Back in October 2011, I caught wind of the Shadowlands Epic Fantasy Sci-Fi Mashup project at Kickstarter. When I checked out the project page, I was impressed by the art, the descriptions, and most of all the new approach to a fantasy RPG setting. Well, maybe not “new” new – Expedition to the Barrier Peaks did it way back in 1980. But by taking those science fiction elements and adjusting a fantasy world a bit you end up with something akin to Riverworld where most inhabitants have no idea what a ray gun is or does…
Christopher Merwin of BlackStar Games headed up the Shadowlands Kickstarter project and has shepherded it closer to completion over the last few months. He was kind enough to answer a few questions for us to get more of a glimpse as to what lies in store for us!
Q: So Chris, I became aware of BlackStar Games when I saw the Shadowlands project on Kickstarter a few months ago. What intrigued me were the first few lines of the project page… “What if magic were real? What would it look like? What would it take to believe that gods could walk the earth? What sort of beings could they be? What if a fantasy world were created to fit within the bounds set by physics and the social sciences? A fantasy world made to be believed?” What was the genesis of this idea 15 years ago?
Funnily enough it was a song! I won’t say which one, but 15 years ago Soundgarden was pretty big! That’s not entirely true. I had been working on a campaign setting as the DM for my 2e campaign, playing once or twice a week in school, and a collection of ideas started to come together so I started taking notes. Those ideas never really went away and I kept thinking about them. Finally one day I sat down and drew out the map which would become the Saemyyr map as it is today (except without Jon Robert’s gorgeous talent!), from there it was easier for me to start building the world. As D&D has moved further and further away from First Edition it’s become less serious, less realistic. Some of the inconsistencies with that lack of attention to realism started to bother me and get under my skin. I’ve always been hugely interested in both science fiction and the historical middle ages as well as myth and religion. I realized that this blend was a way to preserve the rigor and realism I liked of earlier editions without giving up on the high fantasy that is so inspiring.
Q: When you put your Kickstarter project page up, were you surprised at how quickly you began to generate interest?
Ha! Yes and no. It was A LOT of work! A Kickstarter really is about your community and marshaling that level of community support takes a lot of time and energy. I was on message boards, Twitter, Facebook, and every social media outlet I could think of every day trying to raise interest. I had a lot of help from some industry greats like Ed Healy and Rone Barton from Gamerati & War Pig, from Fred Hicks at Evil Hat, and of course my friends and family. What was a big surprise was just how many people were interested in the unique approach that the Shadowlands is taking. I’ve always known we would be a niche setting and I’ve accepted that, but then suddenly lots of serious gamers were coming to me and saying: “Your setting looks great!” and “Finally someone is designing a setting for me!”.
Q: How have things progressed since the project was funded at the end of November 2011?
Wonderful and terrible! We have a really amazing and talented group of people working with BlackStar on this first project and it really has been about the connections and the dedication to the setting. One of the things which is really important for me as the Chief World Builder is that designers “get” what I am doing and that they want that too. I was very nervous at first that I wouldn’t be able to find many people to work with because some of the ideas implicit to the Shadowlands are very against the mainstream of 4e game design and even challenge some aspects of the core Pathfinder material. So finding the right people to work with at first was a challenge. Then suddenly some things started to click into place and we made great initial progress. Winter was hard though. We had several of our writers sick because of flu season, our brilliant cartographer and one of our main artists had his laptop stolen (which included Shadowlands material), another artist had to stop work and we ran into several snags. We’re about two months behind in production on our two main books, but it gave us the brilliant idea to try and come up with supplementary material in the meantime. So as a result we are now giving our Kickstarter backers more than double what we originally promised them and we will be selling the same material inexpensively to the gaming community at large. Right now we are wrapping up a Shadowlands Conversion Guide and two mini-adventures, which we’re calling Adventure Arcs, to be released in anticipation of the main module publication.
Q: It’s obvious that BlackStar focuses quite a bit on the art aspect of RPG products. The maps, even on the Kickstarter page, were beautiful in their detail, as were the cover art and “Brotherhood Chapterhouse” image from Ben Wootten, the art from Ambrose Hoilman on your Facebook page, and all the maps from Jonathan Roberts. How much art can we look forward to in the first books describing the Shadowlands and what other artists are involved so far?
Absolutely! That’s something I learned from Paizo! Art is incredibly important because sometimes a (good) picture really is worth a thousand words. We knew that we needed to inspire a certain feeling and tone in the setting, a type of gritty realism that was both high fantasy but also evoked a sense of danger and reality. It’s taken a lot of time and work to track down artists who we think fit our style and who are talented enough to pull it off. Working with Ambrose Hoilman, our Artistic Director, has been amazing! He is so talented and so good to work with. I really hope he gets picked up by Wizards and Paizo and that the larger gaming community can see is art. Ben Wootten and Jon Roberts are artistic geniuses and just all around wonderful guys. Every time I talk with them I walk away knowing that they are going to produce something even more beautiful than I had anticipated. We’ve also had the fortune of working with a young artist named Raluca Popan, very talented, who I found through Deviant Art as well as Blake Henriksen who has done two *gorgeous* pieces for us (one of them, “Durinn Dergatal (Hill Dwarf)”, is on our Facebook page).
We would really love to have as much art as a standard Paizo product, or even a Wizards product, but unfortunately as a small studio we have an extremely tight budget. We’ve made art a priority for these products, to really put our best foot forward, and I hope to do it for future products too, but a lot of that will depend on gamer support. We’re not really for profit, all our money goes toward making a great product, and as long as gamers keep supporting us, we will try and hold up our end of the bargain and give them beautiful, well-designed, gaming material.
Heh. It’s been a challenge, but fun. I didn’t want to destroy the existing magic system, players wouldn’t like it and Paizo probably wouldn’t allow it, so it was the challenge of making a believable system. One of the absolute central tenets of BlackStar and the Shadowlands is the importantce of storytelling and “fluff”, so the challenge came to be how do we preserve the existing mechanic while explaining it in a believable way without giving too much away. I think we’ve accomplished that and I think we’ve done it really well. Jaye Sonia and Clinton Boomer have done amazing jobs of trying to help make the mechanics fit the story, which ultimately, is what the Shadowlands is about. We haven’t reworked the system too much (although there has been some), but there are more restrictions on how the spellcasting is done. The biggest tradeoff is that the Shadowlands is a world where the average person is terrified of magic and no matter how powerful a spellcaster is, they can’t take on an angry mob. Players will get to see a lot of the specific details (although not all of them) very soon when the Shadowlands Conversion Guide comes out.
Q: Can you estimate how many pages of material you have to pull from for these products? I’d assume that over 15 years you would have written and collected reams of notes, maps, NPCs, monsters, adventure ideas, and more!
Wow! Not really. I tried doing that once and gave up! A few years ago, when Wikipedia first started getting popular, I installed MediaWiki (the software that runs Wikipedia) on a private server and started developing what we call the “Saemyyr Incunabulum”, our own internal encyclopedia of Saemyyr. At this point there are easily hundreds of pages worth of notes, images, ideas, references, adventure outlines, places, monsters, spells, racial descriptions, NPCs, histories, world plot events, everything. I often joke with our designers that having enough material isn’t our problem, it’s having enough budget. We hope, with player support, that we will be able to put out products for a long long time!
Q: Can we look forward to learning more about the Artificial Intelligences acting like deific proxies in the world of Saemyyr? This fits beautifully with Arthur C. Clarke’s third law – “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Any hints as to what other misunderstood technologies may be made available to the characters?
Absolutely! That’s some of my favorite stuff! Suddenly the magical bracelet doesn’t seem so fantasy when it’s found in the collapsed ruins of a medbay. It’s a lot more work for the GM, and we hope to someday put out a GMs guide to help give suggestions for how to handle it, but almost any item can be reconsidered from an advanced technology perspective (a rod is actually a gun or baton, a +4 sword is a sharpened piece of welded nanometal rebar), but the really fun stuff is the story behind it. That’s reserved for higher level campaigns. The idea is to slowly peel back the layers of the onion so that lower level characters don’t really notice the advanced technology where as higher level characters interact with it more and more. It’s part of the storytelling motif that we think is so important. At lower levels a lot of the technology is masqueraded as something believable to the PCs until it appears more and more alien and unusual. The goal in part is to make it fun for the player’s themselves to realize the different layers of reality at work and to interact with it.
Q: What are you most excited about in the first release or two for the Shadowlands setting?
The community. I really want the community to take the game up as their own, to play with it, interact with it, enjoy it, dream about it. From a product perspective that means the world itself, the different races, the regions and cultures, the ideologies. Jaye Sonia, John Maki, and Ben Cacchione have put together some incredibly exciting adventures which I think will frustrate players and leave them asking for more, but for me, it’s the world backdrop that those great adventures are set against that makes the Shadowlands so exciting. It makes me, as a designer, eager to see what the next designer comes up with, what adventure is written next, because I think the world is so rich and fascinating.
Q: When might we start to see some of the Shadowlands products and serialized fiction become available? Will the fiction be released in advance of the gaming materials to give potential consumers a glimpse into this unique world?
As I mentioned, we’re unfortunately about two months behind schedule because of some of the setbacks. We’re working really hard to catch back up and to put things out in the meantime, but it’s a challenging process for a small studio with a tight budget. We’re also committed to making sure that what we put out is top notch and high quality, and if that means taking a little more time to review, playtest, and edit so that we can be proud of the product we release, then we’re willing to delay release.
As it stands we are in the last phases of finishing up the Shadowlands Conversion Guide and Jaye Sonia’s raucous adventure arc Carthica’s Pride which will be released together for free, hopefully before April (in time for the ENnies!). After that John Maki will be having an adventure arc see publication probably in late April or May and then it will *hopefully* be the publication of our main adventure module The Gates of Tarina and it’s campaign supplement The Tarina Guidebook at the beginning of the summer.
Q: If there’s a question you haven’t been asked yet, but are dying to answer – what would it be? Curious minds want to know!
Yes, almost all of our place names, deity names, etc. *are* real and yes, we *want* you to look them up!
A big thanks goes to Chris for answering my questions! I wish him and the rest of the folks at BlackStar Games all the best!
If you’re interested in more about Shadowlands and BlackStar Games, check them out…
- How not to run a Kickstarter to fund your RPG (stargazersworld.com)
- Ring of Five Questions: Wolfgang Baur from Greyhawkery (greyhawkery.blogspot.com)
- Setting Review: The Shadow Vale Player’s Guide by Alyssa Faden and Torn World (gameknightreviews.com)
- Dungeon Poster hits $10k! Prizes for everyone! Board game! New stickers! DM Notebook! from Blog of Holding (blogofholding.com)
- Risus and Kickstarter… (risus.tumblr.com)