He May Write TV, but JOHN ROGERS is Really Just a D&D Nerd
John Rogers on DUNGEONS & DRAGONS Comic
Dungeons & Dragons comics have been around since the 1980s, but IDW’s new take on the classic role-playing game looks to take the series to a whole new level with tales that will appeal to both hardcore fans and those who’ve never picked up a 20-sided die.
In November, IDW premieres a new ongoing D&D series written by star screenwriter John Rogers, creator of the hit TNT series Leverage and co-creator of Blue Beetle Jaime Reyes at DC Comics. Fans have already seen a preview of Rogers’ “Fell’s Five” in the special $1 Dungeons & Dragons #0 issue that came out in August, which has earned raves for its breezy dialogue and action-packed art by Andrea DeVito (Marvel’s Annihilation).
We decided to find out more about this new series…and test Rogers on his D&D-fu. We warn you – this gets hardcore. That’s right – this is an advanced Dungeons & Dragons interview.
Newsarama: John, tell us about the basic storyline and characters for your series. Will you be writing just one storyline, or is this ongoing?
John Rogers: The characters are Fell’s Five, a group of adventurers working as swords for hire and problem-solvers in the isolated mountain town of Fallcrest. Adric Fell is their leader -- he’s a veteran of the last border war, brighter than he looks and not as charming as he thinks. He’s a skilled swordsman and a sharp strategist, but his main skill is keeping his fractious group of adventurers focused for longer than five minutes at a time.
They’re all a little rough around the edges. Khal the dwarf is a lovestruck paladin. Varis the elf has an ... interesting and odd secret that means he doesn’t spend time with other elves. Tisha -- well, tieflings are considered a cursed race that consorted with demons, so she spends a lot of time both complaining bitterly about that stereotype and then slinging dark energies around a moment later. A little tricky for her to keep the high ground there.
And Bree ... ah, she’s just a murderous lout. But she’s our murderous lout.
Some people were a little surprised that I developed the most standard adventuring party I could come up with. But that was the point -- I want it to be familiar. I want people who kinda sorta know fantasy to see it and go “Hey, dwarves and elves and swords. Sure, I’ll give it a try.”
And then they’re in for the weird bend we wind up putting on the characters. Just like -- and again, this is intentional, part of the design -- the way D&D players take character classes and make those PC’s their own. I wanted to play with the tropes.
I honestly think that one of the reasons fantasy comics have had a hard time is because they try to ape the epic scope of fantasy literature, and frankly, can’t. It’s a different medium. There’s atill a big world out there in the background, but we see it all through the eyes of five very scrappy, practical adventurers. A bit more of Erickson’s Bridgeburners or the Black Company than Lord of the Rings.
The first storyline begins when our guys are accused of murdering zombies (yeah, you heard that right), and leads us through shapeshifting assassins and interdimensional hijinks. All in, it’s about a year of plot for the first arc.
Rogers: I’ve written a bit for the 4th Edition of D&D, and I’m pretty publicly known as an advocate and fan of role-playing games. So Denton (Tipton, the editor) and the IDW guys were nice enough to give me a call when they were developing the book.
Having written Blue Beetle, they knew I had monthly experience under my belt, and they wouldn’t have to educate me about the game or the world.
Nrama: Okay John, defend your D&D street cred. Go hardcore with your gamin’ credentials. We’re all comic fans here, we can handle it.
Rogers: Khal Khalundurrin, the dwarf in the book, is named after a character I played for three years. I can tell you why I prefer 2d10 to d20 (but 3d6 is kinda harsh). I ran the game that introduced Andy Cosby, creator of the SyFy show Eureka to Third Edition. I used 3rd Ed and Spycraft, along with Wolfgang Bauer’s Dark Matter to cobble together my own modern gaming system.
When I was shooting the season finale of Leverage, I skyped into my biweekly D&D game. I can tell you who won the Ennies this year. I have a bag of dice in my car. I roll old school.
Nrama: I know the cartoon’s outside of the IDW books, but were you down with Eric, Venger and that crew? That thing scared the crap out of me as a kid.
Rogers: As well it should. The whole series was a dream that occurred, in just a few seconds, in Bobby’s oxygen-starved brain when the carnival ride they were on went off the rails and crashed.
Wait, you didn’t get that?
Nrama: Ummmmm…so, Andrea De Vito -- hugely underrated artist, big fan here going back to Annihilation and the CrossGen stuff like Brath. How familiar were you with Andrea’s work before this? What’s your collaboration been like so far?
Rogers: I knew him from CrossGen -- man, they had a hell of a stable of art humans, didn’t they? Guice on Ruse and, who did Way of the Rat? ... hold on, I want to look that up ... Jeff Johnson and Ryder, of course, I’m an idiot.
What I love is that Andrea gets it -- he’s drawing people who fight for a living. The world’s not too shiny, but it’s not fun-killing grunge, either. His people look like people, and he’s got a lovely touch with a joke. A couple times I’ve called out specific shots in panels, and he’s always gone above and beyond.
Nrama: The preview was a lot of fun -- in fact, before I saw your name on this, I thought, “Wow, this is sort of like Leverage with a dungeon crawl.” How did you decide on this sort of caper approach to the story? It really reminded me of what it’s like to watch people sit around and play a RPG, but, you know, actually doing stuff instead of...playing. Roles. That got away from me.
Rogers: Then it worked. Again, I think, personally, the best way to do transmedia is to know what the hooks are in the original idea. If people want big-concept fantasy fiction, there’s a ton of great books out there for them.
But if people want fun, serialized storytelling in a world they know -- just like they create in their weekly D&D games -- then we’re the book. At the same time, if you’re a comic book reader who doesn’t game, you can read this and say “Hey, fun story. I like these guys. Maybe I should try this game.”
The book is very much built along how I’d run a campaign. Start in action, put the PC’s in a bind, and then make the solution to every problem lead to a bigger problem. Hell, that’s the way I write TV too. I am, in the end, a pulp writer and this is a pulp book.
Nrama: Which of the crew is your favorite character to write and why?
Rogers: I think it’s a little early yet. I like how Adric is hard-done by, and in Varis I’ve tried to get away from the “mysterious elf” tone. He’s a bit of a shit-disturber, actually. He would not speak of ethereal crap while gliding next to you in a glowing city.
In D&D, that’s the Eladrins’ job. He’s a guy who kills things with axes and likes to travel. Varis is actually the funniest, in a dry way.
Nrama: How did you develop Fell, and do you have a favorite of the Five?
Rogers: I have a chunk of friends and family who’ve been in the military, and the thing is, they’re all funny sonovabitches. I mean, really, nobody quite gets that whole “SNAFU-FUBAR dryly amused” thing quite like they do.
So Adric’s that guy -- a guy used to being thrown into weird situations, making things up as he goes along, and keeping his cool when it all goes to hell. He’s not Conan, and he doesn’t talk tough.
He’s a guy with a job that occasionally requires brief, intense bursts of violence. He’s ruthlessly efficient when he has to be -- he gets his people out alive. That’s a guy I’d want in my corner.
I think Bree is my favorite just because I can always throw her the nastiest line. At one point she considers making a raft out of orphans.
Rogers: That’s the Wizards of the Coast guys. It’s a mix of character stats for people occurring in the books and then one-offs. They’ll do those in house, as they’re the rules experts, as they see the scripts and books come down the production pike. And even separate from those materials, I hope some GM’s find cool, stealable stuff in the book itself.
Nrama: How do you feel writing comic scripts has affected the way you approach a screenplay -- and vice-versa?
Rogers: I always tell this story. I finished writing my first eight-pager for BOOM! years ago, and the first thing I did when I turned it in was email Mark Waid and Warren Ellis. And I said “This is the hardest goddam writing I have ever done in my life. Full stop.”
I mean, you’re basically writing, directing, and editing as you go. In a script I can say “Two people walk into a room” and then type dialogue, and the director chooses the angles and the actors find the performances and the production designer finds the room they’re in -- comics writing, you’re doing all that. Like you’re editing the movie as you’re writing it. Brutal.
It’s definitely made my screenwriting more visual. I find I try to lock into an “anchor image” for each scene, like the establishing panel or the splash page vibe in a comic.
Nrama: What are your favorite fantasy books/movies/etc. outside of D&D? Bonus points if you can say what a “Vermithrax Pejorative” is without Googlin’.
Rogers: You stumped me on Vermithrax. Although when I say it out loud, I know I’ve heard it before. And I mean “heard”. An 80’s movie, maybe.
Newsarama note: He’s close! See the bottom of this piece for the answer!
Okay, limiting to fantasy, not diving into steampunk fantasy or anything ... I really liked Richard Morgan’s book, The Steel Remains. I loved book one of the Joe Abercrombie “First Law” series, and then had problems with the ending of the trilogy, but man can he write. Glotka is one of my favorite fictional characters in recent years.
It’s trite to say Game of Thrones, but yeah, I’m waiting with the rest of you. Ah, Erickson’s Malazan series, I really dug Wies and Hickman’s Death Gate cycle ... does Discworld count? Of course it does. Pratchett, then.
Oh, and this may be a bit controversial because it’s pretty meta, but if you strip away the meta, I’d argue that Rich Burlew’s Order of the Stick webcomic is one of the most entertaining, engaging, emotional, and wonderfully plotted longform fantasy stories of our time.
Nrama: With all your TV work, what’s the trick to working in comic writing, and do you have more comic projects outside of this...that you can talk about, anyway?
Rogers: It’s like TV – the monthly train never stops. There’s a saying I beat into my baby writers on Leverage: “The key to successful television production is the timely delivery of scripted material.” I hadn’t been on a monthly for a while, and Denton did a great job of whipping me back into shape.
I’ve got some funky webcomics stuff coming up, just because I’m a tech geek and I want to see what I can do in the new delivery systems with stories that don’t quite fit anywhere else. Stay tuned for that later in the year.
Nrama: Hard-sell our readers on your D&D comic – D&D fans, non-D&D fans, anyone you can think of. Go for the gusto! I don’t know what that means, but it was in a Calvin & Hobbes strip once.
Rogers: Do you like swordfights? Of course you do! Do you like Monsters? Of course you do! How about scraggly heroes putting a right kicking to evil? And then there’s the magic and giant ancient forests and crystal ghost cities and shapeshifting murderers and people who travel the world in search of interesting trouble!
No nine-panel pages of talky-talk, no continuity porn sending you to Wikipedia. Just a pulp adventure of humor, bloodshed and treasure! It’s an adventure a month! Are you not entertained?!
Nrama: What’s next for you?
Rogers: Fourth season of Leverage, and a few movie offers kicking about. But this new media thing is really interesting me. If my partners and I can crack the tech and make it easier for other people to publish, well then, that’s time well spent.
Nrama: Anything else you’d like to talk about that we haven’t discussed yet?
Rogers: I’d like to do more fantasy in mainstream medium like TV. Somehow, you can develop a science fiction show and nobody blinks an eye, but fantasy is still a hard sell. And science fiction is just fantasy in the other direction in time. So, I’m really rooting for Game of Thrones to crack the market a bit.
Roll the dice with John Rogers on Dungeons & Dragons this November.
Also, “Vermithrax Pejorative” was the dragon in Dragonslayer, but we’ll let this one slide.