On June 4th 2012 Zak Smith posted an article on his blog, DnD With Pornstars, that started with Wowwwww. This was very flattering, indeed.
I, of course, had no idea.
This was 2012 and I was in the middle of a very uncomfortable period of my life that had started with the Great Recession and now continued with my emigration to the Netherlands.
On August 28th of that same year my friend Peter Leban sent me an email entitled “gratz! :)” and containing only the link to that short post. My response was a very casual, “haha, kul! Tx!” I needn’t translate that.
My friend was obviously a bit amused that I had no idea about what it meant, so he followed up, “One of the most hard[core] OSR blog has your dungeon for a headline … yeah, you’re cool, ain’t nothing.”
I’m obviously translating that.
At the time I didn’t know anything about DnD With Pornstars, but I started following the blog, and discovering a few other blogs. I tried to start a blog of my own based on the random-levelling re-imagining of Dungeons and Dragons I had developed in 2011 and 2012, called Bloody Adventures of Sword and Sorcery. It’s down now.
I mentioned the uncomfortable period. Well. It continued. In mid 2012 I started a new relationship, and within several months it veered deep into crazy. I got out, fast, but the holiday season of 2012 was one of the most miserable I had ever spent. The rain came down, the damp went up, and they met in the middle to paint the world grey. The apartment was cold, and I looked out on a world with klompen on my feet, coffee in one hand, and cigarette in another.
In 2013 things started sorting themselves out slowly, and I started my second blog, Clerics and Cauldrons, with a post on 100 pseudo-magical tomes. I thought I had a good, unique idea there: I would mix my recipes and love of cooking, with DnD. That didn’t really last.
Then, out of the blue, I was accepted for a copywriting job in Lausanne, Switzerland. I had only a few weeks to put everything in order in the Netherlands and move. Most of my things went into my friend’s garage, while I took one suitcase and one backpack and flew south.
The first week went in a whirl of staying in an AirBnB and commuting and trying to figure out if I was stupid or if the job was just unclear. I then moved into a furnished studio, which approximated a 1970s garret nightmare featuring a chain-smoking man in gently mildewing tweed. After a week at the job, the marketing department was in the middle of a meeting with the company CEO.
Me, the marketing director, and the CEO in a glass-walled office in a Swiss basement, and the creative director on speaker phone from Rotterdam. The creative director is explaining his take on a series of ads, and the CEO mutes the speaker phone, before leaning in.
“What do you think of his ideas?” he asks the marketing director. She shrugs. He turns to me. I shrug. He nods.
The CEO unmutes the phone and interrupts the creative director, “Excuse me. Paul. Yeah. Paul, this isn’t working.”
“Oh,” replies Paul, “er … well, I can rework the ideas.”
“No, no. You don’t understand. This … this isn’t working. You’re fired.”
My eyes bug out. I was on the hook for thousands of francs in deposits and fees for moving to Switzerland, I had a three month probation period when they could fire me without giving any cause, and the CEO was an abusive crazy person. Over the next months I posted very little, as I tried hard to survive. After all, I calculated, I needed to have at least one year, preferably two, on the record, so I don’t look like an utter flake.
It was a miserable experience. I saw one person after another bullied until they broke. I got to experience that too, but that came later.
I worked my ass off and proved that, if nothing else, I could work hard and take abuse. By the end of summer I was at least safe enough to know I would be able to get out moderately intact and the crazy boss couldn’t fire me on the spot. I started posting and drawing again. Especially during interminable idiotic meetings.
Around that time I discovered that people were using this thing called Google+. Back then it still seemed plausible that it might manage to carve out a reasonable niche against Facebook.
I followed a few different people and Zak did something called a circle share. All of a sudden I was immersed in a community of a thousand interesting, creative, cool gaming people. It was amazing.
I breathed again.
On October 23 2013, shortly after returning from a mostly pointless trade show, where our company misunderstood what it was selling and missold its own product, to keep my brain from melting, I drew Milady of the Light and shared her with Zak’s circle share on Google+.
Since then I have watched the art and work and writing of all these people, and Google+ truly has been a glorious crucible—but at the very beginning were that “Wowwwww” and, more than a year later, that circle share. Later I bought both Vornheim and Red and Pleasant Land, great books both, and even had the opportunity to work with Zak Smith on Frostbitten and Mutilated, which was a fun and hard experience, but above all it was excellent practice. And we ended up winning a few Ennies too—Best Monster (Gold), Best Setting, (Silver), Best Interior Artwork (Silver), and Best Writing (Silver)—I flatter myself that my layout helped a wee bit.
Finally, to bring the whole story back full circle, in the late Spring of 2018 I sent my copy of Frostbitten and Mutilated to my thesis advisor from uni, and got an unexpected response.
“Wait, is that the artist, Zak Smith?”
“Uh, I don’t know. You mean the one who painted Gravity’s Rainbow?”
“Yes! The guy’s a freaking genius. I’ve been dreaming of getting one of his paintings for years.”
This post is the third in what is becoming a series on the people and blogs and products of the OSR that impressed me in some way or other. I started with Chris Kutalik’s Hill Cantons and continued with my joint discovery of the Lamentations of the Flame Princess and the One Page Dungeon. This writing is inspired by the impending demise of Google+, the quirky social network qua crucible of OSR creativity over the last decade.
Zak S continues to write insightful blog posts (this one, conveniently, again about something I created—Witchburner) but is also hard at work creating Demon City, one of the most lavish rpg projects I’ve chanced on in recent years. For his encouragement, I remain grateful. For the opportunity to write the most innuendo-laden title of a post on this blog, I remain gleeful.
If anyone has a link to Alfie Fort, let me know so I can add it.
If you like my art and writing, the best way to support me is to buy something I wrote and illustrated (like Witchburner), to commission some art directly, like Chance Phillips did with Phantasmagoria #1, or to straight up join my Stratometaship patreon where I am writing Red Sky Dead City, a doom-metal-and-war inspired deathcrawl through a necropolis.