Swords & Wizardry 3rd Printing: What's on the cover?
Well, we funded in one day, a reality that has blown me away and made me speechless for the last few days. Less than 14 hours, even. As of right now, here's where we sit...
If you don't know what you're looking at, this is the Swords & Wizardry Complete Rulebook 3rd Printing Kickstarter from Frog God Games. FGG hired me to do the project management and art direction (and write an adventure, and do some cartography, and do some editing - I wore a lot of hats for this project). I built up an all-woman team (some brand new to RPGs, others brand new to the OSR) to redo the artwork and layout to go with Matt Finch's writing. They wanted a new perspective, and we delivered.
I'd expected to do a lot of blogging about the project, but I wasn't sure where I should start. Thankfully, fans have been asking me questions, so I thought I'd work on them one at a time.
The first, most often-asked question...
What's on the Cover?
If you've been following this project, you've probably noticed I don't frequently answer this question, or when I answer it I'm pretty vague. The reason for that has to do with one of the reasons I chose a work like this, and goes into how I view not only the OSR, but gaming as a whole. The piece has abstract elements to it and isn't a strictly representational work. It's a departure from the usual formula of showing some heroes on the cover doing some heroic things like you'd expect to do when playing the game. This isn't the first cover to take that departure ever, and it certainly won't be the last.
To kind of give you an idea of where I come from, below are the covers of the first three games I ever played. Though I'm actually in my 40s, myself, like many women I didn't start gaming until later in life, which in my case was the early 90s. Once I got started, I never stopped.
I'll admit it, I was (and still am in many ways) a huge World of Darkness fan. Here's some 90s nerd cred for you: I moved to San Francisco (from just north of Seattle) when I was 18. Silicon Valley was just getting going, and I wanted to be at the heart of it all. My boyfriend at the time ran a World of Darkness MUSH. Shortly after moving there, I opened my own MUSH where I hacked together Cyberpunk 2020 and World of Darkness (all of it at the time - Vampire, Werewolf, and Mage).
MUSHes or Multi-User-Shared-Hallucinations were text-based computer games. We roleplayed our characters by typing out what they said and did, navigated around a map to go to different parts of the city, and when we needed to roll dice, there were staff members called Judges that would show up and basically act as temporary Storyteller (GM). It was an interesting combination of improving my technical skills and gaming at the same time because running a MUSH always required some coding.
At the time, White Wolf was doing a lot of stuff out of San Francisco, and at the height of their popularity. I did end up getting the start of my tech career there, but I have to admit in that day and age, I gamed and clubbed far more than I worked. MUSH gaming, LARPing, and in-person. It was a golden era for me, back when I had time to just be young and into gaming.
The covers for the WoD books grabbed me from the start because they were a departure from the norm. They weren't the only books to do this, either. I often found myself flipping through books that had a cover that seemed to want me to look inside. That isn't to say there's anything wrong with the representational artwork on both the AD&D book and the Shadowrun book above. I was fascinated with that 80s mullet fest on the front cover of Shadowrun. Wasn't that guy one of the goons from Prayer of the Rollerboys?
So to recap, the golden era of gaming for me was when I lived in San Francisco in the early 90s playing horror games about vampires and werewolves and urban fantasy while going to Industrial clubs every weekend (and some weekdays). If it looks like a goth/industrial album cover with horror influences, that's probably because I wrote the art order, and included words like "album cover", "abstract", "horror", and "vines and bones and blood".
Okay, but what makes this more likely to reach a different demographic than the standard OSR fare?
I didn't come to old school gaming until around 2012 after I tired of the complexity of other games. When I first started gaming, gamers were largely at the mercy of what the local gaming store stocked on their shelves. Older, out-of-print games were difficult to find, and playing them almost always relied on knowing someone who had them because they were older or had been playing longer. Sometimes, you could get lucky and find some older books at the used bookstore, but by and large if you wanted easy and ready access to the system you were running, you went with what was in print at the time. What's nostalgia for a lot of people represents a time in gaming I just barely missed, and I'm not unique in that respect.
Several months ago, I conducted an informal poll over social media to verify what I'd already suspected based on my experiences gaming since the 90s, and the hundreds of women I've talked to since starting ConTessa four years ago. You see, I turned 41 last month. I'm not that much younger than the supposed target audience for the nostalgic TSR aesthetic and trade dress that has persisted in much of the modern OSR genre. Except, I, like many women, didn't start gaming when I was 10, 11, 12, or younger. I never got a boxed set. The only way I knew the boxed sets existed was because boys I gamed with told me about them. When I started gaming, all the racks on the gaming store were filled with 2nd edition AD&D because that's what was in print. The same thing has happened with many, many women my age who now game.
My findings, as informal and scientifically inaccurate as they were, indicated that women started gaming an average of 5-10 years later than men. This ties into the same story I've heard from women over the past 20+ years I've been gaming, and especially over the past four years while running hundreds of women-led events at conventions through ConTessa. Women who started gaming in their tweens or earlier are such a rarity, my response is always awe and 'Wow, that's awesome, I want to meet your family'.
There's a reason for that, too. The era of 70s gaming mimicked in many OSR products was perhaps the least welcoming time for women. This is an era where the creators were actively saying women don't buy D&D so they're not interested in listening to their concerns, where boys weren't just making the gaming table uncomfortable for women, they were telling them they weren't allowed, where stats for female characters were capped, and openly sexist material was being published that did as much to mock the women who disliked it as it did to minimize their involvement.
It's no surprise that when I ask women why they hate the OSR and will never do anything with it, they tell me they think the OSR is still trapped in the mindset of the 70s, where sexism was open and allowed and seldom questioned. This is a period where we were only represented in science fiction and fantasy works as token characters or sexual objects and love interests. This is a time when we watched our mothers and grandmothers crumble after lifetimes of being marginalized and treated poorly. This is a time when an amendment to the constitution banning discrimination based on gender *failed*. This is not a time most women want to go back to, and whether you know it or not, whether you like it or not, whether it *should* happen or not, the mimicked TSR trade dress and art style of the 70s reminds many, many women of that time.
I realize that for many older men this is pure nostalgia. Nostalgia is a warm and cuddly word. It's us looking back at a time that made us feel good. It's that moment in Ratatouille when Ego bites into his food and is transported back to being a little boy. When many men in their 40s and 50s go to the gaming store and see a new product in the trade dress of products they grew up with, they feel like a kid again. It's a good feeling, and they want to keep that up as long as possible. I get that, believe me. But, what's nostalgia for one group isn't always nostalgia for another.
Had women been more involved in the 70s, I'd be singing a different tune. If the initial boxed sets and the books that followed were marketed to both boys and girls, more girls might've found them under the Christmas tree, and started playing with their girlfriends earlier. Had the 70s not been a time when many of our fundamental civil rights were ignored or non-existent, things would be different. We could all be looking for the warm feeling of nostalgia.
But that's not the way history worked out. By and large, women weren't part of that period in gaming. Most of us don't have anything to be nostalgic about.
Creating something any one group will like is a difficult proposition. There is no 'recipe', and it's frankly an insulting idea that women are such simple creatures you can just slap some pink on a product or put more clothes on that mage and all of a sudden we'll be interested. That's why I didn't try to make a book that appealed to women or the marginalized, I made a book that would appeal to me, and I hired a lot of women to give me their perspectives on the modern version of the OSR.
I want women to feel welcome and like they're part of this hobby, as well as anyone else who's ever felt marginalized, which is why we also made an effort to include non-binary and LGTBQ+ representation. In many cases, the modern OSR is drastically different than the 70s-era games that inspire the genre. The boys have grown up and are often much more welcome and open. Many have daughters they want to bring into gaming, themselves.
Unfortunately, there are still remnants of that era's rampant sexism floating around, but they make up a much smaller portion of the OSR than it seems from the outside. There were several times during this project when the attacks and doubts and whispers I heard being said behind my back made me want to give up and walk away. I'm glad I didn't, because the surge of support we got immediately on launching the Kickstarter proved without a shadow of a doubt that the hurtful voices are in the minority.
A "fresh coat of paint" is sometimes exactly what's needed to reposition a brand. Taken out of the 70s era, OSR games are pretty modern. They're versatile, easy-to-learn, rules-light, and filled with possibilities. They are infinitely (and easily) hackable, and take very little knowledge of the system for new players to get involved. On top of that, the longevity of these systems and their cross-compatibility means there are thousands of resources available to add to the game from a wide variety of sources. I want the marginalized to see those parts of the OSR, not to get muddled in a bunch of ideas and emotions conjured from an era that was hostile towards us.
Does this mean nostalgia is bad or nostalgia in and of itself is sexist or racist or any other type of '-ist'? Of course not. Nostalgia is subjective. To me, this is very nostalgic.
It also doesn't mean that 70s (and 80s) era art is always objectifying or exclusionary to marginalized people. It's not. It does, however, represent a time and space where even the creators of the game stated publicly their target audience was male, so continuing on that tradition continues to send that message. That's a choice publishers have to make when they create their products. Hearkening back to that era doesn't just include the good things. There are pros and cons for doing it either way, and in many cases publishers choose to create something they, themselves liked as kids. There's nothing wrong with that. I did the same thing.
Okay, enough exposition... what's on the cover?
I commissioned a piece with abstract elements because it's supposed to be open to interpretation, just like gaming. When I sit down at a game table, the images created of the world in my head are seldom what I see on the front cover of the book. The worlds I play in take shape differently depending on the tone, feel, and cadence the GM sets. That's one of my favorite aspects of gaming. I often get to know who the GM is based on how they ply their creativity at the table.
Swords & Wizardry, just like every other game in its genre, is about the exploration of dark and scary places by adventurers motivated by fortune, fame, or necessity. Dusty old tombs, impossibly dark and ancient forests, musty crypts, caverns covered in bat guano, ruined cities, creepy basements, and just about any place you can think of that is dangerous and filled with things that can take your life in an instant. Step on the wrong tile, open the wrong door, engage the wrong monster, and it's all over. It takes all your wit and cleverness to get in, get what you were looking for, and get out without dying.
To fuel this, OSR games frequently feature uneven encounters with some pretty terrifying made-up monsters. The trick to surviving isn't to try and kill everything you encounter, it's to use the environment to your advantage and outwit the too-tough thing - both telling a great story and playing a great game at the same time. With the cover, I wanted to give that sense of foreboding doom, the horror of coming face to face with something you don't understand and don't recognize. It's true that it's more horror than heroic. That's by design.
As to the base "what are the objects in the scene" question... it's a skull, with branches and thorny vines coming out of nearly every opening. The skull is likely being animated by the magic coming out of it causing the tendrils in the front to move and the eye sockets to glow. I didn't think about what kind of skull it was until someone told me it looked like a dragon to them, which makes sense to me. It's got the right shape, and it looks like in animating, the horns have been replaced with thorny branches. It's obviously not been dead that long because you can still see blood on the ribcage. The fresh meat and/or light seems to have drawn out some very large moths, who are all fluttering around it.
Every time I look at it I see something new, and that's how I like my art. It's not for everyone, and I'm okay with that. The world would be pretty boring, otherwise. Hopefully, though, I've given you some insight into why I love it so much, where I come from, and why I find this project so very important.
If you haven't already, stop by the Kickstarter and take a look around. There are a whole lot of great add-ons and stretch goals coming up specifically designed to get you into OSR gaming.
Over the course of the month, I'll be answering more questions like this. If you have a legitimate question, send it to me on social media or drop me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I look forward to hearing from you!