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.

Combat Con 2012: The Battle Thus Far

Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés portrayed by St. Augustine resident Chad Light from 1565 with David Baker sword

Chad Light as Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés

Combat Con 2012 started off slow, but by the end of the night had heated up quite literally. While registration opened at 8:00 AM on Friday, the only events until 5:00 PM were the special Master Classes in additional weapon techniques requiring a fee ranging from $75-150 for the two-hour sessions. Instead of shelling out for one of those, I spent much of the afternoon meeting some of the other friendly attendees, vendors, and coordinators whom I will be writing about soon. One of them was Chad Light, seen here portraying the historical Spaniard Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés. Light is a returning student to Combat Con and would later attend one of Anthony De Longis’s whip classes, having attended the class last year and having had watched the whipmaster’s DVD over 30 times. Last year though Light was nursing a broken collarbone from a horse fall and couldn’t make full use of De Longis’s class. Light later confirmed that this session with the master immediately corrected several nuances he hadn’t been able to master. More on Light and Pedro Menéndez de Avilés to follow.

Combat Con 2012 Announcements and Be Here Now Charity Campaign

CombatCon Crowd Listening to Speech, Shot from the Side and Back

Combat Con 2012 Friday Night Crowd Listening Attentively

At 5:00 a film about bartitsu began, but all of the classes started at 5:30. I chose “From Real Combat to Stage Combat” along with roughly two dozen people. Co-taught by Matt Richardson, Paul MacDonald, and Bob Goodwin, the class was very hands-on and saw its students paired off and beating the crap out of each other in cinematic and theatrical fashion. Once it was over, I made my way to the Vendors’ Hall where Combat Con organizer Jared Kirby gave a speech and introduced his staff and the guest panelists and instructors. Kirby also announced several changes to the program. Knife-thrower Jack Dagger will not be able to make it to the convention and nor will Battle of the Nations. With their departures from the programming schedule, Kirby announced that more “X Classes” had been added, including “The Dancing and Dueling Connection”, “Medieval Sword and Buckler”, “Developing Fencing Fundamentals for Gaming”, and “Gigante’s Use of the False Edge”. Several of these X Classes were blocked out in the schedule, but the actual topics and instructors were TBD up until Kirby’s speech.

Last year Combat Con raised approximately $2,000 for the Michael J. Fox Parkinson’s Foundation and Combat Con repeated the charitable-focus again this year. For 2012 the charity is the Be Here Now Kickstarter campaign, which has already successfully met its $200,000 funding goal. Additional funds though will be used to help retain creative freedom for the documentary by Lillibet Foster. Star Wars stuntman Kyle Rowling introduced the campaign which is in honor of his close friend Andy Whitfield, star of Starz’s Spartacus: Blood and Sand. Whitfield passed away in 2011 after a battle with cancer, documented in Be Here Now; Rowling had worked with him in the first episode of Spartacus as his on-screen friend and fellow Thracian, Drenis. Various vendors contributed items for the auction which eventually raised over $2,500 for the Be Here Now campaign.

Meet and Mingle, Maxwell Alexander Drake, and Combat Con Gaming

With the start of the auction the Meet and Mingle period had begun with many vendors open for business and Wester Martial Artists meeting old friends and making introductions to new ones. I took the opportunity to catch up with fantasy author Maxwell Alexander Drake whom I’ll also be seeing again at Comic Con and Gen Con this summer.

The picture of gaming at Combat Con also came into sharper focus on Friday. About eight tables were set up in the corner of the Vendors’ Hall for gaming sponsored by Avatar Comics and Games, located here in Las Vegas. While some players were already taking advantage of the space for open gaming, Avatar will be running demos in the area throughout the weekend featuring games like Flames of War, Brushfire, and Dystopian Wars. Avatar also has a small selection of games available for sale.

Flaming End to the Evening

At 10:30 an announcement was made and most of us left in the Vendors’ Hall made our way downstairs to the Tuscany Suites parking lot where we were entertained by flaming whips and swords by Duel at Dusk Productions. Though they kept a safe distance and there were no incidents of a steampunk fan or classical fencer catching on fire, the heat from the weapons was very real. They used Coleman fuel and also brought out Sun and Moon Wheel weapons as well, but I didn’t catch the flaming butterfly swords which came out later on video.

Saturday promises to be a very full day at what is turning out to be an extremely enjoyable and fascinating convention.

Combat Con 2012 Brings the Fight to Las Vegas July 6-8

Sideburned Kyle Rowling poses with sword in headshot

Kyle Rowling: Dooku Body Double and General Grievous

This weekend Las Vegas will play host to the second annual Combat Con convention running from July 6-8 at the Tuscany Suites. Tickets are $80 for the three days or can be purchased individually for $55 on Saturday or $35 for Sunday only at the Combat Con website or onsite at the Tuscany Suites. The focus of the convention is Western Martial Arts (WMA), which includes fencing and other sword fighting, grappling, and wrestling. Combat Con blends Hollywood cinematic fighting with historical martial arts practiced since Roman times, plugging itself as the convention “Where History and Fantasy Meet”. Hollywood guests include martial artists and fight choreographers Anthony De Longis, Paradox Pollack, Robert Goodwin, and Luke LaFontaine and famous science fiction author Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash), himself a devotee of Western Martial Arts, will be returning this year as well. One of the most popular and well-received events at last year’s Combat Con was the Star Wars Sword class taught by Kyle Rowling. Rowling will return this year and was a Jedi in Episode II: Attack of the Clones, in addition to serving as General Grievous for motion capture, and as Christopher Lee’s stunt double as the nefarious Count Dooku in both the second and third prequel films.

Combat Con was founded by Jared Kirby and John Lennox and while it is only in its second year, Kirby and Lennox are veterans at leading Western Martial Arts conferences. Combat Con is the successor to their ISMAC (International Swordfighting and Martial Arts Convention) show which ran on the East Coast for ten years. The first Combat Con had an attendance of roughly 500 and Kirby reports that numbers are up this year in both vendor booth sales and pre-registered attendees. For Kirby Las Vegas was a natural choice because of its destination status, worldwide renown, and ease for travelers. Attendeese will be flying in from across the United States, Canada, and Mexico with a contingent of European event guests and convention-goers as well.

Among the many activities on offer at Combat Con is the chance to learn from the best masters in the small community of Western martial artists. According to Kirby this is a large draw of Combat Con, the chance to train with “nearly 30 of the the best Western Martial Arts teachers.” Visitors can sign up for whip training class with Anthony De Longis, whom I recognized as the badass Blade from the live action Masters of the Universe. These sessions require an additional fee ($150 for Techniques of the Star Wars Sword from Kyle Rowling and $150 for Anthony De Longis’ Whip Master), but there are also dozens of seminars scheduled with evocative titles like “Everyday Items as Improvised Weapons”, “Fighting the Horde: One Against Many”, “Grappling in High Heels: Brutal Paschen”, and “Wretched Hive of Scum and Villainy: Surviving a Cantina Fight”.

So What Are Western Martial Arts?

When I hear martial arts, I immediately think of dojos, karate, senseis, kung fu, black belts, and Bruce Lee. When I hear Western Martial Arts, I think of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Bloodsport, Chuck Norris, Steven Segal, or even quite literally of Western dredge like the Jackie Chan-vehicle Shanghai Nights or the crossover action of the recent Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes films. The Sherlock Holmes movies are not an entirely inaccurate association to make. Combat Con special guest Tony Wolf is an expert in the martial art of bartitsu seen in the recent Sherlock Holmes films, but originally developed over a century ago in London by Edward William Barton-Wright. Barton-Wright coined the portmanteau bart-itsu having lived in Japan for three years, as Wikipedia reveals. While bartitsu is a Western Martial Art, it is a more exotic one. Simply put, Western Martial Arts are the studies of the many different forms of interpersonal combat throughout Western history. Jared Kirby points out that Europeans training their sons in combat didn’t import martial artists from Japan, but rather built on existing traditions. WMA would also include jousting, wrestling, boxing, savate, grappling, and every other Western Hemisphere weapon in between whether polearm, axe, or shield, stretching from antiquity to present day. Modern firearms and their use do not seem to be included, nor any other forms of missile weapons ranging from slings to ballista, though archery is certainly a Western Martial Art. The focus seems to be on melee and close quarters combat. Even within a discipline such as classical fencing, attempts at putting a start and end date on the martial art to limit it to a set range of years is time wasted, according to Tom Rockwell. He posits that classical fencing “doesn’t have an end date any more than classical music does.”

The Origins of Combat Con and Growth in Western Martial Arts

Black and white headshot of Western Martial Artist Jared Kirby

Combat Con Co-Founder Jared Kirby

When I spoke with Jared Kirby he was taking a break from filming Kevin Keating: Vampire Hunter in New York City, where he is based. Besides training actors in martial arts, Kirby teaches combat at a martial arts academy and recently taught stage fighting for three plays in June. Reflecting on ISMAC after ten years of running it with John Lennox, Kirby thought forward to the next ten years and predicted that ISMAC wouldn’t have the same level of impact as it already had and started to rethink the conference. As he put it, he went through a number of “bad ideas” including mixing a music festival in the vein of Lollapalooza with Western Martial Arts. Instead he turned to the common background of most modern WMA practitioners: sci-fi, fantasy, and comics fandom. Whether they arrived at Western Martial Arts via Renaissance Faires, LARPing, or role-playing games, Kirby points to these activities as the entrance points for most professional teachers of WMA and also points to a shared – if subdued – love of comic books among WMA enthusiasts.

For Kirby a Renaissance Faire was the magical introduction to Western Martial Arts. Already a Dungeons & Dragons player, the Minnesota native attended a Renaissance Faire and discovered human chess, played with life-size pieces by actors who battle dramatically. He “thought it was amazing” and vowed to do it one day. He was 15. After graduating from high school, Kirby did eventually get cast for the human chess match at that Ren Faire and went on from his training to pursue it more professionally. Combat Con’s programming director Tim Ruzicki was always into stage combat and a friend of Kirby’s from his youth. When Ruzicki returned from a trip to Scotland, he brought a smallsword back for Kirby and taught him what he had learned abroad. The two had an informal group in Minneapolis, teaching others what they’d picked up, but the call to arms was strong for Kirby and he travelled to Scotland himself, studying under fencing master Paul MacDonald. While in Britain, he attended a workshop taught by Maestro Martinez on Spanish rapier. On the fence about whether to return to Minnesota, the hour and a half class changed Kirby’s life. He informed Martinez that he would be studying under him at his academy in New York. Sure enough, Kirby turned up at the maestro’s academy three months later and is still learning from Martinez, but Kirby also teaches combat there at the academy now himself.

Kirby points to the Victorian era as the start of the revival of interest in historical martial arts. He compares present-day interest in Western Martial Arts to interest in Eastern martial arts in the 1950s before Bruce Lee popularized millennia-old interest. Eastern martial arts were certainly being studied, but there wasn’t a karate or judo school in every town. “we kind of need our own Bruce Lee, which is ironic, because Bruce Lee actually studied fencing and told his protege Danny Inosanto ‘You can’t be a complete martial artist unless you’ve studied fencing.'” Combat Con was born out of this desire to spread WMA, “to create a bigger event that would expose more people to Western Martial Arts and show how many different ways it permeates in our culture, whether that’s films or games or fan-based fiction. All of these things involve some sort of violence.”

On his current project Kevin Keating: Vampire Hunter, Kirby is designing the way the hero interacts with the vampires. It’s intriguing for him because the vampire hunter doesn’t kill his prey (or other humans for that matter). He does fight with stakes though, with techniques Kirby has lifted from the combat manual Flower of Battle, published in 1409 by Italian master Fiore dei Liberi’s, or Flos Duellatorum as it was known at the time. One of Kirby’s own favorite on-screen sword fights is the cliffside battle between Wesley and Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, not for its swordplay or authenticity, but rather because of how it advances the plot and story of The Princess Bride by revealing more to the audience about each character than they knew at the start of the battle.

When asked about a possible surge in interest in Western Martial Arts from the upcoming Olympics and its broadcast of fencing events, Kirby corrected my assumption and gave the analogy that “kendo is as close to katana as Olympic fencing is to real fencing.” He explained that even the term of fencing came from the shared root of offense and defense; literally to fence is to practice the art of self-defense. Modern sport fencing focuses only on offense, but as Kirby says “in what we do, if you get hit while you’re hitting the other guy, we call that ‘two dead idiots’.”

While he will be busy behind-the-scenes managing and running Combat Con, Kirby will also be co-teaching “Rapier and Smallsword for the Screen” with Luke LaFontaine as well as co-teaching on the dusack, which is a training tool for messer combat. As into medieval weapons as I am, Kirby had to explain that the messer, German for knife, “was the most common sidearm in the Germanic areas” from the 15th to the 17th centuries. Particularly exciting though, Kirby will be co-demonstrating the instructional possibilities of the shock knife, a “training tool” that features an electrical current through the knife’s edge with four settings ranging from Low to “Insane”. According to Kirby, for one and a half seconds, you actually feel like you’ve been cut by the blade. Of course, I think I need to verify this for myself at Combat Con, but sadly shock knives are restricted, besides being expensive. No shock knife LARPing… yet.

Combat Con and Its Vendors

When not attending a workshop or seminar, attendees can browse a selection of weapons, clothing, and other props on offer from Combat Con’s vendors. Clothing companies include Dark Fire Clothing with a range of T-shirts, Bad Attitude Boutique offering corsetry, and Enchanted Eras also offering corsetry, as well as Renaissance and Victorian garb. LARPing or re-enactment garb can be accentuated with jewelry from Gryphon Song Gems or Obsidian Moon Creations who will also be selling in the Vendors’ Hall. Alexandra Wolfe, proprietor of Dark Fire Clothing, attended last year and will be selling new shirt designs as well as chainmail jewelry this year. Her shirts are mostly targeted towards gamers and WMA enthusiasts. Wolfe is no stranger to sword combat herself and enjoyed talking shop with other fighters at last year’s Combat Con, though she did find sales to be slow. Having fought for over half her life, Wolfe describes herself as a fencer, but she also likes to fight “heavy” in full armor with rattan weapons just as much and enjoys a variety of weapons.

Of course, at a convention called Combat Con though, the focus is on weapons and there will be plenty of them there, along with their makers.

David Baker’s Hollywood Combat Center

David Baker admires long sword that he forged in workshop

Sword Maker and Prop Man David Baker

David Baker from the Hollywood Combat Center will be bringing aluminum training swords, rapiers, prop swords, and small swords to Combat Con, ranging in price from $250-$500, but arguably Baker’s claim to fame at Combat Con is his three-season run on Deadliest Warrior aired on SpikeTV. All of Baker’s blades are custom-made, designed either by himself or based off a historical design. Some of his customers are historical re-enactors and Baker attempts to match the weapon created for the re-enactor with his or her real life counterpart’s weapon.

Speaking about last year’s inaugural Combat Con, Baker said that it was a lot of fun and that the theatrical “crowd” got very involved with the historical community, leading to an exchange of information. Baker is excited by the merging of the theatrical community, the entertainment industry, Renfaire fans, and classical martial artists that goes on at Combat Con. The result, in his words, is that these related groups “come together to promote the Western Martial Art as an actual martial art as opposed to what it’s been for years with guys trying to do swashbuckling.” Not that swashbuckling doesn’t have its place, but Baker and the professionals of Combat Con would like to see more reality in depictions of Western combat, which has gradually been emerging in the last few decades.

The hilts and blades of a sword and a dagger custom-made by David Baker

Examples of Baker’s Workmanship

Baker started out in Hollywood as an actor, moving behind the camera into the production-side of films after a decade pursuing roles on-screen. He now describes his primary business as being a “prop-builder and/or prop man in the entertainment industry, but I specialize in historical weapons, bladed weapons primarily. So I study them and when I’m making something, I’m making it to be used, not just for looks.” Anything else that looks good, but doesn’t have the right heft or function is a “wall hanger” in Baker’s opinion.

Baker doesn’t know of any comparable convention to Combat Con. Any similar gathering of Western martial artists usually focuses on the skill set and not on the performance aspects of the combat. “By combining the theatrical and/or entertainment industry aspects,” Combat Con “opens Western martial arts up to a much larger audience who otherwise might not see good technique,” says Baker. Baker is “always frustrated” when he sees bad sword fighting in movies, “because it just promotes more bad sword fighting and/or more myths about how ‘Oh broadswords weigh a ton!’ or ‘Oh, you can take a small sword and cut a rope with it.’ Things like that.”

Steel sword showing pommel and intricate flowing hilt designed by David Baker

Custom-Made by David Baker

One panel that Baker will be part of this year is “The Reality of Reality TV”, covering what really goes on behind the scenes on reality TV productions. He will also naturally be on a panel about the third season of Deadliest Warrior. Baker’s favorite depictions of on-screen sword fights include Tyrone Power inThe Mark of Zorro (1954) as well as Scaramouche with Stewart Granger (1952). He also enjoys the French film Le Bossu (1997) with Vincent Perez, calling the sword-fighting in it “wonderful” and “a lot of fun.”

Rockwell Classical Fencing Equipment

Two smallsword hilts for classical fencing from Rockwell Classical Fencing

Rockwell Smallsword Hilts

Tom Rockwell heads Rockwell Classical Fencing Equipment, based out of Santa Fe. His swords are for classical fencing, being essentially the same as modern sport fencing weapons except for the grips and the lack of electricity built into the blades. Rockwell calls it “Olympic fencing pre-electricity”. One thing that sets Rockwell’s blades apart is that they use Italian grips instead of the more commonplace French grip. For Rockwell, Combat Con is a chance to meet with customers face to face whom he has only dealt with via email, as well as a chance to make both new friends and customers in the small community of classical fencers. Rockwell explains that his customer base is “worldwide, but it’s a really shallow pond.”

One new category of product that Rockwell will be bringing are castings of smallswords. Rockwell is personally a fan of the saber, citing the heavy saber duel between Harvey Keitel’s character and Keith Carradine’s in the cellar in the middle of The Duellists as his favorite on-screen duel. Jared Kirby on the other hand favors the smallsword and prefers the opening fight in The Duellists, during which smallswords are used. Rockwell will be bringing Italian epees and for the first time will be offering true ricasso blades, in addition to the new smallswords.

Unsharpened edge of a ricasso weapon from Rockwell Classical Fencing

Rockwell True Ricasso Blade

Some of Rockwell’s customers are fans of steampunk or steampunkers as he refers to them, but he points to Tom Badillo and Dave Charles as classical fencers first and steampunkers secondarily. Badillo uses the walking sticks that Rockwell manufactures in his classes on Victorian Cane and 19th Century Defense Against Thugs. Famous in the steampunk community, Badillo taught and demonstrated at last year’s Combat Con and sponsored the singlestick tournament. In the world of LARPing, battle gaming, and the SCA a “stick jock” fights with a foam boffer or rattan sword and prefers combat to role-playing, but within the world of WMA, singlestick isn’t a reference to a single sword, but rather a wooden cudgel and a very historic branch of combat according to the Wikipedia entry on singlestick.

And Others: Macdonald Armouries

I did not speak to Paul Macdonald, but I definitely heard a lot about him from those I reached. Another maker of weapons, Macdonald runs Macdonald Armouries in Scotland. Tom Rockwell knows him first and foremost as a fencing master, followed by his design of weapons. Jared Kirby studied under MacDonald and speaks highly of his work in forging weapons and posseses a few MacDonald-crafted blades. Another MacDonald production was a gem-encrusted replica of the Six-Fingered Man’s sword from The Princess Bride for a fan of the film. One anecdote that Rockwell shared involved the egos that can be involved in the small world of swordplay, when I asked whether rivalries existed and if I might possibly goad sword masters into fencing one another. He related how an online exchange in the pre-Facebook era resulted in MacDonald and Rockwell’s own fencing master, John Sullins, meeting in San Francisco to settle the online dispute and crossing blades with one another.

Other Combat Con Offerings

Bald wasteland wanderer and woman on cover of Maxwell Alexander Drake's DownfallBesides best-selling author Neal Stephenson, Las Vegas’s own Maxwell Alexander Drake will be attending. Like Stephenson, Drake attended last year and sat on a panel about writing fight scenes. As an exhibitor Drake must man his booth most of the time though he did enjoy the Highlander Tournament at the 2011 Combat Con. Drake will be previewing his comic collaboration with Jason Engle, Downfall and found the relatively small size of Combat Con to be intimate, allowing for increased fan access to professionals.

On Saturday, July 7 there will also be a Time Traveller’s Ball from 9:30 PM to midnight, featuring a costume contest. On Friday night there will be a Meet and Mingle from 7:00 to 10:30 PM. Besides those social events and all the classes, panels, and demonstrations, there will also be a number of tournaments. Registration includes admission into the Unarmored Longsword Tournament, the Armored Tournament, the Rapier and Smallsword Tournament, the Stage Combat Tournament, and the Costume Contest. There will also be actual gaming of the wargaming or role-playing variety as well. Additionally, Combat Con sent out an email reminder that a weapon-check is available and SHOULD be used because the Tuscany Suites forbids carrying weapons or wearing masks on or near the casino floor, just the sort of exciting warning that hints at how serious the attending fans will be.

Stay Tuned for More Combat Con 2012 Coverage

Having never heard of Combat Con until a few weeks ago, I was somewhat skeptical about it until I spoke to Kirby, Baker, and Rockwell and discovered their wealth of knowledge and expertise. Now I can’t wait to see how they fight in person and possibly learn a thing or two to up my game in Dagorhir or NERO LARP, both of which I have been getting into in the last two months. It is thrilling to be out of my depth and exposed to new knowledge and I hope to pass along as much as I can in the coming week or two.

Maxwell Alexander Drake on the Genesis of Oblivion Saga, Musicals, and Graphic Novels

In case you missed my brief review of the Genesis of Oblivion Saga, Maxwell Alexander Drake is the author of the six book fantasy series. A Las Vegas resident, he is now a full time writer with several other projects in the works. I have run into him at several conventions over the years and last year attended his Comic Con workshop on writing Heroes and Villains.

Maxwell Alexander Drake’s Fantasy Literature and Gaming Roots

Goddess with Drakon on the cover of Dreams and NightmaresCG: What fantasy did you read growing up and what have you been reading now?
MAD: I read a lot of fantasy. I always have. I grew up with all the classics, the Chronicles of Narnia, the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings were all read by me before I was 10. My third series, the Elric Saga by Michael Moorcock probably had the most impact on my young mind. It was the first fantasy that I read that really let me see that the sky is the limit when it came to this genre. Then I was off to Joel Rosenberg’s Guardians of the Flame saga, Conan novels, which is where I fell in love with Robert Jordan and moved on to the Wheel of Time, Weis and Hickman’s Dragonlance, George R.R. Martin’s Songs of Fire and Ice, and the list goes on and on.


Recently I have been going back and discovering authors that have been out for a while, but I missed. Brandon Sanderson tops my list of favorite new finds. He is wonderful. Last year I read Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series and thoroughly enjoying myself. Unfortunately, my writing profession has begun to get in the way of my reading for pleasure. I have Martin’s A Dance with Dragons, Paolini’s Inheritance, and Sanderson’s The Way of Kings all sitting on my shelf with no real date of when I will crack any of them open.

CG: As a fellow Guardians of the Flame fan, I do see a bit of Pandathaway in Mocley and you have the same sort of long treks that Rosenberg’s characters occasionally make. When I read Alimia, she really reminded me of Tennetty. What are some of your favorite parts of Rosenberg’s stories and your favorite characters of his?
MAD: You know, that series holds a special place in my heart. I absolutely loved that series, and reread it every five years or so. There is so much to like about it. Carl was probably my favorite. I just loved his, “It’s my way or the highway” attitude.

My favorite scene from that is after Carl become Emperor, and he leads a stealth raid on the castle of one of his own Barons who is getting all uppity. That whole scene was wonderfully done.

I never thought about a Pandathaway/Mocley connection―though I see your point. It is hard to describe a massive, Romanesque city and not have it favor Pandathaway though. I will admit to the Tennetty/Alimia connection. One of the things I do in my writing is pay homage to things that really meant something to me throughout my life. Call them Easter Eggs, if you will. There are many sprinkled throughout all my writings. And with Alimia, I doubt I could convince anyone that there was not some of Tennetty in her. But, only a bit. I mean, Tennetty was insane. Her sole motivation was revenge. Alimia just wants to do a good job. It just happens that she is doing a job that is traditionally meant for a man, so it is one she has to work harder at than her male counterpart.

CG: Maxwell Alexander Drake has to be a pen name, right?
MAD: It is a name that seems to be meant for someone born to be a fantasy author, does it not?

Picture of the glasses wearing author Maxwell Alexander Drake

Author Maxwell Alexander Drake

CG: What games did you play with Charlie, Shane, and Jonathan, whom you thank in your acknowledgements/dedication?
MAD: Ha! Those were my elementary/junior high friends that introduced me into the realm of RPGs. Like many geeks of my time, I can’t tell you how many weekend-long gaming events we held throughout the years. For the most part, we played Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition. But, we dabbled in most games out during the late 70’s and early 80’s. (Yeah, I am old.) I actually purchased the Monster Manual the day it hit the shelves. I was so excited!
CG: Were you the DM?
MAD: When I started RPGing, no, I did not DM. We actually had a really nice independent gaming shop that had adults who ran the games for us. Most of us were young, like 11 or 12 at the time. Once we got a bit older, and started playing out of one of our houses for the weekend, yes. We would rotate DMing duties.

I moved away for my high school years. I became the main DM for the group I fell into at that point and have pretty much been the DM ever since. It is probably why I love telling stories so much.

CG: What’s your favorite PC class?
MAD: You know, the thing is, I love fantasy. So, I rotated through them all. I have played good and evil, big and small. Each has its special thing that makes it fun. Again, this is probably the reason I love writing stories, because I get to play everybody in the story.

CG: Do any modules or systems stand out in your memory?
MAD: I still own almost every single item TSR made before it was purchased by WotC. I even have every issue of Dragon Magazine sitting in a protective cabinet in my office. So, yea, many stand out. I really loved the classics, the A series “The Slave Pits” was always fun. The G series when you go against the giants was great. I think if I had to pick one from memory, it would be S1 The Tomb of Horrors. It was just a wonderful mind teaser throughout the entire module.

CG: Have there ever been any games set in Mocley or Ro’Arith?
MAD: Yes and no. No, because this story is a story, not a campaign or a quest from a game. But, I DMed for a long time. And during that time, I came up with many ideas. I will admit that a few of the ideas I had in past years did make at least a small appearance in this series.
CG: An example being?
MAD: Well, I hate to admit it, because I did not flesh them out in either books 1 or 2, but the O’Arkins are actually a throw back to something I created elsewhere. Now, that being said, I have already started fleshing them out for book 4, and they have taken a totally different direction than what they were in the RPG I was using them in.

Still, I try and create unique races and stuff for my books, and there has been a few fans accuse me of having Orcs, and just calling them O’Arkins. And, unfortunately, that is just a dig I have to take. Because, it is not that far off.

CG: How much do you think of things in your books in terms of game mechanics?
MAD: None at all. I think if I did that, I would limit where things could go, and how I would describe them.

Take the Essence, as an example. I have a game designer who is a fan of mine. He loves the Essence. But, we got to talking about how this series would become a game and he commented that the hardest part would be the magic. He said that while the way I describe magic in the series is awesome, he has no idea how to put game mechanics to it. I am sure it can be done, but whoever does it would need to take some liberties away from how I describe it.

CG: What is the “Way of the Lion” about?
MAD: While creating the characters for my stories, I write a ton of back-story. This information, while important to me, as it tells me where the characters are going and how they will react once they get there, is not something that needs to be in the novels. It has nothing to do with the main story, so it really has no place. But, some of my fans want to delve deeper into these characters. Learn more about them. So, as I have time, I polish this stuff up and release it as short stories. The Way of the Lion is the back-story to Clytus Rillion. It takes place about 20 years before the first book. Clytus is just 18, and still in Silaway. It is the story about how he met his best friend and leftenant Ragnor De’haln. It also gives just a hint of who Shaith Ku’rin is, and of the connection she has to Ragnor that you learn about in book 3, Dreams & Nightmares.

I have also released another short called “The Path of Rebirth” which is the back-story to the gray skinned assassin Elith from book 2. At Gen Con this year, a third short, “The Path of Death” will be released in the Dragonroots Magazine anthology for that event.

Musicals and Graphic Novels: Kaboom!, Do Zombies Dream of Electric Sheep? and Downfall

CG: What about your other projects like the zombie Western or the cyberpunk one? Is there any artwork, titles or release dates?
MAD:I have a lot of side projects now. Some are moving forward, some are on hold, some may never see the light of day.

On the comic front, the Zombie Western Dead Ned was put on hold for various reasons, but has recently been revived. Hopefully this will be out late this year if things hold true. I do not have a release schedule on this as of yet.

Traveler surveys post-apocalyptic wasteland on first page of Downfall comic

Page 1 of Downfall by Maxwell Alexander Drake and Jason Engle

But, the project I am doing with the artist Jason Engle (Magic the Gathering, Legend of the Five Rings, Game of Thrones, Dungeons & Dragons, etc.) called Downfall, is in full gear. This is set in a post-apocalyptic world. The 10-page promo for this is being released at this year’s Comic Con San Diego and the website www.downfallthecomic.com should be up and running in May. Downfall already has a production schedule. We are doing a 30-page comic every quarter, with a 120 graphic novel being released each year at Comic Con. After its release, this will be available at all the usual outlets from comic book shops to Barnes & Noble.

I have three musicals I am currently working on. One, Kaboom! The end of life on Earth… a comedy, I am just an additional writer for. I was brought in to beef up the comedy elements. It is in the funding stages now, but it should be playing in Las Vegas by year’s end.

The second, Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep, I am currently writing. The composer of this project is David Warrack, most famous for Rob Roy. Zombies will not be out until mid to late 2013, and will most likely open in Toronto, Canada.

The third musical I can’t say much about as we are in the contract phase now. I will say it is the biggest project I have ever been involved in. How is that for cryptic?

I have a few side novel projects, but their release dates are still a ways out, so I will not bore you with the details.

Panel layout of the Downfall comic showing traveler by fire in post apocalyptic setting

More Downfall: CLICK for Larger Version

GMing the Hero’s Journey and Dramatic Tension

CG: Do you think the hero’s journey is suitable for a tabletop game? How could it be achieved? Should a GM tell his player(s) that there’ll be a call to action and so on?
MAD: I am a firm believer in the hero’s journey. Not because you have to follow all the steps, but because I think most stories follow them naturally. No, a GM should not say, “O.K., here is your call to action.” But, when the players hear that blood curdling scream, and run to investigate and end up fighting a dragon to save some hapless princess (no, I am not trying to be original here) which then leads them off on some epic quest (most probably for either a gem or a sword), that is a classic “call to action.” The reason why the Hero’s Journey works is because it is a natural progression of storytelling.

CG: One of the earlier tense moments in Farmers & Mercenaries involves a wagon getting knocked into a river. It seemed that that wagon may have a stowaway and that we as readers should be on the edges of our seats about his fate. To what extent do you think a GM could have such narrative tension?
MAD: I think this is doable for a GM, and I pulled it off many times when I ran my little adventures. This may not be the most popular thing for the players, but I like to split up my parties from time to time―not often, as this will just irritate the players. Make one group go off into another room, and just deal with a small group, or single player. This allows you to tell them what they “see” without telling them what the other character(s) see. With this, you can really play one group off the other. You just need to make sure the other room has something entertaining. I find a PS3 hooked up to a 70” screen works well.
CG: Is that just an example or have you been running some RPGs recently?
MAD: I was running a game a few years ago, but several of the players moved away about the same time my career took off. So, I am not playing anything currently. But, boy do I miss it. I know this has been said by many an adult RPGer, but when things in my life settle down a bit, I will be back to playing something.

CG: Both of the first two books feature an expedition. Has that been your playing experience? I’ve set out on plenty of adventures and made journeys, but never had a base camp per se.
MAD: Again, when I am writing, I am not thinking on the lines of RPGs, so I think differently. As a gamer, I can’t think of any time when we had a base camp to leave and return to. But it does make sense and it is why they are used in real expeditions. So, it fits well in the novel. But, I am not sure a player would appreciate the extra work of maintaining a base camp. I mean, what player ever really likes to have extra work?

More on Developing the Genesis of Oblivion

CG: While there are Drakons, the Niyoka, O’Arkins, lizardmen, and Sareeza, there is little mention in the first two books of any organized dangers or menaces. Are the homestead guarders and Mocley’s guards only defending against the odd thief or krougar attack? How much thought did you give to the absence of dangerous political entities like rival kingdoms and so on?
MAD: This is a question that I am going to avoid until after the release of book three, Dreams & Nightmares, in a few months. A better question for those who have read the first two books would be to ask, “Hmm, in this world the writer has created, you find all sorts of walled cities, but there really is no major threat from monsters or other armies. You have individual “city states” but not an established “kingdom” that is trying to expand its power over its neighbors. How would a fantasy world evolve into this state of being? Why do things seem relatively peaceful, yet there are defenses like this was one big war-torn world not too awful long ago?” It is a subtle thing, but it is something you may want to ponder as you wait on the release of book 3.

CG: If you had to be Alant or Arderi, which would you be and why?
MAD: I love the juxtaposition of the brothers Cor. One is serious, the other jovial. One is pissed, the other is just trying to get by without working too hard. One feels the weight of the world pressing ever harder down upon his young shoulders, the other is reveling in his abilities.

I know where this story is going, and I have to say, it is not going to be pleasant for either. So, I am not sure I want to be either.

If you did not gather from my answer to your last question, nothing in this story is exactly as it appears. And I hope to keep it that way right up to the bitter end. I will admit now that the first two books are pretty much just a pack of lies. But, most readers start to get that by the end of book 2, Mortals & Deities. In book 3, Dreams & Nightmares, I open the book up by revealing a ton of stuff that I have held close to the vest for a while now. I actually write in the villain’s perspective for the first time. One of my beta readers even accused me of revealing too much. Then she started delving into book 4 and realized that even though a lot was revealed in book 3, it was just the tip of the iceberg for what is coming.

As I said, I plan on keeping this pace through all 6 books. I want my readers to feel comfortable in the fact that they know what is about to happen, then have to reread it because it did not go the way they expected. So far, it has been either little things, or more subtle clues like the fact that you have walled cities everywhere, but nothing they are protecting against. But starting with book 3, I start getting less and less subtle with the fact that Kansas is going bye-bye.

All images included in this interview are copyright Maxwell Alexander Drake and used with permission.

The Genesis of Oblivion Saga: Famers and Mercenaries and Deities and Mortals

Craven Games will probably not review too much fantasy fiction in the future (unless it relates to gaming), but at the same time, I do want to bring attention to a great Las Vegas Valley writer, Maxwell Alexander Drake. If you’re saying “Who?”, then read on, this review and overview is for you. My interview with him will be posted shortly.

Cover depicting a savage Kith cat person for Farmers and Mercenaries

Image courtesy Imagined Interprises

Nix is no, morns are mornings, eves are evenings, drakons are dragons, aurns are hours, Southron is Southern and on it goes. Add in a couple dozen apostrophized words like Chand’lean, Hild’alan, and Hath’oolan and the opening chapters of Famers & Mercenaries can be hard going. Author Maxwell Alexander Drake front-loads the first book in his Genesis of Oblivion Saga with strange terms. Once I made it through the first several chapters though, I found myself quite immersed in his riveting story.

What makes Farmers and Mercenaries so immersive is that instead of a single stranger in a strange land with whom the reader might identify, Drake provides three. There is the farm boy Arderi Cor who finds himself plunged into adventure, his older brother Alant Cor visiting the mysterious island of Elmoreth for the first time, and the Kith slave Klain, who is thrust into a life as a gladiator and is the cat person depicted on the cover. All three of these characters also bristle with unrecognized power and potential, which is very appealing to both adolescent males and ones in their thirties. There is only one voice of experience, Clytus Rillion, the Obi Wan Kenobi of the Farmers and Mercenaries heroic journey. Joseph Campbell’s theory weighs heavily on Drake’s writing, to good effect.

As a writer Drake is strongest in the page-turning elements of plot. His storytelling goes beyond foreshadowing, encouraging the reader to make predictions and then usually fulfilling them. The reader can appreciate small dramatic ironies throughout Drake’s series of books, which switch back and forth from character’s perspectives. Drake’s characterization and sense of voice for the characters is another strength. There are regional accents and certain characters leap off the page. Like many young adult authors he uses a good deal of repetition to firmly establish his characters and setting. Forgetting who a particular character is or what one of the protagonists is trying to achieve is almost impossible as a consequence. On the other hand, I never found myself marveling over any turn of phrases or enjoying any succinct passages in his books; Drake stays away from poetic prose and writes very directly. There are no undertones of Tolkien in his work.

Cover depicts cat person Kith, assassin around glowing goddess on Mortals and Deities cover

Image courtesy Imagined Interprises

Also absent are any elves, dwarves, and many other fantasy stereotypes. His continents are populated mostly by humans, either of the Ro’Arith variety or the dark-skinned natives of Sulaway. In the first two books, there are also O’Arkians, brutal mountainous orcs of some variety, the afore-mentioned Kithian cat people, and the skinny large headed Elmorethians, masters of the Essence. The Essence is magic, to be sure, but there are no wizards or warlocks wandering about in Drake’s world. Shapers of the Essence can enhance objects with strength magically and also mend broken objects, including flesh and bone. The mysterious and deadly Elith, a female character introduced in the second book Mortals and Deities, is a member of a fourth Essence-based race. As for deities, they are worshipped in Temples of the Twelve. Drake is intriguingly vague about the gods, but they are an important aspect of his saga.

Interestingly enough, politics are also left out of the first two books though in his interview with Craven Games, there are hints that this will not always be the case. This is not Songs of Fire and Ice, nor almost any other fantasy series for that matter. There are princes and princesses, but the nations they represent are ill-defined and unimportant thus far in the saga. Instead the battles are oftentimes of a more academically magical and interpersonal nature, though the books definitely have fights. Without spoiling anything, despite the presence of the healing Shapers, Drake’s combats get fatal fast. Several events in both books had me marveling over the rapid plot developments and exclaiming to my wife about what had just happened.

The quality of Drake’s writing and plots is consistently good through both books. Fans of Farmers and Mercenaries will not be let down by Mortals and Deities. In fact, the second book alleviates some of the narrative tension that Drake creates in Farmers and Mercenaries, while creating many new conflicts. Both books end with strong hooks, leaving the reader longing for more, and leaving no doubt that each book is only a small fragment of the larger saga. The thrilling saga picks up again in several months with Dreams and Nightmares.