Grinding to Valhalla

Interviewing the gamer with a thousand faces

Reading the text: Stephen Dedman

Posted by Randolph Carter on September 18, 2009

art of arrow cuttingAuthor’s website:

Could you please explain what The Art of Arrow Cutting happens to be about?

It’s quest fantasy, using a contemporary American setting (which saved me the trouble of drawing any maps, though I did create a fictitious Canadian town) and creatures from Japanese mythology. The protagonist unknowingly acquires a powerful talisman, and has to learn how to use it because a previous owner, a powerful magician, is willing to kill to get it back.

What was the process like in getting the book published?

I sent it to several publishers without success, until one editor expressed an interest in buying it. Unfortunately, she was fired two weeks later. Fortunately, that expression of interest was enough to get me an agent, so when that deal fell through, he found another editor, Jim Frenkel from Tor, who liked it and bought it.

You’ve spent some time designing role-playing games. What are some of the games you’ve worked on?

I’ve had material published for Villains & Vigilantes (superhero roleplaying), the last three editions of GURPS, Car Wars, and one AD&D piece in Australian Realms. I also wrote adventures for FGU’s Bushido, Daredevils and Aftermath!, and FASA’s Shadowrun and Doctor Who RPGs, but while these were accepted, they were never actually published: one of the hazards of working from Australia in pre-internet days was that by the time I heard about an RPG, the chances were that the company had stopped buying new material for it.

How would you describe this experience?

Fun, if not always profitable. My first attempts to break into that market were AD&D pieces intended for Dragon magazine, all of which came from my experiences as a gamesmaster (none of them sold). After I started running V&V games, I decided I was putting so much work into being the GM (especially mapping) that I might as well get paid for it, so I turned one series of games into an adventure module and submitted it. A year later, I heard that they’d accepted it and it was about to be printed: the publisher thought the editor had contacted me, and vice versa (this was pre-internet).

fistful of dataI still GM occasionally for fun – usually GURPS – and when I do, I frequently turn my notes into short adventures or ‘Terra Incognita’ articles. Even unsold RPG material sometimes comes in useful: I adapted one unpublished Bushido adventure into a GURPS Martial Arts adventure, and an unpublished Shadowrun adventure into my Shadowrun novel, A Fistful of Data.

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

I started playing pen & paper D&D back in the late 70s, and tried a few other games before being introduced to V&V, then other FGU games, then Shadowrun (I’ve been running the same campaign, with some of the same characters, for 20 years) and GURPS. I occasionally play card and board games when I don’t have time to prepare an RPG adventure – mostly Steve Jackson or Cheapass Games such as Unexploded Cow, Lord of the Fries, Illuminati, Frag, and some others. I’ve never owned a gaming console (though I’ve shared houses with a few), but I have gotten briefly hooked on some computer games at different times: Wizardry, Bard’s Tale, Civilization, Rise of Nations and Call of Duty are the ones that come readily to mind.

Have you ever ventured into online worlds? If so, please explain what that experience has been like.

Not in any significant way. I prefer to create the worlds myself, either as RPGs or as settings for my fiction.

Would you mind sharing an interesting and/or amusing story from your gaming past?

Most of the amusing stories from my games involve one player, who treated every game as though it was D&D and every NPC a monster worth experience points. In her first V&V game, she decapitated an unarmed receptionist; in a Shadowrun campaign, she blew a hole through one of the other player characters to get a clear shot at an enemy. In an Aftermath! campaign, she nearly wiped out her entire party when they were cleaning through a cannibal lair: there was one room left unexplored, and she had one grenade left and wanted to use it.

The party had external measurements of the building, and had counted their paces as they advanced, and even allowing for error, they knew the room had to be very small. The fact that the door opened into the corridor, not out, should have been a dead giveaway. But no, one of them held the door open while she threw the grenade inside. The ‘room’ was a broom closet, and the grenade bounced off the back wall and back into the corridor, into the middle of the party, before the door shut. Kaboom.

Admittedly, she wasn’t the one responsible for burning down most of Cuba by teaching gestalt rats how to use cigarette lighters, or for inadvertently nuking Mexico City, but that’s another story.

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

Yes. The Art of Arrow Cutting was not only inspired by research I was doing at the time for Bushido, it was largely written as though I was the GM, on the side of the enemy, and the heroes were player characters. I still find this a useful technique when writing novels. Some other stories of mine have also come out of research I did for RPGs, and my most recent novel was a Shadowrun tie-in.

Would you say there is grind involved in the writing process?

Absolutely. Some of my short stories were written in one draft without grind; beginnings and endings may be written with little or no grind, but the middle of any long work usually requires a lot of hard work.

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

Making up stories – which is something I’ve done to entertain myself for as long as I can remember – and (sometimes) getting paid for doing it.

When do you find time to write?

Not as often as I’d like; I have two other jobs (I teach writing at university, and co-own a science fiction and fantasy bookshop). Mostly, now, I write when most people would be watching TV or playing video games.

How do you tend to escape these days?

Game design; writing fiction, which is a great escape when it’s going well; travel, when I can afford it; watching DVDs.

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

Write your first drafts for yourself only: write what you want to or need to write, don’t worry about other readers or making any money until you’re doing a second draft. Then, when you’ve done that, look at what you’ve written and ask yourself who would want to read that piece, and who you want to read it; whether it can be made into a publishable piece and whether you want to do that much work. Having someone who will give you honest, well-informed feedback at this point is invaluable: if you want to be a professional writer, constructive criticism from someone who knows and likes your genre matters much more than your ego.

(Having said that: don’t send work to me for feedback, unless you’re one of my students or mentorees or a very close friend. I don’t have enough time.)

The sf/fantasy/horror field is one of the few where there is still a huge range of markets for fiction of almost any length: make the most of this. Unless you’re incapable of being concise and can only write epics, try writing short fiction: you’ll learn, much more quickly, where your strengths and weaknesses as a writer are. Similarly, if you want to write for the RPG companies, the best way to get a track record is to start off with short articles for magazines such as Pyramid.

You wake up to a world where The Art of Arrow Cutting has been made into a role playing game. What character class would you play?


Is there anything else you’d like to share with this gamer/reader audience?

Read widely – at all lengths, a range of genres, and non-fiction as well as fiction. Read a publication before you submit to it: buy a copy or even a subscription so the magazine will still be around long enough to publish your work. If you want to read any of my stuff, there’s a regularly updated bibliography at my website,

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