Friday, April 12, 2013

Gardening gnomes, Google and Fantasy.

 Today, the lovely people over at "We Do Write" posted one of the longest interviews I've participated in. The topic, of course, is my newly released comical fantasy novel "Pandegnomium". That means lot of talk about strange fantasy, ideas, gardening gnomes, geeky stuff and the strangest thing I've googled so far.

It's a really awesome interview; one I'm truly proud to be part of. Go check it out, it's a lovely site with loads of stuf to keep you entertained, and several brilliant writers to meet.

"But you asked about writing specifically; I believe the hardest thing is getting started. I mustn’t allow myself to stare at the blank page for too long, otherwise nothing happens. Just write something and things will eventually follow, sort of like getting the train up into speed.

Oh yeah, and when you’re a nerd, roleplayer, mmo-gamer and warhammer-enthusiast, it’s not like you’re short on temptations."

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Q&A Heureka Book 2: "Bloody Peasants"

Following a lot of questions that have been asked in regards to the second and upcoming book in the Heureka-series; “Bloody Peasants”. I’m thrilled about the interest people have shown so far, and thought it’d be great if I sat down and addressed some of the primary questions I’ve received about the book so far.
What’s “Bloody Peasants” about? Other than peasants being bloodied.
Bloody Peasants take place about a year and some months after the events in the first book, ‘Pandegnomium’. This time, we’re introduced to the two protagonists John and Dandelion, who run a cesspit of an inn down at the harbor of Khar and generally feel bitter at Life. Most of their days are spent sleeping and the nights drinking, and the story begins after Dandelion gets hammered and utters a wish to whoever (or whatever) in the universe that will provide him with a second chance in life.

The following morning a giant of a man beats down their door and introduces himself as a leprechaun out to grant Dandelion his wish. He brings a part of an old treasure map, said to lead its owner to fortune and salvation. Now, all they need to do is find the remaining parts that rest with four vile farmers…
Their perilous journey has them clashing with several opponents, especially the mysterious “Four Hoarse Men”, lead by the dangerous villain known only as “The Furor” and his paladins.
Is “Bloody Peasants” the second book of the Etnil Storyline? Will we see references/characters from ‘Pandegnomium’?
Bloody Peasants is NOT part of the Etnil Storyline; it’s meant to be read either as an independent book of the Heureka-series or included in the Etnil Storyline.  That’s certainly not to say it doesn’t add anything to the tale of the young wizard; after all it marks a rather important event in the wake of the Pandegnomium event.

Also, it establishes some of the primary antagonists in the series, so one would definitely benefit from reading it as part of the Etnil Storyline. But the thing is; this story is about Dandelion, John and their leprechaun. And how they try to break out from the hell that is their life. It didn’t feel right including it as part of Etnil’s tale.

As for recurring themes and characters, the world of Heureka plays an ever prominent part and you might get a glimpse of an old friend.

Is “Bloody Peasants” the same length as “Pandegnomium”?
At this time of editing, Bloody Peasants will likely be somewhat shorter than Pandegnomium. The story is much more definite and “from point A to B” than its predecessor. Avid roleplayers will perhaps recognize some formulas, as it’s pretty much a group of people banding together in an inn to go out on a quest.
“Pandegnomium” featured a thorough look at the characters on a psychological level; can we expect the same in “Bloody Peasants”?
Absolutely. Both Dandelion and John are two very interesting personalities, who’ve both stopped giving a damn about their life, albeit for very different reasons. Whereas Pandegnomium was to a large extent about the anxiety and insecurity in life, Bloody Peasants is more about fighting against the odds after you’ve fallen. 
I really enjoyed your pop-culture references/roleplaying references/internet references in ‘Pandegnomium, will these be in “Bloody Peasants” too?
To some extent, yes, although they’re a bit more subtle, this time around.

You say the internet, MMO’s and D&D were all sources of inspiration for “Pandegnomium”. Is this the same this time around?
Yes, although the basic premise of this story is actually inspired by an improvised D&D-adventure I played many years ago. Of course, it was a lot more silly and I’ve changed a bit. But yes, we are still in a world of fantasy, and there is still plenty of fighting and magic to go around in Bloody Peasants.
How will “Bloody Peasants” be different than “Pandegnomium”? Why didn’t you just write the second book of the Etnil Storyline?
As already mentioned the story is much more linear, seeing as we only follow one group, as compared to two in Pandegnomium. Also, I suppose I had to fall into the trap of making a second story that was more gloomy than the first; mostly because this is about introducing not only two new heroes, but also the villains of the Heureka-universe. I won’t spoil too much now, but I can say there are some dangerous people who’re really mad about what happened to The World a year ago, now wanting to strike back at Heureka.
The universe needed this story, and I thought it was great. Plus, at the time I started it, I wasn’t entirely sure what would happen to Etnil. I know that now, thanks to Bloody Peasants.
When can we buy it?
I expect it to be released on Amazon in April.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

In Memoriam LucasArts (1982-2013)

At this time of writing, it’s easy to assume how most people have woken up to the disastrous news about one of the most iconic studios in gaming history. Dubbed as ‘just another foul move in the shit-spewing scheme of the vile company that is Disney’ and ‘a thing we all saw coming’, among others, it stands to reason that this is a departure that strikes deep in the hearts of many old-school gamers out there. Me included.

I am, of course, talking about the recent closure of LucasArts (LA), dead by the hands of Disney.
It’s tempting to put on your rose-tinted glasses and go on a melancholic killing spree throughout this article; yet I’ve been thinking about this move a lot in the last 12 hours and realized that wasn’t really what I wanted to do. Don’t get me wrong, fellow adventure gamers, my frustration and sadness is equally big, and I frankly feel like watching my favorite childhood tree being demolished for an apartment complex. Let’s start out by reminiscing; get to the good parts first.

It struck me today that LA is, in fact, just about as old as I am and that is a beautiful symbolism for something that has had such a huge impact on my life, even to this day. To the uninitiated, LA has blessed us all with a long series of great adventure games all throughout the 80’es and 90’es, mostly remembered for such awesome titles as Monkey Island, Loom, Full Throttle, Day of the Tentacle and Sam and Max Hit the Road, just to mention a few. Some of the young kids might say “NUH-UH!! Telltale does Monkey Island, nub!” but no, Telltale took up Sam and Max and Monkey Island both and developed them onwards, which in my eyes was a wise move and resulted in some rather decent games (hey, at least compared to that Monkey Island 4 that we don’t talk about…). For me, when thinking back on the things LA has provided me with, there are so many places to begin. My days were still young, when I sat down with a couple of friends and started playing Day of Tentacle for the first time. As I have mentioned before, English isn’t my primary language, but I honestly owe LA a lot for helping me on the way.


Because they gave every.single.edutainment publisher in school the rear wheel and drove off into the horizon with games that made it interesting to learn English. Some of the jokes in, say, Day of the Tentacle were easy enough to laugh at with minimal language-skill (invisible ink+rare stamps, anyone?). Whereas the Monkey Island games wouldn’t let you progress beyond sword fighting 101, unless you could go beyond what it meant to fight like a cow. How many hours did we spend, heads buried in dictionaries, to find out what it meant to be as ‘repulsive as a monkey in a negligee’ which ‘looks that much like your fiancĂ©e’?

Edutainment aside, these games also offered some extremely imaginative stories. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the one, single best desription for LucasArts storytelling. And I’ve ended up with ‘clever’. They were smart, well-thought of and truly came from so creative minds that managed to think out simple, yet appealing, universes that to this day keep inspiring me for my own surreal fantasy world of Heureka. One would think a twisted Caribbean with a Guy.Brush character and comical zombie pirate could only go so long, as storytelling went. Only it spawned three insanely good and funny games with memorable characters who people quote even to this day.

The thing with LA games is that everyone sort of seems to have his or her own favorite. While Day of the Tentacle will remain the uncrowned champion to me, several others cling to Threepwood and Co. Then I have a handful of friends who were into the Full Throttle rough environment, the even more absurd universe of Sam and Max (another close favorite of mine) and I could go on. Barely even mention all the Star Wars games that I sadly had very little chance to try out back in the day.

All that being said and done, I believe it’s important to include the often overlooked ‘Zombies ate my Neighbors’; a game that perhaps didn’t offer much in terms of edutainment, but sure as hell made it funny to blast up zombies throughout 55 levels of ghoulish delight. Again, I must say - clever thinking. Making such a basic and strange concept work is, for me at least, a hallmark of art.

But all good things come to an end.
I’d like to be outraged about seeing the end of such a great studio. I still play the first three Monkey Island games and have my Day of the Tentacle discs (and the obnoxious copy protection!!) around. Seeing the little, golden man on the logo gives me the thrill of nostalgia; a reminder of when times were simpler, the future looked brighter and the world generally a better place. In a psychological sense, the closure of LA strikes close to home to several of us, because it’s a powerful symbolic for previous, great times; who could blame us for getting upset? We do too, when we hear the old owner of our favorite childhood candy store died, even though we haven’t spoken to him for 10 years.

To me, that’s what LA eventually became. I suppose I should’ve shown them more interest, perhaps I owed it to them, over the last couple of years. Only I didn’t. When the adventure game genre started dying out (ironically, around Grim Fandango, a game about…death?) so diminished the perhaps biggest cardinal trait of LA. I’ll admit I never played Grim Fandango; at that time I still stuck to the old favorites of ‘Pick Up’, ‘Talk To’ etc. And I just assumed LA would stand tall and mighty, like a weather-beaten mastodon of a mountain that’d endure even the mightiest challenge. Because, that’s what childhood memories do, right?

Sadly, no.

I’m no expert in marketing, neither am I in any position to say what is right or how LA could possibly have survived. IF it could have survived at all. Perhaps times demanded a change that LA couldn’t provide? Perhaps it really has outlived its time and purpose; perhaps it was simply meant for another decade, when games came in cardboard boxes and you could call hotlines for help. A time when designers dared play, fool around and due to the simple nature of games could easily make changes and improvisations late in the process.

I think it was.

In these days, where most creative thinking seems to be done in terms of obnoxious ways to improve DRM, I believe we should pause to look back on LA that represents not only a developer, but a special era of gaming. It is something we could perhaps all take lessons from; developer and consumer alike. Perhaps the time isn’t right for a resurrection of the genre at the present time; perhaps we will see something grand rise from the ashes like a zombie pirate, in a distant future. But for now, the innovation, boldness and sense of immersion is something a lot of modern games, gamers and developers could take lessons from.
That, and first and foremost, cleverness.

Join me tonight, and play YOUR favorite LA-game. And remember the better times.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Handling magic in your writing

by Nicolai Grunnet, fantasy author and psychologist.

Whether you write designated fantasy or a story involving strong elements of the fantastic, magic is one of those things most of us, as writers, have an opinion about. I might be so bold and say; it’s darn well one of those things you have to at least make an initial stand on, seeing as magic is something extremely associated with the fantastic universe.

Now, don’t confuse this making of an opinion with ‘forced to include’; a solid handful of authors have taken the stand that magic does indeed exist in their respective universes, only it’s so restricted that it’s barely worth mentioning. Or perhaps long dead and gone.

Others feature it in abundance, and it’s not hard to imagine why. Magic is colorful, impressive, immense; the epitome of freedom that allows us to break the boundaries of our ordinary lives. The thing so many readers of fantasy seek out, on a psychological level; an exodus away from the busy, grey day and into a world in which anything is possible. 

But in another aspect, magic can be dangerous; both in the story and for the author to work with. This dual edged arcane sword allows the writer to incorporate just about any mechanic in his or her story, have problems solved in the most fantastic ways. Yet it also presents the ever lurking threat of just being plain out ‘cheating’. Some of you, who’ve stalked the internet, might very well be aware with the term ‘A wizard did it’, whenever some solution to a given problem simply seems too incredible to be plausible.

What said sentence tells us is that magic often holds the absolute mandate; in its utmost extreme it doesn’t need to explain itself. Magic just does. If you’re like most fantasy authors out there, it probably had its influence on creating your world, whether said spells were of arcane or divine origin. That makes magic something we often need to define, whenever we sit down to create a new setting or place, and ask ourselves how much it is capable of doing, and how far we, as authors, will allow it to go before it becomes a wild horse underneath us, that runs wild into the landscape.

The first thing I’ve noticed when I started writing ‘Pandegnomium’ is that magic commits. It might seem contradictive how something as free as magic needs to be defined; yet what magic needs are rules, not necessarily hardcoded limits. When I wrote up Etnil, the main protagonist, I found it interesting to have magic be a very rare thing in an otherwise dull world. Making him a wild mage whose powers not only served to protect him from harm, but at the same time could annihilate the rest of society (only it didn’t bother) seemed like a classical idea with a lot of potential for improvement. In that way, magic wasn’t something everyone wallowed around and had access to; instead it became like this unhealthily involved parent that believes his/her son doesn’t need any other friends. Usually it succeeds, because it scares off everyone else and blasts those threatening the kid. That was the rule; magic was rare, yet powerful and came with a price. Somehow, the genie had it right in Aladdin. Phenominal cosmic power...

I’ve always thought that these rules should remain more or less coherent (after all, what would the point be otherwise?) perhaps with the occasional exception in certain great scenes and events in your world. I was amazed at how hard it can be to remain true to these rules as your story progresses, even when you have so few. In Etnil’s case, it meant his arcane power had an enormous potential to change the world around him, only he didn’t want it to happen all too often. His ‘go away, mum!’ effect had worked brilliantly for years, but whenever he was in mortal danger, spell casting would kick in like a reflex and save him, often with terrible consequences to his surroundings.

Around the third book, the inevitable question suddenly struck me; “How is this guy ever going to be able to die?”  If magic steps in to save him, albeit at the cost of a town or two whenever, what is it actually able to save him from? Is it omnipresent and can prevent, say, a backstab? Poisoned food? Or does it rely entirely on his perceptions? And the thing is, these rules should be there and shouldn’t really be broken unless I had a damn good reason to.
In a way, that sets up a very important question in dealing with magic in your story:

How much is magic, usually in the hands of mortals, able to do? Better yet; what CAN’T it do?

There is a huge difference in how much magic can do in, say, Harry Potter and in a Forgotten Realms novel. This is usually influenced by your particular genre with epic levels of magic being more prevalent in an epic fantasy tale (well, duh?). Urban fantasy or associated stories might prefer a more subtle approach, such as mind-dominating spells. Other universes, such as the Discworld, feature plenty of magical opportunity, only they deem it wise not to take too much advantage of it. Perhaps because it is dangerous, or because the practitioners are too old and fat. 

Of course there is no right or wrong answer in this regard. Brilliant displays of fireballs, while wizards soar through the skies and conjure up razor-sharp spikes of crystal down on the battlefield of necromantic undead make for great and impressive scenes. But they tend to always make me ask “What’s next?” If things eventually grow so much out of hand and over the top, I fall back to my impressions of the anime ‘Slayers’. It doesn’t matter, in the end, as the magnitude of spells get inflated to the point when you’re more concerned about ‘what CAN’T spells do?’ Some of the roleplayers might know this from, say Dungeons and Dragons.
Asking yourself what magic CAN’T solve in your story, is a great way of defining where your limit goes as an author. A lot of people I’ve met put a limit around ‘bringing back the dead’ (again, the genie had something important going, right there). Usually because it has a huge potential to wreck up a story, seeing how death is an important narrative element in much fantasy. And I haven’t read many good stories in which the protagonist repeatedly comes back from the dead. Planescape Torment comes to mind.
In an article from Pixar, storyboard artist Emma Coats makes a statement that I believe to be one of the truest when it comes to dealing with magic: “Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.”

On more than one occasion I have been tempted to let incantations do the dirty work for me; after all, I have a bigger tale to tell. But it so easily gets across like lazy writing, and eventually I risk losing readers, because THEY will start asking, “What can’t this guy do?”. And suddenly, you find yourself tangled up in a confusing mess of magical rules and perhaps even ruining an otherwise really interesting challenge for your arcane protagonist.

Personally (and again; remember this is only my opinion), I’m a proponent of two approaches to this issue. The MacGyver-way and the Equilibrium-way. I frequently use both in my own books, and will do a quick rundown of both here. Besides being a rather awesome show, MacGyver is providing your protagonist with very limited magical powers and have them improvise. Make do with what they have, or have them be very specialized in their selection of powers, sort of like its portrayed in, say, X-Men. Having your characters improvise and think for themselves is never a bad thing, if you ask me. 

On the other hand, which can be a tough challenge to maintain consistently, is the equilibrium. The notion that great power not only comes with great responsibility, it’s also expensive as hell.  A series which I believe is truly underrated is ‘Pushing Daisies’, in which the pie-maker Ned has the ability to bring back the dead. Only, if he uses it too long, the laws of the universe will claim something of ‘equal value’ in return, often another life. Learning to work with these restrictions is not only another walk down the by now well-trodden road of “With great power comes…”. It also helps making the character interesting, as he’s forced to relate to said facts, and can’t spam his talent excessively.  Plus, as I’ve come to realize, perhaps you will connect better with your protagonist as an author, because neither of you are really interested in too many bad consequences of using the power. He doesn’t want to because he knows it will make his life difficult; you don’t want to because you’re the one who has to clean up after him/her. 

And when it happens; you know your story is in for a potentially interesting twist. Of course, this works all the better if you’re a pantser more than a plotter.

So that really answers the second big question in advance; at what price does power come?
I suppose I could go on with this article for a lot longer, but that’s not time either of us have. So I’d like to close off with a third, maybe not as central rather than interesting question; does magic have an antagonistic force or entity in your universe?

While we do like to believe that magic is omnipotent, especially in epic fantasy, I’d say it’s wrong to believe it isn’t flawed or vulnerable. In roleplaying games there are ways to temporarily or even permanently disable magic. Even some of the most extreme animes feature incidents in which spells are negated, and those who’ve read about the expanded universe of Star Wars, know that certain creatures can nullify The Force completely. Hell, let’s just return to the genie again (I REALLY LOVE MY ALADDIN, OKAY?), who downright feared the Mukhtar that threatened him in the later series. 

Designing a threatening antithesis to magic in your world can work great in two ways. First, we love villains in a psychological sense because they don’t play by the rules; having a force so great that it doesn’t even bother to play by the rules of magic can be a very interesting concept. Second, when your magic-wielding protagonist is robbed of his power, what is left? How will he or she cope? Making do without that which defines us has inspired a lot of great stories, I believe.

So, this has dragged on for long enough, and I wish to leave you with these ramblings for now. As always it has been a pleasure, and I look forward to talk to you again soon. I’d be thrilled to hear any thoughts or comments you might have about this article! You can find my contact information over at my author homepage:
Best of wishes!
- Nicolai.