Sunday, March 27, 2016

Ferris Bueller Vs The Wrong Lovecraft (Thought Eater)

Here is a pair of entries for the Thought Eater DIY RPG Essay Tournament.

If you're new to the contest, it's like this: these two essays are not by me--they're by a pair of anonymous DIY RPG writers who were both assigned to write something interesting and original about hoary old RPG topics.

Anybody reading is eligible to vote for which one you like best and voting will be cut off once all the votes for all the second round Thought Eater essays are up...

The rules for the second round are here.

First One

If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "TAS" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.

Challenge: "Say something original about a movie that's RPG-relevant”

A character fools his overseers, sneaking out of their keep and shucking his responsibilities. He meets up with the second party member, and together they disguise themselves to persuade the master of a local dungeon to release their third party member. The newly united party escapes via a rare and valuable mount, then explores a sprawling city: they ascend its largest monument; wander through its inscrutable market; hobnob (under fake identities) with the rich; witness a sporting spectacle; and interact with strange and hypnotic artifacts. Leaving the city, they’re nearly caught by the first character’s overseer, but they stealth and perform their way out of trouble. Inter-party bickering leads to the first PC to critically succeeding on a performance check to crash a huge and elaborate parade. After the misuse of the party’s mount, the second character falls under a paralysis spell, and the party ties to dispel the magic. Meanwhile, malicious NPCs seek to imprison the party once more…

There are few films that mirror the structure of D&D more than Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Ferris, Cameron, and Sloane are roguish types, challenging authority, fucking things up, and generally having a good time while endangering themselves and others. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is about retaking youth from the corrupt institutions that attempt to prematurely snuff it out; ifFerris Bueller’s didn’t have a Hollywood runtime, it’d be a pure picaresque. Ferris dances with the dangerous consequences of his spontaneity and curiosity while gaming the systems that constrain him—sound familiar?

So how can Ferris Bueller's help us better understand D&D?

From a DM’s perspective, Ferris Bueller’s is useful in that it reveals the starkest difference between a Hollywood picaresque and a D&D picaresque: things kill and get killed in D&D. Ferris didn't encounter parties of blood-smeared raiders or corpse-roasting orcs in every new location; Cameron, in destroying his master’s extremely valuable mount, exposes himself to the most risk. This is an obvious point, but it contains a useful trick: if your game is feeling too charming and neatly causal—if your game is feeling to safe—then slaughter someone. Use indiscriminate death to surprise and scare your players.

Ferris Bueller's also makes this point clear: unless you're incredibly charming, you need cash to survive new territory. Murderhobos in a big city should get jailed or executed—and quickly—if they're both poor and uncharismatic. A surefire way to encourage your PCs to get loot and get clever is to try to crush them in the gears of a big, ruthless system.

Ferris Bueller’s shows, too, that the potently dramatic moments arise when players save each other. So make sure to put your PCs in situations in which they need to save each other from imprisonment and death.

John Hughes reportedly wrote the film in a trance, finishing the first draft in a week. He wanted to "capture as much of Chicago as I could. Not just in the architecture and landscape, but the spirit." Replace Chicago with your latest setting, and that’s the prime goal for world-building via text and images. Communicate as much of the spirit of the place to your players as quickly and elegantly as possible; “this place feels like this” is often more helpful and imaginative as “this place looks like this”.

John Hughes also said: "I know how the movie begins, I know how it ends. I don't ever know the rest, but that doesn't seem to matter. It's not the events that are important, it's the characters going through the event. Therefore, I make them as full and real as I can. This time around, I wanted to create a character who could handle everyone and everything.” Whether your PCs admit it or not, they live in series of experiments and fucking-offs; whether your players admit it or not, they want their characters to be as capable, spontaneous, and daring as Ferris (or as weird as Cameron). If your players aren't having much fun, invite them be Ferris, then chase them with some snarling consequences.-
If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "BOR" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.

H.P. Lovecraft, it turns out, was a pretty shitty prophet of the human mind.

That's not to say he was a shitty stylist, or a shitty fantasist, or even a shitty writer overall.  Mileage will vary on those questions, of course, but one thing few of Lovecraft's readers will dispute is that he was pretty shitty at characterization.

His protagonists are, for the most part, interchangeable and indistinguishable, wooden caricatures of real humans.  In some ways, that's a feature rather than a bug of his work, because it can allow a reader to more easily insert him- or herself (let's face it, though -- usually him-) into the protagonist's shoes.

But it's also a consequence of the fact that Lovecraft just didn't understand humanity very well.  In fact, he was dead wrong about the way our minds and souls work.

The central theme of Lovecraft's stories is that understanding of the true nature of reality would drive men mad.  The universe is not only queerer than we imagine, to quote ole Einstein, but it is queerer than we can imagine.

In H.P.'s day, human knowledge of the universe -- especially of the very large and the very small -- was expanding by leaps and bounds.  Everything was baffling and defied common sense. The idea that the universe was made for man, that our species was the headliner at the gig, was being undermined almost daily.

Lovecraft predicted that truly grasping our own insignificance in the face of such cosmic grandeur would lead us down a road to madness, and a sort of twisted enlightenment.

And he was dead wrong about that.

As with most new things, humans looked upon the face of the Great Mystery, and shrugged.  It was cool and interesting for about five minutes, and then it was banal.

The human psyche didn't deteriorate with the realization that our species is irrelevant to the universe.  Civilization did not fall into decline after discovering that the subatomic world makes no sense to us.

We just let the expert use that knowledge to make new toys.

This implies we'd do the same thing with knowledge of the Mythos.  And that can make the Call Of Cthulhu game a lot more interesting.

Running Call Of Cthulhu As If Lovecraft Was Wrong

Screw Sanity points. Throw them away.

Mythos tomes grant Cthulhu Mythos skills points, just as taking a course in physics gives you skill points in that field.

But studying subatomic physics doesn't drive people mad, even though the realities of the quantum world are bizarre.  Why should knowledge of rituals that bend space-time and send us to non-Euclidean landscapes be any different?

Mere knowledge never drives people mad.  Never.   People develop mental illnesses from severe trauma, or prolonged abuse, or chemical imbalances in their brains.

Never from just knowing shit.

The problem with Mythos knowledge is that it's been hoarded by demagogues and debased cult leaders, for their own aggrandizement.

The invesigators' job is to wrest that knowledge from the "wrong hands" and use it if not for good, then for more practical purposes.  Warfare.  Medicine.  Entertainment.

Sure, Cthulhu's gonna wake up and eat us all, someday.  The climate's gonna blow up in our faces one day, too (probably long before Cthulhu awakes), but you won't find most people losing sleep over it.

That's not to say that the Mythos isn't dangerous.  Starving bears, hurricanes, and volcanoes are all dangerous, too.  Two of them are unstoppable, and the best we can do is flee.

But they don't drive us mad.

If all of this is starting to make Call Of Cthulhu sound more like a game of fantasy heroics or scientific can-doism, that's on purpose.  I mean, its game engine is pretty serviceable and has a nice "old-school" feel that's stood the test of time.

But its central conceit, Lovecraft's central conceit -- that knowledge of our insignificance before the grand and terrible cosmos would cast us into depths of madness and despair -- is, frankly, bullshit.

Mostly, that knowledge just bores people because they don't see its relevance.  Show them how that knowledge can produce cool new toys, and they're a lot more interested.

Make your CoC game about that.  About  making the world better by using the Mythos in better ways.  The looming threat of the Old Ones awakening makes a nice thematic backdrop, just like climate change, but if "The Shadow Out Of Time" is to be believed, its not an imminent threat in 20th or 21st centuries.

Unless somebody messes up and blows an incantation.  In which case, you need to call in the experts -- Mythos magicians who are better at it -- and not the rank amateurs that Sanity points guarantees most investigators will remain.

That's why Hellboy is way cooler than Randolph Carter.

So, screw Sanity points.  Lovecraft was wrong.  Game like it.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Half-Made Book

Some game books, I read them and I immediately want to play.

This doesn't mean what you think it means. I don't mean: I read the book and decide the game is good and better than all the others and has an awesome premise or system. I just mean they have a weird something where I feel like I need to play them, soon, for some vague reason I do not entirely understand that is not related to how much I like the game itself considered outside the book.


Call of Cthulhu is better than Chill 2e in nearly every way, and I will and have run CoC much more than Chill but, to me, the (often very well-illustrated) CoC book is just a book--whereas the Chill book is like play me, play me, play me...

B/X D&D has no special attraction for me over AD&D, 5e or any other D&D (or Warhammer, for that matter)--but B/X is the one where, flipping through, I think I have to playyyyy...

As a system, I like DC Heroes much less than Marvel FASERIP--but the DC book is the one that I just end up staring at over and over. And the new DC adventures with the beautiful color pictures? Don't care at all.

I think I know why, but it's weird:

All these books are under-illustrated.

The illustrations aren't bad, and they aren't just sparse (though they are that)--they also studiously avoid the central ideas of the game.

While Call of Cthulhu gives you images of cultists and cosmic monsters pretty early on, here are Chill's first three pictures:

...utterly competent, yes, but absolutely nothing about horror here. In fact, I don't think there's a single picture of a pc-like character confronting a monster or even a signifier of horror (a bat, a corpse, a clue, a pool of blood) anywhere in the book.

There's PCs, there's monsters, there's a spooky house--but no scenes.

Similarly, here's some typical DC Heroes art:

There are superheroes--but they're not fighting villains, evading deathtraps or interacting with the dazzlingly glossy DC universe in any way. They're just there.

These are both from Mayfair--who had a house style--but Basic D&D also has some of this. It has plenty of images of D&Dish characters doing D&Dish things, but the really typical activity--adventurers confronting exotic creatures in an exotic environment--is missing (unless you count the dull monsters in the intro adventure, which I don't, really). None of the pictures are as evocative as that one in the AD&D PHB of the dwarves confronting the magic mouth, for instance, or A Paladin In Hell.

There is a weird knife-edge here for me: no illustration (Shock, Dread) or generic illustration (AW, Top Secret SI) do nothing for me. Great and lavish illustration I appreciate, but don't give me this weird must-play vibe.

It's something like this: the heroes are illustrated, clearly and well. The villains are illustrated, clearly and well. But the book has not smashed them together yet--it has not described the connective tissue that puts them together.

There is this teetering feeling that something needs to happen--like a chessboard all lined up, just sitting there. Just as all the sofas and hay bales become ominous as soon as the movie starts because you know it's a horror movie, all the illustrated banalities become animated with possibility when you know they're supposed to result in dazzling murder, confrontations on Apokolips, the domains of Asmodeus.

Like you're reading...

The alligator is a large, powerful reptile, sometimes growing to a length of almost 15feet. It makes its home in rivers and swamps, and...

...and this is undeniably pointless prose on its own but underneath there's this shadow awareness that spends the whole time you read dreaming up horror-things to do with an alligator.

And something in that is powerful--because RPG texts depend on giving intimations of potentia--that dizzy, wonderful first-page-of-the-novel feeling where things could go in any direction. And when you finally do read the introductory adventure at the back of the book it is always so disappointing where--given all these options--they narrowly chose to take it. Better to spin out the readers dreaming about what's possible instead of subjecting them to the leaden realities of modules and examples where the monster waiting to ambush them is Sturgeon's Law.

I don't know if this feeling is unique to me or, even if it's not, whether it can really be usefully harnessed--who would want to intentionally create the feeling of a half-made thing? And is it even really possible to do genuinely well?

Part of this might just be the simplest trick of literature--describe in words so much more than you can show, creating a semisensed world in the mind--but supplemented with solid pictures of the principle characters to ground everyone at the table in the same reality.

I only know I keep staring at these books, year after year, not running them, not wanting to--really, when I think about it--but feeling like not doing it leaves something strangely unsaid.


Monday, March 21, 2016

About our druid's ex...

This blog is called Playing D&D With Porn Stars--and sometimes that means it's about porn stars instead of D&D. Especially when something important comes up.

Some of you may have heard about Stoya--who plays a half-elf druid with a dog named George--accusing her ex-boyfriend and fellow porn performer of rape a while back.

Well, she did--and many other women came forward--and while it didn't surprise anyone in the business, it surprised everyone in the media.

A Major American Magazine commissioned me to write about how that happened.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Maze of the Blue Medusa FAQ

Tomorrow I'll probably write about how one of our party's clerics was invited to the White House today, but she's driving right now so I don't know the details yet.

Meanwhile here's an FAQ for our new thing:  
What is Maze of the Blue Medusa?

It's a big dungeon module for any kind of D&D-like game by me and Patrick Stuart coming out soon from Satyr Press.

Who did what?

I made a big painting of a dungeon, then Patrick went through and wrote descriptions for all 304 rooms of it, then we both went in and rewrote parts of it together. In the end, I wrote some, Patrick wrote some.

The initial graphic design ideas came from Kirin Robinson who did Old School Hack, but when he got busy with real life the project was taken over by Anton Khodakovsky.

Is this Patrick any good?

Click to enlarge and spoil

What is this Satyr Press?

It grew out of Sator Press--a little literary press run by a kind-of-famous guy named Ken Baumann who is also involved in the DIY D&D scene. They have lots of experience printing books and getting them to people, but this is their first RPG product.

Why isn't this done with Lamentations of the Flame Princess--did you and James Raggi have a fight? Is there gossip?

Nah--it's just this is a massive project (3 or more years in the making) and James already had a lot going on. The Maze was going to require some very expensive graphic design and personal attention to work properly and Satyr was like "Is it cool?" and James was like "It's cool".

Plus, LotFP is consistently trying to do stuff that's a little more historical 17th C and weird-fiction and relying less on D&D tropes and this is, at the end of the day, a big fucking dungeon full of medusas and liches and shit.

Plus everybody involved is pretty excited that there's another company willing to do boundary-pushing DIY D&D projects.

When is it out?

The graphic designer has the typos and is fixing them, then we go to print, so I am guessing this spring maybe early summer. But book stuff is cray so don't quote me.

So is this coming out before Amazons of the Metal North or Black Metal Amazons of the Devoured Land or whatever?

Yes. I haven't finished all the art for Amazons yet--which LotFP is putting out.

What levels is it appropriate for?

A wide range of character levels should be able to have fun in the Maze—low level parties (1–4) may find it tough but survivable if they deal carefully with the more powerful creatures, whereas higher level parties (5–10) should be able to try to target the bigger threats without too many nuisance encounters along the way.

What system is it written for?

It's basically system-agnostic, but there are stats like so--'s basically on an AD&D scale but with ascending AC.

How big is it?

Hardcover, 304 rooms, pages in the high-200s, though in order to make it easier to use than the standard megadungeon, a lot of pages repeat content for convenience sake. 
Will this book be that megadungeon-done-right that follows on your critique of how these things are usually done?

Mostly. My original platonic ideal megadungeon would probably have shorter room descriptions (like the dungeons in Red & Pleasant Land) but Patrick's writing on the initial draft was sooooo good that we kept it long.

You can't run this dungeon without reading it first, but the way we wrote it hopefully makes the whole thing unfold like a story and, so, when you're running the dungeon that'll hopefully make it a lot easier to remember what a thing is and what it does and wants when you see a picture from the map.

What is you critique of how megadungeons are usually done?

Graphic and information design requiring too much page-flipping, goofy themed bullshit that's basically just dad jokes, rooms that are just monster-zoos with no real problem solving, fighting the same creatures over and over, rooms that just aren't that interesting and were written in bulk, low ratio of ideas-to-word, funhouse shit that goes way off-theme and doesn't make sense even if a wizard did it, too few factions in the dungeon, events in different parts of the dungeon don't affect each other, few ways to use the dungeon against itself, lots of other stuff.

What's the basic idea?

tl;dr there's a medusa down here and she has treasure but there's also monsters and traps and shit. 

Longer version:

SPOILERS, highlight to read

There is a rumor of an empire, ancient and lost to time. An Empire ruled by three perfect women who could never do wrong, and who would never die. And though they were beautiful, ageless and merciful, the kingdom that grew around the Triarchy was the most monstrous yet made. A tyranny of torture and pain that could never end while the three immortal sisters lay at its center like pearls in a poisoned shell. Until one day it did. The women disap- peared and were never seen again. The Empire slowly faded and fell, leaving only a memory, like a nightmare recalled at dawn.

There used to be an empire ruled by three perfect women. One could not be harmed and would never age, one was loved by everyone who saw her and one prevented anyone who met her from doing harm to another. Outside of its inner court, the empire was horrible, murderous and psychotic. People working for beings they knew to be perfect went mad. But the empire could never end because the three people at its core would collectively never age and no one who met them would, or could, ever harm them. So the world was fucked.

The Three sisters lived a kind of cosseted, disconnected existence, generally unaware of the horror that occurred outside of their direct presence, technically in charge, but with no real control.
With no way to end the empire, a group of its highest functionaries, with very mixed motives, devised a plan. They would take the three sisters to the Maze of the Medusa and hide them there. The Medusa Psathyrella was already a kind of jailer of immortal threats, her Maze is almost impossible to find, she is the only person clever and cold-hearted enough to keep the sisters prisoner without being seduced by their various perfections.

Having succeeded at their plan, everyone ends up much more trapped than they intended to.
In the world outside, the Empire fell apart and currently exists as a kind of legend of the distant past of the world the players come from.

Physical Details?

259 pages--full color--7.5" w x 9" h--that's bigger than Red & Pleasant Land so you can see the detail in the maps.

You know 'medusa' is a proper name, right? The species name is 'gorgon'?

Go fuck yourself.

Can I pre-order?


Go to to buy the Hardcover + PDF bundle, go to to buy the Simple PDF.

Also, a Deluxe PDF—hyperlinked throughout for ease of use & exploration for GMs and readers—is in the works now (it'll cost $10 if you purchase it alone). If you order the Hardcover + Simple PDF bundle available today ($50 + shipping) but wanna upgrade to the Hardcover + Deluxe PDF bundle available soon, you'll pay only the difference.

I really like this art, is it available as a poster, shower curtain or high-quality printed decorative throw pillow by any chance?

Yes. Here.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Pinking It and Shrinking It With Stacy

If you've paid any attention to conversations about how to get the gaming scene to be more diverse, you've probably run into the following idea: The genres and subgenres that are popular in games right now are themselves patriarchal constructs and greater diversity requires abandoning grimdark aesthetics and, in some cases, violence itself because these are supposed to totes be boy things.

Now while we own and operate a lot of pinked and shrinked things here at casa D&D With Porn Stars, I have a lot to say about all the things that happen when people confuse an ethic with an aesthetic, but I figured it might be more interesting to talk to somebody who has actually taken on bringing more women into gaming as a conscious and continuous project (and had success with it, too)--namely Stacy Dellorfano of Contessa.

Zak: What I wanted to talk about is the idea of a "diversity aesthetics", like, in a nutshell: 
He's saying they should hire more diversely and market to YA readers. (Which: sure.) But this fits within a larger (and common) set of ideas: "adult" and grimdark aesthetics and people who are into them are associated with antidiversity, whereas "girlier" topics and aesthetics like romance and soap opera are allegedly signs of a commitment to modernity and diversity.

Like the whole "Dungeon World is FUN! Unlike scary gory LotFP" kind of thing.
I guess for you the starting point would be: do you feel like specific aesthetics are a way to bring in women to Contessa and your other projects?

Stacy: Yes and no. Yes, I think specific aesthetics are a way to bring women to pretty much any project, but no, I don't think the way it's commonly done is the way to do that. What I more often than not see in attempts to do that are male creators trying to focus group their way into understanding "what women want", which means they only end up getting the surface level of the complexity involved with being a woman, and their attempts show as being flat and 2-dimensional.

The specific aesthetics necessary is any genre, any setting, any style under the sun so long as it was created by a woman or had women working in equal or greater parts on the creative aspects of the property. That isn't to say women aren't interested in works done by men, but works done by women often act as a much more effective springboard in large part because it's so rare.

This is because of nuance. Nuance a dude asking a focus group of women what they want is never going to understand. The nuance of growing up as a girl with certain expectations laid at your feet and the terrifying prospect of embracing those expectations, rebelling against them, or pretending they don't exist. It's a shared experience most women have that men have no ability to understand.

Women bring that into the fiction they write and contribute to, which in turn makes it more accessible to women. We're speaking the same language. It doesn't matter if that language is in a romance novel or a grimdark series that doesn't have anywhere near a happy ending, like The Hunger Games. What matters is that the creative voice came from one of us.

There's plenty of evidence women like grimdark. The Hunger Games is a pretty good example of that. There's a series that's nothing but grimdark tragedy after tragedy with a great deal of violence, and it's loved by women because the hand of a female creator is obvious. Mad Max had a lot of the same qualities, even though the creative team that worked on it was a lot more mixed. Again, more grimdark and more violence, and women love it.

Zak: Do you ever see a specific property/game/plot concept and go: "This has got to end, the hobby will never grow if we keep making things like this?"

Stacy: Nope. By the time it ends up a property, game, or plot, it's passed through the hands of a whole lot of people. The end result is the victim of diversity issues, not the cause. The cause are all those people who handled it all the way to the end.

When I think that thought, it's often about how people treat one another. 

Zak: But are there aesthetics or genres that (regardless of who wrote them or specific plot points or characters) you see as encouraging a wider audience? Like for example it's a fact that women used to be a bigger % of the comics readership before superheroes dominated the industry.

Stacy: No. Women like a wide range of genres and aesthetics. There are a lot of stereotypes that disagree with me, but they're stereotypes. 

Zak: So is it your take that you change the people in charge and let the genre stuff sort itself out?

Stacy: Yeah, pretty close. Not just in charge, but all over the place. I think there can be diverse products in every genre just like there are women in every genre. 

Zak: Again, administrative and creative personnel aside, do you see a downside in pushing creators to address genres or subgenres or themes that historically women have been more into?

Stacy: Yes. It's the wrong thing to push for, period.

Now, to be clear, I'm not talking about someone requesting something they like from a creator they like who isn't already doing that thing. Wanting to see how your favorite comic book artists handle a genre they typically don't dip their toes into is a completely different beast than brazenly stating there are certain types of material more suited towards women. I don't have any problems with the first, but the latter is insulting.

When people push genres or sub-genres as the fix-it solution for gender inequality (or any other type of inequality), they might as well be pointing out there's a 'pink' part of the toy store and a 'blue' part of the toy store, and if you want to attract women you need to make sure to have a lot of the 'pink' stuff. Girls play with Barbies, boys play with Matchbox cars. Girls get romances, boys get action films. Girls are 'crafters', boys are 'makers', and so on and so on. It's insulting and inappropriate.

We are all - men and women alike - multi-faceted people with many interests across a wide spectrum of genres and subgenres. The stereotypes that exist are all surface-level sameness, and if you cater to them you'll get surface-level quality content. Women deserve quality content that isn't just surface-level, and the only way we're going to get that is through equality and diversity at all levels of creation.

Zak: Is there anything you've found does attract women specifically to Contessa events and other things you're involved in other than going "Hey we're women running this and this is specifically for you?"

Stacy: That's really all we do. Visible female leadership is an extraordinarily powerful tool for bringing women to the table. So is creating something that's specifically for the benefit of the women participating. It's really that simple. 

Zak: Is there a way a company making games can send a message that a game is "for the benefit of the women participating"? Right out on the cover or in the messaging?

Stacy: What I meant when I said "for the benefit of the women participating" means literally that we run the events we run at ConTessa so the women participating gain some sort of benefit. We treat events as if our target audience is ourselves, and ask our participants to run events they themselves would like to attend. That's about the only content guidance we really give.

I'm trying to think about how you could translate that into a book cover, and I don't know that it's possible. A great deal of the benefit we get comes from being able to meet other people like you. A book cover or text isn't a human connection, so I don't think it really translates. 

Zak: So if Contessa were a game company making games, the only overt way to communicate female-friendliness would be by hoping the consumer knew it was female-run? Is that fair to say? There'd be no symbolic communication to the audience?

Stacy: I have a hard time answering this question because ConTess is in no way set up like a gaming company, and it wouldn't look anywhere near the same if it was a gaming company. It's obvious ConTessa is run by women because our work involves so much in-person and personal contact with the people we pull in to run events.

If I had a gaming company that made games, it would't be focused on getting more women into gaming. It'd be focused on getting more women into making games. 

Zak: ...and let the chips fall where they may after that, I assume?

Stacy: For the most part, yeah. I'd also do snazzy things like send my game out to places like ConTessa for playtesting and demo'ing, and make sure the crew I have on the ground representing the game are good people from diverse backgrounds.

But the product itself wouldn't ever be coded for boys or for girls. I have much more respect for all genders than to simplify someone's experience down to the shallowest of stereotypes.
If you want to work with Stacy and Contessa at the 2016 Gen Con--click here!

Monday, March 14, 2016

Getting My Teeth Kicked In By Adrian Smith

So I just finished drawing this for the upcoming Amazons of the Devoured Land...
Click to enlarge or don't bother
...astute readers will notice, in addition to making people fight in heels and my utter failure to make the figure on the right fit a D&Dish time period, the distinct Bisleyishness of the amazon on the left.

Which is strange since what I was trying to do was rip off not Simon Bisley but Adrian Smith. Specifically this image from Realms of Chaos: Lost and the Damned... image which I have discussed at length before.

I haven't done this since school--attempt to copy another artist. My aim was to try to not just pay homage but hopefully to learn something by doing it. Maybe I did, but purely in terms of competing with the elder Smith, I failed utterly. The interlocking and silvery precision of his delivery is nowhere to be found in that big flat stomping yellow picture I made.

But I thought it might be useful to talk about how it went:

I started on the far left with the weapon and this already kind of doomed me: while the axe has to just sit in the chaos champion's hand, the flail has to strongly give the impression of movement in order to make sense in mid-air like that, necessitating a pose which more accentuated the movement of the arm and shoulder.

Ok, no biggie, but that immediately runs into a more fundamental biomechanical problem. Adrian's aggressor has those goat legs and even though the implied movement of the figure is from left to right (as if leaping off the stairs into the opponent), the entire figure actually follows a subtler logic: we look at the goat legs and we sense a sort of elastic movement--like the implied contraction of a chicken wing--and that together with the slightly bent arm and the elongated, stretched torso imply not so much a movement that goes toward the figure on the right but more a kind of clawlike contraction of the entire left-hand figure, squeezing all four limbs together and bringing the winged champion on the right toward the center of the horned champion.

You can see how the picture works by putting your hand over the lower half of the axe guy--the movement in the picture suddenly seems very different and it seems like he's kind of victoriously flinging his hands outward rather than bringing the wing guy in for the kill/ The goat legs make the picture feel like it's going to snap and squeeze the entire composition inward toward those dark spots created by the heavy shadows in the center of the lefthand figure's torso.

Now my amazon not only lacks goat-legs, but I had sketched in most of the figure before I realized how important this kind of elastic motion was to making Adrian's picture work--so I couldn't compensate by trying to contort her into some analagous position (which might've been possible with the right clothes or pose). This turns the straight, outflung arm on the left into not so much a minor variation on the bent one but a symptom of the fact the picture needs a new focus.

So I moved the amazon's right arm out of the way--this made it look more like the other figure had just been hit rather than (as in Adrian's) the hitting was about to happen. The right-hand figure wasn't being held up, she was being knocked into the air.

The very loud and heavy way the amazon's planting her foot is a result of this change--she has to be grounded in order for her body to seem to be supporting the intensity of that smack.

A more serious problem than having to re-wire all the biomechanics halfway through concerns Adrian's use of texture. There is a thing that terrible fantasy illustration does where muscle and natural textures conspire to offer a kind of all-over gleaming look, with no real shadows or center of interest, and it all just kind of blahhhs out. Late 80s TSR was the apocalypse of this. Frazetta and other good artists avoid this trap by carefully weighing where the lights and darks fall to give a more post-photographic (or post-cinematic) look. Adrian avoids that pitfall here by carefully shadowing down from a range of grays into a few intense darks on the shoulder guard, armor, lower legs and in the scars and details to give the picture drama--the modulation is extremely subtle.

Now I'm using a pen and some grey ink instead of a pencil. If you compare, for example, the horned figure's hair to the shadow on the side of the same figure's shoulder armor...'ll see the hair doesn't actually go all the way black. And if you look really close you'll see that inside that shoulder armor shadow, the top third is a slightly paler gray than the black beneath. These effects are small, but all together it's careful tonal shifts like these that make the picture seem to writhe with movement and shadow.

Not only that, but the axe guy's weird texture is central to making the picture work, and the curvy babe I drew requires much bigger and more regular tonal shifts (shadow here, highlight here) in order for her body to make sense. If you cover up the monster's lower goat leg, the upper thigh on the left doesn't look all that round--but who cares? He's a gross monster. I don't have that liberty if I want the amazon to look babely*. So I can't really make my picture follow the same texture scheme--though I try to get flatten her out visually a little by covering her with as many tattoos as I can get away with and still have a legible picture.

But the overall tonal problem is still there--by the time I got this far in the picture, the picture I've got looks suuuuuper cheesy and it's depressing. It needs something new to replace the visual complexity I've lost going from pencil to pen and from monster to maiden--so that's when I brought in the color and the heavy shadows. I stopped trying to plumb the cruel mysteries of Adrian Smith's rendering and just went about trying to make mine serviceable by finding another avenue down which complexity could creep.

So, yeah, that's how it came out like that. Try again next time.

*She's based on Mandy's Halloween look here:


Thursday, March 10, 2016

Maze of the Blue Medusa Preview (SPOILERRRRRS)

click to enlarge
Pictures by me, words by Patrick Stuart, published by Satyr Press. Coming soon...

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Hodge Podge Systems Are Good

1. The complexity of a game system should depend on how often you interact with that system.

2. How often you interact with that system depends on the genre of the game.

(For example: if you get ambushed by gunmen in a John Woo movie, you might end up fighting for half hour and live and then get in three more fights later, if you get ambushed in The Godfather you are going to die in the next minute, period, and it will probably be the only time you fight. If you get ambushed in a Lovecraft story you will probably not only die immediately but it's the only violence in the whole story.)

3. Therefore different genres need systems of differing complexity.

4. Games which typically spawn the longest-running campaigns embrace the largest variety of genres and subgenres (to keep the game interesting over time).

5. Therefore different systems of different levels of complexity are desirable for campaign-style games.

6. So shut up about how great it is that your game uses the same engine for everything.


In other news: Red & Pleasant Land is a finalist for the Three Castles award along with some other good-looking game stuff. It looks like a pretty nice crop this year so I'll be happy no matter who wins.

And, coming soon from me and False Patrick by Satyr Press...