One of the joys, and pitfalls, of roleplaying games is how they can become both a vessel for so many of our myriad interests and lead us down rabbit holes into brand new ones. Just ask any GM who decided they wanted to add a little verisimilitude to their city setting only to emerge blinking into the light 6 months later having become a world expert on medieval sewer systems. Whilst the main benefit of this is usually just the chance to become even more boring at parties some people are better at corralling these obsessions into more productive outcomes.
Anna Urbanek, one half of the Finland based Double Proficiency Studio, is one such person who has managed to combine her love of plants and roleplaying games to produce the Herbalist's Primer, a stunning looking book filled with Anna's illustrations and research into the physical, folkloric, magical and medicinal properties of plants, designed to bring your RPGs, whatever the system, to verdant life. With the, wildly successful, Kickstarter campaign for the book drawing to a close this Friday we caught up with Anna to discuss all things botanical...
You’ve been sharing illustrations from the book on Twitter as you've worked on it for quite a while now, so when did you first get the idea for The Herbalist's Primer and what was the initial spark for the book?
The idea came to me last year's spring. Like many other people, I was sitting at home all day and getting rather morose in quarantine, so I've decided to do what makes me happy: doodle some flowers. Then, I've put together a mock-up of a single spread of a magical botany book as a proof of concept, mostly for my own enjoyment. I love botany, and I've been a keen reader of herbals since I was a child.
The idea to connect it with tabletop RPGs, my other passion, was just a matter of compounding on the self-indulgence of this project. I posted the two-page layout sample on Twitter, mostly for fun - and then, suddenly, there were dozens of voices telling me that I should make it a book. So I did, giving in to the peer pressure and never looking back!
The book covers not just the physical properties of plants but also their magical and medicinal uses, what were your go to sources when putting this book together?
Indeed, the scope of the topics is rather wide. For the botanical part, I was mostly using online databases of plant lore, like Plants for a Future and many other websites focused on gardening or botanical classification of species.
The medicinal part is mostly ethnobotanical, which means that it's based on the historical approach to herbal medicine, as described by Culpeper, Breverton, or Maude Grieve in their herbals.
The occult side is researched from thousands of legends, myths, and stories, as well as from modern occult books, like Cunningham's encyclopedias or Ann Moura's Green Witchcraft. There's a bibliography included in the book!
So what came first for you an interest in plants, magic or RPGs?
I come from a long line of self-taught botanists and avid gardeners, so I've been living between plants all my life. My aunt is a pharmacist, and she's been more than generous with her time and textbooks whenever I wanted to learn something.
The magic was also with me from the beginning, mostly taken away from all the legends and myths my Mom used to read to me. I grew up listening to folklore from all around the world, and a Polish edition of Greek mythology was my favorite book for many years.
The RPGs came later, when I was maybe twelve, once D&D 3e got a Polish translation and became available in my local bookstore. Since then, I'm basically mixing all of that, in varying proportions.
What have been the most surprising or interesting things you learnt whilst working on this book?
The most fascinating element was finding the connections between various cultures, the drift of beliefs and stories through the millennia. An oak, for example, is closely connected to gods of thunder - whether you look at the Greek mythology, the Roman, the Norse, the Baltic, or the Slavic.
Or witch hazel - its name comes from Old English 'wice' meaning 'pliant' or 'bendy.' And yet, in most European languages, the names have evolved along the witchcraft vein, even though there's no reason for it, other than folk etymology. It's a 'magic nut' in German and Finnish, a 'troll hazel' in Swedish, and an 'enchant' (abbreviated 'enchantment') in Polish.
Nothing makes me as happy as finding those incredible connections between the cultures.
The completed book will feature around 100 beautifully detailed illustrations across 360 pages, are you sick of plants yet or has working on the book deepened your appreciation for them?
I don't think I'll ever be sick of plants in general - but I am definitely looking forward to getting this project finished and allowing myself to delve into the next of my vaguely scientific hobbies! I have a whole bunch of them, being a librarian cursed with unbridled curiosity.
I'm already looking at the topic for the next book, but I need to stop myself from having too much fun with it. I have a book to write first!
As a graphic designer you’ve worked with some of our favourite RPG publishers, what first got you into the hobby and when did you realise you wanted to make it a career?
My life goal was always to make pretty books: write them, illustrate, lay out - any and all of those. It's not really surprising that the moment I found pretty roleplaying books in my local bookstore, I just delved deeply into the whole RPG thing!
As I grew up, I followed along the line, getting a degree in librarianship (lots and lots of book history and design there!), getting a job as a graphic designer, and then moving with all of that into the tabletop gaming industry.
After a couple of years in historical wargaming, I moved to Finland to live my life as a freelance forest cryptid specializing in book design for tabletop roleplaying games. I'd say I'm on the track to making those pretty books my livelihood :)
The Herbalist's Primer is described as system agnostic but what games do you generally play (for fun) yourself these days?
I'm mostly a Shadowrun player, as I like my systems crunchy and challenging (and I'm not against fixing the mechanics on the fly), but we're just starting a new D&D 5e campaign, in which I get to fulfill my dream of being a shapeshifting witch - that is, a moon druid. I haven't played D&D in a long while, so this sounds like a lot of fun!
We're supposed to do some base building with Matt Colville's Strongholds & Followers, which I haven't done before either. Other than that, we're mostly playing and playtesting systems of our own, hard sci-fi strategy RPG Project Aphelion and sci-fantasy cosmic horror RPG Blazing Aurorae.
The book is described as ‘compatible with all tabletop RPG systems’ but how compatible with real life is it? Is this something that someone with no interest in games but who is interested in plants or indeed witchcraft might get some use from?
The book is as scientifically accurate as I could make it - and I have Rishi Masalia with his PhD in plant biology as a science editor in the project! Obviously, the magical elements are hard to prove, but they have been described according to existing folklore and the occult.
As every magic practitioner knows, it's mostly the intent that matters - if anything in the book resonates with your soul or methods, it might just work!
Right this second as I type this the campaign's got nearly 18,000 backers and has raised just shy of $750,000 so it's s obviously gone incredibly well, did you have even the slightest idea that it would take off like this?
Oh dear, no. Of course not. I've made a book on the intersection of botany, folklore, occult, and tabletop gaming, and I honestly expected it to appeal only to the people who are interested in all of them. As I can only interpret it, it seems to appeal to people who are into any of those topics.
It took us very much by surprise - but it'll let me make the idea into a book series, which is more than I could ever dream about.
Looking to the future in your last update you said that the success of the book means the Herbalist's Primer will now be the first of a series of books, so can you tell us a little about what you hope to do next?
I'm toying with a couple of ideas, and I asked our backers for help. Currently, at the top of the queue (in a random order) are: animals, trees, fungi, and rocks & minerals. I'm not sure which way I'll go yet, but it will probably be one of those. No promises, though! My brain sometimes gets caught up on a brand new special interest, and then the rest of the world ceases to exist.
And if people want to keep up to date with what you’re working on, what's the best way of doing that?
If you're interested in reading my daily updates on a variety of topics, from our garden squirrels to Finnish weather, follow me on Twitter.
For more comprehensive and concise information (but fewer cat photos), jump to our website and sign up for the monthly newsletter! It comes with all the news, updates, and previews of the cool stuff we're working on. We also have a Patreon and a very chill Patron-only Discord server!
Thank you Anna and good luck with the last leg of the campaign!
The Herbalist's Primer by Anna Urbanek is crowdfunding on Kickstarter right now and the campaign ends at 6pm CEST on Friday 24th of September