Trey Causey's Strange Stars setting book has finally hit the virtual stands both in PDF and print form. Having watched this product grow from a wee germinal of an idea--and had any number of rambling, tangential conversations with Trey along the way--I feel entirely to close to give the book a decent, critical review. (But really you should buy this thing, it's one of the best pieces to come out of the tsunami wave of DIY hobbyist products in recent months).
A little more interesting is to
open that conversation stream a little to a broader audience (as I did with his Weird Adventures) to hear
the what and why that went into the making of SS.
Hill Cantons: Let's talk Strange
Stars. I will admit to being deeply fascinated watching you
grow these worlds and products bit by bit from the floor level via
posts on your blog, From the Sorcerer's Skull. The sepia/black and
white images and little digressions that came out with Weird
Adventures sucked me in and kept me pulling for you all the
way to press time. Tell me about how SS came to be and how it developed
on the blog. What moved you to do this and what was the process like
doing it in this slow reveal-by-blog type way?
Trey Causey: With doing a blog six days a week at one point
(now roughly five), I spend a lot of time brainstorming/daydreaming
content. I had toyed with a couple of science fictional concepts that
didn’t quite take off (though I’d sort of like to return to them
one day) like an alt-history pulp space and a science fantasy Greek
mythology thing. One sort of fun (I thought) but largely throwaway
post I did was on Talislanta as a space opera setting. That post got
some positive feedback, which always tends to prompt me to expand on
an idea a bit more.
I got maybe three more posts out of it and in the comments to one
of those, Brutorz Bill of the Green Skeleton Gaming Guild suggested I
ought to do my own sci-fi thing, like “Weird Adventures in Space.”
Thinking about doing my own thing (but with Talislanta Space ideas
still in my brain), I wound up writing the first of the Strange Stars
posts—though it didn’t have that name or any name, at that point.
It grew from there, becoming more and more its own thing as it went
on. Ten posts and about a month later, it was christened “Strange
As anything would that’s developed in bite-size bits over a
period of a couple of years, Strange Stars sort of lurched in
somewhat different directions at times. The earliest posts are trying
hard to rationalize science fantasy concepts into something a little
harder sci-fi. Then there came a bit of weirdness probably inspired
by Prophet and revisiting old issues of Heavy Metal, and here
and there, small doses of “serious” science fiction brought on by
my reading Alistair Reynolds and Charles Stross. All the time though,
I knew I wanted it to mix the stuff I read in modern science fiction
novels with the stuff I saw in mid-60s to mid-80s sci-fi comics,
films, and paperback covers. The aesthetic was always important—which
is often a frustrating thing when you are not yourself an artist.
HC: We've talked a good deal one on one about immersive worldbuilding and setting work as part of the DIY rpg scene--both of
us seeming to fall down on being fans of those kinds of efforts. I
rather like how SS hits a sweet spot balance: it's unashamedly and
purely about setting/worldbuilding but it breaks info-dump down into
tiny bites and leaves a lot of evocative questions off stage. How do
you see SS fitting into the discussion of so-called Special Snowflake settings?
TC: Looking at the stuff produced on blogs and in
publications by the DIY crowd we’re both somewhat associated with,
I think it’s clear people like setting stuff, despite what’s
sometimes said about it in the abstract. I think the real issue isn’t
“setting versus no setting” but the suggestive leanness of a pulp
fiction novella versus the over-elaboration of a multi-volume,
doorstop fantasy epic.
The debate often framed as “setting detail versus freedom” is
really something more like “inspiring setting versus constraining
setting.” If I'm right, and the second issue is the real one, then
there are things we can do about it. The traditional, prose heavy
ways of delivering setting information are the prevailing style, not
necessarily the best way to do it. I wanted to try something at least
a bit different.
There’s always a balance to be sought, though. The things
that some people complain about regarding settings are exactly the
things other people like about them. I got minor complaints about
stuff that Weird Adventures didn’t address, and I don’t
doubt I will get some of that with Strange Stars which leaves
even larger lacunae. Sometimes I left things out due to space
considerations, and other times because I hadn’t thought to include
it. What I would really love to see is Strange Stars not as
one special snowflake, but a number of them because people take it
and come up with totally different stuff to fill in those holes. I
want to read a G+ or a blog post and catch myself thinking: “but--but
that’s not how I would do it at all!”
HC: The Terran Trade
Authority and Galactic
Encounter books of the late 1970s were huge aesthetic
influences on my young brain (as were the Star Wars fan booklets and
comics). Classic Traveller was free of any illustrations for years
and those books filled in the blanks. There clearly seems some
linkage to those image-rich books in your inspiration stew. Can you
tell me about that and the other inspiration points?
TC: There is, indeed. The Galactic Encounters book, Aliens in
Space, was the only one of these I read in childhood, but it made
quite an impression. I bought it a few years ago and a couple of
books from imitator series. I have also always been a fan of
reference works for fictional worlds (particularly well-done,
fan-made ones) like the Star Fleet Technical Manual, and the
Starfleet Medical Reference Manual, but also more recent
things like the image-heavy Dorling Kindersley Star Wars and
Star Trek books. Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials
is there, too. A lot of 70s comics like The Legion of Superheroes
by Grell and Cockrum, and stuff by Chaykin and Starlin were on my
A lot of these things have design aesthetics that seem a bit silly
at times, perhaps. Certainly they never seem “cutting edge.” That
was part of the reason I liked them and wanted to draw from them. The
future is never going to be exactly how we view it in the present;
like the past, it’s a different country. Using outdated styles, I
feel like, gets us past what’s currently cool in to something just
a bit alienating—like the real future is likely to be. Also, I
wanted the future to seem “lived in” and grubby, but again not
the lived in and grubby of dystopian futures of the 2000s. The
seventies is the point where science fiction first moved from sterile
and shiny to grubby and worn, visually.
HC: Layout and design wise SS is impressive for a one-man DIY
outfit. What did it take to get it to that point?
TC: Thanks. Mostly, I would say it took the technical acumen of
Lester B. Portly. Before that, though, the conception was a long time
in coming. I had been sort of trying to write something “Strange
Stars” since late 2013, but it just wasn’t flowing. Sometime in
early 2014, I got the idea to do a whole setting book in pictures.
I’m sure it wasn’t from nowhere; there was probably some
discussion on G+ or something that inspired it.
Anyway, this panel in
Prophet was the first thing I thought of.
I realized, of course, I wasn’t going to be able to afford
enough art to do a whole setting book like that, so I looked to the
Dorling Kindersley books as the primary model. I put sample pages
from several of those, and sample pages from some pages from comic
books like DC Secret Files and Handbook of the Marvel
Universe and started talking to Lester. His initial thought was
that what I wanted was too expensive, but was willing to provide his
help to paring it down.
Once we had a vague idea of the basic
template (which Lester would keep refining as we went on), I picked
out the fonts I wanted and made a style guide. Before the design was
finalized, I already had the artist working on the images. The first
few pages (the Vokun and Alliance spreads) were the hardest, but
after that we pretty much had it down.
HC: You have some mechanically-minded supplements coming up the
pike that will translate SS into something that can be run straight
out of the box. Tell me about those.
TC: I knew from early on that I wanted to do implementations of
the setting in multiple systems. John Till of Fate SF stepped up and
offered his services to do the Fate supplement, and he’s been
putting a lot of work into it. I think Fate fans will be pleased. I’m
compiling and rounding out the Stars Without Number based stats that
I used with most of the blog posts in the setting, plus adding some
random generators for orbital habitats, adventures, and the
I got an email the other day from a guy wanting to do a
Traveller supplement; I would love to see that and anything else that
gets somebody fired up enough to do it.
HC:So what's next? What other projects have you been mulling?
TC: So many possibilities, so little time! I’ve got science
fiction/science fantasy jones at the moment. I’d like to compile my
Baroque Space (space travel in a solar system governed by alchemical
science) posts and maybe go back and do the same with Gods, Demigods
& Strangeness (the Greek myth thing I mentioned). The past couple
of days, I’ve been contemplating a Heavy Metal –style
psychedelic space opera universe design kit. I would love if Strange
Stars was so successful that I was able to do a deluxe edition
with pages and more art.
Of course, there’s my
Baum/Dunsany/Adventure Time Land of Azurth campaign—and the
Weird Adventures Companion that I want to get out before I
die. That’s about all the dreaming for this month.