As part of Naga Demon, I’m doing a 13th age monster every day this month. This last week has been focused on hybrid animals, from the cute Bearowl to the cunning Wolfcrow. It even features a particularly powerful monster – the epic tier Grootslang
As part of Naga Demon, I’m doing a 13th age monster every day this month. This last week has been focused on hybrid animals, from the cute Bearowl to the cunning Wolfcrow. It even features a particularly powerful monster – the epic tier Grootslang
November is National Game Design Month – and I’ve decided to take it up as the challenge of writing one new 13th age monster each day, as we’re looking at the possibility of moving into writing 13th age 3rd party works.
This week I’ve been doing Swamp Creatures: Otyugh, monsters known for their trash-loving lifestyle, and Swamp Things, animate embodiments of the Swamp’s will.
In the first post of this month I talked about how to comb the creative commons – finding stuff that fits well enough to the idea you’re working on.
But when you’re trying to be creative, to step into unexplored realms of fantasy, there may not even be that – especially if you don’t have the funds to buy high quality stock art – and even if there is “good enough” never really feels like it’s good enough.
To get the best results from the creative commons – or from novice artists – you need a handle on image editing and adaptation. Transforming an image from what it is to what you wish it was.
For our fantasy works one vital trick has been demodernising – giving modern day photos the appearance of paintings or illustrations that suit a fantasy feel. There are two steps to that: First you must remove any clearly anachronistic elements and then you can put the image through various pre-made filters like GIMPs “oilify”.
Removing the anachronisms can be simple, just cropping out the electricity pylon on the edge of a photo of a village, or it can be more complicated – removing a deck chair from the middle of the courtyard you need to depict.
The most vital tools for me in dealing with the more difficult cases have always been copy-paste and recolouring: a deck-chair against a wall can be overlaid by another portion of the wall, with the blur that will be introduced by oilify or similar tools hiding the minor seams. Meanwhile the green wellies worn by a medieval re-enactor on a muddy field can be turned a deep brown and simply be leather boots within the image.
Using filters like oilify seems like a trivial task – and honestly it can be. But for best use it’s important to think about how real painters work. Unlike a photograph not every portion of a drawing or painting is equal in resolution, but rather they have a level of detail decided by how much the painter, and the audience, care(s) about them – in a portrait the subjects face may be almost photorealistic while the background is merely lumps of colour in the rough form of furniture. As such it helps to separate portions of the image and use the filters more or less strongly on them depending on how important they are to your final composition [and on how many minor errors you need to hide].
A lot of creative commons stuff is black and white, or coloured inappropriately for what you have in mind. Recolouring is thus an important tool to have in your repertoire as it greatly expands your options – see Gustav at the top for an example.
For colouring monochrome works I rely on layers. A basic tool available to digital editors that makes the process far easier than it would be on paper, layers in an image editing program are pretty much the equivalent of laying transparencies atop one another to make the full image. But they come with some snazzy options that make the whole process a lot smoother. By altering your layers’ transparency settings and order you can use wide swathes and then add detail on top – colour in the whole torso, and then colour in only the belt atop that. More importantly for me you can put the original image on top in a darken-only layer which allows the textures and detail that the original black-and-white artist created to shine through.
I generally use Krita for this as I find its brushes more useful for the process, and everything a little easier to organise, but it is a little slower.
If working with something that’s already in colour I have two options to hand – the first and most prevalent is to use the GIMP colour editing options to alter what each colour on the existing image is. Changing all the reds to purples or making all the blues more vibrant can work wonders. The second is to simply make the piece monochrome and then go from there.
There’s a lot more to say on the subject, and I promise I’ll come back to it in more depth, but for now I need to get prepped for my NaGaDeMon project, a 13th age monster for each day of November. If you have any questions or advice about image editing, be sure to let us know!
Ste wants us all to write about our experiences with visual arts. I’m not so much about what it looks like – my artistic streak has always been music, and writing to me is an extension of sound – I read everything out loud – even in my head, words are vocalised, characters have accents, and locales are narrated. This may be the root of the long-running disagreement between Ste and I about the role of commas. I put them where I breathe, and Ste uses a different set of rules. [I overuse dashes instead – I like commas, but dashes are about 20% cooler. – Ste]
Appropriately, I’m writing this sat in an art gallery. Well, not quite, but it’s my in-laws place, and that whole branch of the family are artists – sculptors, photographers and painters <See my blog last week – Loz>. Every wall is covered with pictures, every level surface has sculptures and vases and hats and antlers and … stuff. It’s at the same time fascinating and intimidating.
Every kid draws some, and paints some – we’re visual creatures, and part of making sense of the world is to try to reproduce the pictures in our heads. I never really got much beyond the ‘this is my family, and my home; my mum is not actually as tall as my house’. Where I’ve had to draw things – for handouts when teaching – I’ve tended to go with symbols. Things one can construct – 36 pointed stars and other applied geometry. Occasionally, the odd cartoony figure has crept in – this person is thinking, this one is writing, this one is running. But I’ve mostly just broken up text with tables and diagrams, or even clipart.
Everyone who does any kind of visual work at all has just groaned. We love to hate art libraries – whether they were the old 8-bit squares, the MS clipart series or newer online ‘art for your game’ archives. The problem is where they are overused, where we see the same dozen images again and again – and we feel the author is lazy, and we disdain – and of course the legal knot of copyright and fair use.
Recently of course, the standard range of clipart will not do. Ste wrote about usage rights on Google Image searching, and that has sufficed for most of the Setting Shards for which I was lead writer. Most of the art I’ve picked out is from Wikimedia – and there’s enough there for much of what we need, particularly when one applies the Crop tool. Take a look at all the art for Grey Market – most is from larger pieces selectively trimmed to say what we want to say.
We’ve commissioned some art – the Lichen Lich, Valdis the Magic Item Addict, the suit symbols for Concept Cards – but the problem with this is both expense (we wouldn’t take free, because exposure kills artists) and trying to communicate what is needed – one of the reasons for needing art is that sometimes words are not quite enough.
What we really need is one of us to be able to draw the worlds we imagine. To that end, both me and Amy are learning to draw. We’re doing Inktober – drawing something every day for a month, to explore styles and media. I’ve found I prefer working in pencils (you will probably never see the disastrous oil pastels attempts) And I love drawing puns – a Chocolate Moose, and the bandaged monster Mummy and her partner Daddy. Visuals are not my forte, but they are perhaps becoming my pianissimo?
I’m not going to be a professional illustrator any time soon, but it’s an interesting aside to think about how things look on a page. Practising looking at how things are, so we can better imagine how things might be, if only – which is the core of creative writing.
Of course, that also means we now need to write more….
This hangs above my TV. The top picture is by my mum, Rosie Birtwhistle, and the bottom two are by my dad, David Hensel.
Art and Experience, Life and Death
I’ve grown up surrounded by art and creativity. Ali, on seeing the house I grew up in, commented that it was like an art gallery. But almost everything in the walls is by one or other of my parents and to me it feels entirely comfortable and normal to be surrounded by art. Art galleries are some of my favourite places, although i’ve actually not been to one in far too long – I should rectify that!
Everyone in my family is creative. As well as my parents, I write (as you can tell right now!), and of my two older brothers, one is a photographer and the other was a musician.
Sadly the word “was” is very relevant. My brother, Will Hensel, died unexpectedly about a month ago, and my mum, Rosie Birtwhistle (her chosen nom de plume), died of cancer about 6 years ago. Death focuses the mind in unexpected ways. I have spent a long time thinking about art and people and expression and life – the four are inextricably linked. I think it is important to remember people, as Terry Pratchett said “A man is not dead while his name is still spoken”. So I speak their names here. I refuse to let my relationships with these people end in sadness, instead I say we learn from them.
I can hear a lot of my brother Will in this track, which he produced.
Art can instil emotions, or ideas, it can be challenging or comforting, threatening or protective, funny or sad. All this and more. Art allows us see the world in different ways, be it paintings, music, sculpture, dance, or anything else.
And it is this I think we must learn from these wonderful people.
Drawing is something I’ve done occasionally throughout my life in dribs and drabs. When I was young I used to try drawing animals but they never came out very well.
When I was in my teens is when I did lots of drawing, sadly the majority of that has been lost over the years as both I and my parents have moved since then. I did try drawing fashion for some time but most of the time it was dark or gothic, lots of eyes and gravestones. Eyes are still something I really like to draw as they have a lot of variation but it’s always clear what they are.
I really started back up again mostly because Ste felt that the drawings I made as part of my other hobbies were good and asked me to try focusing on the drawing itself, so it has been turned it into one of my regular hobbies.
I have several creative hobbies – I’m very crafty and I usually like to have my hands do something as I watch tv or listen to audio-books [which my dyslexia makes much more common, as many fascinating books are unfortunately beyond my capacity to read].
Recently I’ve been doing knitting and crochet, just starting do these last year and I’ve already made 3 scarfs and a few stuffed toys – as well as a few toys for our pet cat.
Colouring books are another hobby I’ve been practising for a while – I tend to use lots of colours, putting some of my own personality into the final product even if the line art is already fixed. I find it few relaxing but just like drawing I don’t really do it in front of the tv because I like to concentrate on it a bit more. I can still listen to a book, but anything that would take up my eyes would distract too much.
And lastly there’s cross-stitch I started doing when I was 8. I did stop briefly in my teens, but I picked it back up again as I got older and I’ve done so many over the years some big, some small, some easy, some hard. I usually have one or two kits going at any one time and do a few small ones too – for Christmas I try to make sure that those I care about get one as a card or tree decoration.
Cross-stitch is what got me drawing again – I started designing my own now and again, working on squared paper to create the pattern; I did one for my grandma on top as a gift. I figured out how to do ones of monsters because it seemed cool, and it’s something I never see so I thought they might be useful for the business – possibly for sale at conventions.
I usually draw on squared paper as I find it easier to get started on than a blank page – and it helps me work out shapes and keep things neat which I feel helps things look good, since I like them to be neat I do use a ruler, compass and things like that. Since it’s on squares it can look a bit pixelated. and cross-stitch patterns usually do too, the most simple ones are and simple is generally the best place to start. But the pixelation I have grown passed with practice both with my cross-stitch and drawing and other thing that help with this size and shape – if something’s big it usually looks less pixelated and the same with putting curves in, which can be done in cross stitch through haft stitch and back stitch allowing different angles of diagonal.
So for my drawing i ten to start out on squared paper with a H2 pencil because it’s easy to rub out, then I go over it with a dark pencil and colour – this sometimes gets mixed again once I like what I’ve done, I go over it with transfer paper since there no way that we found to get rid of squares on the PC without losing lots of detail from the image.
Much like NaNoWriMo (or NaGaDeMon) in November, October has its own creative challenge: Inktober. While we’re not doing Inktober per se – none of us are inking any artwork – we decided that a good theme for this month’s blogs would be to look at how we can do art – in a group that was founded with zero artists.
The longest-standing technique we have is simply buying the art from cheap artists on Fiverr, or stock art from DriveThruRPG and Patreon. But that’s not something that really merits much discussion, so I’m going to skip straight to type two:
Creative Commons and Public Domain Artwork
There is a huge community of artists in the world, as there has been for several millenia, and even with the modern day extension of copyright to frankly ludicrous extremes many of them choose to contribute to the world’s supply of Free Use Art through either simply releasing their art to the public domain, or tying it into a Creative Commons License which allows for great (but not complete) freedom in how their work is used.
Doing your due diligence
Search engines such as Google (with the usage rights tool correctly set) and CC Search make it easy to find people claiming that the works they’re sharing are publicly usable, and if you’re planning on doing something purely non-profit that’s probably good enough – but if, as we are, you’re working on a commercial basis you’re going to need more confirmation than that, because a lot of people mislabel images, generally out of ignorance.
For instance, this image from the above search is not creative commons licensable in many countries – the models that were photographed are themselves copyrighted, and it’s likely not to count as a sufficiently transformative work to escape that copyright. Certainly if you were to crop it down to a single unpainted model you’d be in trouble in much of the world.
Another common form of not-actually-usable work is screenshots from computer games – as the game is copyrighted an image from the game is almost certainly covered by the same copyright. So your first check with digital art should always be to see whether or not the work mentions such a source.
One of the best places to find art that you can be certain of is Wikimedia. While anyone can contribute to that site, and thus newly submitted works are suspect, there is a large team of dedicated curators who do due diligence on everything submitted, meaning that you can avoid spending too much time checking over things yourself.
Another good site for finding such things is OpenGameArt.org their due diligence standards are a little laxer than Wikimedia’s, so it’s still a good idea to check things out for yourself, but there’s a lot of fantasy art on there.
To confirm that art is actually open for use first look at it closely – if it has an artists signature which doesn’t match the accreditation on the site you found it on you can be pretty sure it’s not. If that doesn’t rule it out the second step is a reverse image search – find it elsewhere on the internet, and see whether there’s an older source that indicates a different owner.
Track your sources
Once you’ve done your due diligence making sure you can actually use the piece you need to make sure you don’t lose track of your proof. We keep a set of spreadsheets that list the filename of each piece alongside the creator, the web address of the source and the specific license used (including any special terms).
Anyone else have any advice to give about combing the commons? Favourite sources?
Urban Fantasy usually features many humanoid magical creatures such as werewolves, vampires, magic user, children of demons or angels and fae of all kinds living in an urban setting, usually in a present day city or town.
There a few concepts that turn up quite often and here some of the ones I think are a big part of the genre. Any number of these may be useful to use or keep in mind when it comes to making world for your story/game.
The City often has a character
This can be more of a thing in books and rpgs than tv shows i find, The Dresden Files is set in Chicago, and it has a personality – you know what the city is like and how it would feel to live there in the world of Harry Dresden.
This is not so much the case in television settings – the city is often more of the background in some ways, just being used to tell the story, therefore things may not be set in stone (even when they should be). A good example of this is Buffy’s Sunnydale. Buffy is one of the best known, oldest examples of urban fantasy TV shows, you can tell me it name but not what there other than a high school but what else is in the town changes throughout the show one week it may have a docks others it might not.
When it a suburbia/small town in the UK it might not also because with a small town it’s more the people who live there that give it character, make a place feel a certain way – and if you know all the people there’s no need to anthropomorphise the place.
While everywhere has it own story and its own history that’s not what gives a place character, its about how it feels in the present, to me anyway.
In many Urban Fantasy settings something keeps all of the bad things hidden from the world, the thing that stop the normals from know about all the monsters.
This is usually done a few different ways, often some kind of magic to make you forget what you know about it, or there the no-one never believes you, or no-one can talk about it so even if everyone seen the supernatural you don’t talk about it to each other. But most settings tend to have some people with lot of money and power helping to keep things quiet – censoring the news while spreading false conspiracy theories to make the believers look foolish.
In Magical Realism subtle magics are real, like white sage keeping away bad things or imaginary friends are real but only them that need them, can see them. Hold story can be built around these like “If Only You Could See Me Now” by Cecilia Ahern or “Practical Magic” by Alice Hoffman this is something that is done well in books and film but it’s not usualy a big thing in games, it may be there but its just another part of the world – running a game with the minor magics of Urban Fantasy tends to be a challenge, and few players are interested in the kind of low-intensity play it entails.
Ones of the things i found about these kind of story is they tend to be more uplifting less dark and gritty like Urban Ffant can be.
Hidden Cities, Markets and other such places
Places that only certain people can get to that are hidden by a veil of magic, these can be places where the whole story happen like Neverwhere in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere or the Nightside by Simon R Green. Or they can be a side place where people go that are just part of the big world like a hidden market or fairy-land in True Blood.
These are used in games quit often and work quite well as they give you somewhere to get all the magic you need and it can look so much more fantastical than the everyday street.
This is a more recent form of Urban Fantasy where supernatural group comes out from hiding, there are usually reasons for this like in “True Blood” where artificial blood could be mass produced for the vampires or like in “Parasol Protectorate series” where they have all been pardoned for by crimes by the crown in the UK since the royal family found them to be very useful.
Usually it’s only one or two type that tell the world that they’re real but not everyone of the type will like it or do so, and usually there are still quite a lot of things still hidden from the human world like other race that are not ready or able to come out.
These are usually part of the coming out world since not everyone likes change. They’re usually very religion based in most story and setting, and they’re usually about trying to make sure humanity keep power and that the monster don’t take over.
There may even be monsters hiding in the group to stay safe from them, or a monster secretly in charge so they get the power by eliminating their competition.
This seems like something the be interesting to deal with in a game sense, but the monster not only have to be out they need to be capable of good which is why it not really seen in Buffy because on a whole this is not the case.
There is an odd case in Angel where there is a hate group but it made up of demons that hate half-demons.
There are a few different archetypes that are seen in both stories and games. The main character is generally someone who finds themselves travelling deeper into the world over time:
The PI/cop, or soldier who knows about the monsters and hunts them down or cleans up their messes, in the cop or solder case they be part of a unit that looks into these things.
The chosen one/child of the gods and the likes, that has superhero like powers and they have been picked to fight the monsters.
There’s the human that’s part fae, or god, or angel or some other magical being that usually knows nothing of what they are when the story starts out and them finding out is part of the story, and they’re usually very attractive to the monster for some reason or another, often their magical bloodline.
Then there are the rarer ones, like wizards and other magic users that have some job that they do using their power within the magical world.
When telling a story you’ll also want numerous characters around the edges who are at different levels of knowledge – for instance the mentor or secret-keeper who knows more than the main character but is informing them only piece by piece, and the friend who doesn’t quite believe in what’s going on, but knows enough to listen when given advice.
In games it’s common to skip the “introduction to the hidden world” aspect of Urban Fantasy stories, but it can be a useful way to begin a campaign if you intend to do something unusual with your world, or if you want to create deeper characterisation by maintaining links to the mundane life that came before.
Superheroes and supervillains are experiencing a massive boom in films at the moment, so I’m sure that everyone reading this knows what they are – but knowing it and defining it are two different things.
For the sake of this post I’m going to make a list of the key features that I consider to define a supers setting. The genre, like all genres, is somewhat fluid – and as such half of these elements may be missing in something that is still recognisably a supers setting, but more than that and you’re definitely outside the genre.
So what are the pros and cons for Supers RPGs?
Quirks (not quite pro, or con)
The best known book in the genre is probably Neuromancer by William Gibson, and barring a few glaring anachronisms (in either this book or its sequel Count Zero, someone tries to sell “three megs of hot RAM”) it still stands up as a damn good book. The roots go back much further, though, to the sci fi of the 60s and 70s, perhaps even as far back as The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester, from 1957 (also an excellent book, if a little dated, incidentally).
Cyberpunk is a genre characterized by a dystopian society, huge wealth inequality, and large amounts of technology – usually body modification and computer technology. Protagonists tend to be outsiders, fighting the megacorporations, all-powerful AIs and corrupt law enforcement for the little guy. Often these heroes are using scrounged together tech and stolen weapons to fight overwhelming odds and somehow coming out the other side through a combination of skill, luck and panache. There is also usually a lot of neon and chrome.
This makes it a great genre for roleplaying in. Much of the genre plays it straight, varying names of megacorporations and specifics of technology available in much the same way as classic fantasy will vary the names of kings and magics available. But one of the most popular blends this with classic fantasy to create a setting where megacorporations employ elven mages to fight anarchist shamans while expert hackers go toe to toe in the matrix and orc street samurai wade into battle with a katana in one hand a and a shotgun in the other (okay, that was kinda my last character) – that game is Shadowrun. I love the setting but the system… well the system not so much. Recently, though, I played a Shadowrun Anarchy campaign which worked far better than the standard version, and the computer games, Shadowrun Returns, Shadowrun Dragonfall and Shadowrun Hong Kong capture the feel of the world rather well (well I’ve not played the third one yet, but I have a copy).
Much as the cyberpunk ethos encourages tearing technology apart to build something new, so the genre has been torn apart and rebuilt to create many variants, all helpfully identified by the suffix “-punk”. Generally they maintain a dystopian future and a punk attitude, but the nature of the technology and the emergent threats change.
Magic-punk is where technology is replaced with magic – gigantic magical machines power everything, often magic can be almost coded like a computer, and personal augmentation may be replaced by daemonic – and often demonic – summoning and possession. This hews closer to classic fantasy than Shadowrun, which is definitely a cyberpunk system despite the heavy influence of magic.
Dieselpunk is not, as you may guess, a setting in which everything is powered by Vin Diesel, but rather one where the technology being hacked is more likely to be cars and trucks and the most valuable resources are likely to be fuel and water. The most famous example is probably Mad Max.
Steampunk started out as a kind of retro-Victorian variant of the genre in which all the amazing technology was powered by that latest of inventions the steam engine. It has since taken on a life of its own however and become genre and style involving an awful lot of brass cogs!
Transhumanism is kind of a special case of a variant. While cyberpunk focuses more on the technology, transhumanism is more philosophical and asks the questions “What is human?” and “how far can we alter a person before they stop being a person and become something else?” These questions are not unique to transhumanism, of course, but it places them front and centre.
Transhumanists take ideas to their logical conclusion – If you replace a leg or an arm then a person is still a person, but what happens if you replace more? The heart, the sensory organs, the brain? If the brain can be mapped, then can it be modelled in a powerful enough computer? If so is that computer a person? If you copy someone’s brain is the copy the same person? How about if you then download that brain into a new body? What if it’s an entirely robotic body?
These and more questions are clearly very very hard to answer and don’t obviously lend themselves to a roleplaying game so much as a discussion down the pub! So the most popular game in the genre, Eclipse Phase, hews back towards cyberpunk with powerful corporations and evil AIs to fight, and revolutionary politics to foster that conflict, but those corporations are not megacorps, they’re smaller and more agile than that, and the AIs are hyper-intelligent beyond human comprehension, and have fled for reasons unknown.
So is cyberpunk the future? I hope not – the technology is pretty cool, and the style is certainly striking, but the dystopian inequality and constant threat of violence for those on the fringes is less promising. Personally I’d like to skip past all that and just upload my mind to the internet!