Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Happy Halloween!

As various people seem to have colds and other lurgies, I thought I'd mix that theme with a Halloween one. The result is this rather silly scribble, entitled 'Achoo!'...

Try not to sacrifice too many virgins tonight. Or too few. Whatever works for you...

Monday, 29 October 2012

On the Physiology of... the Otyugh - Part Two.


One interesting thing that often happens to me as a concept artist is the way an idea turns into drawings and then how those drawings start to evolve. One drawing suggests a redrawing and redefining of the visual narrative. That is, as you finish one drawing, that process would suggest another drawing, which in turn would suggest another drawing, and so on. As you’re drawing you’re also thinking about the whys and wherefores of the subject at hand. So, if the subject is some sort of creature, the ‘where it lives’, ‘how it lives’ etc stuff mentioned above shapes what you put down on paper. As that happens (and if you’re really trying to conceptualise the subject matter along as many ‘what ifs’ that you feel are worth the chase) the design branches off into various areas. In effect, you start to dissect the original idea in order to flesh out the concept, which in turn reinforces (or helps to refine and improve) that original idea. If you have an idea for a creature, it’s possible via drawing and thinking to start to go off along those design branches. You start thinking about how it moves, what it does when eating, fighting, etc. You can even start to think about what it’s made up of – internal organs, eyes, mouth, teeth, limbs, muscles, etc. This is all fine if it still revolves around the core of suggestions given by the original idea. This sort of thing translates well into a thought experiment. In my previous post, I noted the salient details about the Otyugh and then quibbled about what the text description said versus the illustration that went with it. The former suggests something somewhat different than the latter.


Most monsters, in some way or another, tend to share similar forms to actual creatures that exist in nature. Even the weird things dreamt up by H. P. Lovecraft were borne partly from his apparent phobia of fish. Similarly, a monster you’re designing can be partly based on what you personally find disgusting, unsettling, unsightly, etc. Thinking about where it might live, what it might eat, etc may also be derived from that. With the Otyugh, I tend to find that this ‘icky’ factor comes into play. First and foremost, its food is various repellent things, and it also lives in such stuff. It buries itself in it, leaving only its eyes above keeping watch. How it would do this if had legs, I’m not sure. As it can be a size L monster, I doubt that it can bury itself in dungeon waste if it’s above a certain height. I mean, as far as I’m aware dungeons – even really unkempt ones – don’t have passages that are (human) neck high in crap. With that in mind, what if the Otyugh is a fairly big monster that’s long and wide, rather than tall? What if it’s more like some sort of slug, or at least as malleable as one? We know that it has a pair of tentacles, two eyes on a stalk, and a sucker-like mouth. When combining those ideas with a slug-like form, I came up with this thumbnail sketch: 

After a bit more scribbling, I came up with something a little more distinct:

This still didn’t zero in on the mental picture I have. I was imagining something more chunky and slug-like, rather than being a creature which is more like a ray or something like that. Mind you, it is perhaps more like an Onch and to a certain extent has a similar way of existing (albeit in a different environment). I also started to think about some of the distinct parts of the Otyugh’s physiology, hence the pencil scribble of its ‘eyes’. With that, I was thinking that these are a quite simple eye – or appear to be. Perhaps the Otyugh’s aversion to light stems from the way its eyes work.

As all this was going on, the design was starting to take more of a distinct shape in my mind. Like I said before, ideas tend to develop as you’re drawing. For example, not only is the Otyugh like an onch, it also reminds me of a lamprey (because of its mouth and teeth), and a pig (because of the way I imagine it snuffling through the stuff it eats). The tentacles and eye stalk are similar in overall look and feel, i.e. stretchy pseudopod-like extensions. The fact that the tentacles have sharp ridges and the mouth has many teeth then made me start to wonder whether the Otyugh is made up of two ‘themes’ – rubbery, stretchy flesh and tougher, chitinous (or possibly mineral) areas that have some other function (i.e. eyes, armour, weapons). These themes partly borrow from sea creatures, but also tap into the slug/pig idea. This then led to another scribble:

One other idea that came into play was the way that the Otyugh perhaps might have semi-transparent areas, or is pretty much see-through all over but has opaque patches. If we think back to what I mentioned previously about the 'icky' factor, one thing I don't like about slugs is the fact that they can appear semi-transparent. Perhaps the Otyugh is also like this - it's a big rubbery, slug-like mass in which you can almost see its internal organs, etc. Note also with the above picture that I've included some scribbles about how the mouth might be formed. There's also a 'stretched flat' Otyugh (maybe it can get under some doors, just as slugs seem wont to do). The smallest thumbnail (bottom left) revolves around another question: what if the Otyugh can 'retract' it's tentacles...?

Friday, 26 October 2012

On the Physiology of... the Otyugh - Part One.

Initial thoughts...

As I mentioned in my very first blog post, there are some things in D&D that are odd. At least, they are to me. Now, I know that Gary Gygax (All Hail To His Name) was a Tolkien fan, but there are other elements he put into the game via the Monster Manual that are an enjoyable mixing of ideas, metaphors, influences and downright leftfield thinking. When I first started playing D&D, it seemed more like a Heironymous Bosch painting rather than a Tolkien Saxo-Celtic thing. So, on the one hand you have people and sort-of people with armour and weapons from the medieval period. On the other you have various strange things that are recognisable but at the same time a weird mutation or mixing of various creatures. The fact that the game had these elements and then preferred to have them oppose each other underground - in a dungeon of all places – is to my mind wonderfully odd. Actually, the concept of a dungeon as a setting is also odd – but that’s something for a different discussion at some later point...

I didn’t have access to the Monster Manual when I was a new player nor for quite some time after that. I just had to try and absorb the creatures that the game and my Dungeon Master sent my way. I could deal with Orcs and Goblins. I originally thought Kobolds were called ‘Cobalts’ and so imagined them to be small blue humanoid things. Luckily, I didn’t visualise them as Smurfs. But I remember the first encounter with a Carrion Crawler and wondering ‘Who the hell would think up something like that?’ in way that was part-revulsion, part-inspiration. When I actually read the Monster Manual for 1st ed’ AD&D, I found that the Carrion Crawler was relatively ‘sensible’ as a creature design compared to some of the other things in the book. Running parallel to that was my completist fussy outlook on illustration (an affliction I still have) – certain pictures didn’t really match the written description that well. I’ve always thought that this was a bit of shame, because sometimes the text would suggest something interestingly bizarre in terms of how it might look, where it lived, how it lived, etc – but then the artwork would sell that short or miss the point a bit. This isn’t to say that the illustrators and the illustrations failed, far from it. I love all of the pictures. I just think that some opportunities have been missed. Similarly, the text and the illustration may match up okay, but they would suggest certain interesting bits of pondering (i.e. the Lurker Above).

With that in mind, I recently re-read the Monster Manual and remembered that ‘the picture not matching the text that well’ applied to some interesting creatures. I started scribbling/doodling/drawing. I may at some point actually get around to realising these scribbles into some sort of nice finished piece, but perhaps that would suit another blog of completed piccies.

Anyway, the first subject for this head scratching meets pencil scratching will be the Otyugh. This is how it looks in the Monster Manual:

Various depictions of the Otyugh in subsequent versions of D&D repeat the general outline of this drawing.

Here’s a general gist of what the Monster Manual says about the Otyugh: weird - scavenger of dung, offal, and carrion – lives underground and is averse to light – lives and thrives in piles of dung and rubbish – has a sensory organ stalk with two eyes – has two tentacles with sharp ridges – has a sucker-like mouth with many teeth - it’s biggish (Size M to L) and fairly tough (AC 3).

Taking that into account, questions arose when comparing the words to the picture. Questions such as:

Er... the text doesn’t mention legs.

If it has legs, how does it reach down and eat its food? Are dungeons piled high with its chosen foodstuff (a horrible thought), so it just wades in?

The drawing doesn’t show the sucker-like mouth.

Okay, yes, this might be pedantry. Okay, it is pedantry. In my defence, if I separate out the text and ignore the drawing, a different sort of Otyugh takes shape...

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Forwards to something...

By the time I finished secondary school in 1985, our RPG obsession was in full swing. Our group now consisted of me, my brother (Sime), my cousin (Mr Cheeks) and some of my brother's friends. My brother and I pooled some money together to buy Star Frontiers, which remains one of my favourite RPGs, and as a group we played that a great deal for many years. Some of us had played Car Wars for a while in 1983, which is another good game, but me and my brother thought the RPG element was missing (we weren't aware of GURPS). We started to design our own version of CW-style game, originally called Freeway, which also had aliens in it called Slatzians. I can't remember why. When the Freeway Fighter Fighting Fantasy book came out, I changed the name of the game to Motormania, and also ditched the sci-fi elements. I still have some of the tables and a few characters, all carefully written up on file paper. We played that quite a lot too, and managed to test and include rules for helicopters and aircraft. This taught me a great deal about designing a game, which would come in handy in my later career. We started playing Twilight:2000 and Runequest. In 1984 or so, I'd played Traveller at school with Jaffa and Wiggy, although our actual play sessions tended to be done when hanging around outside at lunchtime.

By 1986, I started at a college, and met a few other people who were interested in RPGs - the most important one being a bloke called Porky. He joined our group and, since he could drive, his poor little mushroom-coloured Ford Fiesta had to put up with a bunch of us piling into it to go from one playing location to another. As some of us lived in the same village/a nearby village, we sometimes we would walk to someone else's house to play. People would also bike 7 or 8 miles to and from wherever we had our RPG session. Mind you, this implies some sort of order and sensibility. Nothing could be further from the truth. This photo gives some idea of what I mean:

L to R: me, Locock (near my shoulder), Sime, Chick, and Mr Cheeks. Leper stands in the background. Taken by Housey, at Housey's, 1986. I think we were playing Star Frontiers.

This one is a bit more sedate:

L to R: Frannie, Mr Cheeks, me, Locock (behind me), and Porky. The eagle-eyed among you may note that there's a Commodore C16 +4 just to the right of Porky's arse. Taken by Sime, at my place (okay, my mum's place), 1986 - possibly 1987.
The photos don't include some other key players, namely Scotty and Dods. Our sessions usually had this format: arrive, unpack our stuff and sort of arrange it on a table/floor/laps, make large amounts of tea, bicker, take the piss out of each other, start to play, bicker, take the piss, argue over a rule quibble, suggest/argue that someone may have been looking at the rulebook when they shouldn't have, drink tea, eat biscuits, bicker, take the piss, etc etc. This would go around in a loop for hours. So, if we were sat down for, say, 4 hours the actual amount of time actually role-playing was... well... I'd say about an hour. Sometimes more. Sometimes less. Oh, and there was always a chance that at least one of Locock's characters would die during each session (for example - one once managed to cut off his own leg and then bleed to death in a ditch). There were occasions where we would tape record our sessions - these will hopefully be digitised soon. I'd bought Call of Cthulhu and we only ever played that at night, by candlelight. To round off the effect I had a red candle melted to the top of a sheep's skull. Ooh. Scary.

We played RPGs on Saturdays and Sundays, usually all day if we could. In the intervening time, we were either thinking about or reading about RPGs - and/or computer games. That said, none of us actually owned D&D. We just knew the basic outline of the rules, etc and went from there, and would alternate who was the DM. Games we played many times: AD&D (1st Ed), Star Frontiers, Call of Cthulhu (2nd Ed), Twilight:2000, Traveller 2300AD, Runequest, and Dark Conspiracy. Games we played at least once (and sometimes only once): Talisman, Blood Bowl, Star Trek, MERP, Cyberpunk, CyberSpace, Judge Dredd, Paranoia, TMNT, Living Steel, Mechwarrior, and probably some others I've forgotten about. We also played Motormania, and Frannie invented two RPGs that we played quite often: Arena and ATK. We did sometimes buy official adventures to play, but 50% of our adventures were created, designed and run by us. I wrote a huge amount for Call of Cthulhu and Twilight:2000, for example.

This all continued on it's merry way until about 1992. We haven't played in any organised way since then, more's the pity. Our last RPG session was a drunken bout of Tales From The Floating Vagabond. We ended up going our seperate ways in some form or another. Maybe one day, if just for one day, we'll play again.

Fast-forward to 1996. I live in London. I'm unemployed and want a job in the computer games industry. I haven't a clue how to do this. I want to be a games artist. I apply to an advert in The Grauniad from a company looking to develop adventure and strategy games. I get an interview and take along my portfolio of painstakingly created drawings and paintings, and some crap 3D work. The 'company' is in reality just some rich bloke, on his own, trying to set up a company from his ludicriously posh flat. He hires me on the spot. My first job is actually as a designer. I have to design a paper prototype for a first-person adventure/shooter game based on ancient Egypt. I have no idea how to do this. I don't know what a game design document (GDD) is. So what do I do? I just write it all up like a D&D level, including maps, room descriptions, monsters, etc. I still have it to this day. He really likes it but it is never used - a crushing blow for me then, but little did I know at the time that this is de rigueur for games development. So I do some more work for him for a few months. He then fires me because he doesn't want to pay me any more. After a while I then get an interview at a development studio called Intelligent Games (IG). This goes well. After a second interview they hire me as a graphics artist. Nice. Once there (up until the time IG folds in 2002) I do graphics work, concept art, game design, character design, tons of stuff - excluding coding. I don't do coding. It gives me a headache.

During all that time, and since, D&D and RPGs were continually feeding into my work and how I rationalised ideas, art, design etc. It turns out that the computer games industry was - and still is - largely in debt to D&D. 

Some may not agree. 

But they're talking out of their arses...

Sometime soon - but maybe not tomorrow: On the physiology of the Otyugh...

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Further adventures

So, to continue what I was rabbiting on about yesterday. Well, once we were infected with the bug of RPGness, we then infected other people we knew with it.  It went to a few other people we knew in our age-range. I passed it on to my brother and my cousin. It then spread to my brother's friends. None of this took very long, and so our afterschool RPG group grew in size and in a short space of time.

As this was going on, another thing was also starting to come out of the woodwork - 'home computing'. Mr Barrett, my form teacher at the time (1982) actually built a small Texas Instruments computer, with a kit he'd ordered through Maplins. This was in the days when Maplins weren't an overpriced, 'Not as good as Tandy' electronics retail chain. Their catalogues also used to have cool sci-fi spaceship art on the cover. I don't know why. Anyway, this TI thing had a 'game' on it called Biorhythms - although it wasn't really a game. You put in the day's date, your birthday, and it'd tell you what sort of day you were going to have. As I was at school putting in this vital information, I already knew what sort of day I was going to have - a crap one. At the same time, the ZX80 and ZX81 were on the market, and not long after came the BBC. Not that my family could afford any of them. So (in a pattern that repeated itself for many years) I had to get my fix of computer games via school or by going to the houses of  mates whose parents could afford a home computer. Jaffa's dad bought a BBC. Mr Barrett had a ZX81 at school that he encouraged us to investigate. I'd already played on an Atari console, but these new bits of kit were much better. I found myself getting completely engrossed by computer graphics - a seminal moment being when I first saw:


However, I didn't know how such things were made. My spirits were very much dampened when Mr Barrett told me that they were done with code, and you had to be good at maths to do code. I'm bloody awful at maths, and I still am, so that nipped one dream in the bud. Temporarily...

Getting back to D&D, our group eventually split into two smaller groups. Wiggy decided that he wanted to try being a Dungeon Master, so he ran one small group. Urko and myself were eventually the only ones who decided to stick with Miss Lupton and to carry on slogging through In Search of the Unknown. This paid off, as we gradually rose to third level and amassed some pretty cool stuff (i.e. I had a +2 sword and some Mithril chain mail). However, real life stopped our school D&D sessions. We'd noticed that Miss Lupton was getting 'fatter'. Then she told us that she was leaving school because she was having a baby. It was 1984. We were now on our own...

As a bit of a post-script, Wiggy and I have always wondered what happened to Miss Lupton (she may actually have been Mrs Lupton, but all women teachers at my school were called Miss). It's been very difficult to find her, even in the age of this internet thingy. The simple fact of the matter is that we owe her a great deal. As I said yesterday, if it wasn't for D&D the course of my life would've been much different. If it wasn't for her encouraging us to play and making the game seem like a little nugget of wonder - during what was otherwise a pretty rubbish school experience - I think we'd be very much the lesser for it. So, Miss Lupton, wherever your are: thanks!

Monday, 22 October 2012

In the beginning...

Without a shadow of a doubt, if I'd never started playing RPGs the course of my life would be radically different. Well, by 'life' I mean 'what I ended up doing for a living in any important sense' - but, then again, it all tends to feed into other areas as well. This is something I realised awhile ago and is a view shared by my friend Paul 'Wiggy' Wade-Williams, who is the author of a large amount of RPG material and co-owns, Triple Ace Games.  

It all started 30 years ago...

*Cue 'wooooo' noise and shimmering camera effect à la Scooby Doo cartoons to denote going back in time...*

It's 1981. Picture the scene - two boys with bad hair and some sort of interest in heavy metal meet during their first week at secondary school. Fast-forward a bit to 1982. They now have a friend nicknamed 'Jaffa' (his second name was Gorringe - you can see how inventive kids were in coming up with monikers for people). He gets caught reading Warlock of Firetop Mountain in a maths class by his teacher, Miss Lupton. 

'Pay attention, Gorringe...'
I don't remember if he got detention for that, but that's by the by. Anyway, she asks him if he's ever heard of a game called Dungeons and Dragons, and if he and his friends would be interested in playing the game in an after-school group. This is the point at which pretty much everything starts.

At the time, D&D seemed to be something that was coming out of the woodwork. At least, that's how it seemed to us, living as we were in a somewhat isolated bit of south Somerset. D&D was in the film ET. You'd see adverts for it in magazines and comics. We also got our hands on a book called What Is Dungeons and Dragons?

That's a rather cool Citadel Miniatures Red Dragon, as far as I can remember...

This was a pretty good book, even if it was written by some posh schoolkids from Eton. It gave me a better insight into how the game worked. One amusing part has the 'script' of a game session, in which one of the players (when attacked by a giant locust) says 'I'll cream the locust'. Now, none of us really knew what was meant by that. We assumed he was talking about killing it. It's just that use of the word 'cream' wasn't something that sounded right. On the back of the book it says 'From students to solicitors, punks to professors, everyone is at it!'. This was patently untrue. Only a small group of us (around 8 spotty herberts at most) played it at school and we didn't tell anyone. Why? I'll tell you why. Because of the bloody awful Dungeons and Dragons cartoon that was on TV at the time, that's why. I'm not even going to add a pic of that. Look it up on Youtube. Actually, don't. It's still rubbish. Other kids at school didn't really get D&D because of that, so we didn't advertise our interest.

For a few hours once a week after all classes had finished we'd pile into Miss Lupton's classroom and slog our way through the dungeon she'd created for us (I found out years later that it was actually In Search Of The Unknown). We'd acquired some nice 35mm figures and so, using my imagination to the fullest, I decided to create a character based on one of these. It was a Dwarf fighter and I called him Mystichi Argonshire. Wiggy's character (also a Dwarf fighter) was my brother, and his name was Argos Argonshire. You read that right - his first name was Argos. For my American readers, Argos is a chainstore that sells various electrical, etc things. In that sense, a US-version of Argos Argonshire would be Walmart Argonshire. I think Mystichi was a name I nicked from a Michael Moorcock book I was reading at the time. Along with us was a Magic User and a Druid - my friend Urko was the former, and I think Jaffa was the latter. We spent a great deal of time exploring that dungeon, never really knowing what it was all about but having fun regardless. We started to find treasure, we'd fight monsters, we'd map the places we'd explored and at the end of each session try to make our way back out to the entrance. This was because there was an NPC mentor, the Venerable Bede (who lived in a nearby temple) who would try to explain some of our finds. We'd like to ask him things before the session was over, as waiting to find out on the following week was just too much to bear.

Anway, all of this was the seed from which many other things grew. I will get around to explaining how that developed tomorrow...

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Back to scribbling...

I've spent far too long away from two things I like: namely, drawing and D&D. My artwork nowadays is created digitally, which tends to be about labour-saving, rather than working away at the coalface. Or the drawing board. So I decided to combine the two. I'm a little rusty on both subjects, but here goes...

What is it? Answers on a postcard please...

One of the things I've always liked about D&D (at least, the 1st Edition AD&D version I started on way back in 1982) is that it has some pretty odd stuff in it. The homage-to-Tolkien themes didn't really sink in at the time, and still don't. Let's face it, the Tolkien stuff isn't half as weird as the mind that invented something as odd as a Carrion Crawler...

Speaking of which, here's my take on a few bits of one:

Not that it's a final version of anything. If one sticks to the 'cephalopod meets cutworm' description from the (1980) version of the Monster Manual I have, I think it needs to be more like a nautilus. Still, early days...