In part one I left off with the manuscript in progress. It’s bubbling along in the background nicely. The rules are in and being honed, and that helps determine how many words we have left. For Suzerain we like about 500-600 words per page, but the illustration density matters too. Sometimes we really want to get extra images in, so we plan for a shorter word count on those pages.
Note, it’s not normal to go to such detail on book design. Most RPG publishers (including Savage Mojo previously) commission a manuscript at X thousand words based on an average illustration density and the layout artist casts their arcane spell that took years of training to learn. Magically those words and images make a book of the right length (if the writers stuck to their word count – you hear me, writers? Please stick to your word count).
For Suzerain Legends we approach things more like magazine publishing. Surprise! I used to work in magazine publishing. We plan a book as a series of short sections, and work with double-page spreads as our layout currency. Those pairs of facing pages mean we want lots of little manuscripts rather than one long one. The advantage is flexibility; it allows us to have a vision for each spread that includes illustrations that match the topic on those two pages. We don’t do generic illustrations to fill space. Everything fits together to get that “travel journal” type of feel.
Illustrating The Point
Which brings us neatly to the illustrations. While the manuscript is brewing we’ve also sent out art notes to our line artists, looking for specific pieces to fit specific points in the manuscript. Those take a week or so to go through a round of roughs and then we get to final lines. Those go out to a colorist who takes about a week to go through a round of flats and then final colors.
In reality this is an organic process with words and illustrations developing side by side, one inspiring the other. It’s worth the extra hours to coordinate all that, at least I think it is. For example, these are the original art notes for the Searing Dead:
Volt Men: If you could imagine zombies but with dark energy (like pure shadows) swirling and arcing between them, that’s volt men. In this image we need volt men on board a Spanish warship of the 1700s. Just have one central figure and the arcing energy goes off to the vague idea of a couple of others – no need to put a lot of detail into more than one figure.
During line art, the result looked about right:
But then we got to colors, and by that stage people had really latched onto the idea of these being flaming zombies and part of Tahn’s army in Austeria (you may not have met Tahn yet, but just accept that he’s not a nice guy). They had a backstory, no less! Suddenly they weren’t volt men at all, but the searing dead. The manuscript changed, the coloring changed. Here are the art notes to the colorist:
Searing Dead: This is a scary part of Tahn’s army. He can bring the dead back to life with his corrupting magic and then infuse them with the full force of the Tempest. Here we have a lot of black, shadow energy (like liquid shadows) swirling around, mixed with smoke, all lit by the black and red glowing dead. It’s like they’re made of lava or are a walking bonfire.
For the most part the background is just vague among the smoke and dark energy. Even some of the foreground figure is partially obscured by it. It should feel pretty creepy seeing this enemy stepping forward out of the night.
And here’s the colored result:
I wanted the searing dead to be my example because they show how time itself is flexible in Suzerain development, which is appropriate given the time-spanning nature of the setting! The searing dead were commissioned as an illustration over a year ago, forward planning for a product that will be a part of our story arc in the future. The manuscript that was adjusted wasn’t the manuscript for this content drop – you won’t see that for a while yet! Instead, the illustration has inspired our Tempest thoughts and was the obvious choice as standard-bearer for this content drop, which is all about Tempest enemies. And here we are, with that iconic illustration shaping this manuscript a year later. If things had been drawn just a little differently, we’d be using the volt men as our example for our first Patreon content drop. Yes, I love dynamic development. So much more fun than having rigid plans years in advance.
Woohoo, we’re done with illustration! Not so fast. There’s another stage which happens once layout begins – post processing. Each roleplaying game has its own art style, and we’re no exception. When we started planning Suzerain Legends, a whole new edition of the universe we love, we chose to do that travel journal style I mentioned. That’s not just about words, it’s about making the illustrations look like they were drawn in the journal by our narrators. We’ll talk more about that in Part 3, where we’ll see how the whole process comes together.
Publisher, Savage Mojo