Recently I had the pleasure of being able to sit down with freelance writer/editor Scott Fitzgerald Gray of Wizards of the Coast and interviewed him about his new book “A Prayer for Dead Kings and other Tales“. The book is full of short stories, a novella and a short novel full of awesome, inspiring sword and sorcery tales and more. Scott also happens to be writer of my personal favorite D&D 4e publication to date: The Tomb of Horrors (Hardback & DM Reward Module)
Within the interview I pick Scott’s brain about a little bit of everything writing and D&D related, including a dreaded “What is your favorite…” question relating to D&D. We also talk about his new book, of course. He’s also kind enough to be giving away some free (electronic) copies to random commenters, so if you leave a comment or question below you’ll be entered in a raffle to win 1 of 5 electronic copies of A Prayer for Dead Kings and Other Tales! The contest will end November 21st at midnight, so be sure to chip in any old comment by then if you’d like a chance to win.
On a personal side note before jumping to the interview, I must say that I’m really loving this book. I’ve recently acquired many novels from various sources for reading but don’t have that much time to invest, so these short stories are perfect – quick to absorb, evocative, and inspiring on quite a few levels. They are definitely inspring me when it comes down to writing for my home D&D games. I highly recommend checking this book out, even if you don’t win a copy.
Hello there Scott, why don’t you tell us a bit about yourself outside of being a writer/editor. Wife, kids, pets, all that jazz.
My Wizards of the Coast bio (which I’m sure can be trusted) describes me as “living in the Canadian hinterland with a schoolteacher, two daughters, and a large number of animal companions” (four dogs, three cats, a couple of guinea pigs). On the odd occasions that I have no work to do, I try to keep my “books to read” list from getting any longer than it already is, and to watch as much intelligently exciting film and television as humanly possible. (Just finishing the season four specials of Doctor Who. This Tennant guy is great; sure hope he sticks around.)
So how long have you been writing? Editing? What got you into those fields initially?
I started writing in the fourth grade, and realized immediately that I really wanted to do this for the rest of my life. At a point where most kids in the class were learning how to use quotation marks properly, I was writing full short stories (though admittedly really bad short stories; it was fourth grade). At a later age, I got the idea into my head that being a writer was a career that a responsible person attempted after getting a real career, so I turned to computers (which I loved almost as much as writing) instead.
However, after burning out at the tail end of an undergrad Comp Sci degree, I narrowly avoided becoming a suit-and-tie systems person by detouring into a couple of years of Creative Writing and Communications. That landed me my first job in magazine publishing, just at the point (the late ’80s/early 90’s) when magazines were switching over from phototypesetting (ask your parents) to desktop publishing systems. Much to my own surprise, I found myself the most employable person in the world because the perfect storm of my oddly incongruous skill set (words and computers) were exactly what the magazine industry was looking for at the time.
My work in publishing over the next decade or so was split kind of evenly between layout, production, and editorial. As I started doing more of my own writing on the side (primarily screenwriting; that above-mentioned first job was for a film industry trade magazine in Vancouver that was my first intro to the industry), I started doing freelancing editing and story editing as well. Those three things (writing, editing, story editing) have been my day job since about 2001, including freelance RPG editing and design work (mostly for Wizards of the Coast) since 2004.
How long have you been playing D&D (RPG’s in general) and what is your first memory of tabletop gaming?
D&D was my first RPG, and I’ve been playing since eleventh grade (1981). My first memory is the very first session I ever played — without benefit of books, rules, dice, or any of the other frills. I grew up in small British Columbia logging town with two TV stations, one movie theater, and whole lot of nothing to do. My friends and I had always played a lot of board games, and I got into a bit of Avalon Hill wargaming in tenth grade (my friends preferred Squad Leader, but Kingmaker was my game). Then one of those friends (Kev; yo!) moved down to the Vancouver area, where he started playing this game called Dungeons & Dragons.
While I was down in Vancouver one weekend with another mutual friend, Kev tried to explain what D&D was about, and as is so often the case, finally just said “I’ll show you.” Only he didn’t have his books with him. No rules, no adventure module, no character sheets, no references, no dice, so we played a game he constructed totally off the top of his head. We tore up pieces of paper to make chits for random numbers, we wrote up generic fighter/magic-user characters of indeterminate level, Kev ran us through a short, three-room dungeon complete with dragon — and when it was done, I knew that my life had been changed.
What is your favorite D&D module of all time?
I hate this question, because I seriously have no hope of ever nailing it down to one and the list changes from time to time. With apologies, and in no particular order: Tomb of Horrors, Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh and its sequels, Against the Giants, Lost Caverns of Tsjocanth, In Search of the Unknown, Keep on the Borderlands, Secret of the Slavers’ Stockade, Beyond the Crystal Cave, A Paladin in Hell, Return to the Tomb of Horrors. Some of my liking for those particular modules comes from the memory of the fun I had playing them, certainly. However, the simplicity of a lot of the older adventures allowed them to strike a balance between story and action that I think a lot of newer adventures (even ones that I’m fond of) struggle to hit.
When designing the Tomb of Horrors for 4th edition, you obviously hit the lethality nail on the head. What was this process like when designing for 4e being that parts of it are far departures from editions of yore?
For the Tomb of Horrors super-adventure, Ari Marmell was lead designer and talked right from the beginning about wanting this adventure to be more old-school lethal than any other previous WotC 4e product. We talked about a lot of different options, some of which appear in the adventure; a couple of which got softened in development (which is probably for the best…). We didn’t want to simply ignore the mechanics of 4e and go back to arbitrary save-or-die effects, but we knew that there were things a pair of extremely devious designers could do with the newer save-three-times-or-die trope. I’ve said this in a number of interviews and forum posts, so i’m repeating myself but: The worst thing that can happen to your character isn’t dying quickly. The worst thing that can happen to your character is dying slowly and there being nothing you can do to stop it. The Tomb of Horrors has plenty of ways to make that happen.
Can you give us the inside scoop on A Prayer for Dead Kings and Other Tales? What was the inspiration for this book and what should we expect when reading it?
“A Prayer for Dead Kings and Other Tales” is my latest fiction work — an epic-fantasy/sword-and-sorcery anthology telling the stories of heroes and villains caught up with the dark history of nine artifact-weapons of great power. The inspiration was to create a kind of interconnected narrative of these weapons and the world they’re a part of, but to do so through a number of different characters, different writing styles, and different approaches to storytelling. The book consists of six short stories, a novella, and an eponymous short novel, all of which run the gamut from straight-up sword-and-sorcery to darker murder-and-revenge tales; from somewhat humorous high-fantasy to semi-
deconstructionalist psychodrama. I would hope that anyone reading it would be entertained first and foremost.
In our initial exchange you said that these stories were drawn from some of your gaming experiences ‘A dark world challenging everyday characters’. How do you feel these are important elements to gaming, to story?
All my life, I’ve been a huge fan of William Faulkner’s idea that real story is always about the human heart in conflict with itself. In a world in which humans are only a small part of the narrative landscape, I up the ante to the humanoid heart in conflict with itself, and I make that the foundation on which my fiction is built. I love fantasy of all stripes, from Howard to Tolkien, from Harry Potter to Elric of Melniboné and every stop in between. However, my biggest influences as a fiction writer have always been authors like George R.R. Martin, Guy Gavriel Kay, David Eddings — people who create worlds as imaginative as anyone in fantasy fiction ever has, but who explore those worlds through unique, memorable, and often heart-breaking character story. The fantasy that I love best is fantasy that’s challenging in its ideas and firmly rooted in the often-dark emotional struggles of real characters. As such, that’s the type of fantasy I’m driven to write.
On the RPG side of things, I’m not a hardcore narrativist by any stretch. Some of my favorite adventures, both as player and DM, have been completely free-form, effectively random affairs where no one had any idea where things were going to end up. There’s an incredible freedom that comes to a DM from not over-thinking the narrative arc of an adventure or campaign. However, over a lot of years of RPGing, I’ve come to the conclusion that the game is better when it involves some measure of personal struggle on the part of the characters. Not to say that every adventure should involve a massive moral dilemma or the discovery that the arch-villain is somehow secretly the father of all the PCs. But for myself, for the players I started with in high school (some of whom still play in an online PBP game I run), for my daughters who have grown up playing in my home campaign, for the younger players I’ve DMed at the RPG club I used to run at my daughters’ middle school, and for the vast majority of the people who’ve been nice enough to email me with feedback on the adventures I’ve written — the game is better if players and characters have a personal stake in the adventure and the conflicts that drive it.
As far as challenge goes, do you feel that modern RPG’s are as challenging as they used to be? Is this good, bad, or otherwise?
I think RPGs are every bit as challenging as they’ve ever been. However, the increased median level of gaming skill among most players means that contemporary games have a harder time feeling as inspiring and formidable as they once did. Back in the day (as people my age like to say), the average player coming into a D&D session for the first time had played Gauntlet or Dragon’s Lair at the local arcade (ask your parents). New D&D players today are likely to have mastered Halo and World of Warcraft before they could dress themselves, and a tabletop RPG has to nail down the imaginative aspect of the game hard if it wants to compete.
For me (hearkening back to the previous answer) the area where tabletop games blow all other competitors out of the water is in the player’s sense of immersion in and connection to the world. At the end of the day, there’s nothing wrong with a good old-fashioned hack-and-slash epic, ending with half the PCs dying and the rest trying to loot their comrades’ bodies before the healing surges kick in. But when that starts to get repetitive, tabletop RPGs can take the adventure and the players in directions that no online game can match.
What would you say is your favorite story within A Prayer for Dead Kings… from a personal standpoint, and why?
From a personal standpoint, probably the title track — “A Prayer for Dead Kings”, the short novel that anchors the end of the book. It’s the oldest of the stories in the anthology in terms of how long the ideas have been kicking around, and it took a long while for me to figure out how I wanted to tell it. Without divulging any real spoilers, it’s a story told from the point of view of a most unreliable narrator — a dying hero whose mind and memory have been fractured by tragedy and age, and who can no longer tell the difference between the real past he’s turned away from and the legends he was once a part of.
The underlying concept is a perfect example of the kind of character story that I’m drawn to as a reader and as a writer (and which connects to the idea of the human heart in conflict with itself that we talked about before). In the novel, the great heroic adventures of the past provide the backdrop for the more subtle human frailty and the need for purpose that drives the three main characters in the story — all of whom are damaged in some way and seeking redemption for themselves and the past. It’s a story that plays out on a number of different narrative levels, and I’ve gotten some great feedback on it from people who have read the book, and I’m very happy to have been able to pull it off exactly the way I wanted to.
Are you currently playing in any games? If so what is your current campaign(s) like? Most importantly, are you usingObsidian Portal to keep track of them?!
I run a home campaign (D&D v3.5) with my wife and daughters, which is unfortunately getting less frequent as said daughters balance increasing amounts of school and work. (In my day, I ignored both in favor of gaming, but I’m probably a bad example.) I run 4e sessions mostly as one-offs, because I use them to test bits and pieces of adventures that I’m writing, which don’t always lend themselves to the feel of a consistent campaign. I also run a longstanding online play-by-post game as mentioned above, which uses a classless/level-free d20 system of my own fiendish design, and is a kind of 30-years-later sequel to our original high school-era campaign.
I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t use Obsidian Portal to track my games, but only because I had already set up all my campaigns on a private phpBB forum before I first heard of your most awesome site. I direct people here as often as I can, though, and I confess to lurking in other people’s campaigns at every opportunity. As a designer and editor, it’s very important to me to get a sense of how other people are playing the game, because I think that too many designers write as if everyone plays the game the way they do. The site is an amazing resource for being able to secretly pick the brains of other players.
Okay, enough of that. Now before you go, I have a really important question for you. Who would win in a fight, Conan the Barbarian or Minsc and Boo?
Robert E. Howard’s Conan over Minsc and Boo, though it’s a tough battle. Against DeCamp and Jordan’s Conan, a well-fought-out draw. Boo over Schwarzenegger’s Conan, two falls to one. Also, Boo has the advantage in the followup diplomacy skill challenge because he’s easier to understand than Arnold is.
If you’d like to keep up with Scott’s work and general goings ons, you can stalk him on twitter or stop by his website. Thanks for reading, hope you enjoyed, and we hope you want to win a copy of this awesome book!