May 6, 2024

Stars of the VTT Galaxy #15: Wild Magic Surge

12 min read - Published: 12 days ago

Greetings Forge community, and welcome to the fifteenth edition of our Stars of the VTT Galaxy series. This regular interview series is meant to shine a light on the already bright stars that make up our community of Bazaar Creators.

Their amazing content ranges from animated tokens, overlays, and animated spells to weather FX. Whatever the game or occasion, they have content to make it better. We're honored to introduce you to Graham, a prolific artist behind Wild Magic Surge.

Our sky consists of many stars. Each of them illuminating our planet. As you can guess, the stars are you. Yes, it's you, the great content creators who, in your own unique way, shine on our worlds. Thank you for being part of our heavenly sky and weaving the fabric of our Community.
Let's meet today's star.

Introduce yourself. For those who don’t know what you do, what would you describe yourself as doing for a living?

Graham: Hi. My name is Graham. I'm a part-time film compositor. Now, I use those skills to make animated tokens and overlays. I worked on many Marvel TV shows, movies, and kids' cartoons like Paw Patrol, True and the Rainbow Kingdom, and Sesame Street.

I used to specialize in spell tokens for DnD, however, my animated overlays and weather FX are more popular, so now I focus on both.

What’s one random fact about you?

Graham: I lived in Beijing, China for 2 years, teaching animation and 3D modeling.
Also, I used to do a lot of Yoga, and I was recently certified as a Yoga teacher.

How did you get started creating TTRPG content?

Graham: Honestly, it was the pandemic. I was at home and bored, and I had been working on tokens for my home game. My wife said: "You should try and sell them".

So two weeks later my store was up, and the first month I made 30 bucks. I was so excited, it was amazing! I could not believe people wanted to use my art and I was like "That's two cases of beer!". Now, years later, it pays my rent and all my bills.

This was my first pack:

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Animated Assortment of Tokens 1

How did you end up getting into creating content for Foundry VTT?

Graham: I got into Foundry VTT from the TTRPG Creators Guild.
I did not understand it, but KaKaRoTo, The Forge's founder, literally held my hand. I believe we even video-chatted at one point, he walked me through how to set it up. Never met someone so understanding and patient.

How has Wild Magic Surge evolved since its inception? From this point of view, are you satisfied with everything you have achieved so far?

Graham: WMS has evolved in ways I could not predict, like weather/overlays being more popular. Like I said before, the art has gotten better, and I learned new programs and better pipelines. I have been trying to steer it towards spell tokens again because a new addition of DnD is coming out and there should be a surge of popularity again.

I am very satisfied with the way things turned out. I made some mistakes that caused me to burn out and destroyed my mental health. But I have a healthier understanding of my time, values, and health now.

Where does the inspiration come from in the work you do? Or perhaps, your “muse”?

Graham: I get inspiration from nature. I will sit and watch how rain falls into a puddle and how snow drifts in the wind, and try and plan out how to do that on the computer.

My other inspiration is just hearing fans saying "I love your stuff. My only complaint is you making things too slow.". I try my best to never just push something out. I wanted to look at each asset in the game and be proud of how it looks.

What are your goals moving forward with your content?

Graham: I want to push the Foundry/Forge side of my content, and I have started a new partnership with Dragonshorn Studios to help me fully realize this. (After many failed attempts to learn to code, I have decided it's just not in the cards).

Secondly, I am learning new programs like Unreal 5 and almost looking into ways to improve quality and better ways to make art.

Your focus is on CGI and FX. Do you feel there was a particular need or gap for VFX artists in the RPG industry that you wanted to address? Or is it still about love and passion for it? Or both?

Graham: My focus and passion are more on the side of TTRPGs, and I only take film contracts when it's the absolutely right fit for me and my ADHD.

You create animated spells, tokens, props, and weather FX. So walk us through your creative process when conceptualizing and creating animated assets. How do you decide on the visual elements and effects for each piece?

Graham: I look for gaps in the market or plan packs around big releases, like when Rime of the Frostmaiden came out, I made an animated snow pack because I felt like people playing it would enjoy more immersion in that adventure that is in a cold climate. It paid off well, my animated snow is my best-selling back by a huge margin.

 Wild Magic Surge - Snowy Weather Effects

With the popularity of Dune, I have been thinking about another dust, dust storm, and tornado sand pack.

Another thing I think about is how it will look in-game, and I never make anything that does not loop seamlessly with no pop. I will test it on the correct background to make sure it looks good and is easy to read. I'll test Snow on a winter map, because the art may need a little orange or blue so the snow will be visible and not just white on white.
The number of times I have re-rendered a whole pack over and over because I was not happy is too darn high!😊

Do you have any rituals or routines that help you get into a creative mindset for your work?

Graham: I drop my daughter off at daycare, then have coffee, play one game of Hearthstone, and then work from 10ish until I go to bed, with breaks for food or playtime with my daughter.

Can you point to a particular project or piece that exemplifies the essence of your art? Let's say your favorite one.

Graham: I think the Animated spells, which have Black Tentacles and Arcane Hand, which I animated in Blender. The atmosphere and movement of the Tentacle and the silliness of the hand flick on the Arcane hand exemplify my art and personality and were just fun to make. I wish I could do more art like this, but that one pack took over a month to make.

Wild Magic Surge - Arcane Hand

And what's your least favorite piece of content you've created? (If it exists).😊

Graham: I think my animated Fey Overlays was my least favorite. I love the assets, but because of the amount of assets, It took me two weeks to upload to Roll20, and I was so frustrated and burnt out. I did not make anything for 6 months. I think that pack single-handedly pushed them to make upload improvements. And the pack does not sell well.

It took me 2 minutes to upload it to The Forge, lol.😊

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Fire Overlays

What challenges do you face when creating animated assets, and how do you overcome them to deliver high-quality content?

Graham: One challenge is the assets don't look like they do in After Effects. The way the VTTs handle transparency is different; it will always look less bright, and transparent things will look more muddy/grey.

Also compressing the video file leads to artifacts, blurs, or jagged edges so there is a lot of back-and-forth testing and guesswork. If the file size is too big, there will be lag, and if it's too small, it looks worse. Have to find a happy medium.

RPGs come in various systems and settings. Do you dedicate effort to ensure that your animated assets can seamlessly integrate into different systems, and if so, how?

Graham: I do not tell players how to use their assets, and I rarely make a pack that is for a specific system. This is very intentional. For example, in my frost pack, I made ice walls for DnD/Pathfinder but they are rendered very large, so if you want to just make an ice wall on your snow map to add some atmosphere, you can and should be able to resize it to fit most situations.

I urge people to be creative, and sometimes people send me stuff. I had a user send me a screencap of a fire spell token turned sideways to put on tents that caught fire. Very creative solution.

You recently launched your Patreon, with goodies like a free spell module. Can you tell us a little bit about it?

Graham: Yes, I re-launched my Patreon recently. I had a very successful Patreon a few years ago but I had panic attacks from overwork, and while in a haze, I deleted it. At the time, it felt like the correct move but I can't say for sure. I still feel bad for everyone who helped me grow my Patreon and anyone who felt hurt by my hasty action.

I am in a healthy mental state, and I have intentionally designed this new Patreon to have fewer assets at 2 a month with a focus on the spell module.

Additionally, assets will not be the focus but instead, the major focus will be the spell module. It will have as many updates as Rughalt and I can push out in a reasonable time frame. It feels like the best way to monetize and build a community with a focus on spells and free assets being added as well.

To start, it will be templated looping spells cast through token magic FX. At some point, we will be adding line spells using the sequencer, but our focus is templated spells to start.

The free version is in beta and has surprising functionality to template and cast DnD 5e spells, using asset packs bought on The Forge. Currently, only older packs are set up. We are really looking forward to feedback so we know where to focus our energy.

Wild Magic Surge - Free Module

Is there anything else you want to share or tell to your patrons?

Graham: Just that joining is helping me realize this dream, and focus more of my time on the content improving the overall experience of the module and future art.

Wild Magic Surge - Paid Module

Graham: Always learning, always taking risks. Trying to learn to code and failing led to a great partnership with Rughalt. Trying to learn PopcornFX and failing led me to learn Unreal, and I am now deep into it. And it's awesome.

You need to keep on top of technology changes. Programs change, and not always for the best. Search terms and tags are important as well.

How do you balance technical proficiency with artistic creativity in your work? Given the technical nature of animated assets, what tools and techniques do you find most effective in bringing your visions to life?

Graham: This is always the rub. You could be a great artist, but software knowledge is equally important. Looping always added extra time to my projects, and learning to do it correctly was a long learning curve but helped me stand out.

Use tools you can afford. I use After Effects because its monthly cost is relatively low. There are also great free options. It would be nice to use Maya but it's just not affordable. If you are interested in learning animation or making 3D art step up and learn Blender it's free and awesome. Start cheap or free, and slowly add plugins as you earn and grow. Techniques everyone should learn are the basics of keyframe animation and 3D modeling and texturing.

Do you have the opportunity/time to play games by yourself? If so, what game systems do you play? What VTT do you use?

Graham: I do, I have been DMing a bi-weekly DnD 5e game for 10 years, and it's been on The Forge for about 3-4 years. My group and I are on campaign 4 or 5. They are currently level 9 in a heavily home-brewed world that uses the Gestalt rules so everyone has a second class for every level of their base class, effectively level 18. The power level is off the charts, they are currently finding clues to find out how a Titan has subjected the world from the shadows, and they are fighting gods and other incredibly powerful monsters.

The spicy question- what is your favorite VTT to run on? What kind of improvements do you want to see in it?

Graham: Foundry VTT is currently my go-to. We had issues in the past where we had too many modules installed, and we had to learn that my group just prefers less automation, so now with modules that are almost all just for visuals, we are in a great spot and don't have any plans to move at the moment.

I would like to see the video natively work without modules, have videos visible in the asset browser, and improvements to how images/videos are added to templates or tokens. Animated assets are hugely popular anyway, they can improve visibility and performance would be awesome.

What is your opinion on AI, especially in the TTRPG space?

Graham: AI is leading to the markets being flooded with low-effort AI content where the best option is to use it as a tool, not the final product.

For example, in film, we use a thing called Matte painting which is just a flat image in the background. Many studios now use AI for this and, ethics aside, it's just easier and looks great, especially because it's far in the background and blurred. There are still 1000 hours going into the foreground models, animation lighting, FX, and compositing. It's just one small use of AI that may save the studio money. Many small studios have margins so low, that they break even on many projects.

Ethics aside, if it is a small portion of a project or film, that's the correct way to use it, no one wants to watch full AI movies. I just don't see it being good and maybe just soulless.

Are there any specific ethical considerations you think TTRPG creators should keep in mind when using AI or incorporating AI-generated content into their games? How do you navigate those ethical dilemmas?

Graham: I think there are ethical ways to use AI, like Adobe Firefly.
Midjourney has stolen from artists and there is no way to put that genie back in the bottle. While this does not feel good, I think people don't understand AI and much of the discourse is just  "AI bad!", where there is a lot more nuance to the subject.
I was on the fence about AI for a long time and had high hopes for UBI (universal basic income) to offset the cost that is disproportionately affecting artists. But I think UBI is never coming and AI may not lead to a better future.

Do you have anything you want to say to the greater TTRPG/VTT community?

Graham: Reach out to artists in the community, the vast majority just want to see you succeed and don't see you as competition. Most have the “Rising tide lifts all boats” mindset. Make your own community to help people grow. Discord, Reddit, and Twitter are great places to start.

The TTRPG community has been nothing but welcoming to me, even the OGs. Cze and Peku, Eightfold Paper, The MAD Cartographer, and Tom Cartos were so helpful and welcoming, giving tips, suggestions, and even brutally honest critiques.

What advice do you have for creators wanting to get into the VTT space?

Graham: Start as a hobby because it will not happen for everyone.
Take risks and try new things. I have been doing this for a long time now, and it is still hard to read the market. Sometimes you just have surprise hits that you just did not see coming. The market is oversaturated so you will have to find something to stand out.

What are your plans in general for the future as an RPG creator?

Graham: Doubling down on spells and hopefully, at some point, I'll be in a position where new artists look up to me, and I can be helpful in getting them into the space.

Thank you very much Graham for such great answers. I enjoyed doing this interview with you.

Graham: Thank you for doing this, it was fun.

Wild Magic Surge Patreon
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Wild Magic Surge Creator Page on The Forge