Bleeding and slime-covered I made my way from that accursed place, with no memory of what had transpired, nor what dark bargains were struck under alien stars. When finally I returned to my abode I glanced at the calendar to find that months had passed, and on some distant, alien rock a black pyramid had been raised, for purposes I dare not fathom. Shivering with nervous tremors at the contemplation of my contribution to that nameless and terrible edifice, I despaired at knowing that now my fate had been sealed. This would now be my fate, and I would repeat it…till the Thing came to collect what was promised him…
My companion in arms, liege-lord and purveyor of many excellent adventures, including the legendary Chest and of course the critically acclaimed  Red Prophet Rises Aaron Fairbrook a.k.a Malrex a.k.a Malrexion the Merciless, the Fairbrookster, Aaronus Ungus him-fucking-self, is here to browbeat everyone into submission with a beautiful story of inspiration, hard work, poetry and the gods. I deigned to interview him on the sole condition that he lift his tyrannical laudanum-ban from the offices of Merciless Merchants in the dystopian hellhole of Santa Rosa, California, where I am currently based. I don’t care what the law says Aaron, the heart wants what it wants. This is what resulted.
Edit: I tried TRIED to keep it under 10 pages but with Aaron this is simply not possible.
So tell people about Cha’alt.
Thank you! My pleasure! So the City of Verm… oh..wait..Cha’alt? Hmmm..…. I don’t know much about Cha’alt yet as I haven’t had time to read it. I’ve only skimmed through it—there is a pyramid, there seems to be a lot of eyes, more than likely a bunch of tentacles, a healthy dose of ap’o’stro’phe’s, people use traffic signs as shields, and the work of Glynn Seal is always amazing. I plan to read Cha’alt when things slow down though.
Alright alright alright, describe yourself in three words like Venger Satanis doing a Dwight Schrute from the Office impersonation.
*puts on tentacles and flaps them around*
Mer’ci’less, h’ard-‘wo’rking’, and a ma’n of few’ wor’ds exc’ept em’a’ils and in’tervie’ws,…… jac’kham’mer.
How did you get into oldschool gaming, how long have you been doing it, whats your favorite module or system?
I was age 7 or 8 (1980’s) visiting a family friend’s house way off in Alabama, USA. The kids were playing Dungeons & Dragons and they invited me to play. My character got sucked into the soul gem of the Ghost Tower of Inverness . I was hooked. So when I returned home, I begged my parents for the books and forced my friends to play with me.
I’ve played basic, 1e and 2e. A mix of 1e and 2e is my favorite—mainly 1e adventures with 2e rules as I used to love all the character kits, but lately I’m appreciating 1e a bit more. Favorite module? Hmm…I’m not sure why, as I like adventures to make a little sense, but I enjoy White Plume Mountain and Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth.
There was a stint of no D&D for about 8 years, but I luckily found a good group about 19 years ago, DMed by Jon Bertani (editor:Merciless Merchant), and we have been playing 2e/house rules ever since. He has binders and binders full of hand-written ideas/settings/adventures just sitting in his garage. I told him he should make electronic copies before they got ruined and that spurred us into a hobby of publishing.
We got a huge adventure of his that he has worked on all his life and I’ve jumped in on it the last two years, sprinkling some new areas in and pulling it all together. It will be about the main human settlement of Coppercore in the Dragonback Mountains. Exciting stuff! Best guess is that it will be longer/bigger than Vermilion! Not to mention we have other projects…Axeholme, Woods of Loss, etc. We have a lot to do!
Then we got the Palace of Unquiet Repose shaping up nicely which I think will be a fantastic journey. Every time I read it, there is a vibe that weighs on me…grim tidings? A sense of dread? Discomfort? I can’t explain it but looking forward to helping out with it. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg for where we want to go with the Age of Dusk setting…right? Right!
Also got some other projects I’m working on by myself…more Special Areas like my first Ranger one. Basically adventures for solo adventures or small groups with at least one specific class to meet/train with a teacher and do small quests that focuses on using specific class skills. I got a 95% complete Special Area for a druid that’s been sitting on my desk for about a year now, ideas and maps written down for a bard, and some ideas for an assassin one. Then ideas for a desert tomb, the Rains of Sanjoon (which may or may not be mentioned in Vermilion), the floating-sky prison adventure…and….Yeah, I realize this isn’t following the question too well, but I consider old school gaming not just gaming, but developing these adventures too—because it’s all fun!
Solo adventures. Common wisdom says they can’t be done right in DnD *gasp*!?! But holy moses you sure have a lot of stuff on the backburner. One of the things I dig about you is your energy and output, which, compared to my own, is voluminous. Where do you find the time to write all that shit, be a dad, have a job that doesn’t involve twenty-sided dice and more or less run an adventuring sweatshop?
Special Area Ranger’s Hideout was me messing around with layout and I cringe when I look at it. But it’s PWYW and I think some of the ideas are solid. I usually try to add some NPC’s so a solo player could control a small group…not ideal, but can still be fun when the rest of the group can’t make it. Eventually would like to make one for each class. Would love to have your eyes on the druid one, especially the Azure Hellflower part….
As for having time, I think about this stuff all the time. I think I was bored twice in my life, my brain is always in imagination mode. So when I have time to sit down and write, I already have most of the adventure written in my head and I can just vomit forth the words.
You’re in a desert, walking along in the sand, when all of a sudden you look down and see a tortoise. It’s crawling toward you. You reach down and you flip the tortoise over on its back. The tortoise lays on its back, its belly baking in the hot sun, beating its legs trying to turn itself over, but it can’t. Not without your help. But you’re not helping. Why is that Aaron?
*nods, marks something on clipboard* So tell us all about the City of Vermillion.
Everyone has a fear…mine is swimming in oceans, especially with things of my size or bigger. My family swam with whale sharks for a citizen science ‘vacation’ with the Vermilion Sea Institute and it changed my life. I’m well aware they are harmless to humans and their throat is the size of a quarter…but…they are huge! The whale shark was a smaller one, maybe close to 20 feet (still huge). It swam 8’ under me and instead of shitting myself, I had this moment of pure calmness completely wash over me. I can’t explain why or the experience that well, but I’m fearless now of the ocean and its critters. The experience (and environment) also gave me inspiration and I started creating a sea adventure that evolved into a city by the sea.
A key challenge for me—city adventures terrify me to run at the table. There is 1000’s of NPC’s, personalities, hidden agendas, a crap load going on (or should be), players usually split off in all sorts of different directions and from my experience, (i.e. The Assassin’s Knot), you usually worry about keeping the characters on the “adventure”. But I never liked that pressure as a GM and always prefer choices as a player or the ‘sandbox’ method. I wanted the characters to be able to do whatever they wanted because they don’t know what the main adventure is supposed to be—so why should I keep pushing them towards it? No….they think whatever they are doing IS the adventure. That’s fine by me, so I fleshed out the ‘real’ adventure and created a Timetable that gave opportunities for the characters to get involved with it or not and then created a bunch of optional content.
Dungeons have walls and limit choices. Wilderness adventures can be big, but usually have key points that draw player’s interests (caves, ruins, etc.) or the characters have a goal to go somewhere. A city has none of that—it’s just pure chaos—or should be! So with the City of Vermilion, I embraced that chaos.
I first had to mold the chaos into an organized tool so that it was manageable during play. So I created ‘walls’…great, beautiful, invisible walls. Those ‘walls’ are built by adventure hooks, situations, events, and rumors….a ton of them and I have several tables to work off of. It amused me to watch my play testers become overwhelmed by all the information, choices, and opportunities they could do. They didn’t even want to split up in case something else sounded interesting that they had to discuss/argue amongst themselves on what to pursue. So they became focused on one thing and ignored the ‘distractions’. Then I could just focus on that one thing and it became very manageable.
For example, the party might all have their initial adventure hook for traveling to the city, but then:
- They hear rumors aboard the ship
- They dock in town and hear rumors from the crowds of haggling people
- Adventure opportunities began to present themselves in the tavern.
- Suddenly an event happens (big celebration as a legendary pirate captain is captured) which may cause them to find out more information or they may ignore.
- They go to another tavern, they are bombarded with all different, fresh rumors.
- They decide to investigate a rumor or course of action, but then the Timeline kicks in which may create changes and the players have to adapt due to additional choices…all in an ever-changing environment.
Sound chaotic? It is…but it’s organized. All those “walls”—lead to fleshed out areas. So it doesn’t matter which course of action they pick, the GM can just flip the page to the correct Appendix and onward to adventure!
I think that’s the best way to describe the City of Vermilion—an organized chaos. And it’s not just the city with its rooftops and sewers (yes Bryce, sewers!), BUT spreads out into a vast wilderness with caves, ruins, islands, underwater temples, and other mysteries.
I’m usually pretty skeptical about campaign settings myself. What is this one going to do to distinguish itself from the nine bazillion others that are already flooding the market?
Hah! Stop thinking like that!
Do you consider an old ruins a campaign setting? How about the Caves of Chaos—campaign setting? What about a mega-dungeon? Hmm, ok…maybe depending on its size. But do you think I want to write pages and pages of back history or what towns the City of Vermilion trades with or how many pounds of wool they ship, or the long history of the Rampaging Whale Wars that happened 2 billion years ago? (I just made that up). Or other stuff that doesn’t matter during an adventure and that people are going to change anyways to fit in their own campaign? NO! I don’t consider this a campaign setting at all….I consider it an adventure…part of a mega-city (dungeon) to be precise.
I have some tools to help the DM create the city on the spot–tables of different shops, buildings, NPC’s and personalities. Players messing with you and going into every random building? No problem, roll a few times and you got an instant store or dwelling with a NPC and a personality. I have descriptions of the six ruling houses and their leaders and important groups summed up in a: Summary Table! Remember–I was terrified to run a city adventure–I wanted everything easily scanned and organized in a way that I could quickly find, and I like rolling on tables for randomness to keep the game fun for me while I DM.
Finally, I went up to Appendix R. The city, sewers and roof highway are all part of the city, but then each dungeon/mini-dungeon/side quest/adventure is organized into an Appendix. So 18 mini-adventures? Some of these are dungeons with 3+ mapped levels, while others may just be a few pages long. Doing some, may cause factions to react differently and present options for more adventures. There is also 14+ Situations (I keep adding some while I wait on the KS) that can lead to roleplaying and/or fighting within the city or out in the wilderness. So this is more akin to a Book of Lairs, or a big web with the city in the middle that has several extensions to adventures….not a campaign setting.
I think that’s part of the value of this product and why I feel so comfortable doing the whole song and dance for the Kickstarter. There is plenty of stuff to mine if people don’t care for the main storyline or situations. Need a thieves’ guild headquarters?–got you covered! Grab it and plop it into your own adventure. Need underwater ruins–no problem, there are several. Here’s a cave….need a little island adventure? How about a break-in/break-out from prison adventure? No problem. Need to put something at the bottom of a Maelstrom?—got you covered. Want to follow the story line?–you probably won’t visit all the Appendices then–and that’s ok! Main storyline passed you by? No problem, plenty of other stuff to explore; the important thing is your players are having a good time. And there is plenty of room (island, extended city sections, treasure maps, etc.) for the DM to expand and implement their own ideas…which to be honest, I plan to do myself one day. That’s why I consider it more like a mega-city…Instead of adding another huge level to a mega-dungeon, Part 2 could focus on another section of the city that leads to adventures to other islands and interesting situations.
Plus, do any of these nine bazillion others have whale sharks?
Salient point. 10k is a shitload. Where is all that money going to go to?
You aren’t joking! The minimum funding goal is $9,400. $10k would be better with more art options and $12k would be amazing as Prince would write up a whole new dungeon and I could boss him around during the project—but don’t tell him that. *Awkward silence*.
I found an excellent editor who is very familiar with RPG type material, so not your typical editor. I put a lot of money into the editor because as a designer, I know what’s going on in my city adventure….but I wanted a stranger to be able to pick it up and have it be easy to follow and understand and be able to make it their own.
Samantha Chapman is not just looking for misspelled words…she is making sure the flow makes sense, that the ideas are solid. She is going to ask questions and offer suggestions. She has a crap load of experience with fantasy RPG’s. On page. 98 I may have a reference that is on pg. 15, and vice versa…so lot’s of checking, cross-checking, and re-checking. The goal here–an organized chaos!
Then I needed a substantial amount of art because this is a big project. Merciless Merchant material gets blasted for using stock art all the time, so I really wanted to commission art and I have several key scenes I want drawn up that can help the GM visualize what’s going on…and even share to players if desired. There are two maps in particular that I feel could really look better with a side profile, so I want to be able to have that opportunity—and it’s a bit out of my mapping/art skills. I’ve created a bunch of new monsters and magic items and I know for me at least, when there is a new monster, I want to see what it looks like. Del Teigler, Spaghetti Quester, Courtney Campbell and Enmanuel ‘Lema’ Martinez…all these artists are amazing!
I absolutely wanted a quality hardcover option. I also wanted a beautiful wrap-around cover piece for that bad boy. The artist I have in mind (Lema) does gorgeous work and I want it to be a wrap-around of the whole city as a ship approaches it. It’s going to be a good-looking book and one that I may be able to get away with putting on the coffee table with my wife’s approval….maybe.
Then the little stuff—Kickstarter fees, packaging material, bubble wrap and other misc. stuff that adds up. I totally get it…People see that price tag and think the publisher is going for a cash grab. I actually used to think that too. Nope! Not since I’ve delved into this and worked out pricing. The honest truth–I have $150 in the budget to pay myself back for some previous art and help with the KS video. I’m looking to break even and get a cool book out of the deal. I think Cha’alt, Hyperborea adventures, City of Lunden—all those projects were close to my price range and probably ran into the same situation where big, quality projects cost a lot to put together. In the end, this will be a quality product, because I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if it wasn’t.
I think you might be right about stock-art. On the one hand I will have to go to debtor’s prison again to pay off all that great looking fantasy art but on the other hand I won’t be pelted with rotten produce every time I walk into a hobby shop and reveal my secret identity as man on the internet who shouts about and makes elfgames. So you are saying that all that money will go straight into City of Vermillion and none of it will go into our oversea swiss bank accounts like we discussed in our previous secret meetings?
Dude…shhh…*makes swiping motion with hand over throat*
Seriously though, the money gets poured into other people’s skills to create a quality product. This is a passion project for me.
It’s too bad about stock art, I love the idea of it. Being new on the scene I was overjoyed with the opportunity and I think a lot of it is really good. But when you start to look around at other products and see the same art, it takes the ‘coolness’ factor away. It’s one of the main reasons I quit my Patreon to be honest, where I could only afford the stock art and I felt it was hindering my creativity (i.e. writing the scene how the stock art looked like). Someone suggested to me that I should re-launch all our adventures with new commissioned art, but I don’t know…
If you were a tree what kind of tree would you be?
Uh…is this where I answer a fruit tree because they are productive? Oh well, picking Cedar tree. Those trees have a ton of different uses. Deserts, turtles, trees..sure man, I dig nature too.
Ridiculous. Everyone knows the Coniferous Tree is the superior breed. Do you wish to recant your heretical views and be accepted into the prickly embrace of our verdant overlords?
I’m talking about the Western Red Cedar tree of the Pacific Northwest, not some tiny juniper. It is a conifer tree and grows up to 230 ft tall and….screw it, now I want to be a Japanese Maple because reasons.
[Bonus question] Are you one of Raven S. McRackens avatars and if so which one are you?
No…but flying grizzlies with laser beam eyes sounds intriguing for a beer game night?
[Real Question] What inspires you when you write dnd shit, I mean other then a deep-seated pathological fear of whale-sharks, which I think we can all agree is a universal source of inspiration.
Art plays a huge role in my inspiration and probably takes the top spot easily. Movies, books, miniature figures when painting, meeting weird people and wanting to roleplay them…lol, traveling, hiking/backpacking experiences, misc. bs that happens when playing–all add up to bits and pieces.
Second main inspiration is just talking/listening to fellow gamers. Hashing out ideas back and forth tends to make things bigger. Jon and I do it all the time and it’s great. Other people have a rare gift of having an evocative language…I can take one of their sentences and my brain explodes and builds an adventure around it. I think that happens for most people, but I actually write it down and do something with it.
Anything you want to add, I mean you have already written very much but you ordered me to ask you that question so here it goes?
Nope, I was just seeing if you would ask.
Actually, yes. I’m in a row boat with a flapping flag in the wind, and the Maelstrom has me in its current. I’m fighting for my life to get to shore, but it’s strong and there is a good chance it may swallow me up, lost forever. No one knows I’m out there because I’m relatively unknown in the RPG universe….I learned this is what a Kickstarter feels like. It’s an intense emotional rollercoaster ride with ups and downs everyday…at least that’s what it feels like from behind the scenes. But that flapping flag represents my passionate dream for this project and I’m doing all that I can do to make it a reality. So if the project interests you, please consider backing the project and I’m humbly asking for help to get the word out through your social media channels. Share the KS page, if they want to know more about us, then share Froth’s write-up, or the recent Endzeitgeist review of Red Prophet Rises. I believe in this project and want to share it with my fellow gamers!
Thanks Prince for the interview!
And thank you Aaron. You’ve got heart and you are an absolute pleasure to work with. Here’s hoping City of Vermillion will reach its funding. We’ve still got 13 days left. Would you like to know (even) more? Check out the Vermillion City kickstarter here.
 I can say that now since I have over three positive reviews on the internet!
 Added to the review pile. Ghost Tower kind of rocked.
3 thoughts on “[Interview] The Merciless Merchants Vermillion Kickstarter Interview a.k.a. A Genius Interviews A Genius”
Swell guy that Malrex.
I heard he once lost a dungeon writing-forum-competition to some german dude and was nothing but courteous and nice to him afterwards … even reviewed the guys dungeon and gave some tips on publishing;)
Love your interviews Prince … Always like it to get a glimpse behind the scenes and see other peoples creative process.
And I couldn’t agree more with Malrex answer about listening to other creators/players/gamers. While I can get some shit done alone I have found out, that I work much, mucht better when I have a partner (or several) to bounce ideas of , brainstorm and create stuff.
1+1 is sometimes more than 2 😉
Aaron fell into publishing and kept running, come rain come shine, dude gets things done.
Thanks for the praise. I try my best. This interview format is still in its infancy and I’m still figuring out to get the most bang for everyone’s buck without asking too many questions or having it consist only of fucking jokes. Something you can chuckle over on your way to work is my goal here.
Having a partner works wonders, but its less efficient. If you are aiming for excellence I’d recommend having someone at least edit your shit hard before you submit it for publication.
Thanks for the support man.
“Do not try to escape, you are in my control. Look at me, I am the sum of all evils. Look carefully, my power infests all times, all galaxies, all dimensions. But many still seek me out; a green jewel they must possess. But see how I destroy their lives.”
Cha’alt, baby… Yeah!