The following is an interview between Curse of Sebs, the Werebear of Hype, and Jess Pendley, one half of Underground Oracle Publishing.
Curse of Sebs: How did you and Keith come to be working together?
Jess Pendley: We met when I came to college. He owned a game store that I started frequenting and was running a lot of different ttrpgs for people. I ended up in his games and everything just sort of clicked. We’ve been natural collaborative partners since we met. We really get each other and we both have strengths that fill in for the other’s weaknesses. Keith is this creative force that is just a constant whirlwind of new ideas and stories and I’m more mechanical and able to step back and funnel things in the direction of a working supplement. We’ve created some very awesome things together.
CoS: I used to run a wargaming tumblr blog with some friends, but I’m having much more fun now focusing on reviews and find the TTRPG/ D&D community much more friendly and supportive. How did you find going from running Comic Crux and dealing with the endless amounts of comic book news to running The Underground Oracle and writing for 5e?
JP: It’s really night and day because all of our work is entirely creative and it’s completely our own, which is amazing. As much fun as we had with Comics Crux and as many friends I made in the process, we were still reporting on and critiquing what other people were doing. Everything was from a consumer’s perspective rather than a creative one. The switch has been awesome.
CoS: The Underground Oracle is a very evocative and interesting name that describes the website and what you and Keith do really well. Can you tell me where it came from, what it means to you, and are there any other names that nearly made the cut that stand out?
JP: There were so many! It’s hard to remember all of the ones that we almost used. We have a really rapid-fire way of working with each other, so we’ll just shotgun names at each other until one hits just right. But The Underground Oracle is actually one that Keith has been kicking around in his head since he was a teenager. He and his friend Brent came up with it when they were kids and they forgot about it for years, but it resurfaced just in time. It’s perfect for us.
CoS: The quality of the elements of the website, the writing, flavor, art and design, as well as linking PDFs to Scribd, are all extremely high and generous. I greatly admire the decision to make everything posted on the website free. Can you please explain your decision to operate in this manner, rather than working with DMs Guild or Drivethru RPG, and do you have any plans for paid supplements in the future such as a guide to the setting the website content is based on, collections of items, subclasses etc, or adventures and/ or campaigns?
JP: Thank you so much! We’ve been working on this in one form or another for over a decade and it means so much to get that sort of feedback on something that’s so important to us. But to your question, it was something that we knew that we wanted to do right from the jump. We wanted to make sure that if someone likes our work but doesn’t have the extra cash to pay for something that week that they can go to our site and still get quality materials for free. Of course, we want to make a living and keep supporting this endeavor, so we’ll have paid materials too, but we want to earn the community’s trust and show people our passion and quality. We think that will bleed into people supporting our paid supplements when they can.
We’re planning some upcoming paid releases on DriveThruRPG, various player and GM options that will be larger versions of what we’re offering for free on the site as well as things we haven’t done yet. Collections of creatures, items, expanded locations, mini-settings, all sorts of exciting stuff. And of course, we’re building everything toward the eventual goal of releasing our own campaign setting.
CoS: There is a clear vision to the art used in your posts. It’s evocative, vibrant and really serves to visualize the subject of the post. How did you come up with your signature style, and how have you managed to maintain the vision working with multiple artists? Also, how did you come upon your artists and, apologies for how personal this is, how does the free nature of all your creations work with acquiring art?
JP: We’ve been incredibly lucky to work with the artists that we have. Anderson Maia and Victor Benitez Morales are the two that we’ve featured on the site as of this interview, but we also have unreleased materials with art from Alex Pushkarev, Mike Tenebrae, and Yorsy Hernandez. They all have such particular styles and such amazing talent. It took a lot of internet scouring through art station and ttrpg forums to find people that we clicked with. Keith has really been the one that’s led the direction of the art and made sure that even while working with such different styles there’s still this tone that runs through it that fits our vision and world. We’re definitely overjoyed that it’s being reflected in the work.
The art is definitely an investment. We’ve released a couple of articles that we’ve used paid stock art for but so far it’s been mostly original pieces to fit the materials. We’re hoping to continue to do that and we’re hoping that our passion for quality in the materials will shine through and pay off in the end. We’ve both been fans of ttrpgs since we were kids and the art was always such an important part of that for both of us. We’re hoping that our vision and world will resonate with people in the same way.
CoS: You mentioned the eventual goal of releasing a setting guide. Can you please tell me about your setting? What aspects set it apart from the default 5e setting of the Forgotten Realms and the other canon settings?
JP: Yes! Like any good gamer, I can talk about our setting until I pass out. It’s called Quaseloth and it’s the culmination of years of hard work and design. It started as a basic setting that Keith created during games he was running for me and some of our friends in college and I absolutely fell in love with it. Above all else, Keith is an amazing storyteller and that was something that shone through so brightly. It was just rife with potential. Since then it’s gone through countless iterations and we’ve both really shaped it into what it is today, but that amazing core that Keith created is still there. We’re planning on releasing it bit by bit through future supplements, so by the time we actually launch a full campaign guide we want people as hooked as we are.
If I had to describe the overarching tone of the Quaseloth, it would be “high adventure”, but the real beauty of it is that you can play nearly any sort of fantasy game within it. I think that’s what makes it so special is the depth and layers and just how real and immersive it is. There’s areas and creatures and peoples to support almost any concept. I think the only things we’ve steered clear of are guns and spaceships. We’re sticklers for keeping those out of Quaseloth as far as our games go, but we’re supportive of future players who want to add whatever elements they love.
CoS: How do you approach writing for UO? How does it feel sharing a world and having such a clear vision to work on? How does each of you feel about sharing the world and working within it together? Have there been any moments when you’ve had to reign each other in?
JP: We have to reign each other in constantly! We’re a creative writing team and I don’t think those can exist without passionate debates and occasionally hurt feelings. Our visions of how Underground Oracle should produce and what we produce are pretty well in line, but there are certain areas where we clash. As I’ve mentioned previously, Keith is a storyteller, so if he’s unobstructed he would attach at least five pages of in-depth lore and world-building into every single article we produce. Ten years of working in the computer industry means that I can occasionally be too brief and mechanical. But we balance each other out really well. There’s no one else I would rather work this closely with and he feels the same.
Even though the flavor and lore and direction for everything we are totally in sync on, our actual approach to the creation of our supplements is very different. Keith is always working on twelve things at once and bounces back and forth at any hour of the day or night. I like to work on one thing at a time. Maybe I’ll work on the mechanics and conceptualization of one thing while I’m writing another, but I’m generally very task-oriented. The fact we do have such a clear direction and vision for the world is probably the only thing that keeps us sane and on track.
CoS: You have a very clear schedule for releases of your varied elements. How do you make choices over what to work on and the order of release? Is there one of you that prefers a particular aspect or do you share the load?
JP: It’s always hard to decide what we want slotted when, because the moment we finish something we want to show everyone the cool thing we just made. We generally argue out the release order of things together. I do the heavy lifting on editing and layout, Keith handles the art direction, and the writing duties are fairly even. It’s hard to say that one of us does more in one area than another, but if I had to choose something I would say Keith is more drawn toward the lore heavy supplements and I’m slightly better at the archetype design and the crunchier elements.
CoS: The things you write for your world can easily be used by DMs and players in all sorts of settings. Do you see yourselves keeping to your world or do you have any ideas to branch out? If so do you think you would experiment with existing settings and planes, or do you have more worlds planned to expand the UO universe?
JP: Since we’re a 3rd party publisher, we have to stay away from any existing IP, but we honestly have so much material that it would be hard to imagine not using our own original stuff. Our fantasy setting supports the endless creation of planes or pocket planes, so if there’s an idea we want to approach that we haven’t yet, it’s very easy to tackle and still keep the flavor of our core setting.
As far as non-fantasy settings, we’ve got a few in the pipeline that we’re very pumped about. Once we get further along and have garnered the support to warrant it, we have a pretty exciting collection of worlds that we’ve created over the years to release.
CoS: What has the response been like? I know I’ve been blown away and there has been a great deal of support from the Domille’s Wondrous Works discord, other creators and humble reviewers like myself, but what have you experienced on the website and socials? Can you share any advice that you have learned from your experiences?
JP: We are definitely still pretty small fish, but we’re producing like the big fish we’d like to be. Honestly, finding the Domille’s Wondrous Works discord was amazing. Getting validation of our work from fellow creatives is such a great gift, and we’ve met so many fantastic and positive people like you in the community. We know our work is good, but it can be disheartening to work and work and then feel like no one is getting the opportunity to be exposed to it. That’s probably the biggest thing we’ve learned so far. To quote @mrvalorisalive, “It’s literally about consistency and being too stubborn to stop.”
It’s very hard some days, but we know we have the work ethic and the quality, so we’re just waiting for the rest to come.
CoS: I know there were some folx creeped out by the parasites, but personally I love the creepy and strange and admire you delving into that sort of thing. Do you have any other freaky interesting ideas I should…keep an ear out for? Have there been any ideas too extreme for the website that you might want to share?
JP: I love the parasites so much! That supplement is one of the ones I’m most proud of so far. Once one of us gets an idea into our heads, if the other one is on board there is a 0% chance that we’re not putting it out there, for good or for bad. We definitely have some things coming up that are particularly strange and a few that might be a little off-putting, but so far neither of us has come up with something so extreme that the other has had to stop it.
Maybe next Halloween we can up the fear factor?