Friday, April 14, 2017

Veins of the Earth Interview: Patrick Stuart and Scrap Princess

Ahh, Veins of the Earth.

I don't have any delusions that people are stumbling across my blog not knowing what Veins of the Earth from Lamentations of the Flame Princess is, but briefly: it's Patrick Stuart's take on the underdark.

Here's more about it, from the website:

At the deepest point of the dungeon, behind the throne, beyond the rooms where the battles took place, after everything is done and the enemy dead, there is a crack. A black empty space where the wall joins the stone floor, a foot and a half high and three wide. A breeze comes out. You’d never notice it. You could lie on your belly and fit inside.
You have existed, up to this point, on the illusion of a plane, bordered by mountains, rivers, seas or the politics of maps, and this life has been a lie. Its borders are made up, its seas are gateways, its mountains are cradles of deep life. There is no plane.

You can read the rest via the link above.

Like a lot of people I'm patiently waiting for my physical copy to arrive in the mail, so in the mean time I thought I'd reach out to both Patrick and the artist, Scrap Princess, and ask them a bit about Veins and its development while I wait to hold this massive tome.

The Secret DM: So Veins of the Earth has been on a long road to completion and its release date is finally here. Considering that, in a lot of ways VotE is your "first book", at what point did Scrap get involved in the process? What about James Raggi? How did VotE end up as a Lamentations release?

Patrick Stuart: Someone actually helped track down a G+ post that must be Scrap's earliest involvement in Veins:

So, February 9th 2013. I think this is about the first time Scrap became interested in my blog as well, so a lot of our relationship dates to around this point.

Initially several other people were going to do illustrations, and people like Logan Knight and Cédric Plante did illustrations for one or two monsters, but as the project developed it looked more and more like it was going to be difficult to get it published with a profit share system whilst also having multiple artists in the book, and Scrap and I had grown used to working with each other, so she ended up stepping up and doing everything.

I think I contacted James around the 2nd July 2014 with a first draft in electronic format, then sent a full test print on the 6th June. After he had read through that he agree'd to publish it. This was around the same time that Deep Carbon Observatory had come out and about a month after that was released James said he would like to publish Veins.

SDM: Scrap: your artwork that's been previewed looks deeper and more vibrant than previous this just the result of a natural development of your style, or did James or Patrick make specific requests that pushed your art style in a different direction?

Scrap Princess: The drawings for the pariahs go back over 4 years so that definitely evolved with time. There's only 1-2 that I redid when I realized I could do better now. 

The rest of the art in the book happened closer together when it was going to be my art all the way through, which was only decided when Raggi confirmed as publisher.

The quality of writing made me want to push my haphazard abilities like I had never before. I really, really wanted to nail the look of an anti-phoenix or a cromagnogolem , and nail it as good as I felt the writing was. It's the first time I had something inspire me that hard and the first time I was determined to reach an external standard. Normally I'm not really a "give a shit" person. I make stuff that I enjoy, yes, but it's rare I accept any external frame of reference for quality on my own art. So this is what happens when there's a really cool monster I guess.

That's a good yardstick for art: does it have cool monsters y/n?

SDM: Patrick, did Scrap influence your writing in any way?

PS: Probably less than for any of the other stuff we have done together. She had some influence on DCO, Fire on the Velvet Horizon was a dual-creation where we both had a big effect. Broken Fire Regime, if that ever comes out, has a great deal of Scrap-influenced and Scrap-created content. The longer we have worked together the more our influences have interpenetrated with each thing we make but Veins is one of the first things I did. She still has bits and pieces of writing in there that were added in development though, so she is present in the text and her art ties the whole thing together.

SDM: What sort of obstacles and challenges did you face while working on it?

PS: It's huge and that caused delays. Most of the big central ideas were done by the middle of 2014, so the remaining 3 years are made up of being proof read twice, edits by James, Zak and I think anyone else who looked at the text. Most of that was done by around the summer of 2015 so the two years after that were waiting for Jez to become available and him laying out the book, becoming more frantic in the two or three months prior to completion as all the little problems were squeezed to the end of the toothpaste.

Nothing moves quickly in the OSR, the old saying is that things can be fast, cheap and high quality, but you can only ever have two of those. The OSR is poor, so it has to be cheap, everyone involved wanted it to be quality, that means that it's gonna take 4 years and 6 months to do.

Scrap: The biggest obstacle is I would feel I did some fantastic next level shit with an art piece and send it to Patrick and he would say, "yes this is nice" and I would plot his demise. The second biggest obstacle is my amazing ability to not read properly if it's on a computer screen and so having to redo a drawing because I had left something out. The 3rd obstacle is Jez doing things irrelevant to the project like other books, sleeping, and having a family. The 4th obstacle is my own haphazard artistic abilities and having to work around a lack of technical skill with "dynamic gestures" and pure mutantness.

The workflow got wack towards the end with bad communication and a sense of urgency that meant I wound up not pushing as hard for things but, art exists external to the creator, so you have to accept that other people are going to like art of yours that you don't super like and they are not MAD.

This also meant that spaces for art opened up late in the project, and it would of sown deeper madness amongst the others if I had delayed things to make sure there was art I felt exactly right for them. Like every piece of art in there is something I would call "good" but not all are "exceptional"; 70% of the book is art I would describe as "exceptional".

SDM: Is there anything you would have done differently if you could do it over?

SP: So if it was done over, knowing that I was doing all the art and how much art we could fit in, and still taking 4 years, then maybe it would be 100% "exceptional" art pieces to me. Though, again, there's pieces in there because other people like them so much, that I think are merely good, so it might not even seem that much of a better book to anyone else.

PS: I would make something shorter, sharper, tighter and lighter. That said, the draft zero for Broken Fire Regime is currently at 124,609 words so clearly I am insane. After that though, I am only going to work on short, sharp projects that can be easily lifted with one hand.

SDM: What were your inspirations for VotE?

PS: Briefly: geology, caving and speleobiology. Reading about geology gave me a powerful impression of "Deep Time" and the book of the earths history as written in its stone. A lot of this comes from the work of Richard Fortey but if you go into any geological subject in depth you are essentially trying to relate the human experience to a gulf of time which it can't really comprehend, but which is physically incarnated in the stone around it. The attempt to bring a sensation of deep time into the human experience also informed DCO, most of that adventure is about creating a sense of incredible depth and age in the minds of the players and Veins works the same way.

Reading about the actual history and nature of caving, as opposed to the cave as a cultural artifact on film and television. Blind Descent by James M. Tabor is a bit pulpy but was a good entry point to that, once you get past the initial public face of the thing and start reading the stories and analysis of actual cavers and the things they do, you realise what a unique thing it is. It really is a frontier of human exploration and understanding and a borderline to human power. There are rules on some caving expeditions that if you die underground you agree that your body will be left for long enough for it to be skeletonised so it can be safely retrieved because trying to lug a human corpse through some of those systems will just get more people killed.

The caving in Veins is still super-fictionalised, it would be utterly impossible with a D&D level of technology, even with magic helping out, but it goes back and draws directly from the real experience to create what is hopefully a more original and active lie than the standard rules. (NOT a criticism of The Dungeoneers Survival Guide by Douglas Niles; after trying to write a book that does a similar thing, I have a huge amount of respect for the man.)

And the study of life in caves and life underground is closely related to both geology and our developing understanding of life on earth. We have found life not just around volcano rims but inside rocks, eating gold. There are cells so slow that they might take centuries before they decide to grow. What we think of as 'normal' biology, even through it takes up a huge amount of the planet's biomass, is, genetically, a highly specialised offshoot of a much wider range of biological possibilities. It also relates to deep time both in its unveiling of the biological past and simply because one very common strategy for almost any kind of creature underground is simply to wait. Caves are full of creatures patiently waiting for something to happen and living a very long time to do so. When you extend this, and other underground adaptations to an intelligent creature, or a civilisation, it becomes quite interesting.

SDM: What are you hoping to see people get out of VotE? You described Veins starting as a "Vornheim for the Underdark"...and Maze of the Blue Medusa also had key layout decisions you were happy with that made it a functional book at the table...does VotE achieve the same kind of functionality? How much influence did you have on the layout?

PS: I'm worried that it doesn't. It's really huge and the text was locked pretty close in 2015. The monster descriptions have some really long passages and some of it is really good prose. That's not ideal for a usable monster entry but at every editing juncture no one wanted to loose the prose so it stayed in.

If Vornheim was a short, sharp punk song that did its job with economy and got off the stage, and MotBM is something like a classical symphony (pretentious I know, but I use the comparison to relate it to ideas of beauty and order combined) then VotE is a huge, decadent, sprawling 70's prog rock album and it has all the negative and positive attributes of that. All of the rule systems are usable and will work as a whole, but there is a LOT of it, and it sprawls.

As for layout I had relatively little influence, mainly reading and OK'ing what Jez did and that was late in the process.

SDM: Is there any content you had to cut from the book, and specifically, content you regret cutting?

PS: I don't think so. If anything the book is over-stuffed. Cédric's and Logan's images were really good and I miss not having them in but it really wouldn't have worked with multiple artists.

SDM: This was a long time in the making...are you satisfied by what you've created?

PS: I don't know yet, I'm still in the backwash of making it. I'm pretty sure that everything in it is stuff that I like but as to whether it works as either an aesthetic or useful whole, we will have to wait a year or so to find out.

I do really like Scrap's art in here. It's an overwhelmingly beautiful object and I really want her to win an award for it but if she did she would immediately throw it away or melt it into some kind of sculpture. I care a lot more about the recognition of the overculture than she does, and I don't care that much. (She is probably in minus numbers for that.)

SP: Satisfaction? I will have to physically hold it my hands, at the moment it feels pretty abstract and the final rush to get it out was pretty punishing with everyone having to work together and not demand the book be exactly how they want it and still feeling the burn out of that. 

Feels pretty swell though.

I wish I could of had more trilobite knight pictures in there? There's barely 12 or so.

There's so much art in the book that I look at it and go "this is exactly how best I could have done this thing and to look at it exist surprises me and its form is beyond my imaginings of how I would do it". I know a drawing is good if it surprises me that I did that. There's a lot of those here. That's pretty fucking satisfying.

SDM: Patrick, do you have a favorite piece of art in the book?

PS: There's someone confronting something terrible on page 189, someone clinging to a stalactite on 211, the main Trilobite Knight image on 141 is iconic I think.

SDM: What about you Scrap? Is there a favorite piece of writing? Anything in particular you enjoyed illustrating the most?

SP: The easiest answer for favourite writing is the Pariahs . I love the phrase "Pariahs of Creation. That's what got me on board and was the beginning of a friendship with this tortured English loon. They were the most interestingly challenging to draw and are some of my favourite pieces of art that I've ever done. Other pieces that I find myself rereading for the pleasure of it are the introduction piece, the cultures (I keep calling things 'you Efreeti Fuck' in my head) , and the civilopede treasures.
The Derro is especially fun. The Derro is not fun.

The civilopede treasures is an interesting one because as I was writing this I was going to mention the desire to have to illustrate them but actually, letting the writing be the sole creator of the image for them is great. Like it means the DM can't just say "It looks like this"; they have to attempt to internalize the writing in some way and the writing's worth it. There's all kinds of ideas and insights there and it feels like it really has been curated from eons of cultures by an alien intelligence with a slightly dry and provocative sense of humour.

I find the concept of being in tight spaces underground horrible and this book makes me think about that constantly in a visceral way and that's great/awful.

I could've been happier if some of the cultures hinted at were expanded on, but hints are a good part of the deep crushed time of the thing. I went on a jag making up cultural specific weapons for the main groups like Derro "Feeling Knives" and "Sack Of Agony" and Olm "No Swallow Jaw". When the books out a while I might blog the drawings and ideas.

But yeah, more artifacts like that from cultural interactions, so tactics and specialist that they would involve to murder each other. Dvargir "inevitability teams" trained for countering knotsmen , Aelf poisons for making the darkness poisonous and tailored cultural nemesis weapons plucked out of a culture's worst nightmares, Derro "Repugnancy Amplifiers" to make Aelf just death-spasming with hate.

Some other emergent ideas like Aelf slave-overseers being a politely untouchable class in their society because they have to acknowledge the existence of other life on a constant basis and interact very closely and deeply with it, and they would be even more fucked up than the rest of them from the mental gymnastics they would need to live with themselves.

SDM: What's next for each of you?

PS: My current 'working on' folder has Broken Fire Regime, an ostensible sequel to DCO, then a "Secret Mystery Project" with a Rogue Group, which should be much smaller. Then after that all I have to do is Eclipse Knights with Zak. I plan to do that alongside writing Knights of the Snail, a volume of twenty short stories linked into my version of Mallory's Mort D'Arthur, White's Once and Future King or Spenser's Faerie Queen. A long time ago I promised Matthew Adams that I would do this and that he could illustrate it and I intend to get it done.

(I do have an extremely small mini-project that might be coming out with help from a friend, all the writing on that is done through.)

After those I imagine I will be sick as hell of Knights for a good long while.

Beyond that are the two remaining volumes of what should end up being the 'Elemental Quartet': Littoral Storm Corsairs (pirates in the envelope of a Gas Giant) for Air, and Unconscious Oceanic Labyrinth (best guess at a title) for Water. Both of those should be dome with Scrap.

And after that? I would like to finally address Lanthanum Chromate, the doomed dwarven city slipping down a volcano rim into hell, maybe do a Nightmare Sea book, an Isles of the Imprisoned Moon book or a dErO book.

SDM: A 'dErO' book? What's that?

PS: "Detrimental Robots"; not mechanical beings, but robot-like due to their savage and unrelenting nature - the mutated and perverse descendants of an ancient race who retreated beneath the earth to escape the twisting effects of the suns coruscating rays. Now they inhabit the deep caverns first created by this once-noble prehistoric people and manipulate machines of terrifying power to warp the minds of all of the population of the earth. 'dErO' are briefly touched on in VotE but anyone wishing to know more should investigate the works of Richard Sharpe Shaver.

SDM: Ahh, wild stuff. I'm really looking forward to getting my hands on VotE. And Scrap, what's next for you?

SP: That cyberpunk booklet you are paying me to do. More art for BFR and the DCO re-release. Then at some point my very own home brew D&D alchemist stone that is everything I want D&D to be. Also WIDE_ON_FOR_DESTRUCTION, an RPG system for playing out everything I wanted anime and 80's cartoons to be, but are actually in fact terrible.

Order a physical copy of Veins of the Earth here:

And here's a character sheet:

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