Inheriting a World: On Writing "Inheritance"

Friday, October 25, 2013

For today's blog, we've given Pathfinder web fiction contributor Gabrielle Harbowy, whose story "Inheritance" is running right now, the chance to talk a little about what it's like to write for Pathfinder Tales. Take it away, Gabrielle!

When I was eight, my third-grade teacher brought in a bag of dice and a couple of player guides, and taped a masking-tape dungeon over the tiles on the classroom floor. Every Wednesday, instead of Reading, we'd have Roleplaying time. People who didn't want to play could read quietly, but dragons and slime creatures and bold adventurers had the room.

To call that experience "formative" would probably be an understatement.

I haven't had a regular, local gaming group since I was about 15, but I've never lost my love of the tabletop RPGs, and I play whenever I can. When I started exploring RPG tie-in fiction as a reader, I was drawn in by the adventure, the drama, and the high quality of the writing. I never actually thought that it was something I would have the chance to do, but I've been Chris Jackson's editor at Dragon Moon Press since 2009, and he's the one who got me into Pathfinder. When Chris's Scimitar Seas series ended, it was an honor to hand him off to James Sutter and Pathfinder Tales for Pirate's Honor. Chris writes nautical fantasy like no one else, and his enthusiasm for Pathfinder as a gaming system was infectious. And it seemed that once I heard about Pathfinder, I started hearing about it everywhere. The paperbacks were in the bookstores, the gamers I work with all had great things to say about the game and the gaming system, and I even learned that Scott Purdy, the artist who created the covers for my first two anthologies, had illustrations in some of Pathfinder's bestiaries.

I was excited when James Sutter told me he had enjoyed my story in When the Hero Comes Home, and invited me to pitch a piece of web fiction for Pathfinder Tales. I love Pathfinder's take on gnomes, and knew I wanted to show a gnome mindset, and explore adventuring from an outsider's perspective. Writer-friends and Paizo staffers were incredibly supportive and made the planning and writing a great experience for me...but there were a couple of aspects of writing in a shared world, and an RPG's world in particular, that surprised me when I started gnomestory.doc, which eventually became "Inheritance."

Since GMs are never, ever control freaks, let's just say—hypothetically, of course—that you're watching your players hit dead end after dead end, or argue all night about a decision that doesn't even matter, while you sit back and try really hard not to guide them too much, enlighten them too much, or inflict blunt force trauma.

Not that that ever happens. But if it did, then the idea of being able to send characters exactly where you wanted them to go, to do exactly what you plan for them to do, might have some appeal.

Writing RPG tie-in fiction is like GMing a game where you control ALL the players. And the NPCs. And the bad guys. And all the dice rolls come out exactly the way you want them to, every time.

The thing is, the off-the-wall creativity of your players is what makes a campaign so much fun. They may not take the straight path from A to B, but it would be boring if they did. Think about how often they surprise you. Then think about what it would be like if they never surprised you, ever. What would be the point?

For an experienced cat-wrangler, writing solo is surprisingly difficult. You have too much control. You don't have someone else's unpredictability to turn your scenario on its head in interesting ways.

Making it look like your players' off-road diversions were things you planned all along? Is an art.

Making it look as though you're still getting that input and unpredictability, when really it's all just coming out of your own head? That's a skill.

Interpreting the reference texts into a full environment is also a skill. GMs do it, but they have maps and miniatures and hand gestures; they have dice and rules. Writers have only the text, into which they must breathe life and logic, and plausible reasons for the world to act as it does.

There's so much material out there, but some of it only touches the surface. When there's only one sentence IN EXISTENCE ANYWHERE to sum up an entire town, you can't go to Google Maps and see what the place looks like, or go to Wikipedia to find out about its demographics and economy, or to YouTube to see how the locals dress or hear their accents. What there is, is ALL that there is.

Maybe you're looking in the wrong places, but maybe the information doesn't actually exist. You don't want to reinvent the wheel and go against canon...but you don't want to waste too much writing time chasing down things that don't exist. And sometimes those things do exist in production, but aren't published yet. That means they're important for continuity, but there's no way you could have found them on your own.

In "Inheritance," Zae makes a device that basically contains an augury spell. She can manipulate it, expend some expensive component materials, and it answers weal or woe. Well, that's great. But there's nothing in the spell text to indicate what form it gives you your answers in. Just about at the time I realized I'd created a steampunk Magic 8 Ball, I also realized that there was no way James Sutter, you the readers, or my own conscience would let me just throw in a Magic 8 Ball because I was too lazy to think of something original.

I delved into the messageboards to see how anyone else had done this sort of thing (to no avail), and then took a hard look at the essential augury spell components—incense, and the implication that incense needs to be lit and expended—and figured out how to put them together with a device to create a mechanism capable of indicating multiple different answers.

And felt like I'd leveled up when I got feedback that it was approved. Successful foray into someone else's world? Achievement unlocked!

Gabrielle Harbowy
Pathfinder Tales Contributor

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Thanks for giving a peek into your inspirations and processes, Gabrielle! Really enjoying the story thus far. I like your point on how it can be hard work to feel in control of everything about a story and yet try to give it a sense of unpredictability and free will for characters that spring fully from your imagination. Definitely have felt that struggle before.


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I came to writing via online text-based roleplay, and I really enjoy having other people's unpredictability to play off of when I write. It's a lot of fun to write Zae and Keren together because they create that unpredictability by viewing the world in such different ways.

I'm writing more about the writing process aspect on my blog. Only the first chapter is covered so far, but eventually there'll be a peek at all four chapters:


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I'm envious of the teacher encouraging role-playing. That's pretty grand.

And I especially enjoyed the way you put this: "Making it look as though you're still getting that input and unpredictability, when really it's all just coming out of your own head? That's a skill."

I'd never thought about that particular issue like that before. Nicely put.

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