Ben Laurence has written the critically acclaimed Through Ultan's Door blog and similarly named 'zines, and has also recently released Downtime in Zyan, a guide to downtime activities, beautifully illustrated by Evlyn Moreau. He has graciously agreed to answer some interview questions.
Question. First, I'd like to ask about Downtime in Zyan. It has just been released in print. It's a bit of a departure from your other work. How did it come about? I'm also interested in your collaboration with Evyln. Did you have her in mind when you decided to incorporate the mole rat people into the book?
Answer. You’re right, it is a departure! My previous published work presented adventure locations and setting material from Zyan, the cursed flying city of Wishery, my version of the dreamlands. Downtime in Zyan maintains a light connection with that setting as a framing device, since the material is introduced through the mole rat people of Zyan. But, in reality, it presents a system and setting agnostic framework for handling downtime actions, the activities characters perform between adventures. The idea is to support sandbox play by presenting a set of rules and procedures that encourage characters to engage actively with the world from the end of their very first session. The projects they pursue in the space between adventures are designed to engender shenanigans and produce opportunities for further adventures, so that you get a more dynamic, player-driven game.
Like pretty much everything I publish, I got into it because it was something I needed at my own table. I created the system partly by just observing what my most proactive, creative, and pushy players were already doing between adventures. Without any system to manage it, I loved their engagement but found it overwhelming to do prep between sessions for them without a framework. I also felt like it would be helpful to provide everyone with some options to pursue so that less pro-active and pushy folks could get involved in the campaign on a more equal footing. I’m running a campaign now where we have it built in from session 1. It really changes how the game feels in a good way. People actually look forward to the time between adventures! There’s never enough downtime for them to get done what they’re hoping to get done (by design), and what they do often creates the possibilities for further adventure.
The zine is illustrated by the wonderful Evlyn Moreau. She was a player in my original dreamlands campaign. I’ve always wanted to do a project with her, both because she was one of my original players, and also because I have for many years adored her whimsical and original art style. Sadly, that style didn’t quite fit the more John Blanche infused darker aesthetic I developed for Through Ultan’s Door, so as soon as I had the opportunity to publish something different, I jumped at the opportunity to work with her. The illustrations for the zine are so delightful! You can get it in print and PDF here [link: https://throughultansdoor.bigcartel.com/products] and PDF only here [link: https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/417937/Downtime-in-Zyan] as well as through Third Kingdom Games (see link above).
Q. Can you give a broad overview of the scope of the Through Ultan's Door for those unfamiliar with it? Is there a good place for people to start? I know you have documented a lot of the campaign world on your blog. How does that material tie into your published works? How do the Dreamlands tie in with your setting (I'm incorporating Dreamlands in my work as well)? What do the Dreamlands of your setting allow you to do stylistically and thematically that you otherwise might not be able to do?
A. Through Ultan’s Door is a zine that presents adventure locations and setting material from beyond the veil of sleep, written for older editions of D&D and their retro-clones. It has three issues and one companion adventure so far. The first issue provides a way to get to the dreamlands, Ultan’s door that has opened under the stairs of his printmaker’s shop. It also presents The Ruins of the Inquisitor’s Theater that lies on the other side of that door, the first of the dungeons of the campaign, a ruined punishment theater filled with deadly shadow puppets and giggling mischievous swine. The second issue presents The Catacombs of the Fleischguild, an elegant but gory dungeon where the Butcher Priests of Zyan are interred along with their glistering treasures and fiendish traps. The third double issue opens things up by stringing these locations together with others on a pointcrawl down a sewer river of the dreamlands. The companion adventure, Beneath the Moss Courts, written by Gus L, expands this further by presenting the Verdant Purveyor, the ruined hulk that serves as the lair for dastardly sewer pirates who traffic along the river.
This is material I originally developed for my own campaign. I’ve run three campaigns there so far, two still ongoing, including the original campaign in its 7th year! I’ve been posting about it on my long-running blog, Mazirian’s Garden, since the first campaign started in 2015. The posts on the blog represents work in progress setting material from my home campaigns. It ranges much more broadly than my published work. In fact, I’ve only published maybe 1/6 of the material I’ve produced for the game. In its totality Zyan has three different stacked areas that correspond with three of the core adventuring modes of old school play: a city, the undercity and sewers, and the White Jungle, an inverted wilderness that hangs from the bottom of the flying island. I’ve only published so far about half of the material from Zyan between. So, there’s a lot more that may one day cross the veil of sleep to appear in the waking world.
Probably the best way in is to just pick up the first issue of the zine. It’s a tidy little self-contained package and a nice introduction. You can get it in print + PDF here [link: https://throughultansdoor.bigcartel.com/products] and PDF only here [link: https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/254659/Through-Ultans-Door-Issue-1]. If you want a free taste, first take a look at the following two posts. Start with the one that launched my original campaign here [link: http://maziriansgarden.blogspot.com/2015/09/ultans-door.html] and then read this one that gives a brief capsule overview of the setting here [link: http://maziriansgarden.blogspot.com/2016/03/immortal-zyan.html]. If you want more material, just click on the Wishery or Zyan label at the bottom of these posts and start browsing! Some people who have run full campaigns in Zyan have found the setting material on the blog useful for filling out the smaller amount of published material.
In answer to your excellent last question, using the device of the dreamlands lets me do a lot of things. Aesthetically, it lets me lean into phantasmagorical and dreamlike elements in dungeon and adventure design. It allows me to present a setting that is aesthetically distinct from vanilla fantasy and D&D’s accumulated lore. It also makes it easy to draw inspiration from a vein of weird literature that I adore that runs from Lord Dunsany’s dreamer’s tales and Pegana, through Lovecraft’s dreamland fiction, and Clark Ashton Smith’s Xothique. Gamewise, it lets me present a mysterious, alien setting, as a terra incognita where the players have to unravel the mystery of the setting quickly to find their footing. I enjoy that kind of high-stakes exploration into the unknown.
Q. Can you talk a bit about Bones of Contention, the review blog you contribute to? How did that come about? I'm curious to hear about the collective nature of the reviews, as well as the seemingly deliberate approach to incorporate views from a diverse group of people.
A. Bones of Contention [link: https://bonesofcontention.blogspot.com/] is a multi-authored review blog focused on reviewing old school material. It grew out of conversations between (mostly) OSR bloggers on Discord. We were all dissatisfied by the state of reviewing and the culture of criticism around old school games. Basically, before Bones you had 3 kinds of reviewers. You had the flip-through video reviews that Questing Beast has mastered, which are great for a getting a sense of the look and contents of publications. You had the sustained criticism of a couple of long-running single-authored review sites, most notably 10 Foot Pole by Bryce Lynch. Then you had a whole host of creators who would boost each other’s products in an uncritical, supportive, feel-good way. All those things have value. But we wanted to contribute something new.
For one thing, we wanted to expand the number of voices doing serious criticism of games and bring some more diverse perspectives to reviewing. Most of the authors run well-loved blogs and are published authors of old school style material. But in addition to a couple of old cis white guys like me, we have trans authors, contributors in the global south, diasporic voices, and quite a range of ages, from Zoomers to Gen X. We thought the diverse perspectives might lead to interesting conversations—and they have!
It was also important for the purposes of developing a deeper critical perspective that we let each author choose their own things to review and to develop their own critical thoughts through a separate named series. I think the series have really had a distinct character. Importantly, as creators we also wanted to contribute to the development of a culture of criticism in old school games that not only turned up interesting products for folks to buy, but also developed a set of tools or concepts for thinking productively about the kinds of games we’re making and playing. I think we’re still building towards that, but we’ve had some real success with it in our first year. We’ve also taken advantage of the collaborative nature of the blog by offering multi-authored format reviews. This gives different perspectives on a single game, or develops a review through a digital conversation, which has been a lot of fun.
As authors and participants in what is, at the end of the day, a pretty small scene, we’ve had to adopt some pretty stringent policies. We have decided that the most important thing for our reviews is transparency, we try to state any connection we have to the author of the product under review. We have also decided not to allow people to solicit reviews from us and have forbidden accepting review copies. These rules are harsh, but given the small ecosystem, they feel important to keeping things honest and clean.
All in all, I think we had a great first year, but we did start running out of steam towards the end of it. We’ve put the blog on pause while we build up a backlog of reviews so that when we start it up again in the new year we can publish with regularity. I’m excited for what the future holds for our skeleton crew at Bones of Contention.
Q. Finally, now that DiZ is out, can you talk about what you've got up next on your plate?
A. Oh boy, there’s a lot. There’s an adventure I’m finishing now for a publisher whose name you would recognize. It’s not public yet, so I can’t say more. But I think it’s my tightest dungeon design to date, and it will be the first published thing originally set in the White Jungle. I’m pretty excited about that!
Next up, I’ve play-tested and almost finished the material for the inaugural issue of Pale Echoes. It’s a companion zine to Through Ultan’s Door, which develops and supports different campaign frames in the waking world. The first issue presents a campaign frame where the PC inherit the mystery-filled estate of a legendary dead dreamer. They are able to travel to the dreamlands by imbibing her memories. In some ways, it’s a tighter design than the original campaign premise. It’s less suitable for open table or large roster play, and more suitable for a tight-knit party of regular players, which I think is what more people’s tables look like.
Finally, I’ve done some work on the next two issues of Through Ultan’s Door. One will present the religions of Zyan and a metaphysical, religious-themed dungeon. The other will present the Apartments of the Guildless, a Red Nails style ruined undercity that introduces a bunch of new factions and explores the society of the Guildless who appear in Through Ultan’s Door 1 in more detail. When I get around to printing these zines, I’ll also be updating the older issues as well to make them all fully compatible with Old School Essentials (OSE), which has become the default ruleset for a lot of folks.