Writing a board game system and writing fantasy novels is similar, but different in a lot of ways. In this episode, Vrhode writer, Shawn Allen Dressler, talks about how his experience writing fantasy novels is helping him write the campaign book for Vrahode. But he also says he’s learned a ton in the process too!
Shawn is a published fantasy author known for his series, The Five. He and Jeff work together as a team to develop the campaign book for Vrahode. In this podcast, you can learn how that works.
Vrahode will be coming to Kickstarter most likely in quarter four of 2023. When that campaign goes live, you will not only be able to buy the core game, Vrahode: The Calteeryn Ascension, but its three expansions as well.
00:43 Shawn Allen Dressler’s Published Fantasy Novels
03:09 The focus on character, not just worldbuilding
06:24 The role of characters in Vrahode & writing non-humans
09:59 What is it like to write games vs. books?
14:40 Favorite parts of the Vrahode story so far, and of game series writing vs. book writing
22:17 We’re taking as much time as we need to make Vrahode right
Shawn Dressler: But Jeff started really even before that, as a player, and started creating this world when he was much younger. Um, much, much younger, Jeff, I’m sorry to…
Jeff Irving: Um…
Shawn Dressler: And, uh,
Jeff Irving: Um. Cut. Cut, please. Cut. Cut. Cut.
My name is Jeff Irving, and this is the Vrahode Tavern Podcast. I am the creator of the Vrahode Game System, and in this podcast, we’re going to do a deep dive into the lore and gameplay of Vrahode. I’m joined by Brandon Rollins, who will be acting as a stand in for you, asking many of the questions you might be curious about yourself.
We’re also joined today by campaign book writer, Shawn Allen Dressler. Brandon, what is our topic for today?
Shawn Allen Dressler’s Published Fantasy Novels
Brandon Rollins: All right, so in this episode, just like the last one, we’ve got Shawn Allen Dressler here. So of course, today’s topic, we’ve gonna ask a bunch of questions about the writing of the Vrahode campaign book. But I wanted to start this episode by asking about something that I was actually curious about in the last episode, but didn’t have much of a chance to ask about, and it’s this…
Now, Shawn, you said that you had published some fantasy novels before working on Vrahode. Can you tell me a little bit more about those?
Shawn Dressler: Sure. Yeah. So, you know, I came to writing, uh, as a profession a little bit later in life. I, I had always written as a child and it was sort of a therapy, uh, for me through a, a previous, uh, career in landscape architecture and planning. And during that time, I started to create very similar to Jeff’s story, I started to create this secondary world in my head and the characters that, um, were compelling to me that might populate it.
And eventually those characters found themselves in some trouble and, and found themselves in the midst of a story. Um, and so I, my, uh, transition outta my previous career was actually my transition into publishing the first of, uh, what will eventually be a trilogy, but the first book is called The Five Awaken.
It’s, um, the first book in a trilogy called The Kingdoms of the Core. And, uh, it’s, it’s about five central characters that all are, uh, incited into some action. And I won’t give away any spoilers in case anyone listen to it. But essentially they find themselves on, uh, separate journeys that will have a lot to do with each other, uh, by, uh, not too long into the first book.
And, uh, it is very much along the vein of the, um, there is no primary good and evil. Lots of things are gray, and yet there’s still a sense of good and evil and morality in the world. Um, probably somewhere in between. If I had to pick a middle point, thematically, between like a George R. R. Martin, where everything is gray and a Tolkein where it’s primarily, uh, you know, white and black.
Jeff Irving: Mm-hmm.
The focus on character, not just worldbuilding
Brandon Rollins: Yeah. Would you say those guys are your primary influencers or are there some others in there as well?
Shawn Dressler: That’s a great question. You know, influence changes so much over the course of your writing. And to start out, I would say yes, that probably to start out, those were my two primary influences. Now, as I continue, I would throw in, uh, Robin Hobb, who is not as well known, but maybe in my opinion, the best pure fantasy writer, um, out there.
Brandon Rollins: Yeah. That’s cool. So, um, even though she, even though she hasn’t got like, by me, it’s hard to compete with Tolkien and Martin, right? But even though she’s not, uh, like on that same, um, level of popularity, it sounds like something in her work really connected with you and made you want to kind of write the same way.
Shawn Dressler: So Robin Hobb has a focus on character that I really like. Um, and I think particularly in a lot of genre fiction like fantasy and suspense and horror and et cetera, we run the risk often of paying too much attention to genre expectations and world, and lose what I think is the backbone of every good story, which is, you know, to borrow a quote, it’s the, it’s the human heart and conflict when itself, and if you lose that character element, then I feel like you just lose the heart of the story.
And she does an amazing job of writing characters.
Brandon Rollins: See, that’s a really good observation cuz I find that what turns people away from science fiction and fantasy reading, I often is just, it’s exactly what you said, it’s a, it’s a little too abstract, a little bit too world driven at the expense of that kind of character development because it’s the characters that actually really pull you in.
Like, I, I love getting immersed in a complicated world, and I’m gonna use movies as examples because they, you know, get to a wider audience. But like Blade Runner for example, it’s a beautiful world, very complicated, lots of stuff going on there. Very fun to immerse yourself in. But for the life of me, I have the toughest time remembering the name of the actual character.
It’s Deckard, you know, played by Harrison Ford, of course. And, and of course it was, the book was originally, um, I think Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? But that’s the point. But my point is like, you forget the character, you remember the world. Um, I think you subvert that, then you do something quite special.
Shawn Dressler: Yeah, totally. Because, and, and granted, everybody is gonna get what they wanna get out of books, and they’re gonna gravitate to the books that give them that. But what, what I have a hard time with is when it’s so focused on the world that you do, maybe you do a great job of inspiring awe or inspiring wonder or creating, uh, terror or fear.
But in the middle of that, if I don’t care about the characters who are experiencing that, then I really don’t care about the story.
The role of characters in Vrahode & writing non-humans
Brandon Rollins: Yeah. And so in, in the game of Vrahode, does it have a kind of a character focus?
Shawn Dressler: It does, and this is one of the central challenges of writing a game in which you don’t know how many players will be in a, in a given playing party. You know, Vrahode has the ability for, uh, players to play one and up to six players, which is incredibly versatile. From a writing standpoint. it is incredibly…
Brandon Rollins: Good luck with that.
Shawn Dressler: Exactly, because I only have one character that I know will be in every playing party, and that’s the Calteeryn character. Um, and so how do I make the readers care about the rest of the players in their party? That’s the, that’s, that’s a challenge.
Jeff Irving: Yeah, that’s interesting. The thing, the other thing too, Sean, I wanted to ask about is, you know, it’s always a risk when you write a book, uh, to not have a main protagonist that that is easily, uh, that you can easily connect with, uh, the world of Vrahode has no humans.
Shawn Dressler: Right.
Jeff Irving: And so has that been kind of uniquely challenging to try to write about these races when none of them are humans or elves or any of that?
Shawn Dressler: You know, I can see how, uh, how it would be tempting to think that would be a challenge, but what I, what I, here’s all right… so I think that a writer has to bring themself to the story. And, and so for me to write these characters, even though this is secondary world, it’s a fictional world with fictional characters and they’re races that don’t exist, I’m still putting essentially human hearts in these characters.
And so all of the different, uh, extremes of the human behavioral spectrum are present within these characters. All the emotional extreme extremes, the motivations. And so even though these are Cautuuk, and Athak-uul, and Drelrhune, and you know, words and of races that no one has ever heard before, everyone who plays this game is still going to be able to relate to the, um, situations that they find themselves in.
Jeff Irving: Yeah.
Brandon Rollins: Yeah, I think that’s a really, a good way, to ground it because even if you have these fantasy creatures who are like nothing that you’ve ever heard of before in any fiction or otherwise, as long as you’re grounding it in joy and sorrow and ecstasy and grief and, like, these basic human experiences, then it’s easier to relate to.
Shawn Dressler: Yeah, exactly. And, and without those things, what motivations do you really have?
Brandon Rollins: Mm-hmm.
Jeff Irving: Well just think about the Beatles before they ever came out and, and people first heard the name of that.
Shawn Dressler: All right. Yeah, exactly. Why would I care about a band about arthropods?
Brandon Rollins: Right? See the faces and things change. It’s kind of like, um, yeah, it, that’s what gets people really into bands too. I mean, obviously the music, but I mean, the big time fans, they get into the actual story of the artist behind it. I mean, you don’t even actually need real band members to do this either.
I mean, look at Gorillaz. They’ve been doing their thing for like 20 years.
Shawn Dressler: Right. Yeah. And the thing that’s consistent with all of them is they all tell a human story in every
Jeff Irving: Yep.
What is it like to write games vs. books?
Brandon Rollins: In every single instance. So I’ve got kind of a, a left field question for you, and that is, how is it different to write for a tabletop game campaign versus other kinds of writing, like fantasy writing?
Shawn Dressler: Yeah, so we touched on this a little bit in the last podcast when we talked about outline. Certainly the outlining process is more intense in a tabletop game. You know, when I prepared the outline for this game, or, or I should say, when Jeff and I worked back and forth to prepare it, a, a big focus was not just on what are the story elements that are gonna happen, but what are the game mechanics that support those story elements.
And so not only was I doing more outlining for the story than I’ve ever done, but I was also doing additional outlining on top of that, completely tangential to the story, but supportive of it. Um, so yeah, so outlining is way more intense, even for the plotter. It’s way more intense for a game. Um, and also, uh, the, the concept of NPCs.
As they relate, as sort of a parallel to side characters. So in a book side, characters all have their own story. Um, any good side character has their own story. They have their own motivation, they have their relationship to the main characters, and you have to develop a, a sympathetic link or an empathetic link between the characters, the side characters, and the readers.
Now it’s normally very easy to do that for a main character. Um, in a video game, it’s almost easier to do that with the side characters, or excuse me, in a, in a, in a game, in a tabletop game, it’s almost, well, really, it applies to both tabletop and video games. It’s almost easier to do that with the side characters because the player is the main character, the player automatically has an empathetic link to themselves, and as long as they are role playing their character, that’s something that the writing generally doesn’t have to do. And so in a type of game where you’re either choosing from a selection of characters or you’re creating your own custom character, you are essentially deciding who that character is and, and in many cases what their backstory is, where they came from.
And so the NPCs, in some ways, kind of steal the show. And so what I’m really excited about with Vrahode is for players to be introduced to all these um, side characters. Being introduced to them, experiencing their story and then getting to meet them, not just once in the game, uh, like you often see, but as central movers of the story, they’re really invested in the story,
Brandon Rollins: I like that idea because it, not that you mention it this way, it, it really does kind of reframe previous board and, and video games for me, when you think about NPCs, because especially in video games, main characters tend to be these kind of empty vessels. Um, in video games often the really, really, really popular ones, the Marios and the Gordon Freemans of the world, they don’t even say a word.
Like they have no personality, You project your entire self onto it, but the NPCs are the ones who, you know, actually move the story along or, or they fall in love or die or get all the memes, like arrow to the knee and all that stuff because it’s like they’ve got these, they’ve got their own lives and everything.
Shawn Dressler: Yeah.
Brandon Rollins: interesting.
Shawn Dressler: Yeah. And you know, in my memory and the, the games that that stand out as memorable to me are the ones who really do a good job with the NPCs make ’em critical, not just to the gameplay, but the story.
Brandon Rollins: Yeah,
Jeff Irving: I think you’re, I think you’re, um, enamored by the whole Korbwolder (sp?), uh, uh,
Shawn Dressler: Oh, man. Are we, are we doing spoilers? I love…
Brandon Rollins: We can, we can get in the spoiler territory if you want.
Jeff Irving: No, no, the, the only hint I’m giving is that there happens to be a Vrahode Tavern in, in the world of Vrahode, and it’s proprietor’s name is Korbwolder (sp?). That’s as far as I’m going.
Shawn Dressler: Okay.
Brandon Rollins: Okay. That sounds like something I can leave in post. so I suppose. Man, we’re gonna be really hampered with these questions, with, with the potential of spoilers, cuz I really don’t wanna spoil this story, but I’m gonna go ahead with them anyway.
Jeff Irving: Yeah.
Favorite parts of the Vrahode story so far, and of game series writing vs. book writing
Brandon Rollins: So what, what have been your favorite parts of writing the Vrahode story so far?
Shawn Dressler: Well, I really like the ending here. How, Here’s how it goes.
Jeff Irving: Yeah.
Shawn Dressler: No, I think, yeah, I mean, of course, diving in, your first moments in the world where you’re just getting a feel for this non-Earth system of existence, because there’s gonna be a lot that’s familiar and there’s gonna be a lot that’s not familiar. And so jumping in and working back and forth with Jeff and distilling everything down into a form where it can be a story, um, just purely from a writing standpoint, has been one of my favorite parts.
Um, I joked earlier, Coming into this was like being dropped in a wood in the woods, in the dark, blindfolded. And that’s really not that far off. And I mean it in a really good way because to me, writing story is so much more about discovering what the characters in the world are trying to tell you than it is you trying to tell them what to do. And so in general, just getting to know these characters, getting to know the, the villages and the regions that they live in and come from and how rich it is, has been gratifying.
Brandon Rollins: It’s funny enough because I think I had asked Jeff something similar a long time ago and gotten a similar response. I’ve noticed that with people who build worlds and write stories, that a lot of the times when you ask them how they do what they do, they essentially say, “Well, the stuff’s out there. I’m just telling you what it is there.”
Like you’re more like a reporter. I just think that’s kind of interesting.
Shawn Dressler: Yeah, I would agree. I, I’ve, I like the reporter analogy. I’ve always called it more chronicling, like I’ve always seen myself almost more of a chronicler of what the characters are experiencing as opposed to giving them those experiences.
Jeff Irving: Sounds the Quayan sounds bit, It sounds a bit like the Quayan, Shawn.
Shawn Dressler: It does. Maybe there’s a parallel there,
Brandon Rollins: Maybe. Yeah. I’m not particularly mystic or anything, but I’ve found that this comes up way, way more often than you’d think when you talk to enough creative people. And it almost feels like, it implies that the story has been out there, whether or not somebody has found it or not. Um, which is interesting to think about if nothing else.
Shawn Dressler: Yeah, totally.
Brandon Rollins: Yeah. So what have you liked about writing a game series as to opposed, as opposed to a book?
Shawn Dressler: Um, I enjoy the studio feeling of it. You know, when I’m writing a book, I’m almost always by myself in my head, uh, trying to be in my character’s heads and et cetera for months at a time writing a game series, if for no other reason than Jeff forces me to do this, I have to come up for air and exist in the world with other people that have to contribute to this process or it wouldn’t exist.
And so I really, I find myself, um, maybe even despite myself in enjoying that.
Brandon Rollins: Yeah. It, it’s funny how having, having to take breaks can ultimately make it better, or having to report to others can ultimately up, um, making it, if nothing else more, enjoyable.
Shawn Dressler: It’s almost like you need human interaction or something.
Jeff Irving: Well, I think, I think Sean can attest to the fact that, you know, Jeff lives in the world of Vrahode 24/7 and though the frequency of my contact with Shawn after 5:00 PM during the days and on weekends has diminished, I’ve had to really learn that he does need a life. And who can’t live in Vrahode with me.
And so we’ve had to kind of create some healthy boundaries that, that says it’s okay for me to be, you know, the crazy man in Vrahode, but, but Shawn actually has to live in, you know, in his life.
Brandon Rollins: Well, that’s the eternal struggle when you really like something enough is you’ll just want to work at it at all hours on the day and just not ever stop. And that’s a real risk cuz eventually you just get so tired you can’t do it right.
Jeff Irving: Yep.
Shawn Dressler: It is. And this is definitely the kind of project where you can lose yourself in that way. And you know, for me, as I think with most creatives, you eventually get to that point where you realize, you, you do the process and the product a disservice if you don’t allow yourself that, uh, mental recharge time.
Brandon Rollins: Mm-hmm.
Jeff Irving: One of the things we, we’ve talked a lot about writing in a general sense and writing for, for, uh, tabletop as opposed to novels. But one thing I wanted to ask you, Shawn, is, know, as a, as someone who has played a fair amount of games and, and, uh, also putting in your time as a writer, what sense do you get of, of what we’re, what we’re at least attempting to deliver for, for, um, players here that might be different from what you’re used to seeing in, in the stuff that you, the games that you played.
Shawn Dressler: Well, it’s just gonna have a way better story, Jeff. No, I’m, I am kind of biased that the story’s
Jeff Irving: And he’s humble too.
Brandon Rollins: Humblest man in the room.
Shawn Dressler: No, but what I will say is it’s gonna have, I think, a heightened focus in a few areas that I don’t normally see combined. And so a lot of games will have a really heightened focus on world and will forget gameplay is what brings gamers to a game. And then some games will have so much of a focus on trying to make every single thing possible in gameplay that you’re drowned by it.
And you end up at a place where, “Wait, I’m, I’m sorry. Why am I on this quest? I can’t even remember. Is there a story that I’m in the middle of here?” And I really feel like, uh, well, and actually, let me put a third leg on that stool. And then there are those games that are so incredibly, uh, in the weeds on world that you almost feel like, “Do, did the creators even care about the, the story going on in this world?”
The characters going on in this? You know, it’s a hard thing to do and that’s why it’s not very often done, but at least our focus is trying to accomplish doing all three of those things in a really satisfying way. So it’s gonna feel, I think it’s gonna feel, um, as though the story is as rich as a fully fledged, uh, epic fantasy novel, it’s gonna feel as though the gameplay is as, uh, variable and dynamic as a fully imagined, you know, well-functioning, uh, tabletop gaming experience.
And the world is just as rich as the latest Game of Thrones series. I mean, it is really, really rich. And so, I, I would say the difference is it attempts to do all of the things that at least some segments of players really enjoy, all in one box.
We’re taking as much time as we need to make Vrahode right
Brandon Rollins: And it’s hard to get all of those things all at once. Usually you’ll just find like one or two will be really good, but not all of them all at once. Um, I think another key factor here is that the, when the play testing begins, and it will have begun by the time this podcast drops, um, we’re just gonna keep testing it until it is actually 100% what it needs to be.
Jeff Irving: Oh, absolutely. Yeah.
Brandon Rollins: as much time as it takes.
Jeff Irving: we’d love to crowd, we’d love to crowdfund Q1 2024. And, and when, uh, we initially set out on this journey, uh, Shawn and I kind of put our heads together and, and that’s the, the kind of the date range we thought made sense is that, is that, uh, date range flexible? You better believe it, because you can’t, you can’t claim to be a game system like we’re claiming to be here, um, without having a rule system that is airtight, that is that doesn’t have a lot of gaping holes in it, that make it not completely functional, and not completely fun. So we’re definitely, you know, we’re definitely gonna push that data around if we need to.
Brandon Rollins: Yeah. Which, that said, we, that is still quite a bit of ways into the future, and I, I think that it is actually pretty achievable. But that’s thing. It’s just a matter of which value is most important, the timeline or the ultimate quality of it. And we would side with quality every single time.
Shawn Dressler: Well, and that’s something that was so attractive to me when I first became aware of this game is, uh, that I, in the, uh, the job description of the post where I found the, uh, the game is Jeff describing it as a passion, a lifelong goal, not something that he’s, uh, doing to add a different wrinkle in his investment portfolio, know, and I think that that’s a big difference. And honestly, a big difference in this industry that so many people do create these board games at, out of a love for the genre or love for the activity.
But Jeff started really even before that as a player and started creating this world when he was much younger. Um, much, much younger, Jeff, I’m sorry to
Jeff Irving: Um,
Shawn Dressler: And, uh,
Jeff Irving: Um, Cut. Cut, please. cut. cut. Cut.
Shawn Dressler: And so, you know, all that to say that it wasn’t just the description of the job post, that’s how it’s been ever since I came on board, is he will always side with the side of, on the side of quality. And it’s, it’s been a, a breath of fresh air.
Jeff Irving: Yeah, Yeah that’s true. That’s true. We’re, we’re trying to, we’re really trying to, you know, I look at a lot of other expensive games. Games have gotten expensive, uh, that are in the vein of the one we’re doing, the series that we’re doing. They’ve gotten really expensive and, you know, I almost feel in a lot of cases that they’re, they’re more about selling a bunch of pretty miniatures.
Oh. It just happens to be a game as well. Um, and that’s not at all the approach that we’re, that we’re taking here. This is, is something that whenever we, whenever we spend a, a dollar on this project and we’ve spent several of them, um, It always errs on the side of more gameplay and more, more ways to play and more tools for our content creators.
Um, and so yeah, I think that’s gonna bode well for us, not just in initially, because obviously the weather van games is not a, a well known studio. Jeff Irving is not a, a well known, um, game designer, and Shawn Dressler is better known for, you know, epic fantasy writing as opposed to game series.
Um, and so we we’re, we’re well aware we have a, a bit of a headwind, but um, as we step towards crowdfunding and we continually, um, sh are open and receptive to change and we let people in to play test and we listen to them and we make the games that they also wanna play, I think, I think by the time crowdfunding gets around, we’ll be, uh, much more of a known quantity than we are right now.
Brandon Rollins: I think so too.
Jeff Irving: Yeah.
Brandon Rollins: There’s actually still, believe it or not, more stuff that I want to talk to you about. I mean, we could, we could honestly get a hundred episodes if you had infinite time. I know you don’t, but I was actually thinking for the next episode, I wanna talk about the concept of the Calteeryn in which I’ve been floating for, like, four episodes now.
So if you’re down to do that, I say, uh, what do you say to recording another one?
Shawn Dressler: I say let’s do it.
Brandon Rollins: All right, cool. Jeff, you wanna take us out on this one?
Jeff Irving: Thank you for listening to the Vrahode Tavern podcast. If you enjoyed this show, take a moment to subscribe anywhere you get your podcasts. If you’re on Apple Podcasts, please leave a five star review.
It helps more than you. You can learn more about Vrahode on vrahode.com. That’s V R A H O D E .COM. Link in the show notes. You can also find us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, where we are @Vrahode. Thank you again for listening. We really appreciate it. Keep an eye out for our next episode in two weeks.