Meet the Publisher: Brad Kerr
Brad Kerr publishes under the moniker Swordlords Publishing. He is responsible for a number of critically acclaimed adventures, including the recently released Wyvern Songs, a compilation of four scenarios.
Question: First, I'd like to ignore the adventures and ask you about Between Two Cairns. For those unfamiliar, Brad and Yochai Gal (author of Cairn) recently started the podcast. Can you talk about the impetus behind the podcast, and what your broad goals are with it?
Answer: Yochai and I have been online friends for a while and we both buy way more modules than can reasonably be played in one lifetime. We have a generally jokey rapport and for some time Yochai suggested we start a podcast. I resisted for a long time. Don't tell anyone but I don’t really like podcasts (too talky). It's actually been way more fun than I expected. It’s a great excuse to read zines and chat with a friend about our weird niche hobby every week.
Our goals are to give space to adventure modules and their creators--especially to some that are off most people's radar. We try to keep things pretty light and breezy; at least one of us needs to like a work enough to defend it in order to talk about it on the show. We're not here to dogpile on something that's not to our taste. We speak from the perspective of designers and talk about DIY RPG publishing process. We’re trying to make a show that people like us would like–geeks who probably have an Itch.io page and a binder full of Nate Treme dungeons that they printed out at work. We also try to keep episodes under an hour (again, podcasts so talky). We don’t really have any other broader goals but the response we’ve received has been great and I’m humbled that people take time to listen to us.
Q: Talk about Wyvern Songs. It's gotten rave reviews thus far, and I'm curious to hear about your thought process that went into it. I like how it is written so the adventures can be used independently or as part of an overarching campaign (and how one of the adventures ties into a previous work of yours). It's definitely your biggest book, thus far.
A: I buy a lot of modules and I have this sisyphean compulsion to construct the ultimate, perfect sandbox RPG campaign. "A perfect world of perfect dungeons." To that end, I wanted to make a book of bite sized adventures that someone could drop into a sandbox campaign without much prep. I wanted them to span a wide variety of settings and tones. I envisioned each of them having a distinct color scheme within a book: a “rainbow of adventure.” Like a lot of my other published work, I wanted each adventure to be a self-contained capsule but with broad outcomes. “Easy to start, hard to end.” In my opinion, a good adventure should end with a big mess that echoes out into the world after the heroes leave the dungeon.
My original intention was to write 5 adventures, each with 10 pages. Once I really started digging in, a few of them ballooned as they found their rhythm and the book got totally out of hand. I decided it was more important to write the best possible version of an adventure rather than to restrict myself to a superficial page count. Even after dropping one of the adventures, writing Wyvern Songs took every minute of my free time for about a year and I almost lost my mind. I'm really happy with how it came out though and I think it’s amazing that people are actually playing these adventures.
Q: I've always really admired your layout and how the artwork in the books really set the tone for the adventure. Can you talk a bit about your thoughts on these aspects of game design, and how you work with artists (including yourself!) to capture the feel you're going for? I'm in the process of teaching myself layout, and the process of layout has changed the way I look at writing.
A: Thank you! Regarding layout, I try to put the writing first; I keep my pages simple and in support of the text. Rooms and discrete concepts are confined to one page and liberally cross-referenced. After an initial draft in a word processor, I do a lot of editing directly in Affinity Publisher (I acknowledge that this is absolutely a cardinal sin of desktop publishing). I take 2 or 3 passes, reading for different things (e.g brevity, evocative language), just pruning the bonsai until the page looks right. Finally I fill in the blanks with spot art or mini-maps. I designed Wyvern Songs with a spread in mind rather than an individual page so some little art flourishes spill across the break here and there. Layout is not naturally easy for me so I try to keep things pretty grounded.
Regarding art: I'm very fortunate to be friends with a few extremely talented visual artists who have contributed work to my books. Matt Stikker and Tyler Smith Owings have both played in campaigns that I've GM'd so they know my vibe and I think they meet my tone without needing to prompt them even though their styles are really different. I just give them a rough description of what I want and they do their thing. They're amazing. With Wyvern Songs, I branched out and commissioned some work from a few of my favorite artists which was an absolute thrill. I don’t give much guidance with art commission prompts and I’ll actually bake in details to my writing that artists include in their images. Commissioning art is amazing because it’s like paying cool people to hang out with me and manifest my weird ideas into something beautiful looking. “Woah I got an email from Sam Mameli! Woah he drew a freaky monster for me!” If I was a rich person, I would do this all the time.
I've never been wholly confident in my own art but with Wyvern Songs, I had a lot of spots to fill and I work cheap. I have a very cartoony predilection that needs to be kept in check for Very Serious Dungeon Games. The best I can say is that I've never seen anyone online make fun of my illustrations so I consider that a victory.