Dragonsoul Saga Author J.T. Hartke on A Balance Broken

Fantasy author J.T. Hartke’s book, A Balance Broken, is the first of five in his Dragonsoul Saga. By the end of his first chapter Hartke had me hooked with a clever plot device and from there I met character after character in his shifting POV narrative. Hartke’s greatest strength as a writer is his descriptive ability. Little things like the name “Sourbay” or his descriptions of meals bring the reader into his world of Tarmor. While there are some moments of high tension that had me breathlessly turning pages, such as the dragon attack on a Dwarven city, A Balance Broken is fairly light on unpredictable conflict until its climax, which should leave most readers teetering on their seats. So instead of reading to see what would become of a particular character, I was more intrigued by his descriptions of life in his setting and hoping to find out some of the deeper plot behind the unfolding story. As his first publication though, A Balance Broken is a good indication of great things to come from Hartke and I look forward to reading the rest of his saga.

Golden dragon and wizard on cover of J.T. Hartke's fantasy novel A Balance BrokenCG: I know that you got into D&D fairly late, as an adult. Had you grown up reading fantasy and science fiction though?
JTH: I first read The Chronicles of Narnia when I was in fourth grade. I picked up Tolkien in sixth. I then proceeded to consume everything I could get my hands on in the Sci-Fi and Fantasy realm. Terry Brooks, Raymond Feist, Isaac Asimov, David Eddings, Stephen King, Robert Jordan, and most recently, George R.R. Martin. While I did not play D&D on paper, mostly because I grew up in a very small, rural town, I played it on PC, along with Quest for Glory, Space Quest, Elder Scrolls, etc.  Lately I’ve been playing the original Dragon Age and Skyrim.
CG: Who are your favorite fantasy and sci-fi authors?
JTH: Currently George R. R. Martin is the best in the biz.  I also really enjoyed King’s Dark Tower series. Tolkien is, of course, the foundation of most modern fantasy. Right now, I am waiting for Brandon Sanderson to finish Wheel of Time. I stopped when Robert Jordan passed, and I have yet to pick up Sanderson’s additions.

CG: How did you get into D&D and have you played any other RPGs since then?
JTH: Having grown up in a small, rural town, there was no one else interested in it, so I was starved of friends to play. And we all know good friends are the key to good D&D quests. So, as I said, I played it and similar games on PC for many years.

In college, I picked up Magic the Gathering, and played it in a good circle of Wizards. After about a dozen years, we finally got the right group, and a good DM, and began to play 3.5e AD&D. Of course I was a paladin, and I got up to over level 25 before our DM moved away.  Now, writing and marketing The Dragonsoul Saga takes up so much of my time that I barely have time for Skyrim.

The Dragonsoul Saga: A Balance Broken

CG: In A Balance Broken, you have a flight of dragons attacking a Dwarven city. Did the various dragons have any backstories themselves and in your setting, Tarmor, do their colors have any significance?
JTH: The size of a dragon in Tarmor is related to how closely descended they are from the Ancient Ones, the first dragons.  Color is usually inherited from the mother, while some variation or trim is inherited from the father. Every dragon has a story, but not all will be covered in the five novels of the Dragonsoul Saga. But who knows about the many companion short stories we will be putting out every year?

CG: In your world, wizards manipulate the four elements to create sorcerous effects, mixing water and fire together to create lightning for example. How much have you developed this magic system?
JTH: I have developed this system extensively in my own mind and rules. Every volume of the Dragonsoul Saga will show this further. The relationship between the four elemental Aspects, and the fifth, more elusive Aspect of Psoul will also become more developed as the story progresses.

CG: Do you think your world would make a good RPG setting? While there are orcs and dragons over the Dragonscale Mountains in the north, most of the danger so far seems to be some courtly intrigue.
JTH: I think my world would make a great RPG. Not only does my map lend itself towards visions of grand adventure, but there are a great number of highly developed nations, as well as extensive wilderness areas.  All of these contribute to great gaming.

Plus, I think great games, especially in the PC and Console world, but also on paper and dice, come from great story. Hack and slash is fun, but you don’t become emotionally and personally involved in the experience unless there is great story.

The public disappointment with the final installment of Mass Effect lends to this argument.  One of the greatest story driven RPGs in history was ruined in the last few minutes by terrible plot devices (the Star Child) and a twist that was not alluded to in any way before — just to create a surprise. Plus, I play games to save the planet and sail off into the sunset on my ship with the girl.  Life itself is often a Kobayoshi Maru — I don’t want one in my gaming world.

CG: You have multiple perspective shifts, following at least five or six characters, but Tallen Westar is your inexperienced anchor character. Is he the central figure of the Dragonsoul Saga? Who else do you find yourself enjoying writing?
JTH: Tallen and Maddi are my central figures. Too often women are forgotten in Sci-Fi and Fantasy, or used simply as props or love interests. I want to make it clear that these two drive each others growth as characters, just as relationships in real life do. Maddi is just as much a lead character to me as Tallen. However, I do love writing as Dorias, the Dreamer wizard. I enjoy his interactions with his pet raven Merl. I also like Jaerd, Tallen’s older brother. My favorite, however, is Slar. His character’s growth and change is the most important to me in the entire series.  I want people to totally understand and empathize with the orc Warchief with a war forced upon him.

CG: Where are you at in terms of writing the second book of your saga, A Darkness Unleashed? When can we expect that?
JTH: I am well over 25% finished with book two.  I have it’s story completely plotted out.  However, it is that very marketing and promotion that keep my behind on my progress.  Between conventions, school visits, book signings, and just general media contacts, much of my time is monopolized.  When I can find a few hours to just sit and write, I am very thankful for them. But I do love visiting with people and new/potential fans. Signing your own book to someone who genuinely loved it is one of the greatest experiences one can have.

J.T. Hartke the Author

CG: As you go about promoting your first published book, do you have any observations about self-promotion and conventions?
JTH: Self-promotion is far more difficult than the writing for me, especially being with a smaller house. However, conventions are by far the most enjoyable and the most intense things on my schedule. They are they best for meeting a great number of people who are interested in my specific genre. I also do better at gaming stores than at comic shops or antiquarian book stores. The hardest part of it all is finding the time in between to keep writing the series.

CG: What did you think of Gen Con and Comic-Con?
JTH: Comic-Con was a whirlwind of people and excitement. I met so many cool folks, and saw so many neat things, it would take pages to describe them. And that was mostly from behind the safety of my booth. Every time I would walk around the hall and see the awesome displays there, I really wanted nothing more than to be back at my booth, selling my book and meeting new fans.  That was the greatest thing there.

Fantasy Author J.T. Hartke holding his book A Balance Broken at his booth at Comic-Con in San Diego

J.T. Hartke, Author of A Balance Broken at His Booth at San Diego Comic-Con 2012

And to be honest, Gen Con is even better. Gaming fans are a lot less serious than comic fans.  They seem to let loose even more, especially with costumes and just general fun.  Comic-Con is awesome, but it has a lot of “industry” stuff going on.  Gen Con gamers are just there to have a blast.

CG: How did you make that leap into deciding to write A Balance Broken, much less a fantasy saga?
JTH: The leap from reading to writing was not that hard for me, once I learned a few key ideas about using Point of View, using stronger verbs and fewer adverbs, and, most importantly, how to Show a Story, Not Tell It.  Once you learn those things, you get on the road to good writing. It’s a long one, and I’ve just begun it myself, but its one anyone can learn to tread.

CG: How does your writing day go?
JTH: I try to get 1000-2000 words per day when I am in actual writing mode, ie. writing into a blank page.  When editing, I can often get several chapters done per day.  I far prefer editing. Also, I usually take a lot of breaks to work in the garden, do some laundry, make lunch, maybe slay a dragon in Skyrim or a few Darkspawn in Dragon Age. Sometimes its just about resting one part of the brain while distracting another. However, when it gets down to deadline time, I sometimes can push the 5000 words per day mark. I’ll be doing that soon to get A Darkness Unleashed out for everyone next summer.  I respect my fans so much, and they have been calling for book two so loudly, there is no way I’ll miss that. In the meantime, however, another companion short story will soon be available, so people waiting for Book 2 should check out “A Thief’s Discovery” in November.

Jason Engle on Downfall, Illustration, Pathfinder, L5R and More

Jason Engle is the visual half of the creative team behind the science fiction comic Downfall which finishes its Kickstarter campaign on Friday, October 26. Written by fantasy author Maxwell Alexander Drake, Downfall has strong narrative hooks, striking visuals, and a gripping plot. It also marks a departure for Engle who can usually be found painting fantasy novel covers and illustrations for CCGs and RPGs in Jacksonville, Florida. Engle shared his thoughts on Downfall, illustration, and gaming on October 19. More info on Downfall at downfallthecomic.com and more on Jason Engle at jaestudio.com

Downfall and the Downfall Kickstarter

Post-apocalyptic sci-fi Downfall cover and open comicCG: How does drawing for Downfall compare to doing your fantasy art?
JE: Well, it kind of doesn’t. That’s one of the things that I like about it. It’s so completely different in pretty much every way. For starters, sequential artwork is fundamentally different from illustration, especially for like card games or role-playing games. You have to think in more storytelling terms. Sometimes they ask to illustrate an RPG and the image may involve a story of one type or another, but it’s more implied and it’s more simplistic. It’s more to illustrate one concept at a time rather than a character throughout a sequence of events in a story like you do in a comic, so it’s very different. I mean the approach is, by itself, something that gives me a lot more interesting challenges than I’m really accustomed to. It’s definitely fun by comparison. It’s a different visual style too. I’m trying to make it more graphic and less painterly, because if I painted every single frame of every page, I might have one issue of the comic done in ten years. So that doesn’t seem like a reasonable production timeline.
CG: Did you go back to any kind of Understanding Comics or anything like that about doing sequential art and refresh your memory of how to do sequential art?
JE: I’ve kind of been dabbling in comics for years. I’ve done a lot of work here and there on a lot of projects that got started that didn’t go very far. [Laughs] I’ve done some work for compilation books, where you just do a small story and it gets included with a bunch of other small stories, stuff like that. I’ve kind of always been into drawing comics in one way or another, so I didn’t really go back and start from square one and go “Gee, what do the experts tell you to do to tell a story?” I kind of already have a handle on all the basic concepts. It has been a lot of fun to put that knowledge to use in a consistent way. It’s been fun. It’s definiely a lot different.

Ramshackle city and buildings built onto cliff from Downfall comic

CG: What’s it been like working with Maxwell Alexander Drake?
JE: Absolutely terrible. He doesn’t turn anything in on time, he swears a lot, I can barely get him to pick up the phone, he spends most of his time with drug dealers and prostitutes, as far as I know. Yeah, it’s been good. He’s a fun guy to work with. He’s really, really easy-going. One of the challenges I’ve had getting into comics is that I’ve never really gone after it as a professional objective. It’s never been my main target. Professionally I do very well as a fantasy illustrator. Comics I really enjoy, but I’ve never felt the need to put them first and completely deep six my illustration career. I really like illustration and if comics didn’t work out, I could always go back to it. It’s just not something that I ever really want to put in first place, but one of the problems I’ve had is finding an author who is reliable. And Drake is a novelist. He does a lot of words at a time every single day of his life. He’s very reliable, he’s very professional and he’s production-oriented. When you don’t take comics very, very seriously like I haven’t in the past, you end up partnering with people who also don’t take comics very seriously. [Laughs] When that happens it usually doesn’t go very far. It’s always been a matter of I do a lot of art, I come up with a lot of great ideas and have a lot of fun doing it, and the writing never really gets past one issue. Comics are about quantity. You’ve got to produce a lot of work in a short amount of time. When a comic writer can’t produce a quantity of work reliably, it’s hard to understand but there’s a lot of people who get enthusiastic about a project at the outset and then lose that enthusiasm pretty quickly. It’s one of those things. Some people can be professional creatives and some people can’t. It’s just a matter of whether you can treat it like a job and still have fun doing it. I’ve not had to worry about that with Drake. He already is kind of a self-made, creative professional just the way I am. That’s kind of the great thing about it: we both have the self-drive to do a project on the side and still treat it like a professional goal. It’s worked out really well so far; I’m hoping it continues to.

CG: Now have you read Farmers and Mercenaries or Mortals and Deities?
JE: Yeah, I read both of them! He gave me Farmers and Mercenaries at Gen Con the first year I met him and this was a couple of years ago. He said “Here! Read my book.” And I was like “Sure, guy! I’ll read your book.” But he gave it to me for free so the next year when Gen Con was coming around I was like “Man, I bet I’m going to run into that guy, I should probably read this.” About a month before the convention I picked it up and finished it before I could get on the plane. That way I could meet him at Gen Con and say “Hey! You don’t suck as a writer.” I could actually say that truthfully. When he finished the second book I made sure to get a free copy from him. [Laughs] You know, it was actually better than the first one.
CG: Now you’re waiting just like everyone else for the third, yeah?
JE: Yeah, pretty much. I’m looking forward to it. It’s an interesting fantasy series. It’s got a lot of elements of traditional fantasy in it, but the world he set it in is completely new and original, which is a rarity these days. You know, a lot of fantasy authors try to play it safe and Drake sees very little value in playing it safe and that’s one of the reasons that I wanted to work with him on a comic. When you’re doing a comic, especially fantasy or science fiction, you have to have a certain open attitude to new ideas.

CG: On your promo video for the Kickstarter campaign for Downfall, am I right that you came up with brand new artwork for it? It’s not stuff from Issue 0 or the first series with the scientist?
JE: When we first started talking about doing a Kickstarter video, he started talking to me that he was going to do a script for us and we’d both do like a little webcam thing. He’d say a few lines, then the screen’d split, and I’d say a few lines. It’d be like we were talking to each other, only we weren’t. I was like “Yeah, that could work.” I’d seen a lot of the Kickstarter videos people’d done, it’s all talking heads staring at a camera, saying “This is me. This is my project.” I knew I could do something better than that. I didn’t actually have the technical knowledge to do it, so I went out and found some software and learned how to do a little bit of basic animation. So I threw together a basic concept that was about 30 seconds to a minute long, something like that. It was art that we already had at that point, a logo shot, some music in the background. I was like “Look, here’s more of what I had in mind. It’s more of a TV commercial/video game thing. It’s got a little bit more slow motion drama to it. It doesn’t have to be just us staring at a camera telling people what we’re trying to sell them. Let’s show them the story. I don’t think seeing us ask them for their money is really going to convince people that we have a good idea. Let’s show them the idea.” When he saw that, he got really enthusiastic. He ended up laying in bed thinking about ideas. He got up out of bed and started writing a script. That’s how we ended up with a seven minute video. [Laughs] I’d really only intended for us to have an animated piece maybe a minute long, but he got so into the script he was writing and telling the story about this character. I thought it was such a neat idea, I just didn’t have the heart to shoot it down. In the end, I started out laying out the scenes, doing the animation, and doing the art. I think when I went over the script originally and I wrote down the different ideas of what it needed visually, I estimated probably 30 percent of the art that I ended up doing eventually. It went from being two or three weeks of work to two or three months worth of work.
CG: Yeah, that’s what I was wondering. This isn’t stuff that you’ve recycled, this was all brand new just for the video.
JE: Yeah, it was all custom done. We are going to use it for other purposes. [Laughs] Because we like how the script came out so much we’re going to do a comic version of the video itself and break it into panels and word bubbles and all that because we already have the art and it’s such a neat story. After the Kickstarter’s done, no one’s going to be able to see it really, so we want to put it into print form and make it part of our Issue 0 that we’re doing to catch people up on the background of the story.

Fantasy Artist and Illustrator Jason Engle

Fantasy Artist Jason Engle at his table at Gen Con

Fantasy Illustrator Jason Engle at Gen Con 2012

CG: Where does card art fit into things versus doing a cover versus interior artwork?
JE: As a freelancer, you take what you get pretty much. You hope you get enough art directors offering you enough jobs to fill up your schedule month to month. There are periods in my career where I’ve done nothing but collectible card games for a couple of years at a time. You get a lot of work doing card games. That’s the great thing about ’em. Some of them pay better than others. Some of them pay really well. Some card games you can only get one or two cards at a time. Other card games, you can get ten or twenty at a time. They usually come out with expansion sets on a pretty consistent basis. If you get your name out there and get prominent and do a few cards that are important in that game then you become one of the face artists of that game and you basically have guaranteed work for the lifespan and popularity of that card game. If you get a few of those on your roster at once then you get a lot of work coming in the door. As a freelancer, that’s a good thing.
CG: Would you consider that to be true for yourself? Were you ever one of these “face” artists for a company?
JE: Uh… yeah. I was the main artist for AEG’s card game Warlord. I was one of the big ones on their game Legend of the Five Rings and I’ve done some promotional stuff for Magic: The Gathering as well. I wouldn’t say that I’m one of their main artists just yet, but they’ve used me a lot on a few of the sets that they’ve done, which is what they tend to do. They have access to so many different artists that they tend to pick a few guys for the different sets that they want to kind of represent and define the look for that set and they use that person much more on that set and then maybe they don’t give them any cards on the next set. I mean they’re a little different from most companies in that they tend to bounce around a lot. But it’s good. They keep a nice, varied look for their game that way.

Female sorceress holding skull on card art for Legend of 5 Rings Moto Rani by Jason Engle

Artwork for Legend of the 5 Rings Card Moto Rani by Jason Engle

Warlord is the game that I was the most prominent artist on for a number of years. L5R I’m still one of the more prominent guys on that game. Warlord was a good example back in the day, but it doesn’t exist any more. [Laughs] Yeah, it’s always been great because you go to the conventions and you get to meet a lot of the fans. A lot of the people that go to game conventions these days are people that play collectible card games because it’s a place for them to play in big tournaments and get together and just play nonstop card games for the entire weekend.
CG: Even on that note, the guy behind me on the plane on the way out to Gen Con was and is a huge Warlord fan who’s trying to revive the game, so the chance to meet you would probably be big to him.
JE: It’s got a huge, huge fanbase. It’s one of those games that was sizable enough for a number of years that it still has a number of fans around the world. And a company purchased it, based in Germany, which is where it actually was much more popular ever: in Germany rather than the US. They kept it going for a couple of years. They did their best to kind of revive it, but in the end I think they weren’t quite able to pull it all together and make enough money to keep it around, but there is still quite a fanbase out there for it.

CG: Now when did you really know, I’m going to be an artist?
JE: I never really thought of being anything else, I think. When I was probably four or five years old people would ask, like they do to most kids, “What are you going to do when you grow up?” At the time I didn’t really have an answer. I thought about it for a while and realized I liked art and decided that that’s what I’m going to do. So I started doing that pretty much all the time and then from that point on whenever I was asked that question, I’d say “I’m going to be an artist.”

CG: What was your training once you were out of high school?
JE: My training once I got out of high school was… [laughs] I pretty much went right into a web marketing company rather than going into college or art school. I got a job and I was building websites for a living during the dot-com boom.
CG: So you were doing more graphic design?
JE: Yeah, logos, brochures, websites, anything that people were willing to pay our marketing company to create for them. I mean it was fun. I was able to learn Photoshop and all the wonderful things it could do, but I started applying it to fantasy illustration. When I first started doing it, it took me forever to complete an illustration. Gosh, it was probably two weeks or so to do a single image. All my graphic designer buddies in the office would go “You’re still working on that thing? Photoshop’s not good for that, man, it’s for graphic design. You’re never going to be able to make money doing that. It takes too long.” And now, of course, everyone in the business uses Photoshop to paint, so it turns out that I was just really, really much more correct than they were. It was a fun way to get started.

CG: Are you actually self-taught then?
JE: … Yeah. I kept building my fantasy portfolio and eventually a group of us at the marketing company split off and started our own company which was kind of half-marketing, half web company, and thirty percent game publishing house and I did all the art for that book and all the layout for it and all the graphic design and we launched our RPG book at Gen Con that year. It was callled Shards of the Stone, which is a long title, but it did really well at the convention that year because D&D 3rd edition was also launching. It was like any fantasy RPG that came out that year sold gangbusters even if nobody had ever heard of you. But the advantage of that was that I had done all of the art in that book and it got in front of all the major art directors in that year all at once, so I kind of got my portfolio out there all at the same time. It wasn’t too long after that that I was able to start freelancing full time and leave the graphic design and marketing business behind me.


CG: What’s been your favorite piece of your own fantasy art so far.
JE: Well, I don’t know, man. They’re like kids: you love them all. I would say… Gosh… this is a tough question. Probably The Dark Knight, it’s an image I did for my first art book that I got professionally published back in 2004. I did it for the cover specfically. It’s kind of an homage piece to Frank Frazetta’s Death Dealer. It’s kind of a silhoutted dark knight character on horseback. He’s got spiked armor and looks menacing and all that, but it just-, it’s one of those pieces that seems cliche, but it just came out really well and I was really happy with it and it went on the cover of my first art book so it holds a little nostalgia for me because of that I suppose.

Engle’s Inspirations

CG: Ok, yeah. Who inspires you artistically? Other fantasy and science fiction illustrators? Fine artists?
JE: Anything, yeah. All kinds of fiction and science fiction media is inspiring to me. I get probably more inspiration from other fantasy artists than any other individual source though, but that’s something that I’ve always been a fan of just in general. I grew up with tons and tons of fantasy art books sitting in my closet and on my bookshelves and all around. It’s one of those things where when I got to be part of the business myself, I never really stopped loving the work of other fantasy artists. And now that I know a lot of them, it’s even that much cooler because I still have the books I grew up with and used to copy out of and all the prints that I purchased from them and now I go drink beer with those guys when we go to conventions together. That’s pretty neat.
CG: Is there somebody you’d still like to meet?
JE: Well, gosh, that’s a tough question. I don’t know. I think I’ve gotten to meet just about all my heroes at this point.
CG: So I know Larry Elmore is the kind of guy who would be at Gen Con, so you probably hang out with him?
JE: Yeah, I’ve hung out with Larry a number of times. He still has no idea of who I am. He’d probably know me by face and not my name. That’s one thing you start to realize: some of these guys that have been in the business for 30 or 40 years, they’ve met so many people over that period of time that they get to know people visually more than they get to know you by your actual first name. But no, I’ve spent time hanging out with pretty much all of them. I’ve hung out with Brom and Michael Weylan and Todd Lockwood, Larry Elmore and yeah, you name any of the big name guys in the business and I’ve at least shook their hand.
CG: Yeah, you’ve named two of my favorite artists, Brom and Elmore.
JE: Oh yeah. No, those were probably two of my biggest influences growing up. I think Elmore for a long time and Keith Parkinson were my two major influences when I was younger. As I started getting a little older, Brom started to become more prominent on the scene and as soon as I started to see more and more of his stuff I instantly just loved him more than anybody else.

Engle’s Speed as an Illustrator

Flaming skeleton in armor card art for Warlord card game by Jason Engle

Warlord Card Art: Spirit of the Burning Sky

CG: Changing topics just a little bit, how long did something like Spirit of the Burning Sky take?
JE: Um… well, it really depends honestly. If a piece is really really complex it could take a few days. But if it’s just a single character, it really isn’t that bad, I mean that particular image, took me maybe four or five hours.
CG: Wow. Ok, so you’re very quick?
JE: I mean yeah, that’s always been one of my advantages in the freelance business, especially when I was starting out. I had a lot of art directors that would come to me for last-minute, emergency jobs. If another artist dropped out or when they needed a huge amount of work in a very small amount of time, I’m quick enough that they could come to me and say “Hey, can you do me a favor? Can you do me a rush job?” And I can say “Yeah, absolutely.” So I kind of always built myself that way and developed my style around both quality and speed.
CG: You work now just purely in Photoshop?
JE: A lot of the time, yeah. I do still like to sketch things out in advance. I do thumbnails and work out the compositions. I do a bit of a tighter sketch. I usually do several of those and send them in to get approved. And when those get approved, I just pick the one that works and start painting the rest in Photoshop, but I still do like to do everything in pencil first if I can, if I have time. It just allows you to play around with a lot more ideas and kind of niggle around details. Photoshop’s great for painting, but it’s one of those things that some people can use it for sketching. For me it doesn’t quite have the same organic feel that real pencil has.
CG: And you’ve tried tablets and things like that?
JE: [Laughs] I have them all, man. I’ve spent I don’t even know how much money on equipment that’s sitting in my closet. It’s all about the process that works best for you. The shortest amount of difference between your imagination and the finished image is always going to leave the better stuff. If a tablet works really well for you and it feels really natural and easy and you don’t even notice it’s there, by all means go for it, but I’ve never played with it enough to where it’s gotten to that point for me. It’s easier for me to use pencil and a piece of paper and then I use a mouse from that point forward.

CG: Have you kept track of how many separate pieces of art that you’re at?
JE: Oh god! I don’t have any idea. I’ve done a lot of games where I’ve been the only guy producing work on that game and you know when that happens, you’ve done or you do hundreds of pieces of art. And you know, I’ve been working on the L5R card game since, gosh, almost since the start of my career, so what? Probably twelve, thirteen years. And when you’ve worked on a card game that long there’s no telling how many pieces you’ve done for it all in total. So I’ve probably done over 10,000 pieces.
CG: Oh wow. How old are you now?
JE: I’m about to turn 32. I started when I was 18. You start early, it gets you a lot more time. I was hanging out with Todd Lockwood at Comic-Con this year and he was like “So how long have you been at this anyway, I’ve seen your stuff for years.” And I was like “About 14 years.” And he was like “14 years! You don’t even look 14!” But you know, you get started early it gives you a lot of time to build up your portfolio. Art’s one of those things that really doesn’t require a college degree to be more successful. It’s more a matter of skill. Portfolio, man. If you’ve got the ability to do it, it doesn’t matter if you spent four years in school.
CG: Well are you involved in anything any more where an art director hasn’t heard of you or you need to prove anything?
JE: Oh sure! You pretty much always have to, I mean, there’s sides of the business I haven’t spent much time in, like comics for example. Probably almost every art director in the comic business hasn’t heard of me unless they’re into fantasy games specifically or read fantasy novels. They probably have no idea of who I am so if I ever do comic work as a freelance gig, that’s somewhere where I really have to prove myself. Novels, it’s the same way. Every time I’ve worked on a video game it’s the same way, these guys don’t really know who you are, they don’t really know how long you’ve been around, and honestly they tend not to care. On the higher end of the pay scale, the art directors know that they’re paying for the absolute best of the best. That’s pretty much what you’ve got to bring to the table. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been at it, it’s just a matter of what you can do. So you never really stop having to prove yourself in that way.

On Art Direction

CG: Does art direction vary much from gaming company to gaming company?
JE: Oh, absolutely. It’s definitely different. And it’s not neccessarily every gaming company so much as every art director. Different art directors have different styles of dealing with freelancers and some know how to do it better than others and some are very controlling in the way they want to do it and those are usually the ones I prefer not to work with, because they’ll be intentionally vague at the outset, let you do a lot of work, and then basically tell you to change it all because you didn’t do it the way that they were hoping you would do it telepathically. [Laughs] That’s usually not something I like to deal with very long because simply put, when you’re a freelancer time is money. When one art director wants to cost you twice as much as time or three times as much time as other art directors do for what boils down to the same amount of paying work, that’s not a job that I really have a lot of enjoyment for.

“If you get a compliment for the work you’ve turned in that’s three words word or longer then that means that you just blew it out of the water! It means that they’re probably going to use that piece for promotional purposes and stuff like that.”

– Jason Engle

So yeah, I mean they definitely differ. Every art director’s different. You know like the art director for Magic: The Gathering for example. He will give you a job and it will have a few paragraphs of detailed description and a style guide which is usally over a hundred pages long with lots of reference art in it. Then once he gives you that, that’s usually the last you hear from him. [Laughs] I mean usually you turn in the final art and you get a one word answer when you turn it in, where he goes “Awesome.” or “Good.” He’s pretty hands off when it comes to art directing. He hires people that he knows can do the job and doesn’t worry about it and he’s one of the best art directors in the business.
CG: Were you being literal about the awesome vs. good?
JE: [Laughs] We like to joke about him because he has these one word responses to almost everybody. If you get a compliment for the work you’ve turned in that’s three words word or longer then that means that you just blew it out of the water! It means that they’re probably going to use that piece for promotional purposes and stuff like that. Yeah, most art directors I’d be exagerrating but with Jeremy [Cranford] it’s literal, yeah. But it’s because he has to art direct so many pieces of art all at the same time. It’s unbelievable how much art Magic puts out and how many different expansions they work on at the same time. It’s pretty nuts. He does what he needs to for time but it also means that it kind of decomplicates the issue for the rest of us. Some art directors will give you a response to an image and have you do little fixes or little changes here or there. And if he sees something that needs to be changed, he’ll definitely let you know, but honestly most of the time if it looks good and it works, that’s what he cares about. And that kind of frees an artist really. You don’t feel as concerned about doing the job and getting every little detail to be just the way the art director wants it. You just try to do the job as well as you can. It’s a purely pscyhological approach. It gets all the BS out of the way.

Woman with bare midriff in Jason Engle's Soma painting

Jason Engle’s Soma

CG: You have a work, Soma, it seems like it was drawn from life or a photo, was it? You usually work from your own sketches though?
JE: Yeah, that one was actually drawn from reference. That was a piece for a website that basically had a competition. They had a promotional character that they had a bunch of artists do different versions of and that was actually from well back in my career. I did that piece probably nine or ten years ago at least. But the time frame on it was so short and it wasn’t really a paying gig, I was doing it as a favor to the guy who ran this site, so I needed to streamline the process a little, so rather than making it a really actiony/illustratish you have the drawn image. But I went and found a good bit of reference photography and kind of pieced it together and then I painted it from there and really streamlined the process, it kind of ended up giving it a different style and a different look, which I like, but it also took a lot less time than just noodling around until the lighting gets right and all of that. Having a reference is great; it really streamlines it. If you’re working on the kind of project where they want something that’s photorealistic or just realistic, it’s a great way to go.

Zephyr Guard Artwork by Jason Engle for Paizo's Pathfinder

Zephyr Guard for Paizo’s Pathfinder by Engle

CG: For all your other work just in general though you’re working from sketches?
JE: I’d say about 80-90 percent of it. It’s just a matter of doing work for the client based on what their visual style is, based on the brand and the product. Everything has to have a different look. If you’re a working artist, you’re creating art for a brand. They’re a lot of guys that have their own signature style, stick to that, and won’t do anything outside of it, and yeah, I have kind of a signature style, but I’m capabale of doing a lot of different styles and I enjoy doing a lot of different styles. That’s another reason that I enjoy working on Downfall so much, because it requires that I come up with a totally new style from anything I’d done before.
CG: You can see that visually that it is different, just like you can see that Paizo illustrations are kind of different than other fantasy art.
JE: Yeah and Paizo is another good example. I tried to draw a little bit more in the style of the main artist they had used on their Pathfinder game in the past and stick close to their visual brand that way. I’ve done the same thing with D&D and a number of the RPG’s I’ve worked on.

Jason Engle’s Cartography

CG: Another one of the things that you’ve done for a bunch of gaming companies is you’ve done cartography, so is that a nice break from illustration for you?
JE: Oh yeah. Like I said, I like to do different styles. When it comes to doing a different style, there is no different style that is more different than cartography. It uses a totally different side of your brain almost. It’s a lot of fun. It’s a little bit more relaxing. With illustration you kind of build it up, piece by piece as you go. Sometimes it can be a struggle, sometimes the pieces don’t fit together the way you thought they would, but you don’t know that until you’re already haflway through the image. It can really really kind of devolve into a fistfight with the image. But with cartography that never happens. It’s so straightforward and so simple that it’s just a matter of putting all the pieces into place, making it clear and making it look good on top of that. And if you can do all that, then you can do cartography and it’s a lot of fun. Because I’m also an illustrator it’s given me the ability to do different kinds of cartography from what a lot of the guys working today can do. I can do cartography that’s more illustrative, that’s a little bit closer in, that’s more attuned and actually has an illustrative element. That’s why Wizards of the Coast used me for a lot of the battle maps that they’ve done, their Dungeon Tiles product line, their Fantastic Locations product line. They just came out with a new board game called Dungeon Command where I did all the board pieces for that. It means I kind of straddle both sides of the business, but I love them both equally so it’s a good way to get out of your comfort zone.

CG: Do you have any tips for GMs at home making their own maps on ways to improve?
JE: My biggest tip is learn Photoshop, because once you learn that, you’re not as limited in as many ways. I used to make maps when I was a kid playing Dungeons & Dragons and I used to get my hands on as much graph paper as I could find and it worked for what I needed to do, but today if you’ve got a copy of Photoshop, there’s really no limit to what you can put together in terms of a map. And the tools are so powerful that you could make something that’s very very concise very easily and very quickly.

The Gaming Side of Jason Engle

Crossbow wielding Inquisitor pencil sketch character art by Jason Engle

Sketch from Gaming: Inquisitor

CG: So for gaming, you just actually mentioned it, when did you start gaming?
JE: I’m not even really sure what the age was, I think it was eight or nine. It’s a pretty normal story as far as that goes. I had a friend that got really into gaming and started telling me about it. He got me and my brother into it. We just pretty much loved the hobby from that point forward. That was the time that I was kind of building my illustrative skill so I was able to use gaming as a way to grow those skills. There’s a lot of times where you’re sitting around the role-playing games table where you want to draw your character or you want to draw someone else’s character or you find a cool sword and you want to draw what that looks like. So it gave me an excuse to build my skill set.

“…when people would ask me what I was going to do, I wouldn’t just say I was going to be an artist, I’d say I was going to be an artist that worked for TSR.”

– Jason Engle

CG: Did you start on D&D then?
JE: Uh, I did, I did. I moved on from there to Role Master and RIFTS and Shadowrun. I’ve played most of the big ones from one time or another. In the end I’ve always come back to D&D. That was the game that after I started getting into it and after I started getting good at drawing, when people would ask me what I was going to do, I wouldn’t just say I was going to be an artist, I’d say I was going to be an artist that worked for TSR.
CG: Ok. Yeah. Awesome.
JE: It turned out to be not as accurate.
CG: So you grew up admiring the Elmore illustrations in the Player’s Handbook.
JE: Oh yeah. I’d say one of the pivotal moments for me was right when I was getting into role-playing games I got a copy of a Dragonlance artbook. It was basically, I think, the first one that they’d done, the Art of the Dragonlance Saga. It kind of introduced me to a lot of the artists that I’d seen their work, but didn’t know them by name and it introduced me to a lot of that stuff in quantity and I was able to just pour over all the art. I just wore the pages of that book out looking at the art day after day. That’s one of the reasons that I fell in love with so much of the art in the gaming business and kind of why I drove my skills in that direction.

Pencil sketch by Jason Engle of a sorcerer from an RPG game session

Engle’s Sorcerer Sketch from Pathfinder Game

CG: Now are you still gaming today?
JE: I do, I do! [Laughs] When I have time! I would say I manage to get a game in probably every month or three. It’s not something that I manage to do all the time. And all the guys I game with now are all my age or a few years older and they’ve all got kids. Everybody’s schedules don’t always work together easily enough to get together for a six or eight hour session, but when we can, we absolutely make it a priority to do it. And I don’t play D&D anymore, I play Pathfinder, but that’s basically the same thing.
CG: So you’re playing on Game Mastery map packs right, that you helped to illustrate?
JE: Yeah, I do. The guys like to make fun of me when they spot something like a little mistake or could be a softer shade. They like to needle me about that kind of stuff. Usually when you do work on a game for one of the bigger companies they give you a complimentary copy of the product which means that we basically never have to buy anything, because I work on so many different games I get tons of free books. Honestly, I try to keep one copy for myself for my book shelf at home, but if they give me three copies of something I just show up to the game table and go “Here, guys! I got some free stuff.”
CG: You’re a couple of years younger than me, but this is all stuff that we would have loved to have growing up, the Map Packs…
JE: Absolutely. It’s all stuff that’s really taken the game and made it so much more visual. It just really makes the game more three-dimensional in a number of ways. Even as a kid I used to use miniatures, but it was always kind of challenging. You had to use a lot of your imagination and it didn’t always work all that well. The fact that they started introducing that as the main component of the rules set, building visual products to go along with it, I mean it’s really improved the game immeasurably in my opinion, not just because I work on it.
CG: Even there, how are you as a miniature painter?
JE: Oh, I’m terrible. [Laughs] I try not to get into the actual real life paint if I can avoid it. It’s a very very time consuming process. For some reason when I’m working on a two-dimensional piece of art that’s original and I’ve spent all that time and effort in creating myself, I can spend ten hours at a time doing it. But when I’m painting someone else’s sculpture I just have very little patience. It’s not a hobby that I was ever able to really get into.
CG: So, it doesn’t translate?
JE: Yeah, you’d think it would, but for some reason it doesn’t click for me. But thankfully I have a number of friends that are very into it. I let them do all my miniatures painting for me and I draw their characters for them.

Collectible Card Games

“The sad reality is that I used to play Magic and after I got old enough to have disposable income I was able to stop playing Magic and get in a recovery program and kick the habit.”

– Jason Engle

CG: Going back not to RPGs, but to card games, did you play L5R or still play it?
JE: I’ve never played a single game of L5R. [Laughs] I should lie about that or I should go out and start playing it, one of the two, but I’ve never actually gotten to play a game of it. The sad reality is that I used to play Magic and after I got old enough to have disposable income I was able to stop playing Magic and get in a recovery program and kick the habit. I haven’t gone back into that area since with collectible card games because I know they’re something that I absolutely love and will sink a lot of time and money into if given the opportunity, so I try to keep myself from getting back into the hobby. Because I know I would love L5R if I started playing it like that and I’d be playing it all the time. It’s a wonderful game from what I understand. I know lots of people in the community. Like I said, I’ve been working on it for so many years that I’ve had the chance to meet most of the players that are really big in the community at the conventions and I got to say that L5R is different from a lot of the games out there in that players are so tight knit and they’re so nice, which sounds weird to say. But like, for example, you go to one of the Magic tournament and they’re very different in mind set because it is a broader scope of playerbase. There’s a lot more people that are more mainstream and less into the whole geek hobby which means it’s a lot more competitive, a lot more aggressive mindset. It’s not a very tight knit community in that sense, whereas L5R a lot of the people know each other. It’s just more of a real community of players which is kind of neat and unique in my experience.

Walking Ominous Stone Golemesque Magical Being

Engle’s Magic: TG Card Art for Ominous Statuary. Prints available at buyfantasyart.com

Board Games

CG: And what about any board games, you delve into that a little bit or are you more of an RPG guy?
JE: Yeah, I’ve done a couple of board games. I did Thunderstone. I did all of the art for that one. That came out a couple of years ago and I think it’s gosh, I don’t know how many expansions they’re on now, but it’s done pretty well. The first board game I did was called Tobogans of Doom. Yeah, that one you’re probably not going to find on too many shelves.
CG: And I was just actually asking if you’re a player of board games, haha. Wasn’t expecting that you’d done some.
JE: Well, I used to. I haven’t really been into too many of those for a few years either. The things about board games in particular is that they’re sort of similar to card games in that you have to be around a certain amount of the gaming community in order to get introduced to new ones and have people to play them with and all of that and I just don’t really go to that many gaming stores these days. There really aren’t that many in Jacksonville that are worth going to visit. The sad truth is that they’re kind of a dying breed and even ones that do have a bustling community built around them, if you don’t know where they’re located in your town, you’re pretty much out of luck. If there was a play to do that sort of thing in Jacksonville, I’d be absolutely into it. I do still enjoy board games when I get the chance to play. But without a real community to be a part of, it’s not something I spend a lot of time doing.

More on Engle’s RPGs

Pencil and paper sketch of a Paladin by Jason Engle

Jason Engle’s Paladin Sketch from Gaming

CG: So when you’re playing RPGs like Pathfinder now, are you the player or the GM?
JE: I’m a player. I’m a total player. I’ve dabbled at GMing. It’s fun to do, but here’s the problem with someone who’s overly developed their visual aesthetic: when you start designing an adventure, you start designing everything from a more visual standpoint than you need to and you end up spending way too much time in all the wrong areas. And when it comes time to play the game all that preparation work is generally not all that useful, so it’s a great thing to do, it’s really enjoyable, but GMing just takes too much time for me to really put into it. But I love playing and it allows me to both play my character and draw scenes from whatever is going on at the time. And the other players don’t mind having that so it works out.
CG: My last question for you then is what kind of characters do you end up playing?
JE: Um, well I’ve played them all, man. [Laughs] I’ve played the giant barbarian, the thief that usually ends up getting blown up first, I’ve even done the cleric, you know the healer, because no one else wants to play it. I usually like the fighter characters more to be honest because yeah, when you’re playing a combat game – which is what D&D and Pathfinder essentially are – your main skill set is going to be much more useful as that kind of character. Even though the guys I play with, we’re a little older, we try to integrate a lot more story and a lot more role-playing into our game, but in the end when your character’s really going to be bested and all the chips are down, it doesn’t hurt to have a fex extra hit dice.

GameChurch’s Mike Bridges Talks Gaming and Jesus For the Win

One of the things I picked up back at Gen Con was a small, free, 132+ page book “about a guy named Jesus, his Guild, and his ultimate quest to save a land known as Earth.” Jesus For the Win! is a publication from GameChurch and basically contains the Gospel of John from the Bible with commentary about gaming and life changes. Mike Bridges is the founder and president of GameChurch and we chatted after Gen Con about his mission.

Depiction of Jesus Christ playing console video game for Gamechurch.comCG: So, Jesus For the Win!, I have to imagine that while some gamers may not get it, maybe more Christians might be bothered by what you guys are doing? What’s the response been?
MB: The response has been pretty positive. I think that is because of our delivery. We still have a few problems with the far left and the far right. They both don’t seem to like us much.
CG: Now why the far left?
MB: We have plenty that come up to the booth and immediately want to argue about the ‘big ticket’ items. Gay marriage, abortion, etc. They get a little frazzled when we explain to them that we are just there to tell them that Jesus loves them and that’s it. Kinda funny because both far left and far right run out of steam pretty fast because of the simplicity of what we do.
CG: I don’t even recall anyone even saying that at Gen Con, but of course, I also wasn’t full of steam. Now at the Armory, where you guys play a lot of video games, do you guys do tabletop games as well?
MB: We actually had a pretty mellow time at Gen Con. We mainly get hit by atheists in more liberal areas. Seattle, Los Angeles, etc. Yes, the Armory is our gaming facility and we do have table top nights in our lounge. We are trying to do more and expand that.
CG: Ok, so Gen Con was kind of a fit for you, but do you guys mostly promote at video game events?
MB: Not necessarily. We do anime, comic, video game, table top and other ‘nerd culture’ events.
CG: Is this full time for you and do you consider it a ministry?
MB: This is just one of the things I am involved with but yes, it is a full time job. I do consider it a ministry but I have a hard time with ‘Christianese” words because of what Christianity has done to those types of words.
CG: So is GameChurch a non-profit with churches or church members contributing towards it?
MB: It’s a non profit, but we are funded by one private source. Not a church. GameChurch is also not a church in the “four walled” sense of the word.
CG: I also imagine you guys are non-denominational and even those in the LA area may go to different churches from each other, right?
MB: Exactly.
CG: Going back to the Armory in Ventura, CA, who is the owner and how did things originate with Game Church and the Armory?
MB: Well, because we are a non profit, there is no ‘owner’. I am the President, and Director for that as well as GameChurch. I have been doing weird stuff like the Armory and GameChurch for a long time. The Armory was birthed in a music venue I had created. We had a small room at the venue that we put 12 PC’s in and people started to come and play video games. We expanded that and a few years later we got rid of the music venue and we are now exclusively gaming.
CG: You still game yourself though?
MB: Yeah, but I am more of a lone wolf type. I like RPG’s on the 360. Fallout, Bioshock, Skyrim, Mass Effect.
CG: What did you think of the Bright Brotherhood guys?
MB: Not familiar.
CG: The glowing ghouls in the RepConn facility in New Vegas? No?
MB: Haha! I am familiar. I loved every minute of New Vegas except for two of the DLC’s.
CG: Increasingly some of the console RPGs give us more and more moral choices. Do you find yourself being a “good” guy when you play?
MB: For the most part, I am a good guy with a dark streak. That goes for most games.
CG: What I’ve found is that when I need to be evil to unlock an achievement, oftentimes I’ll disgust myself a bit, but also that I will start to feel contempt for my victims. Any thoughts?
MB: Depends on the situation, or I get bored or I have done all I can do and want to play the game more so unlocking other questlines requires a bit of foul play.
CG: I saw Playing Columbine, a documentary on an RPG video game made about the Columbine Massacre, but what I started thinking of was how cool would it be to do a Rock Star-style/GTA more open-ended game, but that you would be a random normal person on each level helping other people out. I see some liability issues for actually making the gamer think “Maybe I could do this myself.” for real life emergencies, but what do you think?
MB: We actually discuss things like that on our forums and in our articles. It’s an interesting premise. I’d like to see it done right, without being boring.

Tattooed smiling Mike Bridges at GameChurch Booth at Gen Con 2012

GameChurch Founder and Christian gamer Mike Bridges at Gen Con 2012

CG: I may be unaware on this, but to me, it seems that there’s very few positive depictions of Christian heroes in movies and films, at least ones that are outspoken. I’m not aware of any in a video game, but Mos Def’s recent role on Dexter was actually a positive one: are there any in video games I’ve missed?
MB: Probably not. I have yet to see it as well. I agree with the Dexter reference. Loved that. Unfortunately when Christians have made games, they have sucked. I’d love to see that change.
CG: How do you see that happening?
MB: It will have to come in the way of a complete Church culture change. I don’t see much coming from the Church that is culturally relevant. We make movies for Christians. We make music for Christians. We make games for Christians. Until we make those things for the general public, we won’t see anything good. The Church has always had its head in the sand. Sad part is that it takes so long for us to catch up that we cannot be relevant. And unless we become relevant, there will be no Christian heroes.

CG: And are you familiar at all with the Christian tabletop RPGs, DragonRaid or Holy Lands?
MB: Yes, we have heard of them but we just started to get into tabletop gaming and we have stacks of games we are trying to get through. We do a tabletop night two times a month at our Armory facility in Ventura.

CG: Does GameChurch ever tackle gaming addiction? I saw in JFTW that there was the story of Jaz who felt she could be doing something more “constructive” with her time than playing WoW.
MB: Yes. Parents bring it up to us a lot. I think it has more to do with parenting than anything. Good parenting equals setting boundaries for gaming time for kids. The addiction part of it stems from the escape component. Kids or adults playing too long are escaping form something. Just as we escape with shopping, TV, drugs, eating, alcohol, et cetera. Everything in moderation. But because of the consumerist culture we live in in America, I think much of these things are overlooked. It is definitely something to be looked at.
CG: Getting back to the tabletop gaming night at the Armory, what games are being played? Do you play yourself?
MB: Yes, I do play. We have been playing Shadows over Camelot, Last Night on Earth, and Chaostle.

CG: What has the response been to your help @gamechurch.com email address? Do you get many people looking for help or someone to talk to?
MB: Not a lot there but we do get into some deeper discussions on our forums. We have made a lot of friends there and are continuing to build that family.

On a Collision Course with Ian Douglass

At Gen Con 2012, I took the opportunity to play the miniature skirmish game Collision against its creator, Ian Douglass. Douglass, who heads New World Gaming Company, managed a close victory with a frustratingly-effective archer. We caught up on September 8 about Collision, which is available for free download on Douglass’s site.

Overview of Collision

Ian Douglass at Gen Con 2012 in Indianapolis, Designer of Collision

Collision Game Designer Ian Douglass

CG: How long has Collision been in development?
ID: In its current form about three years. It has been kind of a long slog since I have been doing it in my free time.
CG: And by current form you mean as a miniature game and not a D&D setting?
ID: Yes. Collision started out as a D&D setting, and eventually I tried to develop a simplified version of the combat system for larger battles. Through revision it departed more and more from D&D, and after a while I decided that it could be its own game.
CG: So the campaign events at Gen Con? Did those go off? What were they like?
ID: They did go off, and they were a run of a basic campaign in where each battle is tied to the next. However there were fewer battles than I had first planned for because each battle took so long
CG: Who were the players? Had they played Collision before?
ID: Some of the players were friends of mine, some were first-time players, but most had played in one of the intro battles and wanted to play larger battles. I was worried that I wouldn’t actually have enough players to run them, but it turned out to be a great few events.
CG: Yeah, I know from some other game designers, that some of the planned events don’t really happen as intended. Now do you play Collision yourself in this series of campaign games and what sort of things developed for the Gen Con players?
ID: I only participated in a couple of the battles myself. The basic story was that the Necromancer Virgil had suffered a major defeat and was attempting to re-take his captured bodyguard.
CG: And did he?
ID: When I had designed the forces and the scenarios I was worried that Virgil and his forces would be over-powered. The players also felt that the forces were un-balanced, but he was sorely defeated at every turn. Instead of a ride to conquest and re-capture, the campaign turned into the story of Virgil’s death.
CG: Awesome.
ID: I had intended for him to die, but not this soon. He will be coming back though, he’s a Necromancer after all.

Gridded Game Board for Miniature Game Collision at Gen Con 2012

A Game of Collision in Progress on a Rocky Gridded Game Board

The World of Collision

Photograph of game card for Collision for Attendant of the 5 Dragons

The Stat Card for the Attendant of the 5 Dragons

CG: So when we played at Gen Con, I used a Noble Duelist and an Attendant of the 5 Dragons, do these instantly ring a bell with you and you can picture what they look like in the land of Gea automatically?
ID: Yes, the Noble Duelist is a bodyguard of the court of Deadholm, the northern city-state where Virgil is from. The duelist was a red elf and a formidable one at that. The Attendant of the 5 Dragons is a mage from Deadholm who serves Chimeras (essentially dragons), but the 5 oldest Chimeras in particular. The Attendants study magical disciplines that mimic the capabilities of those 5 Chimeras, mainly death, fire, corrosion, frost, and electricity.
CG: Which is why you thought I might have a special power for one of those elements or damage types, I guess.
ID: Yes, that Attendant in particular mastered Corrosive magic.
CG: Going back, what era and edition of D&D did Collision begin as a campaign in?
ID: 3.5 Edition D&D, and my first campaign in Gea as a setting was in 2005.
CG: So a Red Elf, when it was a D&D campaign, are they just regular elves or something a bit different?
ID: For Gea I developed two Elven sub-races: White Elves and Red Elves. Red Elves were more like Wild Elves as far as their stats were concerned, high strength and dexterity. In personality they are impulsive, prone to anger, and make great fighters and soldiers, whereas the White Elves were more frail but magically potent. They are calm and detached and make for powerful wizards or clerics. Naturally they are mortal enemies.
CG: Excellent, I see. And these named characters, Virgil and Rhona, were any of these PCs or NPCs?
ID: Virgil existed as a PC during one campaign years ago, and moved to an NPC role when that particular campaign game to a close. Rhona on the other hand was a PC more recently. Virgil is one of my old characters, whereas Rhona was one of my sister’s characters.
CG: Even better, because I was just about to ask if all of the artwork on your website was Alexandra Douglass’. So she’s your sister?
ID: Yes, though she goes by Lexxy. Apart from the world map which was illustrated by Sarah Williams, all of the art in Collision is drawn by Lexxy at the moment.
CG: How much direction have you given her as to what your world looks like and how much are things that she has come up with?
ID: In this project I have given a lot of direction, providing written description, sketches, tone. Since Lexxy is my sister, her ability to bring my visions to life is unparalleled. There is another project I am developing which I just gave her rough descriptions of monsters and she produced perfect sketches of what I had in mind.
CG: Is she your twin? Who’s older?
ID: She is 4 years older than me, but we grew up with very similar interests. We both grew up with D&D from a young age, so we are both heavily influenced by games. She was inspired to illustrate with the intention of creating art for games, and I was inspired to design games.
CG: As close as the two of you are, what’s it like to share world-building with another person? Is it quite different from being the all-powerful DM?
ID: I never took the DM role with an iron fist. I always liked to involve my players in the creative process, and bouncing ideas back and forth with other people is often how the best things come up.
CG: Gotcha.

Getting Physical with Collision: Mechanics and Crunch

CG: One of the abilities or mechanics that stands out in a unit’s stat card for Collision is the Tarot. What’s the story there?
ID: In its earlier stages, the game had nothing to do with Tarot. In its place characters had a class and a level, but I wanted to separate Collision from D&D more. I dabble in tarot reading, so I came to the realization that there were 4 suits in the minor arcana, and 4 classes in Collision. Plus, the major arcana such as the Tower, and Strength allowed me to create special circumstances for named characters. So in essence a character’s tarot is both who they are and their destiny. However minor arcana characters can change their destinies, but major arcana characters can’t.
CG: What little I know of Tarot comes from the anime series Escaflowne, which features tarot heavily. So for you, since tarot wasn’t initially part of Collision, has it been about digging into your own fluff and really boiling down a character or unit to a tarot card and finding focus there?
ID: Actually the decision to include tarot led to an expansion of fluff rather than a refining of it. As much as a would alter a character to suit a card, I found myself coming up with new ideas because of the tarot. I had to find a place for the characters I already had, but there was so much room. For example who is Death? who is the Devil? who is the Sun? These are all questions I now have to answer, and it will help me grow the game and the content.
CG: Well, what are Virgil and Rhona’s Tarot?
ID: Virgil is the Tower. The short story “The Fall of Virgil” illustrates that Virgil is a character defined by tragedy. Rhona is Strength, and it isn’t just because she is physically powerful either. I am working on her next story to include in the Campaign Battles beta.
CG: What about the underlying points values for building your own units: how much time has that aspect taken to balance and playtest and tweak?
ID: There were a few big overhauls of the character creation system over the years. In its first iteration I was more or less assigning points values based on gut instinct. That system had enough problems that I did a basic analysis of the value of each of the stats starting with a stat line that was meant to be the average weak character. I then came about giving points values to individual stat increases, and assigned costs to more abstract things such as abilities or effects through gut instinct. Then years of testing and tweaking and testing and tweaking. It was hard enough to balance characters, and even harder to balance a system used to create characters.
CG: Yeah, I can’t really imagine. It’s very daunting. But you’re still revising the character creation, right?
ID: Yes, though the newest system will be easier for me to test. I’m not sure there will ever be a time when the character creation system is really balanced, but the point isn’t to create a game meant for competitive play and perfect builds. I believe that I will settle on point costs for this batch of material by the end of 2012 or in early 2013, but I will be adding more options that will need testing, and I will be trying to create and balance the major arcana characters throughout the process. The goal is to have a set of three books, the Core Rulebook, Character Creation Guide, and Campaign Battles, all finished by Gen Con 2013, and funded by a Kickstarter.
CG: Ok, great. I suppose that the dimensions of a game of Collision are not really set. You just need a playing grid, right? I see you suggest 28-30mm miniatures with a 1.5 inch grid, but anything could work really. 15mm or Legos or big Playmobil fantasy figures if that’s your thing.
ID: Sure! also, 1.25″ squares work quite well printed out on 8.5″x11″ sheets of paper, so potentially the game could be played with pogs and graph paper.
CG: But a hex map is too much of a stretch and doesn’t match the mechanics?
ID: Not in this iteration of the rules, but assuming things go well for collision in the coming year, I will be working on variations for collision that can be played on a hex map, or even without a grid entirely.

Gridded Game Board for Collision Miniature Board Game at Gen Con 2012

The Rocky Playing Board for Collision

CG: Besides the rocky boards we played on at Gen Con, I also see that you have a board made with Hirst Arts floor tiles, but that you’re also making your own tiles. How’s that coming along?
ID: I haven’t been able to make too much progress on that front in the past couple of months because of Gen Con, but I will be refining the rocky tiles, in addition to other tile sets to be cast in resin. I will also be experimenting with casting large elevation terrain with the tile designs built-in out of expanding foam resin. I have plans for ruins tiles, dirt, desert, wasteland, marsh/beaches, and water tiles. And there will even be a couple styles of dungeon or interior building tiles for battles that take place in buildings, dungeons, and caves.
CG: So I have to ask: besides selling any tiles, how do you plan on making money with Collision if you can use other companies’ miniatures and can download the rules for free? Or is it more about having the experience and having Collision under your belt for future work?
ID: I intend to produce tiles and terrain to sell, and printed versions of the rulebook for people who prefer to have a nice looking copy of the rules. Beyond that I am considering designing campaign supplements that are not free. I am also interested in creating starter sets for Collision that include miniatures, which would be a good base-line for if someone doesn’t already have a collection. The bottom line was always that Collision wasn’t meant to make money. I want to write games, and the only way to get a job writing games is to write games. Also, I’m a college student, and as much as I love miniatures, I can’t drop a couple hundred dollars every time I want to play a new miniature game. I wanted to design the game I wished existed, so I did.

How Ian Douglass Got Into Gaming: Jeff Grub’s Influence and Family Gaming

CG: Yes, before we get to your college major, who got you and Lexxy into D&D?
ID: My dad Matthew Douglass, who played D&D in college with Jeff Grubb.
CG: Wow, the Jeff Grubb.
ID: Yep, they were college buddies. A couple of years ago I got in touch with Jeff Grubb and told him that I was Matt Douglass’s son and that I wanted to design games, and he gave me some great advice.
CG: Let’s hear it!
ID: Well the part I remember most was that he told me don’t do it.
CG: Haha.
ID: He told me just don’t and that it was hard and dissapointing, not rewarding, and ultimately sucked the fun out of games. Then he waited for my response and I told him that I have to do it, that I couldn’t help myself, and that I wouldn’t be satisfied not writing games. That if I weren’t getting payed to do it I would be doing it for free in my free time. His response was great, because if being told not to write games by Jeff Grubb didn’t discourage me then I had enough drive to do it. He told me some of what he said was true, that it was hard and discouraging, but that if its what you love to do, and you are prepared to have a day job some of the time to do it, then I’m on the right track. I haven’t contacted him in a while, and I think I will to let him know how far I’ve gotten since then.
CG: Should be interesting! Was your father your first DM and how old were you?
ID: I was 6 or 7, and he was my first DM. He ran a campaign that used a mix of 1st and 2nd edition rules, and Lexxy and I each played two characters occasionally joined by Mom’s character. I remember that campaign very well, better than anything else from when I was that age.
CG: What was the setting or what went on?
ID: The setting was very basic. We started in a small city, went to the tavern, and overheard that that there was adventure to be had in Dungeon-01 just outside the city. So we bought supplies and went. He wrote the dungeon in college and it was pretty huge. I remember it being the ruins of a castle that had mostly collapsed, that there were stairs carved in the stone leading to an iron gate that was bent out of shape and Lexxy’s paladin, George, who had a pathetically low Dex score, fell down the stairs.
CG: So it was a real dungeon delve typical of first edition.
ID: Totally. But there were features in that dungeon that heavily influenced me as a DM. I remember finding a chainsaw, and none of our characters had ever seen one before. Finding a single running shoe in a room that was a small jungle. Finding the Holy Hand Grenade from Monty Python’s Holy Grail and having a 20 miniute discussion with a mimic.
CG: I can begin to imagine. So were there ever any threats growing up of no more D&D if you didn’t behave or do chores?
ID: Not that I remembered. D&D was what we would do on Friday nights. We got to stay up late and have root beer and popcorn. I lived for those nights, and I probably could have been convinced to do anything to keep it that way.
CG: Have you turned the tables and been your father’s DM in the world of Gea and Collision?
ID: Only for a couple of sessions. Once I got a bit older and started having adventures of my own, Dad didn’t really have enough time to keep playing, so I took on the DM role and taught my friends to play. Every once in a while I create a module and have Dad and Lexxy, and my younger brother Logan play, since Logan wasn’t around at the time of the family campaigns. Logan is only 10, so I’m a good 12 years older than him.
CG: So Logan is 10, but when you were 10 you developed a card game. What was it?
ID: It was Mythica: Battle of the Greek Gods. Of course it never got further than a paper prototype, It was a basic card game with 3 decks: Hades, Zeus, and Poseidon. Each deck had a character card to represent the Greek god, it had monsters and spells true to their legends, and it was fairly easy to play too. I played with the friends in my new neighborhood when we moved from Ohio to Indiana.
CG: Interesting. Did you pick the brothers for a reason and did you ever think “Hmmn, why not add Hermes or Apollo?” or is it because they each have their realm, earth, sky, oceans?
ID: Well I had the intention to expand it to include other gods as well, but I figured Zeus and Hades disputed often enough to make them good and evil, and Poseidon I thought of as more neutral. In my mind they made points of a triangle and thus were perfect for a rock, paper, scissors type of mechanic. Even then I was worried about balance. But I lost interest after a few playtests; I was more interested in Lego at the time, and just starting to get curious about Warhammer.
CG: Perfect segue, so what miniature games have you played in your background?
ID: Warhammer, Warhammer 40k, Confrontation, Mage Knight, Hero Clix, Ronin, Chainmail, Warmachine, D&D Minis, Pirates of the Spanish Main, Battletech, Battlefleet Gothic, Anima Tactics, and a few others that don’t quite come to mind.
CG: What do you still play today?
ID: I still have my Warhammer and Warhammer 40k armies, but I haven’t played in some time. I don’t really play any of them today. I play D&D, Magic: the Gathering, and board games for the most part. The rest of my time is spent designing and testing my own games.
CG: Collision: board game or miniature game? Or is it just semantics?
ID: I conisder all miniature games to be board games, but not all board games to be miniature games. Collision is at least a miniature game I would say.
CG: More of a board game than a true war game though?
ID: No, I would call it a skirmish war game. Mostly because players bring their own components.
CG: Even though Heroscape has some of the same elements, Collision to me, at least visually with your boards, kind of has more of a chess/Shuuro/Go feel to it.
ID: I could see that, and I do lean heavily on chess motifs in the design and feel of the game. Others have compared it to Final Fantasy Tactics.
CG: Yes, yes, visually, Final Fantasy Tactics and some various Xbox Live Arcade games as well.

Game Studies at Indiana University

CG: Now what is your major all about at Indiana University?
ID: My major is actually Philosophy. I’m finishing up my last year, and I’m adding a certificate in Game Studies through the Telecom department as well.
CG: Yes, so Game Studies is what I’m after. What do you do for that?
ID: I do three things in abundance: play games, write stories, and create games. More of the latter two. In one class we play and discuss board games and mechanics and design games, and in another class the class of 12 or so students all work as a team to design a video game in a semester. I also pick up HTML, some basic programming, and a ton of writing and production skills.
CG: So this video game design class? Is that over? Current?
ID: Current. I’m the producer, and the game we are working on is called Doppelganger.
CG: Realistically, what can your expectations be? Is it just a class project to be forgotten or do you think you’ll have something enjoyable for others to play?
ID: We plan to publish it through the Xbox Live Arcade, and if we can get enough Kickstarter funding we plan to try to port it to mobile devices. A previous class completed a game called Warp Shooter which is on Xbox Live Arcade now actually. It’ll be fun, people will want to play it, and people will be able to buy it. or we fail.
CG: What were the format restrictions, if any? Is it more about your fellow students picking something of mutual interest?
ID: As a group we have to decide what is feasible, and the professor occasionally vetos ideas that are too ambitious, but the group is called Hoosier Games, and there is also a club that follows the same format as the class that I participate in as well.
CG: What’s an example of something that was too ambitious for past groups?
ID: There was a project where students tried to create an RPG that was choked by feature creep.
CG: What perspective?
ID: I’m actually not sure, I didn’t have a hand in it myself, so I’ve only heard people talk about it. I think it was a mobile game where you train a monster, play mini-games, and battle with and interact with other mobile users. But I’ve worked as a level designer for the iOs game Melodus which may be worked on more this year as well.
CG: What percent of your fellow Game Studies’ students would you say want to do something novel and innovative versus some who just want to play games and make a WoW/Modern Warfare/Settlers of Catan clone?
ID: Actually no one seems to want to do something overdone. Each person is invested in designing something familiar, but with mechanics or twists that make it something new and unusual. I’m sure there are Game Studies students that disagree, but a vast majority, 85% or more probably, are innovators, but not just doing something different for the sake of it.
CG: So that must be a stimulating environment. So how has your Game Studies program impacted Collision?
ID: In one of the classes I have an opportunity to earn points for an independent initiative style project. I proposed to set up a Kickstarter for Collision and document the process, and it will be worth almost a third of my grade. But more importantly it has pushed me to work on new ideas as well. I have two other games I’ll be working on this year to playtest at Gen Con 2013, and a basic pub game that I designed in 10 minutes for a class assignment that I may actually publish.
CG: And by pub game, does that mean beer and pretzels?
ID: Yes, and it adapts easily to be a drinking game.
CG: But were you being quite literal and that it was designed to be played in a bar or pub?
ID: Yes, one of my objectives was to create a game that could be played easily at the Ram, since I found myself there a few times this year with friends and I kept thinking, “I need to design a pub game.”
CG: That’s the bar in Indianapolis frequented by many gamers during Gen Con?
ID: It sure is! I’ve already had some excellent playtesting, so I may be trying to build a more polished prototype of it soon.

Game of skirmish miniature game Collision at Gen Con in 2012

A Different Game of Collision at Gen Con Featuring Necromancy

The Future of Collision

CG: Moving back to Collision’s future, I scanned through the current 87-page rulebook and can see that the game is very much in development. I also saw that you’re soliciting feedback on the game. When do you think you’ll have a more finalized version of the core rulebook? I know Gen Con 2012 is your goal for three books, but when would the core have to be pretty finalized by?
ID: I have a stack of edits to make to the core rules, and I will be making some minor adjustments beyond that. It will likely be finished by the end of December 2012 if not sooner, with the character creation and campaign battle rules in the summer of 2013.
CG: Will the end rules be more like a Warhammer or Warmachine rule book and you’ll need three that size? Do you have an ideal page count goal?
ID: Actually the core rulebook likely won’t exceed 100 pages at its current dimensions, and given that the character creation and campaign battles books are both optional material, they should need just the one book to play. As it stands the rulebook should be hardly bigger than it is, and the other two books roughly the same length but it’s hard to tell. The complexity in Collision is limited to the special abilities and effects of the characters, not the core rules, so the rulebook will remain quite small.
CG: Now where will your created characters be found, like Virgil or the Attendant of the 5 Dragons.
ID: I’ll be working on a batch of characters today and tomorrow, and they will get their own post on my blog. In the future I plan to have sample characters available on the site, as well as decks of pre-build characters based around the different values and factions for those players who want high quality cards. When the Character Creation Guide is complete, I will also include a section of pre-made characters with illustrations and flavor text. Also, we may be working on a character creator app soon, so players can select options for characters which automatically generates a card for the character, and a character manager for storing, printing, and sharing characters.
CG: Thanks, Ian.
ID: Excellent! Thanks for the interview!

Darren J. Gendron on Monster Alphabet, The Commissioned 3v3 and Scurvy Dogs

Darren J. Gendron is the writer half of the Commissioned web comic, as well as the designer of Scurvy Dogs and the Commissioned3v3 card game. He also is the writer of Hello with Cheese and Monster Alphabet, a children’s book with 26 monsters corresponding to each letter of the alphabet.

Monster Alphabet

CG: Let’s start with Monster Alphabet by yourself and Obsidian Abnormal, how did you two go about selecting what each letter’s animal would be?
DJG: It sounds terrible, but initially I used a list from Wikipedia to just verify that there were enough legendary monsters to complete the alphabet. But from there, I picked the ones I liked the most, or had the most fascinating backstory to them. Doppelgänger was one of my favorite words, and I always like Fairies. And then there were a slew of dragons, Aztecan myths, and monsters that had Pokemon based off of them.
CG: Yes, the Aztecs were helpful for X and Q with the Xiuhcoatl and the Quetzalcoatl. Any idea of what you would have done without them?
DJG: Quetzalcoatl was a lock from the beginning. I know with X I was narrowing it down between a couple. I’m checking my notes. It’s just Xiuhcoatl there. I know there was a Chinese one, but I decided that we already had a Chinese legend for Z.
Phillipines Ibong Adarna mythical bird illustration from Monster AlphabetCG: Yeah, I’m struggling to even think of another X. Xorn is an X-Men character.
DJG: It was mostly written in a late-night email to my wife, who was pregnant with our son Franklin Powers Gendron at the time.
CG: Yes, you’re a father yourself. So did you write the book with Franklin in mind?
DJG: It was very much something that I wanted to make so that I could read to Franklin. The book is dedicated to him.
CG: What’s your favorite of the 26? Is it the Doppelgänger?
DJG: The Ibong Adarna. I didn’t know anything about it, and I’m betting a lot of people will be meeting this bird for the first time in the Monster Alphabet too.
CG: I like the petrification powers of its poop. What’s your son’s favorite?
DJG: The Raijū; he refers to it as “kitty”, but he’s 2, so that’s probably OK for now.

The Commissioned 3v3 Card Game

Commissioned 3v3 Card Game Kickstarter promotion promoting fact that it is funding on KickstarterCG: Now what was your card game that you had at Gen Con?
DJG: 3v3: The Commissioned Card Game with Commissioned being the name of the webcomic it gets the source material from and 3v3 being the name of the game mechanic we invented. Technically, “I” invented. I tend to talk in the royal we a lot when talking about our comics, but that was me and my lawyer will probably get annoyed if I don’t keep that part straight.
CG: Yes, so I played through a demo of it. How’d you come up with the two cards on the bottom, one on the top mechanic?
DJG: We knew we wanted to make a fighting game for Commissioned and at the same time, we were working on Scurvy Dogs, our board game. There’s a cargo card in Scurvy Dogs that’s for the Cannons. It’s the only card in the game that is either Cargo or a Cannon So it either gives a +1 Sea, or is stowed away as a 10-gold piece of booty We just made it a double-sided card so we could track the Cargo/Cannon status of it and that idea sort of stuck in my brain. So when we started boiling down the essence of what makes a good combat card game – Magic, Yu-gi-oh, Pokemon, VS – we had those three key ingredients: Attack, Defense and Special Abilities. They each have their own flavors of score keeping and resource management. And I wanted to tear out the resource row. I was playing a lot of Dominion at the time, and I loved the idea of not having long-term hand plans.

Card art and diagram showing playing style of Commissioned 3v3 card game

In Commissioned 3v3 Each Hand is Arranged to Create an Attack, Defense, and Special Ability

DJG: It made for a really fast game that felt different to anything we’ve played before. Ralph Pripstein, one of my playtesters, was getting obsessed trying to figure out what to say it’s like. People kept asking him during GenCon, and we get that it’s part of the language of pitching a game.
CG: Haha. Right.
DJG: It would be great to say it’s “Checkers meets Arkham Horror,” and let people suss it out in their head, but 3v3 is quirky in its simplicity. It’s like MTG, minus all the key details that make MTG into MTG. Or it’s like War, only there’s layers of strategy.
CG: I think it is a lot closer to Top Trumps. Am I right in thinking that you never play to your opponent in The Commissioned 3v3? You assemble the best hand out of the random one you’re dealt, right? And you don’t really know or can’t plan for what your opponent will pick besides knowing maybe whether he or she favors offense or defense.
DJG: For tournament-style play, we’ll incorporate a small sideboard. But really, we’re opening with 350 different cards, and you only have 30 in your deck. You draw three and you play three. There are no leftover cards, no resource row. Because the game plays so fast and one deck stumble can mean a win or a loss, we tend to play Best of Three. I did see a lot of people wanting to reshuffle and go again, especially since the matches are usually decided by 2-3 points. Rarely do you see a deck stumble so bad that someone wins 10-4 or 10-3.
CG: How do you tend to do yourself?
DJG: No comment. Actually, I should be fairly proud of the fact that I literally wrote every rule, and I tend to lose about two thirds of the time.
CG: Haha. How does one get Commissioned 3v3 and for how much?
DJG: We’re in the Kickstarter phase right now, which means we’re shipping the 250-card starter to your door for $35 (if your door is in the USA, Canada or Mexico). With the first two expansions, it’s $50. And if you want to play it right NOW, we’re starting to release Print-and-Play decks for free. It’s really a game that you need to play before you decide if it’s for you or not. Here’s the first two Print-and-Play decks. The Kickstarter will last until Sept. 18. After that, we’ll be selling it through the online store for CommissionedComic.com.

Scurvy Dogs, Gen Con 2012, and Dragon*Con

Board Game Cover with Pirates and Privateers for Scurvy DogsCG: Great. Now what about Scurvy Dogs?
DJG: Scurvy Dogs will be available in stores this holiday season. We have the shipment of the first printing getting to my warehouse this week, and I’m actually finishing up the distributor paperwork tonight We got a TON of positive feedback on it at GenCon – it looks gorgeous, it plays great for game groups, and again, it’s another game I created that I lose at a lot.
CG: Are all these projects things you’ve done with Obsidian Abnormal?
DJG: O took on all the art duties for Scurvy Dogs’ retail version. there’s three LE card that he didn’t draw, but other than those, we’re talking over 200 unique illustrations done by him. I am biased, but it’s one of the most gorgeous games I’ve ever seen. We actually had a retailer thank us for the box design – that it was so pretty he didn’t think he would have any trouble selling it off the shelf.
CG: That’s great to hear. So speaking of Gen Con, how was it for you? Was it your first year exhibiting?
DJG: That was indeed our first year, and it was amazing. I had to buy a sword just so that I’d have a trophy to remember it by.
CG: What’d you get?
DJG: I got a replica of Mugan’s sword from Samurai Champloo. It was something I’d been promising myself I’d get one day. For games, I had to get D-Day Dice, and Star Wars Minis.
CG: As an exhibitor you’re busy of course during the hours when the Vendors’ Hall is open, but did you play any games after hours?
DJG: Each night my staff busted open a new game, limiting it to whatever we bought that night. First night it was 3v3, though. We needed to sharpen up our decks. Second night was D-Day Dice, then some Infinity (that wasn’t bought that day, but Ralph wanted to show off his models).
CG: Are you into all sorts of gaming then?
DJG: Especially with my gaming group, which is also my playtesting and design staff – we love cracking new games and learning new rules. I can’t remember which game was Friday night, but Saturday was Star Wars. Seriously, what happened to Friday? That was a four day show, right?
CG: Right! I don’t know if your days stretched into the night and 3 AM too?
DJG: We tried to be old men and shut it down around 1 AM. Our hotel was outside the beltway, so it was a 15-minute drive in each day, plus a parking spot hunt. Next year, we’ll switch over to an adjacent hotel and give up on sleep. So I have to ask – during your 3v3 demo, what deck did you have and how did it go?
CG: Gotcha. I think it had Dwarves in it. Maybe my opponent’s did as well. Maybe a Jezebel or a card that referred to a Jezebel?
DJG: Jezebel is one of the characters, yeah.
CG: I think the learning curve was 3-5 minutes, but I could see how it could play fast.
DJG: Dwarf is one of our beefier attacks. Half the joke is that really is his character’s name; he’s Dwarf the Dwarf. There’s also Elf the Elf, and Weretiger.
CG: The Weretiger?
DJG: It’s the comic within the comic. Commissioned is about O’s life and he’s a DM his friends are terrible at naming characters. So it’s The Adventures of Dwarf, Elf and Weretiger. But Dwarf and Elf hate Weretiger, so their cards really don’t mesh with his.
CG: How many of the people that stopped by your booth seemed familiar with Commissioned though?
DJG: We definitely made the game fun if you’d never heard of Commissioned. But for those that do know the comic, it’s every reference they’ll want. Because it’s so gamer-friendly, I don’t know if we’ve ever had as good of a fan turn-out as we’ve had at GenCon. Dragon*Con last year came close – but that was with us flying O in from Colombia.

Mustachioed Darren Gendron at his booth with a comic version of himself drawn by Obsidian Oracle

Scallywag Darren J. Gendron at Gen Con 2012

CG: Speaking of Dragon*Con now, what are your plans for it this year?
DJG: We’ll be at table B-16 in the Comic Alley in the Hyatt (and that’s we as in O and I both) and we’ve got a panel Sunday night at 7, in the Crystal Ballroom of the Hilton.
CG: What’s your panel?
DJG: It’s the Webcomics panel, so it’s also people like Jenny Breeden, sans leaf blower. “A behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to produce a successful web-based comic strip series, given by both new and established webcomic artists.”
CG: Now do you dress up for Dragon*Con?
DJG: Well, I have to wax the mustache. I’d be unrecognizable without that. And the bowler hat is also a must.
CG: I see. I thought that was your everyday dress!
DJG: Generally, I try to dress as fancy as possible: shirt, tie, slacks. Eventually I’ll go back to wearing a vest too. It’s just hard to find a good vest in my size, so I’ve been dropping some weight.

Darren J. Gendron’s Background as a Gamer

CG: How did you get into gaming in the first place?
DJG: The fuzzy early memories stages of my love of board gaming goes way back. My parents are gamers, and still have domino groups and left-right-center games. But I’m also a bit of a power gamer. I’m banned from playing Monopoly with friends and family and just under 10 years ago, I got into Heroclix and Mage Knight. It was there I met Ralph, who also is a power gamer. Alex Chambers I met through mutual friends playing Mordheim and 40K. Between the three of us, we can be miserable to play against, but for making games, it’s a great trait to have.
CG: So what are your main armies?
DJG: 40K, I have a Tau mobile brigade for when I’m shooting to win, and a Kroot horde for when I just want to roll a lot of dice. Mordheim, I have a damn near broken Vampire leading a warband. We haven’t played that in a couple years, mainly out of fear of that vampire.
CG: Haha! Isn’t there a Vampire Hireling you could cheese it out with?
DJG: Her toughness is maxed out, making her nearly unkillable. And if anyone equips holy water, I make an abject lesson of their warband. I do love how that game allows for lower-ranked warbands to rack up better experience for just surviving against way over-leveled group.
CG: Did you ever get into role-playing?
DJG: Occassionally. That’s probably the softest spot in my gaming experience though. I’m usually far more interested in the tactics and dice than the story going around, which is why our group really got into Descent a few years back. That’s actually what we were hate-playing when we started building Scurvy Dogs.
CG: Hate-playing?
DJG: It’s a fun game, but if you don’t get a good start it’s a miserable game for either the adventures or the dungeon lord. And we’d play it over and over, trying to figure out why it was doing that. Descent’s newer rules actually did a good job of fixing that, though, so now we sort of fear and respect that game. If it’s balanced, we could easily lose a month or two of our lives to it. Lately, because of the workload of finishing 3v3, we’ve been avoiding deep games and going for lighter fare. I know that the Mage Knight board game and Fortune and Glory are next up on the docket for us. And we’re starting to build up our next couple Scallywags International games, but they won’t be tangible things until at least 2013, and maybe not until 2014.
CG: Alright. Maybe we could touch base again then! Thanks, Darren!
DJG: Thanks!

Commissioned 3v3, Scurvy Dogs, and Monster Alphabet artwork copyright Scallywags International, used with permission.

Web Comic Creators Stan Yan and Kevin Freeman on SubCulture

Way back in 2003 or 2004 I picked up The Wang from writer-artist Stan Yan at Comic-Con. It had nothing to do with gaming (at least, not that I recall). Years passed and then I had a Random Encounter with Stan Yan’s SubCulture, written by Kevin Freeman. While it is a web comic, the pair also sell printed collections of the strips. It revolves around a comic book store and the twentysomething, listless main character Jason. When not reading comic ashcans, Jason is fond of the occasional dungeon delve and playing Space Jaunt with the rest of Subculture’s characters. Space Jaunt is Subculture’s science fiction space odyssey game. While gaming references abound in Subculture, I’d say that maybe less than a third of it actually pertains to RPGs. However the whole of Subculture is good stuff, well written by Kevin Freeman and evocatively drawn by Stan Yan respectively with the end result being a pretty funny strip. As a web comic, it’s also free and worth checking out.

The Process of Making the Subculture Web Comic

Stan Yan holds the printed version of Subculture at Comic-Con in 2012 in front of a zombie posterCG: How do and Kevin know one another and what’s your process like for working on SubCulture?
SY: I responded to an ad on Digital Webbing’s message board back in 2006. He was looking for an artist for SubCulture, and I was ironically the first to respond. Kevin typically e-mails me script ideas. Kevin gives me quite a bit of creative freedom in his scripts, and he rarely objects to geeky little things I put in that are not in the script, like t-shirts on the characters and such.
KF: We are in synch almost all of the time. We are of similar age and have similar life experiences, so working together has been very easy. Plus Stan is very professional, which makes my job that much easier.

CG: How many times do you two reject a strip as not being funny enough or put it on hold and then what is your backlog like? Do you have a number of backup strips in case you run into problems during a particular week?
SY: We rarely agree to reject a strip, but we often collaborate on fine-tuning jokes. I might even add a panel for pacing purposes without consulting with him first. I have yet to have him tell me that I was wrong for adding a panel. Once with a storyline where Jason goes with Noel to buy a new car, Kevin asked me to draw Noel in some provocative clothing. I guess I went too far, and he had me change the school-girl mini-skirt to low-rise jeans. That’s one of the few times outside of typos, where Kevin has asked me to change anything. My backlog used to be one month, but over the last couple of years, I’ve been sadly working week-to-week. With, our recent guest artist, Corie Marie Parkhill, I’ve been able to build a 2 week backlog, but I’m seeing that go away quickly as I finish up with my summer camp teaching season and do a weekend-long convention this weekend. No backup strips. If something goes wrong, we’re sunk!
KF: I try to stay about six weeks ahead, just in case I get hit with a case of writer’s block.

D&D players talk about 5th edition but their GM is still focused on first edition and his Wilderness Survival Guide in web comic strip

Other Projects for Subculture’s Creators

CG: I know your Wang is pretty nice, but what else have you been working on?
SY: I’m currently working on writing and coloring a post-apocalyptic car race adventure webstrip called REVVVelations: at www.squidworks.com/revvv, I just finished writing and illustrating a comic book for the Melting Pot restaurant, I’m working on writing and partially illustrating a promotional comic book for the GalaxyFest convention, and I hope to resume work on a graphic novel about my best friend’s battle with cancer.
KF: I’m working with small-press publisher Action Lab entertainment as well, where I do a lot of editing. I’ve also got a story in the pipe with artist Des Taylor, but it probably won’t hit the shelves until sometime in 2013. I am a college professor in real life.

Specific Questions About Subculture Itself

CG: Looking back, what are your favorite story arcs so far on SubCulture?
SY: I’m still very fond of the storyline where Arthur goes to Bart to get dating advice, and they’re forced to talk in gamer code, since Travis is eavesdropping on them. I think it’s a strip that is in the second printed collection of webstrips.
KF: That’s probably mine too. I also like Babs’s cosplay party storyline, and any time we do a convention story that is a lot of fun.

CG: What does XP on the Hoof that your gaming buddy John says mean, Stan?
SY: Honestly, I don’t know where that saying originated, but basically he’s talking about how fighting certain creatures is like money in the bank. He’s typically being sarcastic about it to taunt the game master, or if he’s game mastering, he’s typically trying to goad us into a battle we can’t win. At least, that’s how I take it.
CG: If Kevin would be a Bard, what would your D&D class be?
SY: I’d also be some sort of performer — probably a jester, with absolutely no battle skills.

CG: Is Bart based on an actual comic shop owner or is he more of a stereotype?
SY: I understand that Kevin based Bart on a comic book store owner he knows or knew. Lots of things we wrote for Bart are things that actually happened, like sleeping on the back table, slathering everything in ketchup, and probably lots of other stuff I wasn’t even aware of when I was drawing it.
KF: Bart is an amalgamation of a number of people–Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons, the shop owner of a store I worked at in Alabama, and Weird Pete from Knights of the Dinner Table, just to name a few.

CG: What do Bart, Babs, Arthur, Jason, Travis and the rest of the crew usually play as in SpaceJaunt?
SY: I think no matter WHAT game they’re playing, they’re always playing certain archetypical characters for them. Babs typically plays a seductress who probably flirts with Jason’s characters. Arthur normally plays a woman of some sort. Jason probably plays a character that is as bland as he is at times. I imagine he’s more of a utility player than a role-player. Skip will always play a ruthless, bloody barbarian, if not an assassin. I imagine Travis is a thief and scavenger, but I can see him trying to play a paladin before he went against his alignment in looting or pillaging along with Skip’s character and ending up as a level 1 fighter.
KF: Yep. They tend to stick to archetypes based on their personality, regardless of what they play.

In web comic strip a player loses a Warhammer 40k wargame and then immediately goes to buy a new army on the last panel

Stan’s 3.5 D&D Campaign and Kevin’s 40K Days, Background in Gaming

CG: I know your gaming group hasn’t moved beyond 3.5 to 4th Edition. What’s your campaign like and why have you guys stuck with 3.5?
SY: My theory is that John doesn’t want our spell casters getting too powerful, and on the flip-side, we probably don’t want him unleashing unbeatable spell casters upon our party either. At any rate, I think we’re happier with our ability to truly role-play our characters in 3.5, and we don’t want to risk the faster-paced 4.0 degrading that at all.
CG: What about sci-fi RPGs like Space Jaunt/Traveller, do you play in any of those?
SY: We play one space RPG — Gurps space right now.
CG: What about 40K? You have a nice 2010 Space Marine panel in a SuperCon strip.
SY: Kevin used to play, but I haven’t. I admire the game pieces, though. We will have a 40K storyline coming up. I hope I can do it justice in light of the fact that I don’t play.
KF: I was heavy into 40k for years and years until I moved to North Carolina. Unfortunately I don’t have a lot of time to dedicate to the hobby any more. But I still subscribe to White Dwarf and pick up the books and supplements. I’ve always been loyal to Imperial Guard!
CG: How did you get into gaming in the first place?
SY: My friends got me into it in 5th or 6th grade: Basic D&D. I still have the set and introductory modules!
KF: I started about that same time, back when D&D was at its peak, but started with AD&D rather than the pink box. I collect pre-1983 D&D stuff. It reminds me of my childhood.

SubCulture comic strips and cover art are copyright Stan Yan and Kevin Freeman and used with permission.