In today’s Spotlight Interview, we speak with John Rogers, designer of Manual of the Planes’ Feywild chapter—not to mention also writing for Jackie Chan Adventures, the Transformers movie, the Blue Beetle comic line, TNT’s Leverage… and the EN World Story Hours forum! From John’s profile:
John Rogers started doing stand-up in 1988, got his Physics degree in 1990, began writing television in 1995, writing movies in 1999, and writing comics in 2005. He plainly needs to focus.
Wizards of the Coast: Let’s start with your work on Manual of the Planes. How is it that you became involved with the project—and for that matter, with Dungeons & Dragons in general? From your blog (Kung Fu Monkey), you obviously cultivate a keen interest in gaming; was 4th Edition your first foray into the world of D&D?
John Rogers: Good Lord, no. Played in high school, played a bit in college... being on the road as a comic made finding a regular group very difficult, so I switched to Magic: the Gathering. Easy to travel with a deck.
Then, when I moved to L.A. about 8 years ago, I really wanted to find a group. It just so happened some friends had started playing again on a whim. I jumped in, and actually was the one to run a sample adventure to switch them over to 3rd Edition. Been playing on and off ever since.
There is a great, secret society of D&D players in Hollywood. Trust me, it's not hard to find a game.
Wizards: With Manual of the Planes, you contributed to the chapter on the Feywild: “sometimes known as the Plane of Faerie, a verdant, wild twin of the mortal realm.” I’m curious as to the guidelines you were given, and what elements you were interested in creating for the Feywild?
JR: The guidelines were very light -- basically, take that previous sentence you just quoted and run with it. The developers were nice enough to send me some other chapters, so I could see what structure they were using in the book. This was my first published bit of game design and I wanted to get as much sample material as I could. A bit like reading TV scripts in order to understand both the formatting and the underlying structure of an episode.
The element I was most interest in creating for the Feywild was conflict. The natural hazards were interesting, but when I DM I'm primarily a storyteller, and the essence of all stories is conflict. So while some writers prefer to spend a lot of time describing certain famous personages in their world building, I really focused on setting up the conflicts between those power bases in the Feywild.
My belief is that when you're designing a story to tell in the Feywild, you don't need nine paragraphs describing King Oran, the Green Lord. You'll fill that in. But you may gain a lot of inspiration from his conflicts with the Fomorian Kings, the Gnome Council, and the other members of the Court of Stars. Each of those groups in turn has complicated, conflicted relationships with each other. Hell, within the Eladrin court alone there are roughly five major factions (one of which is utterly chaotic and leaderless), which are irregularly divided again between the Seelie and Unseelie factions. The ruined eladrin cities were designed to produce a different adventuring "tone" for each locale. And each of those cities has a leader with a different personality and motivations designed specifically around how they might wind up providing adventure hooks for parties.
So conflict... and dread. The Feywild is a great place to visit. But nature unbound is "red in tooth and claw"; it's only a matter of time before something with very sharp teeth or an even sharper mind notices that a) you are new here, and b) you are very soft, pink, and delicious.
Wizards: When populating the Feywild, where did you look for inspiration? Real-life mythology, influences in gaming, or was this an opportunity to create new material entirely out of whole cloth?
JR: A mix of all that. We started with the old-school stuff. However I think there's been some interesting work done with the Fey in modern fantasy/sci fi/romance literature, from say Jim Butcher to Justina Robson, and it doesn't hurt to go off the Tolkien reservation a little more often. WotC did give me pretty much total creative freedom, though, and when I came up with an expansion of the archfey mythos based on a few cryptic references in the Monster Manual -- "ghaele" and "braelani" -- the designers said "Good, more, take it even further." So at the same time you'll spot the classical basis for Tiandra, the Summer Queen, you'll also find the brand new Sea Lords and the Prince of Frost. You'll note that these new archfey, each with distinctive power aspects, create some interesting new options for warlocks with the Fey Pact....
Big chunks of the mythos are built on more modern parallels. Gnomes are guerilla fighters. The Isle of Dread is very much "unstuck" in time and space -- squint closely, and you'll see a Lost reference or two in there. Although it wasn't conscious, rereading the Feywild entry I can't help but notice some Guillermo del Toro/Pan’s Labyrinth influences. There may be some Cthulhu mixed in with my Fomorian legends. Readers of Sandman might recognize some of Queen Tiandra's habits.
Wizards: If I can ask about your other accomplishments—from stand-up comedy, to writing for TV, writing for the movies, writing for comics, writing for RPGs…. your bio states you clearly need to focus, but for many people breaking into even one of these fields would be a dream come true. How did you manage to transition from one area to the next? Was it a logical progression (did your time in stand-up help prepare you for writing for Cosby, for instance), or was it more a series of serendipitous opportunities?
JR: Honestly, I started as a writer while I was doing my physics degree. I only started doing stand-up so I could hone my dialogue chops. It turned out I was a better comic than a physicist -- or at least I was having more fun doing comedy than my degree.
I got my own sitcom for a second and a half, took to TV writing from there. Got hired, then worked on a sample movie script. Got hired on a crappy rewrite based on that script, moved from one crappy job to another slightly less crappy job... you know, you just put down your head, do the work, and ten years later you have a career.
So the transition was never intentional, but I was always open to trying something new. Jackie Chan Adventures, for example. I'd never written an animated TV show, but I was a Jackie fan, and the studio was looking for someone they didn't have to educate about Jackie's work in order to tackle the network sales pitch. That success led to Jackie calling me for a rewrite on Rush Hour 2, that led to other work... Blue Beetle came about because Keith Giffen had read my movie adaptation of Matt Wagner's Mage, and then my blog writing about comics.
Put yourself out there, take every gig you find interesting. Get known. Particularly now, with the storytelling opportunities on the Web, it's a whole new world for creators.
Wizards: You wrote the first draft of the Transformers script. Can you shed some light on how your version might have differed from the final version that hit the screen? Or any scenes or details you wish you could have included?
JR: My version was written before Michael Bay was on, and it was always intended to be a lighter, more kid friendly movie. That said, pretty much everything I liked in my draft wound up in the movie. The friendship between Sam and Bumblebee, Bumblebee not being able to talk, the highway battle, the fight in the city streets, the "Lost Patrol" vibe.... The whole Sector 7 plotline was an invention by the later writers in order to tackle some budgetary issues, but a big chunk of that movie was mine, and I was pretty happy about it.
Wizards: With your work on the Blue Beetle, some folks may not realize that this character has been around since the Golden Age of the ‘40s… and since then has experienced everything from facing down Doomsday, to a somewhat inglorious depiction on the Electric Company. When you began writing for the Blue Beetle, where did you want to go with the character? You were able to tell the origins of the hero (or at least one incarnation of the hero)—were you able to do so in a way that expressed your vision of him?
JR: Keith and I came on after DC had decided to kill off the previous incarnation. They basically said: "Do you want to do something with the legacy? Because if not, it's going in the closet." We had the idea of doing a true origin story -- not the standard "Hey, I have superpowers, and a week later I'm fighting with the Justice League", but more "Holy ^%$^, I have SUPERPOWERS!" How would a real 15 year old kid react? We took a whole two year arc to tell his origin. It made sense to us -- it takes a while to learn how to be a hero. Jaime's resonance with the fans was very gratifying, even if the sales never got where we wanted them. Frankly, I think the current direct sales market makes it almost impossible to launch new characters.
Wizards: You have a new series coming out for TNT: Leverage. For D&D players, what might draw us to the show—it’s been described as a bit Robin Hood-esque, is that a fair categorization?
JR: Oh, it's very much a modern day Robin Hood. Tim Hutton is an ex-insurance investigator who assembles a team of con men and thieves in order to take down the rich and powerful. Somebody paying attention might notice that the "party members" all have very specialized skill sets... ahem. Each week is a different, fun con/adventure. If you like action, brain-teasing cons, and new twisty storylines every week, then the show is for you. We are literally a different module -- whoops -- adventure story every week.
Wizards: As mentioned, working in just one of your fields holds a very deep appeal for many gamers. For those looking to enter any one of them, what lessons might you impart? Would you recommend pursuing a degree in physics (perhaps a stretch for most people), or even the utility in maintaining a blog, for example?
JR: The blog's pretty important, or some sort of presence in the creative community of your choice. Listen, the thing is, there are a ton of other creative people out there, all trying to tell stories. If you establish yourself as someone they respect, they will turn to you when they need help. Just be ready to do a lot of free work along the way. Hell, I get paid a lot of money to write, but if you hunt around on the EN World boards, you can find my Story Hours in the forums. I wrote those because I loved being part of that community. My status as a semi-famous geek was what led some WotC guys to read my blog on a regular basis, and then on a whim to email me and see if I'd be interested in doing some work for them.
I'll tell you, every job I took for free or no money has come back and repaid me a thousand-fold.