Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

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Robert Vance Speaks!

August 10, 2011

It’s been a while since I’ve posted an interview with a White Wolf freelancer, and that’s been nothing but my own fault.  Mr. Vance has been almost literally chomping at the bit, and I have led him on with false promises and procrastination, to my undying shame.  Nevertheless, he has been very patient with me, and I have finally gotten off my duff and interviewed the most recent addition to the Ink Monkeys.  Fortunately (as though I had planned it all along [I didn’t]), this interview should coincide nicely with the complete release of the .pdf version of the Compass of Celestial Directions: Autochthonia, available on DriveThruRPG.  I apologize for the delay, and I present to you the long-awaited words of The Demented One.

Octopoid: Would you be kind enough to introduce yourself for our audience?

Robert Vance: My name is Robert Vance, better known to the forums as The Demented One.  I’m an undergraduate student working towards a B.A. in English, with still-amorphous plans for grad school afterwards.  I write poetry, cook,  hike, and have a implausibly high number of cats and dogs.

I’ve played around with homebrew game design since I was about 12 years old.  I got my start in Magic: the Gathering, then moved to D&D and Unknown Armies late in high school.  I discovered Exalted about three years ago, and somehow ended up as a White Wolf freelancer, Errata Team Prime member, and Ink Monkey.

O: What contributions would YOU claim you have made to Exalted, both as a game and as a community?  What contributions would others claim you have made, if different?

RV: My first official involvement in the came with The Broken-Winged Crane.  I played a very small part in helping to balance the Kimbery Charmset, and proofread the .pdf before it was released.  I also played an unofficial role in the recent Fair Folk errata, mostly giving Holden feedback and helping to polish his work.

Compass of Celestial Directions: Autochthonia is my first book as an author.  I was assigned the NPC chapter, which most players skim through to in other Compass books; I’m certainly guilty of that.  I’m hoping that my chapter will capture a little more interest than those that came before it; being jam-packed with more player-friendly crunch than
every other Compass put together can’t hurt.

As an Ink Monkey, I got off a grand total of one article before the website shift and subsequent hiatus.  I’m hoping to show off a lot more once we come back: Charms of all varieties, hearthstones, thaumaturgy, and my latest project, Szoreny.  On the errata side, I’ve been revising the God-Blooded chapter in Scroll of Heroes, and am helping Holden with the 2.5 errata.

I think I’ve also posted more homebrew Charms than maybe any other person ever, so that’s also a thing.

O: Can you describe for us the specifics of being a freelancer for White Wolf?  What does your job typically entail?  Do you find yourself writing more mechanics, fluff, or something else entirely?

RV: I’m still getting used to the whole freelancing thing, to be honest.  I haven’t had very much direct contact with the people in charge at White Wolf; mostly, it’s been projects handed down by Holden, or another freelancer coming to me with cool ideas.  A lot of what I’m doing now is really not very different than what I did as a fan, writing stuff up just because I think it’d be cool or for fun.  It’s just that now, I can pass them off to Neph or Holden or Neall for criticism, and have to think about whether I want to keep things lined up for Ink Monkeys or save them for future books.

I think it’s no surprise that I’m a system guy.  Charms are what I made my name with as a fan, and they make up the majority of what I’m putting out these days.  Much as I love the setting, I’m more confident in my crunch skills than I am in my world-building.  I’ve found a nice niche in collaborating with the setting guys, pairing together good crunch
with good fluff.  Eric Minton’s been the guiding voice of high concept when it comes to my Szoreny project, and Neall and I have a number of cool projects that we’re working on.

O: When you’re working on material, from what sources do you tend to draw your inspiration?

RV: I draw on a wide and eclectic range of inspiration.  For the Compass, my sources included a number of books on Soviet history, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, the music of Daft Punk and the Protomen, Neon Genesis Evangelion, the horror manga of Junji Ito, and Robocop.  With Szoreny, I’ve found myself drawing on comic book supervillains like Doctor Doom and the Mirror Master, Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamorra, and academic papers on delusional disorders.  I don’t take directly from these sources, but use them to set a sort of creative atmosphere in which to write, immersing myself in the narrative and aesthetic elements I’m trying to capture in my writing.  I’m not a picky eater, intellectually, and I think it shows in my work.

There’s also a few works that influence everything I write for Exalted.  I’ve read a fair deal of epic poetry: Gilgamesh, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Beowulf, Paradise Lost, and others (still need to get on the Mahabharata and Orlando Furioso).  These have been a large influence on how I understand and portray heroism and heroes in Exalted.  Every
Solar that I write has a little bit of Aeneas or Turnus in him; every Infernal has a touch of Lucifer.  I’ve also made a decent head start on Exalted’s canon with Tanith Lee’s Night’s Master and Dunsany’s Gods of Pegana.

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

RV: My RPG experience is middling at best compared to some of the other freelancers, but I’ve still picked up a few favorites.  Greg Stolze’s games have always impressed me; I’ve had a lot of fun with Unknown Armies and REIGN.  I loved what Keith Baker did with fantasy and pulp adventure in his Eberron setting for D&D.  Jenna Moran has been a source of wonderment and a role model for me as a writer ever since I discovered Hitherby Dragons; the fact that I now occasionally talk with her blows me away.  I’ve never had any personal experience with Geoff Grabowski, but what I’ve read of his in books and the odd outlines Holden digs up make me think I would’ve loved to work for him.

I really don’t know nearly enough about the people who put together RPG art.  Melissa Uran’s great, and I love the odd piece that Adam Warren has done for Exalted, but I’m really shamefully ignorant here.

O: Can you tell us a bit about how you first got into freelancing?  What advice would you offer to others who might be looking to follow in your footsteps?

RV: I was brought in because I was noticed by the writers: first Neph, then Holden and John.  The fact that I’m writing for White Wolf today is solely because these guys went to bat for me, and were able to convince the company to take a risk on hiring me.  Of course, this means I have no idea what the formal process of being hired as a freelancer is supposed to look like.  Writing and posting a few hundred Charms certainly worked for me, but there’s gotta be a better way of getting into the game.

O: What is your favorite creature from Exalted?  Your favorite Exalted type?

RV: My favorite creature remains unpublished, so not much I can say there.  On the other hand, I can tell you who my all-time least favorite creature is: Proto Puma Prime.  Sooo dumb.

Since I’m mostly focused on Charm design, I tend to favor whatever Exalt type I’m writing for at the moment.  Doing Szoreny; go team Infernal.  Coming up with some Shogunate-era battle Charms; I’m all about the Dragon-Blooded. Writing errata for Mountain Folk Patterns; Jadeborn are the best ever.  It’s a very disjointed, ping-pong mentality that ensures I pay some attention to everyone.

As a player, I enjoy the stories of power and consequences that Solars are well-geared to tell, as well as the nigh-infinite range of character concepts that they can embody.  The Sidereal Exalted are what made me first fall in love with this game and hold a special place in my heart, no matter how rough their 2e incarnation has been.  Hold me down at
gunpoint, and I’d probably waffle between Solars, Infernals, and Sidereals.

O: What would you say is your favorite part of freelance writing?  Your least favorite?

RV: I absolutely love that I’m able to talk to and collaborate with the whole freelancer team.  They’ve all been far more friendly and supportive than I deserve, and working alongside them has dramatically improved the quality of what I’m putting out.  Michael Goodwin has taught me more about system design than I ever would’ve gotten on my own.  Neall frequently talks setting metaphysics and the history of the game with me over lunch.  Hatewheel and I once had a lengthy argument over whether a hippo killed you with biting or goring.  They’ve all been great friends.  And, of course, I’d be lying if I said the groundswell of enthusiasm from fans every time something new hits doesn’t put a smile on my face.

The absolute worst part is the pressure of being printed.  I’m a perfectionist when it comes to writing, and once one of my mistakes has gone off to the printers, it’s there forever.  Lacking the freedom of the edit button is a scary, scary thing for me.

O: If you were going to commission a piece of character art for one of your characters, which character would it be, and who would you go to for the art?

RV: That’s a tricky question; I’ve been a Storyteller much more than a player.  If I had to pick a favorite NPC, it would be O-Mochi, the Eastern God of Rice.  I threw him for comic relief; he challenged the circle’s Twilight to an Iron Chef-style cooking duel.  He ended up as a much-beloved recurring character, serving as the circle’s envoy to the spirit courts of the East and as the patron god of their city.  Pretty cool guy.  Melissa Uran could doubtlessly do him well, although I don’t think she does Exalted commissions any more.

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

RV: Right now is a great time to be an Exalted fan.  We’ve got awesome stuff coming down the pipeline, a great team of writers, and really cool plans for the future.  I hope you guys have fun with it.

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Richard E. Hughes Speaks!

October 20, 2010

My next interviewee is a little outside my normal boundaries. He’s not a writer for Exalted, he’s not an Exalted artist, and he’s not a producer or developer. In fact, he’s not officially affiliated with White Wolf in any way. And yet, he’s a luminary in the Exalted community, active on the forums and active with the game. More importantly, he’s a fan, and while the writers are the ones that create the game, the players and the Storytellers are the ones who actually make the game. Without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, I would like to introduce Richard E. Hughes, better known to the forum-going crowd as “Kukla.”

Octopoid: Would you be kind enough to introduce yourself for our audience?

Richard E. Hughes: My name is Richard E. Hughes. I’m a software developer for an energy trading house based in Boston. I’m a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where I picked up a Major in Computer Science, a Minor in Comparative Media Studies, and a deep-set enthusiasm for Exalted as a setting. I joined the ExaltedMUSH after a few abortive games run by friends of mine, where I gradually insinuated my way deeper in to positions of authority with my venomed daggers of sincerity and understanding. I ran the place for about two years before burning out after graduating from college and losing the lion’s share of my free time, but it got me in to the community in an extremely active way.

O: What contributions would YOU claim you have made to Exalted, both as a game and as a community?

REH: I think the best contribution I seriously gave to the game was my tenure as head administrator at the Exalted MUSH. It’s small, but I helped provide a place to wallow in the game for twenty or thirty people who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to participate, and wouldn’t have any reason to buy the books, participate in the forums, and argue on the internet. I moved it from an oWoD, meta-plot oriented framework to a strongly player-driven game, where the ‘feature’ characters who became the iconic faces of the game were not the canonical examples given by White Wolf, but the creations of the players.

This wasn’t a perfect change – there were log-jams of conflicting player intent, and player-versus-player plot conflict is always hard to resolve without hurting feelings – but I feel that I succeeded better than was reasonable to expect, given the nature of the game.

More recently, I like to think I’ve been a useful guide to the fan base in their writing, providing feedback and advice on how to keep things thematically guided and coherent. I use the same design protocols in fan work that I use in designing software – consistency checks are foundational.

O: Do you work on custom material for the game? If so, where could one find this material?

REH: I constantly work on little pet projects, most all of which can be found on the wiki. I like helping others put work together, so if you have any fixer-up projects you need assistance with, toss me a line on the forums.

Early on in my career, I was strongly focused on charms to try and repair what I saw as flaws in the game – but frankly, people more professional than I are involved in that now, so these days I spend my time filling out what I see as interesting artifacts and spells that are more infrastructural than combative. I’m in love with the power of the Exalted to build a better, more beautiful world, but combat and the power to defend that world always gets more attention than the ability to make it in the first place. My work is focused on the products of that better world and the tools that forge it.

O: I understand you are currently running an Exalted game, the Shadow of the Penitent. What can you tell me about that game?

REH: Shadow of the Penitent was sparked by the most mercenary of ambitions. Hatewheel and Holden noted they were interested in joining a play-by-post game, and it had been a while since I’d run a game at all. Being a craven creature eager for the approval and association of those whom I admire, I immediately leapt to action to try and produce a game worthy of them and lure them in to my lair. That’s more or less what happened, but unfortunately I scared Hatewheel off with pacing issues, and Holden was simply too busy with classes and his responsibilities as Hamster Monkey. That said, it’s been a blast.

Shadow of the Penitent is an exploration of the themes of Exalted that I find most satisfying: the dream of creating the beautiful world, and the nightmare of sacrifice and compromise that one endures to create it. It revolves around the thousand-mile trade route through the mountains between the Lap and the city of Gem (which has not been destroyed nor will it) and the half-ruined infrastructure from the first age that make the route through such harsh terrain possible – a ten mile long bridge across a canyon of fire and ash, a five mile tunnel bored through a vast crag, and ancient manses which draw an oasis of water from the underworld in the middle of the desert. The players struggle to reclaim these things and control over them, so that they can leverage those secrets into the tools necessary to build an empire suitable for wresting the world from the hated Realm.

While the Realm has a lot going for it from a lot of perspectives, in this game I’m strongly embracing the original vision of Grabowski, in which the Realm is an uncompromising symbol with which to lambast the structures of Legalism. From the center of the world, the Scarlet Empress has held Creation by the throat for seven hundred years, and the world groaned beneath her yoke. Now her grip has faltered, and the walking revolutions who upset the great chain of being have come around again to put the world to the transforming fire of the people of the sun.

The game began at the aforementioned bridge across the canyon of fire, and from there the characters began dominating the local political structures and infiltrating the native cultures of the aboriginal people who dwell in the area. Presently they’re preparing for a military push north, but after a close scare with Terrestrial investigators, they know that their time is running short, and the Dragon of the empire will begin to turn its gaze to them.

Oh, speaking of mercenary ambitions, Neall Raemonn Price is in my game. Ostensibly. I don’t think he’s moved in, like, months.

O: Were you too fast or too slow for Hatewheel?

REH: I was much too fast. Originally I was trying to do one IC month every OOC week. We didn’t have time to get to know each other. It’s been closer to an IC month every two OOC months, once I stopped artificially accelerating things.

O: The pacing is very different.

REH: Yes, as is the tone. It might have worked at the original pace under other circumstances, with more prep work, but frankly I don’t think I laid enough ground work for it, nor were the players ready for that sort of madness. I was a little disappointed; I’d love to have a game last IC years or decades.

O: What inspirations do you draw on when you run a game? What different methods and styles do you find necessary in an online game vs. a table top game?

REH: I draw on my scanty knowledge of epic myth and wuxia novels, with a touch of crime novels and whatever knowledge I can gather of aboriginal peoples and the ancient world from the internet. (Did you know that Achilles actually uses Mob-Dispersing Rebuke in the Iliad? It’s true. He flares his anima and everything.)

Any roleplaying game is about sustaining the illusion. Roleplaying games are fundamentally distractions, trivialities which we indulge in – they are mirrors, thin as razors, deep as worlds. You must maintain the sense of the presence of the world behind the mirror – be it as a world in which to live, an arena in which to be victorious, or a stage in which to see a wondrous thing – as something that exists, and matters. As long as you can maintain interest and a cohesive vision of what the game is among the players, the game survives. The game doesn’t exist on the internet, it doesn’t exist on the table. It exists in the interest and desire of the players. Provide hooks in to the world, elements of it that fascinate and embroil, and give the players every opportunity to ensnare themselves in in those hooks. Let them ensnare you in turn with their contributions, so that you too are drawn to care.

Roleplaying games are cup shaping combat.

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

REH: First off, I’m a huge fan of the honorable Doctor Jenna Moran, not always necessarily for her work (which, while consistently brilliant, is also frequently encrypted) but for her design philosophy that the game should be designed such that ‘normal play’ by a group of average, not particularly ambitious players should produce exciting and memorable stories. This rejection of elitism – the idea that the great narratives of our game are as much a responsibility of the designer to enable as the players to produce – is the foundation of my design methodology and central to my rejection of what Jon Chung refers to as the Rule Zero Fallacy.

Secondly, the art produced by Kiyo and Melissa Uran is some of the most foundational to my conception of Exalted – Kiyo for producing a world that is beautiful, sordid, sensual, and violent, full of vivid energy and terrible seductive grisliness, Melissa Uran for producing a world of hard edges, old and weathered wounds, sharp and judgemental eyes, gleaming steel, and clattering, sparkling, acrobatic violence.

Thirdly, once an Exalted writer but no longer, Lea Sheppard’s focus on the little things – the small details, the way they fit together, and the mortal’s eye view on life in the fallen Age of Sorrows – is what turns the setting away from mere escaping, and towards the wrenching fantasy realpolitik that I so love, where your power can offer you no easy answers, no casual escape from the burden of your choices.

O: What is your favorite creature in Exalted? Your favorite Exalt type?

REH: This is a bit of a cop-out, but my favorite Exalt type is whomever I’m playing at the time. Who gets to win? I get to win. Me. Meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.

As for favorite creature, I’m gonna have to go with the Kukla. I’ve always visualized the Kukla as simultaneously a top-tier a technomagical battleplatform, in may ways the inspiration for much first age tech, and wholly a kaiju. I visualize it bellowing, and every single scale on it’s body detaches, falls away, and then jets out in a roar of essence as a subsidiary attack-elemental. I conceive of it having point defenses of marmorial cannons lining the entirety of it’s spine, and it’s underbelly scales folding back to reveal a limitless forest of GAU-8 heavy gatling cannons. I imagine its eyes, bigger than houses, are as immune to harm as diamonds – I visualize daiklaves skating off it’s pupil without leaving a mark. I see it opening it’s mouth and shadowing a half dozen city blocks with it’s gaping maw. I imagine that the sound of it moving, hundreds of miles away, creates a deep, resonant bass hum that drives animals mad and makes children weep. I imagine it simultaneously deploying an aircraft carrier worth of firepower and subsidiary attack platforms and a single hot plume of fire and a razor sharp fang and claw, like the sky itself coming down honed to a razor’s edge.

The Kukla is a sparkling weapon, fractal in it’s delicacy and solidity, pure and wrathful, the end of the world made manifest and unrelenting. The word ‘apocalypse’ means ‘the unveiling, to reveal’. It is that which pulls back the curtain.

O: My roommate is going to love that description of the Kukla. What message would you most like to give to your fellow Exalted players, especially your forum-going peers?

REH: My interpretation of the Kukla is wildly non-canonical, but it inspires me, and it is a vision that drives me. Find your vision and illustrate it with your work. Where it conflicts with canon, simply note that it does, and be at peace with that. Where it conflicts with good play and fun, destroy it and revise it without mercy. Know well what drives you forward and what holds you back.

Oh. And play Alpha Centauri, that’s fabulous inspiration for Exalted.

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Neall Raemonn Price: An Erotic Life

October 15, 2010

It’s been a while coming, but I have the honor today of presenting an interview with another of White Wolf’s writers, one that has been very influential on Exalted in particular. He inspired the “I Read the ST Section” club solely because of his excellent work on the Manual of Exalted Power: Infernals, and his subsequent work has in no way let the readers down. Ladies and gentlemen, I present an interview with Neall Raemonn Price.  (The title of today’s blog is at Mr. Price’s request, and was, in fact, a requirement for him to consent to an interview.  That may tell you more about him than any interview ever would.)

Octopoid: Would you be kind enough to introduce yourself for our audience?

Neall Raemonn Price: My name is Neall Raemonn Price. Presently I live in Annapolis, working out of Washington D.C. I graduated with a B.A. in Journalism from the University of Maryland, with concentrations in history, government and politics and the Arabic language. Besides the day job, I enjoy reading, roleplaying, cooking and baking, and writing. I’ve supported myself as a freelance reporter and writer at different points during my life and I’m working on a novel.

I’ve been involved with the community more-or-less from the beginning, though I lurked until Sidereals 1e came out. My direct involvement with the line came after the release of Second Edition, when I became friendly with Michael A. Goodwin.

Since then, I’ve done uncredited work on Manual of Exalted Power: The Abyssals, Scroll of Kings, Dreams of the First Age, Thousand Correct Actions of the Upright Soldier, Scroll of Exalts and Return of the Scarlet Empress. My credited works include the Storytelling chapters of Manual of Exalted Power: The Infernals, Scroll of Heroes and Manual of Exalted Power: The Alchemicals and two upcoming books. I contributed additional materials to Glories of the Most High.

I am also occasionally a member of Errata Team Prime – I contributed errata to Dreams of the First Age, the revisions in Thousand Correct Actions and I wrote much of the text of the redemption article for the Abyssal Exalted.

O: Can you describe for us the specifics of being a freelancer for White Wolf? What does your job typically entail? Do you find yourself writing more mechanics, fluff, or something else entirely?

NRP: I actually can’t go into specifics due to the nature of the NDA we’re required to sign. But, essentially, I was assigned Storytelling because that’s what I’m good at. Mechanics were never my strong suit, though I’ve contributed to Charms and errata. I’m improving with practice. I respect my mechanical strengths enough to know that they’re not always on the level of what’s required for a writer on Exalted.

My job is usually twofold – I appoint myself as ombudsman during collaborations (sometimes to the annoyance of other writers) and I’m the go-to guy for Storytelling. I like to believe that I leave other projects in a better state than when I found them, and it’s been my universal experience that collaboration on limited projects leads to vast improvement in the project, even if that collaboration is limited to simple communication between authors.

O: When you’re working on material, from what sources do you tend to draw your inspiration?

NRP: It depends on what I’m writing about. I favor a sort of organic method of writing – I don’t outline, I just write and see what forms. For Storytelling Mortals, I read The Chronicles of the Black Company, by Glen Cook, which is the best source for mortals games I can imagine. Then I started writing, and I found that eventually you’re going to run into a ceiling on the events of the campaign unless you make it a more limited series, and furthermore: isn’t it kind of weird to be playing mortals in a game called Exalted?  This is why there are three or four pages dedicated to why you should be played Exalts in a game called Exalted.

In terms of talking about fictional societies – about which, admittedly, I haven’t done much writing on Exalted – I look at what sort of themes I’d like communicate with that society and look at real world cultures that embody those themes and what I’d like to say about those themes. Then I steal from them and hang a lampshade on it.

I do this [Carmen] Sandiego-esque historical theft for three reasons. One, I’m a pretty lazy guy, but I’m not averse to working hard on thievery. Two, truth is stranger than fiction and there have been some very odd societies out there; copping off them for your work lends it an air of verisimilitude. Three, one of the best and most subtle ways to make a statement about something is to display the disparity of the opposite. You might regard this as a straw man argument, or reduction ad absurdum, but I contend that it’s more complex than that. My favorite example is the Realm – the Scarlet Empire is Grabowski’s very harsh critique of the process of legalism, espoused by ancient Chinese rulers, and why it’s essentially a stupid system designed to put a face over a naked and unfair power system.

Exalted makes a lot of statements about culture and the human condition by embodying the opposites of those statements in the setting and letting the readers make their own conclusion.

There are schools of thought that says we shouldn’t judge the past or other cultures; I don’t agree with that. There’s a degree of judgment that necessarily goes into learning from the past, otherwise we cannot determine the proper course of action in the future. I was a political journalist and there’s a lot of things going on in modern times that have occurred in history. Take the Know-Nothings – I’m not going to comment on them, but I’ll draw parallels between that movement and movements occurring today, and furthermore tell you I’m an Irish Catholic so you should keep that in mind when I talk about them.

Mario Vargas Llosa, this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature winner, said that literature should comment on politics but politics should never inform literature – meaning we shouldn’t have an axe to grind when we write, but that if the tree happens to fall, so be it. While that’s true, I think that there’s a degree of judgment that goes into writing itself. Authors have an enormous power to persuade and a capacity for judgment that journalists or chroniclers often ignore. Writers – and you, the players, as co-authors of your own Exalted chronicles – will find the best stories are told when you’re actually *saying something* rather than just talking about what you’re going to do.

It’s why my journalism degree is gathering dust in a warehouse in Maryland.

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

NRP: Hoo boy. For writers, a short list would be Lucien Soulban, Jenna Moran, Michael Goodwin, Greg Stolze, John Wick. Artists and designers…I get a lot of inspiration from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, because Kiedis has never subscribed to the saying that you should murder your darlings in writing – no matter how odd his lyrics are, he makes them work, non sequitur be damned. 

That kind of all-inclusive behavior, I greatly admire. But he’s not a game designer, and that’s what you meant.

O: Can you tell us a bit about how you first got into freelancing? What advice would you offer to others who might be looking to follow in your footsteps?

NRP: Something I see a lot, for good or for ill, is that the squeaky wheel gets the grease – but the squeaks actually have to mean something. I got into freelancing because I badmouthed Infernal Exalted on the Exalted forums back in the day and Michael Goodwin IM’d me to argue with me. It turned out we have a lot in common, and I count him among my closest friends, but that’s neither here nor there.

He singled me out because he believed I had things to say about Exalted – and I did. I started helping out with development and writing, and I eventually got a shot at submitting something to John Chambers. He liked it enough that I was given the ST chapter of Infernals, and believe me, the irony isn’t lost.

My advice would be this: do good work, turn that good work in on time and don’t burn bridges. If having a temper about this has taught me anything, it’s that burning bridges never helps anyone, and you might need that bridge later. There’s no need for hero worship in this business, or any other, really – go to the people who you want to work with and ask them how you get to where they are. In this business, that means asking developers for positions or if they’ll accept solicitations. It can be tough, but if you build up even a small portfolio, it will build up quickly.

O: What is your favorite creature from Exalted?

NRP: My favorite Exalted creature is the Kukla, though not for the importance and interest the Kukla generates. It doesn’t really generate any, it’s a big stupid plot-dragon. My fondness for the Kukla stems from respect of the design history behind it and what it says about the writers on Exalted.

In 1e, the Kukla’s stat block infamously declared that Exalted who face the apocalypse dragon should have their character sheets handed to the ST and then torn up in front of them. The purpose to this was to prove a point – that truly excessive amounts of force were incapable of solving every problem that arises in a game Exalted. And it’s a good point. The problem with that is that Exalts were touted as having beaten the creators of the universe, so you’re confronted with them being beaten out-of-hand by something that, however mighty, is decidedly less than a Primordial.

2e’s change was to give the Kukla stats and powers. High ones, powerful yes, but capable of being overcome. There’s a difference in design philosophy evident here, one shown now that we’ve statted an honest-to-goodness Yozi and the Incarnae – you should be able to take on anything in the setting and win.

I’m not certain I entirely agree with that – I enjoy the block of being unable to solve things with violence, but…

There’s an old fable about a man walking down the road with a dragon on a leather leash.  A traveler asks him why he used a leather leash, and not an iron one?  Surely that would hold the dragon more firmly.  The man shook his head and said the dragon was far stronger than he – if he couldn’t hold the dragon with a leather leash, how could he ever hope to control him with an iron one?

My advice to Storytellers, the lesson of the Kukla put more subtly, is to give the players a long leash.  Make their actions have consequences.  If they want to solve all of their problems with violence, by all means, let them be glorious suns blasting the desert with their heat and light.

O: Your favorite Exalted type?

NRP: If you’d asked me this question a few years back, my answer would have been Lunars, but now my favorite type of Exalted, on the same topic as above, is the Dragon-Blooded.  From the first, they interested me.  A weaker but more numerous type of Exalted!  Still powerful, but with their own unique culture and viewpoint, the last bastion of civilization and peace in a Time of Tumult.

A lot has changed since those lines in the First Edition core, where a Solar must fear that the Terrestrial across the bar is the one who ends their incarnation.  Can anyone feel the same way about Terrestrials now?  But still, the Terrestrials are capable of incredible heroic deeds but less than world-changing.

I like the Terrestrials because their power is just shy of warping the world around them rather than shaping it.  A Solar Exalt can reshape a nation and people almost entirely to serve him in a matter of months.  Terrestrials, by contrast, must interact with setting and culture on a more personal level – and they must deal with their own culture on top of that.  The Celestials have their own cultures, true, but not quite as interesting as the Realm or Lookshy…

If a Solar doesn’t like Chaya, they can blaze away nanomachines with their might and go punch out the gods of the region.  If a Terrestrial doesn’t like Chaya, there’s much less they can do about it, and more to struggle with should they choose to change it.

O: What would you say is your favorite part of freelance writing? Your least favorite?

NRP: My favorite part is the way the fans react to what you’re doing – or interacting with fans, as it were.  It’s great to see fans giddy about new rules or a new piece of the setting, or even to look at an older part in a new light.

My least favorite…well.  I’ve been known to pop into threads about “How do I storytell Infernals” or, “Can Infernals be sympathetic,” and say something like, “Maybe you should read my chapter before you ask.”

A close second to that would be fighting with other authors behind the scenes.  Some writers – I won’t say whom, but some – build this very intricate model of the universe and cosmology inside their minds, and if you include a detail that violates that model, despite the surface of the setting not changing it a whit, it’s fighting words.

The key to solving this, as the key to the above annoyance, is just to talk it out.  Find out why they dislike that change to the model – and often it’s something unbelievably minor – and work out a compromise.  Talk to the fans who didn’t feel you adequately answered their question, and answer it as best you can in a longer form.  Communication heals.

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

NRP: If you’re happy about how things are going, tell us!  We love it.  If you’re dissatisfied, sit back.  Think about things.  Then reason out why you don’t like it and tell us.  We like that.

And stay tuned – Exalted’s about to change in a few big ways, and in more than a few it’s going back to basics.

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Peter K. Ullmann Speaks!

September 3, 2010

Anyone who has spent any significant time on the White Wolf forums knows this man. Anyone who has perused the Scroll of Errata is grateful to him. Anyone who has utilized Alchemical Artifacts or cried out for an advocate for Sorcery has this man to thank. I present you all with a much-needed interview with none other than Bodhisattva himself, Peter K. Ullmann!

Octopoid Prevarication: Would you be kind enough to introduce yourself for our audience?

Peter Ullmann: Sure. My name is Peter K. Ullmann, but many Exalted fans might know me by my alias, “Bodhisattva” either on the Exalted forums, on the Exalted wiki, other Exalted-related websites or even over on RPG.net. I’m the administrator of the Exalted wiki and produce the Scroll of Errata.

OP: Can you tell us what Exalted products and projects you’ve worked on?

Peter: As I mentioned before, I am the administrator for the Exalted wiki and I do the layout and production of the Scroll of Errata. I was also involved in writing Chapter Six of the Manual of Exalted Power: Alchemicals, which featured new artifacts, protocols and thaumaturgy.

OP: How would you characterize your experience with Exalted, both working on products and playing the game?  In what ways has working on the game changed your view of Exalted?

Peter: I love Exalted. I’ve been playing it since the First Edition Limited Edition Core Rulebook became available, so it’s been nine years that I’ve been involved in Exalted as a player and storyteller. Overall, I think it’s been a great experience, even though there are things that I wish were better about Exalted. Working on the game has really made me a lot more critical of the overall experience of game-play, and as a writer, I try to express that in areas of the game that are less well-tended. I think the entire setting has such a depth and richness to it that few games can approach, and I’d love to see the kind of development into every area of the system that we’ve clearly seen in the line writers’ love of Charms.

OP: I know you are one of the (underappreciated) members of Errata Team Prime.  What guidelines and inspirations do you use when working on errata-ing game material?

Peter: First and foremost, you’ve got to think of other people and their games and try to come up with things that will be fun for them to use. Inspiration can come from any source—from mythology to movies and anywhere in between. But, after you come up with ideas that you think will enhance game play, you’ve got to take a look at how that interacts with established materials. If it works with what’s been established, that’s great! If not, you really have to decide, “Is this piece of Exalted that I’m deliberately altering in need of altering?” If the answer is no, it requires a little bit of swallowing your pride to leave it alone and tweak the idea that you had. I think it’s important to respect the work of other authors who wrote for this game. After all, they made it what it is. Other freelancers may feel that their ideas are better, and that’s fine. Maybe they are. But, I think those ideas can be incorporated into the game rather than overwriting parts of it. It’s a delicate balance, but I tend to err to the side of respecting other people’s works.

OP: Who would you say are your favorite authors or writers are in the gaming field, in the Exalted line specifically?  What about your favorite artists or designers?

Peter: I’m going to talk about my favorite writers for the Exalted line. I really love Michael A. Goodwin’s work and I think he’s brilliant. No one writes Charms like he does, and he’s pushed the game into some fantastic directions. I also respect Neall Raemonn Price a lot. Writing storytelling chapters is probably the hardest work for a line writer, because you’re pioneering absolutely new things. You don’t have other mechanical work to build off of, just your own ideas. I’m also a fan of Eric Minton’s and Kraig Blackwelder’s works—they have a lot of flair. I’ve also got to give mad props to Genevieve Cogman and Dawn Elliot for their work on Caste Book: Twilight, back in first edition. I thought it was one of the most interesting books of the entire line.

OP: Can you tell us a bit about how you first got into Errata for White Wolf?  What advice would you offer to others who might be looking to follow in your footsteps?

Peter: Well, I can’t really give any advice for anyone seeking to work on errata for White Wolf. My own ideas on errata haven’t even seen the light of day yet, although I’ve worked on sorcery keywords, some sorcery and necromancy errata, rules for naturally spawning shadowlands (and how they can be encouraged to form), and some errata for my work on the Manual of Exalted Power: Alchemicals. But, I have no control over what gets approved or even what order things get worked on. There has been fantastic work on errata for Charms, but Charms (although in critical need of errata for certain Exalt types) aren’t the only part of the game that needs errata, and although Errata Team Prime is taking a “triage” approach to writing errata, if there were more hands involved, we might see more quality errata coming out faster for other parts of Exalted as well.

OP: What is your favorite material from Exalted?   Why?

Peter: Before I became a freelancer, I really didn’t have a favorite part because I was just so enamored with the whole game. If I had to pick a favorite thing, I would pick some of the ruined bastions of civilization from the First Age, like Denandsor… The setting is truly amazing and so open for development. After I became a freelancer, though, I really started getting interested in the sorcery system. I think it’s a tragedy that sorcery has become a distant second to Charms as an avenue to power for players. I never minded that it played second fiddle, but developments in Charm technologies over Second Edition have really pushed sorcery further and further toward obsolescence. I wish things didn’t have to be that way, but Exalted really took off in a different direction as a system over the past few years.

OP: What would you say is your favorite part of being on Errata Team Prime?  Your least favorite?

Peter: My favorite part of being on Errata Team Prime is that I get to stay involved in the game in some fashion. Unfortunately, since I really have extraordinarily limited input, I’m really just the layout person for the Scroll of Errata. I have to admit, it’s no fun being on the outside of things, but I’m not the only freelancer in that position. At least I’m still involved in some fashion. If there’s a least-favorite part about being on Errata Team Prime, I’d have to say it’s the fact that I’ve not been able to errata anything yet. There’s been such a mono-focus (although not an exclusive focus) on one aspect of game play that the things I’d like to work on may not see print for a long, long time. I feel shut out, and I may not be the only freelancer that feels that way, but that’s White Wolf’s call. All I can do is hope that my efforts will eventually be recognized and rewarded and I’ll get to write new material for the game and get my hand in on updating aspects of the game that need a little love too.

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

Peter: No matter what, enjoy the game. That’s really all there is to it. We’re all here to have fun with a game that we love, and some people lose sight of that. Sometimes that means they move on to other games or forums, other times they get irritable with each other. I generally try to maintain an even keel about things, but even I get away from myself sometimes. Remember, it’s all about a great game and your enjoyment of playing it. Everything else is secondary.

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Holden Shearer Speaks!

August 11, 2010

This is an interview I’ve had a hard time not posting, since I got it Friday right after my post that morning. However, I’ve stuck to my schedule, and I hope you all feel the wait was worth it. Today, I have the honor and pleasure to present the fruits of my interview with none other than the Ink Hamster himself, Holden Shearer!

Octopoid: First, for the audience, can you tell us who you are and what you do?

Holden Shearer: My name’s Holden Shearer (Holden at the White Wolf forums, HLS at rpg.net). I’m presently a college student pursuing an AA degree, a freelance writer, and working at becoming a novelist. I’m not otherwise employed at the moment, though I prefer the term “freelance bum.”

My lance is very free indeed.

Also, Ink Monkey.

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

HS: Sure. I started off helping playtest, balance, tighten the screws on, and ultimately edited The Manual of Exalted Power—The Infernals.

My first actual paid writing gig for White Wolf was The Manual of Exalted Power—The Alchemicals. I got to do chapters one, three, four, and co-wrote chapter five, so this was basically my dream job. After that, I did the Alchemicals and some Dragon-Blooded in Scroll of Exalts, and chapter six and part of chapter seven of The Return of the Scarlet Empress. I got to stat Big Red.

PDF-wise, I did the non-Incarnae Charms in Glories of the Most High, and the martial arts styles in Debris From the Fallen Races. I helped Michael Goodwin write Under the Rose, though he did most of the work on that. And I co-authored the revised material in Dreams of the First Age with John Mørke.

I also got the ball rolling on Ink Monkeys, if that counts.

O: I’d say it counts!  Can you describe for us the specifics of being a freelancer for White Wolf? What does your job typically entail? Do you find yourself writing more mechanics, fluff, or something else entirely?

HS: It’s nerve-wracking and wonderful. I’m kind of high-strung by nature and a firm believer in Murphy’s Law, so it’s mostly a matter of watching my inbox, waiting for the next job proposal to appear, and hoping I didn’t screw something up and get blackballed by mistake. The company tends toward crazy-short deadlines for whatever reason, so when a contract does appear, it usually means a mad scramble to get the assignment lined up and knocked down.

As far as what I handle, I think of myself primarily as a crunch guy—I like the system, I’m a system-centric thinker, and finding new ways to make it sit up and dance is my hobby, it’s what I do to amuse myself. John Chambers appears to think of me as Alchemical Guy, since I seem to have landed all the Alchie-centric material for three products running, and that’s fine by me. I could write about Autochthonia and its Exalts all day, every day. Scroll of Exalts is by far the hardest assignment I’ve ever had to tackle. I’d say writing adventure modules is my weakest point, while Charm design and setting exploration are where I’m happiest.

O: From what sources do you tend to draw your inspiration?

HS: Whatever I’m exposed to at the time tends to appear in what I’m writing. Watching Bleach? Solars end up with flash step Charms and Infernals are pulling Arrancar tricks. Reading Romance of the Three Kingdoms, back-line War Charm ideas bubble up. The 2e Soulsteel Caste was largely inspired by Rorschach from Watchmen. Setting writing tends to be a mixture of inspiration from various histories, and, depending on whether I’m doing interesting grit or hopeful heroics, that gets filtered through either Deadwood or Turn A Gundam.

I’ve started watching Doctor Who during the last few months. Well. Powered through 18 seasons of it. It hasn’t started leaking into Exalted yet, thankfully.

I’m busy chewing my way through the canon, as well (Lord Dunsany, the Elric and Conan stories, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Night’s Master, etc), but I’m not the line’s best guy for taking the game back to its mythic roots yet.

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

HS: Jenna Moran is an unending fascination and inspiration for me. I bought Weapons of the Gods just because I missed her writing voice. 1e Sidereals was a revelation for me, taught me things about interwoven design I’d never even imagined before. She’s by far my favorite person in the industry. As far as artists go, I’ve always loved the artwork of Melissa Uran, Kiyo and Omar Dogan. Geoff Grabowski and Justin Achilli remain inspirations to me as far as designers/developers go. I have tremendous respect for the “sober-but-awesome” approach they take to intellectual properties, and their focus on realpolitik.

O: Can you tell us a bit about how you first got into freelancing? What advice would you offer to others who might be looking to follow in your footsteps?

HS: I got in by accident and by grace. Michael Goodwin and Neall Raemonn Price grandfathered me in; I attracted Neph’s attention, according to the man himself, due to some particularly insightful setting commentary on the White Wolf forum, which caused him to ping me as a potential playtester for the Infernal Charms. We clicked from there.

I have no idea how one gets in through the front door, as a consequence. My advice would be, do what you love, and put your work out there where everyone can see it. Go where the people you want to impress are. They are always looking for talent. There’s no ivory tower. This is an industry hungry for brilliance.

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

HS: I’m rather fond of the chillikin. We had a very fun couple of sessions revolve around one of those.

My favorite Exalt type to write about are the Alchemicals, followed closely by Infernals. Back in First Edition, Sidereals were my hands-down favorite to play; these days, it’s a toss-up between those three. I love the unique setting position of all three Exalt types, as well as the idiosyncrasies of their Charm sets.

O: What would you say is your favorite part of freelance writing? Your least favorite?

HS: My favorite part? Watching the fans go bananas during a new release, tied with hearing about what kind of awesome thing they’ve done with material I inserted into the game. A close third would be getting my author copies of a new book in the mail, and seeing the awesome illustrations that have been produced to go alongside my prose.

My least favorite part is the way getting behind the curtain changes the way you look at the material. It’s hard to read the output of my coworkers as a fan any more, you’re always going “no, dammit, that’s wrong! Agh! I would have done that so differently! Oh hell, that gets all in the way of what I was wanting to do with Setting Element Z!” Sometimes I can still just sit back and enjoy it, but having future plans and worrying someone else is going to invent his way across the middle of them with no warning is always scary.

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

HS: Stay tuned, you haven’t seen anything yet.

(Okay, you’ve seen Dreams of the First Age, that was something. But still! Better things still to come.)

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John Mørke Speaks!

July 28, 2010

I am deeply honored to be able to present today’s post to the Exalted community. John Mørke, perhaps better known as “hatewheel” from the Exalted forums, has consented to an interview. I know I’m a huge fan of his work, both as an Ink Monkey and as a writer for published products for sale. I’ve also been fortunate enough to have a couple conversations with him on the forums, and I think I managed to keep from squealing in unbecoming glee either time. Without further ado, I give you my interview with John Mørke.

Octopoid: First, for the readers, can you tell us who you are and what you do?

John Mørke: I am John Mørke; student, writer, and freelance writer for White Wolf’s Exalted. I’m also an Ink Monkey.

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

JM: Glories of the Most High (author), MoEP: Alchemicals (concept design, editing, playtesting), Scroll of Exalts (uncredited writing), Return of the Scarlet Empress (contribution of ideas).

O:Can you describe for us the specifics of being a freelancer for White Wolf? What does your job typically entail? Do you find yourself writing more mechanics, fluff, or something else entirely?

JM: Lately I’ve been writing more mechanics. I started out writing setting material primarily because I am a writer and prose is my foremost strength. Having gotten to work with [Michael] Goodwin and [Holden] Shearer, the most prolific mechanics on the line, I have graduated to the point where I’m handling errata and writing Charms. I took an authoritative lead on the Dreams of the First Age Solar errata and I have engineered Lunar, Sidereal, and Dawn-specific errata, all of which will be forthcoming. I’m also working on the final part of the Daystar, reformatting it a little bit to fine-tune some of my concepts. I don’t like the term fluff, though. It seems derogatory and dismissive.

O: From what sources do you tend to draw your inspiration?

JM: Everything. I have read countless books. Sorry I don’t have a juicy answer. There’s nothing I could point to and say “that’s it, that’s what makes me be.” I don’t tend to hold inspiration in that high regard. I “do” because there is no other choice.

O:
How do you invent new material for Exalted? Is there a specific process you follow to determine what the game needs, or do you rely on inspiration striking to develop your contributions?

JM: I’m a pattern self-starter so there’s usually no moment of inspiration. I simply think about the game. My ideas usually come from imagining story scenarios, setting material, and character dialogue. I would suggest that 100% of my Charm ideas come out of imagining how they would work in a story. I’m different from Nephilpal and Holden in that way. I start with the story—what story does this Charm tell? what does a character look like when using it? then I proceed back to mechanics. Because I have such a different approach, my angle on it has been valuable to giving feedback on Charms written by the other Ink Monkeys, because I often see things they wouldn’t have seen, because I have such a different approach. My analytical style leads to the writing of a lot of Charms they wouldn’t have come up with, because I begin at the conceptual level and they typically do not. Sometimes inspiration does strike, when I’m reading a thread, watching anime, playing a game, reading a book, or even doing research for class. This doesn’t always lead to a Charm, but it might resurrect old or ongoing processes—ideas under construction—with a new spark of life.

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

JM: I’m not aware of many writers in the gaming field. I admire the works of Jenna Moran. In terms of artists, I fairly enjoy Mel Uran’s work.

O: Can you tell us a bit about how you first got into freelancing?  What advice would you offer to others who might be looking to follow in your footsteps?

JM: It’s not an exciting story. Holden, through a lot of diligence, contribution, and mechanical skill, convinced Neph to get him on in on projects. Holden, having known myself since the mid ’90s, and being more familiar with my writing chops than anyone else, automatically thought to get me involved with Exalted. And myself having played Exalted on and off since around 2003, jumped at the chance to get involved. My advice to those looking to get involved in freelance writing—write Charms. Write them well. Post them on the forums. Comment on the state of the game, form opinions on the mechanics, be vocal. I know of at least two freelancers who are paying attention to the forums, and we do discuss the things people post.

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

JM: Hard to pick. I’ve read so much Exalted material it is hard to summon it all to memory. What stands out, at least on this reading, is the 1e Sidereal Charm set by Borgstrom, and the 1e descriptions of the constellations and their meanings, by Grabowski, both in the original Sidereals hardback. I feel to-date, Sidereals’ original Charm and constellation info more thoroughly explains them as an Exalt type than any other information printed about any other Exalt type. True I do not agree with everything written therein, but I am absolutely impressed by the trend Borgstrom set. I appreciate that her Charms start with meaning and then proceed to effect. It is a mode that speaks to me. I have no favorite Exalt type, though. I’m an advocate of whatever I’m working on. Right now that appears to be Solars; a month ago it was Sidereals; a month before that it was Lunars. It’s coming back around to Sidereals and Lunars again.

O: What would you say is your favorite part of freelance writing?  Your least favorite?

JM: My favorite part of freelance writing is entertaining myself with my ideas. It’s always amazing when I come up with something that’s really clever, wonderful, exciting, and I know I’ve got my hands on a concept that is going to turn heads and drop jaws. I know that whenever I have managed to surprise and delight myself, most of the fanbase is also going to be surprised and delighted. My least favorite part of freelancing is the snowball effect, where we fix or add something, and get demands, either self-imposed or from the fanbase, that we fix or add ten other things. Hard to deal with when you work for free. I guess my real least-favorite thing is the lack of contracts. I hope White Wolf starts moving out new Exalted products, and I hope that they consider me when doing so. I’ve done quite a lot of free work in the name of keeping Exalted going in the long and empty space between publications and I’m not ashamed of my hope that I’ll be recognized for it.

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

JM: If you like Exalted, keep supporting Ink Monkeys. Even if you don’t agree with everything we do, taking the time to discuss your ideas, state your arguments, etc., contributes to the life of Exalted. Most of all, mail White Wolf and let them know that you like what we’re doing. Be specific as possible and make sure you include our names. Mine, for example, is John Mørke (ALT+0248).

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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.