Wits and Wisdom: The History of the Smoking Bones World
Updated: Apr 8, 2022
DEEP DIVE WARNING - Buckle up!
The Initial Concept
The Smoking Bones world is truly a labor of love and something I’ve been working on for almost 10 years. The concept came, like most of my ideas, from noticing interesting things around me. In 2012/2013, my family and I were still living in North Carolina and I had a decent commute to work. Everyday, along my drive, I would pass an old fire hydrant on the side of a country road. There was nothing special about this hydrant, other than it looked like, to my weird mind, a petrified dwarf pushing a cart (don’t ask). Not surprising, I seemed to be the only person who noticed the dwarf. Everyday, when I’d pass this hydrant, I couldn’t help thinking about the dwarf and the idea of magic hidden in plain sight.
Another discovery I found along the country roads of North Carolina was old abandoned, wood barns. They’re charming, they’re nostalgic, and they’re everywhere. I had many favorites and each seemed to tell their own story. But one day, I started to notice that some of these structures were disappearing. The barns were unstable and dangerous and they didn’t serve any practical purpose, so their removal shouldn’t have been a shock. But I missed them and imagined some great, historical (even magical) place lost forever. My daily imaginations began to dwell on the idea of great, fragile, magical wonders set in our everyday world but, somehow, unseen by the general public and what they might look like.
The culminating inspiration for the future Smoking Bones concept was the discovery of a book titled 1000 Places to See Before You Die by Patricia Schultz. It's a travel guide to all the coolest places in our world, organized by region and country. Along with a quick blurb about what these places had to offer, each entry in the book also provided insider info regarding best times to visit and best places to stay while you were there. It was the ultimate travel bucket list.
All these separate inspirations coalesced into the idea of a travel guide dedicated to hidden (and disappearing) magical wonders. 1000 Magical Places to See Before You Die. That led to a fictional initiative called the KMP Project (K = kilo = 1000, M = Magical, P = Places). This initiative was the side mission for an undetermined company with the goal of preserving and chronicling lost or forgotten magical places, while, at the same time, running a business that took people to those places. It was a cool idea…something I could play with later.
Cut to the fall of 2013. I had just left full-time employment as a concept artist at Ubisoft and was freelancing in Arizona. I had been invited to speak at an animation convention called CTNX and I gave a presentation I titled “Your Next Big Thing”. The talk was about making your own personal projects and I wanted to encourage artists to make something of their own and promote it. A graphic novel…a game…a children’s book…whatever. At the time, I was right in the middle of storyboarding a short film of my own creation called Plain and Precious. The presentation was a success and I began to think of myself as an expert…I had a short film coming out the next year, after all. I even had movie posters printed. So…yeah. And then I realized something. While I was attached to “my next big thing” (the short film), I really couldn’t see myself spending the next year working solely on it and nothing else (that's what would be required to finish on time). I made the hard decision to halt work on Plain and Precious and find something I was truly excited about. And the one thing that immediately came to mind was the KMP Project and the magical travel guide. Could I spend years of my life painting fantastical magical locations? 100% YES! So it started.
Over the course of the next three years, I expanded the idea from just a travel guide to a series of stories based on the company behind the travel guide. That company was initially called Old Empire Sky Lines, but it eventually changed to the Smoking Bones Travel Company, run by "the Commodore”, Captain Red Jones. I worked on several different story plots and began designing characters, ships, and creatures. I created some travel posters, I made stickers. Things were moving! The plan was to publish the first book in a series, along with some support products like SBTC travel posters and a travel guide, and release the whole thing at a local comicon in Phoenix in 2017.
But, between 2016 and 2020, progress in the Smoking Bones world slowed significantly. I didn’t even come close to finishing my master plan. During that time, I went from a busy freelance concept art career to a very slow one...and then to a very, very busy board game art career. Through all of that turbulence, Smoking Bones had to take a back seat out of necessity. I would think about it all the time and create art occasionally. But without consistent, regular focus, I failed to make real meaningful story or world development.
But I still loved and believed in the world. I felt like the key to making the Smoking Bones stories a reality was to develop them from a different angle. I was, at this point, happily working in tabletop games. I had personally co-designed, launched (KS), manufactured, and fulfilled two games already. I knew the industry. Why not make a Smoking Bones board game and release the stories in tandem? It was perfect! While this idea was running through my head, my wife and I went on vacation in Europe. While we were there, I arranged a trip to a well known game publisher in the area. I met the team, we hung out, and, after someone proposed a future game partnership, I told them about the Smoking Bones. A partnership with this particularly company was not meant to be. But the meeting put me in contact with a team of designers interested in working on a prototype set in my world. That was the start of a real SBTC game.
Then, in early 2020, I announced the creation of Wits End Studios, my personal brand and publishing company. It included any previous personal projects/products I had created, but it’s focus was games and stories from worlds I was creating or would create in the future. And the SBTC would be the flagship project. I’d develop a game, then promote, launch, print, and fulfill all on my own…I had done it before. And I already had some designers working on a game concept. I expected that by making this announcement, I’d be forced to make significant progress on SB and everything else I was working on. But adding publishing plans just added more tasks to get done. It was just too much. After some soul searching, I faced the facts that I didn’t want to be a publisher. I wasn't into business management, I was a horrible marketer, and I couldn’t stand social media…all I wanted to do was make a world and tell cool stories in my little studio. I determined that the best way to move forward was to partner with another publisher. There was only one publisher on my list and, in late 2020, I prepared a pitch, presented it to said publisher, who enthusiastically agreed to partner with me on this game and all others set in the Smoking Bones world!
Since then, it's been a whirlwind of development. I’m pretty disciplined, but having a team of people you feel accountable to makes a big difference. I set aside more time to document and organize all the ideas that have been swimming through my brain or been jotted down in dozens of sketchbooks. More time was spent on illustration and concept art. All the while working with publisher and designers to make sure early design prototypes looked extra cool and related well with the theme.
Things are moving at a fast pace now. I’m currently working on actual game art and preparing for a “soon” game launch. I’m working on the first illustrated book that (fingers crossed) will be ready to print around the same time as the game launch. I’m designing travel posters and I’ve even hired my talented son to help write the first SBTC travel guide. It's been a long road, but I’m so excited for the story of the Smoking Bones to continue long into the future. And I’m excited that you’re along for the ride. Thanks!