40 years ago, John Darnielle was killed by a ghost. Before finding fame with folk band The Mountain Goats, the singer-songwriter was battling the supernatural in fantasy tabletop game Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), despite being explicitly told not to. Speaking to NME over Zoom, Darnielle recalls getting several warnings that the ghost in question would kill him, but insisted that the group would “see what happens, right?”
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They did. “I died, and I said ‘to hell with this game,’” Darnielle admits, with a hint of bitterness. However, he proved unable to stay away from tabletop gaming, falling in love with the genre’s potential for storytelling while looking past the dice-based formula that gets optimistic folk singers murdered by spirits. The Mountain Goats’ 17th studio album, ‘In League With Dragons’, was partly inspired by D&D, and in 2019 Darnielle worked with the game’s creator, Wizards Of The Coast, to premiere it. Now, he’s working with the company again: this time, to create a unique set of cards for its collectible trading card game Magic: The Gathering (M:TG).
Darnielle’s relationship with M:TG started with a trip to the company’s Seattle headquarters, where he played a live set for ‘In League With Dragons’. On the way out, Darnielle was “loaded up” with M:TG cards, sealing his fate – in no time at all he was attending a midnight pre-release for its 2019 expansion, Ravnica Allegiance, and spending lunch breaks crafting decks with a friend. A tweet stating “I want to play Magic: The Gathering,” posted in 2020, remains pinned to the top of his Twitter account today.
Noticing the singer had fallen hard for M:TG, Wizards Of The Coast asked Darnielle if he would like to create his own versions of Magic: The Gathering cards, as part of the card game’s Secret Lair series. Secret Lair cards are limited-run re-imaginings of existing M:TG cards, with unique artwork celebrating everything from Fortnite and Warhammer 40K, to The Walking Dead and Transformers.
For The Mountain Goats’ set, which is available to buy now, Darnielle was given full creative control to design 10 unique versions of the game’s Mountain card. While this included their art and direction, his biggest contribution was writing a prophecy that’s told through the set, warning of a day when darkness will fall upon the idyllic realm of Lorwyn.
The prophecy’s portents are grim, but it’s beautifully written. “Our days of idle pleasure winnow down; their sweetness doubles as their numbers dwindle,” reads one of the set’s Mountain cards, while another describes oracles catching a “rude glimmer” of what is to come. Though the flavour text is attributed to a prophet called Narvek Riag, its voice and tone are unmistakably Darnielle’s.
“Mountain Goats fans will very much recognise my voice in the prophecy,” says Darnielle, pointing to its “darker” and “rhythmic” tone that features in many of his Mountain Goats lyrics. “I have recurring characters, themes and stories that pass along in my songs for over 20 years,” he explains. “Somebody you haven’t heard of in 10 years will suddenly pop up in a song. That’s a me thing, trying to find continuity where none was evident.”
“Inventing a character to have said something is very much in my fictive style,” he adds. “The fact I wound a prophecy across 10 cards, to give them an internal unity [and] draw them all together so they’re talking to each other, is a very me thing to do.”
Darnielle loves the mythicism of M:TG’s lore, and has a penchant for “tracing a character around” all of the cards they’re mentioned in. “I’m not thorough about it, so I’ll be surprised to see the same person referenced multiple times,” he says. “I’ll be like, ‘Oh, I remember this guy from this set’, but I don’t know their full lore. That’s what I like, they become like characters in songs, existing only in the moment you’re engaging with them.”
Though Darnielle was allowed to “run wild” with the Mountain Goats set, he was reluctant to illustrate anything himself. “I can’t draw anything at all,” he admits, giggling as he describes his “neo-primitivist” art style. Instead, he hand-picked an artist for each card, drawing on his fondness for the series’ earlier illustrations.
“I wanted some people who had been making cards for a long time,” says Darnielle, pointing to popular M:TG artist Victor Adame Minguez, who is one of the artists for this set. “Even though I wasn’t playing in [M:TG’s Alpha era], the incredible charm of the early cards are cool because you can get nostalgic for it whether you were there or not. You get to see the newness of a thing that feels a lot less planned. There’s a sort of naive take to their early art, so I wanted to get some names calling back to that.”
With so much of Darnielle’s personality in these cards, he thinks they’re likely to draw in curious Mountain Goats fans. But will it be a rabbit hole for Magic fans to get into The Mountain Goats?
“I would kind of hope not,” says Darnielle. “It’s great if they are, but I wanted to make something for people who like Land [Magic card types], that’s my first mission. I’m not into myself as a brand. I don’t want anybody to get something because they see the name John Darnielle on it – I’d prefer they say ‘Oh, that’s the cool thing he does!’”
Besides being a musician, author, and one-time M:TG set designer, Darnielle has something else up his sleeve – a game of his own. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Darnielle was in a gaming group with Jason Morningstar, the designer behind tabletop games Grey Ranks and Fiasco. While playing together, Darnielle saw how dice rolls and statistics could be used to tell stories, and began designing a game of his own.
“It bore the extremely first-generation gaming title of Character Generation,” says Darnielle. “It tried to combine my attraction to stats-based stuff, to my native love of storytelling. It was going to be told exclusively through dice rolling – you didn’t do anything without rolling a stat.”
He’s not exaggerating. As he fishes through his computer files to show us Character Generation, Darnielle says that you needed to roll a 120 die and six-sided die just to get the first letter of your character’s name. While he remembers working on Character Generation during train rides across England, and even writing an introduction book for the game, it was ultimately too much for the perpetually busy artist.
“I did a lot of work on it, and ran a lot of it past Jason, but it got really complicated,” he says, explaining that the game’s branching nature meant it essentially had “no end”. “Game design is really huge – and at some point, I had to say ‘Am I focusing on this?’ I also had books and albums to write!”
Though Darnielle says he’ll “probably never finish” Character Generation, he still remembers the “charm” of designing a game of his own. But with The Mountain Goats’ M:TG set now under his belt, is there a world where it sees the light of day? Darnielle laughs. “Who’s to say what the future holds for Character Generation?”
Featuring: The Mountain Goats is now available to purchase, and will begin shipping this month.