The Gutter Prayer is quite possibly the most exciting and extraordinary fantasy novel of 2019, and is certainly a favourite for us here at Wyrd Daze.
The city has always been. The city must finally end.
When three thieves – an orphan, a ghoul, and a cursed man –
are betrayed by the master of the thieves guild, their quest for revenge uncovers dark truths about their city and exposes a dangerous conspiracy, the seeds of which were sown long before they were born.
Cari is a drifter whose past and future are darker than she can know. Rat is a Ghoul, whose people haunt the city’s
underworld. Spar is a Stone Man, subject to a terrible
disease that is slowly petrifying his flesh.
Chance has brought them together, but their friendship could be all that stands in the way of total armageddon.
As a game designer you’ve worked within many fiction universes, including Traveller, Paranoia, Babylon 5, The Laundry RPG, 13th Age, and various Lovecraft-themed systems. Can you tell us about some of your favourite pieces of writing and game mechanics that you’ve produced throughout your career?
Career highlights? Hmm. The Dracula Dossier (with Kenneth Hite) is probably the best thing I’ve done, and certainly the most ambitious. We took Bram Stoker’s Dracula and turned it into an alarmingly plausible spy story spanning more than a century of intrigue and horror, a campaign that’s both entirely player-driven and leads towards a single climatic confrontation with the man himself…
Getting to write in Middle-earth on Cubicle 7’s The One Ring was also a joy, telling tales of Mirkwood and the Lonely Mountain, of Moria and Minas Tirith. I’ve been a Tolkien fan since my mother introduced me to it at age eight.
PARANOIA was a chance to work on a much-loved property, one that’s terrifying relevant to the present day. I’m very proud of some of the missions I wrote for that line. Really, though, you have to find love in what you’re doing when you’re a freelancer, to find that spark of excitement and nurture it.
How did you start your career as a game designer?
I’d done a little freelancing as a hobby, while working in a Real Grown-Up Job as a programmer. Then the company I was working for downsized, and I thought I’d try freelancing until my savings ran out. They haven’t, yet. I didn’t plan this as a career, certainly.
How has your experience in game design shaped you as a writer?
Some skills cross over perfectly. World-building works the same way in both fields; ditto descriptive prose. Supporting characters, too. The big differences are in plotting and characterisation. In a game or adventure, you want to have multiple paths through the story, lots of options for the players to take, places for the players to add to the story. In a piece of fiction, you want the most compelling, dramatic path, which isn’t the same route at all. And in a game, the players provide the protagonists and you build the story around those constraints. In a novel, it’s all up to you.
What advice concerning story structure/plot and character design would you give to aspiring writers or game designers?
You know, I suspect open-ended questions like that always end up being prompts for the interviewee to write about what’s currently pre-occupying them. For example. my current answer is “don’t be afraid of simplicity – a compelling story doesn’t need tons of twists and revelations to be compelling”. I offer that as general advice, but I think I’m really subconsciously telling myself something about my current work-in-progress…
Are there any other fictional universes that you’d particularly like to write for?
I’d love to do something with Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood series.
Will there be a Black Iron Legacy RPG?
I think so, in some form. I don’t know if it’ll warrant a full-scale sourcebook, or a short supplement for D&D5E or some other open system, or just a free guide on my website. I’ll do something with it, certainly. It’s an obvious step!
The majority of The Gutter Prayer is told in the present tense. What drew you to tell the story from this perspective?
Partly, because I knew that a lot of the book would be about stuff that happened in the past of the city, and I wanted to contrast those deep dives into Guerdon’s history and archaeology with what was happening now. Partly because it felt comfortable. The prologue is second person present, which is the vernacular of a roleplaying gamesmaster – “you descend into the dungeon, and you see the dragon…”
What were your inspirations for the city of Guerdon?
The architecture of Edinburgh, the size and complexity of London, the ambition of turn-of-the-century New York, and – very roughly – the geography of Cork. New Crobuzon, Ambergris, Waterdeep. They’re all in there.
There are a variety of strange, wondrous and terrifying beings in The Gutter Prayer: Tallowmen, Gullheads, Ravellers, Singers, Saints, Crawling Ones, Kept Gods, and Fever Knights – were these all created from scratch for the novel, or have they been haunting you for longer?
Oh, it’s a mix. Tallowmen and Gullheads I originally wrote up for an obscure RPG supplement under different names. The Crawling Ones are straight out of Lovecraft. A lot of the others came name first, concept later. I threw the words Fever Knight down on a page, and he showed up a few chapters later.
The Gutter Prayer is set in the midst of armageddon, with the Godswar raging and the city of Guerdon teetering on the brink of a world gone mad. Who are these mad gods, and what happened to them?
There are lots of mad gods. The exact origin of the madness is obscure, but it’s sort of a viral idea or infection. In the world of The Gutter Prayer, gods cannot die – but they can be broken down to the point of almost non-existence. They’re not truly conscious, either – they’re more like magical patterns of thought and purpose that humans can tap into. The Godswar is another pattern, one that reminds the gods that there are other gods out there, and that their patterns are incompatible. The result is a lot of violent, paranoid, deities imperfectly channeling this pattern through human vessels.
Does the world have a name, and a map?
There’s a map, at least of the area around Guerdon. The world doesn’t have a name. I should probably get around to that…
As The Black Iron Legacy grows beyond the first novel, have you developed an overarching plot for the greater story, and do you have an idea of how many books there might be in the series?
If all goes according to plan, it’ll be five books. I’m trying to keep each book sort-of self-contained, although that’s proving trickier as I write books 3 and 4. The Black Iron Legacy keeps the focus on the Thay family, on Cari and Eladora. I could do more in the same setting, I suppose, if I went off and followed other strands of story.
What sparked your imagination when you were a youngling?
I don’t know if sparked is the right work. Often, for me anyway, imagination is more like a river. It’s always flowing – sometimes fast, sometimes slow. On a good day, you can just dip a waterwheel in and it’ll power whatever mechanism you attach. Sometimes, odd stuff falls into it and gets carried for a long long time until it finds its place. Some ideas have been lurking in the back of my head for many, many years, and are still waiting for the right place to rest.
To what extent does a sense of place affect your writing?
I think I come at place through space and function – all things had a purpose, once, even if it’s now been lost. I’m enchanted by digressions into the past, and by spatial relationships – and especially by spots where they cross over. Spaces are static – places are given meaning by the people who live there, and have lived there.
It strikes me, as I write this, that I’m talking entirely about artificial places, about cities and buildings and settlements. I suppose I’ve always lived in cities and towns, so my instincts are urban.
How do you handle unruly characters that want to do their own things or change the course of the story in unexpected ways?
Run with it. It’s the advice I’d give in roleplaying games, and it applies equally well here. Inspiration is always worth chasing, at least for a little while.
As someone who harnesses imagination for a living, do you have any philosophical or spiritual views on the serendipity of ideas?
Inspiration is basically banging rocks together and looking for a spark, so you need plenty of rocks. Especially in fantasy books, you can add all sorts of weird asides and quirks to your story without knowing how they’ll fit in later on. Often, you’ll solve plot problems by taking something that you originally thought was a minor bit of background flavour and promoting it to a fuller plot element. But you need that background flavour to begin with. So, don’t be afraid to scatter rocks in first drafts.
Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan is a writer and game designer. Originally qualified as a computer programmer, he took a three month break to see how “this writing thing” would go. More than fifteen years later, he’s still on that break.
The writing thing seems to be going.
Gareth has published more role-playing games and supplements than he can even recall, including the award-winning The Laundry RPG, Adventures in Middle Earth and The Dracula Dossier.
He describes writing as “the process of transforming tea and guilt into words”. His debut novel, The Gutter Prayer was published by Orbit Books in 2019.
Its sequel, The Shadow Saint is due in January 2020.
Gareth lives in Cork, Ireland
with more dogs, children and fish than he ever anticipated.
“A Guided Walking Tour of Guerdon”
can be read on his blog