Wednesday, October 22, 2014

For the Stiff and Aching Back

Just a quick tip post today.

I'm sure many digital artists (as well as other professionals regularly working while sitting) experience lower back pain, or at least stiffness.

For the two years I've been doing this full time, I've found two things that help me deal with pain and stiff muscles.

One's hot baths. Of course, you wouldn't have those every night after a long day of painting, but I find that once a week is just fine.

The other is a magical artefact called the Iplikator.

I lied, there's nothing magical about it. You'll definitely run into all kinds of yoga or acupuncture mumbo jumbo on the internet. All it really does is poke your back, make the bloodflow a bit better and relax your back muscles.

And that's enough. If it's placebo effect, doesn't matter, it works great. It didn't improve my eyesight, it didn't improve my posture (much), it doesn't cure any diseases. 
I use it almost daily, 20-30 minutes in the evening, laid  on a hard surface (soft or springy surface makes it less painful at first, but also defeats the purpose).
Some people wear a t-shirt, I don't. It's less effective than the naked back.

No need to wriggle or do yoga on it, I just lay down, it hurts a bit, but then it gets very comfortable. I watch a movie, or an episode of a tv show (just enough time). Be careful not to fall asleep though, getting up after a nap hurts! 
A side effect that I noticed (which might be just me, or placebo) is that I sleep much better after I've used the mat.

I've had my mat for quite a few years, we bought the original version based on the Russian prototype, for some 20 USD back then. These days it's a bit more expensive, but 25 EUR or an equivalent in dollars will pay for itself very quickly. (I recommend getting the big one, D1 or just the full size that covers your entire back)

Note: I'm not paid by makers or resellers of this thing. ;) Just sharing something others might find useful.

Also, this is in no way a substitute for exercise and other aspects of a healthy lifestyle. I'm not a doctor and don't have any medical training, so don't take my word for medical advice. 

Sunday, October 12, 2014

On Not Jumping to Conclusions

Etymology and linguistics can be quite beautiful, as well as confusing.

Last night, as I was falling asleep, I had one of those hazy epiphanies when you dart out of bed and scribble furiously on the closest napkin.

The main character in Oak and Thunder is named "Ylai". (Whether it's her birth name, or a nickname, I've not yet decided.)
The Tocharian (an IE language that's thought to be spoken by the Yuezhi, or their descendants) word "ylaiñäkte" is commonly translated as "Indra" (Hindu god of Thunder and other things, certainly one of the many related IndoEuropean thunder gods). The etymology isn't entirely clear, but it's thought the -ñäkte part stands for "god" and "ylai" is related to various other words for "smite" or "hit".

That makes Ylai a "Smiter".

Now, in the book "Perun: God of Thunder", Czech scholar Michal Téra examines the various aspects of thunder god worship among Slavic people. Interestingly, one of the Christianized versions of Perun (and other Slavic thunder deities) was Saint Elijah. In Russian - Ilya.

How good is that?! Ylai, Ilya...

Unfortunately, the two names aren't related. Ilya is a Russian version of Eliyahu, meaning "My God is Yahweh (in Hebrew).
Bummer, right?

I'd love for there to be an etymological connection - Téra mentions the association of thunder worship and Elijah started in early Christianity in the eastern Mediterranean, from where it came to the Balkans and to the Slavs. Unfortunately, most IE roots for thunder gods are entirely different and don't seem to relate in any way. (*trHon - thunder, *perk- and *per- for oak, smite, thunder or mountain)
Tocharian seems to be quite isolated in this regard:

"B ylai- and A wlā- would reflect PTch *w'älā(i̯än)-, in turn from PIE *wel(hx)eha-(h1en)- ... Semantically more likely, given the connection with storms (see ylaiñeṣṣe), however, is a derivation from*welh2-eha- ‘Smiter’ from *welh2- ‘strike’ [: Hittite walh- ‘strike’ and perhaps, with s-extension, TchB wālts- ‘trample’]."

It's far more likely the association was made thanks to attributes Elijah already had in the Old Testament - "he raised the dead, brought fire down from the sky, and was taken up "by a whirlwind.". 
Raising the dead and fire from the sky are very common things for a thunder god to do. 

Sometimes an epiphany ends in disappointment.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

"Oak and Thunder" part 2.5 - Key to Happiness?

TL;DR: Making OaT makes me happy, I think.
This post was inspired by this article by Dave Rapoza:

This September marked two years since I started freelancing full time. I had some experience when I started, but it certainly was a leap into dark and deep waters. It very likely wasn't as hard as it had been for other illustrators. I had great clients (and friends) in the industry already, I had a lot of wisdom compiled by others in the form of podcasts (Ninja Mountain being my Bible) and various tutorials and blogs.
I'd say everything stabilized, slowly but surely, in those two years. I'm making a living, I work on amazing projects and I don't have to go looking for work.

On one hand, routine is good and stable, I really can't complain. On the other hand, I noticed I've become less enthusiastic about my own art. I don't think it's exciting or particularly good. And that's not just the typical self deprecating artists' attitude, I'm less "into it". I think, in some ways, I stopped moving up and forward, I'm not pushing myself as hard as I used to.

A few months ago, I had the silly idea: I should make a comic.
I've not drawn anything sequential since grammar school, in nearly 10 years. I don't even read comics a lot any more. Why then?
I think I actually wanted to write something, but because I haven't written any stories in a while either, I wanted to involve painting in some way. I do illustration all the time, but a comic, that would be a challenge!
When I started researching and sketching, I couldn't get enough. I'd use lunch and dinner breaks, weekends. I stopped watching TV almost entirely. Whenever I have a moment when I'd normally be merely sitting on Facebook or browsing Reddit, now I have a PDF open, or a book on my lap and I'm taking notes.

"Write what you know." is it? I've done that as "Write what you like.". Oak and Thunder is all the things I enjoy - archaeology, mythology, linguistics, swords and heroics...
I keep finding new ways to connect the pieces of the puzzle, or several different puzzles that almost magically fit together. (or at least have edges similar enough not to break the illusion of a bigger picture)

My research book table has been getting a bit crowded lately

The thing I realized yesterday is - I'm really enjoying making this thing.
Just the process itself is surprisingly fun. It's not that my work work is boring or that I don't enjoy it - on the contrary. I get to work on exactly the kind of projects I've always wanted to do, on several of my favourite franchises. The difference between that and OaT I still don't understand fully. It's something where I'm suddenly not interpreting someone else's brief, where I'm not trying to see into a writer's head. It's all on me and from me.
If it sucks, that means I made it that bad. ;)

It's quite probable not many people will ever read it, or know it exists. If someone finds it educational, inspirational or entertaining - that'd be great!

Maybe I'm being stupid and wasting precious time I could spend improving my illustration skills, or getting more work done and making more money.
Right now, working on Oak and Thunder is making me quite happy.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Bizarro-Brothers From Another Sword-Mother

(A quick post in between writing more on OaT.)

I ran across an intriguing sword today - a Tibetan infantry sword (amusingly dated to 14-17th century CE. It's funny how either we really can't date something only 300 or 600 years old more narrowly than a 300 year span, or how sword design in Tibet hasn't changed much in all that time)

edit: The actual museum holding the sword dates it to early 14th century:

Either way, it's a beauty! And I immediately thought of another sword I've always liked - the so called "Hod Hill" sword:

The surprising thing - the Hod Hill sword is Roman with Celtic influence (found in Britain) and dated to the 1st century CE!

As you can see in the above reconstruction, the sword had some kind of organic material inserted in the hilt (wood, horn, bone etc.) and only the metal fittings remain.

Looking at the Tibetan sword again, I'm thinking that's probably not the case there. The scabbard seems original and its leather (and wood?) seem to have survived. So did the original sword have hollow hilt bits? Or did it have some kind of organic insides?
The blade is interesting as well, the profile is very close to late Roman spathas and looks more Chinese than Tibetan. (Tibetan swords from that period tend to be single edged and not diamond shaped in cross-section)

Does it all mean anything? No, but it's still a beautiful and intriguing piece. It's just extremely unlikely these two designs are in any way related - kind of like how bats and birds both fly, but aren't that close on the evolutionary tree.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

"Oak and Thunder" part 2 - The Look?

(in the second post about OaT I will be talking visual style and a feel of the stories, as well as influences and inspiration)

TL;DR: I don't know what it's gonna look like yet, but here's some stuff I like.

I haven't done much sequential art. Most of it was in grammar school, nearly 10 years ago.
For this reason I'm planning to start with a self-contained short story, with a bit of everything. To try and train myself to do more.


Right now I'm trying to figure out how stylized I want the art be. It's definitely going to be ink and tone, probably not in colour. I really like (for example) the detailed and "realistic" style of Thorgal, but I'm not sure I can pull that off.

A more stylized look of comics like Una the Blade or Silk&Gold ( is also great, but I've never dabbled in cartoons, so I'm not sure I could draw like that either.

I'll just have to draw and draw, I'm sure it'll settle on something viable eventually.

(You can see examples of ink artwork I looked at for inspiration here:

Other Inspirations

A huge one is definitely Darkness over Cannae by Jenny Dolfen.

A beautifully illustrated historical novel about Hannibal's famous battle, done in her signature watercolour style:

I enjoy that it's a historical story without any magic added, a story about Vikings in a Japanese (!!) manga. Awesome action and reasonably historically accurate.

 I'm surrounding myself with tons and tons of art and media that may be relevant somehow, that have a spark of something interesting. Since I took these two photos of the books on my desk, their number roughly tripled. *sigh*

The closing sketch for today will be the other main character, the girl-from-yesterday's best friend. 
(that thing he's holding is a spindle)

Friday, September 5, 2014

"Oak and Thunder" part 1 - What is it?

(In this first post I talk a bit about the comic I'm making and how the idea developed over the years.)

TL;DR: I'm making a comicbook about a female Yuezhi warrior living in western China in 1st century AD.
Some five years ago I wrote down an idea for a short comic. The working title was "Dragonslayer" (later "Its Breath is Fire") and the short story was supposed to "realistically" interpret the archetypal dragonslayer heroic myth. (perhaps in a similar way Mary Renault did with Théseus) 
Its setting was an unspecified part of the Eurasian steppe, some time in prehistory - the age of proto-Scythian heroes and Amazons.

I've been interested in steppe nomadic cultures since I started university in 2005. 
Funny things, memories - I'm pretty sure it all started with the short scene in Conan the Barbarian where Conan and Subotai run. I was quite little, watching the film with my dad and he'd tell me when to cover my eyes, or when I should be paying attention. This particular scene he'd always liked, the image of two guys running to get where they wanted to go in the vast open steppe, stopping only to eat, sleep and chat about theology. The music by Basil Poledouris works perfectly to underscore the scene, its light mood and the feeling of freedom.

Steppe Nomads

Much later, I stumbled upon a book on Scythians ( and from then on I started researching them and other nomadic people of the Eurasian steppe. (at this time it was just for fun and out of curiosity)

The Eurasian steppe is a fascinating piece of the world in history! I had no idea how influential and important it was to me - a modern European. The way we were taught history in grammar school, I had some idea of blocks of history - separated by (artificial) era borders and by geographical distance. "Europe went through history mostly by itself and so did Asia and so did America"..etc. 
When I became interested in Alexander the Great and later in the steppe nations, I had to rethink what I knew, unlearn a lot and set up my idea of history from scratch.

If you look into this, sooner or later you'll end up at the Silk Road and linguistics. The steppe is where the West and East meet, connected by the various trade routes and links of language evolution. 
There are so many controversial topics and unanswered questions! Where did the Indo-Europeans come from? What role have domesticated horses played in human history and for how long? What about the invention of the wheel?
We've learnt quite a bit about Mesopotamia and the agrarian cultures in school, but almost nothing about pastoralic nomads. There's this idea they didn't contribute anything of value to us, that people only become civilized and worth learning about if they settle down and start planting crops next to big rivers.
I decided to make up for the gaps in my knowledge of steppe history, bought a bunch of books and started reading.

Mummies of the Tarim Basin

I like mummies. It's an odd passion, I know. There's just something really cool about well preserved bodies of ancient people!
In 2011 National Geographic and NOVA made documentaries about a group of mummies found in the Tarim basin, in Xinjiang.

You can watch the NOVA piece on Youtube:

Mummies of Europoid-looking people in clothing very similar to Celtic style weaving found in western China?! I was immediately hooked!
Of course, many people tried to claim the mummies for various causes. Nationalists, crazy ancient alien theorists, you name it. The thing I found so interesting was the variety - both in physical features and in their DNA, the mummies show a lot of diversity. There's no point in arguing whether they as a whole were European, Chinese, Mongoloid or Caucasoid - these people lived on an important crossroads of the Silk Road. It only made sense so many different places and nations mixed in Tarim.


Learning more and more about the Tarim basin and its history, I remembered the short comic idea I wrote, about an Amazon and a dragon. It'd have to be heavily reworked, but it could very well be set a few centuries later, in Xinjiang. 
An overarching story could be woven around the conflict between the Chinese Han dynasty, proto-Hunnic Xiongnu and the Indo-European speaking, Caucasian looking Yuezhi.
The Yuezhi were a good choice for the main protagonist's origin - very little is known about them. So I can fill in gaps and have some room to maneuver in.
And that is what I've been doing this past summer, through weekends and lunch breaks. 

The Comic

I have several outlines for stories written, with the same protagonist, with one main story going through them. I have a mostly finished script for the ending (which is odd, but it was the first story I wrote), so I know how it all ends. Now I just need to figure out how to get there.

There's always more research to be done, I have tons and tons of material to sift through, make more notes and put them to use where needed.
The next blog post will probably be about research, sources, where I draw inspiration from and how I want to approach the story in this very specific setting.

To finish this off, here's one of the early sketches of the main protagonist. I'll keep playing with her facial features more, this drawing was done to have at least something to show. (her costume mostly, based on the few depictions of Yuezhi and Kushans we have)

(I imagine she's in her early teens, around the time she went into battle for the first time)

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

TOR: Rivendell

No title puns today. The Rivendell book for The One Ring RPG is out in PDF and in preorders for the physical copies!

I've painted and drawn a few pieces for the book. And they were great scenes and objects - battles, armies, swords and helmets, but I can't help but think the resulting illustrations could've been better.
I don't mean to blame the circumstances in which they were made (the last few months my mum was still with us), but it's true my mind was not focused on the work as it should've been.

"Armies of Arnor and Lindon are coming down from the Misty Mountains."
(This one was a struggle. I drew this at my parents' house, so I had to do it on paper instead of the usual "digital pencil". And by accident, I used a piece of watercolour paper, which is very bumpy and hard to draw on. At least for me.)
The only original piece of the bunch, I already gave away as a thank you to a fan who bought several other paintings of mine.

"Witch King flees from lord Glorfindel after the battle of Fornost" 
This one's alright. Glorfindel came out fine, but I wish I spent more time fiddling with Witch King's design. The colour scheme is odd, but works, more or less. I originally wanted to show more of the battle in the background, but ended up focusing on the front figures.

"Glorfindel in Rivendell"
Glorfindel is one of those characters almost impossible to depict as you imagine them. (primarily because I don't have a concrete singular image of them in my mind. So I pretended to be Victor Ambrus and also started experimenting with the tools in ArtRage in the middle of the drawing. Came out sort of ok. 

"And so, the game of golf was invented..."
Golfimbul's death at the hands of Bullroarer Took was a super fun scene to do. Unfortunately, I drew it at my absolute physical and psychological low at the time. Still, I think both comedy and action of the scene came through.

"Helmet and sword from the times of old"
Yeah, this was the safest one. I just switched my brain off and painted what I knew. Now I wish I did the helmet even more like Tolkien's karma, but it might've been too weird. The sword is an odd mix of elements, really! Quasi-Migration/early medieval period fittings and handle, Tibetan/Chinese influence on the hilt decorations and a pommel that's half yataghan and half ancient bronze Persian dagger.

That's all! Jon and I were joined by Jeremy McHugh for this one. And trust me, he's done a great job. So go now, go buy the PDF and/or preorder the book!
"The One Ring, Middle-earth, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and the characters, items, events and places therein are trademarks or registered trademarks of the Saul Zaentz Company d/b/a Middle-earth Enterprises and are used under license by Sophisticated Games Ltd and their licensees."

Friday, June 27, 2014

Two Stood Against Many

"Crom, I have never prayed to you before. I have no tongue for it. No one, not even you, will remember if we were good men or bad. Why we fought, or why we died. All that matters is that two stood against many. That's what's important!"  
- Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Scenes depicting a battle of a few brave heroes against a horde of enemies continue to be used in fiction, being drawn to such stories seems to be in human nature. The pathos, sympathy for the underdog, admiration of skill and bravery, all add to the appeal.

Doing such a scene in film is difficult for various reasons, most related to the fact we as viewers recognize certain aspects going against what we perceive as "realistic". 

Film makers get away with some of them - in massive battles there always seems to be a space around the hero, a few metres of air to allow for fancy moves and to give him time to recover while enemies approach one by one.
Still, there are different approaches and layers to such a scene and watching several of my favourites, I thought about them and why they do or don't work.

1) Intent and confidence 

This is such a subtle thing, but fairly important in my opinion. Holywood movies sometimes suffer for this, because stuntmen playing the bad guys are simply much more skilled than the hero played by a famous actor. The years of training and muscle memory show in their movements - the hero supposedly slaughtering multiple enemies with ease has to be carefully photographed from specific angles and helped by frequent cutting between shots, to hide flaws and enhance the way his moves look and feel. At the same time, the baddies move much better and have to visibly restrain themselves to not rush all in at the same time, they have to telegraph their moves to a ridiculous degree etc. They're also very determined to run at the hero and die, no matter how many of their comrades were butchered before their eyes.

Watching Japanese chambara movies recently, I noticed this aspect of them to be rather different. 

Watch this clip of Toshiro Mifune's samurai roles. Mifune being the protagonist is extremely good at being confident, the ultimate badass. He changes between cocky, goofy and serious, but look at the way he moves - low centre of gravity, upright body, look of disgust on his face. Now watch the baddies - lowly gangsters and stoic samurai, they notice their comrades being cut down, they waver, flail their arms and shuffle and fall back in fear. This is how you put many enemies around the hero and not get him swarmed instantly!

2) Movement

Nothing looks more fake than the hero standing in one spot and having the enemies run into his sword one by one. Most successful one-against-many scenes have the protagonist move around a lot. 
- you need to minimize the amount of enemies able to strike you at once. Move to make them get in each other's way, move to a place where they can only reach you one by one etc.
- if you strike them first, you win. This is related to intent - it takes experience and training to get over the fear of being hurt. Most people will not rush in on you. This is a very interesting part of group dynamics and psychology. Watch videos of riots or police training for riots and you'll see what I mean. Or, if you've ever participated in fighting games/sports like SCA, you know what I mean. Even if it's not your real life at stake, you move without thinking - stay closer to a friendly group, don't get surrounded, have someone else to take a hit for you etc.

Warning, this is a very disturbing video of real people getting seriously hurt!!!
(violence starts around the 7th minute)

In this clip, a single man armed with a knife manages to stab several (!!) policemen carrying guns before they take him down. Even trained professionals don't always respond as we'd expect. How does he manage such a thing? It's odd, he just runs from one guy to the next real fast and stabs them. Same way Toshiro Mifune cuts down those gangsters.
In this video a supposed boxer takes on multiple opponents in a street fight. Notice the continuous movement and how he moves them as well, to always keep just one guy in front.

So what are some successful examples of a good use of movement/intent/confidence trinity? 

Conan and the battle of the mounds does it well. Both Conan and Subotai hit and run from incoming enemies and they use the complex battlefield to break line of sight, ambush and avoid getting mobbed.

The landing attack in Troy is also quite good. Brad Pitt is helped by camera angles and shot cuts a LOT though. He's an athletic guy, the choreography is very fine, but some time ago I've seen this fight being shot in a behind-the-scenes video and it looked much less impressive, almost silly. Notice he also moves all the time - running, turning and (famously) jumping.

You can see great emphasis on intent and fighter morale as well as a lot of hero movement in old samurai movies - Hideo Gosha's for example:   - Sword of the Beast  - Three Outlaw samurai

I've been thinking about the ways I could use this in illustrations, because last stand and one-against-many scenes are very common in fantasy art. Perhaps some of the enemies might be visibly wavering, shaken or terrified? It's easy to settle on a very static "none shall pass" pose for the protagonist, because it's simple to build a powerful composition around it. But perhaps I could try something more dynamic with a hero in the middle of a movement?

What are your favourite one-against-many scenes? Got any examples of really bad ones? Share in the comments! :)

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Crayon Horses

One of my earliest memories is an art related one: It's a sunny morning, nearly midday, and I'm watching my mum draw horses for me in crayon. I remember being amazed at how a simple outline with a dot for an eye suddenly transformed into a horse. I could draw stick figure humans, I had probably doodled many teenage mutant ninja turtles at this point, but horses I just could not do.

They were like alien beings I've seen on TV, so familiar and yet unachievable. As I got older, I mostly avoided horses in my drawings, because I didn't understand them. At least not as well as people. (it helps if you're exposed to what you're drawing every day)
As an illustrator I made myself study horse anatomy, copy references and my horses slowly started to look less like dogs or dragons. Still, one might get easily lost in all the knobby limbs and gentle dark eyes, you manage to pull the details off, but the whole is a mess. There's still something that makes a thing look like a horse and you can achieve it with a few lines. Strangely, my drawings of dogs improved a ton since I got a dog. Obviously, the correlation is there, I should buy a horse.
(just kidding)

I think my horses are alright now. Not great, there's room for improvement, but they'll do.
Even before I started my illustration career, my mother had been one of the few people who actively supported me. If she had any doubt, she was convincing enough to fool me. When I did start working freelance, I knew I could always count on her support and it helped me a lot through all kinds of dark times. Even saying simple "That's nice, dear. What is it?" meant someone cared what I was doing with my life.

The human brain is pretty tricky, we're entirely capable of making up memories, or recycling and reinventing them. Even if it's slightly different every time I recall it, I will keep that sunny morning and the crayon horses. I'll keep it safe.

1961 - 2014

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A case for game-design mentality in modding

If you don't have a clue what "modding" is and still want to read this:
Mount&Blade and M&B:Warband are sandbox computer RPGs set in a pseudo-medieval world.
Note: this post is inspired by the discussion about the differences between two LOTR mods. 
The Veiled Stars is a relatively new project in progress headed by Jarvisimo:

The Last Days of the Third Age is a mod originally for the older M&B, now also ported for Warband. I've been a member on the TLD team for quite a few years now, contributing everything from concept art and lore knowledge to writing and sound design.

Understandably, there's a certain level of animosity between fans of these mods, as LOTR total conversions are hard to find and discussions online usually get quite heated. This is not meant to pour oil into the flames, rather I'm using the situation as a setup for an article I've been meaning to write for a while.

PS: Guys, remember your forums are public and anyone can stumble upon your bitter put-down posts about TLD. I understand where you're coming from, but it's still a bit rude. When we talk shit about you, we at least have the sense to do it in our hidden dev forum. ;P

The background of The Last Days

TLD is actually three different mods. There are layers in both assets (visual/sound/writing..) and scripted gameplay features. This could be quite the history lesson, so I'll summarize in short:
1.) The good old TLD from when our leader Ancientwanker was still around. (2007-2009) For M&B 0.808, the mod became a real total conversion and not just the basic game with a few models swapped for orcs and Gondorian soldiers. (which is what it all began as, in the ancient beta days) 
AW (Ancientwanker) had big plans for a whole system of quests, for the War of the Ring and other features we sadly never learnt about. (due to him disappearing without a trace, it's quite likely he passed away) This layer survives in some of the assets (bits of orc equipment, lots of Harad's design, Rhun's entire style laced with Conan the Barbarian etc.) and in some features (the "Sorcerer of Mirkwood" quest is a remnant of a stealth system coded by Yoshiboy, which we sadly dropped in rest of the mod), but more importantly - in the idea of a design plan. Only when AW was gone, I realized we had little idea where to go from there. Or rather, everyone had their own ideas and no clue what AW's TLD was supposed to be as a whole. 

Here's an interesting video for comparison, someone playing the 0.808 version in 2011. :)

2.) TLD up to version 3.0 released for M&B 1.011. (2009-2011) This was the silver age. We mourned the loss of our glorious leader, wondered what his vision was and tried to reach it by running blindly into several directions. We had absolutely wonderful people on the team and what the mod is today stands on what they've done then. The war system, the quest writing, the companions, all the visuals and settlement scenes, all the custom sound work, animations and even entire pieces of development software created to make TLD. 
Lots of talented people also meant lots of arguing and design disputes. I like to believe it was necessary to distill TLD into greatness, but it wasn't always pleasant. Still, we agreed on the large concept, TLD was supposed to be a total conversion with emphasis on player immersion and focus on the War of the Ring, with occasional emergent lore-friendly roleplaying and exploration.
Mostly due to burnout, frustration caused by engine limitation and personal conflicts, the team fell apart after patching up the initial release. This is the TLD we've had and played for a few years.

3.) TLD up till now. Only a few people remain of the original team, active here and there when they feel like it. We've gotten a new programmer who's done great work in balancing the mod and adding a few new features (CppCoder). It's been mostly me posing as the voice of TLD for some time now, and I've been the annoying bugger who can't quite let go of this thing. Pushing and pulling everyone I could muster into working on the mod at least a bit. A few graphics assets have been redone, big plans were had in regards to finishing incomplete quests etc.
Then Swyter (of Star Wars: Conquest fame) decided to port the mod to Warband. I happily stayed out of his way and helped wherever my limited skills allowed it.

Keeping your core tight

I think the two major reasons why TLD is popular with players are:
1.) It's a LOTR mod. Hands down, this is the reason why people download it. There's a great hunger for LOTR inspired games, probably because there are so few actually good ones. Mods help fill this niche.
2.) It's designed like a game, (one that plays different enough to M&B itself) with a clear focus on a specific type of gameplay and player experience.
TLD's focus on the War originated in the very first of the three ages (Three ages of The Last Days of the Third Age...get it? ;-P). The native game at the time didn't have a real war system, you couldn't win. All you could do was fight the never ending line of respawning enemy parties. To have sides in the war with the possibility of losing/winning the war by defeating enemies who can actually die was a new concept, so we built on it a lot in the future.
M&B later expanded on the sandbox element of the game, with owning villages and having obligations as a vassal of a lord etc. 

During the silver age, we discussed this and decided to keep everything like marriage and fief management out. As we say in the Manual, the mod is set during the War of the Ring and to settle down with a wife, to manage building of a church and fences and whatnot, it just doesn't make sense. 
Content and features making sense in the setting is key, when introducing new stuff we always asked if it's based on anything in Tolkien's books. If not, does it seem like something that would plausibly happen in Middle Earth? The resource/rank/influence points system replacing native dinar currency is a result of this process. Not many characters in the books actually ever talk about money and if they do, it's presented as a negative thing. When military tactics are discussed, nobody asks about costs and supplies. They know the stakes, it's all or nothing. 
So you're not being paid money, you don't "buy" items. Instead you're supplied by your faction, you requisition items from the armoury based on how much your faction appreciates you. Many heated discussions were had, some of our coders still disagree with the decision, but the system seems to get about an equal amount of positive and negative opinions from players, so I take it as a matter of taste and not a gamebreaking annoyance. 

Last Level Press - a review and a great analysis of TLD 

Setting is king, especially if you're doing LOTR. There are so many Tolkien nerds who will understand easter eggs, tiny references and nods. Who will spot the tiniest of inaccuracies. So we agreed to change as much writing to be setting appropriate as possible, we've added little touches like an ingame elven calendar, or messages telling you which microregion of Middle Earth you're entering. Which brings me to another aspect we tried to keep tight - the map. Comments about our map being too small amuse me. We still get questions if Eriador and other western areas will become available later. Nope, they won't. We actually downsized the map during development, because it felt too empty and we couldn't populate it with more moving entities for performance reasons. Besides "being able to go there", there wasn't any benefit in mapping the entirety of Middle Earth.

If The Veiled Stars map ends up a lot bigger (which previews indicate), I have to wonder - what are they going to fill it with? Unlike TLD, TVS keeps the town+villages model of Warband, so that's content we couldn't use. Will it be fun content? Enjoy making a bajillion custom scenes! Ask Triglav how fun it was making all our scenes by himself and how long it took. And thinking of ways to fill the map with fun and interesting content is important for TVS, as it's (so far) presented as a sandboxy roleplaying experience, not a wargame with a bit of exploration/roleplaying.

In conclusion - nobody's saying you need to read books on game design and write down pages and pages of design docs. Just sit down and write a page or two. Start with one or two sentences, summarizing what the mod's about and why anyone who's played hundreds of other mods should play it. Don't list features, write down what kind of an experience you want it to be.
When you have the essence, set limits of what's currently possible and add a pile of features you'd like to have. Then prune the pile and throw out the most difficult or labour intensive features. (or keep them for later) The pile will only grow taller in development, so being honest to yourself about what you're capable of is definitely an advantage.

When mods pretend to be games

Total conversions are extremely difficult to make and there are good reasons why most of them inevitably fail to deliver a playable version. There's a very quick turnover of people contributing, one has to be prepared to lose members all the time, due to a host of reasons. They come in wishing to help and leave a week to a few months later.
With a mod like TLD or TVS, you're building a library of assets (graphics, sounds, music, animations) and an underlying set of systems that make the game work. (programming) TLD started with AW doing the coding and contributors working on assets at the same time - this is a pretty great way to do things. You're not wasting time and you have something that works as a game and already looks like one too.
This is not the case with most mods though, many beginners start by learning 3D and making assets. They model a few items, put them in game and call it a mod. This kind of item swap is still useful, because pretty screenshots might lead supporters and contributors to you, even if the gameplay is just the same as the native game.

Pretty visuals are often the first goal of a mod. It's not wrong, we definitely wanted TLD to be as pretty as it possibly could. It's equally important to create graphics assets with optimization in mind. Especially if you're not making a game where you can adjust how the engine handles assets, keeping stuff tidy, clean and lean is essential. Often it's a performance-driven choice between a handful of beautiful items and a variety of lower resolution ones. It's about the time it takes to create them and also the final combined effect they have in game. TLD (while being made by many contributors) tried to keep a unified style to the graphics. The models are low poly, the textures are small and we don't use normal maps. I still maintain that they look good, even nicer now, in Warband's superior rendering engine.
I suppose there are different kinds of modders and different kinds of players. We aimed for player immersion and a powerful roleplaying experience. On the other hand, mods for Skyrim adding incredibly pretty items are very popular. Some players simply want to admire their own character, take pretty screenshots and dick around in the sandbox.

The Veiled Stars: Gorgeous Isengard

Eventually, you want to release something people could play. All too often, mods with ambitious plans try to embrace the development model of actual games. They publish previews, go into alpha and beta releases and keep patching after the actual release. TLD did this as well, but we've been always quite good at keeping development details to ourselves until it was time to release.
With TLD being open source since last year, I expected TVS to use our graphics assets at first while building their own code systems and implementing various features. And replacing them with their nicer Warband-specific assets in the process. This is after all how game development usually goes - you build a prototype first and start expanding and polishing it later.

If Jarvisimo isn't too mad at me at this point, I'd offer this as a suggestion. Spend more time planning, designing systems and coding, leave assets for later or have someone else make them. Since you're already releasing alpha versions, you'd benefit from having something fun to play, something different and new and interesting. Warband in a different map with a bunch of pretty models won't hold interest for long.
That said, player responses and feedback are a difficult aspect of modding. I'm infamous for being a horrible prick to everyone on our forums. Answering the same ignorant questions over and over and dealing with lazy anonymous internet entities can be very tiresome, so beware! If you can, get a PR person to do it for you. Your mental health will thank you years from now.

Almost the end

We're fully aware that Swyter's port of TLD put Jarvi and TVS into a difficult position, I've actually read your disappointed post on your forums. Still, us talking about it is not just empty words. There truly is no reason why there should be space for only one LOTR mod for Warband, or why we should measure their worth by pretty graphics or size of the map. If you have a vision, if you design with that vision in mind and if you keep hammering at it, it'll end up as something  you and others will want to play. That (not praise or ratings), to me, is the ultimate goal of modding.

I've been meaning to write about the history of TLD for a while, a bit of a post mortem. What it was like with AW, after he left, to spill a bit of the behind the scenes gossip and so on. If there's any interest in that, I'll do it. Or I could record another podcast. We'll see if any fans read this far. ;)

Friday, January 17, 2014

Hobbit Tales

"In Hobbit Tales players are Hobbits telling tales in front of a mug of beer at their favourite inn in the Shire. Silent woods and remote mountains, Elves, Goblins and Giants populate their stories.During the game, players take turns as the Narrator and improvise a story using a hand of illustrated cards. The other players try to twist the tale, playing hazards and fearsome monsters. Drinks are served, smoke-rings are blown, and the best narrator is cheered by everyone present." - for more information and various previews, go here.

I've done some cards for Hobbit Tales in 2013 and the game's available now, so I'm finally able to show them. 
Here's what they look like as cards, all laid out and pretty:

And here are the drawings I sent in:
(all digital pencil in ArtRage 4)

And interestingly, an illustration of mine I did as an art test for The One Ring rpg some two years ago was also used as a card. :) 

"The One Ring, Middle-earth, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and the characters, items, events and places therein are trademarks or registered trademarks of the Saul Zaentz Company d/b/a Middle-earth Enterprises and are used under license by Sophisticated Games Ltd and their licensees."