An interview with Andrew Walter, author, illustrator, Melsonian Art Director. We talk about process, inspiration and hope. Pretentious artist photo follows, gaze upon him.
Q: What makes British role playing writing, art, and design distinct, and how do you think you sit in that current?
A: The 'correct' answer is that classic British RPG creations are more satirical or less heroic than the big American creators and that the visual art is grimier or more punk rock or something. This is because people are thinking of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Fighting Fantasy, the Fiend Folio and 2000AD and comparing them to...Larry Elmore and Dragonlance I suppose?
Like a lot of received wisdom it's not really as simplistic as that and the question might actually be a bit boring or irrelevant at this point. Stormbringer is based on the Elric books, written by a British author, but the game was written by Americans. Lovecraft was American and is a gigantic influence on gaming but was an anglophile. Gary Gygax liked Jack Vance and Jack Vance liked PG Wodehouse.
I'm British but my first exposure to proper D&D was when I lived in Michigan as a child and checked the Monster Manual out from the library in the 90s. I like to make and play roleplaying games where the player characters can and do die if things go badly, and I try to make accompanying artwork that's expressionistic, violent, grotesque, mysterious and humorous. I enjoy stuff like that and don't particularly care where in the world it comes from.
Plus the idea of distinct output linked to where the creators are based would be a lot more relevant if RPG scenes still had meatspace gaming clubs and societies at their heart, which most of the time I don't think they do. Nor do you have creative energies focussed by what gaming products you do or don't have access to in your corner of the world.
Q: Describe your typical daily creative routine.
A: I don't have one apart from 'do 8+ hours work and then do more work on your own projects in the evening if you aren't too knackered'. Some days are spent entirely on pencil underdrawings, some entirely on inking, some entirely on painting, some entirely on frying my brain at a computer preparing scanned images for print. Some are a mix of several of those things. Other days are spent researching visual or historical ideas or trying out layouts or concepts in my sketchbook. Something I've had to get over is the weird idea that doing preliminary work before a final piece doesn't count as real work. It definitely does! I used to get so bummed out if I'd spent a day 'only' doing roughs and research.
The process of an individual piece often looks like this:
- Search for reference historical paintings, photos, etc. One thing I will always try and do here is avoid anything in the fantasy realm if I can. I feel like weird stuff is always more engaging if it comes from other sources rather than aping genre conventions. The main reason for this step is to get a decent handle on stuff like clothing, buildings, objects, animals etc
- Hit the sketchbook - Rough out ideas that might work. A lot of the time these will bear no relation to how the elements will look in the final piece. It's just a chance to think about the sort of visual storytelling I want to do. The less stuff that is floating around my head as a possibility the better - once it's down on paper, even if it's just a scribbled lines, I have a better idea if it will work or not. If there's stuff I'm going to need to add a lot of, I will sometimes do a couple of pages of that thing so I can refer to it when I'm doing the final piece - as an example, I needed a lot of bags for this porter image, so I referenced and drew a bunch of them so it's less stuff to think about when it comes to the final piece.
- Thumbnail rough sketches. To the outside observer these look like literally meaningless squiggles, but they are crucial to work out composition and placements of the elements. They're usually about the size of a matchbox – never larger than a paperback.
- Larger scale sketches. Once I get depressed about my thumbnail sketches not looking like anything inspiring to me, it's normally a sign to try some larger roughs, usually around 1/2 to 2/3rds the size of my final piece. Most times this fixes the problem and I'm able to find space for other details I'd like to include, realise when things can be omitted, change poses of figures and so on.
- Pencil underdrawing. Using my roughs up to this point, I'll carefully draw in the underdrawing. I tend to do this more precisely than a lot of other artists - too precisely I think. I should loosen up as this is probably the slowest part of the job. Very occasionally, if the composition is really tricky, I will scale up one of the thumbnails and then use a lightbox to help me position the elements in the image. However, I feel like this can lead to bad practice and so I usually do it 'the hard way' - drawing the underdrawing from scratch using roughs as reference.
- Ink. Black indian ink line work, crosshatching, mark-making etc. Often I will also add values of grey underneath areas that are to have coloured paint applied over them. Grisaille is the proper fancy-pants name for it I think. This step might be skipped entirely because sometimes I will use watercolour for linework at the end. It depends what type of boldness I want in the final image.
- Colour. Several layers of colour over the top, be it watercolour, acrylic, ink or a combination of all of these. If I'm feeling fancy, and the media I have used so far is all waterproof, I might apply a glaze, although I have been doing this less often these days as the effect often gets lost when scanning anyway.
- Scan and digitise. This usually involves tweaking levels and correcting colour balance as scanners often throw a lot of things out of whack. Taking care to get paper texture either represented accurately or eradicated is often a big part of this process too.
Q: What are your preferred work tools?
A: Materials on paper that exist in reality, applied with a brush or a dip pen. I'm never fully satisfied with a piece I've finished unless there is an original I can look at without turning on the computer. Indian ink, coloured ink and watercolour makes up a lot of stuff that I do. I usually work on paper that I've stretched and stapled on board to prevent buckling. I also like working in monochromatic carbon pencil and charcoal (such as the Slipgate Chokepoint interior illustrations) but for whatever reason there seems to be less demand for that sort of thing.
I really like the effects you can get with acrylic paints even though I barely know what I'm doing. More recently I've been trying out acrylics on gesso primed paper or boards and the results are a 3:2 ratio of blissfully satisfying to infuriating. I used to do more printmaking with linocuts and similar but it's time and space consuming and disposing of the toxic waste is difficult to do responsibly.
Computers - I use them when necessary. Generally I only use Photoshop for ensuring scans look as close to the original drawings as possible. However, I struggle with the void of support and information that exists in 2022 for artists that work with physical materials in a digital world. I very often feel after I scan my pieces in as if I'm Photoshopping by the seat of my pants and it's so easy to get lost in a million ways to tweak your image that are close to meaningless. We drastically lost something with this 'computers are the heart of all visual media' thing. Even artists that work with real materials don't often discuss the steps they then take in digitising or photographing their work. I was amazed when I read that Nate Marcel photographed his beautiful oil paintings for the Umerican Survival Guide in bits with his iPhone and then stitched them together - those covers look perfect. If any creatives want to discuss and trade some tips then please feel free to contact me!
Occasionally I will use Illustrator to design a logo or vectorise something that a client wants to use in a design (see the worm silhouettes and lettering on the front cover of The Big Squirm for an example - I cut the shapes out of black paper and then vectorized them using Illustrator).
Q: What RPG thing you have created are you most proud of?
A: Normally it's just the last thing I finished illustrations for. Some others though: Fronds of Benevolence felt good because it was a product of play and people have said that they've been able to get 4-5 sessions out of it, which is what I was going for. The Big Squirm felt good because it's the first time I've done that much full colour artwork in a single book, and working with Luke Gearing is always enjoyable. Clans of The Cruftscape felt good because it's totally uncommercial and is one of the only things I've made without worrying at all what people will think about it.
Q: How often do you Google yourself? And why?
A: My actual name - perhaps 2 or 3 times a year. Almost always a terrible idea as on the internet there's no middle ground between gushing positivity and gall bladder-popping hatred and invective. People online get REALLY angry about pictures of monsters and people holding swords. More often I'll Google books where my work appears, often to get a sense of how people felt about the package as a whole and how my work fitted in context. That's much more useful as feedback.
Q: Name the 5 books most influential to you.
Fungus The Bogeyman - Raymond Briggs
RIP. All Raymond Briggs is fantastic but this is the one I remember poring over as a child. Even apart from how likeable and tragic Fungus is as an honest workaday protagonist, the world detailed by Briggs is just stuffed with imaginative details that all slot together and make you feel like you've walked (or more accurately silently cycled) through the world of the Bogeymen. Add on top of that the way it's all rendered with this beautiful slimy colour palette and soft damp slipperiness and it's the sort of thing I don't think we'll ever see again. It's a kids book that doesn't even come close to talking down to its audience. My ultimate aim as an artist - and to be clear I'm nowhere close - is to be able to create a world that the viewer can live in like this.
(PS: We don't talk about the post-1977 adaptions.)
Maze - Christopher Manson
This was a 'choose-your-own-adventure' type book that put the monochrome crosshatched visuals at the forefront and had a riddle at its centre with some kind of cash prize for the first person to send in the riddle and the answer. I did not have a hope in hell of ever figuring out this incredibly cryptic puzzle as a child and I certainly don't now. I was happy to just wander from room to room. The drawings have this uncanny timeless feeling to them that reminds me of De Chirico - lots of open doorways, groups of incongruous objects standing around and figures enacting weird tableaux looking actions. Some of the rooms look deliberately similar to others to trick you. It's got that same nonsensical sinister feel that the best RPG dungeons do. I was really happy when The Vintage RPG Podcast guys featured this book recently.
The Warlock of Firetop Mountain - Steve Jackson/Ian Livingstone/Russ Nicholson
An incredibly obvious one for a British fantasy person to pick but it was the first place I ever saw the work of Russ Nicholson. The zombies that look like The Ramones. The filth covering the cell of the raving old man. The needlessly well rendered buttocks of the cyclops. The totally horrifying image of the ghoul on the shore of the lake. The adventure is pretty good too. I still haven't ever legitimately completed it, I always get the bad ending where you give up and sit down in despair because you have the wrong keys. I love that downbeat feel to the book and the lived-in feel of rooms in Firetop Mountain.
The Eyes of the Overworld/Cugel's Saga - Jack Vance
These are the books you're supposed to pretend you've always loved if you're an indie RPG creator. I didn't read them until around 2008 or so. It's not just that they are completely hilarious (I feel like Vance was never quite as willing to dive into outright silliness and humour anywhere else in his career), but the fantasy set pieces in them are unashamedly bizarre, fun and unique. There's not really much else I can add, they're my favourite fantasy book(s). Haven't they influenced everyone in the worthwhile side of the RPG scene at this point?
The War of The Worlds - HG Wells
The horrifying and fascinating original alien invasion story. The thing I love most of all about this book is how gritty and real it feels. The Martians are somewhat out of their depth on Earth but they're still lethal and view humanity as pests to be eradicated using their superior technology. The first time we see them they're struggling and wheezing after a crash landing, unprepared for Earth's gravity. Then they dig in, and vaporise an entire crowd of gawping onlookers on Horsell Common with their heat rays. Wells doesn't ever flinch with the depictions of how brutal the Martians are as they lay waste to contemporary England. The narrator peering through a crack in a wall at a Martian drinking a human's blood through a pipette haunts me to this day. It's great how the humans are nothing to them (at least initially).
Q: Does system matter?
A: Unpopular opinion, but probably yes. These are still games (or toys?) and exploring the differences between them can be part of the fun too. Another unpopular opinion, rules-light RPGs aren't necessarily better than complex ones. That said, we already have way too many systems. Adventures, supplements, campaign settings and monster books are the good shit. Make stuff for existing games both old and new.
Q: What RPG thing would you like to make but haven't yet?
A: I've got loads I'd like to do, not all necessarily RPGs. A solo hex map exploration game like Barbarian Prince but in a dreamy drugged up world like Sidney Sime's drawings. A book of 1000 one-line monsters for OD&D with almost no illustrations. More Tunnels and Trolls stuff.
Q: What RPG thing would you like someone else to make? Who what and why?
A: Serious answer: A solitaire ultra granular and complex dungeon crawl/survival/exploration game with square chits and a coldly detached 100 page ruleset written with a GMT/SPI simulationist mindset that I can play without ever leaving the house again.
More serious answer: a compendium of all of Blair's material from the Planet Algol blog and campaign setting the Iridium Plateau. Blair managed to take the already incredible Carcosa themes and spin them into his own insane vision that feels like some heady mash up of Lin Carter, Vance, Richard Corben etc etc. It's honestly genius and up there with the best things the OSR has ever produced. I used read his blog when I worked caffeine-addled night shifts as a security guard and it blew my mind that people were out there doing stuff like this for RPGs, let alone sharing it with people for free. Hail Blair! There have actually been whispers that a third party has been working on compiling these materials for a proper release, but I haven't heard any updates in a long time.
Q: If you had to only play and run one RPG forever, what would that RPG be and why?
A: Labyrinth Lord. I was going to write OD&D for cool points but I've come to that a bit more recently. Labyrinth Lord would be my pick because I've run it so much that it just feels like a cosy pair of slippers. My softback book has an ingrained stain of snack-grease running along the edge of the pages from many happy evenings playing it with different friends. Why Labyrinth Lord and not B/X or OSE? I know where everything is in LL and I love the grungy zine feel of Steve Zieser's black and white illustrations (RIP). It still feels like an underground game created with love and not a slick product despite having such a huge influence on indie gaming culture. Plus it's just fun to say. LABYRINTH LORD!!!
Q: What is your prediction for the state of RPGs in 20 years?
A: Prediction or hope? I HOPE for less hype and more people making things because they have a love of it, and less of a focus on production values and 'usability'. I really believe the best product for a roleplaying game someone can make is publishing a campaign setting (or similar) that has evolved organically through play. Something information dense and esoteric that will become dog-eared through use because it's so stuffed with cool shit and you can get lost in it, not a detached study in book design. I want something like a 21st century Arduin.
Outside of that I think eventually that post-5th edition D&D and other corporate forms of roleplaying will eventually become something that increasingly resembles LARP but in a virtual reality space. There will probably be also an increasing focus on how corporations can monetize the weird parasocial thing people seem to love with Critical Role and other celebrity actual play stuff. I think this might even be a positive if it pushes corporate gaming further away from DIY tabletop pencil and paper stuff, as long as it doesn't warp the expectations of newcomers too much. I don't think people will ever get sick of traditional tabletop roleplaying though. It's too much fun.
AI art in RPGs will become as boring and overdone as public domain art is now and people will get sick of it, but won't see any other option because they just assume it is objectively better than anything they could personally do. I'd love to see more people who consider themselves amateurs doing their own art for RPGs.
Irony is for the spineless. Create things and express opinions because you believe in them, not because you're so internet poisoned you think drama is more important than gaming. DIY is the heart of gaming!