Marc publishes OSR game products as This is the Weird. I became aware of his products via Facebook posts, especially his exploration of slavic folktales. Marc is a US expat but has been living in Ukraine for the past four years. I thought that he would make a good interview subject, both because his work is really great and, as the war drags on, Ukraine is not in the headlines as much as it has been and I think this is an opportunity to hear from someone with first-hand experience in the country.
At the end of the interview Marc lists some names of other folks in the gaming community who are Ukrainian and could use some support, but I'd also like to go ahead and mention that you can find his work here, on Drivethru.
Question. The Domain of Meru 'zine is written like a travel brochure, which I think is a fascinating choice, reminiscent of some of the old BECMI Gazetteer products. Can you talk a little bit about the choice to do it like this?
Answer. It was definitely a choice! One I thought was fun and somewhat different, but a risk! I was travelling with my wife as we were looking for a new home and I kept collecting the little pamphlet's for things to do in various towns and cities you see in hotels. I had already started compiling the notes and ideas for Meru and something just clicked. Most of the books we were using for reference material are untranslated Ukrainian children's books and old Slavic tales and had this personal tone to them. I thought hey, why not use the voice of a local travel agent to invite adventurers there. This way Meru could be used as either a Setting itself, or a place outside adventurers could travel too. As I have moved forward in the series, the voice used is able to describe the place in their own tone and add a personal touch. I have enjoyed this aspect. The fourth book in the series that I just got art back for (right before the war started) is all about Koshei the Deathless and his island. I decided to use his voice as the narrator, so its a little different having the "bad guy" be this friendly purveyor of information.
Q. Your setting is, of course, heavily influenced by Slavic culture and fairy-tales. It's not a subject I'm really familiar with. Can you provide a broad overview of the themes and general tone of your work?
A. What you find in popular media about Slavic culture is really a combination of many different cultures and areas bundled together and codified by outside influences over time. You have some Polish, Ukrainian, an unnamed country, Czech Republic and all the smaller southern countries myths and legends sold as a unified story. In realty, even though many of these areas share certain elements, they also have distinctive local personalities that are fascinating. My work has primarily pulled from the Cucuteni-Trypillia culture that first settled the Ukrainian lands. and the fairy tales there before Christianity modified them. One of the biggest sources of inspiration has been Dara Cornii's series of books called Magic creatures of Ukrainian Myth 's (rough translation!).
Of course, a few liberties were taken to make sure they made sense within the Meru Setting and taking some modern considerations into mind. Many creatures in these old myths were formed from suicide or worse, and I didnt want this setting to be that dark. Certain themes do come up often: being cursed and the struggle to remove those curses, heroes being brave in the face of danger, gods that are present and meddling, strange creatures that are a nuisance to the living. When I got deep into the research it amazed me the references to other planets and worlds, and that heroes could travel to them, so I incorporated those things into Meru as well. I try to theme each book around a different aspect of the mythology and give it an distinct feel. I had three women in my playtest group, and some great material to be inspired by. I think both helped make the women-based characters especially strong in Meru.
Trypilia is based on the idea of the Slavs being from a land of seven islands and its culture is one of peace and cooperation, if the gods would just leave them alone. Povitrya has an almost Las Vegas feel that I drew out of its main occupants, The Vetry. It was also a great way to naturally add some diversity to the setting as the myths described them in a variety of ways. Then we have Rozdollya, a land tasked with guarding an ancient evil and inhabited by the brave were-people, the Vovkodlak. Here it was great to show a different version of a popular myth.
Q. Your life is obviously in turmoil right now, but do you have any plans for upcoming work? I'm curious if what you're experiencing will shape future writing.
A. We (the artists and play testers I have worked on these books with) were just finishing up the fourth in the series, Vishau Zemli: Witch Home. I have not been super motivated, but am going to pick it back up soon and finish it, as I feel it is the best in the series. In addition to Koshei, we are finally introducing the Ukraine version of Baba Yaga and her sister Baba Yoga. We tested a super fun Necromancer Class (Radunitsi) with new spells and abilities. There is a new class of Thief that assists evil mages. And if you ever wanted to play a Lich, we have the Dovedusunik. It is from a really old and dark fairytale, so we worked out how as you level up you slowly gain Lich like powers, at the cost of your soul of course. The plan for this series of books was always to do the first four, and then do a crowdfunding campaign to finance the fifth, and do a combined print run for the whole series.
I also have a new Rule Set that was in the works for a few years, finally coming to fruition. It is being worked on by a variety of friends from around the world. Playtesting for it has finished and now we are in layout. It is very much in an OSR vein and meant to be used similar to GURPS, with a lot less rules! We are probably going to try to set up a Kickstarter or other platform funding around the end of the summer for it. I am hoping to entice some friends that are much better known than me to be part of the stretch goals! The title for that project is MisAdventure Games. I also have obligations for work with a few smaller companies on upcoming projects as well. I am always interested in working with new people and sharing ideas.
As far as how all of this will influence my work. Its a great question, but one I am struggling with. I had personal reasons for why I was where I was and this has endangered the most important person in my life, my wife. I am also concerned daily for friends and family still there, and hearing their stories darkens my soul. I think its to early to say how this will change me long term, the wounds are fresh and being opened wider everyday. I hope I dont lose my love for life and fantasy.
Q. Finally, I'd like to give you the opportunity to share any links to organizations that would be helpful for people to donate to, or other artists and publishers like yourself who find themselves either displaced or still in Ukraine and could use some sales or commissions. As the war drags out it is all too easy for those not involved to be distracted by something new and forget there are still those in need of support.
A. I am lucky in the sense I was able to get my family to safety. I miss and worry about my friends I left in Cherkasy (my home) and in other parts of the country. It dismays me that some propaganda has portrayed the Ukrainian people in a bad light. As in every country a small percentage of people may not be the nicest or have goodness in them, but the vast majority of Ukrainians just want to have peaceful lives and prosper.
Some names that you can reach out to are: Alex Chernik (artist and displaced from his home in eastern Ukraine), Olena Mateleshko (artist, she is amazing), Дмитро Робінзон/Dmitro Robinson (artist, he has some great Ukraine manga comics out) and I would like to mention Andrea Sfiligoi of Four Against Darkness fame. I have been donating to World Central Kitchen as I was a Chef in my previous life, and maybe once again!