How do you make a book from an RTS? How do you remain true to the source material without writing entire chapters about memorising an optimal build queue, or ending the novel with the protagonists killed by a clipping exploit enabled weenie rush? Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War III is the latest strategy game to receive just such a novel adaptation.

Without throwing too much shade on the source material, the game has as a plot like a ’70s porno – a series of brief character interactions stringing together all the action scenes. It’s not bad, but it’s no Firewatch. We spoke to author, history PhD student and man for all seasons Robbie MacNiven to find out how he approached this daunting project.

“Aged 13 I entered the first of Black Library’s writing competitions. Needless to say I didn’t get very far.”

Outermode: Thanks for agreeing to take part Robbie. When did you discover Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000?

Robbie MacNiven: In 1999, at the age of seven, I got hold of a little Games Workshop pamphlet detailing the races and factions for both Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000. White Dwarf 322, featuring a bumper triple Warhammer-Warhammer 40,000-Battlefleet Gothic series of battle reports soon followed, along with some Bretonnian knights and men-at-arms. I was instantly hooked.

OM: How did you get involved with Games Workshop’s publishing arm Black Library?

RM: I read Warriors of Ultramar by Graham McNeill aged about 11, followed quickly by Dan Abnett’s Ghostmaker. I’d always enjoyed creative writing and both those books encouraged me to write more in my spare time. Aged 13 I entered the first of Black Library’s writing competitions (which became their open submission windows). Needless to say I didn’t get very far, but it created an itch that wouldn’t go away.

I entered every following year – when I was 16 my entry was described by one of the editors as “not too shabby.” Then in 2015, a decade after I started and much to my own surprise, I made the breakthrough. I was asked to write Drenn Redblade’s story for the forthcoming Deathwatch game, and the work’s kept coming ever since.

OM: Did you play the previous Dawn of War games?

RM: Absolutely! I still vividly remember the excitement when I read that a Warhammer 40,000 strategy game was in development in White Dwarf (back when the Space Marine faction was still the Ultramarines, before THQ had even finished the creation of the Blood Ravens). Emperor-only knows how many hours I’ve spent playing it since.

I think the most memorable game I played was in my first year of undergraduate, in the distant days of 2010 (crazy to think that was 6 years after the game came out!). Myself and two battle-brothers were playing together in my room against the AI on insane mode. We’d set up one hell of a defence, but the game had been going on for almost four hours and the campus canteen was about to close. We decided to take the risk and left the game running with maxed out turrets and repairing servitors (back then you couldn’t pause in multiplayer) while we rushed to get dinner. Came back half an hour later and not only was the game still going, but our defences had withstood multiple assaults! Went on to win the game after a total of about six hours of play.

“Emperor-only knows how many hours I’ve spent playing it since.”

OM: The Emperor would approve. So how did you land the Dawn of War III novelisation gig?

RM: Black Library asked me to do it based on my schedule and the fact that I’d already done a specific tie-in before – my first novel, Legacy of Russ, which dealt specifically with the narrative events from War Zone Fenris. 

OM: Did changes in the game’s story as it developed (I’m thinking the classic ‘We’ve made an ice level, now let’s think up why the characters go there’ issue) have an impact on your novel? Any drafts you were forced to abandon or key story beats you had to work in?

“The game is ten or twenty levels of fighting linked by the narrative. That’s just what you want in an RTS game, but having that many battles in a novel would quickly grow stale.”

Robbie: Because both the novel and the game’s story were in development at the same time there was a fair bit of chop-and-change. At one point there was a Deathwatch kill-team, then they were removed, then they were back in again (which is why the kill-team in the book have different names from the guys in the game). At the start there was even a subplot where the Imperial Knights of House Varlock were Chaos Knights!

Beyond accommodating changes, the fact that I was writing a novel necessitated certain other tweaks – ultimately the game is ten or twenty levels of fighting linked by the narrative. That’s just what you want in an RTS game, but having that many battles in a novel would quickly grow stale, hence why some missions were changed slightly to help the flow. Gorgutz, for example, no longer storms an Imperial star fort (alas!). 

OM: Yeah, it’s a cool mission. The way you handle it in the book is very elegant though. Even without quite as many punch-ups, the novel is still relentlessly action-packed, action beat after action beat. I’m astounded by the number of synonyms for ‘he duffed up the Ork’ you’ve crafted. Is that pure Robbie, or more a result of the story you were working with?

RM: It’s 90% Robbie. I had the plot beats and, towards the end, all of the audio to work with, but in terms of description or subplots like the mountain of dead bodies, Lady Solaria’s family, or Sergeant Corvus’s fate, that was all my own work. Call it artistic licence I guess!

“I’ve actually now written five novels since my PhD began, a year and a half ago!”

OM: Unless I’m mistaken you turned this novel around in less than a year, while writing other novels, and doing a PhD. Not to mention your lively Tumblr presence. How oh how do you write so prolifically? And more generally – what’s your process? Thorough plotting, a mad caffeine fuelled word dump, long hours researching?

RM: I’ve actually now written five novels since my PhD began, a year and a half ago! It generally takes about four months from start to final edits, so it’s been pretty non-stop… In a way though it’s not as difficult as it sounds. I’m a big believer in getting the work done day by day, each and every single day. If I’m told to write, say, 80,000 words in three months, that’s about 888 words a day. On a good day I can write 1,000 words in an hour. That leaves me the rest of the day for PhD writing and research. Often I try to write 1,500 words a day. That’s still not a big ask, but suddenly it means I can write those 80,000 words in a month and a half, or two months with weekends off. All it takes is discipline.

As for the writing itself, I plan out about 75% of it and fill in the rest. I don’t have that whole “make it up as you go along” skill, despite the fact it’s apparently what most of my favourite authors, like Bernard Cornwell, do. I also like to write in the morning, while I’m still fresh and motivated. 

OM: That’s a staggering level of productivity. The Outermode staff will be feeling quite inadequate. So what was your favourite part of the project?

RM: Besides getting the early scoop on Dawn of War III of course, it was probably novelising specific parts from the trailer. I wasn’t asked to – the Knights versus Wraithknight duel, for example, isn’t specifically in the final game, but it was far too cool not to include. Stuff like the Blood Ravens battling ork dreadnoughts in the dust storm, or the vision of endless corpses falling from the sky – it was all highly evocative and gave me a great basis when I first started.

OM: What do you think of Dawn of War 3? And are you on multiplayer?

RM: Sadly I’ve not actually got a copy yet – the great irony of being a writer I suppose! I hope to get my claws on it within the next month though, and hopefully I have the spare time to actually play it! It’s going to be great seeing stuff I spent so long describing actually happening in beautifully-rendered live action. Especially looking forward to meeting Lady Solaria!

OM: She’s a boss. Lastly, what’s your next project and when can we expect it?

RM: Most of what I’m working on remains top-secret, but I’m happy to say my biggest project at the moment is the sequel to Red Tithe, entitled Carcharodons II: Outer Dark. The People seem to enjoy Space Sharks, and who am I to deny them more?

Red Tithe was the booked that tipped me off to Robbie and his blood-drenched, axe-swinging novels, so a sequel is very welcome. If you want to read more, Robbie’s lively Tumblr is a-40k-author.tumblr.com, and he puts out new books through Black Library at a rate that would make Michael Morcock bashful.