The Fluffy Folio: A Talk About D&D Art & Homebrew Critters

Michael Habiger, who lives in Vienna, is a part-time web developer and university project assistant – but his spare time is spent on enriching the world of Dungeons and Dragons by creating the tiniest, fluffiest oddball creatures. His instagram, @the_fluffy_folio, began on July 31st of this year, with digital art focused mostly on creating races and classes for D&D. On September 7th however, interest shifted primarily from people to curious critters, with the publication of his first ever creature; the Twiddletoad.

Basic Snitch and The Fluffy Folio sat down for a remote chat about all things D&D art!

The Fluffy Folio | © Michael Habiger
How did you first get into illustrating?

There was always some kind of affinity to drawing and painting in my life. When my family got its first computer – 8 MB RAM and it was a powerhouse, so you can imagine how long ago that was – I immediately declared the drawing program to be my absolute favourite. Graphic tablets weren’t available back then, and I had just learned how to use a mouse. I don’t remember when I got my first tablet, maybe 10 years ago? I remember that I loved it! At that point, I was also starting to get more serious about painting and reading corresponding literature. I watched tutorials, or studied other paintings in much more detail than I had ever before. I didn’t go to art school, so painting still remained more of a much-loved hobby. Of course, I also took breaks, sometimes very long ones, but I never completely dropped the pen.

What pushes you to never drop the pen?

I’ve experienced three considerable motivational pushes to keep painting these last few years. I began illustrating a card game, which I’ve been working on for three years. I also started playing Dungeons & Dragons, and would draw my party’s characters. Around this time, I received my first commissions after posting my work on social media. This exposure, sharing and discussing art as well as engaging with the community, is a great joy for me and it really keeps me going. Although painting isn’t my full-time job, I hope it someday will be. It would be the dream!

Chiminimera | © Michael Habiger | © The Fluffy Folio
How has your style as an artist developed over the years, and what’s something you’ve learned by sticking with it?

That’s a tough one. I think it’s hard to notice how your own style develops in the making. It’s mostly an unconscious process. What happens, though, is that I notice bad habits from time to time – or notice that I’m losing track [of what I want to be creating]. That’s when I engage in research, and study other art to tweak my skills actively. What I really want to maintain is working with different levels of detail within one painting. It’s a process in which the painting is able to suggest several points of focus to the observer. [On the topic of] sticking with it – if something doesn’t work, don’t give up, try again.

What sort of programs or tools do you rely on, and what could you recommend to other (D&D) artists?

I use the classic Photoshop and a graphic tablet combo – it’s what I’m used to. But I can advise that you don’t always need the fanciest tablet out there. I have two; a sophisticated one full of buttons and features, and one very basic, small tablet. And well, I haven’t touched the sophisticated tablet in months. The portability of the smaller one is very useful, and I don’t usually take up that much space on the drawing area. But, it all comes down to personal preference.

Heartbold | © Michael Habiger | © The Fluffy Folio

I love taking a closer look at tiny details, like moss, bark, or roots. I try to think of them as tiny worlds and imagine what creatures might live in there.

What or who do you draw the most inspiration from? Pun intended!

My wife! She patiently listens to all my ideas, and I tend to have a lot of them. She helps me reflect on them, and I can’t thank her enough. Another inspiration is nature – I love taking a closer look at tiny details, like moss, bark, or roots. I try to think of them as tiny worlds and imagine what creatures might live in there. Mostly, though, I’m inspired by my 6-month-old son. Never in my life have I painted more productively, both in regards to time management and content. I started with smaller works – naturally time is a bit scarce now! I tried to paint as much as I could during his naps. Funnily, lack of time somehow did the trick for me.

When did you get into Dungeons and Dragons? Do you have a favourite D&D show?

Sometime in 2017, though I already owned the books in my youth. These were mainly books concerning creatures; I really loved the illustrations and backstories, and I remember spending hours reading through them over and over again! The stats didn’t interest me that much yet. Now that I play, I have a preference for the roleplaying aspects of D&D and I like the simplicity of 5e. Of course, I also love all the awesome homebrew stuff available to players. It makes it vivid and diverse – I like that. And my favourite show would be Acquisitions Incorporated – love everything about it, from the cheesy website to their PAX shows – always good for a laugh 🙂

Twiddletoad | © Michael Habiger | © The Fluffy Folio
Is there a class or type of folk that you tend towards playing?

Hmm, not really. I like playing a cleric, but all classes and folks have their own charm. For me, it’s more about the character and how they interact with the world. And well – I have a whole cohort of characters lined up, each one waiting for their turn. Once I start playing one, I tend to make a plan about how to get the next one into the game, [be it their departure, or death, for example]. Poor characters, now I feel bad! Fortunately for them, I’m more of a Dungeon Master anyway.

What is your favourite thing about D&D?

It has no boundaries, it’s social, and it’s fun! As a DM, I love listening to all my players coming up with plans. I like how they role-play their characters and shape the world they are in through them. For me, it’s a great pleasure be immersed in another universe, and not have to think about the real world for a few hours. Combine that with meeting friends, and it’s the perfect evening 🙂

Where did the idea of drawing fuzzy, strange creatures for D&D come from? Do you feel that this is something that’s missing in D&D?

The Twiddletoad was the first of my critters, and the idea was relatively spontaneous. Late one night, I felt the urge to finish this digital painting. The idea to actually make stats for the Twiddletoad then came about a few days later, when I thought about implementing this fella as a fun little encounter for my adventurers. Since then, I’ve really enjoyed both aspects; the painting process and the stat creation. Somehow, I felt a push to populate the world of D&D with a mass of tiny creatures 😀 I always had the idea of a scholar in my mind, on a search for unique and rare critters, documenting and describing them. I liked the concept, so decided to stick with it!

Vamster | © Michael Habiger | © The Fluffy Folio
Do you play any other RPG games, or are you looking to get in to any?

Not at the moment, but I’m a big fan of RPGs, and have played them my whole life, mainly digitally. From Nintendo to PC, this genre has definitely remained my favourite. I’ve always wanted to try Call of Cthulhu, pen and paper – I love the lore!

If you had to explain D&D to a newcomer, how would you go about it?

D&D is a game about great, [collaborative storytelling]. Nobody wins and nobody loses. Even if you fail on a roll, consider it an opportunity to create an epic scene. If The Lord of The Rings were a D&D session, even the Fellowship came out [on top] with bad rolls!

Woolpertinger | © Michael Habiger | © The Fluffy Folio
Do you have any favourite artists you’d like to shout out? Who should we be keeping up with?

There are so, so many talented artists out there, that it is really hard to pin down. Overall, I enjoy the many shared influences, the exchanging, and the mutual support! Lately, I learned the word Amigurumi, thanks to @konsumlumpen on Instagram, and I really love the tiny creatures he’s creating! So, [style-wise], I always keep an open mind.

Who or what has supported and helped you most along the way?

Everyone and everything. I take each experience, and use it to drive me to keep working on my paintings – be it positive or negative experiences. It’s all valuable and helpful somehow. Concretely, I want to thank my family and friends for their support, and of course my supporters on social media for their awesome feedback!

What’s hardest about being part of the art or D&D community, and where do you think we can do better?

At the minute, it’s difficult for me to advise on where to improve. Luckily, I haven’t had any truly negative experiences in either community.

What’s your final message to all the D&D nerds out there?

Keep on homebrewing, and keep playing D&D!

Thumbstall Knight Stats | © Michael Habiger | © The Fluffy Folio

You can find Michi @the_fluffy_folio on Instagram, and u/michifromkmk on Reddit. If you like his work and would like to support him, give him a like, comment, or follow on either account! Though he doesn’t currently run a Ko-fi or Patreon, plans are being made for the future. In the meantime, he’s keeping busy taking care of his 6-month old son, hanging out with his ever-supportive and awesome wife, and populating the world of Dungeons and Dragons with the most unforgettable, tiny, fluffy critters!

TTRPG: The illusion of choice in Dungeons and Dragons

Created in the mid 70s and currently resurfacing as a popular fantasy tabletop role playing game, Dungeons and Dragons is an open world pencil-paper-and-dice game that lets your imagination run wild. But how limitless should the world be, and where do Dungeon Masters draw the line?

I recently stumbled across an archived thread in the r/DnD subreddit on the topic of railroading versus illusion of choice. Both forms of deception offer TTRPG players two or more options, with all or several of them resulting in the same outcome. The crossroads example is classically drawn on to illustrate this strategy; the party has the option to go left or right, but both paths lead back to the dungeon. If they decide on neither, the dungeon inevitably comes to them.

Is there a difference between illusion of choice and railroading?

Illusion of choice and railroading seem to be distinct in that they connote different intentions. The former is likely to occur when Dungeon Masters are ill-prepared for a twist in narrative or action, and are obliged to quickly improvise. Sometimes the only option is to put the party back on track, whatever the costs. The opposite hypothetical also warrants some attention; being overly prepared can come at a price. As a DM, I have hundreds of options laid out for my players with each choice and outcome promising to be unique and significant. Regardless of gameplay style, I know beforehand that it’s downright impossible to prepare for every scenario. When taken by surprise, I eventually come up with an improvised solution, but I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t relied on illusionism once or twice.

Similarly, railroading is a deliberate manoeuvre used to force player characters back into whatever situation the DM had intended them to be in. It leaves little room for any meaningful choices at all, and is largely more transparent than illusionism. Constant and reoccurring railroading might well be a sign of an inexperienced DM, or in the worst of cases, an uncooperative DM.

So aren’t illusion of choice and railroading, in essence, cut from the same cloth? Dungeon Solvers are of the opinion that illusionism is indeed “a form of railroading where the players can make a decision, but their choice has no effect on the game’s direction.” Illusionism is then an umbrella term that encompasses railroading. In either case, using deception too often risks affecting the level of trust between DM and PCS, and impinging on player morale.

A careful balance between deception and trust

Of course, every player’s ideal DMing style is entirely subjective, and might even depend on the edition of DnD the participants are acquainted with. Many 3e enthusiasts enjoy the idea of being pitted against their DM in a Battle Royale style massacre where no one can be trusted, and in this sense, maybe illusionism matters less, as they are essentially fighting against the DM as well.

This dynamic has evolved in 5e, and many feel that trust between the DM and the Player Character is absolutely essential for a good campaign. This relationship makes it harder to know when and if you should deceive your PCs. Are you confident that your PCs rely on you, and trust you to be helpful and honest? Avoiding illusionism as much as possible might be the best solution.

Illusionism is the easy way out

From the DM’s perspective, illusionism might just be a blessing in disguise. Presenting irrelevant choices to your party can sometimes be exactly the breather you need.

Some of the benefits of illusionism

  1. There is no longer a need to prepare as many outcomes as possible if you are not well-versed in improvisation.
  2. It can take pressure off of DMing and allow for narrative or descriptive development. Release those quirky NPC one-liners.
  3. Worldbuilding immediately becomes a lot easier; there are a limited amount of places you can and will end up.
  4. Generally speaking, it saves hours of preparation time.
  5. It’s a wonderful tactic for lighthearted, action-packed, non-RPG-heavy one shots.

At the end of the day, one could argue that what matters most is the DM’s ability to cover up these illusions and make them seem like meaningful choices. That said, the sheer thought of denying agency to the players is enough to cause distrust. Personally, I need to be able to trust my DM not to deceive me more than what is strictly necessary. In turn, players are honest about their rolls, their stats, the amount of spell slots they have left, whether they have already burned their reaction.

Video games are restrictive; TTRPG should be limitless

It’s worth emphasising that Dungeons and Dragons is unique exactly because it operates on an open world model in which literally anything can happen. These realms thrive on a plethora of meaningful choices, and if DMs choose to railroad their characters to the point of enforcing a singular set of paths, then PCs might as well play a video game.

Unlike DnD, video games are exclusive, and, prohibitively expensive (not only due to the price of the game, but also that of the console, monitor, controller, reliable internet connection…). They depend on restricted choices, be it by way of fixed quests, or the reductive binary male vs female avatar selection. Heck, Ubisoft didn’t even provide us with gender options.

DnD is about inclusivity, which should extend itself to meaningful decisions beyond choosing a class and race. Escapism seems less valuable if it’s only to perform in yet another closed off universe. Or what do I know, a one shot with an all-male human fighter cast collectively called Arno could admittedly be entertaining.

How to avoid railroading

A rough draft

In order to avoid being ill-prepared for a session, always plan out a rough draft of a few possible options. Instead of meticulously sketched out dialogue and encounter scenes, write up a page per NPC and opponents with their possible reactions, one-liners, loot, and the information they can supply the party with. If this suits your style, continue with a page per location complete with loot, traps, and monsters. Stick to bullet points!

Creative solutions

Instead of defecting to your original plan, come up with a series of creative solutions that have been pre-planned before the session and that you can fall back on when you’re in a rut. Perhaps you operate in a world where there are evil creatures spawning from set of locations (forests, towns, cities, mountains). If a radically different outcome or path is pursued and they find themselves near a spawn location, roll a d6 and choose from a list of homebrew (or existing) monsters. The inclusion of a closing combat leaves room for the modifications next game’s prep will now undergo. This allows you to be the kind of DM that won’t render player choices meaningless, but delay them enough to give you time to adjust accordingly.

Redirect with clues

Your players might be derailing themselves from your main plot because there aren’t enough clues per session to peak their curiosity and redirect it back to the larger picture. Alternatively, you might have too many clues and pieces of information, giving them an overwhelmingly unapproachable air. Simplify your hints without taking away from their mystery, and allow for ways in which the dots can be connected.

Improvise

Easier said than done, the key to smooth flowing narrative and storytelling is to match your players’ level of improvisation. Are they responding differently to a dilemma than you had expected? Perhaps you had assumed they would save a child from a burning building, but instead they ran. Huzza! A perfect backstory for your new villain; a vengeful, burn-ridden baby warlock of a fiend patron. Creepy.

Is illusionism ever acceptable?

All that said, sometimes the DM is, ironically, left without a choice. Fortunately, non-toxic ways of dabbling in illusionism do exist. For example, if your party is having fun advancing in a particular quest but are way off track, nudging them in the right direction shouldn’t be frowned upon. See it as a help action that is in their best interest rather than your own. By no means is this participating in toxic railroading where the outcome is always the same no matter what the players choose to do. If you put in the work, it’s likely that participants will instinctively feel the difference between a forced path, and an intelligent choice that aligns with their quest. Despite the modicum of extra DM prep it might imply, there really is nothing better than imbuing your players with genuine curiosity, and newfound purpose.