Exclusive Interview: “The Runes Of Engagement” Authors Tobias S. Buckell & Dave Klecha


We’ve all had “you got chocolate in my peanut butter” thoughts, where you wonder what would happen if two seemingly disparate things came together. Like if Prince jammed with Black Sabbath. Or if someone made tacos with falafel.

Or, in the case of The Runes Of Engagement (paperback, Kindle), the new military sci-fi / fantasy novel by Tobias S. Buckell and Dave Klecha, what if marines went to Middle-earth.

In the following email interview, Buckell and Klecha discuss how this mash-up came together, and why they took is so seriously…and not seriously.

Tobias S. Buckell Dave Klecha The Runes Of Engagement

To start, what is The Runes Of Engagement about, and what kind of a world is it set in?

Tobias: So, imagine some Marines go through a portal to a generic fantasy world, with the usual suspects: trolls, dragons, elves, and so on. But everyone in the platoon has read The Lord Of The Rings, or played any given role-playing game, and maybe even been a DM for a D&D game. There’s a sense of meta-awareness about their environ that makes it fun, but we also spend a lot of time trying to make sure our characters would follow the manual on how to use an RPG in a firefight with a dragon.

Dave: If I can say something else about the world, it’s that we tried to make it somewhat unexpected, both for the characters and the readers. The characters’ meta-awareness works for and against them, sometimes in surprising ways, and playing with expectations was one of our favorite parts of the writing.

The other favorite part, as Toby indicates, was this mashup of adapting Marine Corps infantry weapons and tactics to fantasy monsters, such as employing, ahem, light machine guns in a firefight with a dragon.

So, who came up with the idea for this story?

Tobias: The novel began as a short story [“Rules Of Enchantment”] for an anthology that John Joseph Adams edited, Operation Arcana, calling for military fantasy. I pitched Dave the idea of a Marine squad getting stuck behind enemy lines in a bog-standard fantasy world, and Dave already had this super cool idea about showing an entire platoon using a sort of omniscient point of view. We fused that into a story about these Marines rescuing an elvish princess and bringing her back to base for their superiors as part of a diplomatic escort mission. After the story came out, we just kept talking about all the other cool ideas we could have written into it but didn’t, so then we started talking about keeping the story going.

Dave: Yeah, one of my observations during my military service was that different units could have different personalities, right down to the platoon, squad, even fire team level. And from that observation came the idea of treating units more like characters in a narrative.

When Toby came to me with the idea of Marines behind enemy lines in fantasyland, it just became a very natural fit, and something I could bring to the overall idea that would hopefully present a relatively unique twist on things. And when it came to expanding the story to a novel, sticking with this squad just made so much sense.

And what made you decide to write it together, as opposed to one of you writing on your own?

Tobias: The reason to work on it together was that the book is something bigger than just me, Dave’s ideas, talking over stuff with him. If you read this book, you know there’s a lot of joy in this project. And that joy comes from working with someone I really loved working with. The reason to do a project like this with someone is that you like their imagination, conversations with them, it’s a joint creation. I got to spend time scheming with someone I like to hang out with over the years.

Dave: For me, there has just always been a love of collaboration. I’m the rare (prose fiction) writer who really enjoys the process of hashing things out with someone else. Kicking around and building up ideas is such a joy for me, especially when it’s with someone like Toby who has phenomenal creative instincts and insights. We gelled as friends and conversation partners long before we ever wrote together, so I knew that bringing my own pieces into this project would be joyful and constructive, and that we’d end up with something more than the sum of its parts.

So, how was the work divided? Did Tobias come up with the plot points and Dave was in charge of the dialog? Did you trade chapters? Did you play “Team Deathmatch” in Call Of Duty and the winner got to write the next section?

Tobias: We began with a short story, which I mentioned. For the novel, we huddled up in a hotel and planned it out together over a long weekend in Detroit. Dave took the hit and did the first draft because I was working on another novel, and I took the second draft. We kept passing it back and forth until we were happy with it, and showed it to my agent, who then had suggestions.

I think this book has been through dozens of revisions, so at this point it’s hard to say what was written by any given person, I’m certainly long since unable to tell. All I know is that it still makes me laugh even though I’ve seen it dozens of times.

Dave: What was great about that process, too, was that I think we had surprisingly few iterations. The outline that we cooked up over that long weekend is basically the story we’ve got in the book right now. Some little tweaks here and there, but overall this was not a particularly arduous or convoluted process.

Now in the book, the story starts when dragons, trolls, and orcs come out of some portals, but really gets going when some marines go back through the portal into their world. Why did you decide to have this be about soldiers in the wrong place as opposed to soldiers dealing with creatures that are in the wrong place? Y’know, our place?

Tobias: Oh, we really wanted this to be in “fantasyland” because we’re both huge fans of Diana Wynn Jones’ A Tough Guide To Fantasyland, a book that critiqued a lot of lazy world building in fantasy novels (Rivers don’t work like that! Mountains can’t be there! Horses aren’t cars!) and frustrations we’ve had when grinding in video games. It’s what made all the meta stuff really fun for us to write.

Dave: Yeah, in some ways the natural habitat of a U.S. Marine (specifically) is in an unfamiliar location. It’s one of the Corps’ primary missions, especially when you consider their role as embassy security. But it’s just baked into the identity of the Marines as an expeditionary force, that they’re always going somewhere new and different and figuring things out on the fly.

Plus, I think that aspect of the only familiar thing around being each other helps highlight the character of each of the Marines (and the sailor) in the story, as they relate to each other, or fail to, one-on-one.

The Runes Of Engagement sounds like a military science fiction story, but one obviously set in a fantasy realm. Is that how you’d each describe it, genre-wise, or is there more to it?

Tobias: I’m hearing some people say “mass isekai” as a genre tag as well, which makes sense. There’s some early excitement about some Lit RPG readers enjoying it, but I don’t know if it fully sits in the same category, though it certainly shares some of the same influences and conversation. But there are more structures and expectations in Lit RPG that we aren’t in conversation with, but I can see why Lit RPG readers are curious as it’s not often something in conversation with those same elements comes out on physical shelves. There’s a lot that inspired us, from the original Lord Of The Rings to dungeon grinding games, but basically, it’s what it is on the side of the tin: Marines go to Fantasyland: chaos ensues.

Dave: “Isekai” in general has been a new one on me, lately, but I think that shows there’s an appetite and general appreciation for this kind of what-if mash-up.

I think the other emergent genre we touch on is one more common on YouTube these days, but that’s the “video game logic” genre. Like isekai, I didn’t discover it until we’d already finished the book, but the sensibility and aesthetic can be so similar to what we’re doing here it lets me know we’ve tapped into something.

It also sounds like it might not be that serious. Especially given that the back of the book says it, “…could only have sprung from the nerdy minds of a science fiction award-winner and an extreme amateur landscaper.” So…is it not so serious?

Tobias: I mean…the situation is not so serious, but everyone involved in it is serious as hell. When a dragon is bearing down on you and breathing fire, and all you have are some grenades and machine guns, what are you supposed to do? Dave? Save me here…

Dave: You’re on your own, bro.

Just kidding, I’ve got too many thoughts on this to pass on the opportunity here.

First off, let me say I regret ever including anything about extreme amateur landscaping escapades in my bio. It immediately became an impossible mantle to sustain, and I’ve since had to hang up my garden gloves. You see, I once was an adventurer like you, but then I took a paving stone to the knee… And that is the way I think we’re both serious and not at the same time. Military life and fantasy fiction / video games / etc. contain a wealth of absurdities and can lend a comic air at times to even the most dire situations. That doesn’t mean the situations aren’t serious, it just means it’s human nature to recognize the absurdities, and to alleviate pressure by making jokes about it.

So yeah, we’re telling a serious story of Marines in a dire situation and recognizing that it can be absurd and weird and funny at the same time.

So, then how not so serious is it, and why did you decide to not take this story super seriously?

Tobias: It’s one of things about humor. For the people in the situation, it ain’t all that funny. I hate the term sitcom, but it comes from “situational comedy,” and that’s a great way of helping to understand one method of doing humor. The people in the situation take it at face value, it’s all very serious to them. It’s the situation they’re in that the reader should be amused by.

One thing I often caution new writers about is trying to make the characters themselves funny or have them cracking jokes. The humor comes out of the world, or the situation.

Dave: It’s actually the same thing in acting. There’s a possibly-apocryphal story I love that came out of the making of the movie Airplane! As told, veteran actor Peter Graves is lamenting his lack of understanding of the script to fellow veteran actor Leslie Nielsen. At the time, both were known for fairly serious and straightforward roles, usually with a bit of gravitas. And Peter Graves couldn’t understand where the jokes were, how to make it funny. Leslie Nielsen then said to him something like, “We don’t tell jokes. We play it straight. And that’s what’s funny.” They weren’t set ’em up and knock ’em down jokes, they were absurd situations played with deadpan seriousness.

I think what we do a little differently is that our characters are slightly more aware of the absurdity of some of these things. We have at least a few arguments between characters about how things don’t make sense in fantasyland, but what was really funny to me is that I served alongside Marines who had similar gripes about the real world, our missions, and virtually every order we’d be given.

So, is there anyone who you feel had a big influence on the story’s lighter tone?

Dave: I don’t think there’s any one writer who influenced me in that respect, certainly, but my reading history is littered with folks who could tackle serious subjects with a lighter tone. In particular, though, I’d love to highlight Maximilian Uriarte, writer and artist of the Terminal Lance webcomic, as well as the graphic novels The White Donkey and Battle Born: Lapis Lazuli. I don’t remember exactly when I’d become aware of his work, but it was probably around the time of the first draft of the novel.

Aside from Maximilian Uriarte, what other writers, or maybe specific stories, do you both feel had a big influence on The Runes Of Engagement?

Tobias: Terry Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork novels were a touchstone for me in how to think about this world and the people in it. Full, serious characters who take the world they live in seriously, even if that world was one that creates wild and funny situations for the characters.

Dave: Can’t argue with that.

What about non-literary influences; was The Runes Of Engagement influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games? Because along with that line about the landscaper, the back of the book also says, “The Lord Of The Rings meets Call Of Duty.”

Tobias: We both game a lot, so we had a lot of fun calling out certain game mechanics that drive us nuts. I won’t name names, but let’s just say that grinding and side quests are made fun of.

Dave: Made fun of? Or engaged with lovingly? Two sides, same coin for me, I suppose.

I’ve alluded to it already, but there’s a bit where the characters actually do hit one of these “gather X things” quests and I feel like we got there so organically we actually help justify the very existence of quests like these in RPGs of all sorts. And yeah, it’s the influence of these games (and I’ll name my personal favorite, Lord Of The Rings Online) that really gives the story moments and scenes that the reader grab onto and recognize even though we’re not working in a specific fantasyland.

To otherwise answer the question, everything that was out in the world in terms of fantasy movies, TV, games, and so on were grist for the mill, but I don’t think anything specifically influenced us in terms of tone or structure. The TV show Stargate SG-1 was certainly in the back of my mind the whole time but primarily for the vibe of “US military in fantastical settings.”

Now, it sounds like The Runes Of Engagement could be a self-contained story, or it could be the first in a series…

Tobias: It could be either. If enough people love it, and if Dave wants to give it another run, there could be more books.

At this exact moment, I have no idea what comes next. I’m just happy we did it, we’re still friends, and that a really fun read is waiting for everyone.

Dave: I’m always down to continue the story. I certainly have the feeling that we only just scratched the surface in a lot of ways.

At the same time, I’m delighted with the story as it is, and if we never take it any further, I’m happy to love it for what it is.

You said earlier this all started with a short story. Is that story a prequel to the novel, or did you integrate what happens in that story into to the novel…? Because some people — by which I mean me — are probably wondering if they need to get that anthology and read the story before they dive into the novel, since it’s not included in the paperback version of Runes.

Tobias: The story is not a prequel, it now exists as the first few chapters of the novel, reworked from what it used to be. The novel stands completely on its own.

Dave: That said, it’s well worth reading on its own. Stylistically it’s a little distinct from the novel and I think it is its own little gem of a story, all by itself.

Earlier I asked if The Runes Of Engagement had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip things around, do you think Engagement could work as a movie, show, or game?

Tobias: Oh, with the success of the Dungeons And Dragons movie, which was exactly the sort of vibe we love, I’d love for someone to make this visual. It’s tight, great concept, and hella funny. But, I have so little control of that.

Dave: Yeah, it’s fun to fantasize about, but we have so little control over what might happen.

I will go a little further, though, and say that I do think it probably lends itself to the current TV adaptation landscape better (as is true for a lot of books), but there are plenty of brilliant filmmakers out there who could certainly bring it to the big screen in a satisfying way.

So, if someone wanted to make a movie or show based on The Runes Of Engagement, who would you want them to cast as the main characters?

Dave: The interesting thing about this, I think, is that the main characters are all really young. Even our “grizzled staff sergeant” character is probably late 20s / early 30s at best. Even with folks in Hollywood routinely playing younger than their actual ages, that cuts out a lot of people. That was one of the interesting things with something like Black Hawk Down or HBO’s Band Of Brothers mini-series. Both were almost literally incubators for young male actors, since the bulk of characters in each cast would have been early 20s, tops. Dozens of notable careers have come out of those two properties, but virtually everyone in both were unknown at the time. If Runes did make it to any kind of screen, I’d love to see similar treatment.

That said, there is one minor character for whom I have specific (and unrealistic) casting in mind for, which I think I’ve signaled adequately in the text. I’ll leave that as an Easter egg for the reader, though.

So, is there anything else you each think other people might need to know about The Runes Of Engagement before they buy it instead of the new Call Of Duty?

Tobias: You’ll laugh way more reading this than playing C.O.D. Just saying.

Dave: Way cheaper, too. For the price of C.O.D. you could buy two, give one to a friend, and have a lot of fun talking about it, dissecting references, and generally basking in the glow of a delightful book. Beats getting sniped from across the map by a 12 year old with too much time on their hands, anyway.

Tobias S. Buckell Dave Klecha The Runes Of Engagement

Finally, if someone enjoys The Runes Of Engagement, what sci-fi / fantasy mash-up that someone else wrote would you each suggest they check out?

Tobias: Check out Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, maybe Guards, Guards, or any of John Scalzi’s novels.

Dave: Definitely second those recommendations. I’d also suggest Genevieve Cogman’s Invisible Library series. I think it’s on pause right now, but there’s 8 books to go through, and they’re a delight in their genre mashing ways.

In other media, I’d recommend the YouTube creators Viva La Dirt League. They have several “video game logic” sketch comedy series that I think really engage with absurdity in a similar way. “Epic NPC Man” is one that focuses on fantasy RPGs and they’ve really built up the lore around it in a fun way.



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