Grinding to Valhalla

Interviewing the gamer with a thousand faces

Reading the text: Thomas M. Reid

Posted by Randolph Carter on July 17, 2009

crystal mountainAuthor website:

Could you take a minute and explain what your latest novel The Crystal Mountain is about?

Sure. The Crystal Mountain is the third book of a trilogy set in Wizards of the Coast’s Forgotten Realms setting. The entire Empyrean Odyssey tells the story of an alu named Aliisza and a cambion named Kaanyr Vhok. The two wind up in the celestial planes, mixed up in the machinations of the good gods and their angel servants. The story revolves around a handful of characters dealing with their own issues, but it’s all set against the backdrop of some pretty sweeping events that WotC developed to introduce the 4th Edition version of the Dungeons & Dragons setting. It was originally conceived to help bring those changes into play, but I tried to focus on keeping the story grounded around those particular characters and their immediate problems.

Would you mind discussing your professional background in the gaming industry?

I began working at TSR, Inc. (the company that produced D&D in its earliest days) in 1991. I came on board as a game editor, but I dabbled in design, and eventually became a product line manager. I moved west to Seattle when Wizards of the Coast acquired TSR and all of its properties where, in addition to continuing to work with the game department, I also started writing fiction. I eventually moved back to Texas (where I grew up) to work in the paper-and-pen industry as a freelancer. I’ve also done some contract work for a handful of computer game companies here in the Austin area, but my main focus has continued to be writing.

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

Obviously, based on my resume, it’s pretty extensive. I started playing D&D way back in the late 70s, and I’ve been involved in that pastime–as well as the electronic side of things–both personally and professionally in the three decades since. I also spend my fair share of time playing computer games. I got an Apple II+ for Christmas when I was something like 13 years old and played the very first version of Wizardry on it. I still play computer games regularly, mostly MMORPGS. I have a particular passion for WWII games. We do have consoles in the house (a Wii and an XBox), but my kids are far better at those than I will ever be.

Have you ever ventured into online worlds? What has that experience been like?

I have a character on World of Warcraft, and I, my wife, and our three kids have all played it together. I also dabbled in Lord of the Rings Online, D&D Online, and Age of Conan. My most recent interest has been WWII Online: Battleground Europe. Though certainly not the most cutting edge in terms of graphics, etc., it has the unique appeal of immersing me in World War II, one of my passions since childhood. Though I would never insult anyone who has ever seen real combat, by suggesting that it gives me any real perspective on how it must feel to be on the field of battle, I will claim that it’s probably pretty similar to a very complex game of paintball.

As someone who obviously appreciates the written word, do you tend to read the quest text?

Absolutely. Much of the work I have done for various computer-game companies recently has revolved around creative content, including quest text, so yeah, I am partial to seeing the story behind the game play. I know plenty of people who have more than enough fun just completing the tasks without ever really paying attention to what was written, but someone on the other end has gone to a lot of trouble to craft a believable tale, and if you are careful and pay attention, you can learn quite a bit about the setting.

Would you care to share an amusing and/or interesting anecdote from your gaming days?

In general, funny stories only mean much to the people who were a part of it, but I’ll share one little tidbit from very recently. I mentioned that I had just started playing WWII Online. Well, my oldest son had come into my office to see what I was engrossing me so thoroughly. I explained to him that I was playing a British AA gunner, trying to defend a town from the attacking Germans. Nothing much was happening, and he thought it looked stupid and boring (as teenagers are wont to do). All of a sudden, a lone Stuka came swooping overhead. “Crap,” I said, swiveling my Hotchkiss around. “He’s fractured skycoming back, I know it.” Sure enough, the Stuka lined up for a high, diving attack run–right at me. My heart pounding, I tried to line it up in my sights. Now, remember, I am a complete noob at this game, so my ability to lead a plane is pretty raw. But this plane came right at me, bullets raining down all around me. I unloaded an entire belt of ammo and I shot it right out of the sky. It was so close, I thought for a split-second I would be killed by the falling debris, but it landed just beyond me. I was so stoked I literally jumped out of my chair and high-fived my son. I think he was suitably impressed, even if he wouldn’t let his old man actually see the admiration.

How would you say your gaming experience has influenced you as a writer?

I would say that the two are so completely intertwined that it would be hard to differentiate one from the other. Much of my game experience has involved writing creative content, and much of my writing experience has focused on games. The two are all part of what I do for a living.

Were there ever times when you felt like your gaming got in the way of your writing?

Sure. Early on, I was as guilty as anyone of writing “a group of unlikely heroes out of a gaming session” clichés as anyone. I still probably let the rules of the game setting unduly influence much of my writing at times, but that has waned with years of experience.

Have you found there to be any drawbacks to writing shared-world fiction?

No matter how much of yourself you may put into characters, plots, and environment, it’s never really yours. Everything you work on belongs to someone else, and it’s easy to get lost in that fact when you’re really immersed in it. But the moment you start to forget it, something can (and will) come along to rudely remind you otherwise. It’s also maddening sometimes to really want to do the perfect thing in a plot, something that fits exactly the way it needs to and accomplishes the precise climactic moment, and you can’t. Perhaps someone else is in need of that particular plot device, or perhaps the company would prefer not to open up particular can of beans by what you want to do. Either way, it can be frustrating, but you just figure out an alternative and go on.

By contrast, what would you say you enjoy most about writing shared-world fiction?

There’s a real sense of camaraderie with the other creatives working in a shared world. You can bounce ideas off one another, take some seemingly innocuous, throw-away idea from one of their works and develop into something grand, and so forth. It’s almost like we’re all in on a very special, well loved inside joke when we’re working in the same world together. It can be pretty special, and some terrific, lasting friendships have developed as a result of it.

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

I have always and will always read voraciously. There’s more stuff I can point to than I could type in a day, but some of the real standouts include The Hardy Boys, The Three Investigators, The Lord of the Rings (of course), any of Robert Ludlum’s spy thrillers, John Norman’s Gor series, anything by Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, etc. I exhausted my grade school librarian.

What writing projects are you currently working on?

For the first time in a long time, I am not contracted to write any work-for-hire material. It’s refreshing, because it’s giving me a chance to pursue some speculative stuff. I don’t want to say anything more right now, but hopefully, some new fiction will surface in the near future for me that’s completely my own.

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

I get asked this all the time, and I know other authors do, too. We all say the same thing, and though the answer is probably not what a would-be writer wants to hear again, you’ve got to write. Just like learning to play a musical instrument, practicing makes you better. When you write, you’re developing a bunch of different talents. You learn how to type faster, which allows your ideas to flow more easily from head to fingertips to computer screen; you learn how to make yourself sit down every day and actually do it, developing the discipline; and, most important, you develop your craft. Most people who think they want to write like the romantic notions of it and don’t fully grasp the labor involved. I hear folks say, “I want to be a writer” all the time, but that’s all they ever do. If you are a writer, you can’t NOT write. You have to do it; it’s in your blood. And if that’s the case, then you do it, every day, and you get better at it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: