The one-page ads that Dungeons & Dragons ran in '80s comic books probably worked on plenty of readers. Still, you'd be hard-pressed to find someone they worked better on than comics writer Cullen Bunn. Now, Bunn is turning that love into an all-new, experimental comic adventure called Deepest Catacombs.
Deepest Catacombs is a fantasy story told in one-page ads for a fictional RPG of the same name. Each week, Bunn will release a page of this story on his Patreon page, along with behind-the-scenes, 'making of' artwork.
Newsarama recently got the chance to chat with Bunn about the origins of this ambitious project, how he's writing it, and which artists he'll be working with to create it.
Newsarama: Starting off, can you tell us about the origins of Deepest Catacombs?
Cullen Bunn: When I was a kid, TSR used to run one-page ads for the Dungeons & Dragons game in comic books every month. These ads were, themselves, one-page comics. And I loved them. In some cases, I looked forward to the ads more than I looked forward to the comic books themselves.
I was thinking about those ads, and I had this brainstorm. I would do a series of one-page comics designed as a tribute to those ads. I'd create a 'fictional' role-playing game called Deepest Catacombs. Each page of the comic will tell the continuing story of a small party of adventurers going on an epic quest into a terrible dungeon. I thought it would be fun if a different artist drew every segment of the comic, everyone giving their own take to the characters and the story. And I wanted to make these comic strips available to everyone - for free.
I'm using my Patreon page to host the comics, but they are open to the public. I plan on launching a new installment once (sometimes twice) a week. The first installment just went live!
Nrama: Exploring this world is a rag-tag band of heroes including a mage, a ranger, a thief, a wannabe-knight, and, well, a pig. What unites this weird crew?
Bunn: Our heroes in this quest are seeking a cure for a malady afflicting their home village. They have heard rumors that the ruins of an ancient wizard's lair might hold the secrets they need to save their people.
So, yes, we have Kezira the sorcerer, Fingerbones the thief, Annalynn the far-ranger, and Randall the paladin. Oh... and Kezira's familiar, Chops the pig, who I think will be the breakout character.
They are young and brave and skilled. But they certainly aren't superheroes. And they'll be facing some really nasty challenges in the warrens of the wizard's tomb!
Nrama: Alright, let's talk about the game Deepest Catacombs, an RPG that never actually existed. How much of the game did you have formulated when you started writing ads for it?
Bunn: Well, since these comics are inspired by the old comic book ads for Dungeons & Dragons, I definitely had that game system in mind when writing this.
I really wanted to feed on my love of that game while creating something new and exciting. So, it all came together pretty quickly for me, especially as I thought of some of my favorite role-playing game experiences, like Tomb of Horrors and Castle Amber and White Plume Mountain!
I also couldn't help but think of the homebrew games my friends and I used to play when I was a kid, in particular Super Dungeon, which was just this massive dungeon crawl we would embark upon week after week!
Nrama: What does a story broken up into advertisements look like? What's it like writing one?
Bunn: It's a really, really interesting project, writing-wise. I really wanted to maintain the illusion that each of these chapters were advertisements that might have appeared in comics. That meant that each page not only had to tell a story, but it also needed to showcase the thrills and fun of playing a role-playing game. Each chapter needed to be satisfying on its own while contributing to a larger story. But these couldn't just be experiments in nostalgia.
My hope is this story is interesting and that readers come to love these characters.
One of the things that surprised me, though, is just how much story I managed to pack into this thing. The first wave of stories is around 24 pages in length, altogether. And so much happens in those pages. I mean, presented in another format, you might be looking at five or six issues. There are dozens of monsters, loads of threats, backstory, surprise villains, and more, all packed into these pages!
Nrama: Now, to bring Deepest Catacombs to life, you've worked with artists A.C. and Nick Zamudio. Can you touch briefly on that experience? What did you want out of their character and world designs?
Bunn: I've worked with A.C. and Nick for years now. I love their work. They are tremendously talented. They are also huge gamers, so I knew when I started down this path that I had to invite them along! They immediately started helping me design the look and feel of the characters and some of the monsters.
They just have such a great design sensibility anyway, but since they are playing in their own gaming campaigns (and I've seen lots of their character designs) I knew they would add a sense of fun to the characters.
They created Chops the pig, who is one of my favorite characters!
They also really think about their designs in terms of how these characters and monsters might work in an actual game, and I love that.
They are the only artists in this initial wave that I've asked to draw more than one page, mainly because they were right there with me at the inception. So, A.C. and Nick did the art for the first couple of pages, and the last couple of pages.
Nrama: And while we're on the subject, we've heard that "a host of surprise artists" will be joining to tell stories within Deepest Catacombs. Can you give us a hint as to who some of them are?
Bunn: You bet!
I'm working with dozens of artists on this thing. Some are well-established pros. Others are up-and-comers. Some of the people who have pages in this first wave include Blacky Shepherd (who I worked with on Pumpkinhead), Gabriel Walta (my partner on Magneto back in the day), Gary Bedell (who has some stories in Graveyard Slaughter), Dalibor Talajic (from Deadpool Kills the Marvel Universe), and many, many others.
I love that every page has a different look and feel. I love that you're going to see so many different styles of art!
Nrama: Will Deepest Catacombs eventually become an actual game people can play?
Bunn: Full disclosure... Deepest Catacombs is a Dungeons & Dragons! At least, for now. I'm working with my good pal Anton Kromoff of https://www.oldmagicgaming.com/ on this project.
Not only is Anton doing our page designs and logos and lettering, but he's also helping me build a lot of gaming content. There are statistics for the monsters and characters, the magic items and spells, and we're using the Open Gaming Format of Dungeons & Dragons to present them in the 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons format.
Every new chapter of the comic will be supplemented by gaming content. Gamers will be able to add these creations to their own campaigns. We even have a character sheet! We're introducing some new alternative rules, too, that give Deepest Catacombs game its own flavor.
While the comic is open to the public, the gaming content is only available to my Patreon supporters.
Down the line... who knows? Maybe we'll create a set of rules exclusive to Deepest Catacombs! I'd love to see that!
Nrama: Is there a chance we'll ever see real ads for Deepest Catacombs in any upcoming Cullen Bunn comics?
Bunn: I love that idea! I'd love to make that happen at some point! All new Deepest Catacombs stories in some of my creator-owned comics. It could work! And I have lots and lots of stories in mind, both for these characters and for this format!