The success of Frostbitten & Mutilated – the frozen, black metal supplement of witchcraft, cruelty, and amazons for Lamentations of the Flame Princess – is pretty clear now that it took home a ton of ENnies this year at GenCon 2018. Author and artist Zak Smith was present to collect a ton of hardware from five nominations, but the other major force of the design team, Luka Rejec, was not able to attend this year. Luckily, he was gracious enough to give me some of his time and sit down for a big Q&A just before GenCon, and I am very proud to leave his thoughts here for the OSR community to take a look at.
Take it away, Luka!
1. What brought you into the world of role-playing games originally? What brought you to professional RPG design?
Our teacher read the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings to us in class in 5th grade, and I got hooked on fantasy stories and imaginary countries. I soon started drawing my own imaginary realms, writing fantasy histories, and creating choose-your-own-adventure type games for friends.
Then, in 7th grade, I discovered a dungeons and dragons extra-curricular activity and joined it because it had dragons. My first character was a draconian named Bane, who wielded a broad sword, because that sounded cooler than a longsword. This was in an international school in East Africa, and we played with whatever books kids might bring from their far off homelands after the summer holidays. I think I started dungeon-mastering within half a year of discovering the game.
When I returned to Slovenia in 1996, I took a set of 2nd edition core books and one set of badly battered dice with me. Nobody there knew anything about RPGs, so I set about teaching an approximation of D&D 2e, trying to cobble a group together in a small town, and improvising everything else I had to. My first campaign there was me and two players, putting a half-elven ranger named Elendil and an elven mage named Mundus on a quest to steal a dragon’s egg at first level. They eventually reached level 13, I think.
As for professional RPG design … am I in the world of professional RPG design now? I first tried to expand the 2e ruleset to a WWI setting. Then, in 1998, I bought the Alternity rule books on Amazon—my first online purchase ever. Very quickly I adapted the rules to a survival horror game set in a nightmare realm.
From there, I kept tinkering. There were a few times when I stopped playing RPGs for a while as I moved around, especially after university, but I always came back.
Personally, a big thing was when my 4E group reached level 9 or so and I threw up my hands in frustration, because running the game took up far too much prep, and a battle might last two hours. I needed a break, so in 2008 or so I cobbled together an RNG game built on a Microlite chassis about Space Zeks in an asteroid gulag sent as ‘volunteers’ to explore a Space Nazi derelict hulk. The initial ‘heroes’ were a mechanic with a wrench, a poet with a flower pot, and a cybernetically augmented close-combat chimpanzee who could rip humans in half with its bare metal hands. It was great fun.
But, the big markers were the initial appearance of G+, a circle share by Zak S (he liked my Deep in the Purple Worm illustrated dungeon, and later the Tower of Down), and then Chris K asking me if I’d like to do some illustrations for the Misty Isles. Finding a community, and finding approval for my work were key. No doubt whatsoever.
2. Frostbitten and Mutilated was nominated for just about every art category there is in the 2018 ENnies. That’s no small feat, and you were instrumental to that. How did your approach to this book contribute to that success?
Getting the goals of the book clear in the first place was absolutely crucial—and for this, the credit goes to James and Zak. James knew what he wanted: Zak’s black metal amazons book—and he left it at that, aside from prodding and encouragement to make the work go faster. With Zak, it took some time for me to understand what his vision for the book was—that took a fair bit of dialogue. And after that the crucial phase was figuring out the skeleton of the book.
By skeleton I mean things like typography, layout, and colors (or lack thereof). Over a few months we went over quite a few different concepts—and coming from a more corporate marketing background it took me a while to really grasp that I should let out all the stops and crank the book up to eleven.
After that, it was a case of plugging all the pieces together, adjusting space and layout a bit, and … there’s the book.
I will be honest: I learned a lot from the project and from working with both Zak and James. Sometimes it was hard, but the communication was always professional. Tragically, now I know that if I made the book again, I could make it better.
3. Layout and design, as I’ve said elsewhere on this blog, is an incredibly underappreciated portion of the development of a role-playing game book. What are your priorities with RPG graphic design, personally, and what do you look for in others’ work? What contributes to a good project versus a mediocre or even bad example, in your eyes?
My first priority is that it is usable. Game books are tools, not novels. My second is that they look good. Tools that look good are more fun to use—and sell better.
Honestly, I think that’s a large chunk of what design is. Fitting form and function together in a pleasing whole.
But if we get to the brass tacks: I care about things like how readable it is, that the information is easy to access, that columns don’t break over pages, that tables and artworks breathe. And a pet peeve of mine: that all the text sticks to a darned baseline.
Things that annoy me terribly are when designs are uneven or inconsistent. Metal fonts in a game about kind mushroom people. Poor alignment. Inconsistent sizes. Lack of white space for notes and marginalia.
I know that a major problem is the lack of accessible software—until Serif Software launches their Publisher, InDesign is nearly the only game in town! So, for my money, an indie game with a simple but elegant design wins over more complicated and fiddly solutions.
Some of the most well made things I’ve seen recently are: Gavin Norman’s B/X Essentials line; they’re so functional and so nostalgic they just scream, “Use me. Use me!!!” David Black’s Black Hack is just perfect; it’s a design I wish I had made. Jez Gordon’s layout of Red and Pleasant Land is also fantastic. It’s truly beautiful.
On the Maze of the Blue Medusa and the Hot Springs Islands I feel like they’re trying something harder than the previous books I’ve mentioned and they’re missing their (harder) target by just a little bit.
The 5E books annoy me incredibly. They’re the standard bearer in the design game and they go for unaligned columns that don’t bother staying on baselines, making columns readable, providing useful cross-references, or avoiding ridiculously verbose texts. In so many ways, 5E feels like such a great game … that then had a dozen sacks of cruft padded on top of it.
And I can never find any spells in the 5E PHB.
4. For a project like Frostbitten and Mutilated, you mostly concentrated on the graphic design and presentation of another artist’s illustrations. You are also an illustrator, too, with a list of credits in the RPG industry as long as my arm. What’s the difference between these two roles, for you, in terms of time investment, challenges, and expression?
The graphic design is a tool in my toolbox, and it’s important to me because it makes me better at making my own art, illustrations, and writing. If graphic design is like free weights—not that fun, but important for your health—illustration is more like jogging—relaxing and you never know exactly where you’ll end up.
Illustration is fundamentally easier. There are fewer constraints. Sure, the art must fit and enhance the text, but for that I just need to read the text, figure out available space, put on some tunes, and draw.
But, like I mentioned, it’s all tools for being able to write and illustrate my own stories in the end. Knowing how art and text fit together, both from the nuts and bolts end of graphic design, and from the creative side, makes it easier for me to figure out how to make the entirety work together.
I hope, anyway.
5. You often contribute to works as a cartographer, too, doing location illustration and maps. Is this different from other types of illustration for you, in terms of how the process plays out and how you interact with the other design team members or the manuscript?
Oh, god. Cartography. It is completely different. Cartography is basically graphic design for spatial information. Sure, sometimes it’s illustrative, but at heart it’s nothing like illustration. It’s much closer to laying out tables or posters.
It’s slow and precise. When I’m lucky, the writer either has a very precise, functional, but utilitarian map already—and I build off that—or they basically give me carte blanche and say, “put in these two cities, that mountain, the ruined castle, and the fear-wracked swamp. For the rest, do what you like.”
When it’s in between … oh, god. I once had a client miffed that I hadn’t counted his graph paper squares correctly. Seriously.
Anyway, ideally a map becomes a conversation with the writer, and I get to have fun putting in a dire hamster lair or a steel panther castle.
6. Your own project, Ultraviolet Grasslands, is an amazing aesthetic trip. It speaks to a lot of inspirations and recalls that brilliant, fruitful Moebius/Heavy Metal era of the 70s and 80s where fantasy and sci-fi were really taking off. For some reason I feel like it must have its own soundtrack – is there any music that specifically inspired you to make this project?
Of course it does. Some fans have created playlists on Spotify and on YouTube, and I’ve also posted it on my website: http://www.wizardthieffighter.
It encapsulates a fair chunk of the kind of music I’ve loved listening to over the last few years. I’ve always felt annoyed that the music I listen to doesn’t have a game to go with it … so in the end, I decided to make it.
And yes, that one song from Heavy Metal, the one with the car in space, that one is 100% behind the whole genesis of the UVG:
I mean, that’s one of the scenes I still have to see play out in my home games. I’ve already seen a nomad rage mage ascending into heaven on a silver ship, I’ve had a demon summoner riding a dragon into a mountain, I’ve had a golden boy one-shot Leviathan with a bastard sword through the heart, and I’ve had a cosmic wizard surfing an escape hatch down to a planet’s surface. But the space car … still have to see a player figure that out.
I’ll try to set up Skeleton to encourage that.
7. Still on UVG: what itch does it scratch for you that other settings and products didn’t, and where do you see it going?
I want a game that feels big, and epic, and weird. Like, a game where the horizon is so wide and so strange that you feel you can discover something limitless and wild.
Most RPG settings feel over-determined—certain gamers and writers are completionists and fill out every particle of a world, down to the last detail, and leave nothing to be created and invented. I want the UVG to create an adventure that feels like a voyage of exploration of both time and space, of things that are big, and awesome, and make the player feel like, “yeah, I could put on some desert rock, while cruising to this game.”
So, I’m mostly trying to build with generations and rules that can encourage that, rather than specifics to be adhered to.
Where do I see it going? Well, for now to the Black City. I’m talking about making a card game out of it, too. I’ll do a kickstarter to see how much interest there is in a full book version of it. Maybe even do some proper limited editions with color art. And then beyond … I’ve got a pretty dark and brutal game of the sack and looting of an ancient city 90% written as an intermezzo, before I return to the time and space and psychic weirdness with the Voyages of the Black Obelisk. Oh, and Skeleton—the rules-stupid version of the game, suitable for surfing escape hatches to planetary surfaces.
8. Your Patreon is growing quite quickly as your work on UVG accelerates. What do you see as the future of the Patreon platform for your projects?
It took me a long time to figure out what I actually wanted to do with Patreon. About a year before I understood what I wanted to do with it (episodic games and stories), then about six months before I understood _how_ I wanted to do it (creating content that works as chapters), and by then I was already to deep in creating the UVG to properly correct previous errors on the fly. Finally, I started to figure out how to market it properly: by showing what I’m doing, so people can get an idea of it in advance.
I’m definitely going to keep using Patreon, and I also plan to use it as something like a mini communication and community hub for my projects.
See, as a platform it’s really quite great. It does more than just provide a subscription service, it works as a mailing list, a place to communicate with readers and patrons, a way to figure out what works and what doesn’t, and who wants what and when.
Anyway, an ideal goal would be to take the patreon far enough, and to enough new projects, that it could become a sustainable career pillar all on its own.
And I’m starting to suspect it is possible.
9. The success of so many of your efforts is enviable. What would you say your breakout gig in the industry was, and which project has been the most satisfying to work on and see as a completed product?
It was definitely the Misty Isles of the Eld. Chris Kutalik took a chance, I think–after all, I hadn’t illustrated a game book like that before! From there it became easier.
One of the things that remained intensely challenging was coming to believe that I had some meagre artistic skills and talents that people might be interested in. It’s a long and common story about ubringing and expectations, and not that interesting. I still sometimes have trouble believing folks enjoy my work–but I’m getting there (note: getting paid helps a lot with rewiring the brain’s belief systems).
The most satisfying, though? The one(s) I’m working on right now. Every single project I’ve finished, when I look at it now, I see the flaws. 😉
Hey, and What Ho! is going to have some epic maps in it (and not by me!).
10. Lastly, before I let you go: It’s time to plug something near and dear to your heart, past, present, or future! You seem to have a lot of impressive projects on the go this year. Is there anything in the pipeline you want to bring awareness to or announce?
Oooh … pipelines.
Ok, the last part of the Slumbering Ursine Dunes four-part trilogy: What Ho! Frog Demons is coming soon. I have to finish about 40 pieces of art, but the layout is entirely complete.
UVG is nearly finished. The last update should come out in mid August. That’s going to be fun.
After that, I’ll start fleshing out the Skeleton for it.
I’m editing an adventure by Zedeck Siew right now that is pretty wild.
There’s that city-destroying-module I’m going to start releasing on the Patreon in September.
I’m looking forward to my illustrated version of Zzarchow’s Neoclassical Geek Revival.
And I can’t wait to get started on a new Zak S project we’re working on with James. We’re trying some different layouts and combos, so that should be pretty fun.
And, finally, I’ve got a small passion project I want to do: a module bringing together original art and stories inspired by my favorite metal bands. Something like an omnibus of doom metal. And yes … in game terms, it’ll include flaming metal cars in space.
As always – I am extremely thankful to my Q&A guest, Luka Rejec, for spending his time working on this with me and allowing me to put his words up here on my blog. I am a huge fan of the work of everyone I’ve interviewed so far, and Luka is no different. Frostbitten and Mutilated is one of those products I had to own twice, and tracked down at a local game store for a physical copy once I’d enjoyed the PDF. And, again, I am awestruck by how comprehensive the answers are and the time Luka dedicated to my questions. So, thank you very, very much, Luka. I hope I can convince you to come back some time soon!
For everyone playing along at home, please take a moment to
stalk follow one of the most talented creators in the industry right now:
Speaking of Luka’s Patreon, one of my ongoing projects/recent articles is a discussion on outstanding RPG Patreons, and here’s a huge spoiler for anyone who missed it yesterday: Luka’s is front and center. Tremendously cool stuff coming out of it. Ultraviolet Grasslands is outstanding, but even if you never want to play another RPG for some reason, just the art alone coming out of the Patreon is absolutely bonkers. Great stuff.