Luka Rejec is the author and illustrator of Ultraviolet Grasslands, Holy Mountain Shaker, Witchburner, and many more well-known and well-received titles. He is one of the premier voices active in the indie/OSR scene today, and was kind enough to answer some of my questions.
Question. First off, I'd like to ask about your creative process. I've been following your posts about your upcoming project, and I'm curious what comes first: the illustrations or the text? Your illustrations are so evocative and compelling that they really set the tone for your work.
Answer. What comes first, chicken or egg? Sometimes the art comes first, sometimes the text. It's an iterative process. Ideally, it's smooth sailing and when I don't feel like writing I feel like drawing. Sadly, layout means that often there will be gaps and spots crying out for art. Filling those in is sometimes less fun, heh. But overall, sometimes one, sometimes the other.
Q. Can you talk a bit about your experience writing Holy Mountain Shaker? It's one of your more "traditional" works, at least as I see it, and I'm interested in hearing a bit about how you developed it.
A. Mmm., well, so far only half of Holy Mountain Shaker (HMS) is published. I wrote about twice as much, but there wasn't space for it all, so a lot got cut. I'm planning to release the other part, the town-and-earthquake adventure sometime later this year or early next year. It's more of a social deduction / whodunnit kind of adventure.
Still, the process. I knew the adventure I wanted to run - it's inspired by a local legend and local mountains, after all. I also knew the feel I wanted: dungeon pointcrawl, to make the cave system "feel" big on play through. The big challenge was how to take these things that felt very intuitive to me and turn them into an adventure other folks could also play.
I outlined the adventure, sketched out the main locations and factions, the key event timeline, the final twist, then ran a couple of groups through it. Then I revised and tweaked. Then ... I wrote too much and had a big huff with Gavin about it, before finally cutting it down to size.
It was a bit painful, because I felt like a fair number of cool things ended up on the editing floor; but the final adventure was stronger for it, so it was a case of no pain no gain.
One thing that was quite a challenge for me were the OSE stat blocks. They're very "defined" for my taste, so I struggled to write to the the blocks.
The other thing that was kind of challenging was figuring out a way to capture a scale between room-by-room dungeon crawling and the sense of size one experiences in a really big cave system or underground bunker. Long narrow passages that feel endless, then suddenly echoing halls. I think I got about 70% of the way "there". It's good, but I'll probably revisit the problem in a few years again.
Q. You're a European expat living in South Korea, yet your work manages to create its own unique sense of place that really doesn't seem to belong to either culture, but rather a world of your own defining. How have your geographical travels influenced your work? If you had to pick, what would you say your greatest inspiration/influence is?
A. I mean, I was born in Yugoslavia, spent part of my early education in Tanzania, saw my homeland collapse in civil war, returned to Slovenia, then after the great recession went in search of work to the Netherlands and then Switzerland and from there to Korea. There's also that word doublet: expat / migrant to discuss. Further, does Europe have a "European" culture? Lots of messy questions there, heh. I'm going to elide all of them.
Travel, but more than that, living in different places and cultures, has definitely influenced my work. If I had to pick a point, it was definitely that first move to Africa as a child and then the return. There and back again, like Bilbo says.
This wasn't a thing I was able to put into words for the longest time, but the way I think of it is this way: if you grow up, from birth to young adulthood, in one culture, then the "way of being a human within that culture" is a law of nature, like gravity. For me, this early period spent between and in different cultures made it clear that "things can be different".
I've got whole long thoughts on this, the different cultures, and all that. But, again, that's a long detour.
Q. Finally, can you talk about your upcoming project (Uranium Butterflies)? According to what you've written it is the largest, most ambitious project you've tackled, and as someone who also writes (although with nowhere near the creativity as you) I've experienced the same imposter syndrome you talked about in a twitter thread. I guess this is really two questions: tell us about Uranium Butterflies, and if you can expand on those thoughts about insecurities and imposter syndrome, especially how it relates to such an ambitious project.
A.1. Uranium Butterflies is the "player's handbook" for the UVG and the other "Vastlands" books I've published or am planning to published. By that I mean, it has the complete rules and options for player characters.
Honestly, I started writing it (initially as BASS then as SEACAT and finally, it got the name it has now), because I'm quite lazy and hate writing out stat blocks.
Basically, I'm very happy with d20 style games. I think they capture a nice, fun tension, and the physical twenty-sided die rolls brilliantly, the joy of rolling that natural 20, on and on.
But stat blocks. Ugh. Dang, I can't go into enough detail how I annoying I find over-written long stat blocks.
So, the goal behind SEACAT: UB was to provide a rules framework that lets me, as a writer of adventures, provide super minimal stat blocks (L1, quirky) — which the players can then quickly decode into something playable.
But then, as I started writing it, I realized I needed to flesh out the whole system, so that I could point to it as a reference. The SEACAT system is pretty minimalist and quick, but I wanted players to have the options right there. I didn't want to write a system that said, "and now make it up". I wanted to say, "here are 20 options, or make up your own."
So, I ended up with what I'm loosely calling "ornate minimalism". The mechanics are simple, but there are a lot of different things you can try. Different knobs and levers the players can toss to see what kind of unexpected imaginary gameworld they'll create together.
It's honestly a little crazy: the book is roughly 320 pages, but the core rules can probably be distilled to 3.2 pages.
Don't quote me on that.
Anyway, yeah, the book now is big and ornate. Scores of skillsets, traits, spells, mutations, pets, rides, gear, consumables, and so on. And over 360 pieces of art.
Right now I'm finishing up the commentaries on rules - I've got a little character called Blue Skull giving a running commentary and tearing down the author, to emphasize that final design control belongs to the players.
Then, I suspect, I'll have a few spreads left at the end to suggest how to adapt other game systems to SEACAT and vice versa.
So that's how it started and what it is.
A.2. Imposter experience. Recently I read a really great article in the FT about how imposter syndrome is a terrible name for something that is a normal human experience. One of the takeaways is to call it an "experience" not a "syndrome", so something normal, rather than a disease or weakness.
With a project of this size, one of the most obvious difficulties I ran into was external vs internal motivation. I couldn't rely on other people saying, "oh, nice!" or "like!" to keep me going. It simply doesn't work on this scale. So much of the work is layout, tweaking, editing, breaking down and building up again — stuff that is invisible if one does it right.
I think for every person, this is a thorny path. How to persevere and keep working when there's nobody around to say, "who's a good boy, then? Who's a good boy?"
Then, the other difficulty is that with a small project of, say, 16 pages, you can see it grow. You do a page a day, that's a visible increase! At 200 pages ... you do a page ... that's a rounding error.
There's also the difficulty of criticism. Feedback is important, otherwise one might make a solipsistic monument to nothing. But, negative feedback can be one of the worst things for motivation. Still, when learning a new skill, one's certainly terrible at what they're attempting. I think it's a skill learning which critiques to listen to, and which ones to ignore. After all, a good mentor will critique and teach with their critique, while a bad one ... well.
I think I'm still very bad at that. Maybe the one thing I've learned is that public critics, those doing criticism as a performance art all its own, are usually not worth giving the time of day.
Q. Can you talk a bit about your drawing process? Is it all digital? Are you still taking commissions, and if so, how can people contact you?
A. My process is sometimes all digital. But mostly I work in pencil and ink first, digitise the piece (a fancy word for "I take a picture of it"), desaturate and adjust levels, then - sometimes - add color digitally. I like the unpredictability of physical media - a brush with ink will smudge and run and streak and do things that digital just can't manage. For colours I also like physical media, but there capturing and transferring the art to a digital or print format is just so much more complicated that I rarely do it. One of the big constraints to making a living as an artist is, frankly, being able to produce enough art fast enough. So, while I might really enjoy a certain look, if it takes too long to achieve, I don't do it. Then again, constraints encourage innovation and experimentation, so that's fun too.
Commissions ... are something I take pretty rarely these days. I've got these big projects in the pipeline and, though I would love to do more commissions, I find those quite stressful. I often end up waffling on them, missing deadlines, and other stuff. The result is the clients are upset, I'm stressed, and ... well, it's not great. Not to mention I struggle to price my commission work. That thing I was talking about impostor experience? Well, it's magnified with commissions. I will often spend 2x to 3x longer on a commission piece because I feel the need to impress / give the commissioner their money's worth. But, sadly, if I'm completely honest - I don't think pieces I spend longer on are necessarily better. Often they're over-worked for my taste, and lose a certain fluidity and grace that I really admire in art. Who knows, maybe I'll learn to do commissions better at some point!