Grinding to Valhalla

Interviewing the gamer with a thousand faces

Reading the text: Rob Rogers interview

Posted by Randolph Carter on October 26, 2009

Rob Rogers is the author of the superhero novel Devil’s Cape. He talks about this first novel and how he managed to get it published, what he is currently working on, as well as his impressive RPG background.

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 Author’s website:

Door Number Six: Rob’s Blog

Could you take a minute and explain what Devil’s Cape is about?

bread and butterDevil’s Cape is the story of a Louisiana city (also called Devil’s Cape) that was founded by pirates centuries ago and has had a string of corrupt leaders ever since. In a world of superheroes, it’s a city with few heroes at all. The mayors and other city officials are bad enough, but the real power has been held by a long succession of crime lords. The first was the masked pirate St. Diable, who created the city as a place to build his power base and showcase his loot. The latest is the Robber Baron, whose charisma and popular parties hide incredible ruthlessness. Early in the book, a group of out-of-town heroes arrives in Devil’s Cape intent on avenging old wrongs by arresting the Robber Baron’s latest group of thugs, a team of superpowered carnival freaks called the Cirque d’Obscurité. Things go horribly wrong and eventually three new heroes arise to try to make a difference: Argonaut (Jason Kale), who has inherited all the abilities of the classic Argonauts of mythology and whose uncle leads a crime family beholden to the Robber Baron; Bedlam (Cain Ducett), a psychiatrist and former gang member who was cursed with a monstrous second form; and Doctor Camelot (Kate Brauer), a brilliant scientist whose father, the third superhero to be called Doctor Camelot, was murdered by the Cirque d’Obscurité, and who has adapted his high-tech armor for her own use.

What was the process like in getting your first book published?

I was very fortunate. Wizards of the Coast had an open call for submissions for its (short-lived, alas) Discoveries line. I submitted three chapters of the book and an outline and eventually made it out of the slush pile.

It was a bit more arduous than that, actually. Wizards’s open call suggested that submitters actually have the complete manuscript ready in case you were selected. I have a full-time job, kids, etc., and did not continue working on the book after the initial submission until Wizards contacted me (about six months after the submission) to tell me the editors would like to have the whole book for further review. Within 10 days. Talk about a combination of excitement and panic! I negotiated an additional few weeks and basically lived on energy drinks and coffee, churning the book out in my off hours during what was actually a very busy time at work, too. Then I submitted the book and waited. And waited. And waited.

Months later, after hearing nothing, I found out that the original editor I’d been working with, who had liked my manuscript, had left the company. Another Wizards editor, Phil Athans, was cleaning out the first editor’s cubicle and came across my book in a box. (Fun fact: To net myself an extra day of writing, I’d had it printed at a Renton-area Kinkos and couriered over to Wizards, and the courier had stamped the manuscript “Paid in Full,” and for a while, Phil thought that that was the name of the book.) Phil was about to pitch the thing in the trash, but he took pity on me and decided to read a couple of pages, and thank goodness, it hooked him.

The rest is less exciting–several revisions working with Wizards to develop the text (thankfully we very much saw eye to eye on the best ways to flesh some things out) and, eventually, publication.

Are you working on another book at the moment?

Yes. I was working on sequel to Devil’s Cape, but Wizards dropped the Discoveries line and focused on books tied to its games, so I needed to find another publisher. Finding a new publisher for a sequel can be tough (even though I have all the rights to Devil’s Cape and it could go back into print), so I’ve set the sequel aside for now and am working on another book along similar lines, a superhero story set in Texas, with aliens, cowboys, and and an evil cult to liven things up.

Were you a big reader as a child/young adult? What were some of your favorite books and/or authors growing up?

Sure, I’ve always been a huge reader. As a kid, it was Danny Dunn. Tom Swift. The McGurk mysteries. The Oz series. The Chronicles of Narnia. Eventually it became Xanth books, the Dragonriders of Pern novels, Sherlock Holmes, Star Trek novels, and the Belgariad. Eventually I branched out and started reading a lot more mysteries and thrillers, too. Dick Francis. Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries. James Lee Burke. Faye Kellerman. Robert Crais. Now I continue to read a ton of books, and it’s still often genre fiction–mysteries, thrillers, sci-fi, and fantasy. Also, of course, there have always been lots and lots of comic books.

What has your gaming experience been like (board games, pen & paper RPGs, console & computer games, etc.)?

I love board games, and graduated at a fairly young age from the Dungeon board game to the Dungeons & Dragons Basic and Expert sets, to AD&D. I dabbled in other RPGs, mostly the TSR games (I played Star Frontiers, Gamma World, and Top Secret). Then in 1985 or so, I discovered Champions, and that was just wonderful to me. I absolutely loved it and played on and off for years. I’ve GM’d quite a few Champions campaigns.

My original big console experience was the Atari 2600. I played the hell out of Adventure and messed around with some of the other early adventure-type games there, like Earthworld or Riddle of the Sphinx, on top of more arcade-style games. After that, I didn’t have a console for years. My older son got a Wii for his birthday this past summer, and that’s been a revelation. I’m surprisingly hooked on Lego Indiana Jones.

As far as computer games go, I loved Ultima VI and VII (both parts). Baldur’s Gate I and II, Icewind Dale, Neverwinter Nights. But it’s been a while since I played anything all the way through. Oh, except for Freedom Force. I loved Freedom Force.

Could you talk a little bit about online play-by-email gaming. How exactly does that work?

I think that it works a lot of different ways depending on the interests of the players and game masters. Some are very strategy oriented: “My character flies across the room and aims an energy blast at the second thug from the right.” But others are more like group fiction, with very detailed characters and character development, intricate plots where the game masters guides the action, but gives the players lots of room to pitch in, and side pieces where players develop short works of fiction about their characters. Often various campaigns spring up from a shared universe.

As far as the “how it works” part goes, like I said, there’s a lot of variety, but often in the groups I was in, it would work something like this:

A game master would conceive of a particular campaign. He or she would issue a call for submissions that would describe that campaign, the types of player characters he was looking for, etc. Players would send in character submissions and the game master would select the characters that best fit the campaign concept, play balance, personal taste, etc. Then, in the campaign itself, the game master would start a turn describing a situation and let the players react. For example, I once ran a superhero campaign (of prestigious heroes from an established team, in a universe others had created), with a scene of a giant white dragon attacking an oil rig off the coast of Norway. The heroes were thrown right into the action, arriving at the scene, and the players had to describe how they’d approach the situation. Of course, there were lots of complications as time went by. Each player would send in an e-mail explaining (with descriptions of the character’s actions in third person format) what the character would do. As game master, I then would weave all the players’ prior actions into the resulting turn. With big combat scenes, it could get pretty complex.

As a superhero buff, do games like City of Heroes/Villians, the forthcoming DC Universe Online and Champions Online hold any allure for you?

Oh, god, yes. But I have a feeling that if I started playing those games, I would have a very tough time pulling myself away from them. I dabbled in Magic: the Gathering Online for a while and it was kind of all-consuming. Even when I wasn’t playing, I was conceiving decks, shopping online for deals on cards, making wish lists, reading (and even writing) articles, etc. Champions Online looks particularly attractive. But I’m trying to stay strong and stay away for right now, so that I don’t take away from time with my family or writing time.

Would you say your gaming experience has had any effect on you as a writer? Please explain.

When I played PBEMs, I gravitated in particular to Champions games with strong writing components, and that opened my eyes to some of the possibilities of writing superhero fiction. It was a big influence on my writing.

I found, unfortunately, that that gaming drew from essentially the same creative well as my fiction, and ultimately I gave it up to focus on writing. But I had a lot of fun and made a lot of great friends along the way.

Grind is a term used frequently in gaming vernacular referring to something that is rather repetitive or unpleasant that one engages in in order to progress in the game. Would you say there is grinding in the writing process? Please explain.

Oh, sure, I get the grind concept. I remember playing Ultima VII, buying as much mutton as my characters could carry, laboriously finding inventory space for it, then hoofing it to another city to sell it at a profit. I spent hours doing that.

A lot of writing is grinding. You can have these great, mad, electric ideas (or at least they feel that way), but the process of getting them down, getting them to make sense, can be painfully difficult and slow. And that’s just the parts you’re excited about. A lot of times you have to work very hard on the other parts, too, the skeleton that holds the story together. No matter how much you love it, how much you love the story, a lot of the writing process is a grind.

By contrast, what would you say is one of the most rewarding things about being a writer?

Making connections. The most rewarding thing for me is that sudden click in my head when I solve a problem I’ve had or when I have a couple of different ideas that I suddenly realize can work together. The Eureka moments.

Would you have any words of advice for the would-be-writers out there?

I could throw a lot of aphorisms out there. Be prepared for hard work. Stick to it. Don’t be so sensitive that you can’t listen to other’s criticism and take it seriously, but be sure to take it with a grain of salt, too. But I guess the main thing I’d recommend is just to be sure to write a story that you would like to read. I don’t mean putting in a lot of in jokes that only you get; I mean imagine you were picking up your story and reading it fresh. What would you like about it? What would delight you? Focus on that.

With Devil’s Cape, I told an adventure story with characters I cared about, throwing in fun stuff like pirates and superheroes and carnival freaks, with a dash of imagined history. It very much targeted an audience of people like me, but I hope that it managed to entertain others, too.

You wake up to a world where Devil’s Cape has been made into an MMO. What superhero class would you play and why?

Man, that sounds like fun. Pardon me if I first fantasize about cashing that MMO check. OK, now what kind of class would I play? I think I’d play some kind of scrapper, someone who is good at a lot of things without necessarily being the best at any of them. Someone with potential for growth. If I got to adapt one of my Devil’s Cape characters to the game, I’d probably start with Argonaut. He’s not extremely experienced, but he’s very capable. Maybe even a little too powerful. The strength of Heracles, the wit of Theseus, the flying powers of the Boreals, even the voice of Orpheus. Lots of reasons to justify the character’s powers increasing as he got in better control of his connection to the original Argonauts.

improbable adventures of sherlock holmesIs there anything else you’d like to share with this gamer/reader audience?

Devil’s Cape is out of print for now, but it’s still pretty easy to track down copies. And I’m continuing to write. I just had a short story published in the anthology The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, edited by John Joseph Adams, a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories with elements of fantasy, science fiction, or horror. My story, “The Adventure of the Pirates of Devil’s Cape,” sees Holmes and Watson following the trail of a mystery to the city of Devil’s Cape back in 1894 or so. It was great fun to write. A big part of creating Devil’s Cape for me was world-building, and this story set in an earlier time gave me a chance to play with some of the historical elements I’d touched on in the novel. Plus, I’ve always been a huge Holmes and Watson fan, so that was an exciting opportunity.

What writing projects are you currently working on?

Mostly I’m working on the Texas-based superhero novel I mentioned before, but I dabble in a little short fiction when the mood strikes me. I recently finished a short story your readers might like. It involves a teenager whose best friend dies. But then he’s playing in a superhero MMORPG and spots his dead friend’s character running around. Hijinx ensue. If the story finds a home, I’ll drop a line in the comments or something and let you know where to find it.

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