Interview with Stoic Studios

On March 19th, 2012, a team of three developers formerly from Bio-Ware put up a new Kickstarter campaign for a small, indie game called The Banner Saga. 20,000 backers and $700,000 later, it was 7 times over its asking amount, and one of the most successful projects ever kickstarted, putting Stoic Studios well on the map. Today, Alex Thomas, the Creative Director of Stoic Studios, found time to speak with about the process.

Alex Thomas, warchief of creativity over at Stoic Studios.

Alex Thomas, warchief of creativity over at Stoic Studios.

He2etic: When people think of making video games, being the creative director is often considered an absolute dream position. What are some of the realities and challenges you face in your position that you didn’t expect to?

Alex: Ah, well I think when you’re in the position you realize what a farce job titles are, especially in a small company. Yeah, I’m the designer, but I’m also the writer and the animator, and the marketing department, and the scripter and QA and producer. On top of that, the art director is also a designer, and the technical director is a designer and the composer is a designer, and so on and so forth.

I’ve definitely noticed that the game gets better the more loosely I hold onto the reins. Basically, you take the good ideas wherever they come from and argue against the bad, especially if they were your bad ideas. Letting go of “ownership” is important.

At the end of the day, nobody cares if your wife’s brother’s uncle came up with the best idea in the game, they just know whether they like the game, and that reflects on you more than anything else.

“Branching content is one of the banes of storytelling. We have over 20 “main” characters and almost all of them can die, leave or take actions on their own that you may not agree with.”

 

As for the hardest thing about it, it’s definitely restraining yourself. Everybody making a game wants to make the best thing ever. Ideas are easy. Implementation is hard. It’s very tempting, especially on a first project, to go completely overboard trying to prove yourself.

That’s not to say you start chopping good design, it’s just that you have to know when the game stops being a tight, well-made package and sprawls into an unwieldy abomination. Sounds easy, but… it’s the hardest part. That, and making something that’s fun. The line between fun and frustrating/boring can be razor thin.

The Banner Saga, by Stoic Studios

The Banner Saga, by Stoic Studios.

He2etic: Where did the idea for a game built around viking mythology originate from?

You’ve mentioned inspiration from Game of Thrones and Glen Cook’s The Black Company. Was there any other fiction that gave you ideas?

Alex: It’s interesting, we get asked a lot “why vikings”, but it really wasn’t something we belabored.

We wanted to make a fantasy game and we didn’t want to rehash orcs, elves and dwarves. Arnie’s family history is Scandinavian and when he suggested vikings we both went “yeah, great!”. That was the extent of it.

As for the inspiration, I did imagine the game to be medieval European at an early stage, because of influences from stories like Game of Thrones and The Black Company, and that deep-seated familiarity with The Lord of the Rings that I think everybody tries to separate themselves from.

I think the viking angle lets us take those inspirations and make them feel new and interesting. I’ve also been hugely inspired by The Wire, which I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in saying is one of the best TV series ever made, and The NeverEnding Story, oddly enough (not that there’s two “worlds” influencing each other, but the tone of the fantasy parts is pretty great).

“The challenge, but also the pleasure, is in giving the player a little bit a direction and letting them really identify with the characters on their own terms, instead of forcing them to. That’s pretty unique to games.”

 

The biggest takeaway from these things is that I wanted to have a huge cast of characters that come and go in unexpected ways. Not many games can get away with the big cast, but I think it’s what makes these stories so compelling.

You need to see things from multiple perspectives, and have people to hate and cheer for who aren’t static, and have their own motivations and desires. We can afford to have a character leave the party because he doesn’t like what you did. And by “what you did”, I mean a decisions you made, not a linear cutscene.

That’s something that most games could never do, and I think that’s the rabbit we’re chasing with The Banner Saga.

A scene from Banner Saga Factions, available on Steam.

A scene from Banner Saga Factions, available on Steam.

He2etic: Game stories frequently differ from movies, television and the majority of books for their ability to diverge into multiple story paths. What kind of challenges do you face developing a tale that splits into differing possibilities?

Alex: Branching content is one of the banes of storytelling. It’s time consuming, expensive, and inevitably means that one player sees the “optimal” story while others will see the “low content” or “low effort” version.

You can’t have big divergences in the story that are both equally good. Would a version of Star Wars where Solo dies in the cantina be as good? A good story usually builds on itself, and if you’re yanking out the foundation left and right the whole thing falls apart.

In that regard I think we don’t try to write a game that is divergent on every level. The team on The Witcher 2 did crazy amounts of content to ensure that one specific decision played out completely different than another. It was a single major branch that was an enormous amount of effort, and I doubt most players appreciated it at all, or even knew about it. They probably assumed it didn’t matter. Could the game had been better if that effort was put toward a single storyline instead? These are rhetorical of course, I can’t speak for The Witcher.

“We decided to build vertically instead of horizontally… The game is much longer than we originally anticipated, but the lion’s share of funding has gone toward quality.”

 

What we’re doing is similar to The Walking Dead. There is one critical path through the game, but what happens to the people around you is what is important.

At the risk of getting philosophical, isn’t that kinda how life goes? Do you remember what you did or how you felt about what you did? How you feel by the end is what matters for us, and that could be very different from someone else, even though the “main events” didn’t diverge. We have over 20 “main” characters and almost all of them can die, leave or take actions on their own that you may not agree with. Or survive the whole thing and be your favorite character.

Juno, a character set to appear in the game.

Juno, a character set to appear in the game.

Those are two very different outcomes that don’t make our work load impossible. Our biggest challenge has been to make sure the player feels that these events are fair, and the results are not random and unpredictable.

He2etic: It’s pretty common for creative people to have more ideas than they could fit into the final product. Were there any innovations you regret not having the time, finances or technical expertise to include in Banner Saga?

It would be pretty insane for us to say that we didn’t have the finances or time to do what we wanted with the game. Our Kickstarter raised 700% more funding than we asked for, and as a result we’ve so far gone about 6 months over (the original, admittedly naive) launch date.

We decided to build vertically instead of horizontally, meaning that we dramatically improved the quality of all our content instead of the breadth. The game is much longer than we originally anticipated, but the lion’s share of funding has gone toward quality – better animation, better sound, better music, better story.

If I did have one regret, it would be the lack of voice acting. We knew going in that a game with several dozen important characters would cost far beyond our budget, even with major over-funding. That kind of thing can cost millions. Maybe we’ll be able to shoe it in for a special edition in the future? My hope is the writing is good enough to keep people engaged, even without voice overs.

He2etic: What’s it like developing characters for Banner Saga? Is it a unique challenge to develop characters that are not only entertaining but functional and interactive to the player?

Alex: Character development is pretty much my favorite thing to write, ever, so I’m completely in heaven having such a large cast of personalities all to myself. The incredible thing about games, in my opinion, is that the player can form attachments to things that aren’t scripted. Everything in a book or film has to be fed to the viewer in the hope that they buy into it and go along with your vision. In games, people may become attached to a guy because he has a higher damage output than the rest, or he’s always the last one standing in battle.

Turn based combat akin to that of Final Fantasy Tactics.

Turn based combat akin to that of Final Fantasy Tactics.

The challenge, but also the pleasure, is in giving the player a little bit a direction and letting them really identify with the characters on their own terms, instead of forcing them to. That’s pretty unique to games. Fire Emblem Awakening is an interesting example in which you have a huge cast of characters that can form relationships and even marry each other, which also gives them combat bonuses.

We aren’t going that far (it is the time of Ragnarok, after all), but I think it speaks to the player’s desire to create relationships, or be involved in them.

With a large cast, I also get to make a wide range of personalities and let the player decide who they like. The writer can’t always predict what’s going to click with the audience. Tali from Mass Effect, for example. I just don’t get her appeal, but what kind of author would say that her fans are wrong?

He2etic: As a gamer, are there any games you consider so good or so classic, they should be “mandatory playing”?

Alex: Heh, this is one of those questions where I either look like I’m just lazily reciting the popular choices or I look like a pretentious snob. Maybe I’ll try to do both!

Let’s get the obvious ones out of the way. Shadow of the Colossus was the first game to make me feel like games could elevate themselves above fun time-wasters. I’m not sure how well it would hold up for Kids These Days, it may have no impact at all if you didn’t play it in the right time and place.

Scene from Banner Saga Factions.

Scene from Banner Saga Factions.

I have huge nostalgia for the classic turn-based strategy games like Final Fantasy Tactics and Shining Force. The Walking Dead, more recently, really impressed me with just how tight the storytelling and pacing was, which are massively important to emotionally engage a player. I think it finally nailed interactive storytelling from a cinematic perspective.

And playing through Journey is a good litmus test to see whether you’re dead inside or not. I also liked L.A. Noire more than most, because of the startling realization that about half way through the game your character has a runaway story arc that almost revels in not giving a crap about the player’s silly power fantasies. And that’s wonderful.

Ok, how about some obscure recommendations for that elitist indie cred? I always say Mount & Blade is my favorite game of all time, and this is still true, even though it has no story at all. It’s still the best emergent gameplay and combat that I’ve experienced, even though I understand if it doesn’t click with everyone.

Recently two story-driven games called The Yawhg and Save the Date really impressed me. I tend to consider a game pretty damn good if I keep thinking about it after I’ve finished it. If you’re into storytelling you should play them. One of my favorite developers right now is Blendo Games. Everything he makes is awesome, especially Thirty Flights of Loving, and another one coming out soon called Quadrilateral Cowboy. Short stories in video game format, who knew you could that?

Thanks for the amazing interview Alex! Be sure to check out Banner Saga when it comes out later this year! In the mean time, check out Banner Saga Factions, the multiplayer component available on Steam!

For more, follow the @BLBolthole on Twitter for updates, articles and more. This blog’s art was crafted by Manuel Mesones, and you can check out his portfolio.

Interview with Darius Hinks

When not strumming away at his guitar, Darius Hinks spends his time crafting novels for the Black Library. With his new book Orion: Tears of Isha about to be released, Hinks found some time to speak with us about it, and remind us that it often takes a character to craft a character.

He2etic: What is it that draws you to Warhammer over Warhammer 40k? What are your favourite things about the two universes?

Man of wonder, Darius Hinks.

Man of wonder, Darius Hinks.

Darius: Well, I live in Nottingham, so I have hands-on experience of a grimy, plague-ridden, semi-feudal society. That’s probably part of it.

The other thing that draws me in is the endless stream of lunatic heroes that spew out of GW’s design studio. The Warhammer universe is like some kind of weird cake stand, stacked with bizarre, gaudy characters. And they’re all just waiting for someone to pick them up and drop them into a novel.

I don’t really have a preference between the two settings. I look out for the characters I think no one else would tackle and see if I can fit them into a narrative. It’s just worked out that they’ve mostly been in the Warhammer setting.

He2etic: What do you think about the artwork for your novels?

Darius: The covers have all been spot on, but Sigvald in particular is just as I imagined him. If you peer closely at his expression it’s quite unnerving. He’s got such a dangerous gleam in his eye. It’s clear he’s about to do something entirely inappropriate. The artist was a chap called Cheoljoo Lee and I think he’s reet clever.

“It’s a long-held ambition of mine to write something this epic and it’s great to be on the home stretch and see all the threads coming together.”

 

He2etic: What hobbies do you enjoy? And what armies are your favourite?

Darius: I recently ‘painted’ some ogres, but I used orange and they now look like really angry fruit. My main hobbies are reading and trying to make music. I just rattled through Neil Gaiman’s latest children’s book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and I thought it was brilliant and terrifying. He’s great at describing parents from hell. There’s a good kitten in it too.

He2etic: What is the writing process like for you? If you were to describe the process in what word, what would it be?

Orion: Tears of Isha, by Darius Hinks

Orion: Tears of Isha, by Darius Hinks

Darius: I’ve always been annoyed by authors who whinge about writing. It’s hardly the coal face, is it? At the moment, though, I’d have to describe the process as ‘challenging’.

I’m on book three of the Orion trilogy and I’ve left myself more far loose ends than I know what to do with. It’s like the literary equivalent of Twister and if I don’t finish it soon I’m going to sprain something.  (I might ask JK Rowling to write it for me under a pseudonym.)

But it’s still great fun. It’s a long-held ambition of mine to write something this epic and it’s great to be on the home stretch and see all the threads coming together.

After Orion, I’m planning on cleansing my palette with something non-GW and then, if they’ll have me back, working on some smaller Warhammer books that require less mental wrestling.

He2etic: What kind of music do you listen to? Is it important that you listen to music while you write?

Darius: I used to listen to all sorts of music when writing, but for the Orion books it’s mainly been classical. It’s the usual suspects  – Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven etc. I tried listening to The Rite of Spring (seemed appropriate) but my cats kept rioting.

When not writing, I mainly listen to slacker indie guitar bands led by singers who can’t hold a note. I hate singers who can actually sing. Apart from Chan Marshall of Cat Power. Her voice is so perfect that I can forgive her for occasionally being in tune.

“I do find it vaguely unnerving when I read back through some of the really bloodthirsty stuff I’ve written. Some sections of Tears of Isha are so vile I had to skip over them when checking the proofs.”

 

He2etic: Can you tell us more of how the Warhammer Hero novel Sigvald came to be?

Darius: I couldn’t quite believe that no one else had snapped him up. He was such a gift. Only a few paragraphs of information existed about him, but it was all gold: a deranged, all-powerful, hedonistic, vain, funny, tragic antihero – what more could an author ask for?

He2etic: How do you write such gritty and realistic action scenes?

Darius: As I said, I live in Nottingham. Ahem… Actually, I’m not sure. I grew up reading gruesome horror novels (Clive Barker, etc) so maybe that’s it.

Warrior Priest, by Darius Hinks

Warrior Priest, by Darius Hinks

I do find it vaguely unnerving when I read back through some of the really bloodthirsty stuff I’ve written. Some sections of Tears of Isha are so vile I had to skip over them when checking the proofs. I imagine I should seek some kind of person-centred therapy, but writing is cheaper.

He2etic: Do you have any long term projects for writing? For example, do you intend to someday spin your own franchise or complete a long novel series?

Darius: As I mentioned earlier, I’m working on an idea for a non-GW book. It’s fantasy, but not in the sword and sorcery sense and it won’t go beyond the synopsis stage until the final Orion book is finished (or my editor will kick my face off).

In terms of a series, there’s 40K character I’ve had my eye on for a while. I think he would be perfect for ongoing adventures, but it will depend on whether any other authors nab him before I get to him. I’m not going to mention his name as I’m hoping no one else has noticed how cool he is.

He2etic: Can you tell us more about your work for the Black Library?

Darius: I lose track of all the stuff I’ve written for BL over the years. I wrote a batch of short stories about ten years ago. There’s one I have quite fond memories of, called Calculus Logi.

The first book I wrote was called the Witch Hunter’s Handbook and the first novel was called Warrior Priest. I’ve written a few novellas and the Orion books are my first trilogy. I think I’ve written about seven or eight books but I might be making that up.

Sigvald, by Darius Hinks

Sigvald, by Darius Hinks

He2etic: Who are your favourite characters amongst both those you’ve written, and by other authors?

Darius: My favourite characters from my own books are a husband and wife duo called Jonas and Isolde. They inhabit a section of Warrior Priest that flowed through my fingertips so easily it was more like reading a novel than writing one. It’s the piece of writing I’m most proud of.

They’re villains, really, but I’ve always had a soft spot for them. I’d like to think that they’ll still be out there, entertaining mysterious guests at the Unknown House, long after I’m dead and gone.

Actually, I’d quite like to live with them, in their strange, musical, magic-filled rooms, with all the bears, weird instruments and piles of forbidden books.

My favourite character from a real book is Charles Arrowby from a novel called The Sea, The Sea. He’s a vile, arrogant antihero, but he’s hilarious. And it’s great fun watching him change from git to slightly less gitish git.

Thanks again to Darius Hinks for the interview! Follow the @BLBolthole on Twitter for updates, articles and more. This blog’s art was crafted by Manuel Mesones, and you can check out his portfolio.

Interview with CL Werner

Veteran writer CL Werner takes a few minutes out of his insanely busy schedule today to talk to us about how he approaches the challenges of being a writer.

CL Werner, the Lord of the Night.

CL Werner, the Lord of the Night.

He2etic: What is the writing process like for you? If you were to describe the process in what word, what would it be?

Clint: Each book is a little different, so the writing process really varies. Chaotic, I suppose would be the best word. Sometimes the narrative flows very easily, at other times you fight it every step of the way.

There are times when it is easier to write in the dead of night and at other times it is easier to get work done during the day. A lot of that tends to depend on the material too.

Since I usually write about dark deeds and monstrous creatures, I guess night helps set the proper mental state.

He2etic: What kind of music do you listen to while you write?

Clint: I listen to a lot of instrumental stuff when I write. Soundtracks, so-called ‘trailer music’, orchestral scores, even ambient sounds like rainfall or howling wolves will sometimes turn the trick. It’s usually good not to have vocals though as these can distract and end up breaking my concentration. They’re great for getting into the mood, but very bad during the actual writing.

“Capture small objectives, enjoy those accomplishments. Don’t let them become empty victories because you can’t stop thinking about the campaign ahead.”

 

He2etic: Who are your favourite characters amongst both those you’ve written, and by other authors?

Clint: I’ve kind of kidnapped him from William King, but I’d have to say Grey Seer Thanquol. He’s just such an insane/brilliant jumble of megalomania and paranoid delusions that no matter what he’s doing you can’t help but root for him. He’s one of two characters I’ve written who has actually hijacked the narrative and started changing the direction of the story as I’m writing it.

Brunner the Bounty Hunter, by CL Werner

Brunner the Bounty Hunter, by CL Werner

The other character who did that is my other favourite: Brunner. Anytime I strayed into making him a softie it was like a cold voice at my shoulder telling me the bounty killer wouldn’t do that and then suggesting something entirely different and invariably far crueller and more calculating. He has a definite code of honour, but as Brunner would be the first to say, not everybody is worthy of his restraint.

Some of the characters from other authors I like range from Walter B. Gibson’s The Shadow to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Professor Challenger. Tolkien’s Gandalf certainly gets mention and so would Sax Rohmer’s Dr Fu-Manchu.

Robert E. Howard’s Conan and Solomon Kane. Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula is an eternal fixture with me. C. L. Moore’s Jirel of Jory, Manly Wade Wellman’s John the Balladeer, Hodgson’s Carnaki.

I think the big problem is that a lot of the folks I read didn’t really do a lot of recurring characters. Lovecraft, Whitehead and Clark Ashton Smith, for instance, or Arthur Machen and M. R. James.

He2etic: What are your strongest influences when it comes to character creation?

Clint: I think the strongest influences rise from what I read and what I watch. I might find a peculiar character in a movie or book and start wondering what would happen if they were put into an entirely different situation.

Or I might take aspects of an actor’s portrayal and use that as a starting point to develop a character’s personality. Boris Goldgather in the Black Plague books started out as a condemnation of manipulative politicians but he wasn’t more than a caricature until I started envisioning Charles Laughton wearing the Imperial robes. Then everything fell into place.

“There will always be room to improve, but if you keep trying to make it perfect then nobody will ever have the chance to read it. Know when to let go.”

 

He2etic: Are there any dream characters or settings you want to write about? Not just those in the Warhammer universes, but in other franchises or even of your own make?

Clint: I suppose the big one would be to do something in an official capacity with Godzilla. I’m such a big fan of kaiju-eiga that a project involving him would be absolutely fantastic.

The Small Ones, by CL Werner

The Small Ones, by CL Werner

Another arena I’d love to play with would be Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age. That setting still conjures a magic and mystery for me that no others can. Doing something with The Shadow would be epic, but I’m not sure I have the proper skills to do Gibson’s creation the justice he deserves.

I’ve always thought it would be nice to do a Dungeons and Dragons novel as a thank you to the game for getting me through some really black times.

In the Warhammer universes, there’s lots I’d love to explore. Excusing for a moment doing more Thanquol, Brunner or Thulmann, my big dream projects would be a series of orc (or ork) novels, a Time of Legends cycle exploring the Doom of Kazavar and the creation of the insidious skaven, and a book delving into the lizardmen would be a challenge I think I could make really work.

In 40k, I’d really like to do some more with the Emperor’s Warbringers – especially if I can get Andy Smilie on board for a collaboration I suggested.

There’s so many things I’d like to do as far as original material goes I don’t know if I could even concoct a short list. I know I’d like to write a classic dragon novel, especially since I have a very clever and very plausible way of taking care of the wyrm in the denouement.

The Siege of Castellax, by CL Werner

The Siege of Castellax, by CL Werner

I’d also like to do more with Shintaro Oba and my Japanese-style sword-and-sorcery stories (and if I can steal the time, maybe we’ll see such a thing yet – Rogue Blades’ Enterprises has shown some interest in a collection).

I also have a crackpot idea for a fantasy novel set in Arizona circa 800 AD with Romans fighting proto-Aztecs and based on some incongruous archaeological finds.

The big one for me though would be a whole series of fantasy books delving into the character of Vlad III, taking him from mortal voivode to undead vampire.

See, I told you Dracula never leaves me alone.

I’ve also thought about doing stories about a witch hunter in Colonial America, circa the evocative year of 1666. I’ve also got notes for a few WWII weird novels, one of which will be seeing publication in truncated form as ‘The Lost Blitzkrieg’ in the Bolthole’s next fiction anthology.

I’ve been lucky recently to be invited to do stories in two really fantastic settings. The Iron Kingdoms of Privateer Press probably need no introduction. The other setting is the sci-fi world of Wild West Exodus, and I encourage everybody to check out what they’re developing because there’s a really neat style and storyline being created. On the same subject, if Black Ball Games ever wants to do AE-WWII fiction, I’d jump at the chance to contribute.

Mathias Thulmann Witch Hunter, by CL Werner

Mathias Thulmann Witch Hunter, by CL Werner

Probably my most eccentric idea is to do a retelling of the Gospel as a sword-and-sorcery novel. I think worries about blasphemy will keep it from happening. Still, the story of Jesus has all the ingredients: demons (Legion, who could ask for a more sinister name), a decadent and oppressive empire, an evil sorcerer (Simon Magus, who will always look like Jack Palance to me), miracles, the undead (okay, so Lazarus was the only mortal who came back from the dead that didn’t cause anybody to grab a stake and a hammer) – it’s all there. The big issue for me would be taking such a peculiar concept and maintaining the proper respectful tone.

He2etic: What are your favourite drinks, both alcoholic and not? Do you occasionally partake while writing?

Clint: I get very depressed when I drink alcohol, so I very rarely imbibe. I usually saturate myself with tea or Coca-Cola (yum, tasty carcinogens) and while I’m writing there are always some of those nasty energy shot things sitting at my elbow (and don’t believe any of this stuff about ‘no crash’ – they lie).

He2etic: If you could cast anyone to play the roles of main characters in your work, who would you pick?

Clint: Most of the people I’d pick are sadly no longer with us. Mathias Thulmann, for instance, was patterned after the mannerisms and stylings of Vincent Price while Streng is Oliver Reed.

“I find it best not to make any long term plans. What we want, what we get and what we need are things we have no control over.”

 

The black magister Rudol is one of several characters I’ve done with Bela Lugosi in mind, the various members of the Klausner family were all Boris Karloff. Shintaro Oba is Toshiro Mifune while I always imagine the spirit of Takashi Shimura motivating the benign mummy Kambei-kai.

I do think Vinnie Jones would make a fearsome Brunner though and the necromancer Carandini has always been Brad Douriff in my mind (more for his role as the psychotic computer genius Dante in a low-budget flick called ‘Death Machine’ than for anything else).

Temple of the Serpent, by CL Werner

Temple of the Serpent, by CL Werner

When I write female characters they will often end up acquiring the image of a Hammer studios ‘scream queen’, usually Caroline Monro or Veronica Carlson.

He2etic: Do you have any long term projects for writing? For example, do you intend to someday spin your own franchise or complete a long novel series?

Clint: I find it best not to make any long term plans. What we want, what we get and what we need are things we have no control over.

When you outlive enough dreams, you find it best to think small. Capture small objectives, enjoy those accomplishments. Don’t let them become empty victories because you can’t stop thinking about the campaign ahead.

He2etic: Are there any novels you would consider required reading?

Clint: I have very eccentric and probably archaic tastes, so I’m not entirely sure my advice will be as helpful as what somebody more versed in contemporary works would give. Obviously The Lord of the Rings is essential to anybody writing fantasy because it has shaped so much of what people think of when they hear the very word.

I find Frankenstein and 1984 both vital for their moral teachings. To see how to set mood and build suspense, I’d say The Hound of the Baskervilles.

For anybody doing Warhammer I always point them to Kim Newman’s Drachenfels, even if the lore is out of date, it remains the very best fantasy story produced for the setting.

Blood for the Blood God, by CL Werner

Blood for the Blood God, by CL Werner

He2etic: What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Clint: Just one word: read. Read as much as you can, read it with an analytical eye. Take the narrative apart the way a mechanic takes apart an engine. See what makes the story work or what doesn’t.

See how another author successfully portrays an emotion or an action, discover the tricks other writers have used and start building your own bag of tricks to use in your own stories.

Above all, keep writing, even if only for yourself. The caveat to that is to know when it is time to leave a story alone.

I think it was Hitchcock who said that a great film is never finished, it is simply abandoned. The same holds true for books. There will always be room to improve, but if you keep trying to make it perfect then nobody will ever have the chance to read it. Know when to let go.

Thanks again to CL Werner for the amazing interview!

Follow the @BLBolthole on Twitter for updates, articles and more. This blog’s art was crafted by Manuel Mesones, and you can check out his portfolio. The author can be followed @He2etic, or on his blog.

RiaR Succession: “Memento Mori” by YeOldeGrandma

Every month, the Bolthole’s “Read in a Rush” competition serves up flash fan fiction. 1,000 word tales usually set in either of the Warhammer universes, but sometimes in original settings. The winners will be posted on the blog. 

This month however, there were two winners for the “Succession” themed contest. Today’s posting is of the second winner.

Memento Mori
by YeOldeGrandma

It was inbetween cycles and whole divisions of scribes and adepts were shifted, thousands of men and women trading places at their work stations. Valentinia heard little of it though. She had elected the Walk of Chastisement, and this far off the cavernous chambers swallowed all noise, save for a distant, ghostly echo. Light pored down amidst the arches from windows high above, illuminating all in a sharp glare. Motes of dust danced in the air around her as she walked on, alone.

Valentinia Kontondus, Prefector Secundus of the Estate Imperium, sub-division XXXI -XL, on the world of Arcon II, had as precious little time as any adept, if more of a choice in how to spend it. The parts of the Complex Administratus where she currently walked were seldom used, but now she felt the need. And according to her calculations she had enough time before her rest cycle started, as long as she didn’t dally.

The Walk stretched into the impossibly far distance, lost in a haze of light. Occasionally, a weak groan would call out for her, seeking her attention. She kept her gaze fixed forward and strode on.

Leading the way before her was the jangling form of her Proclaimer. It had served her faithfully for decades, though she knew it too would have to be replaced now. In the Administratum there was a given, divine order to everything, and the whirring servo-man before her was only fit to serve prefectors of the Secundus strata.

Yes, change was coming. The holy institutions of the Imperium seldom altered, but when they did, even the tiniest shift was monumental, establishing beyond doubt the purity, and thus finality, off the Emperor’s rulings. Valentinia knew that, to a stranger, the workings of the adepts seemed incomprehensive; certainly she suspected that even some adepts housed such thoughts. But they did not see. Somehow, a simple, fundamental fact had eluded them; divinity begets complexity. The more intricate the design, the holier its nature.

After the removal of Argon Cicilian as Prefector Seniorati, ancient data had once more been drawn upon to recall wisdom from ages past. Steeped in tradition was the code of succession used to conjure forth a replacement, its every wording carefully interpreted so that no misunderstanding of mortals be allowed to tarnish the message it held. An arduous task, reserved only for those most holy and senior of rank, the result finally pointed to… her.

“Prefector” the Proclaimer whirred, snapping her out of the memory, “your rest cycle is scheduled to begin in fifteen time-sub-units.

“I am aware”, she replied, looking ahead. Light and dust, only light and dust as far as she could see; light stabbing at her retinas, dust settling in her eyes, making them water. She squinted. An arm grasped for her robes and she angrily rapped it aside with her sigil cane.

“Please, mistress… I must provide for my family…”

She stopped and turned towards the noise. Before her was one of the wretches, and for the first time she was looking directly at him.

He was little more than skin and bones where he hung, chained like so many others to the wall. Unkempt hair sprouted where it had been allowed to grow wild; parched lips bled, cracks of bright red amidst ashen skin. He stank.

The Proclaimer was at her side, swinging its censer wildly as it blared: “Thou shalt be glad of thy master’s punishment, for it is deserved and it improves thee!”

Valentinia sneered in disgust as she realized that even the servo-puppet held more dignity than the man. Without sparing him a second glance she walked off, with smart strides, onwards down the Walk of Chastisement. Her eyes never wandered to the sides again, but she saw them all the same – the failures, the trouble-makers; all those who’d proven to be unworthy of further service without first being rectified.

Many, like the man, were lowly clerks and menials, and would never be released; their bones would remain until they crumbled to dust. But the Walk was there for all who failed; even the mightiest adept could be chained to its walls.

Never Valentinia though. Never.

A shift in the light up ahead signaled her destination; an arched entrance in the wall to her right. No gates barred it, and beyond, in stark contrast to the glare of the Walk, lay only shadow. She stepped through as her Proclaimer blared out her arrival, filling the gloom with echoes: “Enter Prefector Secundus Valentinia Kontondus, of the Estate Imperium, sub-division XXXI –XL!”

Silence greeted them. Blinded at first by the darkness, Valentinia found her eyes adjusting, seeing the outlines of a chamber, larger than she’d first expected. Hulking machinery towered at the walls, and between them stood smaller, man-sized objects. She knew what they were even before she saw the first pair of eyes stare at her, blankly.

She snapped her head around as a figure detached itself from amidst the things and shuffled towards her.

“Adept”, the tech-priest droned, “welcome”.

Valentinia bowed, hands at her chest in a formal greeting of the Aquila. “My thanks, Artisan. I have come to inspect my new Proclaimer.”

The tech-priest’s lenses stared at her. “It is not yet finished. By your coronation, I shall have it done.”

“No matter”, she replied. “I wish to see it now, whatever its state.”

“This way then.”

He led her amidst the servitors, standing in various states of completion. Pieces of flesh and metal lay on the floor or hung from harnesses. Open eyes stared without following them.

She stopped at the severed body indicated by the tech-priest. Tubes and coils of wire connected the pallid flesh to various forms of machinery. Fresh scars indicated the work already done; in the shadows burnished metal appendages lay, waiting.

Valentinia could feel the priest’s stare in her back as she knelt before the body. As Prefector Secundus, her assigned Proclaimer had been nothing special; one servitor among thousands. She had no idea whose flesh it contained.

As Prefector Seniorati though…

It was said that Argon Cicilian had screamed day and night, the echoes of his wails resonating up and down the Walk of Chastisement. Now his features were blank, his open eyes distant. Valentinia looked deep into them, seeking to understand, seeking whatever flaw that had brought his service to such a shameful end. The logical part of her railed against her behavior; had she not been appointed her new position by divine and immaculate right? Had she not been proven pure enough for the task?

Yet she kept looking.

RiaR Succession: “Acolyte” by Liliedhe

Every month, the Bolthole’s “Read in a Rush” competition serves up flash fan fiction. 1,000 word tales usually set in either of the Warhammer universes, but sometimes in original settings. The winners will be posted on the blog. 

This month however, there were two winners for the “Succession” themed contest. The second winner will be posted tomorrow.

Acolyte
by Liliedhe

The moment I step off the ship, I feel out of place. I have never been on a Starfort. I did not know there was a Starfort in the Euphrates Sector. The hangar is bigger than all of Alphaeus Hive. The echo of my boot heels on rockcrete comes back from a great distance. The SDF boat that brought me here looks like a quail egg in a rockh’s nest.

I look around the semi-darkness for a reception committee, but there is none. Everything seems empty and abandoned; only a line of ground lights marks a path without doing anything to dispel the gloom around me. Once more I check that my uniform and my utility belt are in place, and then I follow the invitation and stride into the unknown.

Ten minutes later I finally reach open blast doors and leave the empty space behind. During my walk, I heard the ship start its engines and lift off again. It tells me there is no way back. Whatever happens when I reach my destination, if it does not work out, I will likely go nowhere. Or rather, I will meet the Emperor a lot earlier than I hoped.

While I did not expect to reach a great age, to be honest, as Arbites rarely die in bed I had still dreamed of a distinguished career. I did not think it would end so quickly.

Around me, the corridors of the Starfort are as empty as the hangar. Once more, my way is lit, leading me past junctures and doorways and up staircases. Ever upwards, and all of it on foot. When I hear the screams, I realise I am being tested. My stamina, in climbing millions of stairs. My ability to follow orders by lighting the way and throwing distractions at me, the kind I would have to answer as an Arbites.

Cries for help, gunfire. But the path is always leading in a different direction. At first, I hesitate. Engrained reflexes are strong, so is my desire not to fail. Maybe the test wants me to show initiative? Then I remember. Five years ago, I was part of a squad sent to aid an Inquisitor. We helped him cleanse a cult from the underhive. It is pretty much a blurr, I think we were mindwiped afterwards, but there is one thing that stands out clearly in my recollection: A voice like mummified parchment, telling us to look ahead, to go forward, and forward only.

“Look where I tell you, go where I tell you, stay obedient, and live.”

Whatever happened back then, it must have made an impression. It got me this invitation here, a transfer to serve the Emperor’s most holy Inquisition to replace a lost Acolyte, and now, whoever wanted me is trying to find out if he chose wrong. So I climb, and climb, and climb. I take my rosary from my belt and begin to tell the beads, one after the other, following all the prayers for the day, then the week and eventually the month.

I have finished the fifth weekly cycle, when I reach the tower. For the first time, there are windows, and I can see the void. There are no stars, only darkness. I shiver.

My journey is at an end now, because in front of me on the landing is another open door, and behind it, in a dimly lit office, sits the Inquisitor I met back then. He looks no different, bent and unbelievably ancient, wispy grey hair around a wrinkled face. A black cloak with a high collar gives his face a disembodied quality, like a servo skull floating in the dark. Around him, there is a mess.

There is no other way to describe the overstuffed bookcases, sideboards, low tables and decaying, mouldy chairs, all piled with scrolls, books, bones, plates, techno junk and rotting things. I stop in my tracks, stunned.

I hesitate to step into this cesspool. I have seen shops in the underhive that were cleaner and more ordered. Then I notice there is no stink. All I smell is the musty note of old books, mouse droppings and old mould. No decay. No unwashed body. Is this some trick?

I cannot fathom it, but I have no choice. I see mockery in the Inquisitor’s dark eyes as he watches me hover on the threshold, and finally I step over it, and into the final part of the test. I guess.

“The Emperor is watching you, Candidate.”

I blush, fiercely. Did I fail? I step closer and he does not stop me. I can see his desk is piled with papers, too, but there is a place, directly in front of him, that is empty and clean, polished even. In the shine of two oil lamps with tall glass cylinders I see a bolt pistol lying before him. It is not ornate like the models I saw in the hands of the Ecclesiarchy’s warriors, but it is a build I have never seen before with a longer barrel and a slender grip. A scope lies beside it, and a dozen bolts with the hardened tips of Kraken rounds.

As the Inquisitor notices my gaze, he turns the weapon around, so I can see the stylised I of the holy ordos carved into the stock. His hands are as supple as the weapon, not gnarled with age or spotted. He loads the weapon, ignoring me. I hold my tongue. Is this still a test? Or is he assembling the weapon to shoot me?

I do still wear my armour, but it will not withstand a hit like this at such a short distance. I swallow and become still. If this is my fate, I will accept it. I did not understand a thing of what happened here since I stepped off the ship. I hide my smile, as that was the first lesson I had to learn when I joined the Adeptus Arbites: Do not expect to understand the Emperor’s Will. Just follow it to your best ability.

I face the Inquisitor’s empty dark eyes. If this is the Emperor’s Will, I will not fight it. The weapon ready, he gets up and looks at me. He is as short as me. The weapon is steady in his hands as he sights at me down the scope. The corners of his mouth twitch. A drop of sweat runs down my temple. I am still as a statue. I will not run. I will die, if I have to, but I will not shame myself.

He turns the weapon around and hands it to me, grip first. I take it, stunned. Now he gives in and allows the smile to form. “The Emperor has found you adequate” – he pauses for a moment, before finishing: “Acolyte.”

Interview with K.A. Laity

For today’s interview, we managed to catch up with author KA Laity. With a bibliography the length of your arm, Kate took a few moments to share her thoughts on writing and the business.

Award winning author, KA Laity.

Award winning author, KA Laity.

He2etic: What is the writing process like for you? If you were to describe the process in what word, what would it be?

Kate: The word would be busy!

I am always working on a lot of projects at the same time because I have the kind of brain that jumps around so this is my way of making the most of natural tendencies.

I wrote my first published novel while I was also writing my PhD dissertation, so it becomes a habit.

Also I write under [cough] four names so I keep really busy. And I’m still not good at saying ‘no’ to friends who have cool ideas. >_<

He2etic: What kind of music do you listen to while you write?

Kate: I listen to a lot of radio lately (BBC 4 Extra mostly) but music varies with the project. Since I’ve been writing crime it’s given free rein to my obsession with The Fall (which I’ve written about at length) and also pinched some titles from their music as well. There’s something both evocative and hypnotic to their music. And awesome lyrics — they always spark ideas.

“Submitting works trying to find those like minds takes up way too much time. It’s such a joy when you find them.”

 

He2etic: Who are your favourite characters amongst both those you’ve written, and by other authors?

À La Mort Subite, by K.A. Laity.

À La Mort Subite, by K.A. Laity.

Kate: I love Jane Eyre! She’s great: passionate yet firm in her beliefs. She doesn’t care what anyone else thinks but she will not tarnish her principles.

Of my own, hmmm — I do love James Draygo who is the narrator of my current novel White Rabbit because he’s full of lackadaisical humour and self-deceit. I kind of wish I were more literally kick-ass like Chastity Flame but hey, that’s why we write. I kind of adore Alice and Lizzie from The Mangrove Legacy because they still make me laugh far too much.

He2etic: What are your strongest influences when it comes to character creation?

Kate: I have to hear the voices — once I have that, it’s easy to pick up the story and write no matter where I’ve left it, whether it was an hour ago or a matter of days. I’m not one to spend a lot of time in prep — I mash out an outline and then run in most cases — but it’s useless beginning until I can hear that voice. I tend to enjoy first person narratives because of that.

“Don’t get hung up on the ‘do and don’t’ advice. Write your story — as in begin something and, more importantly, finish it.”

 

He2etic: Are there any dream characters or settings you want to write about? Such as in other franchises?

Kate: I’m thinking about writing a Midian story as Clive Barker has put out a call; since Clive was responsible for my first real publication, I am always grateful to him and I’ve always been a big fan of his writing. I want to write a story set in India, so that gives me an excuse to try to get someone to pay for me to travel there. I’m a big fan of making other people pay for my travel.

Noir Carnival, from Fox Spirit Books

Noir Carnival, from Fox Spirit Books

He2etic: What are your favourite drinks, both alcoholic and not? Do you occasionally partake while writing?

Kate: I’m partial to a really good beer, so not surprisingly my latest noir, À La Mort Subite takes place in Belgium, the home of the finest beers in the world. In a pinch, Guinness will always do, though it really doesn’t taste as sweet as it does in Ireland (a friend who’s a taster for Guinness confirms the truth of this!).

I’m partial to a good martini (a real one, none of that unnecessary ‘updating’ of the classic, though it can be vodka or gin). But honestly, the fluid that runs in my veins is mostly made of tea — strong, black and bitter like my heart. I am eternally grateful to my sweetie for bringing it to me while I write. We call him the tea fairy. 🙂 That’s love.

He2etic: If you could cast anyone to play the roles of main characters in your work, who would you pick?

Kate: Oh, can I have Jason Statham play Draygo? The movie would need to have a lot more martial arts than the book then, because he mostly gets beat up a lot — or it it could be a new direction for Statham. Of course I bet Tom Hiddleston would do wonders with the role and look great all scruffy. I’d love to have Tilda Swinton play Ro Parker from Owl Stretching — a bisexual accidental shaman. She could do justice to the role!

Weird Noir, from Fox Spirit Books

Weird Noir, from Fox Spirit Books

He2etic: Do you have any long term projects for writing? For example, do you intend to someday spin your own franchise or complete a long novel series?

Kate: I have the beginnings of a franchise in Chastity Flame (working on the third novel now) and I am trying to do more crime consistently, but I have tons of ideas and I want to make as many of them manifest as possible. I have a few publishers who like my stuff and work well with, so that saves a lot of time. Submitting works trying to find those like minds takes up way too much time. It’s such a joy when you find them.

He2etic: Are there any novels you would consider required reading? Are there any movies or television series that inspire your work?

Kate: Oh far too many! I’m a medievalist so I think people should read all the things I neglected for far too long. When I finally read Beowulf, Njal’s Saga and The Tain in one semester, it changed everything, so I recommend that. Films? Go watch all of Aki Kaurismäki’s films! Television-wise, I’m a big fan of Buffy as a show that grew and changed in interesting ways. I just caught up belatedly on Life on Mars which was a lot of fun.

Owl Stretching, by K.A. Laity

Owl Stretching, by K.A. Laity

He2etic: What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Kate: Don’t get hung up on the “do and don’t” advice. Write your story — as in begin something and, more importantly, finish it. Research to figure out where to send it, send it and get on with something new. Repeat ad infinitum. Persist: more people than ever are writing and publishing. You may never find the monetary success that you dream of, but you will write the stories in your head and find readers. That’s richness. People tend to disparage creativity that doesn’t ‘pay off’ but it always pays off; this is our true nature — creating.

K.A. Laity would also like to give a huge thanks to her cover artist, SL Johnson for her fine work.

For more, follow the @BLBolthole on Twitter for updates, articles and more. This blog’s art was crafted by Manuel Mesones, and you can check out his portfolio.

Book Review: “Headtaker” by David Guymer

Headtaker, by David Guymer

Headtaker, by David Guymer

Today, forum moderator Ath brings us a review of Headtaker, by David Guymer.

The Skaven are well-established in Warhammer fiction, their first appearance dating back to the classic Skavenslayer stories in the early 1990s, and their portrayal has remained relatively consistent since then. They are a darkly comedic bunch, on the one hand horrifying monsters intent on devouring the world of men, but on the other, treacherous, arrogant and incompetent enough that their plans never quite fall into place and dissolve into bickering and finger-pointing. This can make them challenging to read, as the constant plots and backstabbing sometimes seem in danger of becoming predictable and repetitive, but when done well they are thoroughly enjoyable.

“Mr Guymer is not afraid of tackling some of the more common complaints about the Skaven head-on…”

 

Queek Headtaker, by Games Workshop Artist Mark Gibbons.

Queek Headtaker, by Games Workshop Artist Mark Gibbons.

As far as I’m aware, this novel is both David Guymer’s first full-length Warhammer fantasy story, and the first time Black Library have issued a Skaven-centric novel not written by either William King or C.L. Werner. The eponymous Queek Headtaker has been a special character on the Warhammer tabletop for some time, but, other than a brief cameo in a Thanquol novel, hasn’t really appeared in the fiction or background until now. This book therefore represents an opportunity to do something new and different with the Skaven, and largely succeeds in that goal, while remaining faithful and respectful of the precedent set by Messrs. King and Werner.

The plot revolves around an attempt by the Skaven to attack the Dwarf fortress of Karak Azul, a major manufacturing hold, to disrupt the Dwarf infrastructure. Meanwhile the Dwarfs of Karak Azul have plans of their own to punish the local orcs and goblins for a previous humiliation. The real focus of this book, though, as with most of the Warhammer Heroes line, is on the characters, rather than the plot itself.

Queek is an unconventional Skaven character. He has no interest in the usual politics that the Skaven preoccupy themselves with, nor does he display any real sense of self-preservation, enjoying a good scrap and preferring to fight in the front lines. It seems he has maintained his position through the favour of his clanlord, together with his personal ferocity and the loyalty of his lieutenant, who actually organises his army. He is widely believed mad, although it is hinted at various points that this might at least in part be an act designed to disorient political rivals. He makes a refreshing change from the Skaven as traditionally portrayed, while still remaining distinctively one of them.

“Most disappointingly, the Dwarf plot ends without a real resolution, which leaves the reader hanging.”

 

The main character, however, is not really Queek himself, but Sleek Sharpwit, an envoy of the ruling Skaven council sent to supervise Queek’s mission. Sharpwit is even more unconventional than Queek, an almost entirely original Skaven character. Mr Guymer is not afraid of tackling some of the more common complaints about the Skaven head-on; one memorable scene has Sharpwit lamenting Skaven short-sightedness where, following a collapsed tunnel, they would rather dig through it and trust to luck rather than take the time to clear it properly. Sharpwit is accompanied – and constantly hindered by – the more conventional Skaven Grey Seer Razzel, who resents his position of authority. I found Sharpwit’s efforts to manage Queek and Razzel and play one off against the other while retaining his own position to be some of the highlights of the novel.

We also see something of the Dwarf characters who stand in the way of the Skaven: Thordun, a young Dwarf from the human Empire who is seeking to make his fortune in the Dwarf lands, and Handrik, a Dwarf elder and friend to the king who is trying to make right a recent embarrassment.

“…the book does a great job of continuing the strong Warhammer Heroes novel line and is probably the best entry in that series for some time. It should appeal to existing Skaven fans as well as those who have struggled with previous portrayals…”

 

While the Dwarfs are generally realised well, Thordun’s story is one of the weaker plot threads, as the character and his human sidekicks seem to be used largely as a means of creating conflict among other characters and driving more interesting plot developments. Handrik is a strong and memorable character, though, displaying generosity of spirit combined with a badly injured pride and a stubborn melancholy.

If the book has a real weakness it is in its final act, where I found that the number of concurrent subplots and characters, and the cutting between them, made the story rather difficult to follow. Most disappointingly, the Dwarf plot ends without a real resolution, which leaves the reader hanging.

Queek Headtaker, model available at Games Workshop.

Queek Headtaker, model available at Games Workshop.

As always, I found it a little frustrating to have the possibility of real world development dangled during the course of the book; while the book doesn’t exactly return things to the status quo as is common with such Black Library novels, it still falls short of giving us anything in the way of progress. The Skaven characters have a more satisfactory conclusion.

Overall, the book does a great job of continuing the strong Warhammer Heroes novel line and is probably the best entry in that series for some time. It should appeal to existing Skaven fans as well as those who have struggled with previous portrayals, and should also be accessible as a standalone novel (although the absence of a map is not helpful in this regard). Throughout, Headtaker manages to remain faithful to the setting and background while at the same time is unafraid to attempt something more original, an effort which I thought was on the whole very successful.

Follow the Bolthole at @BLBolthole. David Guymer can be followed @WarlordGuymer.