A Conversation with Jeff LaSala
Novelist and game designer Jeff LaSala is perhaps best known for his Dungeon Crawl Classics: The Transmuter’s Last Touch and his Eberron novel, The Darkwood Mask. Both of these, it is important to note, involve kobolds. Lots and lots of kobolds. In fact, it is safe to say that Jeff LaSala is a bona fide kobold advocate of the first order.
LaSala’s kobolds are cunning, adept with magic, and always entertaining. The message underlying his work is straightforward: never underestimate the kobold!
In recent months, however, LaSala has turned his energies to converting the gods of the Goodman Games setting Áereth to 4E and to writing about tieflings. With the recent release of Hero’s Handbook: Tieflings, I thought it’d be a good time to catch up with LaSala. Below we talk about game design and fiction writing, Eberron and Áereth, tieflings and kobolds.
Jones: How’d you get into RPGs (as a player)?
LaSala: When I was 10, my brother’s friend brought over his brother’s 1E books, and although I could barely comprehend the rules, the artwork and the ambience of the game really did something to me. I made up my own nonsensical mechanics, drew crude maps and my own version of the monsters… and very quickly made my childhood transition from He-Man to D&D. I clung to the role of GM, in part because none of my friends wanted the job and in part because I seem to love storytelling. I suppose it all just snowballed from there; for me, adventure- and novel-writing all come from the same place.
Jones: How’d you come to write DCC #31: The Transmuter’s Last Touch?
LaSala: A band of mutant kobolds abducted me and forced me to tell their story.
Well, perhaps I’d better stick to the cover story, in which case I’m going to blame friend and fellow writer Harley Stroh. Back in ‘05, even as I was pursuing novel work with Wizards of the Coast, I also decided to try for some RPG work. On Harley’s recommendation, I approached Joseph Goodman and submitted two adventures for the anthology that would become DCC #29: The Adventure Begins. One of the two was tentatively titled “Residual Magic,” but Joseph decided to publish the adventure on its own as the $2 adventure The Transmuter’s Last Touch.
And I’m still mighty proud of it. The gist of the adventure: Tazex, a kobold warrior exiled from his tribe, has stumbled upon an old catacomb where a powerful transmuter once conducted form-shaping experiments. Now chief of his own small tribe, Tazex has become a mutant (larger, multi-limbed, etc.) from triggering the latent magic of the catacomb. The transmutation energies have also eddied throughout the dungeon into permanent little “hot spots.” Kobolds, being the cunning little buggers they are, learned how to take advantage of these triggers for whenever intruders arrive… as they inevitably will. But innovative PCs will realize that they, too, can take advantage of these short-lived physical transformations.
I chose kobolds because (1) they were, at the time, generally assumed to be predictable and easy to kill and (2) because my wife thinks kobolds are adorable. I’ve always been a fan of these diminutive draconic men, even back in the old days when they were a bit more doglike.
Jones: Are writing fiction and writing adventures at all similar?
LaSala: There are similarities but, in my opinion, not many. Both require a certain amount of drama and conflict. But with a game encounter, the end shouldn’t be predetermined. Writing an encounter is merely setting the stage and then letting the players write the script, with an unknown outcome, because you as the game designer don’t know who the heroes will be, nor the disposition of the GM. When writing a scene in a novel, the ending is predetermined, or at least will eventually become so. Scenes are logical components of the plot and need to add information, tension, or unexpected complexity within the greater story. Module encounters are more versatile and open-ended, even if they’re intended to serve a specific purpose. Even in adventures that are fairly linear, encounters can still play out in many different ways. Will the monsters go down as planned, or will one of them escape to warn its friends? Who knows?!
This is why adventure writers love hearing back from GMs and players who’ve run through their adventures. Each one is different. That ill-tempered dire weasel in area 1-8 on the map might be for the PCs a mere nuisance, a vicious fight, or a source of great comedy. But don’t get me wrong, everyone who reads a novel has a different vision of the characters, places, and events, and it’s gratifying to hear what different readers have to say about it.
Jones: So how’s it going converting the deities of Áereth to 4E for the magazine Level Up?
LaSala: I’m having a blast with it, because the Deities article is 80% pure flavor text, describing each god’s clergy, tenets, holy days, alternate aspects, relics…even how non-clerics fit into the faith. Fun stuff for me. And fluff like this is systems-neutral, so my hope is that people out there who play 3.5E or other editions can still find the ideas useful. Of course, there are also a few 4E crunchy bits as well.
The gods of Áereth were first drawn from the first few dozen DCCs; where there was a gap, new ones were created. Probably my favorite is the god I introduced in my first adventure: Soleth, the god of dignified death. In 3.5E, he was lawful neutral, a controversial patron of healers and morticians, revered by those who either combat death or clean up when it has won. Unpopular in most societies, he’s nevertheless a fierce opponent of evil and undeath—yet allows for euthanasia where goodly types would quail. A sect of Soleth-worshipping bards, the Threnodim, honor the unsung dead and craft eulogies for their fellow adventurers. Solemn goth musicians of the D&D world. These are the sorts of unconventional gods—and PC ideas—I like to dream up. The first two deities featured in Level Up are Gorhan, god of war and valor (originally from DCC #12), and Lasheeva, goddess of undeath and affliction.
Jones: Did you get to do much unconventional dreaming up for Hero’s Handbook: Tiefling book?
LaSala: Oh, yes, definitely, plenty of unconventions in the tiefling book. The challenge with these race books in general is to come up with a unique spin while still holding true to what the Player’s Handbook says about them. With Hero’s Handbook: Dragonborn, our work was fairly straightforward: new character options and some cool clans to associate with them, along with some lore concerning their connection to dragonkind. Both Harley Stroh and Aeryn Rudel wrote up some fantastic clan material for that book, and it’s had some pretty good reviews.
Tieflings, to me, presented a greater challenge. Who are these human-devil hybrids, fully mortal but with huge chips on their shoulders, yet as capable of heroic virtue as of great evil? So we introduced the concept of infernal legacies and the benefactors who rule them. In short, every tiefling is bound to one of the great archdevils who helped to sire their kind, but unlike all other races, tiefling bonds are not of blood but of mutual hardship, a sort of shared spiritual enslavement. Which devil “owns” you may not be the same one to whom your parents are bound, so the concept of family is nothing in the face of legacy… and a legacy is the collective group of tieflings who are all branded by one of the archdevils, whom they call their Lord Benefactor.
Ultimately, every tiefling has to decide how to feel about their Lord Benefactor and whether they’re going to let this great shadow rule over their lives or not. Now, tieflings were interesting to begin with—back when they were still hot off the Planescape presses—but I came out of this book really wanting to play one. From a writer’s standpoint, tieflings make compelling protagonists, even sympathetic villains.
Aeryn Rudel, by the way, was my 4E rock, the crunch guy who made sure my ideas balanced out. Understanding the scale of 30 levels of character classes is something I relied on him for. We didn’t always agree on the fluff side of things, but we always made the final product work out nicely. And let me tell you, Aeryn cooked up some pretty nasty archdevils in that book.
Jones: The prose in The Darkwood Mask is marked by a certain amount of restraint (not too wordy but not too fast either), and it possesses a very high “cool!” factor. This balance of tensions seems, to me, to be at the heart of the story you tell. Can you tell me about the writing of the novel, especially in terms of building and maintaining tension/conflict throughout?
LaSala: First of all, thanks! I never thought of my writing as restrained, especially considering how wordy I tend to be. Almost every editor I work with has to trim my writing down in the end because there’s just too much of it. Still, encapsulating suspense, action adventure, and interesting characters within a single, stand-alone story certainly was a challenge, and with this book, I was learning all that for the first time. But what a great way to learn!
Creating tension itself, I think, is fairly easy. Just try to make a protagonist that readers will like and then throw in some stakes, consequences that will come if he or she doesn’t succeed against the conflict. Something to make the reader worry. Tension is worry. Maintaining or even increasing that tension throughout a book… well, that’s much harder, and I can’t rightly claim to know the secret yet. I do think you’ve got to give readers some moments of relief but not enough to let them relax. Personally, I find humor in small doses helps relieve tension without getting rid of it. You need that tension there until the very end.
The Darkwood Mask will always be a very cool and sentimental thing for me—and hey, it was even nominated for a Scribe award! It was my first novel, and even though its required theme (detectives) wouldn’t have been my first choice, I really enjoyed the story I came up with. Moreover, I was satisfied with the characters, and I still wish I’d been able to continue with some of them in future books. But those sorts of decisions are up to Wizards of the Coast.
I will say this. I learned a lot. Not only about the novel-writing process but also about the publishing industry, working with editors, and, more specifically, shared-world writing. I really got into Eberron, reading every book that was in print at the time before I even started my writing. I enjoy research, and I’m a stickler for setting continuity—something I wish was true of everyone involved.
Jones: What footprints did you leave in Eberron?
LaSala: I can’t speak to what readers or Eberron gamers have taken away with them, but I can say what I would want to endure.
1) An intriguing, disturbing, grim, yet proud depiction of Karnath. My own background as an army brat probably fueled my interest in this militant nation (and maybe also my fondness for cold climates). The symbiosis that Karnathi culture has with the undead is egregiously awesome.
2) While Eberron is a fantasy world, I think there’s an opportunity for realism there that’s harder to find in other D&D settings. Maybe it’s because there are things like newspapers (broadsheets), mass transportation (the lightning rail), and long-distance communication (speaking stones), or maybe it’s because the moral and political climate of the setting is far from black and white. This brings a semblance of realism and relatability that should be exploited by players, GMs, and readers alike, to find meaning in what otherwise might be mere entertainment.
I hope that I captured some of that in The Darkwood Mask. I wanted my protagonists—Tallis and Soneste—to be imperfect heroes. Soneste is a wannabe socialite and some-time drug-user, but she’s also a brilliant inquisitive with street smarts and no damsel in distress. Major Tallis of Karnath is a rebel, patriot, and malefactor, a wanted criminal with a history of violence who is one of his government’s best assets (whether they know it or not). Both are flawed characters, but they set aside their own problems when something greater than their own lives is in danger. Neither of them is an epic-level demigod throwing their power around the land, but within one small, dark corner of the world, they become much-needed heroes.
Also, it helps that I also got to toss in a gargoyle (I love gargoyles), a kobold (an artificer whose magic shop is a tugboat), and a bugbear (because “bugbear” is fun to say). Although I wanted the book to have some verisimilitude, I couldn’t resist injecting classic D&D goodies: cursed weapons, immovable rods, a dungeon crawl, even an old school mimic!
Jones: I hear you’re working on some fiction in a creator-owned setting.
LaSala: Savant is the name I’ve given the project for now, and it’s a sort of “prologue” novel I’m working on for this world. It’s just underway, but it’s beginning to take shape. After writing in a shared setting like Eberron, where certain items have a “look but don’t touch” tag on them, returning to my own setting is like visiting a long-awaited friend.
In this book, I intend to offer a dose of that realism I was just talking about. I find myself wanting to create a more believable world than most fantasy fiction offers, but of course, I’m going to need to form a balance in all things. Something too realistic isn’t that much fun, either. In the end, it still has to be fantastical and therefore interesting. Writing for Eberron, which came with its own fan base, also taught to me to remember that readers have expectations and that you can’t lose yourself in too much self-indulgence.
World building is a slow-moving but gratifying endeavor, and I’m pretty detail-intensive as it is. I pay close attention to language, history, and culture—things you normally take for granted in fantasy worlds. And when you’ve got an entire world to flesh out, you have to do it from many angles. Pan too far out and the world loses its flavor, but if you zoom in on the details for too long the world loses its cohesiveness. My older brother, John, is my partner in this world-building process. He’s an artsy musician and a science snob with sensational and sometimes bombastic ideas, and I’m a fantasy buff and storyteller, so we’re a good team for this sort of thing. Nothing’s more fun than a good brainstorm between geeks.
Jones: In what ways do you play with—or maybe dialogue with would be a better way to put it—the reader’s expectations?
LaSala: My assessment of reader expectation comes from (1) when I was solely a reader and had my own expectations, (2) reviews I’ve read of my work, and (3) things people say on message boards. So with that in mind, I do pay attention and try to keep these expectations in mind. When I wrote The Darkwood Mask, I understood that most readers are D&D fans, so I made sure to touch on some of those unique aspects of a game-based world. But I also never focus only on what I think readers want, not in any project. If you only try to please everyone, the story will come out rather hollow, like a blockbuster movie with too much eye candy and no real substance.
Ultimately, Savant is something of an experiment. Certainly, it’s fantasy, but it also steals from science fiction and horror, and in that regard, I’m happy to twist any genre expectations. I’m also not sure how many series-based readers will make the transition to a particular author’s own world. But then again, fantasy readers who aren’t into series books like The Darkwood Mask might be more likely to give this novel a chance. I’m writing a series of journal entries (Savant Scrawlings) as I work on this book as a way of sharing with interested readers what goes into writing a new novel in a new world. I intend to talk about plot, character development, and setting creation but without giving too much away too soon. However, I’m very interested in what sorts of characters people like to read and care about, and I often trawl message boards and articles for just this sort of information.
Of course, I’d be more than happy to see people come to my website and flat-out tell me!