, because in due course, he offered me the chance to pitch a novel. He liked one of the concepts I sent, and it became Called to Darkness.
PC: Called to Darkness http://paizo.com/products/btpy8v37?Pathfinder-Tales-Called-to-Darkness opens with a warrior losing her tribe before her eyes to a vicious battle, much like another famous work of fantasy fiction. How is Kagur of the Blacklions similar to and different from Conan the Barbarian?
RLB: If memory serves, in the original Robert E. Howard stories, it’s mentioned that Conan was born on a battlefield, but there is nothing said about him losing his tribe. That’s something the movies added. (There are actually no Howard stories at all that depict Conan as a child. In “The Tower of the Elephant,” the story in which he’s the youngest, he’s probably around eighteen.)
But anyway, Howard’s Cimmerians are quite a bit like the barbarians who live in Golarion’s Realm of the Mammoth Lords, and I’m a Howard fan, so I guess it’s no surprise that Kagur does kind of come across as a female Conan complete with his grit, temper, stubbornness, and a certain impatience with reflection and abstract thought. Aside from the obvious gender differences, the biggest divide between them may be situational. There are certainly Howard stories where Conan has a mad on. But you don’t see him being as embittered and obsessed with revenge as Kagur becomes. Maybe that’s because he’s never so horribly betrayed by someone he loves and trusts.
PC: The action starts early in Called to Darkness with basically everything outlined on the back cover taking place in the first chapter. How were you able to set everything in motion so quickly?
RLB: That’s just something I’ve learned to do by reading how-to-write books and studying the works of authors I admire. In most kinds of fiction, but particularly adventure stories and thrillers, it’s often a good idea to kick things off with action and start working in the exposition later.
PC: If you could only write a series about the same character for the rest of your career, or could only write stand alone novels for the rest of your career, which would you choose and why?
RLB: This is going to sound not at all artistic, but if I’m going to be honest, I have to say that’s a tough question to answer in the abstract. If I could predict the future, I would pick the option that would afford me a good living. (I’m being optimistic and assuming one of them would.)
If I had no way of even guessing which would make me more money, though, I would pick the standalone option. I love my various series characters, but I’d get tired of working with the same hero and setting every darn time.
PC: Called to Darkness is less about an adventuring party as much as it is an adventuring odd couple. What does Holg bring to Kagur’s story of revenge?
RLB: Well, first off, pretty much every hero needs somebody to talk to. Having the protagonist express himself out loud to somebody who reacts to what he says is almost always more dramatic and interesting than the author just telling you what the guy is thinking. So Kagur was going to have some kind of sidekick.
I gave him magical skills because without some kind of magic on her side, it’s not credible that she could track the villain through the Darklands.
Beyond that, Holg is old, philosophical, patient, and garrulous because Kagur is the opposite of all those things, and contrasting characters work well in fiction. His ideas provide a commentary on the action that her personality and mental state make her incapable of supplying, and her reactions to him gives the reader additional insight into her character.
PC: Golarion’s Darklands are heavily based on Dungeons & Dragons’ Underdark, and are just as synonymous with dark elves. What do the Darklands have to offer as a setting when the focus is not on the drow?
I’ve written an Underdark novel (Dissolution http://www.amazon.com/Dissolution-Forgotten-Realms-R-Salvatores/dp/0786929448), and I like that setting. But what I think is cool about the Darklands and Golarion in general is that they much more clearly and directly reflect the influence of great pulp writers like Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and H. P. Lovecraft. I love those guys, so that means there’s a lot there to inspire me.
PC: The trip to the Darklands is a sharp left turn from the Realm of the Mammoth Lords. Why did you choose these as the predominant settings, and specifically why leave the Realm of the Mammoth Lords so early?
RLB: Again, to be honest, when I was preparing to pitch to James, I flat-out asked him if there were particular parts of Golarion he’d like to see explored in a novel. The Realm of the Mammoth Lords and the Darklands were two of his picks, and thus, one of my concepts used them.
The reason the story leaves the Realm of the Mammoth Lords early on is that when you get right down to it, the novel is the tale of a quest for revenge through the Darklands. There’s no reason to hang around topside for very long, especially since it’s more interesting to watch Kagur underground, where she’s a fish out of water, than on the tundra, where she’s in her element.
PC: Dave Gross said about the not using monster names in Queen of Thorns that it was less a choice and more to avoid a licensing grey area. Is that the same reason most of the monsters in Called to Darkness go unnamed?
RLB: That’s part of it. Also, many of Called to Darkness monsters are dinosaurs, and it didn’t feel right for my fantasy characters to throw around terms like tyrannosaurus, stegosaurus, etc. Those words are too scientific to belong in their dialogue and thoughts.
PC: What are some of the challenges and opportunities presented by writing Pathfinder tie-in fiction?
RLB: The challenges include making sure you get the details right and coming up with a satisfying story that feels like it has important matters riding on the outcome but still doesn’t change the setting in ways that mess it up for the creators who come along after you. The opportunities include the chance to work with a creation that you dig as a fan, which is always fun. Also, there’s an audience already interested in the franchise. That doesn’t guarantee your particular book will succeed, but it can improve your odds.
PC: How much game rule content do you think is important in RPG tie-in fiction? What are your feelings on using your own gaming experiences in your writing?
RLB: Personally, I think it’s important to be faithful to the essential “truth” of the setting, but I don’t think the game rules are always the ultimate version of that truth. To my mind, the rules exist to turn the fundamental dream of the setting—what we see in our heads when we imagine it–into something we can use for game scenarios. But there’s no reason to use every fiddly little detail in the rules to create fiction, and the results can look pretty peculiar if you do. For example, if Golarion were a real place populated by real flesh-and-blood human beings, those people would not have hit points, character levels, or armour classes. These things are abstractions that allow us to model the complex fluidity of something like a sword fight with dice and numbers, and if a writer incorporated them into a piece of fiction, the results could look very strange.
That said, when I signed on to write Called to Darkness, James made it clear that Paizo wanted Pathfinder in general and the magic system in particular to be faithfully depicted. So I was scrupulous about that, but without loading the novel up with gamespeak. I wanted it to be accessible to any fantasy reader, whether he was a gamer or not.
I’ve never used the adventures of one of my PC’s or a scenario I created to GM as the basis for a piece of fiction. What works well in a game doesn’t necessarily work well in a story, even if both derive from the same setting.
Richard Lee Byers is the author of forty fantasy and horror novels including Called to Darkness his first Pathfinder novel, Blind God’s Bluff, the start of a new urban fantasy series, and a number of books set in the Forgotten Realms universe. He invites everyone to Follow him on Twitter (@rleebyers), Friend him on Facebook, and add him to your Circles on Google+.