The first part of this interview with Jon Mollison, aka Mr. Wargaming, was conducted in January of 2021 and published on my old, now defunct, blog. As Jon is both a good writer and an interesting man, the interview was very well-received. In mid-2021, Jon moved on from writing to wargaming, focusing on building his popular YouTube channel, The Joy of Wargaming, which he launched in May of 2020. Seeing as how his discussions and demonstrations of wargaming have struck a chord with audiences, in November of 2021 I decided to ask him some follow-up questions, expanding on why this stuff is so important. Jon, gracious as always, was more than happy to chat. My questions are in bold, and Jon’s answers are in plain text.
AH: Let’s start with a basic question: who are you and what is your writing modus operandi?
JM: I’m a family man who works as a scientist by day and spends his evenings penning the sorts of tales that once appealed to hard-nosed me, but which of late have fallen out of fashion. I tend to write in brief and focused bouts of creativity. To be frank, I don’t have the memory to be able to slowly grind away at a single work over months and months and month. To keep the action moving, I’ve got to keep myself invested, and that means blasting through the actual writing as fast as possible.
AH: Given that philosophy of rapid writing, I suppose it’s not surprising that your stories tend to be fast-paced and action-focused. Does your process have anything to do with that aspect of your writing style?
JM: Naturally. All things have an ebb and flow. Experiencing a novel as the creator leads to a very different experience compared to that of experiencing a novel as a reader. And yet, parallels exist. Condensing the writing process to the greatest extent possible helps me instinctively feel my way around the pacing of a story. Writers, like readers, need to allow themselves time to breath in between the whip-fast chase scenes and fight scenes. A long, slow pause for dialogue and negotiation and romance helps clear the palette and give me the energy and drive to move into the next pulse-pounding high-stakes scene.
AH: Another aspect of your writing I like is the dialogue. It always sounds real without being affected, and the characters tend to be very identifiable based on how they speak. What goes through your mind as you craft dialogue?
AH: Care to elaborate?
JM: The dirty little secret to writing good dialogue is that it’s just a different form of conflict. Sometimes that takes the form of a straight negotiation. Sometimes they are sparring with information. Even when they agree on the major principles of whatever it is they are talking about, language and communication are sloppy things. They may have difficulty even understanding that they agree on the major principles, because together they have to reach out across that gulf between their brains, and the tools we upright apes have developed to do so are so imperfect.
Any given scene presented to the audience should carry a sense of tension to it. It’s the three-act structure in miniature. A set-up, rising tension, and then a resolution that moves the story into the next scene.
Alternatively, you can think of the people in the conversation as a united entity and apply one of the six types of conflict to the scene. The most obvious, “man versus himself,” would be a straight-up negotiation. “Man versus society” might take the shape of something like the song “Baby It’s Cold Outside” where you have two people who both know what’s going to happen, but they have certain . . . forms and protocols that must be followed first. “Man versus nature” might be two people trying to communicate across a raging river. Can they express themselves clearly enough to achieve their goals?
That’s what I mean by conflict.
AH: Excellent breakdown! Conflict in dialogue keeps things moving forward and prevents boredom.
Another bit of detail: I noticed in your books that character names are both unique and meaningful or symbolic and fit the character very well. Or maybe it’s in my mind. Is this a conscious thing, or do you just go with what sounds cool/feels right?
JM: For the important characters it’s a conscious effort. That’s as much to help me keep things straight as it is a favor to the reader. It’s also a way to help provide details for the reader while staying as economical with words as possible. One of my editors and a fine writer in his own right has drilled, “information is the death of narrative” into my head. Using an evocative name frees up verbiage better used to drive the action forward.
For minor characters, I do what all the best writers do: I use my friends’ names. Sometimes the names get tweaked to create a more subtle Easter egg for clever readers. You have appeared in a couple of my stories, for instance, but don’t ask me which ones. At fifteen books and counting, even I’m losing track!
AH: Hah! I’ll have to read more then!
Let’s shift to action scenes. Your fights and chases are very brutal and bracing, yet never feel too short—or too long. What are some of your considerations when crafting action sequences?
JM: The victory conditions for both parties. Violence for the sake of violence results in weak storytelling. There should always be a damsel to fight over, or one party should be looking to get out of the fight before taking too much damage. The brutality comes from my own experience in the boxing ring. Here we circle back around to information being the death of narrative. When you’re fighting, you’re running on pure instinct. You don’t have time to take in as much information as you’d like. It’s just impressions and motion and a rush of adrenaline with brief flashes of pain and weariness and never enough air in your lungs. I try to put the reader into the action by flooding him with that short burst of too much too fast.
AH: So basically a deeper conflict beyond the actual physical conflict?
JM: Deeper conflict is what it’s all about. It’s the same thing that we were talking about with conversations and dialog. Frodo throwing a ring in a volcano means nothing with all of that deeper subtext about power and friendship and oathbreaking and oathkeeping.
AH: Given your philosophy of “less is more” when it comes to info dumping—and I’m assuming exposition in general—who are some of your main literary influences who’ve informed this writing approach? And who are some writers you love even though you don’t write like them?
JM: Taking the last one first, Jack Vance always amazes me with his ability to spend two pages itemizing the things on a wizard’s shelf and keep things interesting. His mastery of language is really something else. My own influences run toward the old masters like Robert E. Howard—that guy paints massive tableaus with two short sentences. Poets the both of them. On a more contemporary note, I consciously try to ape Glen Cook. He has a knack for creating narrative by not saying things. It’s hard to explain, but he uses the unreliable narrator to create drama that you only notice in retrospect. He also has a talent for not saying the things that go without saying. Little unimportant details that get left out until they become important, and by the time he spells them out explicitly, you realize that you knew them all the time.
AH: Very cool. I definitely get a Howard vibe from your writing, and not just in Barbarian Emperor.
One interesting thing about your books is that you write in a variety of genres. Neon Harvest is very noir, the aforementioned Barbarian Emperor is Conan-meets-Ancient Rome intensity, while the Sudden series reminds me of Star Trek and Wing Commander with a Douglas Adams vibe. Plus, you write fantasy and superhero novels. How do you make that mental switch when changing styles and genres, or do you?
JM: Mimicry. It’s not a conscious thing . . .
Let me walk that back a bit. You know how, when you spend time around people with a specific accent you start to adopt it in small ways yourself? Often without even realizing it. At least, that happens to me. The same thing happens when I read. If I read a lot of Howard, it leads to my adopting a more Howardian turn of phrase. In little and subtle ways, I think. I use that to my advantage and try to read a lot of whatever it is I’m reaching toward. For the Sudden series, I read a lot of cheeky sci-fi and space opera. For Barbarian Emperor, I plowed through a lot of Conan.
AH: Given that, is it still challenging writing in multiple genres?
JM: Not at all. Genres are just costumes. My stories all touch on deeper things than swords and laser swords and magic swords. Yeah, there are some logistical challenges that make the genres feel different for the reader, but E.Z. Sudden could have been a pirate on the Spanish Main and the central tension of a lost princess rescued by a smuggler would have remained unchanged.
AH: Deeper things are definitely present in all your stories. They’re all wrapped around a very traditional and some might say wholesome moral and emotional core. Where does that come from?
JM: That comes from a place of starvation. Our culture turned away from the traditional and the wholesome a long time ago. Such things are sneered at by the tastemakers as gauche and outdated. As a result, the stories pumped out by the coastal snobs reflect a broken and overly simplistic model of the world. Digging down into the foundations of western civilization one can find whole untapped veins of rich cultural ore—mysteries and questions that go far beyond the surface level morality plays spoon fed audiences by LA and NYC.
My children caught onto the vapid nature of kid shows early. Through the nineties and aughts, every film was built on a foundation of “You just have to believe in yourself.” And that surface level morality doesn’t ever stop Hollywood bought into the One Hero Journey to Rule Them All, and tacked that one-note inner journey onto all sorts of films.
Sometimes it’s not enough. Sometimes you have to believe in something deeper. Sometimes you have to look outside of yourself. And I like to think that most of my works encourage the reader to stop turning inward so much and instead look outward to see how much of this universe is built for them, to strengthen and support them, if they would just reach out and accept it.
AH: That encouraging nature, that desire for something greater and better, shows up in a lot of your romance plots as well. I have Neon Harvest on the mind, since I just read that, but Virginia was running towards something as much as she was running away.
Is that how you tend to write romances? Are there other criteria you use in your romantic subplots?
JM: We are all islands at the center of our own private ocean. Because of the nature of our existence, we are awash in a wealth of information filtered through our own experience. Because of our isolation, we often find ourselves at odds with the rest of the world. They can only operate from a very limited understanding of our position, and so we find ourselves at odds even those whose judgement we trust the most. The rest of the world can only gain some partial appreciation for our choices—whether it be our choice in which car to drive or career to pursue or whom to marry. The latter, man and woman joined together as one, provides for the nearest we discrete individuals can ever hope to come to a true understanding of another.
So where most romances begin and end with “we have to make society understand our love for each other”—and that’s a fine obstacle to overcome, one rich with drama—I find myself far more interested in the smaller stakes of two people who have to first discover their love, and then begin the far more difficult task of making the other understand the depth of their feeling. In this case, the former obstacle really does become an opportunity to resolve the latter. The societal disapproval becomes a mechanism for demonstrating that the love interest takes primacy over the wishes of anyone and everyone else.
AH: Getting back to the idea of starvation, if we as a culture—America, the West, whatever you want to call it—are starved for the things that used to sustain us, where do writers come in? Where do you come in?
Maybe it’s more precise to say we are malnourished. Our culture is like our food—there’s so much of it out there it’s possible to gorge yourself into a torpid coma. Most people just consume what is dumped on the plate in front of them. The stuff that nourishes the soul tastes better, but you have to refine your palette to appreciate it fully. And you have to actively seek out the healthy and challenging stuff. To really torture the metaphor here, I consider myself something of a short order cook style of writer. I offer readers a filling meal and turn it out quick. Might not be the most sophisticated fare, but you’ll never go away unsatisfied.
AH: To continue with the metaphor, you have to go to people where they are, and more people eat at diners than five-star restaurants . . . and nothing says diners can’t be damn good.
One last question before I let you go: where do you see the future of sci-fi/fantasy/fiction in general?
JM: “The beatings will continue until the morale improves” shall be the order of the day. We are definitely going to see the continued weaponization of fiction by the moneyed interests. Corporate publishing might be big and slow and unable to adapt to increasingly erratic markets and macro-scale financial changes, but they have a lot of inertia behind them. And fiction is such a powerful tool to shape minds and culture, they will not stop dumping massive amounts of money down the black hole of woke literature. It will continue to serve as a pipeline for them, too—bringing converts to their woke parody of a religion – but over the last half decade a lot of people have been forced to confront the reality of the Corporate-Government alliance.
The public might not fully understand the deeper trends and currents driving the drop in quality of their favorite media, but they know something is rotten in the state of entertainment. The jaded and bored public will come around in increasing numbers to find those independent writers and producers, the mammals still scurrying around the feet of the dinosaur publishers finding niches and exploitable new habitats. Those independents are the new radical fringe, and they are the ones experimenting with new methods of delivery, new means of telling stories, and new ways of reaching audiences.
In a way, it’s for the best. Those who just want to suck from the sewage pumped out by corporate media can drink their fill. Easy, cheap, fast, and abundant. On the other hand, the more rugged and intellectual readers have the opportunity to find the independents who have what they want, to find the experiments that work, and to share their finds with like-minded explorers. The latter kind of readers are my kind of people, and I’m not alone. There are a host of authors thoroughly enjoying the challenge and effort of serving their needs. Storytelling is as old as language, and storytellers adapting to the needs and wishes of their audience are almost as old. Whatever happens, authors like me and my gracious host will always be around, ready to fill in the gaps between what moneyed interests want to provide and what good people want to read.
Thanks for having me on your blog. You ask some tough questions that needed a lot of thought to answer. I’ll be sure to warn the other authors that when you come calling, they better to be ready to bring their A-game!
AH: Of course man. The pleasure was all mine.
AH: You’ve shifted from novels to wargaming, starting a popular YouTube channel, The Joy of Wargaming, that has gained a lot of subscribers and buzz in a short time. Why did you set the writing aside, and what are you trying to accomplish with the channel?
JM: The publishing world is swamped and stacked against the small voices. In four years of writing and publishing over 14 novels and short work collections, my work continued to sell like ice to Eskimos. Based on reviews, they were fine books and well received by those who read them. Their failures likely owed more to my marketing limitations than their inherent quality. Regardless, it was time to admit that it just wasn’t working and move onto something else.
Wargames—and specifically videos of and about wargames—offered a much smaller market, and one with a few well-established voices. It was also a field that possessed clear holes, and with four decades of experience in the hobby, and some experience in entertainment, it was natural fit for me to step into that breach.
Most of the larger channels focus on the larger games in the hobby, the mainstream wargames. They chase after high viewer counts, and admittedly many of them bring a great deal of expertise, high production values, and serious marketing savvy. They also rely heavily on the sort of safe, bland, corporate approach to product that seeks to please everyone.
In contrast, my channel represents a much more lo-fi and personal approach to the hobby. We play games you’ve never heard of. We fumble through complex rules on camera. We use what we have on hand, even when it isn’t glossy and showy. And best of all, my channel wears its heart on its sleeve. It is a place of strong opinions and a firm encouragement to do better. Tough love is the order of the day, not the sort of non-judgmental hugbox that many wargame channels offer. It’s a place of inspiration, not validation.
And I think that a lot of wargamers respond well to that—even if they don’t agree with the opinions expressed, they appreciate the straight talk and passion.
As for what I’m hoping to accomplish, it’s just a matter of plugging gaps. After countless searches on specific topics came up empty, and countless instances of wondering why nobody was covering this material, it became more a question of finding that the best guy to cover these things was staring me in the mirror.
AH: I hear you about the book scene. And I can’t blame you for finding a less quixotic mission. Though I enjoy your writing, kudos for moving on to greener pastures, and congratulations.
Back to wargaming though: before I get to my next few questions, you said something interesting about the market for wargaming related content on YouTube and, presumably, elsewhere: why do you think there was this gap in coverage that you mentioned? Is it just another example of Big Brand Fanboyism dominating the small-minded, or is there something more?
JM: It’s partly the consoomer mindset and partly the nature of the beast. If you want to grow your “business,” you have to go where the customers are. The Brand Name games have legions of followers, so it makes sense to chase after them if your primary interest is growing your own fanbase. If your primary interest is something more esoteric like finding and interacting with a niche of like-minded hobbyists then you don’t have to chase Brand X.
It’s a question of quantity versus quality, and I’ve made the conscious decision to chase after the right market rather than the biggest market.
One other thing to add is that the return on effort for wargaming videos has been way higher. Instead of laboring for 80 hours over a novel that sells by the dozens, I can crank out a video in two hours that hundreds of people will enjoy. To be fair, a two-hour video of miniature wargames includes hundreds of hours of “sunk costs” in the form of the collection, painting, and organization of the games. That price, however, has been paid over the course of decades of fun, and so the videos represent a return on that investment of love – it’s hardly a grind to publish or perish situation.
AH: Why wargaming though? And by extension, why TTRPGS? Beyond the fact that you enjoy them. You’re a part of the #BROSR revolution. Could you explain what that is and how it will save western civilization?
JM: I know wargaming. I enjoy it. And the culture of the hobby is small enough for a lone voice to make a difference, to help steer things in a healthy direction. Not only that, but due to the high barriers to entry—all of the research, reading, painting, building, filming, editing and so on—make it a very difficult target for those who want to steer the hobby straight into the same iceberg that has sunk many another hobby. Which isn’t to say that it is invulnerable. Even now there are a good number of people who want to burn wargaming to the ground in order to save it from itself. That sounds hyperbolic, but the guys chasing numbers often view draining the hobby of its inherent qualities in order to make it more appealing to people who aren’t interested in wargaming.
The culture belongs to those who show up for it. That’s true of any culture. And if wargaming is to remain the domain of renaissance men capable of engaging in the intellectual and hands-on and artistic fields all at the same time, it is important to have at least one voice holding aloft a banner championing the preservation of the culture that he inherited from his forebears.
My efforts are an adjunct of the #BROSR, which is a loose affiliation of pugnacious gamers who have utterly rejected the touchy-feely “everybody gets a trophy” style of gaming that dominates the tabletop RPG culture today. Instead, we have embraced a very demanding style of gaming that rewards quality play and smart risks, and that punishes bad play and stupid risks.
Worse, from the point of view of the more genteel players that dominate the culture, we embrace the spirit of challenge not just with respect to the rules of the game, but each other. We constantly push and prod each other to do better, to play smarter, and to lean in to the more difficult aspects of these complicated games. Where most men fear to tread, we dare each other to go stomping about and explore the kinds of games and try the more byzantine rules to see what’s over there.
We validate initiative, brains, and talent—not effort and not the mere act of showing up. Which is an attitude that bleeds out into other aspects of life, and makes our fellow gamers not just better players, but better people. It helps them achieve a clarity of thought and vision not just within the game, but away from the table, and that helps them have more impact in everything they do. That can only lead to making not just the game space a better place, but the real world a better place as well.
AH: Do you find wargaming to scratch a particularly male itch? If so, and while it might seem obvious, why is it so satisfying?
JM: Yes, because of all the math.
AH: Fair enough!
What has been your favorite obscure wargame find? And what has been your favorite obscure “forgotten” wargaming/TTRPG rule?
JM: I’m hesitant to say, because I’ve only just scratched the surface of hobby as it existed before I entered in the late 1970s. I’d say my favorite obscure wargame discovery was the existence of fantasy role-playing games before the advent of D&D. And we’re not talking about the American mid-west gaming scene of Gygax and Arneson here, but way over in Britain where guys like Tony Bath and Donald Featherstone were stomping around Hyborian as kings of Stygia and Aquilonia years before the Little Brown Books were first published.
Bear in mind, my “discovery” has been well known to the old guard, the grognards, for a long time, but it’s new to me.
I’ve been steeped in the “conventional wisdom” of the history of tabletop games for too long. Setting up a channel and looking back along the curve of history has opened my eyes to a lot of what I thought was true that just ain’t so.
AH: It seems like wargaming has a pretty high barrier to entry in the form of investment in time and, I’m assuming, money. Would you say this is true? And if so, how do you introduce the hobby to a new generation of players?
JM: It absolutely does have a huge barrier to entry, several of them, and it is these barriers that protected it for so long when other subcultures have fallen so much earlier. It is a lot easier to bang out a short story, or created D&D adventure, or slap some garbage modern art together, then it is to put together even a simple miniature wargame. A basic historical miniature war game requires you to do the reading do the research do the math do the assembly do the painting, that’s a lot of work to go through. It is no guarantee, however, because the people already within the hobby are susceptible to the cultural rot and anyone else. If you know where to look you can see that rot beginning to undermine the foundations of miniature wargaming even today.
As for how to introduce a new generation to miniature wargaming? Simple. Make the new generation yourself. Have kids. Lots of them. Let them see you engaged in this hobby, and they will gravitate towards it naturally. When their friends come over, they will be interested in it as well. The hobby sells itself to the kinds of people who are interested in the hobby for its own sake. And as with all other aspects of culture, the future belongs to those who show up for it. If you can’t be there for the future, you can make the future happen, by making the people who will be there for it.
Of course, the Death Cult knows this, and that’s why they are so insistent on getting their hooks into your kids. To people who aren’t paying attention this might sound like a tangential iasue, but it is not. It’s not enough merely to gatekeep. You have to keep an eye on every route of entry into your culture. The barbarians will crawl over the walls if you’re not prepared to resist them. They will crawl over the walls erected in your children’s minds if you let them.
AH: Speaking of the death cult, it’s amazing that they just can’t leave anything unspoiled. I’m sure lots of what we’d call “normies” would be astounded that the wokies even care about something as niche as wargaming at all. How bad has infiltration gotten, and what can fans do to reverse it?
JM: Not bad so far. The largest company in this fear, the 800 lb gorilla, already shows considerable signs of death cult infestation. Their IP is pretty robust, but the newcomers are doing their best to wreck it as fast as possible. Unfortunately this is still a hobbyist game, so guys like me will be able to preserve the torch in much the same way writers like you work to preserve the torch of Western Civilization in the face of the NYC crowd’s attempts to ruin literature.
The best thing fans of the miniature wargaming culture can do to preserve it, is nothing. Just keep doing what you’ve been doing for the last 40 to 50 years. Those efforts have created a phenomenal hobby. Ultimately the only thing you can control is your own table and your own offerings and if you keep those authentic, and keep your innovations in alignment with the hobby for what it is, rather than what it could be, you’ll be doing God’s work.
Mock the clowns who don’t understand it. Don’t give money to people that hate you. All the usual platitudes. They work, maybe not for the broader culture, but at your table, and sometimes that’s all you can control, and sometimes that’s enough.
AH: Sometimes that’s enough indeed.
Before we finish, what would you like to plug, where can people find you, and what’s the future look like for Mr. Wargaming?
JM: The best place to find me is http://jonmollison.com. If I vanish from social media for badwrongthink, you’ll find a signpost to my mountain cave there.
And the future looks good for Mr. Wargaming. The channel continues to grow by leaps and bounds, and we are gearing up for a great 2022 characterized by some deep investigations into the very roots of modern wargaming and tabletop gaming. We’ll uncover some lost treasures and see if we can find a better path forward for wargaming by taking roads less travelled—roads that were maybe left abandoned way back in the 1980s.