This week I’ve got an interview with Richard Lee Byers, a fantasy novelist and gamer. Richard’s got a large body of published work, including several books set in the world of popular D&D setting, the Forgotten Realms.
|Richard Lee Byers. Writer. Fencer. Secret Agent.|
Richard’s list of novels is pretty impressive: my personal favorites are The Shattered Mask, the Haunted Lands Trilogy, and the Enemy Within–but my all-time favorite of his has to be the Scarred Lands Trilogy. He’s written novels for several RPG universes, including Vampire: the Masquerade, Pathfinder, the Scarred Lands, and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. He’s recently written some comic book material as well.
Thanks to the success of its kickstarter, Richard has also agreed to write a novella set in my very own dark fantasy RPG setting, Accursed! In addition, Richard is an award-winning fencer and poker enthusiast in his spare time.
I’m very glad to have Richard on the blog today because I think that compelling game fiction can be a big driving factor in the success of an RPG setting beyond just the core books, sourcebooks, and adventures.
As usual, my questions are in red text.
RW: Can you tell me a little about yourself as a gamer and as a novelist?
RLB: As a gamer, I’ve been playing RPG’s since D&D was three beige pamphlets in a white cardboard box (plus that copy of Chainmail I had for the sake of completeness even though my group never got around to running army vs. army battles.) Over the years, I’ve played every edition of D&D,Pathfinder, Champions, DC Heroes, Call of Cthulhu, Stormbringer, GURPS, and no doubt others I’m forgetting. Currently, my friends and I play Pathfinderabout once a month; unfortunately, that’s about as often as we can manage to get together. I’ve also played various card and board games over the years and am a recovering Magic: the Gathering and Heroclixplayer/collector. Recently my friends and I have been playing Hex Hex, Castle Panic, High Noon Saloon, En Garde, and Elder Sign.
As a novelist, I’ve done around forty horror and fantasy novels, some set in worlds that are all my own, others based in franchises like the Forgotten Realms, Golarion, the original World of Darkness, and the Marvel Universe. I’m possibly best known for my Realms novels. My recent works include Blind God’s Bluff: A Billy Fox Novel, which is the first in a projected urban fantasy series, and The Impostor #2: The Blood Machine, the new installment in the post-apocalyptic superhero series that is my grand experiment in self-publishing.
RW: How did you get your start writing novels set in RPG worlds?
RLB: I started my professional writing career in the ‘80’s as a horror author. Then the horror market crashed, and I needed to find something else to do. I had noticed the existence of RPG-based fiction, and since I was already playing the games, I was pretty sure I could write it. I queried Wizards of the Coast and White Wolf, and editors at each company gave me the chance to submit a short story to an anthology. They liked what I turned in, and the relationships evolved from there until they were offering me the chance to do novels.
RW: I see that you’re interested in fencing and playing poker – do these hobbies help inform your writing?
RLB: I write a lot about swordplay and other forms of close combat, and what I’ve learned fencing helps with those scenes. Even though modern sport fencing is stylized and, well, sportsmanlike, there’s still quite a bit you can bring across, both in terms of specific sword moves and more general concepts of blocking, distance, trickery, etc.
|First in the fantastic trilogy!|
Overall, poker hasn’t come into my fiction nearly as much. Blind God’s Bluff, however, is about supernatural creatures competing in a No Limit Hold ‘Em tournament, so naturally, it’s full of poker.
RW: What is something great about writing novels set in RPG worlds?
RLB: If it’s a good RPG world, it has a fascinating mythology that’s fun to play with.
RW: What is something not-so-great about writing novels set in RPG worlds?
RLB: It’s been my experience that most of these books earn money, but they rarely do so spectacularly well that they’ll make the author into a big name. This particular form of fiction doesn’t seem to launch a Salvatore, Hickman, or Weiss very often.
RW: What are your favorite things about writing superhero fiction?
RLB: I like the anything-goes nature of superhero universes that allows the writer to do throw in whatever he likes, including superpowers and super science that make a mockery of real-world science and even the overtly supernatural.
RW: What do you see as the most significant differences between writing fiction and writing for comic books?
RLB: I’ve written a total of one count it one graphic novel so far, so no one should take my opinion as especially authoritative. But for what it’s worth, I think that while it’s a good idea to be precise and economical with one’s words when writing prose fiction, it’s essential in comics. It’s pointless, clumsy writing to say anything with words that the art can present visually, and in any case, you can’t use so many words that caption boxes and dialogue balloons are going to cover up the art.
RW: How has your perception of writing for RPG worlds changed over the last 15 years?
RLB: I suppose my perception has changed in the sense that I’m more aware of how things can alter over time with various IP’s. I’ve been around when the decision makers wanted to use the novels to make major changes in the setting and when they wanted the novels to tell smaller stories that absolutely didn’t change it. I’ve been around when the game developers and fiction writers communicated well and when communication was nonexistent. I’ve been there when the in-house people were eager to bring in freelancers whose work they respected and when the staffers thought, hell, why should we pay outsiders to write this fiction when I can write it myself on my lunch hour and pocket the extra cash? (My disgruntled interpretation, there, obviously.) To some degree, it all runs in cycles at almost every company.
RW: What’s your opinion on the ascension of the ebook format?
RLB: The triumph of the eBook is inevitable. EBooks simply have too many advantages over the paper-and-ink variety. I know some people love traditional books. I do myself. But let’s face it, all those guys are going to die, and kids who think it’s the most natural thing in the world to get their prose entertainment off a phone or a tablet will inherit the earth.
RW: How would you do things differently now as opposed to the first couple of novels you wrote?
RLB: The only way I know to answer that is to say that I write better now. I’m a better craftsman (or at least after forty books, I hope so!)
RW: What do you believe is the most important aspect of professionalism in the book industry from the viewpoint of a writer? What about from the viewpoint of an editor or publisher?
RLB: Truly professional writers turn in the best work they’re capable of, work that also meets the needs of the publisher as defined in a contract or submission guidelines, on time.
Truly professional editors and publishers respond to queries, outlines, and drafts in a timely manner and deliver on their commitments, both express and implied, to writers. Among other things, this means they pay on time based on an honest royalty accounting and that they don’t have writers invest work and time on a project and then send it forth into the marketplace with a lack of support that makes success unlikely.
RW: If you could change one thing about the RPG industry, what would it be? What about the book industry?
RLB: This is totally self-serving, but if I could change the RPG industry, every game with a substantial following would have an associated fiction line with effective marketing support.
If I could change one thing about the book industry, I would reverse the tendency to dump the midlist writer whose books turn a profit but fall short of bestseller status.
RW: What do you feel is the best way for a fantasy/sci-fi novelist to engage with customers and fans?
RLB: That’s the question we all ask ourselves, isn’t it? How should we market our work in this rapidly changing marketplace in the electronic age? I wish I knew the answer, but I don’t, so I do several things. I attend conventions, I’m active in social media, and I guest on podcasts and do interviews like this.
RW: What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment as a writer?
RLB: Judging from the communications I receive from readers, it’s my contributions to the Forgotten Realms.
RW: What do you feel is your greatest setback as a writer?
RLB: My greatest setback is every time a publisher has stopped wanting my work. The first time was when Zebra Books fired my editor and stopped publishing horror, and for various reasons, it’s happened a few times since. You’d think I’d have learned to be philosophical about it by now, but in the moment, it always feels like a mortal blow to my career.
RW: What is your favorite part of a gaming-related convention?
RLB: I love talking to people who’ve read and enjoyed my work whether I’m speaking on a panel, doing a signing, chatting with someone who approached me in the dealer’s room, or whatever.
RW: If you were a fantasy adventurer, you’d be a… ?
RLB: Probably a wizard, at least if I wanted to survive. Ideally, I’d be a swashbuckling swordsman, but the reality is that despite all the years I’ve spent fencing, I’m smarter than I am athletic.
RW: What’s your favorite RPG? What about your favorite fantasy novel (that you did not write)?
RLB: My favorite RPG is still original D&D. Well, maybe with the Greyhawk, Blackmoor, Eldritch Wizardry, and Deities and Demigods supplements added in. RPG’s have become more sophisticated since then, but I’ve never had more fun with one than I had with my original gaming group way back when.
My favorite fantasy novel is The Swords of Lankhmar by Fritz Leiber.
RW: If you could pick up the dice and play an RPG right this very instant, you’d play…?
RLB: Right this second as I’m writing this, I could really get into a rousing session of DC Heroes.