Building from the Ground Up: Stromgard's Design Process
We went into The Wyrd of Stromgard as total newbies- to both project management and game design at this scale.
I’d like to say that the process was one logical step after another. It was, sometimes, but a lot of it was played by ear. Stromgard began as a poorly sketched map, a vague plot that covered a conspiracy to launch Ragnarok, and a weariness of many of the entrenched conventions of modern fantasy as they appear in a lot of rpg campaigns I’d played. I love myths, I love historical anthropology, I love the narrative focus of the Dungeon World system and I wanted to GM a long form campaign that was set somewhere recognizable but was full of surprises and heavily influenced by the myths I’d read during my time as a literature student in college. I used vanilla Dungeon World playbooks for the first campaign but changed a lot of the text to be more flavorful and evocative of a pagan Norse setting. With zero digital art skills, I used a combination of MS Paint and GIMP to clip out text and add my own.
I prepped and researched but in the end, we only played a few sessions. My players had fun, though, that much was thankfully obvious, and I was eager to return to the setting I had started to call Stromgard-- I wanted a name that painted a picture of a cold sea and rugged terrain, so the name was a combination of old Norse strøm, meaning current or flow (of sea water or power) which would also link to the modern English word storm based on its spelling, and old Norse garð, meaning land (later I discovered that, coincidentally, a Stromgard exists in World of Warcraft, as well). For a long while, Stromgard’s play materials sat on a bookshelf while I idly daydreamed about how much more I could add to it.
After those play sessions, my biggest desire was to customize the playbooks more. I thought there was more world-building to be told in the text and moves, more narrative hooks that could captivate and excite players that I could build into the base characters. I remember lying awake one night and realizing with some mild exasperation that I wanted to trash all the custom playbooks I’d made and start from scratch, building each character archetype from the ground up. I made a list of potential character types on my phone (directly inspired by figures from the Eddas and Beowulf) but didn’t end up touching it again for months.
Stromgard was kind of a regret at this stage. I had created it as a fun thing to do with friends but our game group’s varying taste and constant influx of new games made it hard to go back to something once we’d moved on and I didn’t have the social chops to find another team. I had put a lot of time into Stromgard already and it seemed- like so many other personal passion projects- to be doomed to gather dust or reserved for personal enjoyment (alone) only.
At this point, I was unemployed and had given up on working in a ‘real’, corporate environment. I’ve told the basics of this story a few times on social media but long story short, I had a nervous breakdown due to depression, unbearable work stress, panic disorder, and my own social ineptitude. While Jeremy worked full time, I was taking care of housework and trying to recover, struggling to reignite my interest in hobbies I had once cared about and finding a medication regimen that kept me stable enough to keep moving onward. Jeremy wanted to transition out of his job as well and focus on getting Lost Dutchman Software off the ground and in a state that was potentially sustainable while we survived off savings we’d accumulated during our twenties. We’d both been working on Nice Bowling, a video game where you bowl with random effects to spice things up but when Jeremy transitioned to part time at his job to eventually being at home full time, our workloads had to shift to compensate. I had helped with the artistic side of Nice Bowling and could assist in a rudimentary fashion in terms of programming and game design but we were at a point where polishing the mechanics and cleaning up core gameplay took a more skilled hand. With Jeremy focusing most of his time on getting Nice Bowling ready for launch, I was spending less time with it, which left me open to starting another project.
I’ve mentioned before, but it bears repeating: Jeremy is the business brains of Lost Dutchman. When I suggested that Stromgard had some potential as a marketable product he immediately wanted it to be a Kickstarter project. I was intimidated, of course. I had a lot of concerns and I didn’t know much about the modern TTRPG market. We brainstormed a list of goals for Stromgard to give us an idea of scope… Jeremy devoted an obscene amount of time to researching Kickstarter, minimum profits, estimated overhead costs, media outreach strategies for people like us with no money, and the risks such an undertaking entailed. For the first time in a long while, I opened that file on my phone again and started to make bullet lists under each character archetype listing examples of powers or behaviors for each as found in the mythic Norse canon.
Jeremy determined that a Kickstarter campaign was likely to succeed and we officially began working on The Wyrd of Stromgard. Jeremy, as is his wont, spend the next long months meticulously organizing and researching every possible detail for the Kickstarter. I spent that time reading, for the most part. I reread Beowulf, both Eddas, and the Saga of the Icelanders line by line, making notes of common themes, legendary powers, any instances of magic, gods and other important figures… I read academic journals dating from the early 1800’s all the way to 2010 on the subject, constantly notating what it was that typified Norse magic and what it would take to rebuild that feeling and aesthetic. I got into modern Viking media as a contrast, to remind myself what parts I wanted to avoid if possible (chiefly, the sexism and racism that is usually added in due to a modern influence on the meta-narrative, disregarding the likeliest historical realities of the time- I’m aware that it’s difficult to shed such baked-in and often unconscious context, but I wanted to make a real attempt). I even reread the Vinland Saga manga by Makoto Yukimura, a gritty historical fiction shounen that I had first read in 2010 or so. I think it was some of the first non-ancient literature I’d experienced that really started to nurture my love of historically inspired fiction/fantasy. I dissected what made Norse myth and Vikings exciting, amassed my influences, and was finally ready to build.
The next stretch of time was divided between the two biggest chunks of Stromgard’s construction and I worked on them simultaneously. The first part was the setting and it took me a couple months of full time work to build all the pieces of a functioning, believable world, fit them together, and ensure that enough flexibility was left so players could tailor the stage for their own games, so to speak. After several very long and much-annotated drafts, I came up with an outline for that portion of the book. It would go over races, locales, cultural relations, and societies in a way that added a rich and intricate backdrop for players to essentially go apeshit with and build the campaigns with the features that excited them the most. The second thing that took up all my ‘on the clock’ hours during this period was the playbooks. It took a lot of research and constantly badgering Jeremy for his input but I whittled down my absolutely insane list of archetypes to ten ‘finalists’ that became the character playbooks as they are now and seven more ‘runner-ups’ that would make well rounded Compendium Classes.
We worked together to make the playbook moves technically viable and balanced while focusing on character incentive, narrative impetus, and game feel. I had a strong determination to make characters that weren’t strongly balanced across classes- as I prefer having character roles be strong in some areas and weaker in others. We had a lot of discussions about making sure that a character’s weaknesses were just as exciting and fun to roleplay as their strengths. I’m really quite proud of the playbooks, to be totally honest. I feel like they’re well rounded and come with a lot of built-in narrative forces that even a novice GM could have a lot of fun with.
Several months were quickly eaten up like this, the setting outline slowly transformed into the outline for the entire book and I had a 10 page long Google document including all of the specific in-world details I wanted to include for each cultural identity. The character playbooks were drafted in Google Slides and were close to complete but totally unusable in this format and needed to be presented differently if I was ever going to playtest them with other people. Which, of course, led to the first major ‘production phase’.
I threw myself into digital art at this point, suddenly understanding that I would have to deal with all the art involved in such a project- I needed to build a website, launch a Kickstarter, post images and icons to social media, lay out an entire book, create embellishments, and design a playbook that could contain the massive amount of info and still be legible. I had the opportunity to switch from GIMP to the Adobe Suite and did. I like GIMP, it is a wonderful tool (especially cost-wise, Jesus), but with Adobe it was admittedly easier to accomplish what I wanted and the addition of InDesign sealed the deal. I spent all my available free time learning Photoshop and InDesign, learned how to use a digital tablet, and learned about the overarching principles of graphic design to help me create better graphics and layouts. I think I spend a week and a half researching font families and pairings for the book alone, which I ended up changing after the first PDF draft anyway.
Art: Critical Component and Steepest Investment
Through pure stubborn bullheadedness and butt-stamina, I was able to pick up basic graphic design to a passable degree but I knew there was no way in hell I had the talent to create the artwork Stromgard would need to sell itself. I have been in fan-circles a long time, I know what good art can do to sell media and influence the general opinion about a game. We needed real art and it needed to showcase everything Stromgard could be. Still applying a lot of my time to writing the book and designing the thousands of images/headers/embellishments I needed, I started spending more time amassing a slideshow of artists and their work to help me pin down which stylistic choices I wanted to make when I was ready to commission someone. Jeremy and I talked back and forth about having the same artist do both the interior and cover art and during this time we came up with the idea of adding the GM screen perk- it was another opportunity for artwork and a desirable backer reward. As I spent more time looking at epic fantasy art, I got a clearer idea of what I wanted- something that evoked old-school RPG book covers but with modern colors and dynamism. I spent a lot of time on Pixiv, Tumblr, Artstation, and Deviantart, and reached out to a few artists about the project. One artist on Pixiv was even kind enough to mock up a quick concept cover for me without me asking, though scheduling prevented them from coming on as our artist. I think it was this point where I started to favor having two different art styles for Stromgard. One that was epic and adventurous and I was formulating ideas to keep the in-book text rougher, sketchier, one that could portray the setting’s occult-y/early pagan vibe.
I found Eli Spencer’s art shortly thereafter and it was love at first sight. Suddenly my vague ideas for the book’s interior solidified in one violent chemical reaction. Their work has a home-spun execution that doesn’t lack in technical detail but really evokes a kind of rustic charm that reminds me of sketches in a naturalist’s journal or something similar. They also draw a great deal of monsters and it absolutely sold me in a heartbeat. We weren’t ready to approach them about the project, however, so we had to wait- it was agonizing. The book text wasn’t laid out quite enough and we knew that the cover art would be more critical to the initial sales pitch and design. I made a slide for Eli’s work with their contact info and had to set it aside for another stretch. I went back to trawling the internet for viable cover artist.
I found Camille Kuo’s work on Pixiv and was immediately drawn to her monster design, biomech, and talent for fantastic natural landscapes. I reached out to her and immediately received a response back. With some preliminary notes on what I was looking for in the cover art, Camille began work and we spent our first chunk of the project’s budget.
Camille is a concept artist and absolute wizard. She had preliminary sketches for the cover in a few days and I only had minor changes or alterations to suggest. She had multiple color options ready to go and was super proactive about making sure that her artwork fit the physical layout of the cover I had sent to her. Camille’s professionalism makes perfect sense when you see her resume. While it’s true that I commissioned her without reading it (her art spoke for itself, and her rates were within our budget), Camille’s work was already well known in a lot of circles I regularly interacted with. Disney, Square Enix, the Twilight Imperium game, and other highly recognizable names were all over her background. Frankly, we were humbled and simultaneously stoked to be adding her astonishing talents to Stromgard. When I saw the first sketch of the GM screen art- with Jormungandr bearing down on a Viking fleet in icy, violent water, my feelings for Stromgard shifted from “personal thing I care a lot about and need to get out of my system” to “an honest to god experience I think other people will care about”.
Finally, we were able to reach out to Eli. The book wasn’t done but some of the text had been drafted to a viewable-by-other-humans level and we were already playtesting some of the playbooks, now in legible text format. We presented a weird two-tier project overview to Eli that asked for about one third of the art and would be paid in complete before we launched the Kickstarter. Then afterwards, if we successfully gained the funds we needed, the other two-thirds could be completed. We literally hashed out a giant To-Do list broken into parts to better illustrate what we were looking for. Mostly, we wanted Eli to be able to take on other jobs during this time, and didn’t want them waiting on tenterhooks for us to figure out if we could pay for the next chunk of art or not. I had, of course, commissioned fan-artists in my day for icons and character portraits or what have you... I knew the general procedure for hiring an artist but I had no real idea how to manage a project of this magnitude yet. A lot of this- especially getting others involved- was played by ear and with a great deal of flexibility. To my immense and eternal gratitude, both Camille and Eli made life easy for us. They were joys to work with and brought so much of themselves to Stromgard. Their vision had the strongest and most direct influence in our advertising and I would love the opportunity to work with them again someday.
Eli immediately had a handle on that old pagan-y vibe I wanted in Stromgard. They were all over runic marks and rough hewn clothing and it added so much to this world that was starting to solidify into something real. My gaming group lost their collective minds when I showed them her preliminary sketches for the Bearskin and the Linnorm. Monstrous and intentful and rough but so, so beautiful… Eli’s monsters were, possibly, my favorite part of her contributions, though it’s like asking me to choose between my (hypothetical) children. She brought the characters to life and constructed terrifying new visages for oft-ignored monsters like the criminally underappreciated and underrepresented Kelpie.
Art in hand, we were almost ready to launch the Kickstarter. We did a mad dash in the days leading up to the campaign- last minute estimates for GM screen printing at local shops, shipping strategies, another million images needed to be made for social media… the list went on forever and we were still working on the actual book in the interim. We were so, so busy.
We had two cats. One of them was my best friend. By this point, I had been fighting major depression for ten years… During the worst times, leading up to and in the months after the nervous breakdown that diverted my life, that cat was my closest companion and constant nurse. Tifa was a caregiver. She followed me everywhere, slept under my desk while I worked, sat on whatever part of me was mostly still while I had panic attacks that made it hard to breathe or think straight. She loved Jeremy, of course, (there’s no limit on how much love a trusting animal can give, afterall) but she was always waiting for me by the door when I got back from therapy. She brought me cat toys when I couldn’t get out of bed, would go into the kitchen and yell loudly if I hadn’t eaten in a day. What I’m trying to illustrate here is that this cat knew I needed help and did everything in her limited power to provide for me. She was special. She was my friend.
The Saturday before we launched the Stromgard Kickstarter, Tifa’s vet called me about some bloodwork she’d had done. Tifa had been a little lethargic and her meow had suddenly gotten weak. She was 12 years old so I was braced for news that wasn’t great but what I got instead hit me like a gut blow. Tifa had leukemia and it was already fatally advanced. My vet advised me to schedule a euthanasia and the prognosis was that she had a matter of days, possibly weeks to live. After a lot of crying, Jeremy and I scheduled Tifa’s euthanasia for later in the week and my vet gave me some tips on how to tell if she might not make it that long, and to call back if she seemed like she was in pain.
I don’t remember that week very well. We launched the Kickstarter while we tried to prepare for Tifa’s imminent death, and filled her last days with comfortable blankets, cushions by the windows, treats, and even drinks from the sink as she rapidly grew weaker. The launch went well, our backers were engaged and we chatted with them on social media like nothing was wrong… We’d put so much into Stromgard, we couldn’t sacrifice those first few critical launch days… We knew that a bad launch would kill the project before it had a chance to get off the ground. So we worked.
When launch day finally came, we (like most Kickstarters) gained a bunch of backers and funding dollars right out of the gate. This story is easy to see in the project’s history on Kickstarter. We were off to a damn decent start and our guerrilla social media marketing was showing some return. We made some friends and I think we made some committed fans and in such an emotionally charged point of my life, their interest and enthusiasm was incredibly validating.
Tifa said goodbye in her own way and two days after launch, we took her to her regular vet for the last time. I was emotionally destroyed, obviously. I still am, even a year later. That cat was special in a way I’m not sure most people can understand. But I was also relieved. Her last week had been heartbreaking and I had been nursing the debilitating fear she wasn't going to hold on until her appointment. But she had managed to stay peaceful and calm. I was glad she wasn’t suffering and that her life had ended after spending it warm and safe with people who adored her. She’d had many close calls over her life and I was glad her end was quiet and painless. I had to proceed with Stromgard- not only were we deeply committed to it at this point, but it also gave me something to focus on.
While Tifa’s death took a lot of the light from my life, especially those first weeks, the fact that Stromgard was on the cusp of being a real thing and that people were interested and excited for the product was humbling and gratifying. It's also why I was set on including a little dedication passage to Tifa at the front of the book, even if the relationship between her and Stromgard wouldn’t be obvious to most readers. I derived a lot of happiness in sharing my creative vision- first with the artists who created such amazing visual assets and then with backers and the TTRPG community as a whole- who saw the potential Stromgard had and helped us secure the necessary investment capital. We funded well before our deadline and were able to give Eli the heads’ up that part two of our project was cleared and we had a deposit ready to go immediately.
We ran the Kickstarter in November 2018 and set a shipping deadline for ourselves in June 2019 (that eventually ended up becoming August) and as soon as our funding goal was hit we threw ourselves into working on the final version of the book. I had a bare-bones PDF draft for the backers and we gathered feedback from while I worked in InDesign to design and layout a for-reals book. My draft turned into a 325pg book once all the illustrations were put in.
An Exercise in Constant Learning
The amount of digital design skills I picked up during Stromgard might be one of the more lasting impacts from such an involved project, at least personally speaking. I’m nowhere near as talented as a professional digital artist but The Wyrd of Stromgard looks competently done and of respectable quality. I hesitate to praise my own skills but I am proud of my progress- from chunky, clumsily rendered messes to images that were put together with much more intent- better font choices, better color choices, better resolution and sizing… just better all around. Working for myself has certainly never wasted an opportunity to remind me that if I don’t know how to do something, I better figure it out or be prepared to hire a professional.
Obviously, there is a point where diligence can’t make up a skills deficit (at least with any efficiency)- Stromgard absolutely depended on the talents of Eli and Camille but because our resources and investment capital was so limited, we needed to maximize the impact each dollar we spent had. Hiring a professional to lay out the book might have resulted in a better look but would have diminished what we could offer our artists or spend in outreach before the campaign went live. I think, as small-time creators, you have to learn how to make difficult decisions over the course of each project’s lifespan. For Stromgard, maximizing the art budget at the expense of website design, marketing, and book layout was that choice and I think we made the best possible decision. My perseverance managed to get me to the point where I could competently put together and print a book, make our website informative and efficient and eye-catching… Lord help me when I have to do maximize my lacking C# skills or something someday.
Scope was another thing that was really hard to get a handle of during Stromgard’s lifespan. For me, it was almost impossible to accurately quantify workhour needs with what I wanted to do for Stromgard. I had an outline of topics to cover in the book, I had notes about what each character class portrait should look like but what that directly translated to in actual hours worked was incredibly difficult to keep track of. Because of this semi-unavoidable ambiguity, we spent more time than we wanted to on a lot of aspects, or simply underestimated what it would take us to complete certain tasks. When Eli was drawing the character portraits, for instance, I spent almost a week laying out this huge document loaded with images and historical notes for the looks I wanted each character to have. I had assumed, of course, that I would need to spend some time detailing my art goals with Eli, but didn’t take into account how in-depth that turned out to be. It was a good investment of time, though, which makes scope-affecting decisions difficult to tackle. They take up time but usually add to the project. Also, these junctions crop up constantly, which sort of just adds to the fog of unknowing when you’re frantically trying to keep track of how much time you’re spending.
We were really good about staying on track for production after the Kickstarter but we worked our asses off to say out of the weeds. As I write this now, the products have been shipped and the project is wrapping up for good- looking back on the earlier half of this year fills me with a sense that we were burning the candle from both ends at an absolutely breakneck pace and is likely a contributor to the minor post-project burnout we experienced after finally shipping.
Still, I would be lying if I said that it doesn’t feel gratifying to know that our hard work kept us on schedule all the way through printing, for the most part. Honestly, we would have made that June deadline if we hadn’t had so many discrepancies in the proofs we ordered (Lulu.com is a cheap source for print but their janky interface and jalopy website leave much to be desired) and if communication between us and the international shipping centers had been slightly speedier. We were blessed with absolutely chill backers, however, and we kept communications up and running with them during the proof-fiasco and shipping.
Jeremy masterminded shipping with a boot-camp level of meticulous organization. We staged packaging in our game room for packages bound for backers in the US and worked with two international shipping companies to help us wrangle Stromgard’s global shipments. As of now, damages reported have been at a minimum and people are receiving their orders.
It’s been a long road to wrap up here, longer than we planned on and a lot has happened since we started this massive project more than a year ago. Now that we’re ready to move on to our next major project, I keep finding myself reflecting. Both on what this last Kickstarter taught us and how to alter our approach to the next one. Both to celebrate a finished project and to help give whatever advice we can to other designers and devs looking to dive into the waters of crowdfunding we've also done a write up on our marketing strategies and production and budget as a postmortem you can check out.
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