Tales From the Tavern Interview – Andrew Kolb
Today’s Tales From the Tavern interview is with Andrew Kolb, noted artist, writer and ttrpg designer. But let’s let Andrew tell you about his work:
Sure! So I’m Andrew Kolb, author/illustrator/designer/cartographer behind both Oz: A Fantasy Role-Playing Setting and Neverland: A Fantasy Role-Playing Setting. When I’m not designing role-playing games I spend most of my time as an illustrator. Oh and I write a bit as well.
How did you get started in TTRPGs?
A lifelong friend was getting into D&D and his cousin was running the 5E starter set. My bud knew I grew up playing video games and thought I might like it so he invited me out. I still remember that first night and coming across the dead horse on the road. While we were still very much on a set path, it felt so open and filled with endless possibilities that I dove headfirst into the hobby and never looked back.
You wrote the Neverland RPG setting. How did that start?
That original group played through a few published campaigns but, like all good things, it eventually came to an end. I wanted to keep up with the hobby so I started running games for friends. Most, if not all, had never played so it was usually little one-shot adventures or homebrew stuff but I really learned a lot from running other people’s material. I had been building out a homebrew adventure based on Neverland since it was an easy way to onboard people, especially family and friends who were mostly playing to humour me, since it was a good balance of fantastical and familiar. It already has fairies and mermaids and pirates so the buy-in is much easier. So while I’m DMing for family and friends and building out these adventures in Neverland, I buy a copy of The Dark of Hotsprings Isle and that was the missing ingredient. Up until then I hadn’t had much exposure to hexcrawls and it all clicked. From there I built out a pitch to share with my literary agent (who mostly works with me on picture books) and Andrews McMeel Publishing was immediately supportive.
Tell us about your most recent RPG setting, Oz
I wasn’t sure what I’d do next after finishing Neverland but I loved the experience of making the book and wanted to do it again. It was such a challenge yet so rewarding that I was trying to find something that made sense. My number one certainty was that I didn’t want to do another hexcrawl and risk painting myself into a corner. The first question I asked myself was “what is the opposite of Neverland?” and I immediately landed on an urban adventure. The idea scared me and I had to ask myself why? Why was I so hesitant to run a city-based campaign? That then led to more research and trying to figure out what makes a city campaign work. At the same time I was rereading the first two Oz books and they’re so full of political machinations that it all came together rather quickly. I’ll skip every boring design decision I made but what I landed on was an urban pointcrawl adventure that emphasizes social interactions at a local, regional, and national level. I think a group of adventurers could wander into Oz as a nomadic group of do-gooders and eventually become the leaders of each cardinal district of Oz.
Do you have one TTRPG game system in mind for your settings, or do you consider them system neutral?
Most of my time is spent running 5E since folks who want to get into TTRPGs have heard of D&D. That familiarity bleeds into my work but it isn’t the only factor. I find a lot of 5E material, from adventures to stat blocks, to be overly complicated so I try to pare down to be easier to run at the table. Hopefully this means it can also more easily adapt to other systems. And both settings are designed to be driven by player choices so they naturally lend themselves to OSR-style play. I think Oz would particularly play well using Blades in the Dark but honestly I think whatever system gets the players and GM excited is cool by me.
Besides writing for TTRPGS you’re a prolific visual artist. Can you tell us about how you got your start as an artist and describe some of your favorite art projects?
Of course! I went to school for graphic design, not knowing what an illustrator was. After a few years in the design industry I started to build a portfolio of illustration work and went further down that path. While design still plays a big role, I mostly focus on illustration work these days. Though I say that and these TTRPG books are probably the most complex design projects I’ve taken on. I do all the layouts myself and it’s been a real test of balancing aesthetic with functionality. But to your question about favourite projects, while I’m really proud of Neverland and Oz, I also love the books I’ve gotten to do with Marvel for the Spider-Man movies. And I recently finished a board game called Junior Detective that’s a blend of Clue and Guess Who that was a real joy to illustrate.
Are you open for commissions for illustrations?
Absolutely. I’m always open for commercial illustration work as that’s where I spend most of my time. Personal commissions are fun too but I have more limited time for those sorts of projects. But if you want a pet commission I’m far more likely to make time in my schedule.
Where can people find your work, both visual art and TTRPG books?
My website has most of my work and that’s kolbisneat.com. You can find links to my TTRPG books there, as well as my online shop and so on. If you’re looking for me on social media then I’m @kolbisneat in most places.
I’ve heard that Andrews McMeel (who published Oz) will no longer be publishing TTRPG books. Can you tell us how this affects you and the distribution of your work?
Oh yeah that’s a tricky one. I can’t pretend to know what Andrews McMeel has planned for the future but I do know they’ve been unwaveringly supportive of my books and will continue to publish them. A shameless plug for me and all authors: if you like someone’s book, please leave a review wherever you bought it; it’s a great way to tell publishers you want more from that author.
What else would you like people to know that we haven’t asked?
Hmm not sure. For what it’s worth, I really love J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and hope we’ll get a reboot in my lifetime. Or another animated adaptation!
You can hear (and see) more from Andrew when he guests on the Tales From the Tavern ttrpg talk show on Twitch on June 4, 2023!