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Dean Shomshak Speaks!

June 2, 2010

I have a very special and very exciting post today to celebrate the end of my vacation.  Dean Shomshak, a long-time writer and contributor for White Wolf, has consented to an interview.  Below, behold the fruits of that interview!

O: I’m very excited about the interview, because I’ve been familiar with your work for quite some time.  However, for completeness’ sake, can you tell us who you are and what you do?

DS: Hello, all. My name is Dean Shomshak. I’ve played RPGs longer than I care to admit. Eventually, I started writing for various games — mostly for White Wolf. In the last few years, White Wolf has hired me to develop some supplements as well. I’m a freelancer, though, not an employee of the company.

 O: Can you tell us what Exalted products, specifically, you’ve worked on?

DS: It’s become quite a list! My first Exalted credit is under “Charm Design Advice” in the First Edition corebook. While developer Geoff Grabowski and I emailed back and forth over my first Exalted writing job, Geoff said he wasn’t happy with a sample spell that evoked a spray of razor-edged metal disks. I suggested, “How about obsidian butterflies?”

 That happened while I worked on the Exalted Storyteller’s Companion: I wrote chapters 1 and 4, and invented the Heptagram and the Eye of Autochthon in the process. Shortly thereafter, I wrote “Guardians of the Invisible Fortress” for Time of Tumult.

 White Wolf called me back as a guest developer for Second Edition Exalted. Since then, Exalted has accounted for most of my work. More or less in order:

 Scroll of the Monk: developer

Books of Sorcery, Vol. II — White & Black Treatises: developer

Books of Sorcery, Vol. III – Oaedenol’s Codex: developer

Compass of Celestial Directions, Vol. II — The Wyld: developer

Manual of Exalted Power — Lunars: developer

Manual of Exalted Power — Sidereals: developer; author of bits in chapters 1 and 2, plus a few new Charms

Scroll of Kings: developer; author, chapters 1, 3, 5, significant portions of chapter 6

Compass of Terrestrial Directions, Vol. III — The East: developer

Manual of Exalted Power — Abyssals: developer

Compass of Celestial Directions, Vol. IV — The Underworld: author, chapters 1, 3, 8

Compass of Terrestrial Directions, Vol. IV — The South: developer; author, chapters 1, 4, 6, 8

Compass of Celestial Directions, Vol. V — Malfeas: author, chapters 2, 3

Compass of Terrestrial Directions, Vol. V — The North: developer; author, chapters 2, 3, 4

Splinters of the Wyld: hoarder and compiler of fragments; author of “More Mutations” and “Contact with the Wyld” (except for the sidebar on life flowers)

Scroll of the Exalted: author, Lunars and Sidereals

Return of the Scarlet Empress (forthcoming): author, chapters 3, 5

O: This is a fairly Exalted-specific blog, and I know your work is more with the main White Wolf lines.  However, I’m curious: How would you characterize your experience with Exalted, both working on products and playing the game?

DS: As a writer and developer, I’d say, “hectic.” Most projects came to me because they were way late and White Wolf needed someone to write or develop material right now. Trying to learn this quite complicated game while writing and developing supplements was… challenging. Yes. I often felt mentally challenged.

I only got a chance to play Exalted after I’d already developed several books. Playing the game was a lot more fun than writing and developing! The experience also greatly improved my understanding of the game.

 (This is not the only time I’ve written for games I haven’t played. Sometimes, it’s unavoidable: At least four times, I’ve written for games that didn’t exist yet — they were still in development. It’s just an unavoidable hazard of the biz.)

O: Your portfolio is very diverse, ranging across several genres.  From what sources do you tend to draw your inspiration?

DS: Very often, not the source material for the games. When I wrote for Vampire: the Masquerade and Vampire: the Requiem, I didn’t read lots of vampire stories or watch vampire movies. Working on Exalted, I don’t binge on anime or, indeed, any sort of fantasy… though at the start, high-octane fantasy action such as House of Flying Daggers or the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy did help for getting the Exalted “feel.”

I prefer history, mythology, current events and the like, and refract it through the prism of the game’s setting and rules. I am more likely to get setting and story ideas from a book about tropical agriculture or corporate culture than from a fantasy novel. For Exalted, I think my single biggest source of inspiration has been the History Channel. For instance, Scroll of Kings owes a lot to the Ancient Discoveries series.

O: Who would you say are your favorite authors or writers in the gaming field?  What about your favorite artists or designers?

DS: Kenneth Hite never fails to amaze and delight me with his interweavings of history, horror, literature and the supernatural, and I like his writing, too. Robin D. Laws reminds me to keep my focus on the players sitting at the table. Scott Bennie showed me how to write an interesting character. For Exalted, I think Genevieve Cogman stands out for communicating the sheer “sensawunda” of the setting. I also have to credit Justin Achilli’s work as VtM developer for making me a writer of greater skill.

I can’t say as much about artists because I usually can’t figure out who did what! All the artists for MoEP — Lunars did great work, though. Leif Jones is my all-time favorite artist for White Wolf products, because he portrays characters with so much personality. Beyond White Wolf products, I always enjoy the work of Storn Cook and Greg Smith.

O: Can you tell us a bit about how you first got into writing, both in general and for White Wolf specifically?  What advice would you offer to others who might be looking to follow in your footsteps?

DS: Way back when, I read DRAGON Magazine regularly. After several years of gaming and writing a bunch of material for my own games, I figured my stuff was as good as what DRAGON published. In college, I managed to sell a few articles on Advanced Dungeons and Dragons and Call of Cthulhu. After that I spent several years trying to sell articles to Adventurer’s Club while the “quarterly” magazine went years between issues, editors came and went and its parent HERO Games drifted in limbo. Eventually, HERO Games found a home with Iron Crown Enterprises long enough for one of my article pitches to be pre-empted by a supplement called Mystic Masters. The folks at ICE noticed me, though, and accepted a proposal for a supplement that became Creatures of the Night: Horror Enemies — my first book.

 While working on my next book for HERO/ICE, a friend introduced me to White Wolf through Vampire: the Masquerade and Mage: the Ascension. I liked them a lot. I started posting on the alt.games.white-wolf Usenet group, and managed to be noticed (in a good way) by Justin Achilli and other developers.

 After a few years of that, and hearing that White Wolf was working on a new edition of Vampire: the Masquerade, I wrote to Justin and asked if he’d consider me as one of the writers for the new edition’s Sabbat book. (The previous edition’s material on the Sabbat — one of the big vampire factions of the VtM setting — had much that was cool and much that I found irritating and stupid. The combination of love and irritation made me want to see it done right this time. I suspect many game writers and would-be writers can tell similar stories.)

 That book already had writers lined up, but Justin needed writers for this other book called Time of Thin Blood… Justin knew me from alt.games.white-wolf; I had a few writing credits already; so, he took a chance on me, and did not regret it. I’ve freelanced for White Wolf ever since.

 This story holds a number of lessons for would-be game writers.

 First and most importantly, write! Get in the habit of writing something every day. Learn by doing. Practice all that boring stuff you learned in high school English classes, such as active voice and outlining. Now and then, inflict the results on your friends and ask them if they can understand what the heck you tried to say. Keeping them as your friends provides extra incentive to improve your writing.

 See, the people who get hired to build imaginary worlds are not the most brilliantly creative gamers, the rules wonks who memorized every detail of a game system, or the most beautiful prose stylists. They are the people who can write paragraphs that makes sense, string them together to explain or describe something clearly, and meet a deadline. Art and genius are nice, but optional. Which is good: You can’t learn genius, but you can learn craft.

 Ideas are the easy part. Read a lot and watch a lot, in a variety of genres and subjects. Ideas will come. Developing them presents a greater challenge. Work out details and implications. Keep asking yourself, “And then what? How exactly does this work? What will people do with this, or react to it? How does it interact with other things?” Even if you don’t want to write for games, this exercise can improve your games by teaching you to look beyond the obvious notion or storyline.

 (Fortunately, forums such as White Wolf’s offer excellent practice. You can get a lot of feedback from many smart people, and a few stupid ones. Don’t ignore the people who just don’t get what you tried to say. Keep trying until they do understand. Accept that sometimes, the problem lies with you, not them, and your idea was just plain dumb. And in this, you have my sympathy: I’ve been there, many times.)

 Practice your craft with your own games. Write up important characters in full, with their backstory, motivation and activities, just like you see in a book such as Scroll of Exalts. Outline the scenes, characters, settings and plotlines in adventures. As a game writer, you might be asked to write an adventure. It helps if you have practice and know from experience what material a Storyteller or gamemaster really needs.

 Finally, find a game company that publishes on a regular schedule and thinks of itself as a business. (Or, start one. Someone has to.) Otherwise, you might as well give your material away for free on your website or a wiki. If you just want people to see your material, this is fine. If you want to get paid for your work, though, find someone reliable.

 Still, getting published anywhere is a good first step — paid or not. It helps if you can point to something game-related and tell a game’s developer, “See, I can write.”

O: What is your favorite material from Exalted?  Your favorite Exalted type?  Why?

DS: Oh, gosh, there’s so much… Overall, I have to say the setting does the most to enthrall me. So many fantasy settings — game or fiction — have no real depth. They are just simplified versions of medieval Europe, or whatever, with a thin frosting of monsters and magic. The writers clearly got most of their ideas from other fantasy games or stories.

 In Exalted, the fantasy has depth and texture. Creation resembles Earth in many ways; Creation’s humans are all too human; but this is not Earth. The world is flat, with Elemental Poles. It has its own natural and supernatural science. It has history, commerce, technological change, religious conflict — not just some cartoon Dark Lord going around doing badness. It’s just a more interesting place to visit in my imagination than some dumb Generic Fantasy Warehouse setting with an Evil Empire, a magic sword, a wizard, a strong-thewed barbarian or an untested young hero with a Destiny.

 Though, if you want heroes with Destinies, you can’t beat the Solar Exalted, ordained by Heaven to rule the world. You know a hero by her opposition and the Solar Exalted have an excellent rogue’s gallery, what with all the “bad guys” out to get them and all the “good guys” with real and justifiable fears of what the Lawgivers might do also out to get them! Plus, the sheer jaw-dropping awesomeness of what Solar Exalted can do makes them immense fun to play.

 The Lunar Exalted come a close second for me, mostly because of the Thousand Streams River. (For the uninitiated: This is a Lunar program to create new societies on the fringes of Creation.) I love imagining strange new societies, so I can relate. Plus, the Lunars offer a way to explore evolutionary and transhumanist themes — I like to see what happens when ancient and postmodern mythologies intersect. It has nothing to do with furries, honest. 🙂

O: I am personally very curious about the process of becoming a writer, and the kind of environment that comes with that.  What would you say is your favorite part of writing?  Your least favorite?

DS: Sometimes, inspiration strikes and the words come almost without effort. This is pure joy. Stories, people, whole worlds float into pseudo-existence within my mind, and coalesce into words so I can show them to other people — and they are just as amazed as I was.

 Other times, inspiration does not strike. Crafting sentences, images, rules and meanings is like pulling my own teeth. I wonder if I will ever be creative again. But, I have a deadline. This is writer’s block. It is not fun. At times like this, I would rather dig ditches.

 I do not pretend to be a great artist. I do try to be an honest and competent craftsman. My absolute least favorite moments as a writer or developer come when I realize I was not competent, and did not succeed in providing good, useful and clearly explained material. All I can do then is admit the error and try to learn from the experience.

O: What message would you want most to give to frequent readers or forumites, given your position as both writer and frequent forum-goer?

DS: Presumably, you read blogs and participate in Exalted forums because you love the game. I do, too. If Exalted was just a job, I wouldn’t stick around. While I can offer the occasional “look behind the curtain” on writing and development decisions I made, I participate in White Wolf’s Exalted forum as a fellow fan of the game — not as (shudder) An Authority.

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6 comments

  1. Thanks for posting this interview. Though it REALLY hit me *why* sometimes the fluff and mechanics don’t mix, or the mechanics are just *odd* when he said:

    “I only got a chance to play Exalted after I’d already developed several books. Playing the game was a lot more fun than writing and developing! The experience also greatly improved my understanding of the game.”

    I enjoy almost all of my WW Exalted books… So I can’t fault the author, but what is the logic behind hiring a person to write for a game that they haven’t even played?


    • I would imagine it involves several things. A) Like Mr. Shomshak said, sometimes the game doesn’t exist yet, so it’s difficult for him to have played it. B) Sometimes, you don’t have a choice. The people who have played the game are unavailable, are not terribly good writers, etc. etc. C) Sometimes, the game needs to be on shelves now, or all your funding goes away. So you pick the best people that are available. Like anything else in life, you will never get to make a game perfectly. For my money, Exalted is the best of the games out there, and I know I, in large part, have Dean Shomshak to thank for that.


      • Oh I agree, it’s just frustrating when we pay for stuff and some of it comes so broken out of the box, that’s all. It just highlights that WW’s product management could use some overhaul. I’d rather not have to houserule several dozen charms and new mechanics due to lack of playtesting.


  2. This gave some nice insight into WW and Exalted. Thanks, O. and D.S.


    • My pleasure, and it’s good to see you here, Kennyth!


  3. Hey Dean – Remember this? I think it was one of your first incantations: “Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi…”



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