Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Five or So Questions on UVG

Today I have an interview with Luka Rejec on the Ultraviolet Grasslands (UVG)! Luka designs and illustrates UVG both in a free, introductory RPG and in expanded content on the WizardThiefFighter Patreon! The responses from Luka were really lovely - check them out! 

(All art in this post is by Luka Rejec.)

A ziggurat style building on a green hill covered with bushes, under a purple sky. The ziggurat has neon signage in the shape of cacti, pineapples, and the word "love" with hearts on its walls.
This is my favorite of the images that Luka sent me for the post. It just punched into my heart somehow.
Tell me a little about the UVG. What excites you about it? 

It says on the tin: an rpg sandbox inspired by psychedelic heavy metal, the Dying Earth genre, and Oregon Trail games.

 But let's break that down a bit.

 You know Shelly's Ozymandias, right? That sense of awe at a deep, vast time.

 Then you've got the journeys of Odysseus or Xuanzang. That sense of wonder at an epic, vast space.

It's all captured right there, in The Hobbit. The journey there and back again, through the bones of fallen civilizations. That stuff is exciting as all get out. Put on some slow, heavy music, crack open one of those stories, and you're transported.

 When I got into D&D - this fantasy that promises infinite worlds beyond time - I wanted that. I wanted wonder and awe. Instead, I got hexcrawls. Six mile hexes. Imagine running a hexcrawl of the Santiago de Compostella, say the Camino del Norte. That's 800 km, or about 80 of those damned hexes. I tried to make something epic, but instead I got a slog.

So, I started tinkering with the format, with the goal of making these massive, awesome journeys feasible within my favorite role-playing game. At the completely mechanical level, I mixed a pointcrawl with the Oregon Trail to create tools a referee and players can use to experience of exploration and alien environments. So, you could say, it's a caravan simulator.

Rules-wise it's simple enough - I built on a stripped-down 5E D&D chassis, because that's what I like, and it can slot into pretty much any D&D adjacent game with ease.

Content-wise, it's now 80% done at a wee bit over 50k words and 25 major locations that take a caravan across six timezones on a three-month journey into a vast land of wizard cats, body-hopping spirits, multi-bodied abmortals, biomechanical monsters, mountains of bone, floating islands, crystal intelligences, and possibly the end of the world.

That was a little bit about the UVG, as for what excites me: I get to draw and paint and write and share this world of limitless possibility inspired by my favorite pastimes - and here's the best part - over a hundred people care enough that they put down actual money where their likes are. This is intensely affirming for me as an artist.

 I mean, come on - I write a world that is a literal rainbow of different colored lands, where shamans ride into the sky on chariots of fire from the tops of neon ziggurats and gunslingers possess their enemies with the bullets they shoot. It's mad, and metal, and colorful. \m/

A black, purple, and fuschia background for the cover of UVG, with the text UVG, Update 13, Ultraviolet Grasslands & The Black City, Psychedelic RPG Crawl, Luka Rejec. There appear to be two figures in bright pink and darker blue on the horizon.
The UVG cover update. I love the vivid brights against the darkness.
The setting looks truly psychedelic! When you're putting the setting, art, and mechanics together, what about that colorful vibe is most important to the stories told in UVG? 

I assume you're asking, which is the most important to the stories that come out of the game - the setting, the art, or the mechanics?

First let's clear up element zero: the players (and I always count the referee as a player unless otherwise specified) should not be assholes (is that getting beeped out?).

 The referee, especially, shouldn't be adversarial or invested in a given story or outcome. Their role isn't to defeat the heroes, or tell the story of their own world, but to facilitate a weird and wonderful trip for the whole group (and yes, the acid pun is on purpose). Of course, dice and danger should slaughter individual characters mercilessly, but the referee should be impartial and all the random tables are there to also ensure the referee is unknowing - an unreliable guide, who simply doesn't know in advance what is around the next hill.

Ok, but beyond that - it's definitely art first, setting second, mechanics third. We're human - visual monkeys - so a picture, whether painted in words or ink, is what grabs us.

Yes, you have giant walking beasts, yes, you have biomechanical horrors, yes, you have radiation ghosts. The art draws the players in and encourages them to imagine stuff that's vivid and weird.

The setting itself is a layer cake of kitchen sinks, kitsch, cultural references, and random tables. That's to drive home the high weirdness and possibilities — it's not just about 14 types of polearm, but about roleplaying a wizard polymorphed into a lettuce being attacked by a dappled bunny rabbit (true rp story).

The last part are the mechanics. Frankly, the precise numbers are never all that important in a role-playing game — yes, a certain granularity and level of detail is fun. Having a +2 bonus or a +5 bonus feels different. But at the end of the day, dice, tables, and random effects are there to remove predictability (I'm repeating myself).

So, what do the mechanics do in the UVG? They make long overland voyages reasonably playable and work to remind the players that their little caravan is alone in a vast, mind-boggling, huge realm ... and that when things go wrong, they will have to eat their pack animals and leave their loot behind.

A black and white cross-section image of a "Vome Hive" depicting characters, creatures, and environment with small text annotating details.
This is fascinating!
How did you develop the setting? Did you use media references, have you cycled through ideas? I'm curious about your process! 

For years now I've been moving away from the idea of the referee as some all-knowing 'world master' or 'game master' who controls the game world.

The UVG started life as a remote and inaccessible region in a campaign I ran and co-created with a group of players, the Golden Goats, over a couple of years. That game ran entirely in the Rainbowlands, which became the 'civilized' launching point for the journey into the UVG.

We built the Rainbowlands collaboratively, with me as referee challenging my players to build it fast and loose at our first session, and then we progressively fleshed it out as new elements became relevant.

Please, don't imagine this involved the writing of any kind of game fiction or prep outside of the session. We got together, unfurled a sheet of paper, scrawled on it with pencils, dribbled cheese and grease on it as we ate, and stuck post-its on the edges once we ran out of space. This became a living, and loose, document of the world.

After I moved away that campaign ended and I started up my patreon page to encourage myself to draw and write (that motivation and people voting with their wallets thing again). I flailed around for several months, before I figured out how to mix writing and art in a single package, and then ... I held a vote.

I presented three or four options — existing worlds or mini-settings I had ready to write. The patrons chose the UVG and so the UVG it was. Patron preference substituted for a die roll to determine which world I fleshed out.

It turned out to be the best possible choice. Obviously I enjoyed and knew the world and it reminded me of fun times, but it was an especially good challenge, because the seed of the world was not just my imagination, but the collective creativity of a group of people who became friends through role-play.

For example, the sandbox starts with the magical mind-controlling cats in the Violet City. Trust me, that was not something I would have used without improv world-building!

As to my day-to-day creative process; well, it's pretty simple. I get up in the morning, open up a word processor and write.

Of course, I slide back and forth through the text, revise and edit, but it's essentially just me and the keyboard. I don't refer to specific media or prior art (aside from what marinates in my head), but I do often refer to references on geology, biology, and other sciences, to harvest real-world, tactile details. It sounds better to say a portal is made of flaking schist, and sometimes you'll play with a geologist, and they'll take advantage of the effect of schistosity on rock masses in support columns.

The other thing that has a pretty large influence is some of the music I listen to. Genres and subgenres like psychedelia, space rock, stoner rock, and doom metal. I wrap all this up and call it "psychedelic metal", to the dismay of some heavy metal music conservatives. I rarely refer to songs or albums directly, but I try to evoke the mood and feel of these genres — summed up perfectly by that chorus line from Truckin' by the Grateful Dead
 "Lately it occurs to me
What a long strange trip it's been." 
 As for the art, well, sometimes a scene comes before the text, sometimes after. Usually after. And yes, I'm inspired by my favorite artists: Moebius, Frazetta, Corbusier, Pratt ... well, another long story. Let's say I'll make a post on artists and music I connect with the UVG at some point. After another strange journey.

A moon obscured partially with clouds over a pale blue sky, over the horizon of bright yellow grasslands. A group of people emerge from the right, crossing in a caravan.
The bright yellow here just really grabbed my eye. I love the details and the rough edges!
How did you make UVG look so intense? What techniques did you use? 

You mean the art? I use a mix of digital and traditional media — no surprises there, since every piece has to pass through processing before going into layout.

Most of the pieces starts as a blue pencil or graphite sketch, followed by inking. For inking I use a whole series of tools, depending on my mood and the mood I'm going for with the piece. Pens, gel pens, felt nib pens, markers, brush pens, and various regular brushes.

The contrasts are key here, between white space and figure, between thin lines and thick lines, between detail and emptiness, between light and dark. That's all intensity is, really - contrast dialed up.

After I have the piece inked I 'digitize' it — which is a fancy way of saying I take a photo or a scan, bring it into Affinity Photo or Photoshop and roughly clean it up - remove vignettes, even out the lighting, drop all the colors, and ramp up the contrast to get rid of the pencils (more or less).

For the digital colors, I try to stay with the hand-drawn mood of my lines - so rough brushes, fast strokes, limited palette, stark contrasts. It's a bit different when I work with water colors, poster colors, or colored inks - since I do the coloring at the same time as the inking. But, that's about all there is to it.

 don't go for polished linework and perfect lines — I've become bored with the hyper-polished art styles that are so prevalent in fantasy and comics these days (gradient fills are something I particularly detest). I want it to keep that hand-drawn feel.

As for ... how to get the artwork looking intense? You think it's intense? I keep thinking it's not there yet - I want it starker and better, but I estimate I've another 3–4 years of practice ahead of me before I reach the precise mood and style I want these days.
A blue sky and yellow landscape with two angled, vertical sets of rocks in dark brown jutting from the ground. They are mirrored, but angled away from each other. A small blue and orange caravan travels down a straight road headed away from the viewer.
I find this exceptionally pretty because it reminds me of the desert, one of my favorite places in the world. The colors and style are very evocative!
What would you like to try on your next project, keeping in mind your experiences on UVG? What have you learned from it? 

The next project? Or projects?

Overall, I've learned I need to be more uncompromising. I need to be tighter with my writing, more minimalist with my rules, richer with my content, less restrained with my art.

I'm going to try harder to explode the idea of pre-built, whole, unbreakable, static units: the setting, the character. I see this dominant approach in rpgs of all colors that tries to overdetermine every single aspect of every character and setting.

Characters and settings are built up, layer by layer, into these lovingly crafted, optimized, perfect bundles projecting the hopes and dreams of their players. But when I look at the great stories, from the Mahabharata to the Forever War, success is followed by failure, loss is the seed of victory. The arcs are dialectical, and sustain a creative tension.

Many of the players I game with love to test both their worlds and their characters to the breaking point and beyond. That moment, when a hero dives into the gullet of a leviathan with nothing but a sword, ready to die - that is epic right there. The player should be rewarded! Instead, the whole table groans. If he dies, they're going to have to wait thirty minutes (or more!) for the player to build a new character.

 At my game table, there is no wait. The building of the new character is a game - often collective - with input from all the players, and a lot of random rolls, long odds and weird effects. I want to bring that to other tables, other referees, other players. The deaths and failures of characters, villages, kingdoms, worlds, should be opportunities for fun, weird games.

 So ... I guess that's the thread running through the Necropolis (working project title), the Voyages of the Black Obelisk (working project title), and Sixty-Six Heroes (working project title): life out of death.

Huh. That's a simpler theme than I expected when I started writing this answer.

A grey and brown landscape with two rocky mountains and a dark blue-grey sky. Between the mountains, a small circular building erupts with a full color rainbow shooting into the sky.
This is my second favorite of the images Luka shared - the calm, muted landscape with the bright, vivid rainbow is a great juxtaposition.

Thank you so much to Luka for the great interview! I hope you all enjoyed the interview! Make sure to check out Ultraviolet Grasslands (UVG) and consider supporting Luka on Patreon!

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