Earlier this week we had the chance to sit down and chat with ArenaNet’s Ree Soesbee, Writer and Lore & Continuity Designer for Guild Wars 2. The following article is a transcription of the audio interview (also available on iTunes) put together by several people in the community. We highly recommended you give it a listen as Ree is very passionate about gaming, GW2, and her previous works. Also, feel free to drop by the GWI Forums and discuss it with us or check out our previous interview with Jeff Grubb!
GWI: Most creators and writers in the fantasy/sci-fi space can pinpoint that single moment, that turning point when the became interested in the genre. What’s yours?
Ree: There are two. When I was a small child, my mother died when I was about 6. A very well meaning Aunt gave me a red box marked Dungeons and Dragons. That might have gotten me a little interested in the game except my father, who is a southern traditionalist from the Appalachian Mountains, said “that there’s demon stuff.” He hid it. I immediately became fascinated by it. He hid it and I found it. And he hid it and I found it for about two and a half years, and by that time I went and got my own so he can hide it all he wanted and I was still able to play.
It was also partially his fault because one of the things my father and I very much have in common is a love of Star Trek and Star Wars. We got a point when I was a child where we played ‘name that tune’ with Star Trek episodes. Who could name it faster. Like it would come on and you would have Captain Kirk standing in a room with Spock and we’d be going “its Trouble With Tribbles!” So he got me into Sci Fi early on and then I got into pen and paper games right off the bat.
GWI: You’ve mentioned that your start into writing RPG content began after creating short stories and articles while working on your PHD in Literature and Myth. What kind of short stories were you writing at the time?
Ree: You have to write and publish when you are working on your master’s degree and working on your PhD. Because I was working on Myth, I was doing a lot of study of Joseph Campbell and how stories are created. You look at a lot of Mythic Structure to see how a hero is turned into a hero through this, I started writing short stories for Legend of the Five Rings. I mailed them a set of short stories that I had by a little publication called Imperial Herald that they had put out, in house, to about 500 fans. Turned out they liked them. They liked them so much that they asked me to write some of their RPG material and from there I was hired by the company.
GWI: Judging by your credits as author, I’m assuming that you got into pen and paper rpgs early on. What game(s) drew your attention?
Ree: D&D, Cyberpunk and Shadow Run. We played Paranoia. Every New Years Eve was our Paranoia game. We still play Talisman and thats a board game. All sorts of just old school stuff. I used to play Mech Warrior which was one of the first computer games I played and made a little Firefly and just blew myself up as much as anyone else.
GWI: Can you elaborate a bit on the story about how you started working for Legend of the Five Rings?
Ree: They picked me up to write one of their books, “Way of the Crane.” I did that freelance from North Carolina while working on my PhD. Then they offered me a job to come in-house and write for the card game as well as some of the PRG books. At the time, I was getting very frustrated with my PhD. I’d finished all my course work, I had this huge thesis of Edo Era Literature, and it just wasn’t going anywhere. I thought to myself “I can go get a job in writing,” which is what I love, “and I can come back and do my thesis from a far any time I want to finish the course work. And then I never really did, so I am still without my thesis on my PhD and its not quite finished.
GWI: Did your fascination with Japanese history and culture stem from the various L5R projects?
Ree: I’ve always had a real interest in the Japanese Culture and the Japanese Myths and so forth. My master’s degree thesis was on Celtic Myths, Gawain and the Green Knight. When I went to do my PhD theory, I had taken the story of Gawain and the Green Knight; from its origins and seeing all the translations it had gone through as the various waves of people came into Ireland, and I started doing that for the Edo Era Myths of Japanese culture as well. I just really loved the way the Shintoism and the Japanese can integrate culture into a very modern lifestyle. A Myth into a very modern lifestyle. I think that is fascinating.
GWI: The amount of RPG material you’ve created is quite impressive, with properties such as L5R, Vampire the Masquerade, Dragonlance, Deadlands, Warcraft, and a ton of other D20 sourcebooks. What led you to start “world building”?
Ree: Working on L5R. L5R had a very detailed world when I really got involved in it and AEG wanted to be known as a company that built worlds. Myself and and my roomate, Kevin Millard, we built the Warlord Card Game and the entire world setting from the ground up. That was really my first experience in “this world has never been created before and I am going to build it from scratch.”
I just absolutely loved it.
I’ve always loved being a GM and a DM for various worlds. I’ll take the settings that are put on the shelf and change them radically so that people don’t know quite what to expect. They don’t know what is coming up, even if the recognize the world, and I think that’s tremendous fun.
GWI: Obviously you’ve created a ton of content in a fantasy setting, yet I notice a little sci-fi credit thrown in there that a few fans may have heard about. Was it difficult jumping into such a historic and immense intellectual property as Star Trek? Laying down the lore for Vulcans must have been a bit scary.
Ree: I wrote a part of The Way of Kolinahr which was the Vulcan RPG book. I loved it. I crazy loved it. I grew up on old Star Trek. I could quote the episodes, I can tell you all the little tiny bits of what actors were in what episodes and so forth. I was a total geek.
I like Sci Fi because I feel like its an extrapolation of the modern world, and when you are making a Mythical world, whether it’s Sci Fi or Fantasy, a lot of what you are trying to do is make it feel very real and logical. When you create a set of physics you then want to stick with those physics and say “ok, I’ve said that if you jump off a building you will survive,” now I need to make sure that’s unilaterally true as a reality in the world.
Sci Fi has a lot of challenges in that because you are dealing with physics and you are dealing with sciences that people understand to a point that’ve been explored in our world to a point. And you’re trying to take that step beyond if we actually got the Hadron Collider working or what if we did these things with that information, how would that change our world. And that’s the miracle of Sci Fi, that we can try to look ahead and guess at how those questions could be answered and make stories out of it.
GWI: Exactly, to kind of extrapolate on the current setting of things. A writer friend if mine, Warren Ellis, has a way of creating this “new world” by taking the technology we have now, and simply extrapolating on how we could use it for evil or selfish ways.
Ree: That is very smart. I’ve got an idea in the back of my head I’ve written an outline for, but never turned it into a novel. It’s about a 1960s gadgeteer superhero who comes to the 2000s and suddenly all the amazing gadgets that they’ve made are now considered old school.
GWI: At what point did you decide it was time to start writing novels? What got you into writing your first novel?
Ree: They were going to do a series of novels for the L5R world, and they actually did it blindly; they had us all write a three to five page synopsis and then send it in, and they picked them without names. So it was a little harrowing, like ‘I’m going to have to try out for the world that I’ve been writing for 5 years.’ But I understood that, just because you can write card text and short stories doesn’t mean you can write a novel. I was very pleased to be picked to do Way of the Crane and Way of the Dragon for the L5R series, and from that developed a relationship with some of the editors at Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro. Through those relationships I picked up other lines like Dragon Lance and so forth.
GWI: With the L5R novels you picked up in the middle of a story arch and sort of built upon the previous authors, but with your Elidor Triliogy you set out on a complete story from end to end set in the Dragonlance campaign. Did you find the increase in creative freedom more challenging?
Ree: It’s always more challenging to work in somebody else’s world, because it’s like trying to guess what somebody else’s brain would do, and a lot of the notes you get back from the editors aren’t ‘This character doesn’t make sense’ or ‘This isn’t an evocative situation’, it’s ‘I’m really sorry, but five books ago we said this was blue’. So now you have to redo this entire plot part, because of some small piece like that. And in a lot of cases, especially when you’re doing books that are coming out very rapidly and other authors are writing them, the book right before yours is being written at the same time as yours. You’ve seen the outline for it, but you haven’t read the book! So you get their finished product right about the same time you’re turning in your first draft, and then you look at it and say ‘Oooh…they killed that character off…I’m gonna have to see what I can work with that…’, and you have to kind of be able to think on your feet at that point.
GWI: Wow, you’d think something like killing off a character would be in the outline?
Ree: Sometimes it is, sometimes it’s not.
GWI: You’ve also had your hand in designing a few CCG games. What drew you away from writing and into game design?
Ree: I’m a writer, and I like to craft stories and so forth, but when I create a story, I’m trying to create the rules for a world. It’s really not that different to work on the rules for a game, and to come up with ideas for the game. Warlord is an example where we wanted the game and world to feel like they fit together, so we worked very closely on which cards would work, and what skills and abilities would be on the cards, and how that’s reflected in the story. L5R, Burning Sands, they all did the same thing, where we were actively trying to, you know, ‘this guy is supposed to be an archer, so how do we give him a skill that really reflects that?’