Role-Playing and Writing: the Storytelling Intersection

Hello, friends. This time, we have a guest post from Coyote Kishpaugh, co-author of The Order of the Four Sons series. He will tell us about the connection between role-playing games and writing fiction. As I mentioned last time, when his co-author, Lauren Scharhag, graced us with her guest post on creating fantasy worlds, I received an advance review copy of the first book of the O4S series (book one is out now as of this writing), and I recommend it to anyone who likes fantasy or horror or other forms of speculative fiction. It also has a touch of science fiction, crime and history. I’m looking forward to further journeys in this universe they have jointly created, which has many similarities to our own, but tons of differences too. I hope you’ll give the series a try. Links to book one are in Lauren’s guest post, the link to which is at the bottom of this post.

Before we hear from Coyote about his experience with rpgs and fiction writing, let’s get to know him a bit. I asked him and Lauren both the same set of questions, and they agreed to answer them without consulting each other about their answers. Fun, fun, right? Coyote’s answers are below. A link to Lauren’s answers and her guest post are at the end of this post, so you can easily compare to see how close their answers are.

Here’s Coyote and his answers:

Photo of Coyote Kishpaugh
Coyote Kishpaugh

Eposic: You co-authored The Order of the Four Sons, Book I, with Lauren Scharhag. How did the two of you meet and decide to write a series together?

Coyote Kishpaugh: Lauren and I first met on the movie set of an independent film production. She was the head writer and I was an extra. I had overheard the producer, Lauren, and a few others talking about some of the scenes they were hoping to do. I had an idea for a scene, so I wrote it up and submitted it for consideration.

The scene wasn’t actually what they were looking for, but they liked it and I was invited to join the writing team. While there, Lauren and I collaborated on a few projects within the film, and discovered that we work well together.

After the film project dissolved, I emailed her and asked her if she would like to work together on books. The main plot of the film had been her creation, and we’d both had some fine ideas of where we would have liked to have taken it under different circumstances. So, we got together with her original notes for the film, and started creating the O4S universe.

The result has been a wonderful writing experience and a fine series of books, as well as one of the closest friendships I have ever experienced.

E: In O4S, we’re introduced to a wide range of characters, each with a distinct personality. How difficult was it to stay true to each character, with both of you writing about them?

CK: Actually, not difficult at all. We not only speak about different characters’ motivations and pasts, we also get into character when dealing with many of the scenes. They all have their own voices and modes of speech, and even body language (though that last is the most vague, since we do a lot of this sitting down or over the phone).

Often, one of us will just drop into character for a dialogue or a scene, and the other will chime in as the other character. We take notes, and we also record our writing sessions in case we need to revisit something said. Thus, some of our best scenes were scripted through role-playing. Of course, many others were ultimately cut out because they didn’t fit the rest of the book.

E: Which of the characters in O4S did you enjoy writing about the most, and why?

CK: Hmm. That’s a tough one, because they’re all such great characters. But I’m going to go with Christophe. At the time of this writing, most readers will not have met him. But he is a fascinating and complex character, with a great deal of both chivalry and cold-blooded pragmatism beneath his libertine exterior. He also contains some of the best qualities that Lauren and I both cherish: liberality, love, loyalty, and courage. He is also highly eccentric and utterly without shame.

But Alyssa Calderon, the Oracle, is close, and for similar reasons. Again, most readers will only have been exposed to Book I at this time, so her character hasn’t been fleshed out much yet. You will find out more about her in Book II. Compassionate, courageous, intelligent, and strong-willed, she is as pure and noble a hero as one could hope to find. But she is also convoluted, with her own problems and horrors in her life that she must face, and she is determined to face them alone. Both of these characters are people that I would love to meet in reality, and would be honoured to have call me a friend.

E: Novels often require a good deal of back-story, and many authors struggle with working it in without boring the reader. In O4S, back-story is handled in a variety of ways. One technique used in O4S is that of a found journal, allegedly written by Frank James, brother of Jesse James. The contents of the journal are included in the novel. It reads very much like one would expect a real journal would read. How much of the contents of that journal are based on history and how much was invented for the novel?

CK: The journal entry is based closely upon history, though there’s a lot of fiction woven in with the fact. Lauren had it written out as a prop and reference for the film I mentioned before, and I don’t recall it being changed much for the book. She and I both love doing research, and seeing what we can do with the holes in historical knowledge. Even keeping true to official records and credible documents, one has a lot of room to work with, especially dealing with outlaws who use aliases like the James Brothers. And as Dr. Grigori says, “Sometimes, common wisdom on a historical event ends up being completely wrong.”

Of course, much of the entry itself is whole cloth. The springs were always said to have healing properties, but to my knowledge there was no hereditary guardianship of it before the town was built. Jesse James being revived from his assassination was invented for the book, and of course the James Brothers being members of a secret society and protectors of a mystical artifact is fiction, and so forth. But we deliberately designed the series so that history buffs could enjoy it, and we hope that readers will enjoy being able to look up the historical elements we included, and see how they fit together within the bounds of our story.

E: O4S is based in Excelsior Springs, Missouri, a relatively small city with a population of just over 11,000, according to the 2013 census. This was one of the facets of the story that got my attention early on, my being from Missouri and having family who live and work in or near Excelsior Springs. How did you come about choosing Excelsior Springs as the setting for your story?

CK: Initially, Excelsior Springs was where the movie was being made. But the place has a wonderful and rich history, and we never seriously entertained having the books start anywhere else. It also has the historic Hall of Waters, which still sells its mineral waters, and the Royal Hotel, which is a central location in Book I. We spent a lot of time in Excelsior Springs during the movie shoot, and went back to do more research while we were writing.

In my greatest fantasies, I imagine interest in this magnificent little town being sparked again by our books. I dream that perhaps the Royal will be renovated and re-opened at last. I also like to imagine Hall of Waters again becoming a major draw, both as a historical landmark and for its fine mineral waters. But I especially have a fond place in my heart for the Royal. I would fix the place up myself if I could. It would be wonderful to see it standing proud again.

E: What made you decide to have two different characters in O4S whose names both start with “Kat”? Were you at all concerned that it might confuse some readers?

CK: Katarina Benicka is a historical figure, and we couldn’t well have Lady Bathory in our story without her little Kat. As for Kate West, well… names are important to every character in our tales, but especially to Kate. Kate is an amnesiac, and ultimately chose her own name before joining the Order. “Kate” is a reference to her purity, and in the beginning her innocence. “West” is, among other things, the direction of water. Water is a very important symbol in our books.

I don’t recall that we were ever concerned that readers would confuse the two. Kate is a very different person from Kat, and in some ways they are total opposites. Kate is an innocent, with only a few years’ memory, but in the body of a grown woman. Katarina, on the other hand, has a child-like demeanor and appearance, but is centuries old and completely insane. One cherishes life, the other delights in its destruction. I don’t think anyone will confuse them.

E: Do you listen to music when you write? What are your favorite genres of music? Who are your favorite bands and solo artists?

CK: Sometimes. Whether I listen to music when I write depends on my mood, though I will usually turn it off when I really get into a scene. As for favorites, I don’t follow genres or artists so much as individual songs. I enjoy classical, jazz, swing, rock, alternative, baroque, Gregorian chant, rap… the list goes on. I don’t necessarily like everything in a genre, or everything by a given artist, but there’s no music category in which I don’t like something that’s been made.

My favorite bands and artists change depending on where I am and what I am doing. Right now, I would say, Dead Kennedys, My Chemical Romance, and Mozart. Ask me tomorrow and you’d likely get a different answer.

E: How many books are or will be in the O4S series and where/when are they available?

CK: O4S was originally designed to be four books, one world for each book, and each world – and thus each book – corresponding to an element. Book I was Water, Book II was Earth, and so on. However, when we were published, it was decided to split some of the books up due to their sheer size. Specifically, Books III and IV were each split into two separate books. So, while we will still have four worlds with elemental correspondences, their stories will be told across the scope of six books.

Book I of The Order of the Four Sons is published by Kensington Gore, and is available as of September 25, 2015. The “Blue Cover” version of Book I, which was the original version we had self-published, is out of print, but some sites are still advertising it. My understanding is that Book II will be released around six months from now (Spring of 2016), and subsequent books will continue to be released in six month intervals. They are available from Amazon and Amazon UK.

Just look for the beautiful redheaded mage on the cover, standing in front of Excelsior Spring’s Royal Hotel. You can’t miss it.

Thank you, Coyote! Now let’s hear what you have to say about the connection between playing / moderating role-playing games and writing fiction…

Role-Playing and Writing: the Storytelling Intersection

by Coyote Kishpaugh

An old-school perspective from the gaming table

Fantasy Scene

Many years ago, when this ancient world was not quite so ancient, there were three things that helped me learn to read.

The first was an old program called The Electric Company, designed by the CTW specifically for that purpose. The second was my mother’s old comic book collection. Comic books were the one thing she said she would not read to me, and if I wanted to understand their colourful pages, I was going to have to learn how.

The third thing, of course, was being read to. I remember listening in rapt fascination as my mother opened the huge green hardback book and began, on that night long ago: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”

Tolkien’s The Hobbit was my introduction both to written prose and to fantasy. And like most readers and listeners of stories, I liked to imagine myself in the tales as they unfolded. I was never Bilbo Baggins, but sometimes I traveled with him, and sometimes I took his place. I wandered deep in the mountains, spoke with dwarves, listened and argued with Gandalf, and hid from Smaug, the dragon. That last was especially impressive to me, a terrifying, implacable foe, embodying all the most horrific aspects of the elements themselves.

Yes, I even liked the cartoon. I was a dedicated  Tolkien fan. I was also seven.
Yes, I even liked the cartoon. I was a dedicated Tolkien fan. I was also seven.

I particularly remember watching What’s Opera, Doc, the Bugs Bunny cartoon that so brilliantly parodies Wagner’s operas. There is a scene where Elmer Fudd is using his magic helmet to call weather against his foe, and calls out for winds, rain, lightning, typhoons, hurricanes, and finally, with the greatest of fury: “SMOG!”

Of course, to me, that wasn’t the joke it was to the grown-ups. As far as I was concerned, Elmer had just summoned the terrible dragon of Lonely Mountain, and as the great beast spread his wings, the land fell into shadow. Upon Fudd’s command, Smaug’s breath shot out as lightning, until nothing remained of the landscape but bare, broken rock. Above Bugs’ broken corpse, a lone flower wept. I imagined and played my pretend games after the cartoon was over, saving Bugs from his enemies and fleeing with him to lands that were still green.

“Stwike, wightning! Stwike the wabbit!”
“Stwike, wightning! Stwike the wabbit!”

But for me, even while I was saving the bunny from the terrible wyrm, it was never enough to share in and experience stories that other people had written. No matter how much they captured my imagination, I didn’t just want to explore the worlds that other people had created. I wanted to create my own worlds, and share my own ideas. With most any skill, one learns by studying the work of others. So, just as I had learned how to speak by listening, and how to tell stories by hearing them, I started to learn how to write by reading. And I learned how to write so I could not only share my tales with others, but make them as beautiful and moving as I possibly could.

In the end, it was all about the story.

Years went by, as they will. I entertained my family and friends with stories I told and games I invented, and did my best to write out little poems and tales here and there. Which, at first, wasn’t much. By 1977, though still quite young, I had already read a variety of fantasy and science fiction novels. I knew Burroughs’ John Carter, Warlord of Mars; Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian; Lloyd Alexander’s Taran Wanderer; Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern; and countless others. But it was during that year that I encountered something new.

Let the games begin
Let the games begin.

Basic D&D was packaged as a boxed set, with a few booklets, some dice, and a crayon to colour in the numbers. My first character was an elf, and I set out – or rather, my character set out – upon a grand adventure worthy of any Baggins or Took. Gaming was an amazing thing, allowing me to interact with fantasy worlds freely. Additionally, it was a new form of storytelling. I was immediately hooked.

By the time 1978 rolled around and TSR published the Player’s Guide for Advanced D&D, I was not only playing characters, I was creating my own worlds. I was a dungeon master, inventing problems to be solved, mazes to be navigated, and running NPCs with their own backgrounds and motivations. I used gaming for many things over the years: philosophical experimentation, psychological observation, recreation, social activity, and all the rest. But most of all, as I found myself in the DM’s chair, I enjoyed creating worlds and plot lines for the players to experience, and co-creating stories with them.

Tremble, pitiful players, before my wrath…
Tremble, pitiful players, before my wrath…

As I grew as a DM, I also grew as a storyteller. As I grew as a storyteller, I also grew as a writer. Ideas I had for writing I might try out as adventures first, and the rules for pacing and character development that I used as an author also worked well in gaming. This is not to say that gaming itself teaches people how to write. But it was a tool that I used, a sandbox where I practiced elements of my art.

(Interestingly, I have never featured Smaug in any of my adventures. The old wyrm still unnerves me, I think.)

My approach to RPGs dates me a little. Over the years, many role-playing games changed their focus away from the story, towards larger stat numbers, faster power growth, and so forth. The first generation of gamers (such as myself) had grown up reading Conan’s adventures, from his beginnings as a skinny thief to finally becoming a legendary warrior king. They read of his exploits and ascension over the course of his lifetime and said, “Yes, I want to do that.” They had read of Lankhmar, of the Young Kingdoms and the Dreaming Isle, and they played their characters across years of real time from first level to 11th or 12th. Their focus, by and large, was character development, and the creation of memorable moments. They role-played triumph and defeat, exhilaration and heartbreak. Characterization and story were key.

By contrast, most younger gamers seem to have grown up playing computer games where they max their levels in six months of game play, and (like previous generations) they often want the same from their RPGs as from the recreations they already know. There has therefore evolved something of a distinction between gamers and role-players. Role-players are generally those who value the story and acting experience above all else, while gamers are those who enjoy the fast levels and power feats. Meanwhile, game companies will of course sell what they think their buyers want. So it was that (for example) D&D editions Three and Four were printed.

Monster NPCs: Yes, that's a Mindflayer Blackguard on a Beholder mount. Roll for initiative...
The one thing I promised my players they would never encounter.

Myself, I am a dedicated role-player, and I have played and reffed many systems over the years. But time and again, I keep coming back to First and Second Edition AD&D. I feel the game mechanics and experience system allow for a character to evolve and grow in a stable, believable fashion. As a player, I can gradually move from fleeing the Tower of the Elephant to conquering the throne of Aquilonia, learning every ability or spell my character possesses to keen perfection along the way. As a ref, I generate NPCs in detail, and craft intricate plots for my players to discover. And while I occasionally will use a printed module, it’s only after editing and re-writing it to my own satisfaction.

But for all that I enjoy the RPGs, I always come back to writing. As an author, I create worlds, ecologies and economies, histories and mythologies. I invent nations, heroes, villains, and people to be protected or lost. But it is no coincidence that I write not only stories and characters that I would want to read about, but universes that I would love to play in, or run players through in harrowing adventures.

Because in the end, you do your best when you’re doing what you love. And whether I’m at the keyboard or behind the screen, it has always been, and will always be, about the story.

dice and pen in a Ray Jones box

Coyote Kishpaugh has been writing prose and poetry most of his life, and alternately entertained and terrified his children by telling them stories late at night. Now that they are older, he enjoys entertaining and terrifying adults as well. Currently, he is pursuing his degree in psychology at Rockhurst University. He lives in Kansas City, KS.

Please like his author page on Facebook, or his blog, Coyote’s Adventures Underground at:

Thanks Coyote, for your insights. Keep on writing, and we’ll keep reading!

Read Lauren’s interview questions and her guest post, and find links to the Order of the Four Sons, Book 1, on Amazon.

The Tomb of Horrors is a wonderfully fiendish module by TSR, now © Wizards of the Coast; The Hobbit is © J.R.R. Tolkien, and the animated movie adaptation is © Warner Brothers; Smaug was created by Tolkien; Warner Brothers own the cartoon; D&D is the property of Wizards of the Coast these days, created by E. Gary Gygax and friends; Calvin & Hobbes is © Bill Watterson; photograph of dice and pen in a Ray Jones box is courtesy of All rights reserved by those who reserve them. [The images accompanying this guest post are used under a claim of Fair Use for educational purposes.]

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