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Jack Ravenwild has returned! Richard Baker discusses his most recent novel, Prince of Ravens, as well as writing within the Forgotten Realms.
The following is an interview between Richard Baker, author of his most recent novel Prince of Ravens, and Fleetwood Robbins, his editor.
Fleetwood Robbins: Prince of Ravens , a follow-up to your novel The City of Ravens, begins with your character Jack Ravenwild waking up from a century-long slumber (about twelve years in real-world time). That’s a long time to keep a character on the back burner. What about Jack’s story and character made you want revisit him?
Richard Baker: First of all, Jack Ravenwild is fun to write. When I was working on City of Ravens years ago, I soon realized that the key to writing Jack was simple: Whatever I, or anyone with a grain of modesty or caution, would do in response to a situation, Jack would do the exact opposite. He is the very incarnation of chutzpah; when he’s caught eavesdropping, he looks the offended parties in the eye and explains that it was only his earnest desire to help them out that led him to listen in on the conversation. He is clever and ambitious, but he doesn’t have a lick of common sense, so he constantly gets himself into situations he should have seen coming. Yet as a Jack Ravenwild story unfolds, scheme after scheme unravels and backfires, until pure desperation pushes him to act heroically despite all his efforts to avoid doing so. Jack wants to be a villain (well, he wants to be rich and comfortable at other people’s expense), and he’s just not as good at it as he thinks. That’s a fun idea to explore, and very different from the sort of stories I normally write.
FR: Is Jack a PC from an old campaign? Are there other PCs you’ve tried to bring to the page?
RB: Actually, I haven’t ever taken a player character from an old D&D game and made them into a major character in novel. The closest I’ve come is Jack’s guise as the Dread Delgath, and that wasn’t my character. Years ago in a 3rd Edition playtest, I ran Slave Pits of the Undercity as one-shot game session, taking a selection of the pregenerated characters from the back of the module and creating 3e versions of them. Player Scott Magner chose the Dread Delgath, who I had statted up as a sorcerer, which was a brand-new class at the time. Scott spent the entire session referring to himself in the 3rd person with a booming voice and extravagant demands. It was hilarious, so I wrote it into City of Ravens (and the Dread Delgath resurfaces briefly in Prince of Ravens).
I have played PCs based on characters I’m writing on a couple of occasions. My friend Steve Schubert ran a long 4e campaign in which I played a swordmage very much like Geran from my Blades of the Moonsea books. And I played a rogue/sorcerer for a few months named Jack in a short Against the Giants campaign that Andy Collins ran while I was working on City of Ravens.
FR: What kind of in-world hurdles did you face bringing him back?
RB: Well, the big one was simply the fact that City of Ravens took place in 1372, the Year of Wild Magic, but we wanted to bring the character forward to the 4th Edition era, more than a hundred years later. At first I really wanted to make a clean break of the eras, and avoid bringing 3e-era storylines and characters forward into the new age unless they really had a good reason to still be around (for example, a certain dark elf blessed with the typical elf lifespan, or sages blessed by Mystra). But as it became clearer and clearer to me that what I really wanted to write was another Jack Ravenwild book, I started thinking of ways he might have survived. Fortunately, Faerûn is a magical place, and there are plenty of spells or effects that can put a character on ice for a long, long time. Jack being Jack, it didn’t seem like much of a stretch to guess that he’d made a powerful wizard angry sometime not long after his adventures in City of Ravens, and wound up magically encysted for a hundred years.
FR: Aside from being fairly erudite, Jack cracks wise quite a bit. Is this an aspect of your own personality, or does he offer an outlet for biting humor that you don’t normally take advantage of?
RB: As I noted before, Jack is interesting to me because he says and does things that I never would. At the heart of Jack Ravenwild is a respectful homage to a couple of my favorite writers, Fritz Leiber and Jack Vance, and the brilliantly dark, ironic humor they brought to their stories. (I personally regard Swords of Lankhmar [by Fritz Leiber] as the best fantasy novel ever written, and The Eyes of the Overworld [by Vance] as the funniest; if you haven’t read them yet, drop what you’re doing and read them now!) Jack Ravenwild is in many ways a combination of the Gray Mouser and Cugel the Clever, with a very healthy dose of D&D-isms and old time gaming Easter Eggs thrown in for good measure. Anyway, part of the fun of writing Jack is rolling out his very distinctive vocabulary and using it to say things that he really should be smart enough not to say: It’s pure chutzpah, but the best part is that Jack doesn’t even realize it most of the time.
FR: Most of the novel is set in Raven’s Bluff, which is a city we have not read much about since the Spellplague. Are there any changes you can tell us about?
RB: I actually wanted the essential nature of the city to stay very close to what it was in the 2e and 3e era. My bible for Raven’s Bluff is Ed Greenwood’s excellent sourcebook The City of Ravens Bluff, which was put together to codify hundreds of characters and events from the long-running Living City campaign. The sourcebook is insanely dense and somewhat difficult to navigate, but the last thing I wanted to do was to throw that away and say all that stuff didn’t matter anymore. ForPrince of Ravens, I postulated a relatively modest evolution of the city and its people over a hundred years. Most of the old noble families are still around, although of course these people are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the individuals described in Ed Greenwood’s sourcebook or my novel City of Ravens. A number of businesses have changed hands, but many of the buildings are the same. The Rundelstones used to be the manor of an elven noble family; now it’s a second opera house. The area known as Burned Gables isn’t called that anymore, because the fire that everyone remembers in 1372 is a hundred years further in the past by the Year of the Ageless One; the neighborhood is known as Sindlecross now. So the changes are really pretty minor.
One of the things I kept the same was the taproom known as The Smoke Wyrm, owned by the roguish dwarf Tharzon. He is one of only two of Jack’s acquaintances from City of Ravens to survive the hundred-year span, thanks to the long dwarvish lifespan. Needless to say, he is very surprised when Jack Ravenwild turns up on his doorstep again.
FR: How much of the game do you try to include in your story? Tell us about the challenges of presenting game concepts in fiction.
RB: I try very hard to make sure that things players might expect to see or attempt in the game are accounted for in my D&D-based novels. If you write a scene where the hero would really like to find out who killed this dead elf he just found in the alleyway, and that hero’s cleric buddy is standing right next to him, you have to understand that speak with dead is available. Your readers often know the game pretty well, and many will ask themselves, “Why doesn’t Joe the Cleric just use speak with dead here, and find out what happened?”
Obviously, good storytelling should win out over slavish faithfulness to the minutiae of the game rules. People reading a novel want to be swept along with engaging personalities and a great narrative; when they want to hear the dice roll, they’ll just play the game. But I’m actually far more rigorous about sticking to the game rules than I really need to be, simply because I spent twenty years working as a D&D designer in my day job. I feel that I have an extra obligation to let a reader who’s a fan of both the novels and the game see things unfold the way his or her character could make them unfold, if it was a story about that reader’s character instead of mine.
FR: Tell us about the differences of writing fiction as compared to your “non-fiction” game writing.
RB: Game writing, particularly for adventures, is actually a very tricky medium. Sourcebooks are pretty easy: You just make up good ideas, and you don’t have to worry about weaving them into specific stories, because the DM will pick up the ones he likes and use those in his campaign. Rulebooks are tougher, because those are really a form of technical writing and are all about organizing and presenting information. But adventures are damned hard to do well. An adventure is a story in which you don’t know who the heroes are and you don’t know what choices they’ll make. When I write fiction, I at least know that Jack Ravenwild’s going to try to sneak past the guards in Chapter 3; I don’t have to provide the reader with enough information to figure out what happens if Jack decides to attack the guards, bribe the guards, seduce the guards, or disguise himself as a new guard and join up. But those are all things a group of player characters might try when they reach that decision box in the story of the adventure.
Of course, writing fiction has its own challenges too. Unlike game writing, good fiction is all about crafting a memorable, sympathetic protagonist and making that character come to life. Good fiction also has a higher bar for avoiding clichéd situations and overdone storylines. You have to be more original in a novel, whereas some judicious use of clichés in game writing is actually helpful, because you can build adventures or situations that players find recognizable and familiar. A novel in which the good guys journey to an evil land to destroy an artifact and thus keep it out of the dark overlord’s clutches is a tough sell. You would need to do something really unusual with the characters or look for a way to stand the story on its head to make that fresh and interesting. But that’s a perfectly fine D&D adventure, because that’s the sort of thing that players want to have the chance to do with their characters in their gaming group. (Well, that might be a little clichéd too, but if you have an interesting mix of monsters and villains, it would be just fine. Stay away from wraiths, treants, and orcs, though.)
FR: Have you written (or are you writing) any fiction outside of the Forgotten Realms? Did/do you find it easier?
RB: I have written a small amount of non-Realms fiction, including a novel for the old Birthright setting and another for theStar*Drive universe. I’m currently working on a modern-day technothriller with plenty of espionage and military action. Writing in the real world is a lot tougher than I expected; after all, I live in the real world, and I thought I was pretty familiar with it. But it turns out that you actually have to do a lot of research to get answers to questions like Do dead bodies ever float? or What’s a fishing boat from this area look like? or Is cell phone or internet service available in Place X? I’m used to being able to make up a lot more answers!
FR: That’s funny. It’s just another shared world, but the source material is all over the place! What do you like/dislike about working in a shared world environment?
RB: I’ve always enjoyed working in the Forgotten Realms. There are some real advantages to being able to assume a certain amount of reader familiarity with the world—just imagine a Realms story where you had to stop and describe dwarves, elves, magic, trolls, the Chosen of Mystra, or what have you every time they put in an appearance. In a standalone fantasy novel, you would have to introduce each of these elements with great care, but in a shared world, you know the audience already knows about these things. On the downside, you need to do your research. Some of my Realms books have involved areas and characters that were just about “all mine” to develop as I liked, but others have required a lot of careful fitting into the existing world. For example, my Last Mythal series incorporated a ton of existing lore about Evermeet, the daemonfey, Myth Drannor, and elves in general—that was a series written for Realms fans in the deep end of the pool. My Blades of the Moonsea stories took me to a spot in the Realms where I had great freedom to invent and elaborate, but even then it’s important to invent material that fits seamlessly and “feels” like it’s part of the Realms.
FR: How much do you outline?
RB: Outlining is the heart of the creative process for me. I know some authors can allow themselves to be more spontaneous and see where their characters lead them, but that’s just not the way my brain works. I usually find that I can’t make a good start on a story if I haven’t built out a pretty solid description of what’s happening in each chapter and why. I might not have a lot of details yet, but I need to understand what the protagonist is doing and why he’s doing it. I often adjust the outline as I proceed through my first draft, moving some plot developments back or introducing complications I hadn’t anticipated, but I need that skeleton in place first. A typical outline for me might be as much as 15 or 20 pages, with extensive notes and character sketches if necessary.