The Big Idea: James L. Cambias

One advantage writers get when they work in different fields of writing is more tools for their professional toolbox — but as James L. Cambias points out in this Big Idea for The Scarab Mission, not every skill is directly transferable from one medium to the next, and learning which tools this is true about is part of the trick.


My standard bio identifies me as a “writer and game designer.” Some might wonder why. It’s been nearly seven years since my last major game product came out (Weird War I from Pinnacle Entertainment Group, if you’re a completist), while in that time I’ve published four novels and a couple of short stories. Oh, sure, I have put up a couple of little self-published game products on DriveThru RPG, but when I go to my office or the nearest coffeeshop to “get some writing done,” it’s fiction I’m pretending to work on, not games.

Yet I still “identify” as a game designer for the same reason I also mention that I’m from New Orleans, even though I’ve now lived in Massachusetts longer than in Louisiana. It’s where I came from and part of who I am. My first paid writing work was a Car Wars article for Steve Jackson Games, and from 1991 to 2000 my primary job was cranking out adventures for game company house magazines, and then full-length game supplements for GURPS, HERO Games, Rolemaster, In Nomine, the old Star Wars and Star Trek roleplaying games, and Castle Falkenstein.

For a time I called myself the Destroyer of Game Companies, because every time I got into discussions with a publisher about a major game project, that was almost inevitably followed by the announcement that they were going out of business.

I learned a lot about the craft of writing. When I started, my chief advantage over other fan writers was an ability to research things using my wife’s access to academic libraries (no Wikipedia or Google Books in those days of dial-up Usenet). A side gig as a proofreader also meant my copy was very “clean” and didn’t need a lot of editorial attention. (As a side note, the only result of my attempt to set myself up as a freelance copy-editor for game companies was that one publisher got insulted when I sent him a markup of one of his print advertisements highlighting all the typos and grammatical errors.) Game writing gave me the chance to experiment with narrative voices, sentence structures, and creating imaginary worlds.

However, when I started writing fiction, my game experience wasn’t as big a help as I had thought. I could produce decent prose . . . but everything I knew about storytelling was wrong.

See, in games, the characters generally follow an upward trajectory. They gain resources, abilities, allies, and a better understanding of the game world. They learn to defeat tougher enemies. It’s a pretty decent metaphor for adolescence, which is still the prime age for getting into gaming.

Whereas in fiction, a character who goes from strength to strength is kind of boring. We want to see our heroes endure hardship, make sacrifices, get stripped of their powers and assets and status until they have nothing left but their own wits and courage. I had to learn to do that.

Yet there is still an influence on my fiction from games, and I cannot deny it. In my fantasy novel The Initiate, I deliberately set out to write about a character who does “level up” throughout the story, gaining magical knowledge and power as he battles his way up through a secret hierarchy of evil wizards. The trick is that he is constantly giving up his humanity as he does so, getting more and more like the villains he opposes.

It also doesn’t take a genius to see an influence from games on my latest novel, The Scarab Mission. It’s about an oddball crew of treasure-hunters exploring a ruin full of enemies, deathtraps, and hidden dangers. Sound familiar? All it needs is a map gridded off into ten-foot squares. Sure, it’s a derelict space colony rather than an underground complex, but I know a dungeon crawl when I see one.

But I haven’t forgotten my lessons about storytelling. The characters in The Scarab Mission may acquire loot and defeat traps, but they also need to make sacrifices and hard choices, and by the end are reduced to their personal essentials. My protagonist Solana has to defeat her nemesis without any “magic items” at all, despite living in the Tenth Millennium when magical-seeming technology is more common than dirt.

Game writing helped me make it as a writer, and I’m never going to give it up entirely. I still run a weekly roleplaying campaign. Lessons from gaming are useful in fiction — and some tools of fiction are valuable in gaming. But they are distinct genres, if not entirely different art forms, and must be approached on their own terms.

The Scarab Mission is probably the closest thing I’ve written to a “game novel,” but it’s definitely a novel, not a roleplaying game. I hope you all enjoy it.

The Scarab Mission: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site.

4 Comments on “The Big Idea: James L. Cambias”

  1. I pre-ordered this from Amazon and it was a blast! I enjoyed Solana’s story, even though it made me uncomfortable at points, because bluntly idiots with money would try something like that. Kind of like Freya from Saturn’s Children, or the Marionettes from Quantum Magician.

    Anyway, it is a great book and I’ll re-read it again soon.

  2. I’m currently reading his “The Godel Operation” which I’m enjoying a lot, so that’s an easy addition to my TBR for me

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