Writer Interview: Elaine Lithgow

Elaine Lithgow wrote Seven Stones, one of the BEOWULF: Age of Heroes adventures featured in Trials of the Twin Seas. We’re going to ask her a few questions about that process.

Handiwork Games (HW): Elaine, you’ve got a lot of experience in the roleplaying game field. What’s your favourite kind of project to work on?

Elaine Lithgow (EL): I love writing adventures where the players are great heroes undertaking legendary deeds, which is one of the main things that drew me to the Beowulf system in the first place! In my opinion, the world we live in has an abundance of prejudice, pain, and injustice. Life is hard and people rarely get the recognition for the daily acts of heroism that go unnoticed. So when I sit down with players at a table, I want them to feel like the heroes I know they are, to give them great challenges they can overcome, to let them celebrate together and build lasting legends in their own rights. So any project that helps to spread more of those affirming moments of accomplishment are always my favourite. 

HW: The adventure begins with a character seeking out the Hero, as opposed to the Hero seeking out the adventure. Are there any special considerations with this choice of presentation style?

EL: As mentioned, I love making people really feel like they’re heroes in their world. Part of landing that feeling is the idea that their deeds impact the world far and wide. It’s not just about the evils they slay or the immediate folk they pull from the flames, it’s about the songs that are sung, the legends that are passed on between merchants, and told to children for generations. The original Beowulf poems are the epitome of that concept, grand epics that have survived generations, travelled the globe, and inspired countless hero narratives since. 

So when I started writing Seven Stones I wanted to flip the script on the ‘call-to-adventure’ so that a hard-headed young woman by the name of Murrin tracks down the Hero and demands that they help them free their homeland from a terrible monster. She has heard the legends sung of the Hero, and been inspired to action herself. 

HW: Did any character or situation ‘surprise’ you? I.e. something that you didn’t foresee?

EL: Sometimes when you’re writing an adventure, you don’t realise you have woven in a core theme or motif until you’re staring at the near-finished manuscript. With Seven Stones, I didn’t initially realise that I employed strong theme about letting go of harmful traditions. Every character in the adventure is being affected by this long-standing tradition. They all know it’s harmful, but they can’t conceive of an alternative or don’t have the power to instigate positive change without help. That really surprised me when I reviewed the adventure. Looking back on it I think it’s reflective of where my head was at when I wrote it, and I think it’s something the people of Orkness (the fictional village) helped me understand in myself.

HW: How do you organise your writing? Do you write extensive outlines? Or is your drafting process more direct?

EL: I’ve always found myself in the middle-ground between someone who outlines and someone who just dives in and starts writing. Normally I will sit down with a cup of tea and outline the basic shape of an adventure. Literally just bullet points or headers in a document is all I really need, anything to get the shape of the adventure in my head (and make sure I don’t over-write!) But then I often find that my best ideas come as I’m writing the adventure itself, so I always make sure I have space for the adventure structure to change. In that way I’m not so precious of my outline that it becomes restrictive to creativity.

HW: Did you have a chance to playtest the adventure, or run it for anyone, or observe a play-through? Any special highlights or funny moments?

EL: I did! The highlight for me was absolutely the interactions between the Hero and the Kelpie in the Loch. Without going into too much in the way of spoilers, the Kelpie is a fae creature who has something the Hero needs, but they will only give it up if they agree to entertain them. We had great fun working through a little montage of ways the Hero tries to entertain the strange creature, going to increasingly ludicrous extremes. All the while Murrin watched in horror as the Hero of legends she had heard so much about went about trying to ‘catch a fish with their toes’ to make a Kelpie laugh. It was a wonderful bit of levity at just the right point in the adventure.

HW: Do you have any advice for a player about to take on this adventure, or for a GM about to run it?

EL: I think Seven Stones functions as the perfect adventure for players who have maybe taken a break from Beowulf for a while, or those who want to play with a ‘time-skip’ after a particularly grand adventure. They could return to the game with their Hero aged a bit, a little rusty, maybe a tad uncertain of themselves, (just like players feel returning to TTRPGs after years of isolation). A bit older maybe, a bit greyer, unsure if they still have what it takes to be a hero. Then before they know it, they’re face-to-face with a determined character who has been inspired by them, who recounts their previous great adventures (exaggeration and all) and demands that they live up to their own myths.

Can they do it? Are the Hero rise up to the challenge of their own legacy and save a people from a tradition that is killing them?

I think players and GMs who really lean into that character dynamic will be in for something special. I know at least one young woman who’s waiting to see our Hero in action for herself!

Seven Stones will be one of the adventures featured in Trials of the Twin Seas, a full-colour hardcover collection of our BEOWULF adventures. Sign up for the forthcoming Kickstarter here!