As a long-time gamer, I was pretty excited to learn on your about page that Cirsova began as a D&D setting idea. Was this all from your head? What did it look like? Are there any remnants of it today we can find for those of us who like to run campaigns?
I was partly inspired by open world and semi-open world settings like you’d see in games like The Elder Scrolls, particularly Arena and Daggerfall. I wanted to create a big setting where players could go anywhere they wanted and find something they could interact with, no matter how far off the rails they went. So, I had a planned campaign and wrote up a gazetteer for most of the two provinces that players would’ve been adventuring in. Beyond those two provinces, I had a few notes and hoped it would never have to come to that. In the end, it never came to any of it because of some scheduling issues and not being able to wrangle enough players who were interested.
It was conceived as a setting where magic had been in such decline that it was effectively a no-magic setting. There was one city in the far-north that was the last bastion of a fallen civilization that traded with the rest of the empire; they had been practitioners of world-shaping magic that still had a few significant impacts on the setting (a couple of ruins on the edge of the arctic wasteland and the general encroachment of the ice sheet that had destroyed their kingdom). Ironically, I had not read Adrian Cole’s Dream Lords trilogy until just recently, but the city, culture, and magic strongly resemble a mix of Cole’s Zuhrjahn and Moorecock’s Melnibone.
In practice, the setting was more something like what you’d see in Spice and Wolf. It focused largely on an overland trade route and a couple ports with a few political heavies engineering trouble on the highways to undermine local authorities and elevate themselves as the faces of law and order.
The first several months of posts on Cirsova’s blog were mostly in-world gazetteer notes on some of the various locations. They’re nothing to write home about, and I can’t say that the Cirsova setting would be particularly good to run in D&D, especially not 3rd ed, which I’d originally considered using for it. However, a friend of mine has been working on a grim and gritty RPG system loosely based on Warhammer Fantasy and B/X that could actually work really well for it. For the first time in a decade, I may consider brushing off a few notes and try to run something set in Cirsova using the Gutters, Guilds, and Grimoires system (that’s what we’re calling it, at the moment). It’s a profession-based system with a lot of focus on lower/working class schlubs and rank & file soldiers having (often fatal) adventures in urban settings. It would be perfect for Cirsova’s setting and the original campaign, where the characters would’ve ended up as the cat’s paw of various scheming nobles. That said, I’d recommend running your own stuff and borrowing from far better writers than me.
Has that setting translated into any stories in Cirsova?
Not in the magazine itself, but a couple years before I started putting out Cirsova, I wrote a branching path story, City at the Top of the World, that serves as something of a prequel to the setting. It’s available in paperback and eBook on Amazon. It’s a hundred something pages and has 12 endings (I think; it’s been awhile). A couple of the paths answer the question why northern civilization was down to a single city in the setting’s ‘present day’.
What’s your background in publishing? How did you decide that you wanted to delve into a very difficult short fiction market?
I was the editor for the annual issue of a creative writing magazine in college. It was embarrassing, though, because despite my best efforts, the printing house messed up how they converted the Quark file after we’d seen proofs. At least with today’s print on demand options, my screw-ups are my own and are easily fixed before hundreds of copies are waiting in boxes at the English Department’s office.
I hadn’t done much in publishing since then, except for a brief and unsuccessful foray into running a record label. Then I became probably the only person who’s ever read Foucault’s Pendulum and thought “Publishing seems fun, I should do that.”
As for the Short Fiction market, I think that now is actually a great time for Short Fiction. People are busy and reading stuff on their computers and tablets on the go; Short Fiction is the perfect fit for today’s reading habits.
Unlike most magazines, I see you didn’t go for big star names. Is bringing forth new authors a passion of yours?
The reason you see bigger names in a lot of magazines is that those magazines themselves are bigger, can afford to pay more, and can promote more, and therefore the contributors to those magazine become bigger names. We’re only a semi-pro paying market (we typically pay between $75-$100 for short stories), so we’d be hard pressed to entice what you might consider a ‘big star name’. You might consider Adrian Cole to be our ‘big star name’ – he’s been writing SFF since the 70s, and I can’t tell you how exciting it is that he’s resurrected his Dream Lords setting with Cirsova. While we have a handful of authors who are SFWA members, a lot of our contributors are amateurs and up and comers.
You could say that bringing forth new authors is a passion, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. One of the reasons why I started Cirsova was that I wanted to encourage people to write the sort of SFF stories that I enjoy, and I figured that the best way to do that was to offer money for it. Competition for the pro-level zines is tough, and frankly, most of them aren’t actually looking for the kind of action-packed narrative driven adventure fiction that I enjoy. Some writers are happy getting their stories into token markets just to get their name out there, but I wanted to be able to pay on par with the more established semi-pro zines so that authors who couldn’t get into the pro-zines that don’t want what they’re writing anyway could at least be compensated and encouraged to write more exciting stories. While there are several big-name semi-pro zines out there, there are only a handful of periodical markets (Grimdark, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Red Sun Magazine) buying these kinds of stories, so we wanted to open things up a bit for authors. There’s a waterfall of good fiction being written and only a thimble to catch it; even with all of the stories Cirsova bought and published in 2016, it’s not like we were able to up it to even a shot glass. But I’d like to think we made a difference for the authors whose stories we were able to buy.
Full disclosure, though I have backed the Kickstarter for 5-6 softcovers, I had only heard of Cirsova recently, and haven’t picked up the old issues yet. The reason I backed is because of high recommendations of authors and reviewers that I respect. What can you tell potential new readers about what to expect from your magazine?
Expect stories where things happen. Interesting characters doing exciting things in fantastical settings. One of the complaints I’ve heard about a lot of SFF today is that there are these stories where nothing happens; maybe the author just works to evoke a mood, but things don’t really go anywhere. Or a story is about something incredibly mundane in a strange setting. I’ve turned away a few stories where I loved the setting and the ideas that could be explored in them, but the action in the story itself amounted to nothing more than a brief conversation.
Cirsova stories are the sort that may sound like madlibs if you tried to summarize them for people.
A time traveler looking for lost technology has a run in with a talking gorilla and a dame who turns out be a wolverine-thing. (Rose by Any Other Name, Brian K. Lowe)
A neophyte monk meets a roguish wizard and a barbarian maiden while looking for a holy book in the wreckage of a spaceship and gets pursued by bounty hunters and zombies. (Images of the Goddess, Schuyler Hernstrom)
A woman living as a man in the service of a wizard is sent to find said wizard a wife, gets captured by brigands and imprisoned with a travelling circus. (The Wooing of Etroklos, J. Comer)
A viking werewolf king stumbles into an ancient lich’s interdimensional torture palace and fights his way out with his ax. (…Where There Is No Sanctuary, Howie K. Bentley)
You know, that sort of thing.
Something that might appeal to you as a gamer is that nearly all of Cirsova’s stories are the sort that you could run as one-off adventures with little more than a couple stat blocs.
Are there any particular stand out stories from issues 5-6 that you can give us a hint of?
Issue 5 features several stories by members of the Eldritch Earth Geophysical Society, a group started by Misha Burnett (whose story A Hill of Stars was a featured Novelette in issue 1) to tell heroic fantasy stories in a pre-historic Lovecraftian setting. So, instead of professors and detectives running around chasing cultists and going crazy in a 1920s noir pastiche, we’ve got various barbarians, cavemen, and a few escaped slaves of the elder races trying to carve out a niche for themselves in a world where the Lovecraftian aliens are in decline but, along with their monsters, are still dominant forces on earth. It’s hard to pick a stand-out story, because they’re all really good and really fun. Misha has a great horror piece, In the Gloaming O My Darling, that establishes some of the themes of the setting; Louise Sorensen’s Darla of Deodanth, our cover story, is an oldschool hero vs. monster romp. One biggie for the issue is Schuyler Hernstrom’s novella, The First American, in which a caveman’s tribe is attacked by Lizardmen, and one of them goes off to get revenge and rescue the womenfolk; it has shotguns, astronauts, dinosaurs, etc. – pretty iconic SFF stuff.
Issue 6 has some returning characters to give our readers a bit of fanservice. Kurt Magnus’s Othan is back in Othan, Vandal; Harold R. Thompson has another Captain Anchor Brown story, Temple of the Beast; Abraham Strongjohn finally gives us the sequel to At the Feet of Neptune’s Queen, The Magelords of Ruach, which finds his Martians on Triton, fighting against the slaver vassals of the previous installment’s villain.
Plus, Adrian Cole has new Dream Lords stories in both issues which will be leading into an upcoming longer work, tying them into the original 1970s trilogy.
All of the stories are great, and if those few I described sound interesting, the rest are just as wild and cool.
Do you have any piece of advice for new writers trying to break into short fiction markets?