MONSTROUS ARCANA: GOBLINS & GARDENS
Whilst these days it is most commonly associated with divinatory practices, the Tarot began life in the salons of 15th century Italy where it was just another kind of playing card, so it’s perhaps apt that in recent years more and more games have begun to make use of it again.
Of course that means that you’ll need a deck to go with all those polyhedral dice and one that’s caught our eye is artist Jonathan Sacha‘s beautiful Goblins & Gardens set.
Reappropriating classic Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual art, he’s allowed its denizens to roam free amongst verdant collages of flowers, fruit and vegetables and just maybe find peace at last.
We spoke to Jonathan to find out more about this unique deck, his art and untold stories.
Can you tell us about your art background? Was it something you formally studied? The deck has an outsider art feel to it but at the same time the composition of the images definitely feels like it’s the work of someone who knows what they're doing...
Art is definitely something I've always done, starting from a very young age.
Although the first time I went to college to study art, graphic design, I dropped out to play music in a punk band. I did that for over 10 years and we were really lucky to tour as much as we did. We were always broke as hell but we travelled a lot and met a lot of wonderful artists. Back then I was working with Adobe products that I, maybe, stole and definitely didn't know how to use, but I found my way to screen-printing for other bands.
Then when I was about 25 I went back to school and whilst I strongly considered graphic design again I ultimately opted to study sculpture. Even then my senior thesis project was all photographs and braille. So like every artist I can't sit still to save my life...
Punk music is definitely outsider art. I'm sure to some folks that sounds corny, but I was exposed to an incredible amount of truly beautiful people making really original work. And because it's punk it's always made out of what you can find and not what you can buy. That makes it special. That means it's more connected to who you are and what's around you.
So, the Goblins & Gardens deck, what came first, your interest in Dungeons & Dragons or the Tarot?
I guess it's technically D&D. In high-school, some of us tried to get into, what I assume, was 3rd Edition and decided it was too complicated and gave up pretty quickly. I didn't come back to it until much later, after 5E and The Adventure Zone came out. I remember listening to that show and hearing them throw out a bunch of the rules right away and I thought "Now here we go, I'll just do that!"
I haven't played in a while though. Nowadays I stick to stuff like Troika! or PbtA or one-page games. I like the silly and the simple stuff. That's the most fun for me and my friends.
Tarot had been in my periphery for a long time but starting in 2017 I was getting more and more interested in it. It's been a long and very slow process and I really love the journey I've been on. Truly, I think I could talk for a whole interview about that alone. Suffice to say I think everyone should get a few decks with their close friends and just start playing around with them.
And what is it about both of them that appeals to you? And what made you think of combining the two?
I love Tarot for a lot of reasons but I think it most appeals to me in it's form. It's a very universal thing: a deck of cards. So many people have committed their art to that format and that means you have a massive library of windows into near infinite worlds.
It's the perfect storytelling art-form in my opinion. Even just one deck will consistently turn up new stories all of the time when you shuffle it and pull cards!
When it comes to D&D.... Well this might be where I start losing people. Lol.
Honestly, at this point, the thing that attracts me the most to D&D is that it's so ripe for parody and critique. I'm sure that will upset some people but it's how I feel. We've put so much of ourselves into that game that at this point it's inextricably tied to being human.
The art of storytelling is inherently human. But D&D is also plagued by war and violence. So it becomes this very interesting place to explore. Why is the violence so insidious? Why does this certain type of story keep getting told over and over again?
And of course we then have to ask where do the gardening books come into all this?
I actually found an old gardening book on the side of the road one day when I was walking home from work. It ended up on my desk next to a copy of the AD&D Monster Manual Vol. 2 that my partner had bought for me. It was a used copy so it was all drawn on and colored in. I really loved having a glimpse into the past, at someone else's intimate history with the book.
But then I started thinking about the violence in all the stories that had been told via D&D and started daydreaming about what might be happening to those monsters now that people aren't telling those stories anymore.
That's where the line "What happens to a story after you leave it behind?" comes from. I fell in love with the idea that for every story that's ever been told in the universe of D&D, that somewhere there's a place where everything that's been left behind exists together at once.
It could be chaos but it could also be anything! And when I think about it I imagine all the monsters finally having some peace and quiet without the DM and the players around.
Maybe they're not one-dimensional beings only there to be slain. Maybe they just want to fucking hang out and get some gardening done! That's where Goblins & Gardens takes place.
"I IMAGINE ALL THE MONSTERS FINALLY HAVING SOME PEACE & QUIET WITHOUT THE DM & PLAYERS AROUND"
Each tarot card then is a work of collage art, combining drawings from old D&D manuals with photos from gardening books, I think most gamers, myself included, would have trouble taking a pair of scissors to their collection but that doesn't seem to have phased you...
I actually really enjoy it. Sometimes I'll cut monsters out and just let them run loose on my desk or wherever. I've got little monsters running around all over the place and I love it. Most of these books I'm cutting up are in real awful condition anyways. It makes it a lot less expensive for me but it also means they come charged with so much of other people's magic.
Truthfully, when I found the first 30 book set of the Gardening Encyclopedias on eBay they were in near perfect condition. My partner was pleading with me not to cut them up. So I promised them I would try and do it all digitally first. And I did! But it looked so dull and flat and fake.
I think I barely made it through one card before I went for the X-Acto knife.
When designing the cards did you approach each one with a pre-set idea or was it more of an intuitive approach?
Very rarely did I go into a card with preset intentions. I stopped doing that pretty early on because it always meant that I was fighting with the card by the end. To some degree, all of the cards were designed on the fly.
Like I said I have a lot of loose ends floating around. Some of those cards basically made themselves because I would set something on top of something else just to move it and then later on notice how perfectly they would fit together.
Sometimes I would turn a page, see something for the first time, and know right away what card it was going to be. The Magician, The Tower and The World all happened that way. Strength too. It happened a lot and it was always magical.
One interpretation of the Tarot's major arcana is that it represents the fool's journey through life, is there a narrative hidden in your deck?
There's a line in the Goblins & Gardens guidebook that talks about this a bit. It goes: "To journey through the cards is to read narrative in the art-form. It is to wander." And that's a bit cryptic but it also gets at the general idea for the deck.
You can find all sorts of narratives in Goblins & Gardens. Generally speaking the narrative that we present is one of re-wilding and rediscovered autonomy for the monsters but beyond that it's up to the individual to wander through the cards and discover their own narrative. And one really beautiful way to do that is with friends. That's some of what we were getting at with the other line about how "the journey is more shared than singular."
The Fool is just one consideration in this deck. What about The Hanged Man or The Lovers. What's their story?
Is there any one card from the deck that particularly resonates for you?
It's probably 'The World'. It was one of the last cards that I made but I knew what it was going to be pretty early on. That image of that succubus or demon lady. Whoever she is. She looks so hurt and so sad but STILL she's in this extremely vulnerable position. She is viewed by us in that pose FOREVER.
Like how much has this one monster had to endure through the ages? It's painful. The harm inflicted on other people is the most brutal part about being human. It's crushing.
Later, I found that other picture of the Earth "upside down" and viewed from "behind" with all of the sea trenches scraped across the ocean floor like old wounds that had scarred over. The two elements were just magnetized to each other. Maybe it's less that this card resonates with me and more that it just cuts right through me. It's the card that I cried the most about.
THE HARM INFLICTED ON OTHER PEOPLE IS THE MOST BRUTAL PART ABOUT BEING HUMAN. IT'S CRUSHING
And how do you personally use the cards?
I use tarot cards for all sorts of things. For fun, for journaling, for self-reflection, for writing RPGs, for playing RPGs. Sometimes I'll just shuffle a deck and not even draw a card.
Since you designed the Tarot deck we've seen your art crop up on several other RPG titles, is this working with people you knew before you did the deck or you met afterwards?
It's a combination of both. I've met some really wonderful people who've commissioned me for some collage artwork and I love it.
There's a project called Goblin Archives that everyone should check out. He does a lot of guides for indie RPG creators but also produces his own content that's really rad too. I did some work for him and he's truly wonderful. He was very kind and really excited about my art.
I'd love to continue to do more collage artwork commissions but if I maintain any longterm success I'd like to transition into other media. Collage is fun but I've got plenty of other irons in the fire. I love simple line drawings with black ink.
So what are you working on now?
I've always got a lot going on! In the immediate future I'm gonna continue to come up with content for my Patreon so it can free up more time for me to keep making art. Money sucks.
Apart from that we've started working on a series of zines we'd like to put out. Stuff like: An Intro to Tarot, An Expanded Guidebook for G&G, a hack of 'A Quiet Year', and beyond that we've got a few of our own RPG ideas kicking around that we're really excited about too.
This interview originally featured in Wyrd Science Vol.1 Issue 3 - The Horror Issue