We, John Peck and Harry Heckel, are the writing team known as Jack Heckel. In our first series, The Charming Tales, we fractured fairy tales. In our second series, we want to give epic fantasy the same treatment, so here’s a brief summary of our newest book, The Dark Lord, out tomorrow.
For his dissertation project, grad student Avery Stewart is trying to prevent an impending catastrophe from occurring on a “sub-world” called Trelari. To do so, he has set himself up as the Dark Lord. His plan is to engineer his own defeat at the hands of Trelari’s greatest heroes—a loss which he succeeds in pulling off. Arriving back on campus after having been gloriously routed, Avery takes his roommate Eldrin to a local pub to celebrate. Unfortunately, his night of celebration goes awry when Vivian, an undergrad, steals the key to Trelari’s reality and flees into the sub-world. Avery returns to Trelari without his key and discovers that the only way to stop Vivian is to do what all fantasy heroes must do: form a group, explore ridiculously deadly dungeons, quest for a loquacious magical artifact—
John: And cast it into the fiery depths of Mount—
Harry: No, that doesn’t happen! Well, maybe it should have. Anyway, our novel is a combination of humor, fantasy tropes and university life, with its roots in how we met. In my freshman year at American University, the major gaming group on campus had an established Call of Cthulhu campaign. It was almost impossible for a freshman to join that group, so I started a Dungeons & Dragons game. My setting was an epic fantasy world of my own creation. John lived on my floor and asked to come to the games just to watch. After three or four sessions, I convinced him to play and we became good friends.
John: Truth be told, no convincing was necessary. I may be revealing more than I ought, but I stalked my way into Harry’s gaming group. I lived across the hall, and I wanted nothing more than to be in his D&D campaign. So, I sat in every night until Harry took pity on me and told me I could join. Roleplaying, at its best, is shared storytelling, and Harry is a master at the form. And, for whatever reason, our similar sense of humor, our shared love of British golf announcers and Southern high school football commentators, our deep and abiding hatred of golden mushroom soup, from the beginning Harry and I have had an ability to complete one another’s thoughts, to build and embellish upon the other’s ideas, and create stories that are a combination of the two of us. Many of the themes in The Dark Lord come from those early gaming days. In The Dark Lord, Avery and his group of adventurers must track down a powerful magical artifact, an artifact my own half-elven ranger wielded in Harry’s campaign, a battle-axe only known as Justice Cleaver.
Harry: The grad students in our novel, Avery and Eldrin, live in a room inspired by our old college dorm, down to the door knob that kept falling out and my personal penchant for constantly setting up wargames. Despite its flaws, that room was the birthplace of many stories, multiple roleplaying campaigns and a plethora of debates about our favorite books and movies. I’d write up backgrounds for our games, with legendary characters like the Heroes of the Age in the prologue for The Dark Lord.
I had been waiting years of their time for this meeting. I recognized them all through the tales of their deeds, of course. There was Feldane the Archer, scion of the elves; Mad Jarl of the Dwarf Mechanism with his living armor (it was a bit squatter than I thought it would be); St. Drake the Suffering (the gibberlings and I liked to call him St. Dork the Insufferable); the masked rogue known only as the Weasel; Mystia, sorceress of the Enigmatic Isles; and Valdara.
John: Those lines brought up so many memories for me. I could see each of those characters so clearly in my mind, and I knew that anyone who has read fantasy literature or roleplayed in a fantasy setting would recognize the archetypes at once. It inspired me to want to use them throughout the novel, to play with their clichés and see how they would respond.
Harry: It’s another example of our cooperative storytelling. Initially, I was planning on creating another group entirely from scratch for Avery’s return, but your idea to keep them worked much better. I can’t imagine the book without Drake. And Valdara might be my favorite character. I see her as representative of the struggles that women in gaming face, as she journeys from Avery seeing her as simply beautiful to realizing that she controls her own destiny and is as much as part of the quest as he is.
John: The dynamic between the characters, and Avery’s growth as he begins to realize that it isn’t possible (or good) to boil everyone down to a stereotype was the most satisfying part of the story to see come together. However, the best part of writing The Dark Lord was finding ways to sneak in little references here and there from a lifetime of reading fantasy fiction and gaming with Harry.
Harry: It’s true. We’ve filled the book with references from our favorite authors and our favorite games, from the authors of Mysterium University’s textbooks…
John: To dungeon names that recall such places as the Mines of Moria and the Tomb of Horrors…
Harry: And we put in plenty of monsters-we have lizard men, trolls, gelatinous polygons, a wicked witch, a semi-lich, and many more.
John: Basically, if you like epic fantasy…
Harry: Or if you’ve ever played fantasy roleplaying games…
John: And especially, if you’ve ever wondered, who built all those absurd dungeons, and why the rules of magic are always so peculiar, and why elves are so insufferably cool, then pick up The Dark Lord.