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Meet Ben Aaronovitch, Author of Rivers of London

Ben Aaronovitch, author of the Rivers of London novels and graphic novels, kindly agreed to talk to me about his magical world and the upcoming RPG by Chaosium set in his world. Ben smiled, joked, and laughed throughout the interview and shared his joy of fiction and geeky things as if we were old friends. I thoroughly enjoyed hearing his thoughts and anecdotes and could only distill a small portion here to share. I hope he comes to Gen Con someday and I can buy him a beer. Big thanks also to Michael O’Brien of Chaosium for setting up the interview and to Ben’s PA Anne Hall for connecting me via Zoom with Ben and getting the interview sorted.

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Charles Dunwoody (CD): Thanks for talking to me about your Rivers of London book series and the upcoming Rivers of London RPG. What inspired you to build the world of Rivers of London and tie it initially to the constables of London?
Ben Aaronovitch (BA):
I’m a Londoner. It would be silly of me to set it in Birmingham because I don’t know anything about Birmingham. I wanted to do a police procedural. Ed McBain, a big influence, said the big problem with private detectives is you have to spend the first third of the book explaining how he happens to be involved in a case that no private detective would be anywhere near. With a policeman you just need them to turn up to work in the morning. Policing is blue collar or a working class organization especially in London. I like the idea of working class wizards. Magic cops basically. Gandalf joins the Sweeney. Got out of hand from there.

CD: What is your experience playing table top roleplaying games and what games have you played?
BA:
I haven’t played since the 80s, maybe early 90s. I buy RPGs to read them. Some RPGs are the crack cocaine of research material for writers. Like Call of Cthulhu and GURPs world books. They have the information you really want if you’re a writer because you can read a history book but it won’t tell you what people are eating. Whereas a GURPs world book will tell you what people had for dinner. I was a Call of Cthulhu and Traveller guy. Call of Cthulhu for the historical detail. The feeling of realism. Weirdly, it being Call of Cthulhu. I was attracted to Basic Roleplaying (BRP) because it is a system I know. Dresden Files used Fate which is a perfectly good system but I’m comfortable with BRP. I know what 80% is for a skill. So I’ve always liked percentage systems although someone explained to me that percentage dice don’t really express percentages which was depressing to me.

CD: Why did you go with Chaosium to create an RPG based on Rivers of London?
BA:
I didn’t approach Chaosium, they approached me. It doesn’t work like that because the profit margins are so narrow on RPGs that they don’t take a punt on you unless they think they can sell it. They are a high input high quality product but they don’t have a huge market. When I went to my agent and said I wanted to make a roleplaying game he asked if we would make any money on it. I said we won’t make any money on it. Do not expect a big fee. But it will be a wonderful vanity project and it will be a beautiful glossy full color book full of illustrations. There will be a map of the Folly. I had to draw one for the comics because artists are weird that way, they want to know where the doors are and things.

CD: How important is exploring the past to building a modern magical London? For example the past is a big building block for Rivers of London as seen through interactions with ghosts and experiences in the past.
BA:
There’s the old joke about American and British people that for British people 200 miles is a long way and 200 years is a short time and for Americans it’s the other way around. London is packed with history. As a city it is just under 2000 years old. It has had a long time to accumulate ghosts if you like. History is everywhere in London. It is like breathing. You don’t have to think oh I’ll put in some history. The fact that you’re setting something somewhere called Charing Cross is history. Something called the Old Gate which is the old gate. All of these things are just there intrinsically as part of the story.

CD: What is your favorite bit of story or world building you’ve created for Rivers of London?
BA:
I don’t have a favorite, I have persistent bits that won’t go away. I’m very fond of the rivers. I’m very fond of Detective Constable Guleed. I’m very pleased with the New York Public Library magicians. There is a TV show about magical librarians which I hadn’t seen. If you’re walking in NY where would modern wizards live? In the Main Branch, that large library. I love Abigail. I love Peter. I love Beverly. I love them all. Not putting all of them in every book is my problem. They all fight and they all complain and they want more space and I say no. Otherwise the book would be a 1000 pages long. Ahhhh!.

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CD: There are many more stories on the way in a variety of mediums such as novels, graphic novels, an RPG, and TV coming for Rivers of London. What excites you the most of these upcoming projects?
BA:
(Ben laughed a bit about possibility of a TV series actually happening. Ben has written TV scripts himself). I call it trading in TV series. You open a box and it might be a TV series or there might not. Who knows?! I’ve learned to write prose. Two to three novels in five years which is actually quite a lot of novel. I love novellas. I didn’t like novellas as a reader. I’m not paying for that, it’s too short! But as a writer you getting about half through and you’re getting bored. Well not bored but you’re thinking I’m only halfway there. But with a novella you get there and you’re done. You get to the point where it is just getting to be hard work and you’ve finished it, which is nice. Also, it lets me get the other characters into the stories. I can do a novella about other characters without my agent or my publisher screaming at me. Because publishers are very conservative, they want the same thing. Same thing only slightly different! That’s what they want. They don’t fit. I couldn’t get the German detective into the British stories. I couldn’t think of a way that wasn’t so boringly contrived. The novellas also let me use different voices as well, as they are all written slightly different. This allows me to do something that I can’t do in the other books because people want the books to have a certain consistency. And Peter has a certain voice. I use the novellas for fun.

Same thing with graphic novels. You can do things in graphic novels that you can’t do in books and you can do things in books that you can’t do in graphic novels. I didn’t want to do graphic novels based on the books. You can do things with time and displacement and visual irony. The best example is that there’s this joke that I put into the second graphic novel Nightwitch that I couldn’t have put into a novel and it’s the one where Beverly phones up Peter and says have you pissed off the Russian mob? Right and he says no why do you ask? Oh, no reason. And you have the big splash page where she’s brainwashed all the Russian mob into cleaning up her house. You just couldn’t do that in a novel, you couldn’t do that even if you weren’t writing a first person novel. It would be impossible to do that cut (snaps his fingers). That cut is just lovely. You could do it in a film or on TV but you can’t do it in a novel.

CD: Thank you for discussing Rivers of London RPG with me. Any final comments you’d like to share with the readers of EN World?
BA:
I’m going to echo Lynne (Lynne Hardy from Chaosium). Why should you play a modified BRP system for Rivers? You could knock up your own house system. However, this will be a system tailored to fit the atmosphere. BRP is designed to be modular and it is fluffy. More about fluff than crunch. That suits Rivers of London: the atmosphere, the environment, the little details of life. The basic book will have two modes of play: playing as a British police officer or an American. American will be more like tooling around in a muscle car and monster hunting. It will be uniquely Rivers of London monster hunting rather than Supernatural. Although I did point out (to Chaosium) that it is a good excuse for driving around in an antique muscle car in that it doesn’t have an electronic ignition system (moves hands like he’s driving), so it can’t be messed up by magic.

CD: This interview will be good for EN World. I think sometimes it’s good to get outside just the RPG world and see a little bigger world building.
BA:
Ha! You’re trying to get out. I’m trying to get in. I did take the opportunity to ask if I can raid Chaosium’s warehouse so therefore I could get my hands on whole piles of Chaosium stuff. Like Masks of Nyarlathotep, that’s the size of a large bookcase. It is a long way from the little paper books with staples. I sometimes actually miss opening an RPG book and just getting two columns, black on white, easy on the eye. This new RPG is just too busy, I can’t take all the color! (Big laugh). (Responding to my thanking him and saying I like world building in novels also not just RPGs): It (novel writing) is the crack cocaine of world building. If you’re so inclined.
 
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Charles Dunwoody

Charles Dunwoody




Paragon Lost

Terminally Lost
Supporter
Love it. I can hardly wait for the BRP product to come out. Ben's a fun author to read and I've always been a fan of BRP system so I feel that it's a great fit to use BRP.
 


As soon as I saw the name, that's what I thought too. I like how the interview says he's "written TV scripts himself". Yeah, among Remembrance of the Daleks, which is usually considered one of the best stories of the final years of the original series...
Yeah, I couldn't include everything in the interview and we did concentrate on Rivers of London. Rivers of London is a huge property itself and I really couldn't squeeze everything just about that into this interview. We focused on some of his most current work. I allowed his knowledge of and skill in writing to speak for itself, especially his compare and contrast of novel writing to other types of writing.
 

jeffh

Explorer
although someone explained to me that percentage dice don’t really express percentages which was depressing to me.
Anyone know what this is referring to? I can't think why they wouldn't.

(I've met people who think they don't because they've had it drilled into their heads that multiple dice = bell curve, but don't really understand the underlying math - they know this is generally true but don't understand why it's generally true and how those reasons don't apply to percentile rolls...)
 

Anyone know what this is referring to? I can't think why they wouldn't.

(I've met people who think they don't because they've had it drilled into their heads that multiple dice = bell curve, but don't really understand the underlying math - they know this is generally true but don't understand why it's generally true and how those reasons don't apply to percentile rolls...)

I didn't ask him, but 2d10 technically generates numbers from 0-99. You have a tens and a ones so you can't really get three digits (100) on two dice. Not sure if that is what he means.
 

jeffh

Explorer
I didn't ask him, but 2d10 technically generates numbers from 0-99. You have a tens and a ones so you can't really get three digits (100) on two dice. Not sure if that is what he means.
Most, though not all, games that use percentile dice solve this problem with the convention that 00 is read as 100, rather than 0. This includes old-school D&D among many other examples.
 

MarkB

Legend
Anyone know what this is referring to? I can't think why they wouldn't.
It could have just been a misunderstanding - someone explaining the "bell curve" effect of rolling two dice and adding the totals, and then mistakenly applying that to rolling percentile dice.
 

jeffh

Explorer
It could have just been a misunderstanding - someone explaining the "bell curve" effect of rolling two dice and adding the totals, and then mistakenly applying that to rolling percentile dice.
As I went on to say in the rest of the same post...
 

Most, though not all, games that use percentile dice solve this problem with the convention that 00 is read as 100, rather than 0. This includes old-school D&D among many other examples.

Yep that is how to roll 1-100. I was just guessing to provide one possible answer your question not questioning how the dice are actually rolled.
 

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