The Death & Taxes boxed set is crammed so full, it’s liable to break out of the shrink-wrap on its own! When one showed up in the mail courtesy of Lesser Gnome games, I had to know more about how something this epic got put together, so I went straight to the source and interviewed the lead designer. To see photos of the box contents, check out “unboxing” post here— but the pictures don’t do them justice! (And note that this is not the first package to arrive in my mailbox from these guys.)
Jeffro: When other companies get into miniatures, it sounds like an endless headache to me. (I’m thinking Steve Jackson Games and Amarillo Design Bureau here, for example.) Meanwhile, most people in the old school “do it yourself” D&D scene are happy to just throw something up on Lulu or RpgNow. You, on the other hand, charge into the gigantic miniatures productions like it’s nothing. How exactly did you pull this off?
Zach Glazar: My short answer is you are right, it can be an endless headache thanks to the financial risk involved. Unlike books and PDFs the costs are fixed and upfront (unless you can do concept art, sculpting and molding). Apart from those there many other decisions in the process where things can go expensively wrong. At this point I have produced over 50 figurines, everything from gnomes to hydras, and I still worry when I start new ones.
How exactly did I pull it off? Well first ‘I’ didn’t make them, a team of people did. I may have been in charge because I was paying but without the talented sculptors, artists and casting professionals it would never have successful. (I describe the specifics of the whole process here.) The quick answer though is crowdfunding, focus, and an immense amount of time.
Jeffro: Yes, well I can see including a mini or two as sort of a gimmick. Back in the day, Dwarf Star’s Barbarian Prince and TSR’s Battle System both did that. But you… you include twenty-five of them with your Death & Taxes campaign set. That’s… that’s just nuts. How did you even come up with that as an idea? Have you lost your mind or something…?!
Zach Glazar: The idea was actually an old one that I had sometime during the heyday of B/X editions. It came to me out of the frustrations of growing up in a small town without a game store (the closest was 90 miles away). I always wanted a miniature for each of the monsters we would encounter. On the rare occasions I was driven to a “friendly local game store” I had a whole, maybe, $3. My problem, as I saw it, would be solved if modules came with the figurines- I got modules as gifts so budget wasn’t a consideration…!
When I wrote Whisper & Venom my goal was to have it be good enough to release for free on Dragonsfoot. The longer I worked on it the more progressively serious I became with the writing and design aspects. By the time I had a workable draft I decided to self publish it in first edition trade dress- fifty copies was the outside number I had in mind.
Then I went to GaryCon. Where I met some OSR publishers face to face. Through them, albeit indirectly, I met a guy who produced very well made miniatures. I had ‘new’ creatures on paper and pursued making 2 of them. Which, as you mentioned was more of a gimmick than a value add to the adventure. Mostly I wanted to have a miniature made so I could show other nerds how hip I was!
Then Kickstarter exploded and almost overnight I decided I was going to try to make the absolute best box set that I could. Mainly because I wanted to buy one and they didn’t exist. (This is before Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea.) I saw myself as my own target audience and started planning the Whisper & Venom Kickstarter. Since two books and a lot of empty space in a box sets feels like a swindle miniatures were a good choice and made me think of my penniless younger self at the game store.
Whisper & Venom was well received and I was in a position to do another one- with some experience that taught me to make the follow-up a little more limited in scope. Of course its about twice as big. I am just skilled enough to know what is possible with mini production but not disciplined enough to say no to a cool idea…!
Jeffro: Okay, so it’s loaded with miniatures, monster cards, magic item cards, and… oh yeah, an adventure and campaign setting. What I want to know is where you found Alyssa Faden. Her maps turn heads every time they come out, my son wanted to play the game as soon as he saw it, and I very nearly placed my Dwimmermount campaign on it at first sight.
Zach Glazar: Alyssa Faden is an amazing person and a true talent. I spent more time than I care to admit browsing art & cartography forums. I wanted a veteran TSR artist for the cover so that narrowed the choices down but cartography was different. I loved the Greyhawk map as a kid, as well as the ICE Middle-Earth Maps as a teen. They were the engines of my imagination if you will. While I was browsing I came across a post from Alyssa and was stunned. It was very similar to what I wanted while not looking like every CC3 map I saw. I knew she was busy and expensive so I contacted her with an offer of extra compensation if she would consider doing my humble valley map. One day the draft turned up in my inbox and I was stunned at the quality. Doubly so at the size of the file. It was so high resolution and detailed that it was still beautiful printed all the way up to 42″.
She did the Death & Taxes map the same way and it’s equally wonderful. I think the secret was I gave her the loosest of guidelines (adventure location, town locations, hand drawn shape of valley) and asked that she make it the way she wanted as an artist. All the little details, like the ruins and hillocks are her own contribution based on what felt right to her. It worked out well doing it that way.
Your son’s experience is similar to many I have heard from people that have run Whisper & Venom. Settings are a hard buy in but her map makes it easier to want to include it an already existing campaign world. I have had campaigns using Rappan Athuk, Stonehell Dungeon and, as you suggested, Dwimmermount find a place for Whisper & Venom (and now Death & Taxes). That is about as high a praise as I think I can get. Alyssa’s map made it possible.
Jeffro: Okay, one more question here. Can you tell me more about the overall look you’re going for here? I mean… the stuff I’ve seen of yours looks a lot less like a video game than the current artwork coming out of Wizards and Paizo. At the same time, your illustrations don’t cross the lines that guys like Zak S. and James Raggi vault over. But also at the same time, you’ve got demonic type themes illustrated that I don’t think you would have found in an early nineties TSR product. So what niche exactly are you trying to hold down here…?
Zack Glazar: Well, I am lucky to have worked with an artist whose style and influences are in line with my nostalgic love of older RPG art (Lloyd Metcalf whom I met at GaryCon). He is just the right combination of old- school line art style with a desire to do things differently with color and other artsy things I do not understand well. I am believer in commissioning art is also giving the artist only loose guidelines. I have yet to be disappointed in any of Lloyd’s commissioned art.
I try to keep a balance between sugarcoating actual evil versus and celebrating it. I think the demonic imagery is appropriate but hinting versus showing keeps the focus on gameplay and away from “hey look at my awesome themes and story”. It’s more focused on enhancing the GM’s story– which, I hope, allows more flexibility for the GM to interpret and use the material without the artwork overly influencing how players imagine their stories.
Jeffro: Thanks for taking the time to fill me in on this. This has been great!
Zack Glazar: You are most welcome. It was very much my pleasure. As I am sure you can imagine, with so many good products being created all of the time, any time taken by others to look over my stuff is the real reward for the effort put into making our releases. I appreciate the time you took and look forward to any reactions your readers may have.