Kristine Chester, Fanboy Comics Senior Contributor: Victoria, how did you first get started playing tabletop RPGs and designing adventures?
Victoria Jaczko: My introduction to tabletop gaming came in the form of an AD&D PHB I found in my sister's closet while looking for clothes to steal. I was 10. I read through it and had played enough video games and board games to know a game when I saw one, but the idea of getting to make my own fully customized character and go on adventures just blew my mind. I twisted my sister's arm until she agreed to get me into her weekly game. I made the crappiest thief that ever thiefed, lied about my stat rolls, wrote up a melodramatic backstory involving being lost nobility forced to flee the crossfire of an elf-orc war, and spent every session looking for stuff to stab with my 1d4 damage dagger. Oh, and I gave her green eyes. I think all my characters for a few years had radioactive green eyes.
As for design, all my games were homebrew creations when I began running. I rarely did any kind of formal design prior to play. I mostly made things up as I went. When I was 19 or 20, I started in on my own campaign setting based in 3rd edition. I composed new races and classes and ended up doing a complete overhaul of the magic system. I had a vision of a someday mega-adventure I would write to accompany it, but never made it to that point.
KC: Recently, you won Paizo’s 2014 RPG Superstar contest with your adventure module, The Daughters of Fury, set to be released this November. First,congratulations! Would you mind telling our readers a bit about The Daughters of Fury?
VJ: Thank you! I'm pretty excited that I'm going to get to bring The Daughters of Fury fully to life. It was a difficult concept to put into a pitch without sloshing over the word count on all sides. I wanted a focus on diplomacy and NPC interaction. The way PCs present themselves, the attitude they project to the NPCs, and their ability to gauge social situations accurately are all integral components to the adventure.
The plot focuses on a half-orc/half-aasimar woman named Vegazi who has unwittingly been caught up in an infernal entanglement of her mother's. She's fled the Hold of Belzken into Lastwall seeking help, where the PCs become involved. They quickly become the only people she really trusts to stand between her and her mother's fledgling tribe of devilish orcs! More than just keeping her safe, however, the PCs are also responsible for minimizing collateral damage of their foes' attempts to abduct Vegazi and for uncovering why, exactly, she's being hunted so fiercely.
KC: Crafting a balanced adventure that will work with a wide variety of groups is no easy feat, because, as every GM knows, no plan survives contact with the players. What approach do you take when designing an adventure module?
VJ: Whenever I get an idea for a plot line that I expect PCs to follow, I ask myself if there are any NPCs, items, or places that will make the plot unravel if the PCs kill, destroy, or burn it to the ground. If so, I reconstruct things until the story can survive even the most untimely murderous impulse. Having a fleshed-out villain with complex motivations is important for this reason—it makes it much more likely that the PCs will blunder into at least one path that will put them at cross-purposes with the antagonist. One of the first sidebar pieces I wrote up for my module pitch (which did not make it into the final draft) was explaining what the main villain would do and how the arc would progress if the PCs happened to murder Vegazi upon meeting her. I take no chances.
For balance purposes, I've always relied on basic story structure of scene and sequel, or action and reaction. Every part of an adventure demands a scene where the PCs must do something, and then a pulling-back to allow them to react and decide what to do next. The constant rise/fall means your “doer” characters always have another scene around the bend to snare their interest, while the quieter, more dramatic players are given space to expand upon how their characters respond to the last bit of action.
It's not an exact science, but it keeps the game going and the fun continuing.
KC: While public perception seems to be turning, there is a belief that tabletop RPGs are a boys' club. I was curious what have your experiences have been as a female gamer and game designer?
VJ: I've never really warmed to the term “gamer girl,” and I've seldom given my gender much thought in the context of being a gamer. No one ever told me gaming was for boys when I grew up. I took it up because I loved it, got passionate about it, and it became such a huge part of my identity that I eventually came around to understanding I wasn't going to really be happy until I made a career of it.
Ten years ago, I was the first female modder of note for the Baldur's Gate games. I know this because my friends told me, ”Hey, you're the first female modder that's done a major release!” and my response was something like, “Oh, that's interesting. Here's my next project idea . . . ” And, I just don't think about it.
I don't recall ever dealing much with discrimination or being patronized for being a female in the hobby. Maybe it's happened. My friends tell me it has, but I don't really remember or dwell on it. I've been picked on for my age, height, and for constantly playing bards, too, and I just shake it off. Or fire back. I don't take anyone very seriously, including myself, and that helps.
I know with the RPG Superstar contest I was a little worried about suddenly being in the limelight. I absolutely did not want focus to be taken away from judging me as a designer for there to be gawking of “Oh, look! A girl!” I shouldn't have been concerned. There was very little mention of my gender, and, if anyone based their voting decision on my gender for better or worse, I never knew about it.
If I had to peg a real problem in being a female gamer, I guess it's the loneliness. My friends are men, mostly, and always have been. Girls just weren't interested in what I liked; I had very rare friends at all until middle school, and no female friends until I was a teenager. And then, just a couple. And, after high school, none, until I moved to Seattle as an adult. It's certainly gotten easier in recent years as more women take up gaming, but sometimes I still lie about my hobbies. I've tended to work in female-heavy office environments, and I deal with other moms as part of having kids, and these ladies are pretty much never gamers and think I'm strange if I bring it up. There are exceptions, obviously, but in my case, there haven't been enough.
KC: The Daughters of Fury touches on themes of gender equality and has a ton of fantastic-looking female NPCs at its heart, neither of which we see often in RPGs. Why did you feel it was important to tell a story like this?
VJ: You give me far too much credit. The story didn't spring from my head to the page fully formed at all. And, I think I can speak for most writers in saying that when a theme does emerge in my work, I pretty much never put it there on purpose. I'm a huge, babbling nerd about story structure and how ingrained storytelling is in the human psyche (which is something I've come to adore about tabletop gaming—it's a delightful evolution of storytelling!), and I've learned that the creative subconscious is more capable of providing depth to my work than I can ever consciously manage. It lets me focus on being entertaining.
The adventure started off as being about a young woman who unwittingly married into a cursed, diabolical family that'd sold their souls in exchange for protection against assault. The bonus location was going to be this little border village between Lastwall and Belzken that remained safe despite all odds. The woman was intended to be bartered off to devils (The working title had been “The Infernal Bride.”) but she escaped. She's hounded by devils and possessed when the PCs find her, and I was drawing on a lot of Crucible-esque inspiration for what happened in Vigil as the PCs tried to prove she was innocent or else sought to have her tried as a willing devil worshipper.
Then, I grumbled to myself about “why is it that devils always possess women? If it's a man, he's always the Antichrist. Be different!” and so I flipped the central character's gender to male and gave the cursed family an imposing matriarch out for revenge. That also drew Eiseth's influence into it.
At that point I was doing some hand wringing about whether I was tying things well enough into Lastwall's existing motifs, and I had the flash of inspiration to make the doomed matriarch villain into an orc. Reading about orcs and the stark disparity between the genders, the rest of the story really started falling into place from there.
And, that's really how it happened. When I start writing something, I never ask myself “is this important?” I ask if it's entertaining, if it's cliché, if there's room for the PCs to get involved, if it makes sense, and if there are memorable scenes in it. I'm an entertainer, and I concentrate on that.
I admit I've found that I do say something in everything I write, but I never see it until after the fact. Sometimes not even until someone else points it out to me. And, I think it's better that way.
KC: What advice would you give to an aspiring RPG Superstar or game designer?
VJ: I'm kind of a fluke in that I had no real design credit to my name when I went into RPG Superstar. So, I don't know if I feel qualified to give advice. Since I was credited with coming up with new, original concepts, though, I will elaborate on what can help with that.
Don't ever stop learning. Branch out. Everything you read, play, learn ,etc. can come back and inform your creative process. Inspiration for my various entries in Superstar came from card games I've played, songs I listened to, shows I've watched, books I've read, movies I've seen, stories I've heard, mythology I know, and so on. If you only absorb one kind of setting or system, then you are likely to repeat the same mood and tropes that have been seen again and again. If you only read fantasy and sci-fi, try mysteries and thrillers now and again. If you only play combat-heavy games, experiment with a few sessions of abstract storytelling. And, I recommend everyone to read lots of nonfiction and read the news, especially international news. The connections your brain starts making after absorbing information a while will amaze you.
Know what has come before you but also look far and beyond your comfort zone and learn all you can. Pulling disparate elements together in an interesting way that works is the best way to avoid the “that's been done” feeling.
KC: Since we still have a few months to wait for The Daughters of Fury to be on shelves and we at Fanboy Comics love to geek out about our favorite geeky things, what's an RPG module you're a fan of that you would recommend to readers?
VJ: I have a confession: I stopped playing modules when I was about 14, because they were really bad. I made an exception for the 3.5 release of Expedition to Castle Ravenloft, but that was it. I did get to play a goblin-fied version of Jade Regent some years ago which was goofy fun, though it went off the rails after the We Be Goblins section of course. The Pathfinder modules were the first that actually looked good enough to run in a long time, but no one I knew was doing Pathfinder at the time. I am currently running Jade Regent now, with a huge list of other adventures I'm looking forward to tackling. It's nice not being saddled with the work of a homebrew game, especially with kids keeping me busy.
I did get to edit a module released with the indie-published RPG Ellis: Kingdom in Turmoil called Mystery at the Monastery. I was a playtester for Ellis (designed by Tim Morgan, a friend of mine) and do recommend it for fans of low-fantasy, skill-based systems steeped in medieval-isms. I never got to play the module (It's been several years since any of my gaming groups were on a fantasy kick.)/ but it was exceedingly well written and made a good intro for the types of intrigue and investigative play can be done with Ellis.
KC: You're also a novelist of fantasy and horror fiction. Is there anything coming up that our readers should keep an eye out for?
VJ: Oh, yeah. I have a lot of work completed that is just waiting for me to get over the self-publishing learning curve and put up on various eBook and print-on-demand platforms. I specialize in lengthy short fiction in the 10,000 to 40,000 word range in horror and fantasy, which historically has made it very hard for me to appeal to traditional markets. The digital revolution has been a godsend for me.
I have a little publisher business site called Apocrypha House (www.apocryphahouse.com) to serve as an umbrella for my pen names, and that's the best place to find out what I'm working on and what's out, even on the gaming side of things. The next couple months will see a historical horror piece set around the Romanov massacre, two dark fantasy pieces set within my own Godless setting (that may yet someday be its own campaign/system), and a Steampunk/western/alternative history/fantasy piece involving a mad scientist, a train carved from a living dragon, and a lesbian wedding. And, that's just for starters.
I'm also writing a fantasy/alternative history novel about a family of werewolf hunters in Appalachia that will be released in serialized fashion on my publisher blog and via Wattpad. I also do flash fiction on Medium, cross posted to Wattpad. All that's for free, though I may compile the completed versions into eBook format for those that want them that way.
KC: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me, Victoria. Where can our readers go to follow your work and to learn more about The Daughters of Fury?
VJ: Subscribe to my publisher blog to stay updated on my work and see the free stuff. My author page on that site (www.apocryphahouse.com/authors/jaczko/) links to my available work, once it's up for sale, and has links to the various forms of social media I'm on and to Medium and Wattpad, where I put free stuff.
Subscribing to the RSS feed allows for immediate gratification of every detail. The newsletter I only want to send out quarterly as a digest of any cool stuff I've done or things I've released within the prior 3-4 months, so that's a good way to get caught up when things are moving slowly.