Heroes of the Feywild: Interview with Writer Steve Townshend
Recently I had the opportunity to interview my friend and D&D freelance writer Steve Townshend about his most recent project: Heroes of the Feywild. Learn from a behind the scenes point of view about what goes into creating an awesome publication like this. Discover the various Celtic and mythological origins and inspiration for the Feywild itself and all those who dwell within it.
Observe a candid, yet steadfast outlook on 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons from one of those helping to create it. Partake in the pearls of wisdom offered toward aspiring freelance writers, and of course listen intently as bug him with at least half a dozen random D&D related questions. I promise only one of them is pointless rabble that references a Baldur’s Gate character. The questions are in no particular order so please, read on.
What is your favorite piece within heroes of the feywild overall?
The fairy tales. Or “bard tales” as they’re called in this book. When Rodney Thompson suggested that we include this element, I was pretty excited. They weren’t part of my main assignment, but at the end of the process I put together four short pieces: The Ugly Satyr, The Unruly Girl, The Three Fair Beauties, and The Lady of the Wood. In some ways they were a coda to everything I’d done on the book, taking the essence of all the mechanics and game elements and applying them in short form fairy tales of 250 words or less. Telling a whole story in 250 words was a challenge, let me tell you!
What pieces do you feel capture old school remnants of D&D the most within this book?
It depends on how old school you want to get. In the old-old days, spells were written in a more narrative style. A lot of them were more suggestion than mechanics, their precise details essentially controlled by the DM. The witch’s augury power is a return to that style of D&D. So are some of the skald’s class features. One of my goals was to create interesting and evocative abilities that weren’t just damage, pull, push, slide. I wanted to put the magic back in magic. A lot of the crazier powers I wrote didn’t make it, but I think the same kind of story flavor can be found in the “mundane” Feywild items near the end of the book. That stuff is old school to me.
What is your writing environment like, do you have some sort of ritual or can you basically just start laying down words wherever and whenever?
I think everybody does it differently. I often change up my routine, just to make sure I don’t get stagnant. When I’m working on a big project like Heroes of the Feywild, I work on it every chance I get. If I have a break in my 9-5 job, I work on the project. When I get home, I work on it until I fall asleep. On weekends, I walk to a local coffee shop and spend the day writing there. I take meal breaks and then spend the night writing/working. When I’m working on a project like Feywild, I have no life outside that project (usually 2 months).
What are your personal favorites from the new race and class selections available in Heroes of the Feywild?
Probably the pixie and the hamadryad. I’m very keen to play a skald at some point as well. I’ll talk a little bit more about them later on.
What parts of this book did you specifically work on (create from scratch as opposed to collaborating with the other writers). How does the whole process of writing one of these books work?
On a D&D book, each author handles his or her own sections. We don’t collaborate on the writing or mechanics. We collaborate on the vision for the project and our design goals, but everybody’s creating their own stuff from scratch and turning it in. It’s up to development and editing to patch that quilt together. The lead designer (in this case Rodney Thompson) guides the design team and answers questions to make sure we don’t get off track.
For instance, I’d say “I want to do a witch.” As lead designer, Rodney would ask how I envision that class. I’d tell him what I thought. He’d either make a suggestion or tell me to go ahead. Then I do all of that work on my own. At the beginning of the process, Rodney and I did a massive brainstorm. Rodney came in with some overall concepts for the book from R&D. From our brainstorm, Rodney made an outline. He sent it to me and asked which parts I’d like to do. My assignment was to be somewhere around 40k words or so. Rodney said he didn’t have a preference on the parts of the book he got, so I grabbed the parts I wanted. After that, I worked independently on all my sections. I’d check in with Rodney by e-mail or phone every week. Later on, we added Claudio Pozas to the project, to take on some or Rodney’s design stuff. These were the sections I did for the book:
Chapter 1 (everything except the sidebars): Rodney said he thought we should try to introduce this book on a personal level for the player. Therefore, Chapter 1 takes a second person point of view, like the book is DMing you, putting you in the mindset of someone from the world who’s heard of the Feywild, is from a village near a fey crossing, or is a native of the Feywild. “If you are an outsider, this is how you might see the Feywild.” “If you are from the Feywild, here is what you know about it; here are some rituals and traditions you might be familiar with…” Since Feywild characters are from another dimension—from the land of Faerie—the rules of their world are different, so their backgrounds and customs should feel different. The characters’ experiences should feel different. There should be something alien and magical about them. Chapter 1 works toward evoking that mood, getting you in the mindset to play a character that comes from an alien world by showing what that world is like. I see it as equal parts player reference and Feywild DM reference.
Pixie: In our opening brainstorm on this book, Rodney asked if we could do a Tiny race, like the pixie. I jumped at the chance; after all, they’ve never stopped being a core part of our home campaign. So working on the pixie I was doing myself a favor. The pixie pulls from a number of different inspirations. It’s a good part JM Barrie, a good part Shakespeare (A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest), a good part fairy lore. I figured there would only ever be one official fairy race in D&D 4e so I worked toward making this pixie the iconic creature most people think of when they think “fairy.”
Hamadryad: I only did 6 creatures for Monster Manual 3, but I have to admit that with as much attention as the banderhobbs, mimic, and catoblepas received, I always felt the nymphs got short shrift from the gamer crowd. There was talk of a dryad in this book, so I picked up that assignment. I’d done a lot of work on the story of the wood nymphs/hamadryads for MM3, and this was a chance to bring that story back in the limelight. It’s an inherently dramatic story: wood nymphs (hamadryads) come to be when an autumn nymph chooses to break from her games and take an active role in the affairs of mortals—usually due to some troubling event or the desire to know more beyond the games they play. They’re kind of a tragic race. As nymphs they were frivolous and playful fey. Now they’re rooted to the world, to its cares and concerns; they yearn for something—to stop some evil, perhaps, to undertake some great quest, to learn the secrets of the mortal heart. Their feel is very much The Little Mermaid (the brutal Hans Christian Anderson original) and The Last Unicorn.
Witch: When we started working on this book, Essentials was in mid-release. I had Heroes of the Fallen Lands, but Fallen Kingdoms was still over a month away. We were building Essentials style subclasses with full complements of class features and powers. So the witch was one of these, a full 30-level class with a focused suite of class features and powers. You of course had the option to switch out spells with the mage (via your familiar), but if you played a witch “as is,” all your powers were focused on transmutation, charm, and “black magic.” In other words, I took the sum total of what we know about witches from fairy tales and folklore and focused it in one class that I think summed up the essence of “witch” very well. However, after Essentials was released, the decision was made to change Heroes of Shadow to a standard hardback, and Feywild followed suit. Thus, the witch is presented more as an option for wizards than the Essentials style subclass it had been. If you add the shapeshifter tuathan theme to the witch, you come a little closer to the original class design—something like Morrigan of the Badb from Celtic mythology.
The Tuathan: I designed the tuathan race, and later the tuathan theme. I’ll talk about that a little later.
4 Bard Tales: The Ugly Satyr, The Unruly Girl, The Three Fair Beauties, and The Lady of the Wood. As previously stated, these were probably my favorite contributions to the book.
Mundane Feywild Items, Wondrous Items: These were fun. Rodney wanted there to be a number of cool knickknacks you could pick up in the Feywild that were cool and flavorful and had neat effects, but weren’t things you’d actually want to replace one of your magic items with. That was kind of a daunting challenge at first. There are so many magic items in 4e, how do you make something that hasn’t been done before, but is also fun, cool, and most important—weird? And not just one—a whole complement of them for the book. I solved this in (I think) a sort of unusual way: I put on some Weepies albums and scrawled down some of their more abstract verses. Then I used those as inspirations for mundane Feywild items. I was trying to design things toward the sorts of items you might find at a market in a Neil Gaiman novel like Stardust or Neverwhere. Weird stuff. The things that were too powerful to be mundane items became wondrous items.
What do you do other than write (for work) and what are your hobbies, aside from gaming of course.
When I’m not writing for work, I’m writing fiction, which is, I guess, for work too. I also enjoy photography. I enjoy board games. I’m no cook, but I’ve taken an interest in pizza making. Most of my interests revolve around storytelling of some kind or other, though. I love theater, film, and improv, though I don’t make it to as many improv shows as I used to. I’m also a coffee enthusiast.
When you do game, is there a certain race/class/archetype that you lean towards or do you mix it up?
I try to mix it up a little, but human fighter is my default archetype. When 4e came along that became human warlord. I enjoyed the D&D Miniatures skirmish game, and board games in general, so I’m a big fan of the warlord. And of humans.
My favorite character (ever) is one I’m playing now, a human warlord named Halbronnen, a guy loosely inspired from Rutger Hauer’s character in the 1989 film The Blood of Heroes. When I had more time I used to write little stories about Hal, bookended by stuff that happened in-game. I keep some of those here.
I know that as a writer, you often have to deal with your work being pared down or scrapped entirely as it passes through editing and other collaborators. As a writer myself, personally this drives me crazy. How do you deal with these sorts of things as a professional writer?
Professionally, I’d say that as a freelancer turning in “work for hire,” you humble yourself to the process and accept that under the terms of your contract you have zero ownership of that work once you hand it in. So you just need to accept that it’s going to change and move on. That’s the professional answer. The honest answer is that I grit my teeth, vent to my close friends, and stay away from the internet.
The thing is, the work always needs to be cut, pared down, or edited—especially in terms of mechanical balance. I don’t know every power and ability out there, and it’s impossible to predict the way mechanics might be abused with all the crazy options in the game today. I often create stuff that’s way overpowered. Editing is good and necessary in order to create a polished product.
That said, Heroes of the Feywild is probably the closest to my writing that any D&D project has ever been, on par with Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale and The Madness at Gardmore Abbey. By and large, the (non-mechanics) text is word for word as I wrote it, with minor clarifying edits. I’m extremely pleased with the way the text appears in this book. It makes me feel like all the time I spent trying to choose the right words was well worth the effort. I blame Jeremy Crawford at Wizards of the Coast for shepherding it in so well.
What tips would you have out there for anyone who wants to become a freelance writer? Any specific advice for those interested in writing for the tabletop gaming world or fantasy writing in general?
I could share anecdotes for hours about this one. My best advice is:
- Be aware of what’s going on in the industry you want to write for
- If you want to work for Wizards of the Coast, don’t go on internet forums and bitch about WotC or their products. Be positive. Be empathetic. Be a person people want to hang around, don’t be a drama queen. Never start a web forum thread with “Is it just me, or…”
- Actually write stuff, and when you do – turn it in on time.
- Actively broaden your horizons. Cultivate an appreciation for things outside your preferred genre or comfort zone.
- Try different games. Read different kinds of books.
All of this can really be summed up as: try your best, keep trying your best, vary your experience so you have more to draw from, and don’t be a jerk. Tracy Davis Hurley (aka Sarah Darkmagic), Dave Chalker (aka Dave The Game), Phil Ménard (aka The Chatty DM) and yourself, Jerry, are great examples. All of these folks basically decided they wanted to be in the industry. So what did they do? They got involved in the game. They went to conventions and hung out with the people involved in making it. They were friendly and likable. They started their own blogs about the game. Now they do freelance work for D&D (and a hell of a lot faster than I did, I might add…). As Mike Mearls said at last year’s D&D XP, a lot of it just requires basic people skills and a desire to succeed.
How involved are you in the mechanics of these things, do you write a lot of narrative/story and someone else comes up with the crunch, or are you free to create your own mechanical bits?
I do everything. I create the mechanics and the narrative. For all my sections, be it in a monster book, an adventure, or a player book, I do the both the mechanics and the narrative text for the sections I’m assigned.
I think I may already know the answer to this next one but I’ll ask for the sake of asking, do you prefer writing fluffy stuff or crunchy stuff?
Aw man, I hate the word “fluff.” To me, “fluff” implies bloated, extra, ancillary, light, ephemeral, unnecessary. It’s the “extra” stuff, the frosting on the cake. I usually call it narrative text or story. This is what I mean about words being precision tools. If you call something “fluff,” I feel like that’s what it’s relegated to. That’s the connotation it’s given.
I enjoy creating interesting mechanics and pushing for innovative design. That’s very important to me. But for me all of those mechanics are in service to the story. People play RPGs for different reasons. I play for immersion. I want the mechanics of the game to evoke the mood and feel of the story. I feel that too often we focus on the mechanics first and foremost. In board games, I love mechanics. In RPGs, I want the mechanics to do their job supporting the story. Sadly for me, in so many games I’ve played over the years the mechanics pretty much are the story.
So I do prefer writing the narrative and story text. To me, that’s what the game is about—lost treasures of buried kings waiting to glitter again, the curse that crumbled the towers of a forgotten land, the mist-shrouded realms beyond the mountains where dragons dwell.
There’s been a lot of buzz around 4th edition lately with people saying that it’s dead, or that since 5th edition is being speculated so highly they are creating wish-lists of things they want to see in the next edition. That being said, what’s your favorite bit about 4e and writing for 4e, and if you could change one or two things (perhaps your own houserules) what would they be?
My favorite bit about 4e is its sense of balance, its default world, and the way it empowers the DM. My favorite thing about writing for 4e has been that I’ve finally had my chance to show DMs and players everywhere how we can tell good stories in D&D. I probably wouldn’t change anything about 4e as a whole. Except that I’d include more fantastic and flavorful powers. Maybe I’d be happier to return to an AD&D 1st Edition or 2nd Edition style of play where the rules were even looser than they are now, and more open to interpretation by the DM. The problem with that is, when you don’t define the rules specifically, arguments break out amongst the group. We used to argue all the time, “That’s totally not what I did!”
Nevertheless, I’ve recently started a Star Frontiers game using the old rules from the early ‘80s and some of the modifications to those rules created by today’s Star Frontiers fan community. The beauty of that game is that, as awkward as some of the mechanics might have been, they’re very easily customized. There aren’t numerous systems and subsystems to wade through. When the players look down at a D&D character sheet, there are pages upon pages of abilities and mechanics; a lot of times I notice that those players freeze up looking for the right move to make. They also get antsy when they’re not using the abilities that D&D has given them level per level. Those same players, playing a simple game like Star Frontiers, only have a couple things on their character sheet. Without all that extra information, they tend to just try stuff. Random, interesting, cool stuff. They know the one or two things that they’re good at, but they don’t feel limited to those one or two things.
4e in no way prevents that kind of play; but I think the lighter, looser D&D of old tended to favor that style of play. I don’t think that’s a good or a bad thing. 4e is probably my favorite edition of D&D to date. That said, right now I’m really, really enjoying the freedom of simple games like Star Frontiers, and the mechanical-and-story innovations of independent press games like Fiasco, Kagematsu, Dogs in the Vineyard, and Apocalypse World.
Let’s do a little amateur psychology. I’m going to say a word, and you give me the first thing that comes to mind? Ready?
Min-Maxers: message boards
Pixies: fun, crazy, chaotic, peter pan
Healing Surges: graceful, elegant
Save vs Death: harsh
Being an actor as well as a writer, I’m well aware of your passion for film. What would you say is the best “Dungeons and Dragons” film ever created? By no means am I limiting you to the ‘official’ D&D movies. If you could pick two runner-up films, what would they be?
The best Dungeons and Dragons film ever created—and by that I mean the media that most closely follows what I think the best D&D campaign should play like—is the 2004 Battlestar Galactica series. Shocking, I know. But that’s my opinion and I’m sticking to it. BSG is about a group of characters in a dramatic situation on a quest. The course of their quest takes them to far off places, exploring ruins, uncovering ancient mysteries, and dealing with all kinds of action. The characters are rich and complex, and the story moves ever forward with new complications until it reaches its conclusion. The characters grow, change, and die. Like a campaign, it’s episodic—a new adventure series, a couple one-shots, a new series, a couple one-shots, etc. I’ve seen more consistent shows and tighter shows, but I haven’t seen one that combines the kind of action, exploration, and character in such a way as resembles D&D so much as BSG does. To me, BSG is the ultimate D&D campaign.
Runners-up: Lord of the Rings, Conan the Barbarian
Side note: In 2003, I started a campaign about feuding medieval lords, where the characters were enmeshed in the politics of several fiefs. The sun had vanished and a long winter had descended on the land. A fiery comet (it was a phoenix actually) streaked across the sky. One of the players handed me a copy of A Game of Thrones and said “You have to read this because it’s exactly like our campaign.” Well, yes. It was very much like what we were doing, only better. It was what I wanted our campaign to be like. It’s what I wish D&D could be like. I don’t include that series as “Best D&D movie” because I don’t think D&D does it well. But it is my favorite book, and it is the kind of drama that I strive for, both in the adventures I run and the stuff I write for D&D.
As you may know, I at first had a hard time imagining something like the Feywild as a dangerous place, but I now see that it truly is. What kinds of things inspired you when writing danger into a place commonly perceived as being so ‘friendly’?
You should read Stardust, by Neil Gaiman, if you haven’t already. I don’t think the movie does the story justice. In Stardust, the land of Faerie is exceptionally dangerous. It’s that kind of danger I wanted to bring into this book. If you read stories about Faerie, you’ll see that it’s often perilous to mortals. I tried to communicate this with the nymphs in MM3.
The other one to read is The Last Unicorn. That movie does actually do justice to the book, but the writing in the book is incredible.
Near the end of the project, I listened to a lot of Celtic music, in particular Loreena McKennitt (who had just released a new album) and Silly Wizard, a Scottish folk band.
Speaking of danger, the “Three Faire Beauties” is quite a devious little tale that I know you wrote, what was the inspiration behind it?
I think I wanted to write a story about a tuathan. The only difference between my original text and that presented in Heroes of the Feywild is that the lady is a “tuathan damosel.” This is back when tuathans were a race. So I was trying to give you a look at the way they would look, feel, operate in the world. I’m really happy with this one. I think it plays like a Grimm story. It’s about yearning, arrogance, and loss… stuff I think about a lot. You could just as well call it “The One That Got Away” or “The Path Not Taken.” Everybody knows, or has, their own story like that.
What is your favorite area within the feywild? After some reading I’m going to say that the Maze of Fathaghn sound like my favorite. What was your role (if any) in creating these areas?
Although I wrote Chapter 1, the locations therein were taken from the Manual of the Planes. I figured it would be best to take the locations mentioned in that book and dress them up for players in order to ground them in the previously established places of the D&D world. I had some other ideas I wanted to cover, but by that point I’d already exceeded my word count by 10,000 words.
Had I the chance to do my own, I would have started with the Moon. That had been my plan. Of the ones I covered, I think maybe Senaliesse or Mithrendain.
The character themes presented within HoF are highly evocative of the setting, my favorite: The Fey Beast Tamer has perhaps the best line I”ve read so far “Of course you can tame an owlbear, want me to show you how?” What are your thoughts on character themes, particularly within HoF. How much input did you have on them?
When I began Heroes of the Feywild, I wasn’t familiar with themes and they weren’t part of my assignment. However, I was assigned to the tuathan race, which later became a theme.
Early in the design process, Rodney and I were discussing shapechangers. I was really into the idea of shapechangers in the Feywild, since they’re a huge part of fairy myth. However, the concept I was assigned was for a shapechanger race that could transform into tiny animals. These creatures were to be called tuathans. I saved them for last in my list of assignments because I was having trouble selling them as a race. I was a little more partial to trying an anthropomorphic animal of the kind you often find in Grimm’s Fairy Tales, which Claudio Pozas pointed out might work as a hengeyokai. But in the end, the assignment was to be the tuathans.
I worked very hard to make the tuathans an interesting fey race. When I had finished with them, they were a race of traveling gypsy storytellers that could change into birds and beasts. I feel like I did resolve the issues I’d had with them and I was relatively happy with them as a race, except for their name. Early in our design discussions we had talked about giving the book a strong Celtic feel. I had recently read the Book of Invasions and mentioned the Tuatha De Dannan as something we should draw from. Somehow “tuathan” ended up the name of the fey race of shapechangers I was supposed to create.
Months later, I received an e-mail from Jeremy Crawford, who told me that after some discussion, they didn’t want to add tuathans to game as a race. He asked if I could make it into a theme. I reskinned the tuathans as the Tuatha De Dannan of Irish myth, and added a number of racial powers to them that would allow them to “do heroic things” instead of being simply shapechangers. Since the Tuatha De Dannan were a race of great heroes, I wanted that to be reflected in their theme. Thus the tuathan theme was born. I wrote all of it except that opening line in italics.
There is a rather unique way to go about creating a character within this book, a segment entitled “Build Your Story” allows players to generate a character from the feywild strictly by the fate of the dice. This is great to see, what was the inspiration behind this?
I believe this was inspired by the Traveller system, which has a similar method of character generation. When we were discussing the outline, I couldn’t quite grasp this part so I left it to Rodney, who handed it off to Claudio Pozas. I haven’t tried it out yet, but I’m looking forward to giving it a spin.
I must now ask you one final and customarty stupid question, unrelating to anything we’ve just spoke about. Here goes: If Minsc (and Boo) were to get into a fight with Schwarzenegger’s Conan, which barbarian would prevail?
Boo, would triumph over them all because he would go for the eyes. Minsc is nothing without the miniature giant space hampster. While I am a fan of Arnold’s Conan, the answer is still no. If you were referencing the literary Conan however, that would be another story.
Steve is not just a freelance writer for D&D, he is a die hard for this game and his passion and dedication is undeniable. It shows through in every piece of his work. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this half as much as I did creating it. If you have any questions or comments for myself or Steve please feel free to leave them below. Heroes of the Feywild is available right now wherever fine D&D tomes are sold!