Wednesday, August 26, 2015

An Interview with Jez Gordon

This is the first in a series of interviews with people I know who play roleplaying games. My goal here is to not just showcase what they've put out as product, but to also touch on how they play, why they play games, and what inspires their gaming. Our first guinea pig interviewee is Jez Gordon, whose art and layout work you may have seen in Porphyry, A Red and Pleasant Land, The Magnificent Joop van Ooms, the revised Death Frost Doom, et al. I can also personally attest that Jez is a super fun player. He has a blog named Giblet Blizzard, and it is here. You should check it out.

Without further ado, let's learn something about the man, his art, and the way he approaches gaming.

Q: I just realized that I don't know anything about your history with art. Did you go to art school, doodle incessantly as a child? I have no idea. Fill me in on how you developed you skills.

There's pics of me drawing dinosaurs the first day out of the womb, and I'm pretty sure I left some graffiti behind in there too. I had encouraging parents, they supported me in whatever it was I was interested in. I have an obsessive personality so there's very distinct phases of what I was interested in while growing up (dinosaurs, Superman, Star Wars, Greek mythology, early Apple IIe games like Chopper and Lode Runner, Tolkien, and they all squished into D&D) and during whatever phase it was, I was drawing.

I drew dinosaurs, I drew my mum dressed as Superman, I drew tonnes of Star Wars stuff... when Clash of the Titans came out it turned me on to Greek myths and there was like a two month period where every night after dinner I'd trace the outline of the Greek peninsula. Chopper and Lode Runner made me look at drawing for the first time in a stylised way, and after school I'd be at friends places drawing these endless side-on stick figure battles on page after page, and then we'd stick them together in these megawar deathpanoramas. In 3rd grade I saw a high school musical of The Hobbit (somewhat different — they had these KISSpunk rocknroll goblin dance troupe that were great, and Thorin and Co. all go home happy after the dragon is dead) and that put Tolkien on the horizon... and then the Bakshi Lord of the Rings film was out, and I was more and more interested and then suddenly lost in Middle Earth. Shortly after that my cousins came back from Indonesia for Christmas where they'd been to an international school, and an American friend had put them onto D&D (thanks Quentin!), and my Aunt gave me the Moldvay Red Box thinking I'd like it. And then I was drawing character illustrations for all my guys, and for my friends, and I never really stopped.

Later on in high school I was always the guy drawing in English class, but I wasn't encouraged by the school to pursue fine art. I spent a lot of time drawing chicks for the cool kids in the year, but mainly cribbed my style from TMNT characters and Wormy comics (there's a reason why my Pre-teen Dirty-gene Kung Fu Kangaroos never made the comic stand). It wasn't til I dropped out of advanced ancient history in 11th grade and needed to pick up a subject that I ended up doing visual art for the HSC (dunno what the American equivalent is, the SATs?) and that ended up being my best subject.

My folks insisted I get qualifications after school, but I flunked uni entry to all the nearby fine arts degrees and was still just too young in the head to move to another city, but I ended up qualifying for an Associate Diploma in Graphic Design at a very well respected public institution, and somehow in between the grunge and Hellboy (boy did I love Hellboy) and playing in bands I ended up getting the certificate and heading out into the real world, where I quickly realised I knew nothing about design. I did six months of computer skills, and the next year Quark Xpress and Photoshop where EVERYWHERE in the industry and I barely knew anything about it.

I bounced around between a few jobs for the first few years learning computer skills on the job, til I ended up in a printshop doing fast turnaround layouts and four colour/spot color proofing and that was a real important step in my career; that close to the furnace you get to see exactly how printing works and I think that's an essential part of the trade. The proofing press did work for the Sydney Morning Herald, which is one of the big newspapers down here, and I knew the design manager at SMH from college so she got me a design job there for a few years; and after a brief dabble in Disney animation and film concept illustration (zombies, zombies, and more zombies) I went on to a series of better paying but soul destroying jobs working for Foxtel, which is the largest cable tv provider in Oz. I did a long session with those guys — having an excellent design manager makes such a difference to the job — working on films, boxing and wrestling promotions. Tons of storyboarding. All this corporate work taught me a helluvalot about dealing with clients, and while there's little work I'm proud of from that time there was tons I learned about professionalism and negotiating with people who don't think in visual terms. And then my wife and I got jack of living in the big city and we moved to New Zealand.

About the time I started getting involved online with roleplaying games (which I had never stopped playing and illustrating during all that time) and doing Secret Santicore in 2011 I landed a job at the local Dunedin newspaper where I ended up working alongside a nationally recognised political cartoonist, and it was from him I learned the basic techniques I now use in the black and white style I'm most known for. You wouldn't recognise it if you put our work together, but it's the same (very simple) technique and it just seemed to work perfectly with what I was trying to do.

If you look at the quality of concept artists out there, there is so much horrifyingly good talent out there that's being brought together thanks to the net. It's a global market. And while I've always been "the drawing guy" among my friends I look at so much of the stuff that's out there and just know I'll never be as good as they are. When I realised that I was pretty broken artistically for a while, cause it's what I'm best at, and I'm too far down the track now to take three years out to retrain. And then I realised that if you can't be brilliant, at least be unique. Have a style that's yours. And I think over the last four years of hammering out that black and white style (I've never drawn so much in my life, it's awesome) I've managed to peg out a style that people (hopefully) recognise as distinctly mine. 

Q: You're not only a talented artist, you're also a really accomplished layout wizard. What are the big mistakes that people producing game content make in the way they present their material?

I think gaming graphic design is almost always disadvantaged by this pressing need for content creators to be so goddamn wordy. You shouldn't need 600 pages to communicate everything you need to make an excellent game (unless half of your book is gorgeous art). The more wordburners and darlingkillers involved in the process before the document ends up in the graphic designer's lap the better. None of us are getting time-richer, so the more succinct the job is the better. But it's rare that you can be fussy about that.

The next thing that kills me is walls of text. I like going to my UFLGS and flipping through gamebooks, but as soon as I hit a full page of text my eyes glaze. You need to break up every page with visual hooks and deliver your words in digestible chunks. Headings should always be bigger than you think. Work with the author to try and find out if there is a better way to visually represent what they're trying to communicate to the reader, and if there is a better way, do it.

And if there isn't a better way, smash the walls with art.

Q: Are there any ways in which being a visual artist affects the way you run games or even choose a game to play?

Yeah I think there is. Choosing a game... bad art will make it so much harder for me to get into a game, bad layout won't help either.

In how I run games... yeah I've been thinking about it and I think that the phrase "theatre of the mind" is obsolete. "Cinema of the mind" is much closer to how I like to run a game. yeah I think it's trying to recreate a cinematic experience using every tool you have except a screening room, which is where the players' imaginations kick in. So (perhaps unconsciously until now) everything I do in prepping for a game has been to help simulate that experience. I like having a soundtrack ready to go, a theme song to kick off every session; I work on striking visual scenes to frame the game in. I like having a poster sized map of the campaign on the table, it provides a strong visual cue and help sets the experience and is good reference especially if you're playing a game that moves around a lot. I don't go for miniatures — I love'em but just don't have time to paint any more — but I've got a lot of mileage out of Pathfinder pawns. With my skill set it's easy for me to make my own out of character and monster designs. I think the single most influential piece on my game mastering is in WEG's 1st Ed Star Wars roleplaying game, and time and time again I do stuff that comes straight out of the cinematic experience they suggest. And given how formative Star Wars was on my creative development it's really not surprising that I'd go for high action, dramatic gaming.

Q: You know I'm excited about the Dead West project that you're working on, but I want everyone else to be excited about it too. Give us the elevator pitch for it, please?

I guess the intro from the game will do the job:

DEAD WEST is a weird fantasy roleplaying game inspired by the myths and legends of the Wild West. It takes a lot of cues from the American story— emancipation, the Civil War, and the aftermath of internal conflict; the frontier, exploration, opportunism, and exploitation; and the technological revolution, firearms, rail, and industry — then feeds the lot into a fantasy grinder. Mix in some eldritch horror, aliens from beyond the stars, mutants and monstrous critters and yeah... you get the idea.

Basically I just wanted to make a great setting and game rules for gritty, cinematic action and adventure stories.

The other thing I wanted to do was present my take on the classic d20-based roleplaying-game rules. I’ve played every version of the big game since I got the Moldvay Red Box for Christmas back in ’81, and there’s good stuff to be found in every version of the game, as well as cribbing some of what I think are the best bits from other RPGs as well.

I think there’s a few philosophies at play in deciding what stayed, what was cut, and what got mutated: ease of play, inclusion, what seemed to make the most logical sense (to me anyway), and just whatever was cool and fun at the game table. Which really is the overriding factor here, cause that’s what really matters to me when I sit down to game.

The problem I'm facing right now is that I started on this before 5th Edition D&D was released, and there is sooo much good to be found in it that I'm wrestling between sticking with the d20 rules I currently have, or abandoning them for a straight up 5E setting. I'd like to think that some of my ideas have merit and are worth seeing the light of day, but the amount of fun my gaming crew have had with 5E makes it very hard.

The other thing is I'm designing, illustrating and writing it all at the same time. There are probably more functional methodologies out there, but I think it's worth it. Every word on the page is meant to be there.

Q: What is your dream project that you'd love to illustrate? What is the most unexpected or out-of-character project that you'd like to work on?

Right now it's one that pays well enough to justify the last four years getting to where I am now! That Silver Ennie was awesome, but it doesn't put my kids through school... yet :) Moneygrubbing aside, the project I dream about, the one I most want to see on the shelves, is just to have one of my own games published. To walk in to the game store and see one of my own on the shelves... yeah I'll be pretty happy about that. Really I just want to get to a point where I can do what I'm good at, for people who seem to really like what I do, and earn enough to live off. Don't have to be rolling in it, just making ends meet to the point where the worry is gone. That's what I dream of.

I think the tyranny of distance has been given a solid kick to the balls but is far from out; there's no way I could be doing what I do now for clients around the world without the net and especially G+, but still the distance is there. The networking opportunities, the full time employment opportunities, you can only really get them in North America or Europe, and I'm not at a stage in my life where I can drag my family to the far side of the world. Is it insurmountable? Will see.

Out of character projects... I dunno. I'm honest with clients who've asked me to do stuff that I find morally objectionable or too confronting, there's no point working on something unless you're going to give it your best. I'd like to do more work at both ends of the age range. My black and white style isn't really kid friendly, but I like doing stuff for kids every now and then and have a huge variety of styles from over the years that I could use; and at the same time while I think I'm right where I want to be in terms of violence in my art, I wouldn't mind tackling more sexually explicit stuff too. I'm proud of the way I've depicted women in all my art, they're strong, tough fuckers.

I'm not outspoken about it but I feel very strongly about gender equality, LGBT rights, humanism, environmental degradation, and to work on more politically themed art would be good for my soul.

Q: What's the one piece of advice about running a game that you wish you had when you got started in the hobby?

Honestly, just go read that section on GMing from the old D6 Star Wars game:

Q: What's next for Jez Gordon?

I've spent the last four years working on other people's projects, helping them get illustrated and designed; that was a very deliberate decision on my part as a means of getting known in rpglandia and I think it's worked. I'm still doing lots of work for clients — I've got the design to do for Veins of the Earth by Patrick Stuart and Scrap Princess, maps for Jeff Rient's Broodmother Skyfortress, and James Raggi has always got a billion other ideas for me to work on; plus I've been speaking with John Harper about illustrations for Blades in the Dark which I'd really like to do, and I really hope I get the design gig for Jason's Sholtis' Operation Unfathomable which I love, though both those projects are far from locked down — but now I really want to start putting my own stuff out there. People know me for my art, and for my design chops, but I also wanna be known for my ideas, for my games. I have no idea yet whether I've got the writing skills to pull it off, but I think I'm at the stage where I've got to give it a go. Dead West and Goreball out for public playtesting by the end of the year, that's what I'm aiming for.

Beyond that, check with my Muse.