Illuminating Netrunner: The Commissioning Process

Conrad aka “Banknote” is back with another behind-the-scenes look at the work of Null Signal Games’ Visual team – and a reminder that we are still recruiting new Visual team members! If this article interests you, come apply to be a part of visually shaping the world of Netrunner! Read the role details here, apply for the position of Artist Liaison/Administrator here, or apply for the position of Art Associate here.

Last time we covered the art brief, an essential tool in this process. But how does that fit into the larger process of commissioning professional artwork? Let’s take a journey into that process, using the stunning artwork BalanceSheet created for Vasilisa as our guiding torch.

A story begins

For each card, we begin with a concept. Our Narrative team develops the setting and story for each cycle, detailing the various characters and factions. They then compare these overarching ideas with the card mechanics from the Dev and Design teams, and give cards their names and concepts.

Sometimes these names come with a brief “pitch” – a suggestion of a direction for the Visual team to consider. This is the foundation on which we begin our work.

Our first step is to write an art brief. I decided to write the brief for Vasilisa. The pitch we were given included a link to the Wikipedia page for the folktale of Vasilisa the Beautiful, and this short description: “A powerful looking young woman. Simple clothes, but determined and unwavering. Visual callback to Matrix Analyser.”

I began my work on the brief by reading up on the fairytale provided by Narrative, and doing some visual research on various depictions of Vasilisa.

Sorting the corn from the chaff

The story of Vasilisa the Beautiful itself is pretty evocative. Vasilisa is given a magic doll by her dying mother. Later, when Vasilisa is kidnapped by Baba Yaga, the doll helps her complete seemingly impossible tasks such as sorting through piles of corn kernels and cleaning Baba Yaga’s house by herself in a short time. Baba Yaga is so impressed and frustrated by the girl’s ability to complete the tasks that she sends her home, with a “skull torch” to guide her way.

There are a lot of other elements in the story, including a wicked stepmother, three riders in robes of black, red, and white, and Vasilisa’s marriage to the Tsar. But you can only fit so much onto a single card. I thought the doll and skull torch perfectly represented the ICE’s two abilities: the doll’s magical labor placed advancements, while the skull torch’s beams of light tagged a passing runner. These felt like the best details to focus on.

Painting of folk tale character Vasilisa holding a skull torch

I included a lot of this information in the brief, along with a depiction of Vasilisa and some traditional Russian women’s attire from the period.

Gallery of women in traditional Russian attire

Lastly, I included some details about netspace. I described how humanoid figures are often depicted there, using Grail ice as an example and specifically calling out Matrix Analyzer, which has a very similar effect to Vasilisa. I then passed this brief along to the team for review.

Matrix Analyzer

Finding the right artist

With the brief ready, we had to decide which artist would be right for the piece. We are fortunate enough to work with many fantastic artists, each with their own style and practice. As you can probably imagine, an artist who is exceptional at depicting netspace might not be the top choice for illustrating a scene in meatspace, or a complicated piece of hardware. Seeing who is available and picking the right pieces for them is a big part of this step. We also want to keep some big-picture set choices in mind. For example, it can really make a set feel cohesive if you have the same artist illustrate all the ice for a faction.

We floated some ideas around, and decided BalanceSheet would be able to knock this piece out of the park. We had already reached out to see if he was available, so once we had decided which Midnight Sun cards we wanted to send his way (Vasilisa and Mestnichestvo), we were ready to go.

Working on miracles

Once the artist’s contract is finalized and signed, they begin their work. We usually receive initial sketches within a few weeks. How detailed these sketches are varies from artist to artist; some stick to rough passes to test composition, while others produce fairly detailed outlines.

BalanceSheet sent us two to test general composition and aesthetic:

As a team, we go over these sketches and collate our thoughts. In this case, we didn’t have a lot of critical feedback. We decided we liked the composition of sketch #2, and asked if the piece could include a doll in Vasilisa’s left hand. BalanceSheet went back to work, and sent us the next update a few weeks later.

Sometimes a brief check in as a piece develops is all that’s needed, but for other pieces we need to run through this feedback process a number of times. Just like Baba Yaga, we have high standards for our work! Appropriately, however, we only needed to see a few drafts for Vasilisa and were very happy with the results! BalanceSheet gave us another update for any last feedback, and then sent us the finished files.

Vasilisa near-final
Vasilisa near-final

With the final art file uploaded and handed off to the Production team for templating, our work on this card was largely done.

There’s no ‘magic doll’ in ‘teamwork’

While the process is a little different with every art piece, the overview I’ve given here outlines how we approach all 60+ cards in a set. From researching obscure subjects, to visualizing how to best present these subjects and scenes, to working with our amazing network of artists to realize each piece of art to the fullest, the art commissioning process can be incredibly fun and rewarding.

It takes a diversity of people and skills to make the most out of each piece of art. We all come from different backgrounds and have different interests. Some of us like to visualize Weyland’s industrial complexes and high-tech vehicles. Some nerd out about the various folklore and myths that inspire netspace creations. Others really know how to tell a story through a snapshot in meatspace. Many of us don’t have visual arts backgrounds. But being able to work with professional artists and to aid them in creating stunning pieces like Vasilisa is really fulfilling for the whole team. I’m honored to lead and participate in that process!

Vasilisa by BalanceSheet final
Vasilisa by BalanceSheet


  • Conrad "Banknote" Kluck

    Conrad is Null Signal's Art Director, having previously joined the organization as a Producer. Originally from the NW of the USA, he now lives on the East Coast. Whenever possible, he will include 1-2 copies of Snare! in every deck he makes.