About nine years ago, before I’d ever published a word of fiction, I was writing the various works that’d eventually become the Half-Orcs and Shadowdance Series. They shared a similar world, similar timeline, but I had this stretch of ancient history completely vague and in the dark. And then I had a wonderful, brilliant idea: I’d use my friends to fill it in for me.
So my wonderful, brilliant idea was to create a Dungeons and Dragons campaign set in the earliest history of my world. I’d then, with permission, shamelessly steal their characters and events and use it as a backdrop for my books. Foolproof, I know. You’re probably stunned such an idea could fail, for it’d been used successfully in the early TSR Dragonlance books and anime like Record of the Lodoss War. So yeah, this was going to be amazing, a campaign where characters would witness the very creation of the monsters, beasts, and undead they normally killed in other campaigns without a second thought. They’d even be able to interact with the gods themselves, who still walked the land!
The setup was simple. The characters were in a young world, with a very young human race, living in a piece of land that was effectively neutral territory between two deities with their own respective civilizations and cultures. Said brother deities then march in, one aiming to claim the land, the other to protect its neutrality, and then Bad Things Happen, people die, and a massive world-spanning war begins. The neatest bit was how I would let them choose which side they joined. I had two full campaigns set up, hours of work, maps, ideas and characters for them to interact with, battles they’d witness, the whole epic shebang.
And so the Bad Stuff happens, and my friends come together to decide in the aftermath who they and the survivors of their village will join. My brother, Gavin (a.k.a. Tarlak to my readers), taps the map I’d drawn.
“What’s there?” he asks, referring to a clump of land to their north.
“Nothing,” I told him. “It’s a blighted wasteland, unoccupied and unwanted by either deity.”
“Awesome. We’re going there to rebuild our town.”
This couldn’t be right, of course. This was a bluff. My friends weren’t that crazy. Or evil.
“Fine,” I told them. “But I need to know what supplies you’re carrying, how you’re carrying it, how many are with you, how you plan on feeding them…all of it.”
Bury them in details, that was my solution. Make them decide it’d be so much easier to go with either of the two adventure hooks I’d already planned. This was the Gods’ War, dangit, the war I wanted to make them a part of, to let their characters become legends of my books! So next week, when we meet, what do I get? Pages of details, how much food and water they have, how many wagons, livestock, estimations on travel speed, plans for how they’d rebuild their town, as well as requests for finding people who’d visited that blighted empty land to learn more about it.
I wanted an epic battle between deities, witnessing the creation of orcs, werewolves, gnolls, undead, and the like.
They wanted Oregon Trail: Tolkien edition.
Alright, I’m thinking, this isn’t a complete waste. I mean, sure, all that awesome stuff is gone, but they’re still going into an area I’d developed very little history for. Maybe I could get some names, right? I hated naming places and things, so I could use my friends. That’d work, a nice, natural system for naming significant places they encountered. Awesome. I can do this. So they cross these rivers, enter into the blighted wasteland, and encounter a stretch of short, rolling mountains akin to the Ozarks. When I tell them they have no name, they realize they get to have the privilege. So what do they come up with?
You’d be forgiven for thinking they weren’t taking this seriously. But they were. Carefully calculated rations, hunting parties, putting skill points into carpentry and masonry…just don’t ask them to name a damn stretch of massive hills you’re passing through.
So now my patience is starting to wear thin, and I’m scrambling to keep the campaign interesting. My idea at that point was ‘screw it, if you don’t want to fight in the war, I’m bringing the war to you.’ And so I had a prophet of the gods show up, and while they watched, turned a pack of hyenas into intelligent creatures that could speak and walk on two legs. Gnolls, basically, are what I turned them into, a pretty common thing-to-kill in fantasy games. But I didn’t want to use the name ‘gnoll’. This was my chance to adopt something unique, something all my own for these creatures. So as my wonderful party of hooligans witness the beasts’ creation, and they realize these creatures have nothing to be called, my friend Chris looks at me and asks this question.
“That hill they’re on, is it grassy?”
Now I know it’s a trap. I know it’s bad. But what the heck does that even mean, ‘is it grassy’? How could this question possibly lead to me murdering one of them? So I answer.
Chris gets the proudest, smuggest grin he’s ever worn in his life.
“So they’re on a grassy knoll? Well then, let’s call them knolls.”
The campaign died a merciful death not long after.