ESCAPE TO NEW YORK
Few RPG debuts have caught our attention in recent times like ALTNYC88 has, a glorious mix of pop culture, urban legends and fast paced action that hits like a subway train. John Power Jr goes looking for Pontus Björlin, the Swedish artist behind it all.
A 2000 year old Rutger Hauer haunts the graffiti covered streets, whilst beneath his feet secret dojos turn out silent masked killers who vie for control of the subways and sewers against gangs of mutants, cultists and giant hovering eyeballs. Welcome to the fevered world of Swedish artist and games designer Pontus Björlin and his new RPG ALTNYC88.
Released last year as a 20 page zine ALTNYC88 is a shot of rocket fuel for the imagination. A rules light, action heavy game of gang warfare beneath a New York that has been pieced together like some pop cultural collage from third hand VHS movies, indie comics and urban legends.
It’s the kind of game that will have you dreaming up new scenarios and NPCs before you’ve turned the last page, helped in no small part by Björlin’s art and design. Filled with high energy marker pen sketches that bring the setting to life, ALTNYC88 is as much an art project as game, the kind of zine that you find yourself relentlessly proselytizing about.
With no other gaming credits to his name Björlin and ALTNYC88 seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. Fans of a good mystery we broke open a steaming manhole cover and headed underground in search of answers...
Wyrd Science: So what originally caught my eye with ALTNYC88 was the artwork. It has this very loose energy to it, a kind of 80s indie comics feel. But then you pay a bit more attention and you notice nods to things like Massimo Vignelli’s NY subway designs and how well it’s all laid out, so what’s your artistic background?
Pontus Björlin: Well, I’ve been a comic buff since my early years and basically learned how to draw by imitating them. As a kid that would be whatever I had access to, so things like Donald Duck, MAD Magazine, Tintin, Valerian and Bamse. That’s a Swedish comic book character from the 70s and 80s, the creator Rune Andreasson was a storytelling genius when it comes to sequential art and had a moral backbone I deeply admire.
Then in my early teens I found Simon Bisley, Frank Miller, Dave McKean, Geoff Darrow and other big names in the comic scene of the early 90s. A few years later I got into Moebius, Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware and in my early twenties I read Lone Wolf and Cub by Goseki Kojima and Kasue Koike. That epic story shares my number one spot of “best comic ever” with Moebius’ The Airtight Garage. It’s around 5000 pages of story and that ending when Daigoro attacks the head of the Yagyu clan, who then embraces him and whispers “grandson of my heart”. To this day it brings tears to my eyes…
For a few years around the millennium I worked in the IT-industry and then finally got accepted into Konstfack (Stockholm’s University of Art, Crafts and Design) and got a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in graphic design and illustration. By then my list of influences had grown to include contemporary Graphic Designers and illustrators.
I then didn’t draw or paint for almost 15 years. My illustration professor said that was common for “my type”. Young men who were used to being the best at drawing in any context but then start higher education where super heroes and nerd culture is frowned upon, stop completely and start to do conceptual graphic design instead. So I started to paint Warhammer minis again, partly just to annoy my fellow stuck up hipster design students, haha!
WS: On your Instagram page you experiment with quite a few different mediums, from pen & pencil to acrylics, inks and even things like woodwork. What’s your preferred medium?
PB: I’m really good at drawing but my painting, inking, rendering skills are not at the same level, so I’d have to say pencil and paper is my number one. I need to be spontaneous, fast and trust my hands instead of my conscious brain to get good results and a regular pencil allows me to do that.
But apart from what I find easy to use, there are many mediums that I just like the look of. I would use Copic brush pens, I do that a lot for black and white commissions, Posca pens, fluorescent markers, scissors and glue, different coloured and textured paper and just regular acrylics too. I like to do different things, for me it’s all about the eye-candy aspect of it.
I want things to have a feeling of inspired enthusiasm and a, sort of, magic to them. When I was six years old my mom got me a subscription to the Donald Duck Magazine. At that point there was a recurring advert in it for the Transformers toys. An illustration of this high-tech pyramid structure with all the Autobots flying out of it and the Decepticons attacking from above. I stared at it for hours, trying to figure out how it had been done, but when I looked too closely all I could see was the CMYK grid of the offset print.
It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. It was witchcraft to me! My overall goal is to evoke that feeling, and I’ll use whatever I have available.
WS: So what’s your method when you’re creating your more fantastical pictures, do you set out with something very clear in mind or is it more of a spontaneous process?
PB: In the execution, like drawing the actual lines, I try to be spontaneous and just go where my hand dictates. In fact I’ve been doing more and more work without sketching lately, just ink on paper. But when it comes to motifs and themes I plan a lot and have notes in my phone of “cool things that I want to draw/paint at some point”.
Composition and colour often has to be reworked. I try to think about those things when I sketch but you can only plan so much. I usually change things around to get a good composition, and I like to be analog with this, cutting out things and move them around the paper, or glueing new sketches on top. I do very little photoshop editing, just colours, white and black point, lens correction, I don’t have a scanner, straightening out crumbled paper and such.
When I make art for risography printing there’s a bit more digital work. I draw all the colours on different papers on a lightbox. I then assemble it all in photoshop, doing one set of layers in black and white and one with the actual colours of the riso-inks with a multiply blending mode to get a preview of the final result.
WS: The ALTNYC88 zine itself feels a little like an art project, how important was it for you for it to be a physical object, and specifically to be riso-printed?
PB: I wanted it to be a physical object for sure, that is sort of where I excel you know, the look and feel, the visual communication of graphics and objects. I’m not an experienced writer so the text alone could’t really compete I think. The fact that it’s riso-printed was an accident. I was talking to a friend at a party last summer and it turned out he has a risograph-printer at home. I had to seize that opportunity.
WS: With ALTNYC88 what came first the art or the idea for the game itself?
PB: The idea for the game came first. About a year after I got back into RPGs I started writing games together with my neighbour Petter and his co-workers Ambika and David. We call ourselves Hornhand and have a whole bunch of cool projects in the works.
In the summer of 2019 me and David where driving home to Stockholm from Öland. Its a 7 hour drive and we were taking about game settings and systems and David mentioned that he, perhaps after seeing The Warriors, once wrote a set of rules for gang life and gang relations.
That kind of sparked the idea for the setting for me, mixing it up with old [Teenage Mutant Ninja] Turtles comics, Escape from New York and a bit of Frank Miller’s Daredevil run. Then we just kept talking and developed ideas from there. I wrote a little bit when we got home and David started writing an adventure, but we never finished anything. Then a year later I met the dude with the risograph-printer and this was the thing I had closest to being finished, so… I finished it.
WS: In a short space it creates a pretty evocative setting and feels like a love letter to a, fictional, New York, one that’s probably very familiar to anyone who grew up on trashy straight to VHS films and comics from the 80s and early 90s.
PB: Thing is, those themes are so deeply embedded in our shared pop-culture DNA. I’ve only seen The Warriors once, I wasn’t a Turtles fan growing up, some of my friends had action figures, but I only learned about Kevin Eastman much later through Bisley’s Melting Pot series. I think I have seen Escape from New York once.
I’m not American, I’ve been to New York City three times as a tourist, I was heavily into graffiti as a teenager but never much into hip hop culture. But still, the concept was so clear to me that I could write a setting about it.
WS: The game has its own light but perfectly functional, fast and furious system, was it important for you to write mechanics specifically for this setting rather than say make it work with an existing one?
PB: People with more experience in game design kept telling me that it is important for the system to support the setting, even though I didn’t really understand what that meant.
I hadn’t played RPGs for over 20 years and then a coworker got me back into it and, me being me, instead of looking for cool games to play, I started writing games.
As I didn’t really know any systems except Basic Role-Playing the thought never occurred to me to write it for an existing rule set. My colleague did a good job however to introduce me back into the hobby. He sent me shitloads of stuff to read.
One of the first games he showed me was Dogs in the Vineyard, which was kind of mind-blowing for someone who had only ever seen generic fantasy BRPs 20 years ago. I think I have him to thank for ALTNYC88 being fairly modern and slimmed down in terms of rules.
WS: What was the Swedish RPG scene like growing up were you playing a lot of imported games or was there a big homegrown title?
PB: When I was, perhaps, 11 or 12 years old two friends of mine started playing games with one of their older brothers and his buddies. Stuff like Warhammer and different RPGs. It trickled down to me and I got into it too and started gaming groups of my own.
The RPG scene in Sweden started in the early eighties when a bunch of students learned about D&D, started a publishing company called Äventyrsspel (Adventure Games) and made their own fantasy RPG.
The rules where inspired by Runequest and the name by D&D. It was called Drakar och Demoner (Dragons and Demons) and since it was sold not only in gaming stores but in toy stores too the RPG hobby got huge in Sweden.
They put a really iconic Michael Wheelan painting of Elric of Melniboné on the cover which I guess helped. In general the graphic design of those games was really cool. I played Drakar och Demoner a lot, but also the first edition of KULT, another Swedish game called Mutant, Star Wars, Call of Cthulhu and Nephillim. In the nineties more games came out and I guess more people started playing international titles.
I was also really into Warhammer and I still have a passion for miniatures and building terrain features and landscapes. There’s something about that world-creating that just makes me tick…
My passion for fantastic storytelling has always been based on visuals. Comics and art is a huge part of it for me because I have had such mind blowing experiences with visual arts. I remember seeing the cover and first few pages of Bisley and Pat Mills’ Sláine - The Horned God for the first time. I could not believe that anyone could create something so cool. It was magic to me.
WS: Over the past few years Sweden has become a major international force in roleplaying games, any thought as to why that is?
PB: I don’t know why really. I don’t know if the RPG hobby is bigger in Sweden than other countries. Perhaps it was in the eighties thanks to Äventyrsspel, and now all the kids from that era are in their forties and have cash and time again, so we’re getting back into old passions and starting to publish things.
Many of them, us, have done other things, been out of the hobby for a long time and are now bringing new ideas to the table. I infuse a lot of my RPG stuff with ideas I’ve picked up in design school, in my career as an art director, and from a myriad of other cultural impressions - books, comics, films, design and music that have nothing or very little to do with, for example, fantasy or sci-fi.
WS: How connected are you to other writers and artists on the Swedish scene?
PB: Fria Ligan is obviously the biggest publisher in Sweden, and then there’s smaller publishers and groups. Stockholm Kartell, Helmgast, Bläckfisk Förlag, Eloso to name a few. And of course independent creatives such as myself and Hornhand when it gets going. But I’m not really part of a community. I’m not very active on any forums. I’ve gotten to know a few of the Stockholm Kartell guys, and some other people who are active on Instagram, but basically managing my Instagram account is enough for me.
WS: The recently released adventure, Free Willy, was billed as just part 1 of Dr Zeke’s Garments, so what’s next for ALTNYC88?
PB: Dr. Zeke’s Garments Part II is in the making. It’ll be like a dungeon printed on a huge poster and it will, hopefully if I can afford it, have another very special feature to it that I don’t want to spoil just yet …
Editor's note - since this interview was first published this new scenario, now titled Dear Mr. Tank Cop is now on sale and Pontus is right it does come with a very special feature, see below!
WS: And beyond ALTNYC88, what else are you working on?
PB: Oh, I’ve got so much going on! I create way more than I play. I’ve done art for a really cool Dungeon Crawl Classics funnel called Blackout in Crater Valley and I’m also writing and illustrating a piece for the next, upcoming issue of the Night Yeast Zine
Then I’m just about to start printing my friend David’s RPG called Life & Death at Freedom Penitentiary, that’s a dark prison setting. It’s gonna be really cool, riso-printed on yellow paper with really intense artwork and a layout inspired by forms and legal documents. It looks like the Swedish tax-return papers, haha.
I also have my ongoing magnum opus: Fantastisk Fiktion the Roleplaying Game. A wacked out science fantasy setting with a fast, light system. I’m just mixing up and making a mess of all the things I like. It’s like Borges writing for Masters of the Universe.
And in time I want to get into comics too, writing and drawing a modern super hero / alternative history story set in Stockholm. Released in 32 page riso-zines, one of those runs that just goes on and on forming a huge story line…
You can order copies of ALTNYC88 (including the Dear Mr. Tank Cop scenario) from: fantastiskfiktion.etsy.com
This feature originally appeared in Wyrd Science Vol.1 / Issue 2