Well, well, well. Look who decided to drag himself back to this hive of scum and villainy: it’s Luka Rejec! Luka is a very busy man and by the time this goes to publication he’ll probably be far away from home on vacation, but that’s not gonna stop me from slandering him with this interview anyway.
Let’s all have a gander at what the amazingly multi-talented and very hard-working creative dude has to say today!
Welcome back to the blog! Last time you were here, we talked about your origins as a creator in the independent RPG industry – specifically Chris Kutalik recruiting you to do the art for Misty Isles of the Eld. If you don’t mind expanding a little bit on that, I’d love to know how the Marlinko cartography gig came to be?
You mean the isometric black-and-red map of the city, right? Well, I don’t know that there’s that much to expand on. I’d been drawing maps since I was a kid, and since human anatomy seemed impossible to master, I thought I’d stick to maps and such for a long time. The Marlinko map actually came after the Misty Isles illustrations. I think somebody didn’t deliver on the maps, and I suggested to Chris, “oh, I could do that.” So I did it. There’s really no big story there, I’m afraid.
The cartography you did for Fever-Dreaming Marlinko is filled with a certain liveliness in its limited color palette that evokes a sense of the old medieval manuscripts. Was this an intentional choice? What informed the design for the Marlinko map, with the coats of arms and such?
Yes. This was utterly intentional. For a long time I struggled with using colors in my work, they’d get muddled and confused. I’d add too many and it’d all be a mess, while I wanted things stark and sharp. So, I found freedom in cruelly restricting my palette. Same reason I really do a lot of flat colors in my more recent pieces.
As for the design – it’s just an isometric grid with a lot of sketches of a mish-mash of central European-ey houses based on those I’ve seen from Burgundy to Bohemia. The coats of arms are riffs on the text – usually when I read, I see ideas in my head – so I use those.
You did all of Misty Isles of the Eld’s interior artwork. You’ve called this something of a breakout job for you. What did you take away from that project, especially with it being your first big RPG illustration gig?
Yep, totally breakout. Creative work is surprisingly taxing. I’ve got to be there for it – focused, interested, motivated – for a long period: hours, days, weeks. I didn’t know if I could do it. I’d always felt I was a bit lazy, wouldn’t finish projects. That was baggage from my childhood, but it took achievements to start unloading it.
Misty Isles made me realize I could pull off a big project. That I have the stamina for it. And then, obviously having a finished product made it easier to pull myself together and do the next one. And the next. Having a thing I’ve made in my hands makes me feel like I’ve made a thing. Tautology, but true.
You were born in what was once Yugoslavia, and is now called Slovenia. This is the heart of central Europe, bordering on Italy and “the West”, but tied deeply into the Slavic culture, language, and history of the east. How does this upbringing and personal experience inform your work for the Hill Cantons books?
Well … obviously every place in Europe borders on other places and the cultures bleed over in really messy ways. Ok, first a massive sidetrack.
Italy isn’t really “the West,” in fact there isn’t really “a West,” and there isn’t a single “Slavic culture” either. When I lived in the Netherlands folks there often casually relegated both Italy and Slovenia to the category of “profligate Southern Catholic countries you go to on holidays,” and here’s the weird thing: they were kind-of right. I became very good friends with a fellow from Modena there and we realized that we had basically everything in common: architecture, food, drink, family dynamics, mother arhcetypes, seasonal calendars, holidays, saints.
Every country is a jumble of local, regional, national, and supernational cultures that mix in fun ways. Slovenia, specifically is … kinda unusual. It’s at the intersection of Slavic, Romance, and Germanic language and culture super-spheres, with a heavy dose of conservative trans-Alpine culture in the mix, and a thick remnant layer of traditional Roman-Mediterranean culture. Look at a Mediterranean villa or farm near Koper/Capodistria, it’s basically the same architecture and agriculture as ancient Rome.
Then overlay that with another thousand years that it was part of the Germanic Holy Roman Empire, of which the last 400 years as a core province of the ‘Grand’ Duchy of Austria (they gave themselves the title ‘Grand’ to make themselves, well, ‘Grand’), and their route to the Mediterranean sea. From 1918 to 1991 it was a province of Yugoslavia. Since 2004 it’s been a province of the EU. So that’s just a fact, it’s a provincial country. Got some important trade routes and mountain passes, but provincial.
Now back to your question. How does that inform the Cantons work? Well … in no way and in every way. When I read the Cantons it chimed with me because all the places, all the towns and the hamlets, are basically the kinds of places found all over the ‘world’ I grew up in. Curious local town customs, peasants who want to be left alone, climate I could understand, variations of myths and stories I’d grown up with. It just felt really liberating to be able to tell stories that felt close to me in English, a language that, paradoxically, is closest to me. It was fun to talk about boyars and hussars and smugglers and ofwaterfolk and bears, instead of fantasy-hundred-years-wars or fantasy-arthuriana or fantasy-wars-of-the-roses.
And then, obviously, the Eld spoke to the kind of music I like. Major Tom and all that, can you hear me, Major Tom?
Most recently your work was again all over a Hill Cantons book, the long-awaited fourth in the series: What Ho, Frog Demons. It is very stylistically different from Eld. What contributed to that?
Yeah. What Ho wasn’t supposed to be this long. It’s a bit of an odd book, it wraps up bits and pieces of Chris’s Hill Cantons and provides the surroundings for the other books. I got a bit caught up and pushed Chris to add more and more – maybe too much? But … I really loved it because it provided this glimpse into a fantasy world that resonated.
I took a few road trips across Moravia and Slovakia and Malopolska and Silesia, and that part of the world is captured in loving fantasy by Chris. It moved me. And then, yeah, I wanted more of it. So it grew a bit longer, pulling in more pieces of background than Chris maybe planned initially.
Since What Ho, Frog Demons, you have launched your own production company, WTF Studios. Will you be able to continue to work with Hydra on any potential future Hill Cantons books?
Oh, yeah. I certainly think so. We’ve talked about it with everyone at Hydra, and I’m open to more collaborations.
I’d especially love to do more illustrations. I will be trying to avoid layout, though, I already have to do too much of it for my own stuff! :O
WTF Studios was launched in style by working with Exalted Funeral to publish a limited-run softcover version of the exceptional Witchburner module. It sold out its entire print run in just over three days, while you expected it to languish or move much slower. What do you believe caused this? What about Witchburner, and your work in general, struck such a chord with so many people?
Well … I mean, it was completely flabbergasting. We sold out in pre-sales, with no advertising or marketing budget, in 3.5 days. We did a run of 250 copies, and I was really expecting them to stick around in Exalted’s storage for at least a few months. I thought we’d be schlepping them to cons and such. It seems I built up a bigger audience of people who like my work, my writing and my art, over the years, than I had anticipated.
I think you’d be the better person to answer what struck a chord! I got this feedback from a subscriber over at patreon:
“I started to read it over my mornign coffee and couldn’t put it down. I’ve never been so immersed by an RPG module before.”
So, yeah – I think it was my writing. Witchburner wasn’t originally a very art-heavy module and I really emphasized the characters with little stories for all of them, all of it hinting at a vaster, pregnant world.
But let’s be honest, kind reviews (including your own) certainly helped immensely.
Last year was a big one for you in many ways. On your own, you completed the UVG, you completed Witchburner and the first segment of Longwinter, and you began work on Red Sky, Dead City. That’s in addition to your work with others – Frostbitten and Mutilated with Zak Smith for LotFP and What Ho with Chris Kutalik for Hydra Cooperative (plus others still in various stages of production). Was this your busiest year ever?
Whoah, whoah. Hardly on my own. Without the encouragement of subscribers on patreon, or the patient listening of the Hydras, and some timely feedback by Skerples, I’d have hardly completed the UVG.
Also, there was the day job as a creative director at our media startup, and the summer school gig teaching creative writing at an international school.
Yeah. It was definitely the busiest year ever.
Last time you were here, I asked what you think about the future of your Patreon – to paraphrase, you said that an ideal goal would be for it to become a career pillar all by itself, and you were beginning to believe that might just be possible. We’re into a new year now and a lot has changed. Your Patreon recently crossed the 300 patron threshold and you’ve successfully created a number of great books that have found a market. With that in mind, how do you see it now? Where do you see the Patreon going in the future from where you now stand, and how do you feel it has done in terms of the stated goal of freeing you up to work on projects that you might otherwise lack the time, funds, or encouragement to pursue?
It’s great. The patrons … you patrons are wonderful people and it’s both humbling and exciting. I’m happy that I made it very affordable to support me, because it makes it easier to experiment when most subscribers are spending less than the price of an Astralcash latte on my work. It’s absolutely liberating because it is certainly providing the encouragement and the stability to go forward with additional projects.
The other thing I’m really happy about is that I switched to a per-product (well, per-chapter) model, because it means I can treat the Stratometaship patreon like a subscription to my art and writing, rather than a client-patron relationship. It feels different to sell my work, rather than to give it up for free and put out a busking hat. It also encourages me to get more professional, which has meant some late layout nights … but so it goes!
So, where from here? Well, I’d like to grow it further – if it continues to grow at more-or-less the same rate I should be able to work on my projects full-time by the end of this year. I’m also working on tying it into actual products for sale on online platforms, dtrpg, itch.io, and so on. So there’ll also be something for those who prefer to buy, not subscribe.
That also ties directly into the rules-light rpg Skeleton (SEACAT) that I’m writing to tie the different books together. I’ve got an early version out, but it’s undergoing a lot of changes as Fiona and Jarrett edit the UVG, so it’s fit to publish. I’m trying to make something crunchy yet fluffy, with a flavorful filling … and I’m going to probably fail on that … but it’s going to be free anyway, so, yeah, I’ll get to own the fails all the way until version 3.5. That version, the failures will be somebody else’s fault.
A big one: Red Sky, Dead City is your current project on your Patreon. It’s an exploratory module set in a damaged world much like the UVG (possibly exactly like the UVG) where red-handed victors have successfully crushed a people and have set about plundering their riches and eradicating the remaining traces of their culture through propaganda and destruction. It toes the line between satire and straight-faced tomb robbing, and in many ways reflects the grim reality of wars of conquest or civil wars in our own world. You come from a part of the world that has seen its share of violence and strife; you were born in one country and returned some years later to find it had become an entirely different country on paper. How does your own experience, and the experience of your people, influence this creation? Do you think of it as therapeutic at all? What parts of Luka Rejec are tucked away in the pages of this project?
Therapeutic? I don’t know. It’s definitely cathartic to write about it. Dark jokes when faced by so many po-faced proponents of “just wars.”
I mean, my experiences influence all of it. My master’s thesis, years ago, was on Bosnia during the Yugoslav civil war in the 90s. It’s all tied together, imperialism, civil wars, great wars. Wars are always started for stupid reasons and never pay off. The costs are offloaded onto ordinary people, soldiers and civilians, while kings and politicians and bankers and oligarchs tend to come out ahead — until they push too far and the guillotines come out. Wars are so thoroughly stupid. The outcomes are always so bizarrely unexpected and extreme. The fact that any media organization can actually cheerlead for wars is revolting.
Every single time I see some pompous talking head mention the necessity of war, I just remember the lies about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
I look at the millions of dead, at the destruction of ancient treasures, and I remember the night the first bombs fell as the USA invaded Iraq over the WMDs. I was in a bar in the Dolomites on my ski vacation and this Swedish fellow was so excited. He whooped as the CNN showed the flashing missiles and celebrated how evil Saddam Hussein would get what he deserved. How the Iraqis would be liberated and get democracy. I told him it would be another bloody Vietnam.
So here we are, sixteen bloody years later, and guess what: I was right. Wish I hadn’t been, to be honest.
So, yeah, of course. I write about what interests me, and in writing, I discover what interests me. I like tautologies, for example.
Of tangential relation: let’s revisit Ultraviolet Grasslands and discuss that project. It’s actually timely phrasing there, because you’re in the process of revisiting Ultraviolet Grasslands yourself for a Kickstarter. Can you tell the folks at home a little bit about what the UVG Kickstarter is all about? Print details, stretch goals, timeline, and anything else you want to share?
It’s about editing the text and printing it as a hardcover, full-color, A4 book (that’s about 8′ by 12′). After all, a large part of it is a tribute to French comics of the seventies, the magazine Heavy Metal (Métal hurlant), and the epic heavy sounds of doom and stoner music.
But, putting up the cash to do all the editing and the layout and the printing at that scale, is hard. Thus, the first thing about the kicstarter is covering the massive up-front cost of a traditional print run.
The second thing about a kickstarter is that it’s also a good gauge of interest and also, to be honest, a marketing tool. So, it keeps us from ending up with crates of unsellable books and it gets my work in front of more potential readers and players.
We’re not doing any extensive stretch content goals, what we are doing is bringing a fancy printed map as a stretch goal, custom UVG dice, and probably a DM screen—but don’t hold me strictly to that! The actual goodies might change. Still, we’re sticking to light things that won’t radically change shipping weights.
We also don’t want to get bogged down with writing additional content. The UVG is what it is. That said, we’ve already started the editing process (the amazing duo of Fiona Geist and Jarrett Crader are doing the editing; they worked on Mothership and Silent Titans, for example), and we’re finding bits that are unclear, or opportunities for extra content, tables, bits to fit in the glossary, worksheets to add.
For a timeline, well … I can’t announce yet, because we have to sign all the deals, get all the final things specified, but I can say this – editing is proceeding fast.
With the UVG Kickstarter and RSDC under your belt soon, you’ll have completed at least nine projects (including those I know of still in various stages of behind-the-scenes work for other publishers) in the past year or so! That’s tremendous output, and the quality doesn’t seem to dip. Is this a comfortable rate of work for you? Do you feel like it is sustainable?
Oh, it’s not just one year. Misty Isles started back in 2014! It’s been a long journey.
For the quality, I’d say that I’m surprisingly on track with my five-year plan (hah!) to regularly practice drawing and get as good as I want to be with it. I’m just starting year 3 of that plan.
As for the rate. It’s a bit challenging right now. The transition between working multiple projects and mostly working on my own work is, frankly, hard. There’s a very different mental dynamic when I work on a commissioned project vs. my own projects. Switching between the two … yeah, not easy. Fortunately, I’m able to put in a lot more time when I work on my own projects without getting utterly exhausted.
In the long run? I wouldn’t say it’s sustainable. But, for the next few years, to build up enough products that I can call my studio a sustainable enterprise, that’s just what it’s going to take.
Don’t worry, I’ve got some holidays planned to avoid burnout!
I like to leave off with a chance for creators to plug whatever their heart desires. What would you like to bring to the attention of my teeming dozen (singular) readers?
After writing this many pages you want me to plug things … oof. Ok.
I like reading, so here are a few books that are interesting: The Black Swan is a surprisingly interesting book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Worth reading, even though it’s popular with startup types. The Darkening Age by Christine Nixey is terrifying and sad and incredible. It’s about how christianity tore up the classical world. Aggretsuko is a cartoon based on the Sanrio character Aggretsuko (duh), available on Netflix. It is absolutely exceptional, really incisive look into office life. And death metal karaoke. Sea cucumbers are delicious. If you haven’t yet tried sea cucumbers in a Chinese restaurant, you should, because these little squishies are delishies. There’s an artist you should check out, because I think she’ll go far: Evlyn Moreau. And, finally, to plug some unusual sci fi: Liu Cixin’s Three Body Problem. It’s Chinese sci-fi and blew me away because the perspective was so different from what you usually find in English-speaking sci-fi.
Enough plugs? 🙂
This was one of the most interesting Q&A responses, I think. Maybe because this blog has played host to Luka before, and so I felt comfortable with some questions that were not directly about the work so much as about the why behind the work. Regardless, I hope everyone out there reading this got as much out of it as I did!
This was, of course, written a few weeks ago when I had written my Hill Cantons review drafts and decided to badger most of Hydra Cooperative and their associates to get interview companion pieces to the reviews. That means that Luka, the clever little penguin that he is, didn’t want to reveal enough details and dates to plug his Kickstarter, which was then just a glimmer in his eye. However, now that I am writing this closing piece at work on the day this will go to publication, I can link to the Kickstarter for Ultraviolet Grasslands, which has been going for a few days and has already smashed two stretch goals! So there, Luka!
As always, Luka is always welcome back here and I will almost certainly darken his inbox with a list of even more probing questions at some future date. I can’t suggest enough that you support his Patreon work (he develops his games there, like UVG and Witchburner, chapter by chapter with complete transparency – and you get the finished book’s PDF at the end; we’re straight robbing this guy). As a matter of disclosure that I never shy away from announcing (hell, I wrote an article about it), I am indeed a Patron over there – but I like to think Luka humors my interview requests out of a sense of pity rather than because I buy him a coffee each month to fuel his creative juices out of a purely self-serving interest towards getting more of his books.
Additionally, please back that UVG Kickstarter as a personal favor to me because he made a joke suggestion of starring in a UVG-themed yoga instructional video at $100k because he thinks that number is impossible but I intend to aggressively hold him to it!