Patrick Rothfuss’ Advice for First-Time DMs and Other Highlights from NYCC

“I have no idea who you are,” an audience member said during one of the Q&A portions of NYCC’s Patrick Rothfuss spotlight—prompting uproarious laughter from the attendees and the epic fantasy author himself. “My friend has been talking about you for a year,” the person went on, “drags me here—you’re hysterically funny—I still don’t know what you write.”

“Well, a lot of people know me from the gaming community,” Rothfuss responded, adding that “if people know of me because of books, it’s because I write fantasy books. Heroic fantasy,” he clarified, casting about for a subgenre, “epic fantasy, big thick fantasy.”

While Rothfuss did take questions about The Kingkiller Chronicle during the spotlight (sorry, no book 3 updates), the most entertaining moment of the night was when he took a question about that other facet of his life—Dungeons & Dragons, specifically, advice for first-time DMs.

“To clarify,” Rothfuss began, to the laughter of attendees spotting the punchline ahead, a DM is of course a Dungeon Master—no, not that kind of Dungeon Master. But then there was a shared moment of wait, this joke could have legs, and the author known for hiding secret meanings in his prose launched into what turned into a rather hilarious series of double entendres.

“My advice for running a dungeon: It’s always important to think about the people that have come to it.”

“You’ve gotta think, what do these people really want, and that requires a lot of very clear communication.”

“You have to ask very specific questions.”

“Sometimes people will want to play a character, and that’s fine, so long as everyone is clear as to the nature of that character, and the motivations of that character. Sometimes the motivations can remain secret for a while, but they’ll come out through the course of play.”

“Although you are technically in charge of this experience, it’s really in many ways for them. And if you forget that, [if] you just think that you’re there for yourself, then everyone isn’t gonna have a really good time. Everyone is supposed to have a good time.”

“Now, some people will say that you have to know all the rules […] and the truth is, being familiar with the rules is helpful, but to think that ‘oh, you need to read all the books before you get into a situation’—no, a lot of times there’s a lot of more freeform play, and sometimes if you learn too many of the rules ahead of time, it sort of limits the creativity that you can have when you get together, because they assume you can only do this or do that…”

And there you go—valuable advice no matter what kind of dungeon you’re in!

Update: Penguin Random House kindly provided us with a video of the entire panel!

Rothfuss was more succinct with answers to other questions:

  • Has he heard any of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s music for the Kingkiller Chronicle TV series? “Yes.”
  • Do his characters talk to him when he writes them? “No.”
  • Who’s the hardest character to write? “Denna.”
  • His books make frequent mention of filled silences—day to day, what fills his silences? “Therapy.”

When asked if he would consider another novella focusing on a particular character, like The Slow Regard of Silent Things did for Auri, Rothfuss responded, “Yeah, probably. I don’t have one planned right now, but it was fun to explore.” He did point out that “The Lightning Tree,” his novella featured in George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois’ collection Rogues, allowed readers to follow Bast around and see him on his own. “Those are fun stories to write,” Rothfuss said. “They help me explore the characters and the world in a different way.”

One of the more unexpectedly poetic answers came from a fan who has read The Kingkiller Chronicle translated from English to Hebrew, who asked how various puns and between-the-lines meanings survive translation.

“It’s always big,” Rothfuss said of the undertaking. “Any time you translate anything into a different language, it can’t be the same; and it’s especially a problem with my book because I use language in very particular ways, and I hide a lot of secrets in my books.”

So, how does he ensure that these secrets remain hidden in translations? By revealing them, and more, to translators. Rothfuss revealed that he has a “secret translator forum” in which translators can ask him questions about intended meanings and access important documents highlighting which seemingly incidental details are actually incredibly important later on.

“There’s a reason a lot of people read them more than once,” Rothfuss said after polling the audience as to how many times they’d reread the series (most hands at twice or three times, a few especially loyal fans all the way up to five reads). “There’s a lot in the books you simply cannot understand until you read it a second time; or things in Name of the Wind you can’t understand until you read The Wise Man’s Fear; or things in both of those that you can’t understand until you read Doors of Stone.”

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