Gaming is often the gateway to greater things. Such was it for Charles Gannon, author of the Dark Conspiracy supplement Darktek. Recently DCtRPG had an opportunity to chat with Charles, about his game writing, involvement with Game Designers Workshop, and most recently his Wall Street Journal Best-Selling fiction.
Please Note: This interview took place three years ago, and was thought lost in ruins of an old PC. Thankfully, through the wonders of modern technology, it can be resurrected to grace the pages of this website.
[DCtRPG] – Hi Charles, thanks for taking the time to talk with us. Would you care to give the readers a bit of an introduction?
[Charles] – I’m 52, father of five (one having died of SIDS), and am still a Distinguished Professor of English at St. Bonaventure University. But I haven’t been in a classroom for almost 6 years now. I gave up my tenure and became an “at-large” member of the faculty in order to pursue writing fiction full-time. Which is working out very well: I had a Wall Street Journal Best-Seller last year, and my next novel—“Fire With Fire” (Baen, April 2013)—is the first in a hard sf military/thriller series of which three have been bought already [ED. Charles has had a number of other books published since this this interview was published – you can see a most recent list here – http://www.charlesegannon.com/newgate.html]
So if I were to start in on anything like a complete biography, I’d have a lot of info…too much for here. And besides, that’s not what your readers came to learn about, anyway!
[DCtRPG] – So, we all have our own origin stories – the events that lead us into table-top gaming – care to share yours?
[Charles] – The story of how I got into gaming will, I’m sure, ring familiar to many of your readers—particularly the ones who are older than 50.
When we were kids, gaming meant “board gaming” (some now respell this as “bored gaming”). And that’s what I was doing when, at age 13, I attended my first Origins convention in Baltimore. A bunch of us were into micro-armor WW2 rules, but the two of us who made the hejira to Origins arrived without realizing that advance registration was necessary to participate. So we consoled ourselves by buying a copy of “Diplomacy”, turbo-learning the rules, and winning our respective games in the first of three rounds. Each of us was playing as Turkey, if you can believe it . . .
Well, we knew we were going up against more serious competition the next day, so we settled down in the cafeteria with the board and started running through scenarios. To one side of us, two guys were playing some Avalon Hill Civil War game—First Battle of Bull Run, I think—and that was distracting us pretty heavily, because, when you get right down to it, Diplomacy is not exactly riveting entertainment for a pair of 13 year old boys. And then we overheard the following bit of conversation from the table flanking us on the other side:
“So, I grab the flaming sword, jump on the wereboar’s back, and we charge down the corridor at the goblins.”
We looked at the grid paper and figures on the adjoining table, looked at the Diplomacy game in front of us, looked at each other, looked back at the D&D game in progress—and that was that. I honestly don’t remember much more about what we saw there, except being utterly fascinated by the yellow tetrahedron that was functioning as a four-sided die. We each bought a copy of the first three books the next day—in the brown boxes, and completely blew off the Diplomacy game. Which I’m not sure we ever played again.
I don’t remember my very first characters, because we spent a lot of time bashing around with those crude (and for us, largely indecipherable) first edition rules. Things got a lot clearer when Greyhawk came out. But by then, we weren’t interested in any pre-fabricated campaigns Already a budding author, I went into a veritable frenzy of story-telling and world-building. So I guess you could say that my first campaign was not what I experienced as a player, but as a referee. And I learned a lot about crafting story arcs, reversals, surprises, and timing through that exercise. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was diving headfirst into Narrative Construction 101. I guess I passed, since spinning stories is what I do for a living now…
I don’t know that I sought out being the referee—but the other guys (gaming was a fairly gender segregated activity in those early days) didn’t get anything out of the building of a world. For me, it was the first activity other than writing which really and fully engaged all my faculties. Areas of knowledge that had been boring suddenly became interesting and important. Now I had to know how the whole world fit together—because I was responsible for what went on in it. I can’t say the gaming helped me in school right away…but whereas I found research incredibly dull beforehand, it became a lot more engaging because all the knowledge now was part of an integrated system. Before college, too much of what we learned were just disparate factoids floating around in a mysterious mélange of “adult affairs.” Now, those same facts and disciplines of investigation became the superstructure of everything I built, and everything that occurred upon (and sometimes in the wings of) that conceptual proscenium stage in gaming’s theater of the mind.
So, I’d have to reply that I didn’t choose refereeing any more than I consciously chose writing fiction: they both chose me. And for pretty much the same reasons.
[DCtRPG] – I’m sure your story sounds familiar to many, and it definitely rings a bell to me.
Going on from playing and Refereeing, how did you end up writing for GDW? Were you intentionally out looking to be a freelancer game writer, or was it just one of those things you ‘luck’ into?
[Charles] – So, here’s how this ultimately led me to GDW. There was a group of us gaming together in the Eighties and I had designed a rules set which “translated” systems as diverse as D&D, The Fantasy Trip, and Traveller into a common basis. Ultimately, it was based on Traveller for reasons that are numerous and varied, but the over-generalized bottom line is that those rules were task-based and accountable. Also, the combat resolution rules of the original Striker were actually very amenable to tactical adoption, right down to the level of basic melee. You had to fill in A LOT—but it had, as they say of houses, good bones.
Now along the way, there was a British magazine which put out a character generation module for intelligence agents. I thought it wanted some improvement and came up with the template for the generation of agents of the Imperial Regency. It went over very well so I figured I’d see if there was any official interest. In fact, Marc Miller liked what I had produced, and before I knew it, not only was the character generation system and background in print, but I was submitting adventures that utilized (and were good for players with) just such characters.
The rest, as they say, is history. By 1990, I made a (cycle-completing?) return to Origins, where Marc expressed the desire that I become the (by then Mega-) Traveller guru. I was very flattered, but fiscal realities compelled me to keep this a freelance gig performed from my location on the East Coast, rather than going to work out at GDW. I was making most of my money writing scripts for television in NYC and couldn’t make the jump to GDW full-time. Also, my ultimate objective was to launch a full-time fiction career–and I knew enough about game design to realize that it was a 70 hour a week job.
I knew as I demurred on the offer to work at GDW that it was probably only a matter of time before I was outplaced: no company will perpetually allow its trademark and legacy game to be run by out-of-house experts. GDW had experimented with that notion when they put Megatraveller in the hands of DGP, but it never quite worked well enough. And I knew that it would only be so long before the product line would have to move back in house. It was a hard decision to make, but I knew it was best—for me, and also for the game.
[DCtRPG] – However did you get time to work on a Dark Conspiracy supplement like Darktek, with everything else you were doing?
[Charles] – I got involved with Dark Conspiracy because I was working as a pretty broad-based GDW freelancer at the time. I already knew the house-system that GDW had launched with the 2nd edition of Twilight: 2000 and apparently was thought to be pretty good with technology development (largely through my work in Megatraveller, rounding out various parts of the technological design sequences, and the like). So I was asked to come up with some evocative artifacture (both mundane and not) for the Dark Conspiracy universe. As you can imagine, I enjoyed designing the true Dark One’s “technology” the most, and have appreciated the fan response to the “draining/control” nature of what happens when humans decide to employ those dire devices. Frankly, there were plenty of guideposts out there on that kind of design, you know. Look at the very earliest versions of the Cthulhu roleplaying game, for instance. And while the Dark creatures of Dark Conspiracy are not the unfathomable and inscrutable entities of Lovecraft’s milieu, there are more than a few thematic parallels. So for those folks out there that have expressed their appreciation for that design inspiration, I nod my thanks but must also remind them that I had the good fortune to stand on the shoulders of giants!
[DCtRPG] – Did you have any specific goals in mind when you started writing Darktek?
[Charles] – As far as my goal in writing the supplement—well, it was what most game designers strive for (or should): to create something for the game’s referees and players that will newly energize their campaigns. From the various mail and comments I’ve received over the years, it seems that Darktek not only achieved that in Dark Conspiracy campaigns, but was adopted into a number of other systems to spice things up.
Although I certainly didn’t have multi-rule-system use in mind when I designed the implements of Darktek, I certainly was mindful of how artifacture can tell, or at least imply, stories: stories of their creation, of the intents of their creators, and the compromises accepted by their wielders. And evidently, it was either blind luck, or a subtle sense of this “narrative implication” that led to one of my favorite features of the Darktek product: the various color art “scenes” in which the items were depicted “in action” as part of an “in-game” vignette. That was completely unplanned (by me) and I had no awareness that it had been incorporated into the final publication concept until I saw it. (I think; but I may have written the captions, come to think of it…).
[DCtRPG] – Did everything you wrote survive the editing process?
[Charles] – I can’t say if anything was cut. I don’t recall so, but it’s possible. I don’t recall wishing I could have added additional material, in part because although there were other Dark Conspiracy products in process when I was working on Dark Tech, I didn’t know about them in any detail; only tentative titles. And when the universe is not your own, it doesn’t make sense to race ahead with too many design assumptions. If you start heavily populating a setting with certain kinds of devices, you are perhaps imparting a character to the milieu that its creator(s) don’t want. That either leads to “living with” a world that is not what was intended, retconning inconsistent elements, or a lot of last-minute editing that doesn’t make anyone particularly happy. So, from the standpoint of professional restraint–of a freelancer not committing the lead designer to unwanted campaign elements—I didn’t indulge in any devices that had more sweeping or irreversible campaign effects.
[DCtRPG] – Thinking back, what was your process for writing DC material?
[Charles] – The process of writing DC material was usually different than with other milieus, because in most other projects, I was pretty much not only the lead author, but had pretty much sole oversight on any given project until I submitted it. In Dark Conspiracy, Darktek itself was the only module I worked on and the only product with that kind of creative carte blanche attached. Even so, there was still more close coordination than with other systems. This may have been the nature of the product, the personalities involved, or other variables that (as an out of house freelancer) I was simply unaware of. Like any other experience it had its ups and downs, but the actual work wasn’t substantively different than the other projects I was involved with at GDW.
[DCtRPG] – Moving on from Darktek, I know you also had the DC adventure ‘Gnawlings’ appear in issue 56 of Challenge Magazine. Beyond the obvious, what was your inspiration for that adventure?
[Charles] – Yes, Gnawlings was an idea that I actually adopted from a noir fantasy story I was interested in writing one day—and which is now an episode in a novel I’m working on called “The Tainted”. Which brings up the first and only fiction I ever wrote in Challenge—and *may* (ironically) be the first DC fiction written: a very short story entitled, “It Plays With Its Food.”
[DCtRPG] – You know, I’d totally missed that connection. Do you have any other DC works I the readers or myself might have also overlooked?
Yes, what you may be completely unaware of is that I was contacted—specially—to write all the space vehicle specs and operations/travel rules for Dark Conspiracy. And did so. This was no easy job, actually: finding a way to generate any kind of accuracy with extremely simple, brief rules is actually more difficult than generating rules that have the luxury of greater length and complexity. The rules I came up with were hardly “simulation grade” (consider that an immense understatement), but moved the play along swiftly and with reasonable accuracy. And researching all the factual detail on different launch systems and converting those into game terms were not inconsiderable tasks.
All of which somehow got left out of the credits for the game! And then, when I mentioned that oversight to several folks, my participation somehow got left out of the complete credits in the second printing. I never had that happen on any other project, whether fiction or game or non-fiction—or anything else. Just bad luck, I guess. But twice?
The only other DC items I have lying around in my files are the 4000 word outlines of the two novels I was asked to submit, and one of which I was under contract to write for GDW. However, that never happened; along with a Traveller novel, those projects were cancelled within weeks of Marc Miller’s departure from GDW. And my own ultimate departure followed not long after. The predictable question—why?—is not one that I can answer with any authority. I have seen, often enough, that corporate change often means employee and project change, and no class of worker feels that more keenly that freelancers. We are, as the axiom has it, last in and first out. However, the management and direction that followed Marc’s tenure at GDW were more traditionally corporate as it became more centralized, whereas Marc and I had had regular phonecalls and a working relationship that was definitely more freewheeling, fun, and invigorating. I think it’s a shame that GDW changed its corporate culture at that point, because it doesn’t sound as though these alterations were a positive variable over the next few, crucial years that ultimately led to its demise. I think the gaming community suffered a great, great loss that day—one from which it has never recovered, particularly in terms of RPGs that were built with simulation-level degrees of accountability and rigor.
[DCtRPG] – Oh? Do you have any more insights into GDW or Dark Conspiracy, in general? Not meaning to pry, but I’ve always been interested in how GDW viewed the game internally.
I’ve often been asked to reveal what tier of GDW’s in-house food chain Dark Conspiracy occupied. I wish I could tell you. I can’t, but I will say this: you don’t come out with a rush of modules, a second printing, and multiple Mike Stackpole novels because you fail to value the system. That’s actually a heck of a lot of money, from the design and support and production side. I also don’t have any sales data on Dark Conspiracy, but just from apocryphal tales in the gaming community, I suspect it suffered from a suboptimal relationship between its core tropes and its natural consumers.
By which I mean: The “dark forces invade/infiltrate earth” motif is common to a lot of games—and very successful ones. But that may have been one of the problems: Dark Conspiracy had a lot of common-kin competitors. It was vying for market share with Shadowrun, various flavors of White Wolf projects, and just about anything with “Cthulhu” in the title. Compare this to GDW’s other in house signature games: Traveller, 2300 AD, and Twilight 2000 were the hallmark games of their respective subgenres. Of course, their successes—while dominative in their fields—were also comparatively small. Why?
Well, that’s where the relationship to the self-selecting primary demographic comes in. Dark Conspiracy’s grittiness derives, in part, from the accountability of its system and backstory. It also has a lot fewer dice to roll, and had a lot more in the way of fast, savage, and irreversible consequences than, say, Shadowrun. Which was, by comparison, a fast play experience with lots of dice rolling, and somewhat forgiving rules that were pretty accessible (i.e.; you might still hang yourself, but it was easier to see the rope ahead of time). And Shadowrun was a lot wilder and more flashy.
You see where I’m going, of course: The tropes of the “dark invasion” games are often most strongly embraced by a younger demographic. Dark Conspiracy was arguably the most serious of the major games of its subgenre, and sold well enough, I hear, among older gamers. But the big money was in the 17 and younger demographic, and they gravitated to the other games at least as much as they gravitated toward Dark Conspiracy. Sadly, I think the florid nature of play and story in those competitor games sold more easily among those younger gamers who—understandably–like a little more flash and flamboyance and are less concerned with more exacting plots and careful planning.
[DCtRPG] – I think everyone agrees that the open setting an detailed game mechanics were both a blessing and a curse for Dark Conspiracy – if not all of the GDW House System games.
So with all in mind, do you reflect back at your time at GDW?
[Charles] – It’s fair to say that my time at GDW in toto was a tremendous professional experience that I still find rewarding today. As is happening right here, right now, I still get a chance to meet and talk with fans who remember the modules or adventures. Now that I’m a full time writer of science fiction and fantasy, I have lots of people come up to me and express interest in my books based on their familiarity with my game products. And I am still in very close contact with Marc Miller and Tim Brown—and I suspect our respective days of collaboration are not quite over. If that comment is as tantalizing as it is oblique…well, for now, that’s how it has to remain. But watch this channel… and don’t touch that dial!
[DCtRPG] – And the future holds…
[Charles] – While I’m not entirely done with gaming projects, they are very much second priority and back-burner. I currently have 3 novels out with Baen, contracts to fulfill on 7 more, and fairly frequent interview and signing requests—so I am (blissfully) busy. As I already remarked (but my PR person would want me to say it again, so I will), my most recent novel—releasing in April—is “Fire With Fire,” the first novel in a hard-sf interstellar epic (Baen has bought the first thee books already). A few little-known sf authors have elected to offer their opinions on its merits (whose last names are Weber, Brin, and Pournelle, by the way…)
You can see their comments and get some other info on my website.
Ultimately, if you like my work in Dark Conspiracy, I think you’ll find a recognizable voice, pace, and focus on action in that novel and my others—including an urban fantasy project that will resonate particularly well with the DC setting, I think. But that one is further down the line…
[DCtRPG] – I’ll tell you now that I’ll definitely be the first line to read that! Urban Fantasy, especially plots with a horror or conspiracy feel, will always appeal to gamers worldwide.
Well, I’d like to thank you taking the time to talk to me, and I’ve appreciated the insights into your time working with GDW. Before we wrap this up, however, do you have any last words for your fans and readers?
[Charles] – I think I’d like to finish with a “thank you” – to each and every one of you. Whether as a game designer or a novelist, I have the coolest job in the world because of YOU: your interests, your enthusiasm, your desire to travel to other virtual worlds in the “theater of the mind” that is what people like me create. And for those of you who aspire to the same profession, I could offer much advice, but there is hardly time or space for that here. But be sure that two short bits of counsel are universally true. And here they are:
1) keep trying to grow as a designer/writer. A major part of that growth is learning to be honest about your current strengths and challenges. Just because you can’t do something well right NOW doesn’t mean you won’t, two, five, or ten years from now. At the same time, you have to keep a close and dispassionate eye on your own progress. Are your skills as a writer not progressing, but you feel you are getting rapidly better at working with story structure and revision? Maybe your ultimate calling is as an editor, not a writer—or maybe you will progress from editor to writer in the ensuing years. Honesty and openness regarding your own areas of strength and needed growth are an indispensable professional skill.
2) never give up. It is that simple. If you want to work in this field, in some capacity, you will need the flexibility and honesty I mention in #1, above, but you will also require this profound determination and perseverance. And there is simply no substitute for it.
It is true that some folks are blessed with plenty of innate, easy talent. It is also true that many of them never get anywhere because they lack these two skills, which are necessary to turn talent—of any kind, and any degree—into a full-fledged career.
And it is my hope that, whether you are an ardent fan or aspiring writer, that my chat with Marcus has been enjoyable, informative, and that I’ll have the opportunity to come back and share some more time with you. So, if you see me at a con, please don’t hang back: step up so I can shake your hand and say “thank you” in person!
[DCtRPG] – Thanks again, Charles. And for those readers interested in keeping up with Mr Gannon and his work, his website can be found at http://www.charlesegannon.com/newgate.html.