Future Book Plans

Hello, everyone. I hope that the holiday season is treating you well.

Today, I’m going to talk a little bit about the overall universe(s) I’m writing in and plans for the future. I’m going to try to avoid spoiling anything too much, but if you prefer to go into reading things without any form of spoilers, it may be worth skipping this blog.

First off, let’s talk a bit about Arcane Ascension 3, The Torch that Ignites the Stars.

The Kindle edition is already out and available here.

As I’m writing this blog, I’m uploading the paperback version. My hope is that, presuming that the files go through properly and there aren’t any mistakes, we’ll see the paperback version on sale within the next few days. This is not a guarantee: there’s always the chance that there will be problems with the cover file, the manuscript, etc. As per usual, I’ll plan to post when the paperback is online.

The manuscript has been delivered to Podium Publishing, my audio publisher, but you should still expect the audio book version to take a while longer. As I mentioned in a previous, more in-depth post, getting the audio out usually takes at least a few months after the manuscript is finished. I’m hoping that we’ll see the book out in audio before mid-year, but I can’t make any promises. I’ll plan to update people when I have a release date and/or when preorders go up.

After that, I have a number of plans to discuss for the next year, as well as years beyond that.

First off, let’s start by discussing the scope of the setting and some of my goals.

As many of you already know, most my books are written in the same universe. That universe originated from games that I used to run in tabletop and live-action formats. The stories themselves are not retellings of those games; they’re set far in the past, effectively elaborating on the backstory for the setting that I used as a game designer.

My original intent was to write a series of books to set up for a major, setting-changing event, which would be the focus of one or more books on its own. After that, I would proceed into the timeline of the role-playing games and tell other stories in that time frame, since I felt that a direct retelling of the RPG would not make for a well-constructed story.

Notably, a portion of this still reflects on my overall writing philosophy for my setting: I’m not here to tell just one story. Many of my stories have overarching elements that tie them together, like shared characters and locations, but ultimately, my principal goal is to tell the story of people living in this universe, rather than just a single quest or arc. To give you a comparison, my writing is less like a Wheel of Time style epic that focuses on a single central plot, and much more like the Forgotten Realms or Star Trek. There’s a wide universe to explore and different characters will explore different parts of it in different ways.

Because of the foundations of the setting as a RPG, I already had a tremendous amount of setting information to draw from – things like the world, the locations, the magic, major characters, and all that. Many elements of the story itself, however, were more fluid; I knew major “beats” of the story that had to happen, but the specific details were less defined, and I had a lot of room to work with.

The War of Broken Mirrors was written to start leading up toward the aforementioned setting-changing event. As such, you can consider those books to be the “main plot” as I originally envisioned it.

Arcane Ascension was born from filling in the blanks. I knew that at the end of the War of Broken Mirrors, one of my characters would be leaving for another continent. In fact, I’d already written that book: Marks of Iron, where that character travels to Tyrenia. (I’m being vague on purpose here, to avoid spoiling things for people who haven’t read the War of Broken Mirrors yet.)

By the time I’d written Stealing Sorcery, however, I realized that Marks of Iron didn’t suit my longer-term narrative goals as well as it could have. Revising it was an option, but I felt that my writing skills had improved to the point where writing something fresh and exciting was a better move. Moreover, Marks of Iron still featured our traveler as the main perspective character, and I wanted to take a shot at exploring a new protagonist and different themes, rather than just doing a “stranger in a strange land” story to introduce the new continent.

So, I wrote Arcane Ascension. Our traveler ended up on Kaldwyn, rather than on Tyrenia, and in a different role rather than as the perspective character.

But Arcane Ascension was a side story. It was there to fill in a time period during which our traveler needed to be absent from their homeland, in order for significant events to occur in that character’s absence.

I never expected the level of enthusiasm that I got for Arcane Ascension as a story. Don’t get me wrong, I was thrilled by it, and I’m very happy to continue writing Arcane Ascension books. But there’s a perception that all of the other books in the “Arcane Ascension Universe” are secondary, since Arcane Ascension is the most popular series…when, in terms of main story, Arcane Ascension is the spin-off.

This is why Arcane Ascension feels more like a slice-of-life story, and why it isn’t as heavily focused on a single major world-changing event. It’s more about Corin Cadence’s life, his family, and his relationships. Now, don’t take that to mean that there isn’t a long-term plan: I planned the series for six books, and I expect it to go on for at least that many. Probably more, given how the series has evolved. But I do want people to understand that the idea Arcane Ascension was never intended to the sort of centerpiece story for the narrative arc of the setting:

We haven’t even gotten to that book yet. But we will. And we’re getting much closer.

The Weapons and Wielders books are what pick up the main plot for our traveler after the end of the War of Broken Mirrors, more like how I’d originally envisioned Marks of Iron to work. And at the ending of Diamantine, readers get the first major hint of what we’ve been leading up to all along. (Please don’t spoil that ending in the comments; this is just here to emphasize how significant that moment is for people who have read it. If you want to discuss it, I recommend going to spoiler discussions on the Climber’s Court Discord and/or reddit.)

Without saying too much, that leads me to my next upcoming book release: Soulbrand, the third Weapons and Wielders book. This picks up right where Diamantine left off, and our protagonist, much like our readers, has a lot of questions. Some will get answers right away, but others are going to take some searching. And eventually, they’ll lead toward what I’ve been setting up since Forging Divinity. A game-changer for the universe, and one that will have impacts on every story to come.

That particular game-changer will get a book (or more) of its own. That’s probably not going to happen this year, but it’s on the agenda for somewhere around 2022-2023.

But that’s not to say that I’m only planning one release in 2021. Far from it, if I play my cards right.

So, let’s talk about other upcoming works.

First off, let’s talk about what most readers care about the most: Arcane Ascension 4.

I’m already working on it. I’ve actually got a pretty good head start, but I’m swapping back to Weapons & Wielders 3 to try to finish the first draft of that up within the next few months. My goal is to launch W&W3 before mid-year, then primarily switch back to AA4.

Style wise, Arcane Ascension 4 is going to feel much more like AA1&2 than AA3. There’s a lot more to say on that subject, but I’m not going to get into discussing the writing style of AA3 in too much detail until it is out in all formats. I don’t want the blog to spoil anyone on the events of the story. (So, please don’t post comments spoiling it, either.)

Notably, I should be clear that AA4 isn’t the last AA book, and there are more planned for after that. Probably still at least six. I may do one “set”, take a break, and then do another “set” a couple years later.

My goal is to get both W&W3 and AA4 out next year, as well as a couple smaller things.

First off, I’m writing a short story for a charity anthology. I’ve done this before, contributing a story to the Art of War Anthology, and I don’t expect it to be a major time sink. Short stories usually only take me a few days, maybe a week or so.

Aside from that, I have a second Audible Original to finish. This one is a story I started years ago, and it’s already partially written. It’s also planned to be a shorter novella (much shorter than How to Defeat a Demon King in Ten Easy Steps), so I don’t expect this to take very long, either – maybe a month, if that. This isn’t a sequel to Demon King: I may do that eventually, but this is a completely different project that I’ve had sitting unfinished for a long time. It’s also extremely niche: it’s targeted more toward people with a game development background like my own, but I’m hoping to make it at least somewhat fun for other readers.

Aside from that, I’d like to talk about some of my other projects that may be further off. I expect that I will probably end up trying to finish AA4 before I finish any of these, but that may change.

First off, Carefully Worded Wishes. I’ve talked about this several times: it’s a Wrynn Jaden prequel. This is roughly a quarter written already and it’s an easy one. It’s going to be fun showing off the continent of Artinia to people for the first time. It’s also a little more cultivation-esque, which I expect some readers to enjoy. And, importantly, Wrynn is a very different style of perspective character. If you’re annoyed by Keras trying to talk to every opponent…well, expect differences here. Probably won’t see this in 2021, but maybe toward the end or early 2022.

Next, I have a story that I’m just going to say I’m comparing to “xianixa Peter Pan”. It’s actually a retelling of one of the first things I ever wrote, and it’s very different from my usual style, but it’s also one of my favorite projects. I expect this to land around 2022-2023ish. I may wait longer than strictly necessary to make sure that it launches at the right time to coincide properly with some of the things happening in other books.

Finally, Spider Climb. I don’t know if and when I’m going to resume this. At the moment, it’s a low priority, and I don’t think I’m going to do anything with it until the W&W story gets closer to the start of Spider Climb itself…which would be around W&W5. So, we’ll see what happens.

I have a lot of other smaller projects in the works, but those are the “active” ones right now. Most of my LitRPG and GameLit projects have been temporarily shelved in favor of more titles in the Arcane Ascension universe.

I know a lot of people wonder why I keep working on side projects when I could be writing more Arcane Ascension: breaks between projects keep me engaged with my work and my imagination sharp. Arcane Ascension itself was a side project. If I didn’t take breaks and just stuck with the War of Broken Mirrors, Arcane Ascension wouldn’t exist at all.

So, please be patient. More Arcane Ascension is coming. More Weapons and Wielders books are coming.

And eventually?

Something I think you’ll find even more exciting.

I hope you enjoy that when it arrives, but in the meantime…I hope you enjoy the journey.

Thanks, everyone. Hope you have a fantastic rest of the year and an even better 2021.

Of Previews and Paperbacks

Hello, everyone.

Arcane Ascension 3 – The Torch that Ignites the Stars – is just over three weeks away from launching. Or, at least, the Kindle edition is. The other editions will, as usual, take a bit longer.

So, let’s talk about why things work that way, as well as estimated release dates.

I’m generally able to launch the paperback for any given book about two weeks after the Kindle edition.

The reason for the delay is because in order to create a paperback version of a book, my graphic designer (who handles the design of the paperback cover) needs to know the final page count of the book. This is because the page count is necessary in order to compute the width of the spine of the book, and the width of the spine influences the dimensions of the image file that is used for the cover.

This final page count cannot be determined until every change to the book has been made, since even changing a sentence or two can end up altering the page count. I tend to make changes to the book right up until before launch day, generally due to either late beta reader feedback or typos that I find toward the end of the process.

(Notably, I also fix typos post-launch. When I do this for a paperback, this means that I sometimes have to make format adjustments to make sure the page count remains the same, since the cover is already done. This can lead to things like weird spacing issues, so I try to keep post-launch changes to the paperbacks to a minimum.)

Audio takes even longer after the Kindle launch, for similar reasons: the audio book cannot be recorded until the book is final. Making changes post-launch to an audio book is even messier (to the extent that it usually isn’t done at all), and thus, my policy is to try to schedule audio recording with my publisher for a window a little bit after the Kindle launch, which gives us a small window for readers to find issues and for me to correct them before recording occurs.

In an ideal scenario, the recording would start just a few weeks after the Kindle launch in every case. In reality, audio book narrators have schedules of their own to worry about, and even when we schedule things far in advance, it’s often difficult to find a time slot at a perfect time. Someone as amazing as Nick Podehl is often booked a year or more in advance – meaning we have to guess at when the book is going to be done well ahead of time and hope we get it right. If I estimate too early and the book isn’t ready yet, that makes problems for both Nick and my publisher, and thus we tend to give “safe” estimates. If I happen to get a book done early, the publisher tries to get Nick to record the book earlier if a slot opens in his schedule, but that’s rare for someone of his talent.

Once the narrator begins recording, there’s still a considerable wait: narration takes time, especially for longer books like Arcane Ascension novels. (AA3 is thus far the shortest of the bunch, but the current draft is still around 180k words – about twice the “average” fantasy novel, which are about 80k-120k words.)

And then after that, there’s the necessary time for sound editing, production, and getting Audible’s approval.

As a result of all this, there’s usually a delay of at least a few months before the audio version is available. The average wait time for my own books seems to be around 6 months or so. My audio publisher (Podium) and I would love to cut this wait time down as much as possible – everyone benefits from the books being available faster – but it’s just a matter of scheduling.

In this particular book’s case, my understanding is that recording is set to begin sometime early next year, but I don’t have a hard date for that or a set release date. My best guess is sometime in the spring. Hopefully, as time goes on, we’ll be able to refine this process further and get the audio books to launch closer to the Kindle edition – but I wouldn’t expect any drastic changes.

There are authors that wait until all the versions of the book are ready to launch to put any of them online, and I think that’s a valid strategy – but I’d much rather get any edition out in the wild as quickly as possible for readers to enjoy.

I hope that this helps give a little bit of insight into the publishing process, as well as the reasons why there are longer wait times for some formats than others.

Now, if you aren’t completely bored by all my publishing talk, I’ve put together a couple more preview chapters for readers to enjoy.

The first is another preview for The Torch that Ignites the Stars. It’s the entirety of Chapter II. There’s a lot of content here (much more than I’d typically put in a preview), but I know people are excited about the book and I’d like to give everyone a little bit of a reward for waiting this long for the launch. Of course, you’ll want to read the first preview chapter before this one if you haven’t already done so.

Next, a preview chapter for Soulbrand, the third Weapons & Wielders book.

Don’t read this if you haven’t read Diamantine yet.

This one is a little bit strange: it’s not from right at the start of the book. The intro scenes for Soulbrand are more emotionally and politically focused as a result of how Diamantine ended.

I didn’t think that sort of content would make for a good preview, so this takes place a bit later in the book, and you’ll be missing a little bit of context. There are some minor spoilers in there as a result, but I don’t think they’re *too* serious. Mostly, this is the start of a fun, action-focused section, which I think serves as a better snippet than the book’s beginning.

And by the way, if you haven’t read Six Sacred Swords and Diamantine yet, this is a good time to do it if you need something to read before AA3 comes out. They’re not required reading, but there are elements from the two of them that play into some of the things in The Torch that Ignites the Stars.

Thanks for reading, everyone, and I hope you enjoy AA3 when it comes out!

-Andrew

A History of Books Unwritten

Forging Divinity was the first book I published, but it was far from the first book that I wrote.

Like many authors, I spent years pursuing the dream of getting something traditionally published before going to self-publishing. I wrote books, submitted them to literary agents (and occasionally, directly to publishers) and got rejections. Stacks of them. Hundreds of rejections.

It’s very easy to give up when things like that happen. I’m glad that I didn’t, and I’m extremely grateful that my partner and my family supported me through those times.

I think about those unpublished books regularly. Sometimes I wonder about what would have happened if I’d gotten a contract for one of them, or decided to self-publish earlier. I also think about spending time to revise them now, if any of them are still salvageable.

I don’t think it’s likely that any of those projects will see the light of day. But I’d like to talk about them briefly, since the history behind them helped shape my current projects, as well as things to come.

Dawn’s Tear was my first book. It’s a finished book, and it’s…well, bad. My partner once said it was like “someone’s first fanfic”, and they weren’t wrong. It was, in many respects, my own fanfic of a D&D campaign I’d run in college. It was also something I started working on with another writer, but that didn’t work out – and that collaboration failure taught me some important lessons about setting expectations ahead of time for professional projects.

This book was almost a direct depiction of a D&D campaign. That was, to be direct, a terrible mistake. That’s not to say that it’s impossible to make a D&D campaign into a book series – Record of Lodoss War and Malazan both pulled it off (although I think the latter might have been GURPS). But I wasn’t at the skill level as a writer to know what to report directly and what to tweak more heavily for narrative.

Notably for my existing readers, this took place much later in the timeline of the setting than the books that are currently out. (It’s even later than Arcane Ascension.) Some of the things from the War of Broken Mirrors were created as backstory for the “ancient past” of this D&D campaign.

Also of note, a few characters from my later books were in there – including very different versions of Taelien, Jacinth, Aayara, and Wrynn Jaden. This Taelien was already an older and more confident veteran, and he wasn’t a main perspective character (maybe he got one chapter? I don’t remember, and I’m not checking, it’s too embarrassing.)

Will the events of Dawn’s Tear ever happen in my updated book new universe? Probably not. The whole story has changed significantly since then, and many characters – like Taelien and Wrynn – are fundamentally different people in this version of the story.

This is the least likely book for me to ever touch again.

 

Dawn’s Blade was going to be the sequel to Dawn’s Tear, but I didn’t finish it. Fortunately, I moved on to something much better instead.

 

Blackstone is when I actually found my legs as a writer to some degree. People actually liked reading Blackstone, which was a marked improvement. It’s a silly, self-deprecating autobiographical piece from the perspective of the Blackstone Assassin, chronicling his accidental rise to infamy. It also showed the start of his legendary romance and rivalry with Symphony, the Lady of Thieves.

I think this was a book that could have launched my career. It’s not at the same level as something like SAM, but it was amusing at times, and I think the protagonist had a likable kind of snark.

Notably, this is where I really started to flesh out dominion sorcery in book form. Dawn’s Tear was basically still using D&Dish magic, with very little internal consistency. I created dominion sorcery as a system for a LARP campaign in the same universe, and I think using it for this book helped make it feel much more interesting and unique. Interestingly, it also had a whole extension of the system for using scrolls (since Jacinth wasn’t actually a spellcaster for most of the book), which had some neat elements I might revisit.

This was a finished book and probably could have been published.

The novel-within-a-novel stuff I’ve been doing with the Blackstone Assassin books in my other books is an homage to this actual novel, and I’ve considered updating it for publication several times. It’s mostly a matter of just not having enough hours in the day, and wanting to prioritize my more recent works.

 

Dreams of Jade was my first attempt at a Wrynn Jaden novel. It was my first attempt at writing a martial arts focused protagonist. It probably would have been called a xianxia novel if I released it, but I had no idea what that was at the time. (The last time I touched this book was apparently June of 2010.)

Notably, the secondary protagonist (or deuteragonist, if you want to get fancy) of this book was Jonan Kestrian. Jonan is an interesting case – he’s actually one of my oldest gaming PCs (he predates Salaris), but this was my first effort at working him into a book.

It didn’t work well. This book was never finished – largely because I didn’t like the pacing, or how I was handling Wrynn herself as a character.

Shadowblade was my sequel to Blackstone. It was finished, and from what readers told me, probably better than Blackstone. Unfortunately, continuity has drifted much further from the story of this one, to the point where I don’t think I could realistically just “update” it to modern standards without rewriting it completely. In a different world, Blackstone, Shadowblade, and Dark Paladin would have been my first trilogy.

Arcanist was my attempt to write to market. In 2010-2011, epic fantasy and swords and sorcery weren’t doing so well (at least according to the people I talked to in the industry), and the cool thing at the time was urban fantasy. So, I tried to write one.

This is a really interesting one. First, because the book was terrible. Writing to market was an awful idea, and I didn’t even do a good job of understanding what made urban fantasy appeal to people ahead of time. (I’d read some, but not a lot, and I didn’t have a firm enough understanding of the hooks for readers.)

It is, however, also interesting because it was almost a LitRPG in an era before LitRPGs were codified.

In this setting, Arcanists were mages living on modern earth. They were broken down into categories based on a specializations: Movers, Burners, Breakers, Cutters, Twisters, Finders, Healers, and Turners. They wore devices called Shards that were basically pocket watches that stored mana and displayed their remaining mana percentage.

You might see some similarities to a certain other magic system of mine there.

If I’d pushed the class-based angle and the systems a little further, this might have actually been a pretty good LitRPG setting. As it is, however, I didn’t have the confidence to go all-in on those mechanics at the time, and thus they remained surface-level and kind of boring.

Oh, and my main character was named Sarah, so there’s that overlap with Arcane Ascension as well. (She was a Breaker, for the record. There were no Summoners in Arcanist.)

This is a complete book, but it’s also not a very good one. I probably won’t go back to it.

 

Marks of Iron is another interesting one. It’s the first book I tried to write where Taelien was one of the main perspectives. It also has one of the most interesting settings I’ve written, which involved a city where people are revived from the dead, then sustained with alchemy rather than food and water. The premise is that the sustaining alchemy has stopped working properly, and in a week, virtually everyone in the city is going to die (permanently).

Ashel Val, a famous alchemist, is brought in to investigate the alchemy problem. She saved a foreigner – Taelien – from being eaten by a monster while he was asleep (long story), so he tags along with her to serve as her bodyguard. We see the story through both of them, and using Taelien as the foreigner who doesn’t understand local customs or how alchemy works was a useful mechanic for introducing things that are obvious to Ashel to the reader.

I very easily could have published this one. It’s complete, the setting is interesting, and it’s probably the best self-contained piece I’ve written.

It does, however, have serious flaws.

When I was making the decision to self-publish, I had to choose between going for this one or Forging Divinity first. I chose Forging Divinity over Marks of Iron because of a couple key factors.

First, the character interactions in Marks of Iron just weren’t as good. The dialogue was weak (especially Taelien’s), the emotional highlights were unearned, and Taelien was the only person who experienced any real change.

Second, it just didn’t have enough moments of awesome. Forging Divinity is still relatively low magic compared to my modern books, but Marks of Iron was even lower, and I think it suffered from that. There are plenty of ways to write awesomeness without magic – and I had some of them, with Taelien getting a couple decent sword fights and Ashel having some decent investigative moments – but I think Forging Divinity just had more of them.

Ultimately, this would have been an interesting book to start with, but I think I made the right call.

That was the last book I finished before Forging Divinity.

I’ve had a lot of other books I’ve started without finishing after that – but those are more likely to actually be finished someday, so I won’t get into them in a lot of detail.

I will mention that I almost finished and released a “traditional” VRMMO-style LitRPG before I wrote Sufficiently Advanced Magic, and that would have been another interesting way to launch my career. I still intend to release something like that someday, but I don’t know what form it will take. I’ve started several, and I still haven’t found one that works perfectly for me yet.

Thanks for reading! I hope that this is interesting to some of you, and helps remind any aspiring authors that it can be a long road – but one that can ultimately be very worthwhile, if you stick with it and have sufficient luck.

Fair Play Fantasy and Why Some People Enjoy Magic Systems

First, quick updates.

I’m at about 90% completion on the first draft of Defying Destiny, the third War of Broken Mirrors book. Virtually everything else is on hold in the meantime.

Once the first draft of that is done, I plan on tinkering with some other pieces while I’m in the midst of editing it and beta readers are reviewing it, then getting back to Arcane Ascension 3 and Weapons and Wielders 2 when the book is finished and released.

Now, for something completely different.

I wrote the section below for a post over on /r/fantasy, but I figured I’d repost it here, since I know some of my readers might find it interesting.

***

This is going to be something that is already very obvious to some readers, so forgive me, but it’s something I wanted to get down into writing.

The “hard magic” vs. “soft magic” discussion comes up regularly both here and in other fantasy discussions, and I wanted to bring up an element of it it that I consider to be important to me as both a reader and a writer – “fair play”.

In the mystery genre, there’s a subcategory or style that’s sometimes referred to as a Fair Play Mystery or Fair Play Whodunnit. A simplified version of this concept is that all of the major elements of the mystery are presented to the reader in advance, so that theoretically the reader can solve the mystery alongside the protagonists.

This is an essential part of the experience of the mystery for some of the people who read it. It enhances the enjoyment of the story for some to be able to say, “I figured it out!” or “Aww, how’d I miss that?” or even “I noticed this on a reread!”

To a certain subset of the fantasy reader base, a detailed magic system that is applied in a consistent way allows for a fantasy story to have a similar style of appeal.

When a character learns a new spell, or picks up a new super power, or finds an item, a reader of a fair play fantasy can try to think about how the protagonist might cleverly use that new thing to solve problems later in the story.

Similarly, when a character encounters a problem in a fair play fantasy (or “hard fantasy”, as we’d more commonly call it), a reader can stop and think, “How can the protagonist solve this with the tools at their disposal?”

The clearer the system framework in place, the easier it is to accurately predict how magic can be used to solve problems. This does not mean that great specificity and simplicity are necessarily better, however. These are simply knobs for the author to turn, and in some cases, a degree of flexibility allows for both the writer to be more creative and for the reader to have a harder (but still possible) problem to solve.

Notably, this does not just apply to magic. It’s true for any capability a character possesses, regardless of source. For a non-magical example, let’s consider Batman’s utility belt.

Let’s say we’re watching a new episode of Batman: The Animated series, because this is a better hypothetical world and the show is still being made.

At the end of the episode, Batman tricks one of his usual antagonists – Two Face – by using a trick coin he had hidden in his utility belt.

There are several ways to make this fair play, with different pros and cons. Some of these can be combined.

  1. No foreshadowing in the episode itself. The viewer is supposed to know the character already from previous episodes. This relies on long-term continuity of characters and capabilities, rather than making the episode self-contained. This means the episode has more time to focus on other things, and may work more for established fans – but it won’t be fair play for someone who only watches that one episode.

  2. Character foreshadowing. We establish Batman’s relationship with Two Face early on. He knows Harvey Dent is out of prison, and we know they’ve tangled before. He knows about Two Face having a thing for flipping a coin and using it for determining how he is going to behave. For some readers, this might be sufficient in itself.

  3. Light item foreshadowing. Early in the episode, we could see him working with his utility belt in the bat cave and filling it with items. They’re all small items that can fit in there – a utility knife, a vial of acid, an emergency beacon, a collapsible gas mask, a tracking device…all stuff Batman would have clear reasons to have on hand. This foreshadows that the belt itself, and the objects within, might be used to solve the problem.

  4. Heavy item foreshadowing. In this case, we could literally see Batman putting a coin into his utility belt at some point in the episode, or perhaps playing with a trick coin under other circumstances. Maybe Zatarra the Magician gives him a trick coin in a flashback where Zatarra is teaching him about transposition magic, making it personally relevant to Batman’s training, and more impactful when the coin is used.

Character and item foreshadowing can be combined (and often will be) to make a clearer picture, if fair play is the goal.

The heavier the foreshadowing, the easier it is for a reader to put the pieces together and see where things are going – which can be good or bad, depending on the creator’s goals. But one other advantage that’s easier to overlook is that clear foreshadowing also gives you the ability to subvert expectations.

When we see Two Face’s background with Batman, Batman loading the utility belt with all the items above, and we see Batman with the coin early on, and we might think, “He’s definitely going to trick Two Face with the coin.”

Then Batman tries it, and good old Two Face says, “I’m a lawyer, Batman. You think I’ve never seen a trick coin?”

That’s a whole other way to thrill a reader in a fair play story – misdirection. The coin was the obvious solution. So, when Two Face isn’t tricked by the coin, some readers are thrilled by the misdirect.

And that makes it all the more thrilling when Batman explains, “Of course, Harvey. But you were so distracted by the coin that you missed the tracking device.*”

*I will not pretend to be able to write Batman, but you get the general idea.

We’re reminded about the other items that Batman had in his utility belt – the ones we potentially forgot, because we as the audience were too distracted by the obvious solution presented in the coin.

Some watchers are thrilled by the twist because they caught it. They get to say, “I knew it! When Harvey took the briefcase, Batman had already put the tracking device in it!” Others get to be thrilled because they missed it, but they knew it was fair. That they could have potentially gotten it, if they’d only paid a little more attention. That can be part of the fun, too.

This isn’t going to be appealing to every individual person, nor is it necessary in every single case. But it’s a part of why I think that hard magic has a clear appeal to some readers – they can read watch the episode and say, “I knew Batman was going to try the coin, but I was surprised when he beat Two Face by using magic.”

What – you remember when I said that Zatarra taught Batman transposition magic, right?

Maybe that wasn’t the best example – maybe it wasn’t exactly fair play. It’s a sliding scale, with some readers and writers preferring different techniques. Regardless, I hope this helps illustrate the concept of why some of us enjoy hard magic in fantasy.

Satisfying Character Progression

This overlaps a bit with my Writing Progression Fantasy post, but I was replying to a topic on /r/progressionfantasy today and I felt it was relevant enough to repost here.

The topic of discussion was how to write progression in a satisfying way, and I’ve got a few pointers from my own experience.

Character-Specific Abilities can be awesome, as long as they feel properly earned. A good example of this would be the Iron Bodies in the Cradle series. Everyone who reaches “Iron” level gains a permanent enhancement to their body, but people who do specific training can get more specific benefits, like greater bonuses to strength, dexterity, regeneration, etc. Because there’s a personal component to this stage of progression, this makes the Iron Body feel more meaningful than most other stages of progression in that setting (and in many other settings in general).

Note that these do not truly have to be “unique” – having multiple people with the same Iron Body is fine. The main goal is to distinguish the main cast members from each other, which leads me to my next point.

Abilities that Distinguish Party Roles are useful for making a character feel awesome, but in a way that doesn’t invalidate the rest of the group of protagonists. This is easy in RPGish settings; character classes are an extremely common way of handling this, by creating a structure where each character advances, but in different ways. (The attunements in my Arcane Ascension series serve this function.) In a more open-ended style of setting, it’s often easier for character roles to overlap, and an author should be conscious of when they’re giving characters overlapping abilities.

Notably, overlapping can be fine when multiple characters share a theme, or when cooperation between them is a part of the story. Multiple characters with stealth characters makes sense if you’re writing about a group of thieves or ninja, for example.

Branching choices, when well-executed, can make a character’s progression feel more meaningful. In cases like this, it’s not necessarily important that the protagonist makes the same choice that the reader would have – the protagonist’s choice simply needs to make sense for the character. Then, once the choice is made, demonstrate the coolness of the choice. There can (and often should be) downsides, but we should see why the protagonist’s choice was valid and will give them interesting options for the future.

A great example of this is in Forge of Destiny, where the protagonist has key choices about certain elements of her path appear as abstractions in a dream.

Metrics for Improvement are a huge way of giving satisfaction to a reader. Rather than just having a character train and get “better” at sword fighting, it’s clearer when there’s some sort of structure to it. Numeric levels and named titles (ala xianxia) both serve this function. Having multiple different categories of progression can help distinguish between characters. In RPGs, this is easy because you can have things like Hit Points, attack power, etc. as separate values. In other settings, different types of advancement (e.g. physical cultivation level vs. spiritual cultivation level, or character level vs. equipment level, etc.) can help.

Comparisons Between Characters can help as well. Some readers really enjoy seeing a character surpass people who used to be far ahead of them in power, especially in things like revenge-focused stories. This can also be done with non-specific entities, like showing how a character can easily defeat categories of monsters they used to struggle with, etc.

Upgrade Frequency is a tricky subject. Stories with extremely frequent upgrades, like Forge of Destiny, are probably the clearest examples of this genre – but there’s a saturation point where it becomes harder to care about individual benefits if they’re coming super quickly. I think it’s important to find the right balance for your particular story between making upgrades frequent and meaningful.

Interesting and Distinctive Upgrade Methods can help make a particular boost feel more meaningful. This can be a very specialized form of training that makes it memorable (e.g. Goku training in high gravity) or it can be a risky choice on the part of the protagonist. Most people have seen the more traditional stuff like killing monsters to level or sitting around and Cultivating – variety helps.

I’d also like to recommend reading Cradle and Forge of Destiny for some clear examples of progression, for anyone who hasn’t checked them out already.

I hope that any aspiring writers reading this find it useful!

 

Actual Non April Fools Updates and Information

Hey everyone,

Sorry if I scared anyone with my April Fools announcement too much. =D

I am, in fact, still continuing to write my books. In fact, last month was pretty productive.

Some project specific updates:

  • I got through some major content for Defying Destiny. It’s still not done, but I’d put it at around the 75% mark.
  • The second Weapons and Wielders book is well into being written. This is largely because Six Sacred Swords was originally going to include a lot more content, but I split it into multiple books. As such, I already had a clear outline of what was going to go into this one, and I’ve gotten underway on it. I’d say it’s about 25% written, but I may stop working on it to focus on Arcane Ascension 3 next.
  • I wrote a bit of Arcane Ascension 3 – it’s at about 5% progress.
  • I’ve been itching to do some new stuff, so I’ve have a couple small projects in progress.
  • The first is a LitRPG novella. It’s basically a Zelda and Dragon Quest parody, similar to something like Yuusha Yoshihiko, Legend of Neil, Endro!, or Maoyu. This is a short project that I don’t expect to take up much time. I’ve wanted to write something that’s more of a “traditional” LitRPG for a while, and this is something of a test case for that.
  • I’ve got a bit of writing done on a more martial arts focused story (something more like Naruto or a xianxia epic). I’m enjoying getting this started, but it’s still probably a long way off.
  • I spent some more time working on a tabletop rules set for Arcane Ascension, but I’m a little conflicted about it. This would be a stand alone rules set, but I’m debating switching over to making it a Pathfinder compatible game instead. I’m not sure what would appeal to my fans more – I’ll be curious what people think.

To give a little more context behind some of my side projects, I’m going to give a little bit of explanation about the genesis of my main book setting as a whole.

So, the earliest seeds of my book universe came from online chat role-playing on AOL. For those of you were around in those days, maybe you saw me and friends playing prototypes for some of this setting’s characters in the Red Dragon Inn or that sort of thing.

The real meat of it started coming in when I wanted to write games for the IFGS (International Fantasy Gaming Society), a major live action role-playing organization. One of the player characters I created at that time was none other than Jonan Kestrian. While he’s changed significantly in his book incarnation, his affiliation and basic personality characteristics came from playing him in a LARP.

I didn’t actually end up running many events with the IFGS, but it got me working on the bits and pieces of setting information that would serve as a foundation for the next stage, which was much more important.

In college, I started running a tabletop game. This was where many of the elements that are recognizable today started – the tabletop versions of Salaris, Wrynn Jaden, Velthryn, House Theas, and the earliest seeds of Rendalir.

Years later, I started running my own LARP campaign based in the same world.

That LARP campaign started out on Mythralis – the continent used in Forging Divinity – but involved visiting other parts of the world, as well as travelers from other locations.

This is where things get super relevant for future books. Each of the other continents has a different “flavor” to it – Tyrenia is heavy on alchemy, Vylin Tor is war-torn and filled with beasts, and Artinia is heavily focused on martial arts and spiritual powers.

Some of my earlier, unpublished books, go into these areas. Marks of Iron is an entire novel written in Tyrenia (well, the intro is in Vashendamir, but almost all of it). Dreams of Jade was one of my very first attempts at writing a book, and it’s on Artinia. As you may be able to discern from the name, Wrynn Jaden was the protagonist.

When you see me talking about side projects, many – but not all – of them are going to be ways to explore these other continents that existed in the tabletop game/LARP. In some cases, I may just revise my existing books, but in many cases I’ll just be writing new ones.

I love fleshing out entire worlds like this, and I’m hoping that my readers will enjoy seeing the distinct cultures, religions, and magic systems for each continent. You can also expect to see crossover elements showing up more and more over time.

(As an important note, none of these books actually cover the events of my LARPs, tabletops, etc. They’re set in a different time period. I may do some of that someday, but things like Forging Divinity aren’t actually based directly on gameplay. That’s a valid style, but it’s not what I’m doing – I’m just writing in a RPG universe.)

Thanks for reading, and I hope my April Fools joke didn’t scare anyone too much!

Writing Progression Fantasy

Over on the new /r/progressionfantasy section on Reddit, someone asked for advice on writing progression fantasy. I put together a basic list of some things that I thought were worth discussing, and I figured I’d copy it over here in case anyone is interested.

Notably, not everyone is going to agree on these points. There are plenty of different ways to write an effective story – these are simply things I’ve found that work for me.
Character Roles in Progression Fantasy

As a general rule, I have a strong preference toward systems and settings that allow for different characters to progress in different ways. This allows for multiple characters to be relevant, even if some of them fall behind in terms of the overall power scale, as long as they have a sufficiently unique niche.

For this reason, it may be a good idea to have an underlying system that supports diverse character styles. A classic example of this is character classes in RPGs. A 20th level fighter is vastly more powerful than a 5th level wizard, cleric, or rogue, but the other classes still offer things that the fighter might not be able to do on their own.

It’s also wise to consider whether important character attributes like speed, strength, and resilience should advance separately to some degree. For example, in Dragon Ball Z, a character’s overall “power level” increases all of these attributes – which often leads to the more powerful characters being better at virtually every relevant factor in a battle. There are still some techniques that can be game-changers, but I think a story like Dragon Ball would have benefited greatly from having some characters being specialized in different areas (e.g. Yamcha is high speed for his relative power, Trunks is high physical damage for his relative power, Gohan is high energy damage for his relative power, etc.)

For this reason, I often have magic and advancement types that explicitly only improve one or two things at a time (and often with downsides to other attributes). In Six Sacred Swords, for example, Keras’ “Body of Stone” technique makes him stronger and more resilient, but at a cost to his speed. (Notably, a technique like that does exist in Dragon Ball, but it’s outscaled to uselessness almost immediately because the speed penalty is so large. It would have been more interesting, in my opinion, if someone developed a variant of that technique that was actually useful.)

This is all for stories where you want multiple characters to be progressing and relevant – which, as a general rule, I personally find more compelling than only watching the growth of a single character.

Weaknesses in Progression Fantasy

Weaknesses can both be a good way to enforce the relevance of multiple characters and to show growth as a person gradually learns to overcome some of their weaknesses.

Notably, weaknesses that are irrelevant to the character’s style are (in my opinion) less compelling than weaknesses that are relevant. For example, physical weakness as a wizard has to be fairly extreme for it to serve as a major detriment. Physical disadvantages for a close-range physical fighter are much more immediately relevant, and thus, in my opinion, more compelling.

I would also resist the urge to “solve” or “fix” these weaknesses immediately. Working through a weakness can be a good long-term goal, and it can (in my opinion) feel unsatisfying to see it just wiped away without much difficulty.

Don’t Skip to the End

A part of what makes progression fantasy compelling, at least to me, is seeing the gradual process and the difficulties a character goes through on their journey. If a character jumps from Level 1 to Level 99 in a single book, that doesn’t really serve the same purpose. That can still be an interesting story for some readers, but it has a different sort of appeal from watching gradual growth.

Effort = Reward

A big part of the core of progression fantasy is, in my opinion, the feeling that the power increases are being earned. It’s okay if a character gets some kind of advantage from time to time because they’re clever, or hard working, or just barely survived. It’s less satisfying, in my opinion, if it feels like they get everything for free or simply because of good luck.

Other People Should be Competent and Believable

A common trope in some forms of fantasy is for the protagonist to excel simply because they found something that would very likely be immediately obvious to any number of other people (from our world or otherwise). If possible, avoid this type of thing.

For example, if someone gets super popular because they’re the only one playing an “unpopular” character class in a game with a million players…that doesn’t really make any sense. People data mine statistics and theory craft about every class in MMOs, often long before the content even sees a public release. And in cases where things aren’t super public yet, that’s an even greater reason for people to be trying whatever they feel like (and thus not having any “super unpopular” classes).

Any Power Available to Society Should be Applied by Society

Similarly, think about the common applications of the types of magic and technology that exist in your world and how they might be applied by the average person.

Resurrection, for example, would have a huge impact on cultural and religious views of death. The conditions under which resurrection can occur would be important, and you’d expect that important people would try to make sure that they can meet those conditions if they’re ever threatened (e.g. having powerful priests on retainer).

Teleportation could have potentially huge impacts on things like trade and the flow of information.

Elemental magic could have tremendous impact on crop growth, influencing weather, power generation, and even simple things like city lighting at night.

This is more of a “general hard magic” thing than just a progression fantasy thing, but it’s especially important here because progression fantasy often allows for unlocking potentially society-altering abilities over time. This means you should be prepared to address how the already powerful are utilizing their power, as well as how any characters that gain power might use their power.

For example, if no one has ever reached a high enough level in space magic to unlock teleportation before, the main character learning teleportation opens up a lot of options for them. They can choose how they want to trail blaze in terms of using teleportation for things like mercantile, spreading messages, etc.

This also applies on a moment-to-moment level. If a character has an ability that clearly would “solve” the situation, they should at least consider using it. (No author will be perfect at this, but keep an eye out for abilities that offer easy solutions to a lot of situations, like super speed, teleportation, and time travel. Be extremely careful giving these out.)

Interactions Between Magic Types

Similar to the above, but also consider things like how teleportation might interact with another character that is learning to make spells permanent, or another character that learns how to increase the area of effect of spells, etc.

If you don’t want certain things to be combined, establish why they can’t be early on.

Influence of Power Increases on Plot and Pacing

Consider the places and times in the story when you want things like this to “unlock”. If characters uncover these abilities too early, it may influence your narrative significantly.

For example, if you want it to take a long time for the heroes to return home after a quest, you may not want to let them get powerful enough to learn teleportation or flight magic before that point in time, or you might want to have a reason why they do not learn those specific spells.

Reliable Progression vs. Dramatic Moment Progression

Something to decide on early on is if you want a clear, linear method of progression or something that allows for more spontaneous “moments of awesome”. It’s absolutely possible to have a middle ground, but think about this ahead of time and how it will impact your story.

If power increases feel completely arbitrary, you run the risk of readers losing immersion in the believably of the story. If your progression is too steady, however, it may also feel boring or uninteresting.

Another element of this whether or not you want to tie progression to emotional catharsis. This is extremely common; a character has some sort of breakthrough, generally about their own inner struggles, and suddenly powers up. (See: Stormlight Archives, Dragon Ball, Sailor Moon, etc.) This kind of thing can be extremely satisfying if utilized effectively, but it can also be super cheesy if it feels arbitrary and unearned. If you choose to go this route, try to spend some time setting it up beforehand to make sure that the character’s path makes sense to the reader.

Methods of Progression

Think about which types of progression feel the most applicable to the story you want to tell, and which ones you want to explicitly exclude. Try not to change these mid-way.

For example, early on in Dragon Ball Z, the Saiyan characters learn that they grow significantly more powerful any time they get close to dying. This is a progression mechanic, and one of the characters figures out how to “game” this by getting badly injured and rapidly healed.

After this, that form of progression is largely forgotten for a long period of the story. It’s only relevant in a few patches, and explanations of why it isn’t used again are largely retroactive.

Avoid doing things like that. If you introduce a method of rapid progression, expect that people will try to use it repeatedly, unless there’s a good reason for them not to.

It can also be interesting to give different methods of progression to different characters. When yo do this, those characters should, at points where it may be relevant, be shown to be considering those types of progression (even if they choose not to). To go with the easy Dragon Ball examples again, Piccolo can gain power by fusing with other members of his species. He rarely seems to consider doing this, however, even when presented with situations where it might be relevant or useful (e.g. the most recent tournament arc).

Antagonist Progression

Keep in mind that if progression exists, your antagonists may also be progressing. This can offer challenges to your protagonist that aren’t often found in other forms of fiction, because they might have to find unique methods of progression that outpace their opponents.

Elements of Choice in Progression

When a character has to make a choice in the progression process, this can make it more interesting. This both helps ensure that niches are maintained and helps the reader engage with the story by thinking about what they would do when presented with the same choice. Even a disagreement with the protagonist can help with reader engagement. Just try to make sure that any choices offered feel at least somewhat reasonable; if the choice is too obvious, or the protagonist makes a choice readers might strongly disagree with, you could potentially run into trouble with your audience.

Options vs. Linear Power

As a general rule, adding something new to a character’s list of abilities that they can actively take advantage of is more interesting than just a straight power increase.

For example, adding a new special attack that has a condition – like, say, a Backstab attack that requires hitting an opponent behind – is generally more engaging to a reader than a +2% additional bonus to critical hit rate.

Similarly, when a character already has a bunch of attack spells, adding a utility spell is probably more interesting than just another larger (or different) attack.

That doesn’t mean straight power increases can’t happen. Rather, I would recommend interspersing them with adding new abilities so that the power increases themselves can be larger and more relevant when they do happen. And, once again, those power increases do not need to be global; a character can get a boost to speed without it increasing their strength or resilience at the same time, for example.

Conclusions

My TLDR version is that the key elements are variety and internal consistency. Allow for characters to be interesting and distinct from each other, and give them different progression goals and paths. And when powers are available, make sure people at least think about using them when they’re relevant.

Progression Fantasy – A New Subgenre Concept

I’ve been chatting a lot with my fellow fantasy writer Will Wight, who writes very similar fiction to my own. We’ve never quite fit in with any established fantasy subgenres, and we’ve always had trouble finding a way to appropriately describe our works. “Almost LitRPG” and “Inspired by Xianxia” weren’t quite perfect.

Jess Richards suggested a new term – Progression Fantasy – and we’re going to make good use of it.

Progression Fantasy is a fantasy subgenre term for the purpose of describing a category of fiction that focuses on characters increasing in power and skill over time.

These are stories where characters are often seen training to learn new techniques, finding ways to improve their existing skills, analyzing the skills of opponents, and/or gaining literal or figurative “levels” of power.

Progression in the subgenre title specifically refers to character power progression, not other types of progression (e.g. increasing wealth, noble rank, etc.) that occur in stories.

This subgenre heavily overlaps with LitRPGs, GameLit, xianxia, xianhuan, and shonen battle manga, but progression fantasy titles do not necessarily fall into any of these categories.

For example, Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archives would fit the model of progression fantasy, but would not be in any of the other mentioned genres/subgenres. Sword Art Online is both a LitRPG and a progression fantasy. Dragon Ball is both a shonen battle manga and a progression fantasy.

The vast majority of “academy” style stories have at least some degree of skill or power progression within them. Of those stories, the ones that fit this particular subgenre the best are the ones that have clearly quantifiable power growth, such as numeric leveling and unlocking higher level spells and abilities. That said, quantifiable power growth isn’t strictly necessary — it’s just one of the easiest ways to identify something that is a clear fit for the subgenre.

A good test to see if a story fits the subgenre of progression fantasy is if the Book 3 version of the central protagonist could easily defeat the Book 1 version of the protagonist in a conflict. If the series is more than 3 books, the Book 5 version should easily beat the Book 3 version, and the Book 7 version should beat the Book 5 version, etc. (Two books is being used in the example because it’s okay to have some arcs where character progression slows, stops, or even reverses, but there should generally be some forward momentum.)

This can be applied to genres outside of books as well. Shonen anime is a clear example, and you’d use story arcs rather than books to “test” if a character is growing in strength. For example, Goku from Dragon Ball demonstrates clear and consistent power growth throughout his series.

Clear Examples

Some examples of the types of character progression that would qualify a story as being a progression fantasy are below.

Note that these contain minor spoilers for these titles, since they discuss the types of character progression that occur in these series.

  • In the Cradle series by Will Wight, martial artists train to reach higher levels of Cultivation by perfecting their body, mind, and spirit. At each level of Cultivation, they gain access to increasingly potent abilities.
  • In the Arcane Ascension series by Andrew Rowe, mages train to increase the amount of mana in their bodies. This allows them to cast stronger spells, and eventually, to increase their Attunement Level and gain formidable new powers.
  • In Mother of Learning by Domagoj Kurmaic, the protagonist is a mage who is stuck in a time loop. As he repeats events in the loop, he gains new abilities, more mana, and more powerful spells.
  • In the Traveler’s Gate Trilogy by Will Wight, the protagonist trains in the titular House of Blades, unlocking new abilities and items with each room he successfully conquers.
  • In Six Sacred Swords by Andrew Rowe, Keras practices existing magical techniques that increase his physical strength and durability, and also gains new spells and techniques throughout the story.
  • In the Stormlight Archives by Brandon Sanderson, members of the Knight Radiant can advance to different ranks, each of which provides additional powers.
  • In The Tutorial is Too Hard by Grandara, Lee Ho Jae is transported into a game-like “tutorial”, where he gains levels and abilities as he attempts to survive the deadly scenarios it prevents.
  • In Dragon Ball by Akira Toriyama, characters train to grow stronger and learn new techniques, and later in the story have numerically quantifiable power levels.
  • In Hunter x Hunter by Yoshihiro Togashi, characters begin the story without any clear form of “magic”. Once they learn it, they gradually begin to develop and master their own personal techniques throughout the story. This is a good example of a case where progression is clear without there being any obvious numeric leveling.

These examples aren’t anywhere close to exhaustive; they’re intended to be a starting point. Many, many LitRPGs, xianxia stories, and shonen anime fit into this model. It’s much harder to find western-style fantasy novels that fit this style, however, which is part of the reason why a subgenre term is being created.

Borderline Examples

There are a lot of stories where the character is learning things, but without as obvious of power progression. Harry Potter increases in magical prowess over the course of his books, but there isn’t a good way to measure how much he’s progressed. Vin grows in knowledge throughout the Mistborn series, but it’s hard to say whether or not she has any significant power gain between books.

LitRPGs where the central protagonist starts out extraordinarily powerful and doesn’t get much stronger — such as Ains in Overlord or Rimuru in Slime Tensei — are also borderline cases. (The progression in those cases comes largely from town building and from the power increases of side characters, which is relevant to this genre, but less so than if the central protagonist was gaining power directly.)

Stories where only one character of an ensemble cast has progression are also borderline cases. Star Wars Episodes 4-6, for example, are something of a progression fantasy for Luke Skywalker, but not the rest of the cast. This is another borderline case.

Progression fantasy generally focuses on progression in combat ability, but some stories may offer other forms of progression that have a similar feel. Technological uplifting stories are closely related to progression fantasy, for example, as are time loop stories. These are also “borderline” cases that are worth potentially discussing in progression fantasy communities, but it’s worth knowing that they’re not what everyone will be looking for in the subgenre.

If you like this kind of story, we’re setting up places to talk about it with other readers.

There’s a new Facebook group here, and a subreddit here.

I hope that this concept is useful for people to find more works that they love.

Getting Started in the Gaming Industry

Some of you already know that my career started out in the gaming industry, and I get questions about how I got in and advice on getting started there pretty often.

So, first, some background.

Around late 2002, I was in college, and I was a high-end raid leader in a MMORPG called Dark Age of Camelot. After the release of a new dungeon (Darkness Falls), we heard rumors that there was a secret boss that was tougher than the final boss, and I led a raid to try to figure out how to force it to spawn and beat it. It was a giant worm named Beliathan. It was, in fact, tougher than the final boss of the dungeon – but we beat it anyway. Unfortunately (or, fortunately for my career), it didn’t drop any items – which was both unusual and disappointing for a raid boss.

I sent in a GM ticket, thinking it was a simple bug, and that the loot got lost in the terrain or something. A GM responded telling me that killing that boss was “impossible”, because it was supposed to be unkillable. I sent in screenshots.

I still feel pretty good about that.

Long story short, that resulted in getting me a volunteer position as part of Dark Age of Camelot’s “Team Lead” program, which was a sort of hybrid between Quality Assurance* (which I’d never even heard of at the time) and a precursor to modern day “Community Manager” positions for MMOs. I helped Mythic test content – specifically raid encounters – before they were released, and also served a spokesperson to the player community. I ended up getting a lot of “world first” accomplishments with my raids, although admittedly by modern standards many of those would probably be invalidated because of the fact that I was in communication with the company.

Working as a “Team Lead” wasn’t a real job, but it did have the benefit of sending me to E3 to meet with the game developer team for next few years. At E3 in 2003 or 2004, I met with a few people from another game company that I was a fan of. They were working on a new game you’ve probably heard of – World of Warcraft.

After meeting them and seeing how great the game looked, I applied for a few positions there.

I didn’t get in right away. I applied for things like Game Design positions, which I didn’t have any prior resume credits for. I don’t think I ever even got any replies on those.

Around the same time, though, I did get some work writing for tabletop role-playing games for White Wolf. I responded to an open call for writers, and got a couple entries into a book for the Scarred Lands. Serendipitously, this led to getting asked to do some work on the tabletop RPG for World of Warcraft. I wrote for several books for that line. (Don’t look up my writing for that stuff – it’s truly – my contributions for that were embarrassingly bad. I was a teenager for most of it, and let’s just say it shows.)

Eventually, in 2005, I applied for Blizzard’s Quality Assurance department and got in. Some of the main factors that helped me were my prior experience as a raid leader and my experience writing for the World of Warcraft line of tabletop RPGs.

I really still wanted to be a Game Designer or a writer…and I tried, unsuccessfully, to move up into a position like that at Blizzard for almost four years. I did get to do some writing work — you can still find snippets of my writing in-game, like some of the books lying around in Dalaran — and on the game website. But none of it got me an actual writing positon.

In 2009, I left to try to be a professional writer. I finished a few books and submitted them to agents. No one picked any of them up.

After that, I went back to the gaming industry. I worked my way from being a Quality Assurance Lead at Cryptic into finally getting a Game Designer position there, then eventually moved to Obsidian, and finally Amazon Game Studios.

Some important takeaways:

  • I didn’t get in on my first try.
  • I didn’t get the position I wanted immediately.
  • I failed to move up into the position I wanted while I was at Blizzard, and had to leave the company and go elsewhere in order to advance in my career.
  • I also failed when I initially tried to leave the industry to be a professional writer. I kept writing for years after that, until I finally just ended up self-publishing. The first book I actually published was the sixth book that I wrote.

I mention all this because it’s very easy with both gaming applications and writing to get discouraged if you don’t have any success right away. If I’d given up at any of those early failures, I’d never have the career that I do today.

These days, it’s probably even harder, in truth.

Starting out at larger companies like Blizzard these days can be extremely challenging. There are far more interested applicants than there are positions available, especially for things like design positions. As a result, they can be tremendously picky, and for things like design spots, you’re often going to be competing with people who are already working for that company in lower level positions.

As a general rule, it’s easiest to get into smaller companies. For example, NIS America hires for contract Quality Assurance and Game Master roles fairly regularly. Other small companies are often similar. GameDevMap is a great resource for looking up game companies near you.

If you are currently taking college classes, I strongly recommend applying for an internship in the field you’re interested in. Blizzard has a ton of summer internships, for example. In my experience, this is much better resume credit toward getting the type of position you are looking for than working in a lower level department, but it’s also only available if you’re currently a student or planning to go back to school. Riot Games also offers some internships.

A good way to practice and understand some of the basics of game design is to try to build a small self-contained project yourself. RPGMaker is a great tool for building a standalone game, as well as just learning about basic game design concepts. You can also use tools sets that come with games — for example, Starcraft 2, Neverwinter Nights, etc. come with tools for building new content.

If you’re looking for a tool to build something specifically to show off your writing abilities, I recommend Twine. It’s a tool for building things that are basically “Choose Your Own Adventure” style games. Story heavy companies like Bioware sometimes ask for projects in Twine as a part of their writer application process.

In summary, my advice is that an internship is probably your best bet if you can swing one. If you’re not eligible, I would recommend going for some basic experience in Quality Assurance or another entry-level job (e.g. Customer Service or Tech Support) at a small company to start learning about the industry and building your resume. You should be aware that it may be necessary to move to a different company in order to get a higher level job once you have some experience on your resume.

If you have experience with code or art, you might be able to swing starting out in a position relevant to that, but it really depends on if you can demonstrate your abilities. For artists, a good portfolio is key, and I recommend including a variety of things – character concepts, environments, UI mockups, etc.

It would also be worthwhile to research the game design industry itself a bit. I would recommend watching some of the Extra Credits videos, for example. I don’t agree with them on everything, but they have some pretty good insights on some parts of the development process.

Finally, when you write your resume and cover letter for a gaming company, try to tailor them toward the specific position you are applying for. Game companies often respond well to familiarity with their own products, especially big name companies like Blizzard and Riot. If you’re applying at one of those, being familiar with their current games is almost a requirement, and being competitive may be necessary if you’re going for any kind of design position.

I hope that people find this helpful!

*If you don’t know what Quality Assurance is, I’m going to probably go into a whole post about that another time. This is something that I’d like more LitRPG authors to know about, because it’s an integral part of the game design process, but I rarely see it mentioned in books about gaming.

Writing Intelligent Characters

This is a post I’ve been thinking about for a while, because I’m not actually a real-world expert in the subject matter. My perspective comes from my experience as a writer and general experience, not any sort of scientific authority – so please take this all with a grain of salt.

Ninety nine times out of  a hundred, when I hear a character in fiction described as a “genius” or a “prodigy”, the character doesn’t actually sell that to me.

There are a few main reasons for that.

The principal one, which is talked about fairly regularly, is a trope generally called “Informed Ability”. The audience is simply told this character is intelligent, or given a litany of reasons why they’re intelligent – often including eye-rolling numbers like “he has an IQ of 200!” or perhaps slightly less awkwardly “he’s proficient in 12 languages!”

The problem here is fairly straightforward – it’s easy to tell the audience someone is a genius, but it’s vastly harder to demonstrate it convincingly. When you make a statement about a character’s ability in any subject (intelligence or otherwise), and that ability does not appear to be consistent with how the character actually behaves on the page (or screen, or other medium), that makes the facet of the character we’ve been informed about unconvincing.

There are a number of factors involved in “selling” intelligence to an audience (if that’s your goal), but to me, one of the key factors is just making sure they consider options and scenarios that may be obvious to the reader (or watcher, player, etc.)

For example, in gaming, it’s extremely common to find a character that’s in the process of dying. Maybe they have time for a dying speech, but little else.

I am constantly irritated by how infrequently there’s an option to just feed the dying person a healing potion or cast a healing spell and solve the situation with tools the characters clearly have on-hand.

In gaming, this may be somewhat more understandable in that branching narratives (e.g. being able to determine if a character lives or dies) are resource intensive, and continuity for scenes like that is difficult. There has to be time put into coding for things like checking if the party has the necessary resources, adding the dialogue options, and doing any narrative work to accommodate branching paths in that situation. I would argue that in most cases, you can still explain this problem (“he’s too far gone for healing”) and at least address the subject, though.

In mediums like reading and television, if you want to sell me on a character being intelligent, you’re going to have to have them at least present options like “use the healing potion on the dying guy before he dies”. That’s a low standard, in my opinion, but I what I consider to be failures to reach that standard all the time.

(Notably, this isn’t just true for intelligence. If you tell me that Worf is a master warrior and he loses every fight virtually instantly, I’m not going to believe you. Poor Worf. At least he gets to shine a bit more in Deep Space Nine.)

The problem of informed ability in fiction has been discussed elsewhere in great detail, so I won’t go on about it too much. I do want to address a couple other points that I see more rarely, however.

Contrary to what Dungeons and Dragons might tell us, Intelligence is not a single attribute.

There are numerous different things that could be called “intelligence” by different people. Experts have their own ways of breaking this down, but from a non-expert perspective, I see several categories of intelligence as being both important and distinct from one another.

These include things like:
* Processing speed (e.g. being able to do arithmetic quickly).
* Linguistic flexibility (e.g. clever use of existing language).
* Linguistic learning rate (e..g being able to learn languages quickly).
* General reasoning (ability to parse information and come to a reasonable, if not necessarily accurate, conclusion based on the data available).
* Problem solving (figuring out how to use the tools at your disposal to resolve a problem).
* Short-term memory.
* Long-term memory.
* Verbal social intelligence (being able to parse information from word usage, tone, etc.)
* Non-verbal social intelligence (being able to read non-verbal cues).
* Spacial reasoning.
* Etc.

These are just some examples from off the top of my head.

I’m not listing these because an intelligent character needs to demonstrate all of them – my point is actually quite the opposite.

It is perfectly reasonable for some people to be “intelligent” in some of the discussed categories (or others) and not in all of them. Just because someone is a brilliant physicist doesn’t mean they’re automatically going to be able to learn an alien language quickly – and when people assume that things work like that in a story, I tend to find it frustrating and difficult to believe.

(I can believe that a character is both a physicist and good at learning languages – I can’t believe they’re good at learning languages just because they’re a “genius physicist” and therefore super smart.)

As a result of the above, when reading (or watching, etc.) fiction that purportedly has intelligent characters in it, I tend to prefer to see characters that are strong in a specialty (see: Ocean’s 11) rather than simply hyper intelligent in all areas like your typical Sherlock-esque archetype. Notably, I tend to like balanced group dynamics more in other categories as well, rather than relying on a single exemplar protagonist who is simply good at everything. Having multiple experts play off of each other is, in my opinion, both more realistic and more engaging than simply having someone solve all the problems.

Finally, “intelligent” characters can still make bad decisions, even in their own areas of expertise. This can happen due to any number of factors – maybe they’re acting on bad information, or willingly taking a risk…or maybe they’re just having an off day. That happens to the best of us.

I think the archetype of the “perfect” intelligent character (or perfect warrior, or thief, or anything) can be great – some of those characters are among my favorites. But I also think it’s acceptable (and, at times, more interesting) to write characters that have strengths and weaknesses even in their own areas of expertise.

When I write characters, I like to give them strengths and weaknesses in their own fields. I consider needing to overcome a difficulty to be more compelling than being instantly good at everything. This is an element of personal preference that I don’t expect every other writer to agree with, but I think it’s worth mentioning that this is an option.

For example, Taelien in the War of Broken Mirrors books has a magic sword that he can’t use properly (and that comes with all sorts of disadvantages). And so he trains, he researches, and he searches for solutions. I find that more compelling than simply having a magic weapon, or even just being an excellent fighter – he has something directly related to his skill set that inhibits his ability to perform at his maximum ability.

Corin in Sufficiently Advanced Magic is an even more obvious example, because he’s behind on the school curriculum and he has fears that inhibit his ability to optimally use his magic early on. That’s something he has to work to overcome, and it’s not going to be an instant “fix”. I don’t believe every character problem has to be solved in a single book, and I wouldn’t have found it realistic for Corin to overcome his fears in less than a year.

Anyway, I’ve digressed quite a bit here, but the key takeaways are a few bullet points:
* Demonstrating intelligence is more important than telling the audience a character is intelligent.
* There are different types of intelligence, and some characters can be better at certain types than others.
* Intelligent characters can have weaknesses and make mistakes, even in their areas of expertise.

All of this simply reflects my opinions; other writers may feel differently.

Thanks for reading this little rant – hope you enjoyed it.