A few weeks ago, I was given the opportunity to ask some questions about The Secretist, a three-part e-book novella series produced by Wizards of the Coast and written by Magic Creative's Doug Beyer about the story of Return to Ravnica block. We've heard from Doug before about his history with the game and stories he's written in the past, but we haven't really heard about The Secretist in detail. With Part Three of The Secretist being released in just a few days, it seemed a good opportunity to become an Undercity Informer to get some more dirt. I wanted to delve deeper into the details of the story, his inspiration, and maybe convince him to put in a good word with the Dracogenius for me.
I met Mr. Beyer at Stomping Grounds Coffee Shop on the corner of Tin Street and Ivy Lane to get some answers.
Most people associate Jace Beleren with the Izzet (at least while he's in Ravnica), but in The Secretist he is decidedly guildless. What was the process of making Jace's allies in this story?
Planeswalkers tend to have a perspective that transcends the political factions or cultural groups of any one plane. They might associate with a guild or share some of a guild's values and goals, but ultimately they're free agents not beholden to plane-bound institutions. I think the Return to Ravnica key art, the one that shows Jace on Ravnica with Niv-Mizzet looming behind him, might have led people to believe that Jace had thrown in his lot with the Izzet. But the intent was not to link them as allies.
Jace has a fascinating conflict going on inside him. He's uniquely qualified to connect with people on a very deep level thanks to his mind magic and telepathy. Yet a lot of the time he approaches problems by standing back from people and applying his cold intellect, thinking through puzzles using his solitary mind rather than by working together with others.
Plus he faces the usual trials of being a planeswalker—it can be hard to develop deep bonds with people when you are always disappearing from their world. I think that question of connectedness is the crux of the issue for Jace. He can directly contact the mind of another person, but how much is he willing to share of himself? If you could read other people's thoughts, would that make you more or less likely to develop friendships with them? That stuff enthralls me.
There is a lot of implied backstory between Jace and Emmara, his friend in the Selesnya Conclave. The life of a planeswalker can be lonely and even friendless. Jace in particular seems to be a lone wolf, and he has little reason beyond sheer curiosity to remain on Ravnica. Was the decision to make the character Emmara done to make Jace seemed more connected to the plane?*
Emmara represents a kind of connectedness that Jace has never truly experienced. I wanted her there partly just as a familiar face for Jace since a lot of the characters Jace interacted with in Agents of Artifice (Tezzeret, Baltrice, Kallist) are no longer part of Ravnica's picture. There needed to be someone who knew him, someone who knew what he was capable of as the guilds took center stage again.
But you're right; Emmara also helps raise the stakes for Jace. Curiosity was enough to draw Jace into the secrets he's studying at first. But as he gets in deeper and the danger rises, Jace finds that it's not just about figuring out the puzzle and finding all the answers. It's also about the simplest, most basic motivator in the world: caring about another person. The more I understood Emmara's role in the story and what she represents, the more impact she had on Jace's decisions and the more she came to represent the exact thing that Jace is missing.
The story of Dragon's Maze and The Secretist has a lot in common with The Da Vinci Code. Did you draw inspiration from that novel? What inspirations did you have for The Secretist?
I've actually never gotten around to reading the The Da Vinci Code (or to seeing the movie for that matter), but sure, I see the comparison. Arcane clues encoded into ancient artifacts and conspiracies bent on deciphering or concealing them—those ideas were certainly floating around long before I wrote The Secretist. You might also look at Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, in which language is used as a code that can affect the mind, or just about any story where rival families feud and conspire against each other, from Dune to The Godfather.
The more conscious inspiration for me was Ravnica—the world itself. I imagine it's an affliction common to world-builders—you help to create a world, you get really fond of it, and then your hands get all grabby for it. You wind up all anxious to tell stories set there, especially when there's a fun protagonist who's good at making the exact series of wrong decisions to get himself neck-deep in it.
The Secretist's chapters deliver individual snippets of guild lifestyles. Did you make special effort to shed light on all of the guilds?
Up to a point, yes. The story focuses mainly on characters that carry the plot forward and doesn't involve every guild equally. But yes, I made an effort to include everybody at least to a small degree. And it's not just because every guild is somebody's favorite. It's also because I just have Ravnica in my bones. I like peering into the internal politics of the Azorius, the clan warfare of the Gruul, and the unstable projects of the Izzet. Ravnica's ten-way conflict can lead to complex plots and lots of viewpoint characters, but I love that it reflects the complexity of our actual world. It's not hard to envision a nation with ten political parties or a world with ten rival nations all vying for the same position of power.
Many secondary characters—Azorius Arrester Lavinia, Dimir information-dealing Vampire Mirko Vosk, Rakdos Cultist Exava—are given vibrant and detailed scenes in the story away from the main characters. Why was so much attention given to them?*
I think it's crucial to represent Ravnica as a multidirectional, melting-pot metropolis, and giving spotlight time to those characters is a way to accomplish that. That variety of perspective is just a key part of this world's identity. Ravnica's theme is radical plurality of viewpoint, so The Secretist literally has a lot of viewpoint characters.
It seemed to me that the flavor of many Magic cards from Return to Ravnica block, such as Judge's Familiar, Psychic Strike, and Lotleth Troll, make appearances in The Secretist. How hard did you work to insert little bits of flavor directly from the game into the story?
If there's one thing I love, it's setups and payoffs. (Maybe that's more than one thing I love. Your thing counting may vary. Whatever.) Many, many of the characters in Parts One and Two of The Secretist were chosen with great care. Now, some of the similarities between the world portrayed on the cards and the world portrayed in The Secretist are simply a natural byproduct of working from the same world guide and the same setting of Ravnica; you're just going to see a lot of the same imagery in a Dimir-themed spell card as you're going to in a scene about a Dimir agent who executes a mind attack.
But some of those correspondences are quite intentional, and not all of the reasons for them have yet come to light. Some facts about Parts One and Two were deeply buried setups with a payoff in Part Three in mind.
Now the chicken and egg question: did the story of Dragon's Maze come first or did the set's design and development lead to the story?
A lot of it was developed in parallel but with communication between the makers of the card set and the makers of story. We in Creative knew Jace was visiting Ravnica early on, and we had begun piecing together the skeleton of the story of the block; meanwhile, the card design teams were already meeting to figure out how each of the guilds would play. Since Ravnica is a plane that Magic had already visited, it was easier for both of those R&D groups to work on their own aspect of it.
Creative didn't need to know the details on how the detain mechanic was going to work, for example, and design didn't need to know the details of who the Azorius guildmaster was—both teams already knew the ethos of the Azorius guild. That said, all of R&D definitely communicated and worked together to integrate our ideas into Ravnica as a whole. I used cues from the card sets to give me ideas for plot details, and ideas from the story fed back into the designs of the sets.
I hope you enjoyed this brief interview with Doug Beyer. Be sure to check out Doug's work for yourself! You can download Parts One and Two of The Secretist and a free sample chapter of Part Three in Doug's most recent article on DailyMTG here.
Until next time, good luck, have fun, and Sculpt Minds!
Video and Coverage Content Associate and Social Media Admiral for StarCityGames.com
Listen to the @InContention podcast! It's the official podcast of the StarCityGames.com Open Series with @kstube, @affinityforblue, and myself. Our most recent episode, Magic Mullet, can be found here.
*Author's Note: When I wrote these questions, it was not yet known that these characters would appear in Dragon's Maze.