I have the pleasure of being acquainted with the Bard (of Australia, not Avon). You no doubt remember him from his video explaining why Heroquest is the best game ever. The Bard is not only a master of the video format, however. He was approached the write the novelisation of eponymous game in the Dungeon Saga franchise, entitled The Dwarf King's Quest. It is a harrowing tale of four adventurers descending into a decrepit, derelict fortress in pursuit of a necromancer to keep him from placing his ghastly hands on an item of immense power.
Just look at the muscularity of that guy.
Having previously conversed with the Bard about heroic archetypes, barbarians, Dwarves and the like, I felt compelled to give it a read, and I thoroughly enjoyed this old-school quest turned into a fully realised story. I also found myself curious about the whole process of being commissioned to write a story within an already set framework; thankfully, the Bard was gracious enough to satisfy my curiosity. So let's get this cracking interview underway!
Daniel: You were commissioned by the people behind the Dungeon Saga games to write a novelisation of their RPG, The Dwarf King's Quest. I can imagine a lot of other writers being envious of such an offer. How did it come about that this commission was offered to you?
The Bard: The writing of the novel has its origins in youtube of all places. One day Ronnie Renton, boss of Mantic Games, sent me a message claiming that the best thing about Heroquest is Dungeon Saga. Now you, I, and and the rest of gamesdom will recognise that as a wild statement to say the least. I let him down gently and replied that the best thing about Dungeon Saga is its Heroquest influences and how while it is a fine game in its own right it's no Best Game Ever Made. I also rolled the dice and asked him if he had any spare room for an extra writer and before long a had a project to do.
The first project wasn't the Dungeon Saga novel but a short story called Heartbreak Holiday which is in the Deadzone Dossier's anthology. I'm very proud of it and someone else must have liked it too becasue I was soon offered the novelisation of Dungeon Saga. I can't claim to have been their first choice, however. In their words, the previous author 'let them down' and they wanted me to help them out. I sent a short sample of what it would be like and got the go-ahead soon after.
A fun, wholesome holiday destination for the whole family.
Daniel: That's a very unusual origin story! Now, I imagine there must be a lot of differences working this way rather than on a project that is entirely your own. If nothing else, the setting is already determined for you. What other restrictions or guidelines did you have to follow? Like what type of characters to use, what the plot should be like? And how was it to write a story within this framework?
The Bard: Writing the story was very easy. The only mandates I had were that it was to be an adaptation of the board game and that it had to be around 40,000 words (which is novella territory to be honest). While there was the basic framework of the board game to hold to and the characters and general thrust of the story was set I had a very free hand in the particulars of those characters and the specific details of how things would play out. There is a huge amount of myself in there; my own ideas.
Daniel: One thing I enjoyed about the book was how the background of the characters, making them almost a band of misfits, wove together to make them well-suited for the final confrontation. I imagine that was entirely your invention, and let's talk about the story. I have my own impressions of what kind of story it is, but I'd rather hear yours. How would you characterise the story?
The Bard: To me the story is about attrition. It had to be. When you look at the gaming tradition of the dungeon adventure they are always exercises in suffering for the characters involved. Characters are hurt and injured with dreadful frequency but there is generally magic spells or potions to undo the damage and actuality of the suffering involved is sort of swept under an imaginary rug. MMO computer games are some of the worst offenders. In a dungeon in something like World of Warcraft the central hero, the 'tank', will lose and regain the entirety of his health many times over in a single dungeon adventure and it is never considered remarkable that this happens. When it comes to fictionalisations of these games the heroes seldom suffer in the same way the games imply.
In general, Warcraft's attitude towards realism is how most people feel about syphilis.
I knew that this was a fundamental experience of the so-called 'dungeon adventure' and wanted to interrogate it in the novel. Every time I was tempted to have characters avoid danger dramatically at the last moment I asked 'well, what if they don't?' which is a habit I have that opens up all sorts of narrative doors. So the theme of the novel became attrition. How much can we take and keep going? How much can we lose and still come out the other end? I can't be the one to say if it was successful or no, but I think I made some headway toward what I was going for.
Daniel: Your story follows four characters, including a barbarian and a dwarf. Anyone who has spent time on your videos will recognise that both are dear to your heart. But the character we spend most time with, and who I imagine most readers will feel the closest connection to, is the young wizard, Danor, and the party is made complete by Madriga, the Elf. I'd like to talk about your impression of the characters. Were some easier or more enjoyable to write than others, and do you have your own favourite?
The Bard: Aye, its true.
Dwarven barbarian: Two for the price of one
Dwarfs are my favourite fantasy folk and barbarians are my favourite heroic archetype. I also have a great deal of love for both elves and wizards so all of the characters were very enjoyable to write. Danor being the focal character is no accident. Any of the characters could conceivably have carried it but Danor was the logical choice. Besides the fact that he is the most immediately relatable, he also has an economical advantage in the position: he belongs to the same wizard order as the villain, Mortibris, so his immediate background and that of the villain could be easily explored at the same time. Likewise, his magical skills make him directly privy to secrets about the dire situation he and his allies are in and thus the reader is aware of them too, without having to receive the information second-hand. All of that was very important considering the limited space I had to work with.
If I had to pick a favourite character to write, well, that would be Mortibris. He is the only other point-of-view character in the story and whenever I would write those sections I would put on a certain piece of music and all of the text would instantly coalesce. It was like a ritual.
Which piece of music? It was, of all things, Four Portals from Chakan: the Forever Man. I would be finished before the music was over.
I'd vote for him. He's the kind of guy you'd have a beer with in a bar.
Daniel: I see that we have a soundtrack for the book as well - at least for the passages concerning our villain! I'd also like to know what's next for our Bard. More books in the works, more of your cracking videos, other projects, or just taking some time to enjoy the spoils?
The Bard: I recently contributed to an upcoming source-book for Mantic's game Kings of War. I don't know when that will be out (or what the final title is!) but I was charged with elven and dwarfen lore and it was a jolly good time.
There is the aforementioned short story in the Deadzones Dossier called Heartbreak Holiday, which I am very proud of; not least because it is fully my story and not an adaptation of something belonging to someone else. Interestingly it does touch some of the same themes as the Dungeon Saga novel.
In the immediate future I am looking to finally return to the grand hobby of unboxing! I have long been apart from the noble duty and am eager to return very soon. I am on the home stretch of my latest video and I hope, at last, to have it out soon.
Daniel: Alright, thanks, I think that's all my questions! Is there anything you'd like to add at the end?
The Bard: Now, you ask do I have anything to add. The answer is yes; I'd like to talk about skeletons.
Skeletons face a serious problem in gaming culture (and elsewhere too, frankly) in that they are in danger of becoming stereotyped, permanently, as the least of foes. They are at risk of becoming the new rats: ubiquitous, only vaguely threatening, and when one does challenge you it's generally a joke or ham-fisted subversion of what, for skeletons, should not be the norm.
What, these guys?
I was very conscious of this going into Dungeon Saga. In the game they are lowest on the chain of foes (through they are much tougher than those in other games). In the novelisation, I made it my mission to have skeletons that were downright dangerous; that were a serious threat, always, and could re-enforce the theme of attrition.
Consider how terrifying a skeleton is as an opponent. Even if it does not possess all of the fighting skill it had in life (which mine do), it is still a menacing adversary. It is a foe that cannot feel pain. It has no weak points or organs to puncture. It is likely to be relentless. Hit has no senses as you understand them: it cannot be blinded, deafened, or stunned. It is immune to psychology and cannot be frightened or deceived. Even the classic go-to weapon against the dead, fire, is of little use against a foe that does not panic, and will suffer burning with inhuman stoicism even if you can find a way to set them alight.
That's actually another interesting point. I remember back when Dungeon Saga first came out, long before I ever came into contact with Ronnie and his men at Mantic, I sat down to play it with my friend Aaron and one of the things we commented on was how strange it was for a wizard to rely on fire magic in a mission where every foe is dead. Its the sort of thing that gets put in games simply because its kind of a tradition and no one thinks about it. I got the chance to interrogate the assumption in the novel which I was very happy about. It was ultimately very satisfying to contextualise Danor's frankly bizarre set of spells. I hope the designers will forgive me for saying so, but the spells and how they work in the game are mechanically sound but diegetically they are very strange and even dissociative to a point. It was one of the first things I thought about, actually; how to reconcile the naked mechanisms of the game with the imagined world it invites us into.
I think I did alright.
For those wishing to see more of the Bard, his channel is full of cracking videos and deserves a subscription. A copy of The Dwarf King's Quest can be obtained by following that link. Adventure awaits!