Surviving Strangehollow: Shawn Merwin Talks About Legendary Artists And Designers

Surviving Strangehollow from Accidental Cyclops Games has an amazing creative team. When darjr at EN World connected me to Shawn Merwin, I was eager to learn about the creative team, the new rules, and how this project came about.

Surviving Strangehollow from Accidental Cyclops Games has an amazing creative team. Starting with the artist that inspired the project, Emily Hare, there’s also contributions from Ed Greenwood (Forgotten Realms), James Haeck (Critical Role), Elisa Teague (Wizards of the Coast), Erin Roberts (Paizo), Bryan CP Steele (Shadowrun, Transformers, Power Rangers), Dan Dillon (Kobold Press and WotC), Shawn Merwin (WotC, Kobold Press, Ghostfire Gaming) and more. When darjr at EN World connected me to Shawn Merwin, I was eager to learn about the creative team, the new rules, and how this project came about.

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EGG EMBRY (EGG): Thanks for talking with me, Shawn. What is Surviving Strangehollow?
: It’s a project that I’m working on as Lead Writer with a publisher called Accidental Cyclops. They came into the industry with a game called The Real Thing, based on the music of the band Faith No More. I remember seeing the game when it came out a few years ago and saying, “Wow! That’s a company I’d love to work with.” And now I am! Accidental Cyclops’ two primaries, Mikey and Jason, wanted to do something similarly unique in the fantasy realm. They were fans of the art of Emily Hare, whose unique style and vision for fantasy subjects is both familiar for fantasy fans but also strikingly and hauntingly different. To me, Emily’s at the same time cute and unsettling, which is hard to accomplish, and Emily does it brilliantly. So the idea was to start with the art, and then build stories based on prompts from the art, and then create the world based on the stories, and then create rules based on all of it. It’s a much different process than most RPG projects I’ve been involved with. That challenge, along with the unique elements we could offer DMs and players, really made me want to work on this.

EGG: This is a sourcebook with new character options and rules for Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition. What kinds of character options is the creative team providing?
: We decided to go with 5e as the rules’ foundation, because it’s both established and solid, but it could also be made flexible. The system of classes, subclasses, feats, backgrounds, spells, items, etc. provides a lot of room for us to make unique and flavorful rules, while still being easily understandable by fantasy gaming fans. So you’ll see a new class called the channeler. There’ll be many new subclasses that can be used in Strangehollow or any other campaign. There are new species called the skulk. You’ll get all the goodies that players love for their 5e games. And we’re also going to craft rules on the DM side of the ledger to really capture the themes and tones invoked by the world of Strangehollow.

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EGG: Let’s talk about the new rules. You’re inventing/revising mechanics. What are you adding?
: The stories of Strangehollow revolve around transformation in those braving this magical land—spiritual and psychological, but also physical. The creatures of Strangehollow can bite and claw for sure, but they can poison you and curse you and do so much more than just drain your hit points. We want to expand on current 5e design to make curses and poisons more than just an on/off switch in the mechanics of the game. It’s important to me that these rules offer more than just mechanical penalties or benefits, and that they just as clearly affect the roleplaying of the character as the abilities on the character sheet. As one example, the setting of Strangehollow changes you. Those changes may be temporary or long-lasting. They may be detrimental, neutral, or even beneficial. They may be mental or physical. Often they are multiple things at the same time. Our fantasy stories from the beginning of recorded time to the present are full of these stories: curses, challenges, hubris, goals, fatal flaws, epic sacrifices. Having these story elements work together both narratively and mechanically is something that fascinates me. Currently in 5e, curses are quite simple and, by design, boring. You get a curse, it does something bad to your character that is likely annoying during play, and then you get a relatively low-level spell cast on you, and the curse is gone. I’m working on a way to make dealing with curses less punitive mechanically, more flavorful narratively, more surprising in terms of how they affect the game, and tied much more closely to who the character is and what their goals are.

EGG: Many gamers feel 5e is perfect RAW. What about Surviving Strangehollow inspired these 5e rule revisions?
: First, I would happily debate that 5e is perfect. I love 5e; don’t get me wrong. But 5e is a toolset more than a ruleset. Now, 5e D&D is a ruleset that is good for a specific kind of game. But when you publish under the OGL using the 5e SRD, that is a toolset. The challenge then is to envision the kind of game you want to make, one that you think is different but that would speak to the stories DMs and players want to tell, that they might not be able to tell perfectly with 5e D&D but might be done so with a slightly different 5e adaptation. It's like I said with the curse discussion earlier: 5e is a great ruleset for certain types of game play. But it also gives designers, DMs, and players some room for different play—to tell different kinds of stories. What I want Surviving Strangehollow to do is provide a blueprint and examples for DMs and players who might not even realize that 5e can move in different directions.

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EGG: Seeing 5e move in a different direction is exciting; I’m glad you’re pushing in that direction. I’ve wanted to get to the creators for Surviving Strangehollow. The secret sauce for this project are the designers you’ve got involved. Let’s start with the key creator, can you discuss who is handling the artwork?
: Emily Hare is an English artist whose work, for me, defies description. My mind has never been visually oriented. But when Mikey and Jason showed me Emily’s work, I said, “Oh yeah, I’ve seen that before. I remember seeing that in other places.” For me to remember a piece of art and a style says something. And it’s not just the creature art—it’s the landscapes and the details. The cover art for the book, for me, is worth more than 1000 words. It literally could tell 1000 stories.

EGG: Beyond the art, let’s talk about some of the other names working on this. Ed Greenwood of Forgotten Realms fame, James Haeck of Critical Role, and Elisa Teague of Crooked Moon, to name a few. What is each contributing to the final project?
: The leadership team decided that we’d start with Emily’s art, and then from there move into stories. What sort of stories were best told in this mysterious and deadly land, with these bizarre and dangerous creatures? So I wanted to reach out to some of the most creative fantasy writers I knew, not just for their game design credentials, but for their narrative and worldbuilding vision. The three you mention are brilliant, and have proven so over several projects. Dael Kingsmill is one of the smartest people I know in dissecting and explaining mythology and stories. Erin Roberts has worked on many projects for Wizards of the Coast and others, but I became familiar with her work through Ghostfire Gaming—and she also teaches fiction writing. Bryan Steele has a long list of credits in the industry as well, and has a great insight into melding narrative and mechanics. My mandate to them was simple: take this art, imagine this unexplored and dangerous land, and write me a story. Write me the story you would want to tell, or experience, if you were playing a game in Strangehollow. And then we took what they’ve written, and we figured out what rules we could create to make all that happen in a 5e game. I’ve worked on way, way, way too many RPG projects. And this one is, right now, one of the most unique experiences thanks to these great creators. I fall asleep at night thinking Strangehollow, and I wake up in the morning thinking about Strangehollow. And I probably dream about it too.

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EGG: The press release states: “Surviving Strangehollow was imagined and created by the artist Emily Hare.” What’s the collaboration between amazing artist and industry legends been like?
: It’s been a lot of fun, and very instructive for everyone involved. Emily’s chatted with us, both on the worldbuilding team but also on the business side. I’ve learned about the art process thanks to Emily, and Emily’s learned about the game design part of the project. For example, when turning Emily’s creatures into 5e monsters, I tried to explain that designers rely on details to help make the creatures unique, both narratively and mechanically. A monster with one eye is going to have different stat block than the same creature with two eyes, and that is different from the same monster if it has three eyes. Those differences are what we designers look for to provide DMs with interesting and unique tools and potential stories.

EGG: This project is a who’s who of modern D&D creators. That said, with this amount of talent in the room, how do you drive focus on a single concept? I mean, these designers could craft endless worlds of play. How do you keep them focused on this idea, or did you leave room for original options and new directions?
: So often we designers don’t get to really let loose with our imaginations. So I wanted to give the team the freedom to tell the stories they wanted to tell, with the art and just a few concepts acting as the prompts and guiding principles. And it was interesting to see the directions they went. Everyone is telling a different story in a different style, but there are a few overriding themes. Transformation was a big one. Dreams was another. That told me these concepts are going to be an important part of adventuring in Strangehollow, and that some design effort needed to go in those directions.

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EGG: The creative freedom sounds outstanding. Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast recently let some extremely talented creators go as part of their cost cutting initiative. Some of the talent on this book, including yourself, have WotC listed on their resume. As part of this project, were you able to employ any of the recently downsized WotC employees?
: When we were getting to the rules’ writing and development side of the project, and these great ideas started flowing in, based on the fiction and the worldbuilding, I realized it was going to be a challenge. We’d need some top-notch designers. When Dan Dillon because available after his years of great work at Wizards—and before that Kobold Press and elsewhere—I could not reach out to him fast enough. Dan is providing so much insight, imagination, and knowledge to this project. There will likely be more names of designers added to the project, once we’re able to determine the final scope of the project based on crowdfunding.

EGG: Dan is a great individual to add to your team, for sure. Beyond Surviving Strangehollow, what else are you working on? Anything from Ghostfire Gaming?
: I’m still contracted with Ghostfire to provide work on a number of projects. The projects I’ve been leading, like Grim Hollow: The Monster Grimoire, Arora: Age of Desolation, and Raider’s Guide to Valika are either published already or in the printing and shipping stages. Lairs of Etharis got to D&D Beyond successfully. So I’m doing writing, design, and development on a few projects for Ghostfire that I didn’t lead, but it’s not in a lead role. And that, thankfully, gave me the opportunity to work on Surviving Strangehollow.

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EGG: Thanks for talking with me. Where can fans learn more about this project and your work?
: The Kickstarter for Surviving Strangehollow launched on March 5th and can be found here. You can find out more about me by checking out my two podcasts: Mastering Dungeons with Teos Abadia [and] The Eldritch Lorecast with Ghostfire Gaming.

Surviving Strangehollow: Hand-painted 5E by a Legendary Team from Accidental Cyclops Games
  • “Hand-painted art, new rules, & unforgettable stories for 5E+ by Ed Greenwood, Shawn Merwin, James Haeck, Dan Dillon, and many more.”
Egg Embry participates in the OneBookShelf Affiliate Program, Noble Knight Games’ Affiliate Program, and is an Amazon Associate. These programs provide advertising fees by linking to DriveThruRPG, Noble Knight Games, and Amazon.

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Egg Embry

Egg Embry


Cool, thanks for sharing, I’ll check out the Kickstarter as well….backing at the $30 PDFs level is a no brainer for me!
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