Recently, we had the marvelous pleasure of sitting down with Lawrence Schick, former Loremaster of Zenimax Online Studios In this interview, we peer into the depths of Schick’s psyche, and hear what he has to say about his own experiences with The Elder Scrolls both before and after his tenure as Loremaster.
Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us!
What was your entry into games and fiction? Have you always been interested in them?
Stories and games were my things as far back as I can remember, and I have my late father to thank most for both of those: though he came from a working-class family in the Bronx, he was a huge reader, had been a fan of the hero and SF pulps as a youth, and when those stories starting getting widely reprinted in paperbacks in the sixties he would buy them and pass them on to me when he was done with them. And he loved card and board games, and introduced me to wargames when he brought home Avalon Hill’s first version of Gettysburg in 1964. When tabletop role-playing games came along a little over ten years later, they combined all my interests in one package.
You’ve got ties to some RPG classics like Dungeons and Dragons, tell us a little about that.
I was an early adopter of D&D, playing and co-running a campaign in Ohio with my friend Tom Moldvay from 1975 on. In 1978 I answered an ad from D&D’s publisher, TSR, who were looking for a game designer, I got hired and went to work for Gary Gygax in Wisconsin.
Given your persona as Lawrence Ellsworth and your contributions to Dumas scholarship, are there other sources you draw inspiration from when writing?
Yeah, I have way too many interests, I’d probably have been better off from a career standpoint in focusing on one or two things instead of a dozen. SF, fantasy, history, mysteries, movies, music, live-action role-playing games, science, mythology, and of course computer and video games all draw my attention. For the last few years, since I became a full-time single parent of my teenagers, it’s settled down into writing/designing/managing video games as a day job, and writing/editing/translating historical fiction on evenings and weekends. I’m currently mid-way through creating new, contemporary translations of all of Alexandre Dumas’s Musketeers novels, a project that will eventually fill eight volumes.
Moving into The Elder Scrolls, what was your first introduction to the series?
I kind of backed into it because I was the guy who got Ken Rolston, who was an old friend from tabletop RPG design, into working for video games in the early ‘90s. He went on to become lead designer on Morrowind, of course, but I didn’t really play it when it first came out because I was briefly distracted from video games by domestic matters—though my eldest son played Morrowind to death, so I heard all about it from him. I played Oblivion when it hit the Xbox, and then went back and experienced Morrowind.
Do you have a favorite subject in the lore? If so, what is it/what are they?
My favorite thing about Elder Scrolls lore is the rule, which was originally tacit but became explicit as the series progressed, that lore is delivered only through in-world sources such as characters, books, and journals. Every tidbit of background comes wrapped in the agenda of the person who’s conveying it to you, and I think that’s wonderful for a number of reasons. I love the practice that all lore is derived from culture, and there is no way to determine objective truth. In fact, in a world ruled by mythic gods in which history is actually malleable, it’s reasonable to say that objective truth doesn’t even exist.
What was your experience like in the transition to becoming the Loremaster?
It happened pretty organically: at first I was a Lead Content Designer, leading a zone development team, and I happened to find myself working on lore-heavy content that required doing research to get it right. Then our original Lead Writer left for family reasons, and as the most “writerly” of Content Leads I took over the position, which since it involved clearing all our main story matters with Bethesda Game Studios meant I had to immerse myself in Elder Scrolls lore, both past and future (BGS was working on Skyrim at the time). When a new Creative Director decided he wanted somebody he knew and trusted for his Lead Writer, making me the Loremaster just acknowledged what I was already doing.
Some of the early ESO lore development is often criticized for being unfriendly to established lore, however most of this was prior to your addition to the team. Was it difficult to try and reconcile potential inaccuracies with existing information? How involved was the process, and what did it demand of you? Was it all a simple transcription error?
Ah, “transcription error,” one of my more felicitous contributions to Elder Scrolls nomenclature! Listen, when ESO launched in 2014 it was a gigantic game, with content areas set in nearly every region of Tamriel, and most of that had been built in just the previous 24 months by five content teams working simultaneously at a breakneck pace. By the time the game launched, everything had been reviewed by somebody, but no one person had reviewed everything—I was probably as close to that ideal as anyone, but still there were a number of quests I simply hadn’t had time to play through before they went live. (Keep in mind that I was simultaneously working on future content and was already deep into Craglorn and Orsinium.) So a few things slipped through, like the ruins in Auridon that were attributed to Ayleids where they should have been Ancient Aldmeri. Fortunately, most of these mistakes were just slipups in terminology, and because ESO is a live game we were able to change them later. (Some never even got noticed!)
Elder Scrolls Online is very unique in regards to the modern TES games, as it contains multiple references to the older 90s games like Arena and Daggerfall, and it’s nice to see those remembered. As Loremaster, was it your idea to include more callbacks and expansion on earlier lore? And if so, why was that?
We did that because we [knew] the game was so gigantic, we decided to mine every possible source of pre-existing lore just so we would have names for everything. It seemed to us it would be more coherent if we looped in terms from TES 1 and 2 than if we just made up everything on the fly. A lot of place names from Arena sounded like they’d been invented by real-estate developers, which was a little embarrassing, so in those cases we just assumed they’d been “Imperialized” by later cartographers and devised more culturally appropriate analogs, like Gil-Var-Delle for Gilverdale.
Are there any contributions you’ve made to TES that you’re particularly proud of, specific writings or quests?
Too soon! I threw a whole lot of stuff up against the wall in my years as Loremaster—let’s wait and see what sticks. I certainly enjoyed writing most of the Beredalmo the Signifier books, such as “Aurbic Enigma 4: The Elden Tree” and “Once.” And I enjoyed creating Phrastus of Elinhir and his rival, Lady Cinnabar of Taneth. But let’s give it some more time.
Was there ever a time during the development of ESO that you came up with a brilliant idea but weren’t allowed to implement it? I’m sure the community would love to hear it!
Constantly! Lesser mortals continually thwarted me by refusing to recognize the genius of my brilliant ideas—the blind, mad fools! To give just one example, clearly Abnur Tharn will, by virtue of two centuries’ close contact with the Amulet of Kings, become mystically warped into that mad creature known to later history as Zurin Arctus. It’s obvious! But NOOOOOOOO.
How was the atmosphere and environment at Zenimax Online Studios? Were you ever scared that Todd Howard would walk in one day and stare at your screen from over your shoulder menacingly?
Nah, it was cool, we had a good, solid, professional relationship with the folks at BGS. Believe me, there are far more difficult I.P. owners to work with than Todd, Bruce, Kurt, Emil, and so on.
During your tenure, how important was community interpretation to your additions to the lore? Is fan work a common topic of conversation around the water cooler, so to speak?
Well, we were aware that we were working with a beloved intellectual property that had been created over a period of years by (in part) a feedback loop between developers and players, so we thought about that a lot. Also, keep in mind that ZOS was mostly staffed by experienced online multiplayer game devs who were familiar and comfortable with online gaming communities, so the passionate involvement of Elder Scrolls fans with the material came as a surprise to exactly no one. We knew what we were getting into (mostly).
Any particular fan works that stick in your mind?
I’m hesitant to cite any particular individual contribution, because that just slights all the other ones I didn’t mention, but rest assured the ESO devs were thrilled, absolutely thrilled, whenever something we put in the game was picked up by the players and expanded upon. So much superb fan work….
In the Writing AMA on /r/elderscrollsonline back in 2015, you mentioned that you found the fan project known as the Uutak Mythos a lot of fun. What other thoughts do you have?
Yeah, see above answer. There’s too much to name.
In your opinion, what’s the deal with worship of Syrabane prior to his apotheosis?
I think that when you’re dealing with mythical events like an apotheosis, meaning and symbolism carry far more weight than mundane facts, and you can throw concepts like “prior” and “after” out the window.
Some people think Trinimac is an analogue of Zenithar/Z’en/Zeht. Others think Arkay. Others still, a combination of three deities. Then there’s Xen, only mentioned once in the Monomyth. So, who is the analogue of Zenithar, if any, and how does Trinimac relate to Xen in your mind?
Trinimac doesn’t relate to Xen in my mind at all, Trinimac only relates to Xen in the mind of the author of the lore book I’m writing about the matter, and then I have to carefully consider the cultural background and life experiences of that NPC author for me to understand what opinion they have on the issue. Because that’s what’s important.
In recent years, there’s been some discussion on the casualization of games, especially in The Elder Scrolls. Do you think this has crossed into the lore at all? What does that look like?
If I understand what’s meant by “casualization,” I think that’s an inevitable result of popularity, because not everyone cares about the same things, and every player should be allowed to care about what they care about—or don’t. People who aren’t interested in reading lore books or journals (and there are a lot of them) should still get the sense that they are immersed in a coherent world of deep and rich overlapping cultures even if they never crack open a Crafting Motif tome. You have to find ways of conveying society and culture by osmosis, and that may result in what some might call “casualization.”
Since you’ve departed Zenimax Online Studios, Leamon Tuttle has stepped into the role of Loremaster, and deservedly so. Was there any sort of process leading up to the proverbial passing of the baton? How did you help prepare Tuttle for the exchange?
Leamon got the job because he cared deeply about getting it right, and he was good at it. He prepared himself for it by the way he did his design work, and the rest of the team noticed it.
Some developers have mentioned in the past that much of the lore being added to the series these days isn’t “new lore” per se, but building on existing pieces of an already mostly-constructed universe. What thoughts do you have on the difficulties of balancing fan expectations, personal interests, and faithfulness to existing material, both practically and creatively?
That’s a perceptive insight, because that was exactly our approach. Keep in mind that the Elder Scrolls “belongs” to Bethesda Game Studios, and ZOS only gets to borrow it. So the ZOS approach to Elder Scrolls lore had to be to regard it as a gigantic but incomplete mosaic from which many, maybe even most pieces were missing, but there were enough so you could dimly perceive the full image, and then “discover” lost pieces that filled in the picture.
Seconded only by Star Wars community, the Elder Scrolls community has a pretty intense canon war. You’ve made some statements on the subject while under the ZOS umbrella, but can you elaborate more now that you’re no longer a ZOS employee?
TES stands unique among fantasy franchises in being the sort of mythos where fans can fill in the gaps and further flesh out the world themselves, in addition to the main canon. How do you feel about that?
The players’ involvement in the world of Elder Scrolls is something I feel so strongly about that I believe I could talk about it for several hours without pause and without ever repeating myself, touching on how the Arthurian tales of “The Matter of Britain” were used by generations of authors in various regions of Europe to tell and retell stories using the same characters through different lenses of time and culture, the birth of fandom by Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts and their invention of continuity, the “open source” nature of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos and its canonization of inconsistency, Robin Hood’s Merrie Men as a precursor and model for Tolkien’s Fellowship that begat D&D’s character classes that begat the MMO “trinity,” the internet as an exteriorization of the connections forged by science fiction fandom, and the primal importance of Star Trek fanfic in legitimizing the feedback loop between creator and audience and blurring the distinction between the two. But I digress.
Could you ever see yourself continuing to write lore in an unofficial capacity, even if just for fun? Or does the hassle that comes with it (community pushback, et cetera) dash any hopes we may have for a Schick0da?
The “hassle” is no deterrent because I’ve never gotten drawn into fannish schisms and feuds, I just have, as mentioned above, way too many other interests. I said what I had to say about Tamriel, and I’ll let that work do its talking for me.
What lies in the future for you? Any projects you’re working on that you’re allowed to share with us?
I am plunging recklessly onward! I’m world-designing for an unannounced mobile game for WarDucks in Dublin, Ireland, I need to finish the Dumas project, and then I think it may be time for a new take on Malory that reflects the vast amount of Arthurian scholarship that’s been done since the discovery of the Winchester manuscript in the 1930s. There’s juicy stuff in there, I’m telling you right now.