Do you like tales of swashbuckling adventure, with dashing heroes, sword duels, chandelier swinging, and repartee as swift as a rapier’s blade? Then you need to know about Lawrence Ellsworth.
Lawrence is a one-man swashbuckler revival. His recent collection, The Big Book of Swashbuckling Adventure, contains rare tales by the creators of The Three Musketeers, The Sea Hawk and Captain Blood, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and The Prisoner of Zenda, along with the work of many other writers whose names deserve to be equally famous. The first-ever Zorro story is there, along with a Robin Hood story and even a swashbuckler by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
But that’s just the warm-up: Ellsworth has something much bigger in store. Announced earlier this month, his translation of Alexandre Dumas’ The Red Sphinx (with cover art by Lee Moyer) is the first time this tale of the Three Musketeers has ever been translated into English in its entirety. To any Musketeer fan, that is pure gold.
Lawrence is a man of many parts. By day he is Lawrence Schick, legendary tabletop RPG writer and now the loremaster (yes, that really is a job title) for the wildly popular Elder Scrolls series of video games. At weekends he can be found at Renaissance Faires and other gatherings of romantics and anachronists, giving readings and looking very much like a Dumas character himself. He somehow found time to answer a few questions about swashbucklers, Alexandre Dumas, and what he plans to do next.
How did you first become interested in swashbucklers?
When my father was a young man in the 1930s and ’40s he was a fan of the adventure pulp magazines. When I was a boy in the 1960s, publishers were reprinting many of the best pulp tales in inexpensive paperbacks, and my father would buy them, read them, and then pass them on to me. So Harold Lamb, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Robert E. Howard enthralled me at an early age. Poring through the libraries for any book in which the hero wore a sword soon led me to Dumas, Sabatini, Orczy, Tolkien, H. Rider Haggard, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s historicals. En garde!
What attracted you to the work of Alexandre Dumas, in particular?
In the early 1970s, just as I was beginning to think the swashbuckler genre was played out for me, the Richard Lester / George MacDonald Fraser films The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers proved there were still new ways to approach it. The screenplays led me to Fraser’s Flashman novels, and that sealed the swashbuckler deal for good and all.
Lawrence Ellsworth is a nom de plume: in my day-job I’m Lawrence Schick, a game designer. In the early 1990s I led a troupe of writers who produced live-action role-playing weekends for 50 to 100 players, specializing in historical productions with romantic themes. While writing and researching The King’s Musketeers for this troupe, I became fascinated with 17th-century France. I learned French so I could read Dumas’s novels and Richelieu’s memoirs in the original language. In the process I did a translation of The Three Musketeers for fun and practice. In my research, I learned about Alexandre Dumas’s “lost” musketeers sequel, Le Comte de Moret, a.k.a. The Red Sphinx, and decided to translate it.
Just how many Musketeers books did Dumas write? Why is the situation so confusing?
Dumas wrote four books in what I call the Musketeers Cycle: The Three Musketeers (1844), set in 1626-28; Twenty Years After (1845), set in 1648-49; The Vicomte de Bragelonne (1850), set in 1660-66 (with a coda in 1673); and finally The Red Sphinx (1866), set back in 1628-30.
Where it gets confusing for us anglophones is that The Vicomte de Bragelonne is so long—296 chapters, as compared to 76 in Three Musketeers, for example—that its English translations are invariably broken up into three or four volumes, each with its own title. Different translator/publishers divided Bragelonne at different chapter breaks, and used varying titles for their sub-volumes, so good luck if you’re hunting through used bookstores for the later books and get a mismatched set, as you may find overlapping or missed chapters between the volumes.
Worse, Dumas’s subtitle for Bragelonne is Ten Years Later, which is often used as the title of the first sub-volume—and this is inherently confusing, since though it follows directly on Twenty Years After, based on the title it seems like it should precede it…. Maddening!
The usual subdivision of Bragelonne is therefore into Ten Years Later; The Vicomte de Bragelonne; Louise de La Vallière; and The Man in the Iron Mask. But not always! (When I get to translating the Bragelonne colossus, I intend to title the first volume Between Two Kings; or, Ten Years Later, restoring that confusing phrase to its position as a subtitle.)
Why was The Red Sphinx overlooked for so long, when The Three Musketeers and The Man in the Iron Mask became so famous?
By 1865, his first fame past, Dumas was writing whatever would sell. Jules Noriac, editor of the weekly Les Nouvelles, needed a novel for serial publication, and asked Dumas if he would be willing to revisit the setting of his earliest success, The Three Musketeers. Dumas, who hadn’t lost his fascination with the reign of Louis XIII and his prime minister, Cardinal Richelieu, was quick to accept. The result was the original serial publication of Le Comte de Moret, a swashbuckling tale of King Louis, his adventurous half-brother Moret, and Cardinal Richelieu.
Especially Cardinal Richelieu; the novel is as much about Richelieu as it is about the Comte de Moret, which is why its alternate title is The Red Sphinx. The focus on the Cardinal explains why Dumas refused to include appearances by d’Artagnan and his three musketeer friends, as they would surely have walked away with the story. In any event, between The Three Musketeers, Twenty Years Later, and The Vicomte de Bragelonne, Dumas had already written over a million words about d’Artagnan and company. Why flog a dead horse?
That decision to leave out d’Artagnan and his famous friends probably accounts for how Le Comte de Moret fell between the cracks of history. It had but a single 19th-century translation into English that is now lost, and the novel wasn’t even revived in France until 1946.
Do you plan to translate the whole cycle? What are the advantages of a new, uniform translation?
I do, in fact, intend to tackle the whole shebang—my translations of The Red Sphinx and The Three Musketeers are complete, and I’m about a quarter of the way through Twenty Years After.
The advantages of a new, uniform translation of the series are consistency and readability. Though there are a couple of good, modern versions of The Three Musketeers available, Twenty Years After and most of The Vicomte de Bragelonne haven’t had new English translations in over a century. These are great novels, classics of world literature, but available to readers of English only in creaky, stiff old versions that don’t do justice to Dumas’s dynamic prose and crackling dialogue. The entire series should be on the shelf of every fan of historical adventure fiction.
In your opinion, which is the best of Dumas’s Musketeer books?
Oh, The Three Musketeers, of course—Dumas was on fire in 1844-45, when he wrote T3M and The Count of Monte Cristo, his most enduring works, both of which are crammed with bold scenes and unforgettable characters. But Twenty Years After was written right on the heels of Monte Cristo and T3M, and in some ways it’s superior to its predecessor in pacing and structure. And the sheer length of Bragelonne gave Dumas the luxury to examine his characters and themes in a detail afforded nowhere else.
The Three Musketeers and The Man in the Iron Mask have each been filmed many times, and now there is the popular BBC TV series. In your opinion, what is the best screen adaptation so far?
A new take on the Musketeers comes along every few years, and most of them have their good points, but the gold standard is still the Lester/Fraser Three/Four Musketeers films, as they nailed Dumas’s tone, and with their extra length, gave the filmmakers enough time to really bring the characters to life. That said, I’m also quite fond of the just-completed BBC series The Musketeers, which focused on adding depth to Dumas’s iconic characters rather than adhering to plot, and in the process showed why those characters are still relevant and resonant nearly two centuries after they first appeared.
In your dreams, given every actor who has ever lived, whom would you cast as the four Musketeers? As Richelieu? As any other character?
A fun parlor game that never gets old! With The Red Sphinx bringing Cardinal Richelieu back into the limelight, let’s take a look at some of the great actors who’ve portrayed him over the years:
– Raymond Massey (Under the Red Robe, 1937)
– Vincent Price (The Three Musketeers, 1948)
– Charlton Heston (The Three / Four Musketeers, 1973-74)
– Tim Curry (The Three Musketeers, 1993)
– Christoph Waltz (The Three Musketeers, 2011)
– Peter Capaldi (The Musketeers, 2014)
Unbelievable! With a character so rich and many-sided as Richelieu, it’s no wonder such a plum role often goes to actors who are among the best of their generation. For the movie version of The Red Sphinx (it’s inevitable, right?), I’d like to see Kenneth Branagh take on the role.
One reads of Dumas père and Dumas fils: who was who?
Alexandre Dumas père, or senior, is the 900-pound gorilla of swashbuckler fiction whose works we’ve been discussing today. His son, known as Alexandre Dumas fils, was also a novelist and playwright; he wrote stories of manners and romance, and is best known for La Dame aux Camélias.
Many thanks to Lawrence for taking the time to answer my questions. You can find him at his web site swashbucklingadventure.net and keep up with his author appearance via his Facebook page. And, of course, you can find his books at your favorite bookstore or e-tailer.
One of the more frustrating aspects of my profession is the fact that I can’t generally talk about what I’m working on until the final product is released, months or even years after my work has finished. My work on Dawnbringer ended back in August of last year, and since then the development team at Kiloo has been working very hard to bring the game over the finish line. Today, I received an email telling me that they have succeeded.
I started work on Dawnbringer almost three years ago. It all started with an email from Jeppe Bisberg, their vice-president of production, who had seen my profile on LinkedIn and remembered some of my past work. The basic story and gameplay concepts for Dawnbringer were already in place, and Jeppe was looking for an English-language writer to help develop the story, characters, and setting, and ultimately to write the quest and dialogue text.
Over the next two years, I worked very closely with the development team in Aarhus, Denmark via email and Skype. Coincidentally, I had visited the city many years ago, as a student on a Viking archaeology fieldtrip: I had fond memories of the place from that trip, many of which involved Carlsberg and aquavit consumed in dark and cosy bars.
Because of my work on Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, I am mainly known as a writer of dark and gritty fantasy. Dawnbringer is at the other end of the spectrum: a mythic fantasy where the player takes the role of an angelic being fighting to save a demon-infested world and his own fallen brother.
Centuries ago, a force known only as Corruption infected the world like a supernatural pollution. It was only held at bay by the sacrifice of the Guardians, who used their own life-force to power a magical shield. Pride and ambition led to their fall, and invading demons tore their bodies apart and scattered the pieces across the land.
One of the hero’s tasks is to recover the parts and re-assemble the Guardians’ bodies on their thrones so that their tower can protect the land once again. Another is to save his brother from the clutches of Corruption, which takes over more of his body and mind as the game progresses.
Along the way, the hero explores various kinds of terrain and encounters an endless supply of demons of different tribes, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. There are treasures to recover, ingredients to gather, life-saving potions to brew, and gear to craft and upgrade before the blighted world of Mourngard can be saved – and as he works to do that, the hero must also learn a few things about compassion, duty, and the worth of lesser beings.
Dawnbringer is available now in the Google Play and iTunes stores. Like many mobile games it operates on a freemium model, which means you can try it for free and decide how much money – if any – you want to put into it. I hope you’ll give it a try.
To learn more, click on the following links:
My Dark Osprey book Nazi Moonbase has been out for a couple of weeks now, and is starting to garner some good reviews. If you’d like to know what other people are thinking about the book, here are some links. I’ll add more in the comments section below as I come across them.
Amazon.com: currently rated at 4+ stars. “A great read,” “great dark fantasy … good fun!” and “very well melded fact and fiction” are among the comments.
Goodreads.com: Currently rated at 3.5 stars. “…for those of you who like science fictional worldbuilding (or Nazi Moonbase-building), you’ll have quite a treat.”
Suvudu.com: A nice background article on my book and its place within the greater realm of Nazi superscience conspiracy theories. It sums up very nicely how this became such an irresistible topic for conspiracy fans.
As a lifelong vintage aviation geek who was lucky enough to grow up during the hottest part of the space race, I had a lot of fun researching and writing this book. There are some wild conspiracy theories out there, from Nazi flying saucers to the hidden Antarctic base to the faking of the Apollo moon landings, and I set myself the task of constructing a narrative to support the proposition that every one of the conspiracy theories was true. I also snuck in a few references to movies and video games for people to find.
Whether you use it as a systemless game sourcebook or just as an entertaining read, I hope you enjoy reading this book as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Click here to order Nazi Moonbase and my other current books from your favorite e-tailer.
Although I’m best known for my work on tabletop games, electronic games have been my bread and butter for the last 25 years. Like a lot of “names” from the golden age of tabletop RPGs – Mike Brunton, Jim Bambra, Zeb Cook, Lawrence Schick, Ken Rolston, Paul Murphy, and many more – I found in the early 90s that the electronic games industry offers writers and designers something that the tabletop games industry cannot: a chance to actually make a living.
So far, I have worked on more than 40 electronic games that made it to market, as well as quite a few that didn’t, and a handful that have not yet been announced. Below is a list of the first category.
If you are interested in finding out more about my services and availability as a game writer, a good place to start is my LinkedIn profile.
Dawnbringer (Action-RPG, iOS/Android), Kiloo 2016 – Story Designer/Writer Official Web Page
Metal Skies (Arcade, iOS/Android), Kabam 2014 – Localization Editor
Blades of Excalibur (Arcade, Web), Kabam 2014 – Localization Editor
Ravenmarch (Strategy, Web), Kabam 2014 – Localization Editor Ravenmarch.com
Wartune (Strategy, Web), Kabam 2014 – Localization Editor Kabam.com
The Hobbit: Armies of the Third Age (Strategy, Web), Kabam/Warner Bros. 2012 – Writer
Arcane Empires (Strategy, iOS/Android), Kabam 2012 – Story Designer/Writer
Mobile Command: Crisis in Europe (Strategy, iOS), Kabam 2012 – Story Designer/Writer
Imperion (Strategy, Web), Travian Games 2011 – Writer/Editor Imperion.com
Viking Tales: Mystery of Black Rock (Casual, iOS), AiLove 2011 – Writer/Editor iTunes Store
Ruse (Strategy, PC/Console), Ubisoft 2010 – Story Consultant
Empire: Total War (Strategy, PC), SEGA 2010 – Writer/Designer
Dragonica (MMORPG, PC online), THQ/ICE 2009 – Localization Editor Dragonica Online
America’s Next Top Model (Casual, Mobile), PressOK Ent. 2009 – Writer/Editor
Houdini’s Infinite Escapes (Casual, Mobile), PressOK Ent. 2008 – Writer/Editor
Parking Frenzy (Casual, Mobile), Reaxion Corp. 2008 – Writer/Editor
Parisian Puzzle Adventures (Casual, Mobile), Reaxion Corp. 2008 – Writer/Editor
Detective Puzzles (Casual, Mobile), Reaxion Corp. 2007 – Writer/Editor
Men in Black: Alien Assault (Casual, Mobile), Ojom 2006 – Writer/Editor
Online Chess Kingdoms (Casual, PSP), Konami 2006 – Design Consultant
Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth (RPG, Xbox/PC), Bethesda Softworks 2005 – Pickup Writer
Spartan: Total Warrior (Action, Console), SEGA 2005 – Writer
Rise of the Nile (Casual, PC/Mac), Evil Genius 2005 – Design Director
Rhiannon’s Realm: Celtic Mahjongg Solitaire (Casual, PC/Mac), Evil Genius 2005 – Design Director
Medieval: Total War – Viking Invasion (Strategy, PC), Activision 2003 – Writer/Researcher
Nightcaster (Action, Xbox), Microsoft 2002 – Voice Talent
Em@il NASCAR Racing (Casual, Email), Hasbro 2000 – Designer
Nomads of Klanth (MMO Sim, PC online), AOL 1999 – Lead Designer
The SARAC Project (MMO Sim, PC online), So-Net Japan 1999 – Writer/Designer
Microsoft Fighter Ace (MMO Sim, PC online), Microsoft 1997 – Writer/Researcher
Air Attack (MMO Sim, PC online), VR-1 1996 – Researcher
G-Police (Sim, PSX/PC), Psygnosis 1997 – Writer/Designer
Beyond the Limit: Ultimate Climb (Adventure, PC), Microsoft 1996 – Designer
Touché: The Adventures of the Fifth Musketeer (Adventure, PC), US Gold 1996 – Writer
One Small Square: Backyard (Edutainment, PC/Mac), Virgin 1995 – Writer/Designer
The Legacy (RPG, PC), MicroProse 1993 – Pickup Writer
Fields of Glory (Strategy, PC), MicroProse 1993 – Writer/Voice Talent
Harrier Jump Jet (Sim, PC), MicroProse 1992 – Writer/Designer
B-17 Flying Fortress (Sim, PC), MicroProse 1992 – Writer/Researcher
Castles: The Northern Campaign (Strategy, PC), Interplay 1991 – Writer
Other Bibliography Posts
My Complete and Utter Warhammer Bibliography (Warhammer, WFRP, HeroQuest, AHQ)
My Complete and Utter Warhammer 40,000 Bibliography (WH40K, Adeptus Titanicus/Epic Scale)
Ubisoft’s AAA shooter Tom Clancy’s The Division is making a big splash in the industry, and this article from Gamasutra caught my eye.
It’s a question that becomes more significant as games become more photo-realistic: how to justify the gore and high body counts that are part and parcel of a high-end shooter. Another question, asked less often, is how to develop additional and alternative ways to create tension and challenge the player so that body count is not the only leg on the stool.
It reminds me of a crossroads that tabletop games faced in the mid-80s.
D&D was all about kicking in doors, slaying monsters, and collecting treasure, and then Call of Cthulhu came out, in which combat was almost never a good idea and the focus was on investigation, uncovering a backstory, and figuring out the best way to resolve a situation.
For a while, the tabletop RPG hobby was split into “irvings” (a British term of the time, equivalent to today’s “munchkin”) who loved to boast about their best kills and the obscenely high level of their character, and “rolegamers” who loved to boast about how they gamed for an entire weekend and never touched the dice once.
One of the things we tried to do with Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and the Enemy Within campaign in particular, was to take the best of both worlds. The deadliness of the combat system was a major tool in achieving this goal, since it forced players to think of more creative solutions to problems. The other vital components were a game system (range of skills, character types, spells, and equipment) and a design mindset (communicated through scenario design and, in our case, advice to GMs) that gave players a wide range of potential actions to choose from in any given situation.
Now I know that there are some fundamental differences between tabletop games and electronic games, but it is very interesting to see AAA shooters facing a choice, as a genre, that tabletop games encountered 30-odd years ago. Maybe there are some useful ideas from that time that can be used now, and maybe there will be some new solutions that leave everyone stunned. I can’t wait to see.