Image by Jacob Marks (Midjourney)
Recently, I interviewed Leo Hunt, creator of Vaults of Vaarn, a science-fantasy post-apocalyptic ttrpg. I sent the questions (via email) to him hoping he would be able to carve some time out of his busy schedule in the next few weeks. I received a response only a few days later.
I want to thank Leo for entertaining my questions and giving such robust answers. Although this interview focuses on Vaults of Vaarn, he has also released another ttrpg by the name of Bloodheist and runs a notorious zine cartel called Antipode Zines. Without further ado, I present my interview with the zinefather himself: Leo Hunt.
Bucolia: Tell me about the first thought you had of Vaarn. Was it more of an inspirational vision? Or was it something quite specific, like a scenario, a scene, or a monster?
Leo: The original setting impetus was a specific drawing by Moebius, which shows a man reacting with alarm to the sight of a floating rock formation which has three sleeping faces carved into it. The rocks and surrounding desert are blue. The inner workings of my imagination are something of a mystery to me, even after all these years, but I began to think repeatedly about what/where the blue desert in this image might be, the significance of the faces in the rock formation, etcetera. Vaarn begins there.
B: In the zines and hardback, you list some of your literary influences: Gene Wolfe, Frank Herbert, and Dan Simmons. For each author, what was their major contribution to the world of Vaarn?
L: Wolfe’s contribution is fairly obvious, I think. The Book of the New Sun is a keystone work of literature in terms of Vaarn and is a major source of inspiration. Key setting elements like the dying red sun, the surreal quasi-medieval society, the obscure and archaic language that’s employed (words like ‘cacogen’, ‘autarch’, etc), the blurring of boundaries between ‘fantasy’ and ‘science fiction’ story elements, the melancholic weight of hundreds of extinguished civilisations weighing upon the present day… all these Vaarnish themes and more are found in Wolfe’s magnum opus. If anyone enjoys Vaarn and hasn’t read Book of the New Sun, they should do so immediately, because I basically just tried to eat Wolfe’s brain and become a grotesque and frightening mimic of him, Alzabo-style.
Herbert’s Dune is a lot more famous than BotNS, and the influence on Vaarn is again obvious: the vast and arid desert landscapes, the cultural and economic importance of potable water, the nomad societies, the ornithopters, and of course the enormous, near-immortal sandworms that produce psychedelic drugs. The wider galactic culture depicted in Dune also influenced Vaarn: I encountered Herbert’s work as a younger teenager and I was floored by his depiction of a far-future empire where scientific progress and reason have not erased feudal hierarchy, ritual, and mysticism, but instead have stagnated and merged with pre-modern modes of belief to create a strange cultural bricolage. The porous borderlands between magic, science, and religious faith are territories I’m interested in exploring in Vaarn.
Simmons’ Hyperion is the least obvious of the three listed literary influences on Vaarn, but I think the connections are there if you look for them. I was interested by his vision of a human empire existing in uneasy truce with a mysterious machine-intelligence collective, and this influenced the deeper lore of Vaarn that relates to the Titans. Hyperion also covers the conflict between the Hegemony (genetically conservative, AI-dependent imperialists) and the Ousters (an anarchistic, post-human diaspora who exist on the margins of Hegemony space). I think you can see shadows of this duality in Vaarn’s humanity dividing into true-kin and cacogen.
B: Vaarn also pulls inspiration from the artwork of Moebius, Kilian Eng, Decadence Comics, and others. How have those art inspirations impacted your own approach to art and aesthetic in Vaarn?
L: It’s always a little painful comparing yourself to Moebius because he’s such a giant of SFF art, and anything I produce is a pale reflection, but yes, his fantastical, mystical landscapes and eccentric Euro-comics character designs are one of the biggest sources of inspiration for Vaarn’s look and feel. Kilian Eng and Decadence Comics are less well known than Moebius, although in my opinion Eng is equally as accomplished an artist in terms of composition. Eng’s work is very polished, full-colour illustration, while Decadence produce more punk-zine, underground comix-style art, often in monochrome.
What all these artists share is clear, elegant linework with a high degree of detail, a surreal, melancholy atmosphere, and enigmatic compositions that invite you to project your own narratives onto the pictures. Moebius and Eng are both masterful colourists, who use bright, vibrant hues in their work, which is something I try to echo in my own designs. There’s a sense of obsessive, baroque detail, along with a decadent and overripe palette, both of which fit what I imagine to be the dominant cultural and architectural moods in Vaarn. Moebius also has this playful quality to his characters, which I try to echo in Vaarn as well. I don’t want it all to be melancholia.
There’s a lot that I still have to learn from these artists; I don’t think Vaarn’s current artwork is quite where I would like it to be.
B: Was there a definitive moment when the artwork style (monochrome, line-art, halftones) of Vaarn clicked for you? Or did you just use the same style you had always illustrated with?
L: It’s my ‘default style’. The first two issues are illustrated with a brush pen, but I couldn’t quite get comfortable with it, and I wanted more control, so issue three and the hardback book are illustrated in dip pen. The halftones are something new in my work. I bought the texture pack with money I’d earned from the zines. I actually was inspired to use the halftones by the work of Katsuhiro Otomo, the creator of Akira. He’s a SFF artist I would place alongside Moebius both in terms of his technical prowess and his influence on the genre as a whole. Otomo’s vehicle and architectural designs are astounding. I’m still left breathless by some Akira spreads.
As for when it all clicked… that’s an interesting question. I think the full body mycomorph portrait from the first zine was the first illustration I did where I was like ‘yeah, this is beginning to show what’s in my imagination’. That was brush pen and then loads of hatching with a fineliner pen.
B: You also share some of the video games that have influenced you: Rain World, Caves of Qud, and Hyperlight Drifter. What draws you towards these games in particular?
L: All three of those games share a common aesthetic: they’re colourful and striking, with retro-styled pixel art that eschews any attempt at realism. They all involve the exploration of lush, ruined post-post-apocalyptic landscapes, and require the player to learn the rules of a hostile new world without a great deal of tutorials or instructions (Rain World in particular is both wordless and maddeningly gnomic about what exactly you’re supposed to do to progress through its story). They’re all punishingly difficult and quick to kill an inattentive or unlucky player, but also filled with memorable experiences for people who are willing to delve into them and get through the pain period. I have a strange affection for beautiful games that don’t seem to care if you finish them or not.
All three games are the passion projects of small teams of developers, insulated from the kind of design-by-committee blandness that you see in big budget titles now. That’s something I respond to.
B: Was there anything specific you pulled from any of these video games?
L: Caves of Qud has a heavy, obvious influence on Vaarn. It’s the single strongest source of inspiration besides Book of the New Sun. This can be seen in vocabulary (true-kin, arcology), and in actual mechanics (like water being your currency, or the various mutations and cybernetics you can acquire). I’ve had some questions about my ever turning Vaarn into a videogame and I think one major issue is it would be too close to Qud (aside from the rather pressing concern that I know nothing about coding, nor do I have much appetite to learn).
Rain World is a bit less obvious, but the large cast of strange cyborg animals, all of which have their own unique exploitable behaviours, was a strong influence on my writing for Vaarn’s bestiary. The upcoming ‘Great Wall’ biome for Vaarn takes an even stronger influence from Rain World’s flooded, vine-choked industrial dystopias than the first few issues did.
I actually hadn’t realised Hyper Light Drifter was an influence before you mentioned it in one of our early conversations, but there’s a clear through-line between the blue skinned and animal-hybrid people in HLD, and Vaarn’s Faa nomads and newbeasts. I consciously drew on the imagery of the shattered colossi one can see in Hyper Light Drifter’s world for the ‘Head of Briareus’ location in the Deluxe Edition of Vaarn.
B: I believe you said your first ttrpg system was D&D 5e. If so, why did you decide to base your rules off of Knave? What drew you to this OSR system in particular?
L: So my first ever ttrpg was actually Call of Cthulhu! I was the GM for two of my current Sunday gaming group, and we did the ‘Haunting’ starter scenario. It was a lot of fun actually, and I ran CoC and Delta Green for a while. However, I’m not particularly good at thinking up the mystery plots that Call demands, so when it was time to run my own material I had to cast my eyes elsewhere. I already knew I wanted to do something that channelled Moebius, Book of the New Sun and Caves of Qud.
I don’t particularly have a problem with 5E, I’ve had fun playing it, but changing it from vanilla fantasy to science-fantasy just seemed like too much work; there are lots of setting assumptions baked into that game imo. Whereas Knave is the skeleton of a game, so you’re kind of encouraged/required to put meat on the bones, which I did with gusto. I also liked the 20 item slot limit – Vaults of Vaarn is about scavenging and unearthing relics of long-lost ages, so it made sense to me to use a system that is concerned with what exactly the characters are carrying, without having boring simulationist encumbrance rules. I think inventory slots are an excellent, obvious-with-hindsight design evolution that I can’t imagine playing D&D-likes without.
Knave also has the really elegant ‘subtract ten from the stat to find its bonus’ rule, which appealed to me because I’m not very good at maths.
B: In the hardback, you made some changes to the rules for Vaarn, including Mystic Gifts now taking an Item Slot instead of Psyche Slots and Exotica as XP instead of rewarding Expeditions. What inspired these changes?
L: Those changes came from conversations I had with Andre Novoa, who is the editor on the hardback and owner of Games Omnivorous. If people want a full explanation of the logic behind the changes, I would refer them to the blog post I made on the subject, but in brief: we talked a lot about accessibility, simplicity, and the fact that most modern groups play short campaigns. All the alterations to the basic rules were made in service of those concerns.
I’m happy with the changes, although I know there’s some discontent amongst the Vaarn fans about the demise of Psyche Slots. I didn’t know people cared about that rule! The removal of Psyche Slots from the base rules seems to have triggered a renaissance of people thinking up new rules and functions for them, which is cool. I really like it when people build on the basic rules.
B: On the note of the hardback, I heard that sales went really well. First off, congratulations. Secondly, what was that process like? From beginning development to getting the books on the shelves?
L: Thank you! I’m really pleased with how quickly the first printing sold out. It’s nice to know the audience has grown over the past two years.
The process was quite long and staggered. Andre initially contacted me in January 2021 (I think), before issue 2 had even come out. The initial pitch from him was he would publish a deluxe version of the first issue. I put out two further issues in quick succession (remember when that used to happen?), so the book became a compilation of all three zines.
We had some delays because the price of paper spiked, and then once the layout was drafted we realised I needed to do around 60 new illustrations, which took up a fair bit of early 2022. But it’s been a smooth journey for the most part. The hardest bit was not being 100% in control of every aspect in the book’s production; I’m used to being a one man band. Andre and Gontijo did a great job, as I knew they would, and the hardback book is way nicer than anything I could’ve made on my own.
B: I’m curious; what was the first monster you ever made for Vaarn?
L: I had to check my notes for this, and I think it was the humble Blue Baboon. So not especially dangerous, but I quite enjoy coming up with weak monsters that set the tone. The second monster was me statting out Gene Wolfe’s nightmarish Alzabo.
B: Which region are you most excited to explore in your future Vaarnish ventures?
L: I think the upcoming superstructure issue about the Great Wall is going to be very cool, and I’m also quite excited to get to the Sea of Songs. Nautical science-fantasy adventures with domed cities and huge sentient sea creatures. I would also like to write about Golgotha, the northern deathland, because it will be the final area!
B: If you had to run another OSR system (other than Vaarn or Knave), what would be your pick?
L: The obvious answer is Into the Odd: it’s super easy to explain to new players and I could run it from memory with no issues. I’m also quite intrigued by Ava Islam’s Errant, especially the procedures for large-scale faction turns and enterprises the PCs can invest their time and money in. I think Errant will be coming up a lot in future OSR designers’ acknowledgements sections.
B: Now, a couple fun questions.
Coffee or tea?
L: I used to hate coffee but now I have to drink it every day. I do like a fancy tea as well. I have some caffeine free ones for the afternoon to stop me bouncing off the walls. I’d pick coffee if I had a gun to my head though.
B: Favourite food?
L: It’s a dull answer but it’s hard to beat a rare steak with chips.
B: Favourite tv show?
L: Again, quite a predictable answer given my age and demographic, but it has to be The Sopranos. An inexhaustible treasure trove of memorable characters and strange, sad, funny scenes. The greatest TV drama of all time in my opinion. A perfect storm of great writing supported by outstanding, once-in-a-generation performances from the central cast, and a budget large enough to pull it all off. I don’t think there will be anything like it again.
B: If your monarch exiled you to the blue wastes, what is the one thing you’d make sure to take with you?
L: A parasol; if I’m going to get eaten by a Cacklemaw warband anyway, I’d prefer not to get sunburned before they find me.