Michael Stackpole is the New York Times Bestselling author of dozens of books, most notably in the Star Wars and Battletech series. But for us at the Zocho, we know him as one of the creators of the WARS setting, and the author of six WARS short stories that introduced us to some of our favorite characters in the WARS Universe. For this 15th Anniversary year, we were honored to have the chance to speak with him about his work.
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About a year and a half before Wars, Decipher had hired me for a week to teach their designers how to design a fictional setting. It was a world-building class, basically. Based on that, about 18 months later they hired me to help design/consult on/refine what they were doing to put together the WARS world.
How much had they already built when you started?
They came to me with a general sense of what they wanted to do, how they wanted to localize a SF setting and make it very familiar and accessible for an audience. They wanted elements that would make it easy for them to roll the Star Wars card game mechanics over.
What they wanted me to do was to refine things, local and expand storylines, project a future; as well as fill out some of the local details that let a fictional world get under the skin of readers/players. It was pretty much a lot of development work.
Was there a part of the setting you enjoyed developing more than others?
I don’t recall my enjoying one part more than another, but that’s because I just love doing worldbuilding and development. The real magic is in making all the parts come together, especially with politics. For each faction I tried to approach things from their point of view, and that part of the exercise was great fun.
I think that's definitely something that's kept the (small) but passionate fandom alive. Each faction feels real, with no straight villains.
Did you help develop the signature characters of the setting as well?
If I recall correctly, I did some development there, but I believe they came to me with some character concepts already. I added a bit of polish and shine there. When it came to the stories, I was given a lot of latitude to develop storylines and characters, with the idea of giving a sense of each faction, and the dynamics of the universe.
The juxtaposition of Bushido and a noirish and wise-ass voice, with both characters having their own sense of honor made them a blast to write. Starhawk’s first person voice also makes things very immediate, which is really useful when you’re introducing folks to a new universe.
If I remember correctly, I got to use them in more than one story (It’s been 14 years since I wrote the tales) and having that sort of continuity also made them fun. The fact that they progressed through things is what probably makes them well-loved.
Were there plans for you to write more for the setting and/or those characters if it had continued?
We’d discussed the possibility, yes, and I was more than willing to do it. They were. Lot of fun and I really enjoy doing fiction that pushes a universe forward (as with BattleTech, for example.) Whether or not it would have been those specific characters, I don’t know, but I also know I would have lobbied hard to use them.
Your writing of the alien Shi and Quay in WARS is notable for being extremely, well, alien, with the Shi especially being strange and outside human understanding. Was it your call to make them so wonderfully strange, and if so what did you like about that?
A long time ago, I’d heard a quote attributed to Isaac Asimov to the effect that no writer can truly write an alien because a true alien would be utterly incomprehensible. I’ve always taken that as a challenge. In writing from alien POVs, making sure that things are out of kilter with normal human experience is important. And that’s not just for aliens, since other cultures can be very alien—which is what makes all of them so fascinating.
That's a wonderful thing to take as a challenge.
Speaking of other cultures, you chose to use quotes from the Japanese book the Mumon Koan ("The Gateless Gate") as titles for all of your WARS stories. Do you know how that book became so important to the WARS universe, and what led you to referencing it in all of your tales?
As I recall, that was part of the directive from Decipher. they might have even provided me with a list of quotes to use as possible titles. While I have a number of Zen Texts here (going back to BattleTech and the Draconis Combine) I don’t recall having looked things up. At, again, dim memory, at least one of the stories went in without a title and Decipher provided it. Maybe the Quay tale?
Of the stories you wrote, did you have a favorite?
No favorite, but that’s because I pretty much viewed them all as part of an ongoing story. The first one probably stands alone the best, and I loved introducing the characters; but in looking the others over, there’s fun stuff in all of them.
There really is!
Sadly, WARS met an early end in 2005. What do you recall about the line ending?
I was saddened to see it end because i thought it had so much potential. I had known it would be a tough-sell from the get-go, but really hoped that enough of the loyalty to the SWCCG would inspire folks to try and stick with the game. What I missed is something I should have seen, which is that most folks have their loyalty to Star Wars; and a burning curiosity to see what else is happening to the property. Given that we all have limited bandwidth for leisure time activities, adding in something brand new can be difficult.
My primary concern, however, was in seeing Decipher go out of the industry. That was a great crew of folks and I always enjoyed spending time with them as we were able.
As it is, however, lots of Decipher refugees stayed engaged in the community, so I still get to see them at various shows.
It really is a pity, I'm glad so many stayed engaged. Do you have a good memory of working with Decipher you could share?
The best memory I have about WARS was just how dedicated Decipher was to making it work. They put together a documentary about the design and development for the premiere. this meant they found a camera-man in Phoenix to come out to the house so I could record my bits. That was unprecedented.
Printing up the first story to hand out, plus printing up and distributing faction t-shirts, they really went all out.
I actually have one shirt for each faction here... part of my t-shirt scrapbook of conventions... 🙂 Mostly, though, I just remember how enthused they all were for the project. It made it a blast to be part of the project.
I've seen that documentary! I had no idea it was such an effort, with you in another state.
Yeah, that was shot in my living room.
My part, anyway.
They really did go all out, one of my favorite things they did was create a full soundtrack for the game. Were there any plans for the future of the project that never happened you were excited for?
I don’t recall anything, but continued development was pulled in house, so my falling out of the loop wasn’t a surprise. I would have enjoyed getting to continue the various adventures, and feel a bit melancholy that i wasn’t able to.
It’s weird, I don’t even know where the rights are held for the game or the stories; or if they’ll ever see print again.
What was your favorite thing about writing for WARS?
My favorite thing would have been developing Starhawk and getting to play with him in that very rigid Gongen society. Just glancing at the stories now, after fourteen years, I get a sense of the fun I was having.
Is there anything you'd like to say to the WARS fans who are still out there?
For the fans, bless you for keeping the game alive. I certainly hoped my work and stories would keep folks entertained. That they still do that puts a smile on my face.