INTERVIEW: Dan Heck’s imaginative adventures

Daniel J. Heck is the author of the Thomerion Trilogy: The Seal of Thomerion, its sequel The Gate to Thomerion, and the yet to be completed conclusion The Wrath of Thomerion – all self-published adventures set on the exotic continent of Ambrosinia. His story-based interactive fiction is based upon considerable roleplay experience as a Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master, using campaign ideas as the ideal source material for his gamebooks.


Who is Dan Heck?

I am a 2004 graduate of Iowa State University with dual degrees. My career was initially set to steer me into computer software testing, as I’ve had a few internships to that end, but a handful of classes in fiction writing sparked me much more profoundly. After a job with a tiny company in Ankeny, Iowa fell through and I got married, I found I had the time and flexibility to focus my creative energies on writing.

I’m also a tabletop gaming enthusiast, have run several successful D&D campaigns, and am considered an intermediate player (rated 1300, where world champions are rated in the 2000’s) in the world of competitive Scrabble. My writing shares time and energy with occasional roles in community theatre, as well as my non-traditional role as manager of my household. I live in Des Moines, Iowa, with my loving wife, Michelle Herring, and two adorable pets, Lil’ Bit (our housecat) and Lulu, a purebred Pomeranian.


What can readers expect from your setting of Ambrosinia and the wider world of Thomerion? How does the nature of this place influence the beliefs and behaviour of its people?

The kingdom of Ambrosinia is a melting pot of fantastical cultures, religions, climates, landmarks and approaches to life! From halflings to orcbloods, from expansive deserts to craggy mountain ranges, one could explore for months and still not meet everyone interesting nor discover every place that might hold a long-kept secret. While daily activity there is full of bright energy, behind the scenes also lie a good number of folk who hold grudges based on old history. Furthermore, considerable pockets of homogeneous population, such as the agrarian elves surrounding the City of Storms, hold out on ancient customs, refusing to integrate themselves into the more modern ways of life.

Given these circumstances, it’s only natural, then, that conflicts arise, especially when it comes to worshippers of Thomerion, the god of destruction. Skeletal in build and often depicted piercing its own skull with a dagger, Thomerion created a rift between gods in ancient times, and now, its disciples lay plans to sow havoc! Within the series’ first book, The Seal of Thomerion, details of these plans are revealed bit by bit as the tension ratchets and the reader gets deeper into the decision tree. The Gate to Thomerion, in contrast, depicts a new threat to Ambrosinia six years later, after a period of relative dormancy.


How does you decision tree function in the context of a story-based narrative? Are player choices consequential to the conclusion of each book or do they simply deliver different branches within each story?

Each book in the Thomerion series delivers a variety of possible conclusions, (more than 40 in The Seal of Thomerion alone, that also include unconventional endings in the sense of a ‘partial victory’), so player choices are definitely consequential to the outcome. I try not to punish readers too harshly for reaching a less than ideal outcome, while realizing that failing and trying again is certainly part of the adventure. Some interactive fiction I’d read before starting the series was more restrictive; i.e. every path led to the same ending or to endings that felt too similar, and I found this to be a less fulfilling experience, so I then chose to avoid implementing that structure in my own work. Finally, I also go above and beyond most old two-choice CYOA-style narratives by providing three or even more choices at many junctures.



Has your experience as a Dungeon Master influenced the storylines of the Thomerion series? Does your knowledge of running tabletop roleplaying campaigns provide you with the tools needed to create the structure and content required for interesting interactive fiction?

I’ve been a complete homebrewer when it comes to creating D&D material, as opposed to using modules. As anyone who has played the game knows, D&D is a continual series of decisions that balances roleplaying and social interaction with action-packed combat, so I found the transition of adapting the material I’d prepared for my local group’s game into the books to be quite natural. Sometimes the game mechanics translate directly (e.g. do you want to test the key in the door, or instead investigate the nearby cavern first?) and sometimes they don’t, such as in highly ethics-focused decisions. A Dungeon Master must be prepared for the players to take the action in any of a wide variety of possible directions, but that means quite a bit of prepared material doesn’t get played! Therefore, sometimes I had to rein the books in a little bit relative to the source content’s potential, while making sure that the structure still made each branch feel well-developed. Finally, it helps to make the reader feel proud to have given them the opportunity to use their brain to succeed, and Dungeon Mastering was excellent preparation for that.


One of your key characters is the compassionate cleric Bartleby. Who is he and what does he specifically bring to the narrative?

I first introduce readers to Bartleby within The Seal of Thomerion as an outlier within his church and a missionary of sorts, to help the dwarven protagonist heal his brother-in-arms, Fedwick. Young and liberal-minded, yet unafraid to engage in a fight now and then, Bartleby has struggled to truly stand on his own, in the sense that he feels subservient within his career. He dreams of someday leading his own congregation or even forming a sect to the side of the mainstream church, which worships the god of the sun. Wise beyond his years, he brings a relatable groundedness to the narrative, one that preaches the importance of helping others and revelling in the unique set of talents the universe gave every living creature in Ambrosinia.

The deeper I got into developing this character, the more I realised how likeable, yet interestingly flawed, he’d become, so I made him the main character within The Gate to Thomerion. Therein, the reader explores the quirks of love and relationships through his eyes, while adventuring with a whole new supporting cast, relative to the first book.


Who are some of the other main characters in the series?

For the sake of complete immersion, I made the main character of The Seal of Thomerion be the reader, who controls a dwarven warrior retired from the local militia. Among named characters, Titania Vermouth, to whom Bartleby develops considerable attraction, stands out. She’s the half-elven mayor of the northwestern community of Sungaze, a fisherman’s town that she led back from the brink of bankruptcy. Well known and popular, Titania nevertheless often fears for her own life, as her knowledge regarding the Seal of Thomerion and a related item is key to the church’s sinister plans. As she takes on a bigger role within The Gate to Thomerion than in the first book, she’ll be cast as the protagonist of the trilogy’s final installment.

Other key characters in both available books include Wyver the druid, who holds a secret connection to the royal family; Demetria Argent, an enigmatic sorceress and potion-mixer; Galumnuk the orcblood, whose grace and penchant for teetotaling make him stand out among his native people; and Grekk Del Arken, a vicious military general who strikes an alliance with the church of Thomerion.


You’ve noted quite a few religious or spiritual aspects in the storylines. Was this an intentional element necessary for the shaping of your world, or did it just arise through plot and character development?

I have to admit that, being raised Catholic and then choosing to leave that faith later in life, religion has influenced my writing; I try to use it such that it provides a ‘human’ element to all the fantasy. I want the reader to see something of themselves within the characters, regardless of one’s individual faith or religious choices. The spiritual aspect, too, guides the dwarven protagonist in The Seal of Thomerion through his personal journey, as he hopes to someday release the mental scars of his military days as thoroughly as he has healed the physical ones. In The Gate to Thomerion, religion interweaves with politics, and I include a subtle message reflecting the restrictiveness of dogma. So, yes, there was some intent behind it, even as I would simultaneously say that spirituality is not the weighty ‘core’ of the various plots, overall.


You mentioned ‘old history’ previously. What specific past events have aggrieved the characters who hold a grudge and now actively seek retribution?

Ambrosinia and its neighbour to the south, the orcblood country of Koraxon, have not gotten along for quite some time, and have in fact fought wars in the past. During one battle otherwise largely forgotten about, a dwarven lieutenant stole a valuable goblet from a general he’d defeated and claimed it as a trophy. This goblet, as it turned out, had more powerful, and quite magical, effects on those who handled it than anyone realised at first. Over time, the tale of this battle was told to generation after generation of orcblood offspring, until they started viewing the dwarven race as a whole as being responsible for their short-term loss and even their status as outcasts in general. This grudge plays out over many similar paths within The Seal of Thomerion.



How long had you been planning the series, and was it always your intention for it to be a trilogy?

My first D&D campaign met once a month or so for almost two years. Near its end, my wife suggested I turn the content, especially the stuff I had prepared but the players missed or avoided, into an interactive novel. Then, The Seal of Thomerion itself took almost two years to write, proofread, edit, and publish, so the whole project took quite a while! It was not, however, originally intended to be a trilogy, so as attention slowly gathered for the book and it sold in considerable numbers, I figured I’d create more content for a second and third campaign AND book. All in all, the creative efforts required will have taken about eight years, by the time I anticipate completing The Wrath of Thomerion.


Are you a regular consumer of interactive fiction? If so, tell us about your favourites – did any of them influence your writing/gameplay approach?

I used to read a lot more interactive fiction than I have lately, but those volumes that really influenced me include Zombocalypse Now, by Matt Youngmark, and The Redemption of Mr. Sturlubok, by Rudolf Kerkhoven. The former’s short and intense chapters really struck a chord when it came to writing engaging action scenes and keeping the flow and tempo upbeat, whereas the latter’s quirky humor influenced my dialogue and taught me to give my characters a few neat surprises. I’ve also learned a lot from other interactive fiction authors who have reached out to me personally, such as fellow Des Moinian Michael La Ronn, who has put out dozens of novels. His prolific discipline is awe-inspiring.


How easily did your D&D material fit as interactive content in a gamebook? Did any of it require substantial changes to meet the different needs of the solo format?

Some of the biggest ways in which I adapted the material simply pertained to condensing a party-based activity into a single perspective. The Seal of Thomerion’s dwarven hero, for instance, was essentially ‘promoted’ within the context of the book, since the campaign involved his quest to heal his brother-in-arms only tangentially. Furthermore, I found several junctures nearly impossible to translate directly, such as when the party seeks out several different potion ingredients to have Demetria Argent mix them into a cure. This is where putting a ‘timer’ on the action both increases the tension and simplifies the structure; i.e., by writing that Fedwick only has maybe a week more to live, given his state of health, I provide a circumstance by which the party has to split up and accomplish as much as possible as quickly as possible. Splitting up within D&D, in contrast, often puts each player at a significant disadvantage! In some other regards, such as when the reader chooses whether to approach a pair of wanderers the hero overhears within the pub, the material fit very naturally. Adapting the material has been quite the mixed experience!


What’s your general writing process and how do you determine decision points and their branching options within your narrative?

The first aspects that come into mind when outlining books like these are the obstacles and conflicts; i.e. the things that the hero and his/her party must overcome along the way toward a defined final goal. The notes I take often then burst out from that centre, regarding how the characters change over time, what information they need and how they gather it, and what motivations both the reader and the villain(s) need to possess for the story to make sense. Linking various scenes together into a flowing structure then starts to happen somewhat organically.

Branching options most often take one of just a few forms for me: the ethical dilemma, where a character can choose whether to compromise a value, promise or principle in order to accomplish something; the play upon curiosity, such as whether to take a tunnel from where you hear something coming rather than one where you don’t; or the mutual sacrifice, where there just isn’t a way to do everything, so the reader must choose which element is most important. Finally, I try to write in such a way that a decision is posed right after the biggest questions are asked, to maximize suspense in the same sense as a chapter break does within traditional fiction.



Your gamebooks seemingly contain complex characters, intricate storylines and many significant events. Are these ingredients related to your personal preferences or is it all about constructing a memorable interactive experience?

My personal mix of these ingredients came about as a result of being somewhat equally influenced and excited by writing and gaming within my life. While I certainly want to construct as memorable an interactive experience as possible, I ultimately try to put myself in the position of the reader. I ask myself, what would I enjoy most about these books if I approached them for the first time? This methodology was highly validated by input I received from a group of test-readers before ever publishing the series’ first book. I was, however, also highly driven by the notion that the resurgence in interactive fiction readership includes quite a few adults who enjoy the nostalgic feel of the literature but wouldn’t be highly entertained by the simplistic nature of the original CYOA series. So, in short, my answer to this question is: both!


Do you focus on story and game aspects equally, or is player interaction simply a result of the unfolding plotline?

I’d say the Thomerion series is more book than game; however, I employ some tricks I hadn’t yet seen in other interactive novels to expand the definition of ‘interactive.’ For example, not all of my chapters end with simple instructions for the reader to turn to a certain page; some also have a ‘keyword’ that I encourage readers to write down near the front of the book or on separate paper. Collectively, the keywords can be used when the reader encounters the penultimate chapter, i.e. they give clues at such a point where the reader might not otherwise have any idea as to how best to proceed to the ‘ultimate victory.’ I don’t, however, have characters keep track of true item inventories or define skill sets like in D&D. I think that if I did write with those elements in mind, the characters might start becoming unacceptably one-dimensional, although that’s more of a reflection upon my style than it is upon the nature of the genre.


It’s interesting that your D&D campaign would have featured full playing mechanics, yet you’ve chosen to focus on storytelling in your series. Have you given any thought to recreating that depth of character development (i.e. incorporating statistics and leveling up, dice rolling, combat etc) into a gamebook format that does suit your style?

This interview sure has prompted quite a few such thoughts! I’d find it quite a challenge to mix my style with these elements in such a way that doesn’t lead to a pure hack-and-slash story. While I realise there is quite the audience out there for hack-and-slash, I’d have to feel prepared first by reading some of the more game-like volumes already out there. I just feel that strength of character is so very important in any form of fiction writing. A certain part of me feels as if I were to go this route, I might as well invent a full-fledged game in its own right! Nevertheless, I’ll definitely consider putting a mechanics-heavy book out there someday.


Are you reading much genre fiction? If so, is it useful to do so to assist in planning and writing your interactive storylines?

I should be reading more, although I’ve found interactive fiction to be right up my alley because the chapters tend to be shorter and more focused. The limited amount of standard fiction I read is most useful to me for comparison’s sake, in making sure that even the branches with ‘failure endings’ feel like complete stories. I’ve just started reading a swashbuckling sci-fi book that’s a couple of years old called Revenger, by Alistair Reynolds, and I’m finding that its characters and imagery provide inspiration for setting and immersive technique; I try my best to remember that these elements are no less important just because my novels are interactive. Even some Jules Verne books, such as Journey to the Center of the Earth, have inspired me via their sheer sense of adventure.


What’s next for you – more interactive fiction or other projects?

My focus becomes the next entry in the trilogy, entitled The Wrath of Thomerion, over the coming months and year. After that, I hope to focus on promotion and marketing of the books, someday converting all three books into audiobook format, and developing some tabletop game designs I’m dabbling with. If popular demand calls for it, perhaps Thomerion will rise to threaten Ambrosinia in more than just three books; who knows?



Readers interested in purchasing the two books of the Thomerion series that have been released to date can do so via where it is available in both print and e-book format. The e-book versions are priced at just $3.99, whereas The Seal of Thomerion is $11.99 in print, and The Gate to Thomerion, since it’s a relatively new release, currently sells at a discounted price of $10.99.

Thanks to Dan for answering GBN’s many questions so thoughtfully. Visit Dan Heck’s Author Blog at to learn more about his fascinating gamebook series.

5 thoughts on “INTERVIEW: Dan Heck’s imaginative adventures”

  1. What a wonderful, in-depth interview. I have read the books and find the content of the interview very authentic to the narrative in each of the completed texts. The spiritual element both for good and evil reflects the human journey. Looking forward to the publication of the third with its emphasis on Titania.

  2. This was a fantastic interview with a talented and appreciated author. I am very supportive of fiction writers taking the time to create new mature-oriented gamebooks for us adult readers. Writing a gamebook is not an easy task. I do own the first two Thomerion releases btw, and I look forward to being able to purchase “The Wrath of Thomerion” when it becomes available on Amazon. This is a wonderful site, thank you Michael Reilly.

  3. Pingback: Dan Heck’s Thomerion Series is Live on Twitch TV – Gamebook News

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