Interview with WARS™ Author Nathan P. Butler

Arnie Carvalho recently had an opportunity to sit down with the author of the first-ever official fictional work commercially released for Decipher, Inc.’s WARS™ franchise, The Battle of Phobos – “Healers and Hunters”:

AC: How did you get started writing?

NPB: (laughs) Apparently, I anger the right people.

In high school, I had been considering journalism as a career, but I ended up leaving the journalism program after publicly admonishing (as the Editor-in-Chief of the school paper) our superintendent to apologize to students for a summer schedule change that I, in my youthful vigor and ignorance, compared to pickpocketing. (The original draft referred to it in harsher terms.) As they say, fecal matter rolls downhill, so once the superintendent saw the article, I found myself in the doghouse and demoted, despite winning awards and acclaim for the paper statewide with my writing.

At that point, I had already somewhat recognized wanting to do fiction or humor, rather than straight news, so I gave up on the journalism idea and very soon after found my real calling with teaching, thanks to an Advanced Placement U.S. History teacher.

A couple of years later, my first podcast, ChronoRadio (“the Star Wars continuity buff’s” internet radio show), featured an editorial (i.e. rant) on the state of Star Wars comic publishing with Dark Horse Comics at the time. It was an era in which spelling errors were frequent and the company couldn’t release a Star Wars comic on time with its own street date schedule to save its life. My rant on the subject caught the attention of Dave Land, one of the Star Wars editors, while I was already engaging in a heated discussion about continuity with lead Star Wars editor Randy Stradley.

The Star Wars Tales anthology line was about to be canceled with its twentieth issue, but the last of the editors, Associate Editor Jeremy Barlow, was given a chance to revamp the title for a year (four issues). In that revamping, which focused more on longer stories and in-continuity tales, Jeremy wanted to use some less established talent. As he later explained, he’d heard about my Star Wars fan audio dramas (specifically Second Strike), seen my understanding of continuity with my Star Wars Timeline Gold, and recognized my passion for quality on ChronoRadio, so he decided to invite me to write a story for Star Wars Tales #21.

That was my first professional writing gig, after which I produced two self-published books (in print and podcast format), a novella called Echoes and a novel called Greater Good. It was the latter and my Star Wars Tales story, I believe, that got the attention of Josh Radke here at Grail Quest Books and led to me writing for the WARS™: Battle of Phobos novella series.

With this being your first commercially published novel, how was the writing experience different?

The experience was actually quite a bit like writing for Star Wars Tales. You’re working with someone else’s universe and a three-tiered structure behind the scenes: writer; publisher; and copyright holder.

From a prose writing standpoint, though, the biggest differences have been in having set time deadlines and answering to an editor. For Echoes and Greater Good, the only deadlines were what I set for myself, which was nice, but I was also playing the roles of editor, cover designer, typesetter, etc. In the case of the WARS™ series, I had set deadlines that had to be met, which was stressful at times, and I had to work with an editor.

Working with an editor, whether with WARS™ or Star Wars Tales, is always a balancing act. On the one hand, you want someone to make your work tighter, better, and more easily understandable to the audience. On the other, a writer can often get “married” to his own phrasing and word choices, and any change can be frustrating if you don’t “let go” and let the process work.

With WARS™  being a licensed property, what restrictions did you work with on your story?

Unlike with Star Wars, the universe of WARS™ is something that finds its rich detail mostly in terms of source materials, rather than previously-published prose fiction. That gave all of us a great universe in which to work, rife with interesting characters, locations, and technology, but not a lot of required story frameworks. What story elements did exist tended to be in terms of general backstory or some running themes in the WARS™  Trading Card Game.

Similar to writing in Star Wars, though, sometimes you end up with the endpoint already known. In a sense, [the Battle of Phobos illustrated novella series is] a trilogy of prequel trilogies (one for each of the Earther, Gongen, and Maverick factions) to the WARS™ card and roleplaying games. Phobos is set three years prior to the appearance of the Mumon Rift, a System-wide event that sets up the main conflict in the games.

I had to keep the characters true to what we saw in the game, but we knew very little of their backgrounds in most cases. I set about writing a story that, in part, would help push the chosen characters to where they had to be by the time of the games. For example, a short story called “Cloud” had previously introduced how Jannett Yens is promoted from a CISyn guru of Level I to Level II. How did she gain that initial position, and was she always a CISyn guru? That’s part of the story I set out to tell.

Were there any ideas for your novella that you could not use due to the license?

There weren’t any specific ideas that could not be done, per se, but I did sometimes tweak my ideas to fit the universe. For example, space travel in WARS™ with a GRAVdrive is a very specific process in the games. You can’t just “fudge it” like in other sci-fi series, where travel times become a mess of inconsistencies to the point where you just ignore it. It helps the universe feel more realistic, but it does cause one to have to step back and think through things a bit more in terms of how characters move within the Solar System.

Were you familiar with WARS™  before you were contacted to write the book?

I had never heard of WARS™ until that point. I had been a big player and collector of Decipher’s Star Wars Customizable Card Game (SWCCG) back in its early days, so I was familiar with the company and the game mechanics of the SWCCG (which were revived and revised for the WARS™  TCG after the SWCCG ended).

What sort of research did you do for WARS™ ?

Fortunately for me, WARS™ is a universe without a lot of pre-existing materials. I was able, in a very short time, to find copies of the three WARS™ RPG books from Mongoose Publishing and plenty of WARS™  TCG starter decks and booster packs from the two published sets (Incursion and Nowhere to Hide). Between those materials, the original short stories, and the background material I was given, I was able to get a good feel for the universe.

Do you enjoy the game?

I have not played the TCG much, but what playing I have done has been enjoyable. It captures all of the good parts of the SWCCG without all of the “excess baggage” rules that started to bog that game down by the end of its run. As for the RPG, I’ve not had an opportunity played it at all.

Were there any other Decipher CCGs you are a fan of playing?

Just the aforementioned Star Wars Customizable Card Game. I never played their other Star Wars card games, Young Jedi and Jedi Knights.

Why do a novella on WARS™  in 2010 when the last card set for the game was released in very early 2006?  Do you know of any plans to revive this game?

The goal, I believe, is to revitalize the property as a whole; I have not heard of any specific plans to revive the game at this time. There’s a strong fan base out there and it’s a rich universe for storytelling when explored. Between the novellas and the comic series (coming later), I’m optimistic that his will be a new beginning for WARS™ , rather than a tacked-on “expanded universe” approach after the fact.

Which parts of your novella are based on original ideas, and which were drawn from the existing WARS™  universe?

It is really hard to say which parts are original and which aren’t, as the original ideas are all meant to develop pre-existing ideas. Most of the characters are from the original game: Rogan Hallard, Jerlen Krae, Jannett Yens, Jossel Swin, Jylan Rathe, and so on. Thomason Grayger, the XeLabs scientist that acts as the focal point of the story, is an original character, but his technology, the Shroud, is from the game. It all interweaves, really.

Outer Rim–a WARS™  term or Star Wars term?

Both. The Outer Rim in Star Wars is the far-out regions of the galaxy far, far away. In WARS™ , it refers to the outer regions of the Solar System around our sun (Sol).

WARS™  was begun out of the death of Decipher’s Star Wars CCG; very similar game mechanics were used with a new universe of ships, locations, and so on.  As you are a well known Star Wars fan, and author of a Star Wars comic, did that comparison help you get a faster grip on the WARS™  universe?  For example, The Shadowsurfer could be seen as your novel’s Millennium Falcon

The Star Wars CCG did help me in writing the first Earther WARS™ novella, but not as you might expect. I’m a fan of space-based science fiction, so things like Star Wars, Babylon 5, and the like have influenced how I write space fiction, certainly, but the SWCCG was more useful in that I understood its game mechanics, so I could, at times, consider the game statistics and mechanics of the similar WARS™  TCG to make sure that the universe was consistent between the game and the novella.

The Millennium Falcon and Shadowsurfer comparison is apt, though. The card for the ship makes it look like a starfighter, but its stats reflect much greater capacity, so it definitely wound up feeling like a Millennium Falcon when writing: not huge, but not starfighter size either.

Likewise for inspiration, when reading your character of Jerlen, his description early on made me picture him in the book as Michael Clarke Duncan.  Was he who you had in mind for Jerlen, or did you have anyone specific in mind when writing him?

I think Jerlen in my mind was a lot like Michael Clarke Duncan or Hershel Dalton (Heavy Duty from G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra). I usually tried to picture him as we see him in the game, but there’s only the Ranger Watchman card to show him, as far as I recall.

Given that this is a novella, will it be published stand-alone or as part of a collection?

For the moment, each novella is released individually. They can stand alone as far as story, but characters will build over the course of all three novellas for each faction, and some characters will cross over between factions, all leading up to the Battle of Phobos. They will be released as a trilogy of omnibus editions later, but concerning the specifics of those releases, I couldn’t say. That’s not really my part of the process.

With some of the lingering storylines in this book, were you asked specifically to “set up” anything for future novels?

Other than leading up to the Battle of Phobos and, later, the TCG and RPG situations, the only real “set up” for the first Earther novella was that we wanted to consider which heroes would make most sense from the Earther perspective. The games did a good job of introducing a lot of characters, and the background of the universe is very intriguing in that it doesn’t make any one faction “right” or “wrong,” “good” or “evil.” It is all very much based on each faction’s own perspective. In the game, though, these perspectives did not each have a core group of characters to present these perspectives. Instead, you picked whomever you wanted to use while gaming.

In considering the series, Josh and Decipher had the important notion that we needed a group of core characters that could be associated with each faction. In Star Wars, when you think “Rebellion,” you think Luke Skywalker or Leia Organa usually. In Babylon 5, when you think Centauri, you think Londo Mollari or Vir Cotto. WARS™ did not have that, so we have set out to create that core group of characters, a sort of “Fellowship of the Factions,” akin to the drawing together of heroes in The Lord of the Rings to make a focal point for each faction and the WARS™ saga in general.

My job was to introduce the universe for those who hadn’t played the games and to develop and draw together some of these key players, such as Rogan Hallard from XeLabs.

In your book you have the Earther Sergeant Swin who is seen as being mad by several characters for his violent tactics, but given the extreme circumstances might Swin’s actions also be seen as justifiable for the sake of keeping his squad alive in the face of hostile and mysterious attacks?  He seems to think so; the uniform condemnation of his actions under harsh circumstances seemed surprising.

Well, bear in mind that we are only really seeing Jossel Swin’s actions from the perspectives of Rogan Hallard, Jannett Yens, and Swin himself.

Swin, of course, will certainly feel justified in his actions, and I wanted to present him as someone who has taken the needs of Earth a bit far in practice, even if he feels justified. His TCG card lore specifically calls him “a former squad leader,” noting that he “was demoted when his hatred of the Mavericks manifested in extreme violence.”

With Jannett, she’s relatively young and still marginally idealistic, so it would bother her to see Swin’s more violent actions, while Rogan, who considers himself a sort of soldier-healer, would be bothered, at least to a degree, by Swin’s more brutal acts.
So, yes, Swin could certainly be justified, especially in his own eyes or those of his superiors when those acts lead to success, but our more heroic characters are taken aback by their own consciences.

At the end of the book there seem to be some dangling mysteries.  Any plans for a follow-up to continue with the story of the mysterious informant and Jylan Rathe?

Jylan Rathe will definitely be reappearing in the overall novella series, as he is the major WARS™ player for CISyn in the games. (He also appears in the two-part Nowhere to Hide short story series.) I find him pretty intriguing.

As for the Gambler, who kicks off the first WARS™ novella by contacting Rathe . . . I personally don’t yet plan to use him again, but you never know. The trick with the Gambler is that his gang, the Cartel, is only one of quite a few Maverick gangs in the WARS™ universe, and those groups don’t coordinate much at all until later in the chronology, closer to the games. Stories with Mavericks involved might include the Cartel or the Gambler, or they might end up with entirely different gangs and characters.

My focus is on the Earther characters, which makes it much more likely that we’ll see Earther characters return in “my” faction’s novellas, but those may not feature Mavericks at all the next time around. Remember: there are plenty of power plays amongst the Earther corporations, and Gongen is still out there as well . . .

Looking back on your first WARS™  writing experience, what are your thoughts?

Overall, I found the experience to be rewarding, if stressful. Writing for a licensed property with deadlines and a shared universe is a very different beast than writing in your own universe with yourself as editor. But I think I’ve done right by the property and am now a dedicated fan of the WARS™  universe myself.

What are you currently working on?

At the moment, I would say I’m in a “holding pattern.” I have ideas for some other original works, but none are on the front burner at the moment, as I [go through the riggors of a school] year of teaching (my primary profession). I have ideas floating around in detail for the second Earther novella, which I’m about a quarter of the way through in terms of the initial manuscript draft.

If readers find your writing in the WARS™  series and want to read more of your work, are your earlier works available?

My self-published novella (Echoes) and novel (Greater Good) are both currently available at Lulu.com, though I am also pursuing an interested publisher at the moment. My Star Wars Tales story can be found in Issue #21, trade paperback volume #6, or as a Hasbro Comic Pack with action figures of Kyle Katarn and a Yuuzhan Vong warrior. The former two can be found at comic shops and places like TFAW.com; the comic pack is available in toy stores, though it is pretty hard to find at this point.

Arnie is a writer and podcaster who can be found on Star Wars Action News, Now Playing, and Books & Nachos where he has interviewed a number of authors, game developers, actors, and other creative types.

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