Writer Interview: Jon Hodgson

Jon Hodgson wrote The Witches and the Wyrm, one of the BEOWULF: Age of Heroes adventures featured in Trials of the Twin Seas. We’re going to ask him a few questions about that process.

Handiwork Games (HW): Jon, a lot of people know you primarily as an artist, but you’ve done a lot of writing and development work, often ‘behind the scenes’. Have you ever had any strange interactions with fans or other industry folk because of this?

Jon Hodgson (JH): Oh gosh yes all the time. I understand that it can be hard for people when you wear multiple hats, and it’s always a bit cringey if I have to mention that I actually wrote something as well as illustrated it. The funny ones are where fans or even colleagues on occasion simply won’t grasp that I wrote entire adventures, or oversaw every aspect of a game line’s production. But you know, I get it. It’s ok.

HW: Without spoiling things too much, the inciting incident for this adventure is a monster’s refusal to follow the ‘natural order’. Where did you get the inspiration for this adventure?

JH: This one came about initially as a Halloween themed adventure, but grew beyond that. The reversal of a natural order seemed like an appropriate theme for a halloween adventure, on the basis that “horror is matter out of place”. That’s a thought I really enjoy for its wide applicability – corpses out of the grave, blood outside the body and so on. None of which feature in this adventure. But the idea that a broken “pagan” (for want of a better word) tradition could form the basis of an adventure was the spark. The Hermit’s Sanctuary, which I’d written before this one, was a firmly “Church of the Book” adventure and I wanted to do something a bit more esoteric and Old Ways by way of balance.

HW: Did the adventure plot arise fully-formed or did it need to be leveraged, step-by-step? Were there any surprises in the writing process?

JH: I most often write using something akin to the reverse scripting method: “inspiration” strikes in terms of feelings, scenes, locations or characters I think would be effective, and I think have to do the harder work of supplying the connective material. Sometimes I’ll know I want the player to visit a cranky, scary, absent minded dwarf. And then engineer the “getting there”. Other times I’ll just know that I want the player to navigate a tangled forest river and all that might entail, and then have to figure out where they’re going in order to have that bit of travel.

In terms of surprises, I enjoyed incorporating the folk tale of the Boggart and the Farmer, in the elf section. That wasn’t planned particularly, but I enjoyed how it’s an open ended sandbox of “stuff” for the player to sort through. It’s funny looking back at this adventure while I answer these questions!

HW: Which is your favourite NPC in the adventure? Can you explain a bit why?

JH: Oh definitely Maegden. She’s a thinly-veiled homage to Eilonwy from the Prydain Chronicles. And who doesn’t love Eilonwy? I also enjoyed… wait, I like all of the three witches a great deal, and had tremendous satisfaction in working out their motivations, and what they would be most likely to request a Hero to do to prove themselves. I enjoy that Modor, the mother figure is just tired. And it was a nice moment in the writing process when Widwe, the widow, made it very plain she just wanted a lot of killing.

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?

JH: Yes! Victims from my local group were forced through it on a couple of occasions. “Connective tissue” was always the point of discussion – getting from A to B in state C, while offering sufficient options within that journey. It’s always useful to test these things, not just for the balance of encounters, or how much pressure is being put on resources and all that practical stuff, but just to see how different players respond to some of the basic requests of the adventure. Writing material for publication is in a sense very odd and difficult. You have no idea just how much guidance a given GM wants or needs, and both ends of that spectrum will be unhappy. Over the years on various game lines I’ve seen simultaneous complaints about too much structure and not enough.

So trying stuff out on a range of people can hopefully help write the thing in a practical way. I hope so anyway.

The sun tracker came about from the clear excitement around the idea of a timed battle, with increasing pressure to finish it. It began as a bit of a hand-waving exercise for the GM (I’d very much encourage anyone who prefers to to run it that way to go for it). But tracking rounds as the sun sinks and time runs out went down a storm, with a lot of tortured laughing and grimacing as the dice fell and the sun progressed towards the horizon.

One play through, before you (Jacob) had helped rationalise the stat blocks appropriately (I play a really loose version of 5e with my group and we really shouldn’t be allowed) the Hero absolutely beasted Wolf Head in one round. Which I really liked. I should say it was entirely legit use of criticals for a Strength Hero. But you have to wonder if every group will enjoy that. Some folks want long combat to feel the value.

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

JH: I think it’s useful, for both players and GMs, to be aware it’s a bit of a… I don’t want to say “poetic”as that sounds like self praise. It’s a deliberately weird adventure, which doesn’t necessarily take place in a literal real world. It’s meant to be a bit dreamy. Go with that and hopefully you’ll enjoy it. You’re in a storybook story. There are also a bunch of easter egg references in there to folklore, novels, and plays. See how many you can spot.

It’s also a really good one to break into four sessions, with very easy finishing points. That’s handy.

Last piece of advice – think ahead of time about how the Hero who is in play might relate to the overall quest, and keep a couple of motivations handy for Followers to deliver. Just in case they resist playing ball. Followers generally are an awesome conduit for friendly advice in a duet game.

The Witches and the Wyrm 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!