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Shroud of the Avatar: Exclusive Interview with Tracy Hickman

Updated Wed, Feb 12, 2014 by ricoxg

I’m one of those geeky guys that have played Dungeons & Dragons for years, and like most players I’ve taken a fair amount of inspiration for my characters from books. My favorite heroes were inspired by the incredibly complex psychologies found in Tracy Hickman’s writing. I had the opportunity to interview Mr. Hickman about Blade of the Avatar, a book he’s writing chapter-by-chapter with Richard Garriott. Based in the game world created for Garriott’s new game Shroud of the Avatar, the book helps to create a sense of history and culture for the game. Thus it was no small amount of school-girl “squeeing” that I punched the button to initiate a video call with Mr. Hickman.


Ricoxg: Mr. Hickman, it’s a real pleasure to meet you. I’d like to start by asking about the genesis of Blade of the Avatar and how this collaboration with Richard Garriott came about.

Tracy Hickman: Richard and I have actually known each other since the mid-80s. We met at DragonCon all those years ago and have been friends since. I’d played Ultima and was a big fan of his and it turns out that he’d read a couple of my books and was a fan of mine. So when I heard Richard was doing Shroud of the Avatar, I called right away to tell him I was glad to hear he was doing something new and asked if there was anything I could do to help.

The more we got to talking about it, the more we realized that my schedule really gave me an opportunity to work on the project, and Richard was pretty excited to have my help on the story. We’d realized that finally after all these years, we might have an opportunity to collaborate on something. Then when he asked if I’d like to help create the story, I said that I’d love to.

Ricoxg: One thing Richard is known for is his unique way of making you face yourself and ask big questions about morality and bigotry. You also are known for a similar depth with your extraordinarily complex characters. Is this something we should expect in Blade as well?

Hickman: Oh absolutely! One of the central themes in Blade of the Avatar, at least for me, is that our main character is essentially a Nazi. He’s a captain in the military of what amounts to an evil empire, and one that’s attempting to take over the world. They’re so typically evil, even to the point where they’re wearing awesome-looking black armor, which is the quintessential trademark of bad guys. He discovers this ancient sword of ultimate good, a relic of the past that he alone can wield. So to have this character from the evil empire holding this sword of ultimate good, the dichotomy of that just has you questioning what really is good and what really is evil. How can’t this bad guy hold this good relic, and how come the good guys can’t hold the relic? That really forces you into taking a look at what is good and what is evil, and thinking about it.

Ricoxg: Only you and Richard would manage to write a story about virtue and then have people confused on good and evil. Where in the world do you manage to come up with this sort of stuff?

Hickman: That’s just a really central point to this story that we decided we’d like to tell. We want to take a very careful look at these labels that we very easily put on people. For us all, I think that’s a central question and I think that’s why these stories connect so well with people, because we’re all faced with that every day. What is good and evil, and what are our motivations in that? Understanding what the motivations in others are is part of the central question we’re addressing in this novel. Trying to get outside your own perspective and take a look at people from a different angle.

Ricoxg: In the Dragonlance series, it’s sort of common knowledge that some of the characterization and possibly the story came from a series of D&D adventures you had with friends. Are you doing something similar with Blade, or what’s the new process?

Hickman: It’s been very interesting working with Richard on this. Richard has really a very fabulous innate story-sense. I don’t know that I’ve ever met anybody that had quite as natural an ability to understand story and the nature of story as Richard has. I think that’s why he’s as popular as he is and why his games have always been as strong and as popular as they’ve been.

It’s been interesting for me to learn from Richard about games. I’ve designed games for years, but those are board games and computer games are a very different animal. They have remarkable abilities in terms of modeling a world, especially with today’s rendering issues. At the same time, there are some very basic limitations in what you can do. Those limits are something that I’ve had to learn from Richard in working on Shroud of the Avatar. But I think both of us sort of see those limitations more as challenging parameters in telling the story we want to tell.

So we haven’t played SotA in D&D, but knowing those limitations in computer games as Richard does, has helped shaped the story in such a way that not only will it translate into the digital environment, but the story is such that it will be so much better told in that environment. It will suit that digital environment so much better than it otherwise would. This is why that collaborative nature of what we have been doing is so important. It teaches me how to tell a story in the digital environment and I get to work with Richard in terms of story to help him understand my concept of how that’s done.

Ricoxg: What about the process of writing the story? Have you found that it’s similar to how you’ve written before, or how has this collaboration changed things for you?

Hickman: Well actually, in many ways it’s much better. I like to work in collaboration with people and I enjoy writing with other people. I think that’s pretty evident in my titles. I wrote the Dragonlance books with Margaret Weis and I collaborate these days with my wife, Laura. I’ve also had a lot of experience working in serial publishing. My wife and I have been doing a serial series called Dragon’s Bard. We thought we’d take a look at the way Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, and all those turn of the last century writers produced their works, and produce an online novel where we would publish a chapter every couple of weeks. People would then subscribe to that, which is how Charles Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities, A Christmas Carol, and most of his classic works. Though as opposed to Dickens and the others, everyone who’s a subscriber in our case gets a bound copy of the entire novel when we’re done.

We’ve taken all that knowledge and applied it here to Blade of the Avatar, and so the process is actually pretty slick. Richard and I spent a considerable amount of time talking through the outline and working through it on a shared copy until we felt we had an outline that was pretty solid. Specifically we wanted a chapter outline. We wanted to know what was happening in each chapter as it was written and how many chapters in the book. With the chapter outlines, we have a process each week for the initial draft and then comments back and forth until we have the final draft, which I then do a final re-write.

Ricoxg: Do you find that this back-and-forth of that collaboration has been a problem? Too many cooks, as they say.

Hickman: You certainly don’t want to write a book by committee. Nobody wants to do that, but I think all of us have the attitude that the integrity of the story comes first and our egos second. That might be difficult for some people to believe considering the egos involved, but the truth is that we all respect each other and each other’s work so much that the focus really has been on the story itself. Also, I have to tell you that I’ve been working on this book specifically for the last couple months and from my perspective, what’s coming out of this book is some of my best work in years. I love the feel of the text and I love the story that’s being told. Also the fact that we’re in this collaborative environment actually seems to be working extremely well in this case.

Ricoxg: Anything specifically interesting that you’ve found in this particular collaborative effort as opposed to others?

Hickman: It’s wonderful to go through the notes and find in the margins where Richard has written that something is wonderful and that we need to put it in the game. For me, that’s pretty exciting to feel that I’ve contributed to that world somehow and I’ve had a part in it. I’m extremely happy to have the folks over at Portalarium take my scribbling and do something with it.


Hopefully you’ve enjoyed reading this small part of my conversation with Tracy Hickman. I certainly enjoyed the conversation greatly myself and even learned a few remarkable new things about Shroud of the Avatar. I’ve just gotten word that I’ll be allowed to reveal those delicious new details about the races and monsters populating the world of Shroud of the Avatar in my next article, so stay tuned!

I’d like to express my sincerest appreciation to Tracy Hickman for the gift of his time and the honor of basking in his wit, and my thanks to the staff at Portalarium for helping to put it together.

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