Deluxe Tunnels & Trolls, Wasteland 2 and much more: An interview with Liz Danforth

Studious Mage - Iconic figure for Deluxe T&T (Liz Danforth, Steve Crompton (colors))

Studious Mage – Iconic figure for Deluxe T&T (Liz Danforth, Steve Crompton (colors))

Deluxe Tunnels & Trolls. During the Kickstarter for the special edition of the roleplaying game by Flying Buffalo I did a wonderful interview with the author Ken St. Andre.

Liz Danforth contacted me. We mailed a bit about the promotion of the crowdfunding project. I really liked her professionalism and openness. She even took the time to explain me some American language and cultural peculiarities.

Furthermore as the artist of Tunnels & Trolls, the first RPG I bought, she has a special place in my artists appreciation list. I love her black and white images for the game and the old Citybooks. Probably, many more recognize her art for the Magic: The Gathering collectible card game by Wizards of the Coast.

Liz Danforth is much more than a game artist, she is a multi-talent. (Wasteland 2, anyone?) The following interview seems to be just a brief introduction to her multifarious career. Enjoy. Hello Liz Danforth, please introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your multiple talents.
Liz DanforthLiz Danforth: If people recognize my name, they probably know me as an artist and illustrator of games, game books, and some novels. Certainly art is what I have done the most in my career, but I also have worked regularly as an editor, writer, game developer. These days I also serve as a consultant in and out of the industry, particularly being able to speak to libraries and librarians about games and gaming. What was your starting or entry point into the hobby industry?
Liz DanforthLiz Danforth: I have to look back to being a game-player first and foremost, from my childhood. The family played games together — backgammon, bridge, cribbage, board games, dice games like Yahtzee, and I segued naturally to hobby games like Risk, Regatta, and Diplomacy once I learned such things existed (which happened in my early college years). That group of gamers included Ken St Andre, Bear Peters, Ugly John and Rob Carver, and Steve McAllister — all names you’ll recognize as associated with Tunnels & Trolls. I started playing T&T with 2nd Edition, and did sketches of characters and scenes while playing. Seeing those, Ken recommended my work to Rick Loomis at Flying Buffalo, and everything else followed from there.

Frost & Fire (Liz Danforth)

Frost & Fire (Liz Danforth) You work as a freelancer. I think most people know you for your Magic: The Gathering artwork, but you did and do far more than images for collectible card games. If I recall correctly, you did among other things the artwork for the original Tunnels & Trolls RPG and the City books by Flying Buffalo. You are doing more than art. You were the editor for the 5th edition of Tunnels & Trolls? You worked also for the computer game industry (Star Trek, Crusaders of Khazan, Wasteland). At least I know you from these products. You currently work on? For example, what is your role for the Deluxe Tunnels & Trolls Kickstarter?
Liz DanforthLiz Danforth: Ha!! That’s quite a complex question! Let me see if I can take it a little bit at a time.
First, I don’t think „most people“ know me for any one specific thing, although they think they do. They know just a piece and think that’s the whole. It’s one of the biggest problems I have in my career, doing so many different things that the „one thing“ people believe they „know me for“ suggests I’m not very prolific, because I haven’t done „a lot“ for whatever it is. That’s because I did that, and something else, and something else again, and twelve other things besides, all in the same span of years. At least you know I did a variety of work!
I did about 50 cards for Magic. I did many more for ICE’s Middle Earth card game, which I mention here because I find I am better known for that in Europe — it is all but forgotten in the US. It’s also some of the work I am proudest of. I did artwork for (at my best estimate) around 100 different RPG companies over the years. The bigger names include work for TSR and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, tons of work in the MERP books, work for GDW’s Traveller, FASA’s Earthdawn and Battletech, Green Ronin, Hero Games, West End Games, Chaosium, Fantasy Games Unltd, and countless more.
I worked seven years on staff with Flying Buffalo, initially as staff artist then as the company matured, I was editor (and occasional writer and illustrator) for the magazine Sorcerer’s Apprentice and eventually I led the Blade division of Flying Buffalo (and about 18 crazy and creative associates and colleagues), which for a time was the dedicated publishing arm of the company. I worked on Tunnels & Trolls 5e during my years with the company and I also I worked on CityBooks, Grimtooth’s Traps, and numerous Catalyst modules.
The Fifth Edition of T&T is a story in its own right. I am listed as „editor“ because none of us knew or used the term „game developer“ at the time. I did a lot more than correct the spelling and grammar, though, which is what people think when they see „editor.“ Ken had done four previous editions with tweaks and adjustments, but we all knew it was a game worthy to stand in the marketplace as a full-blown game, which it didn’t appear to be up to that time. That job fell to me. I rewrote the book top to bottom, keeping as much of Ken’s existing work as I could, because the flavor and humor was essential. What I put together refected the way our group actually played the game, and I tried to make the rules as complete-but-succinct, and as accessible to new players, or to players looking for an alternative, as I possibly could. We did a complete graphical revision of it and it was extensively reillustrated, and I painted a new color cover (something I hadn’t done a lot of up to that time). That edition seems to have withstood the test of time and a number of revisions and tweaks since. It is the edition Ken is revisiting, with updates and upgrades, for Deluxe T&T.
Returning to the earlier part of your question… as you note, I also did computer game work. Every bit of what was ever released is writing — scenarios, puzzles, scripting — no artwork at all. I did some concept art for Electronic Arts and for Storybricks, but nothing that ever made it through the process. My first work on computer game design was for Interplay and Wasteland 1, which led to further Interplay work in the two Star Trek licenses and the never-completed Meantime project. As you say, I did the T&T computer game Crusaders of Khazan, which New World Computing released in conjunction with a Japanese company that loved T&T and requested a game in that setting. I was asked to incorporate as many of the existing adventures (the solitaires mainly) as I could, but writing the work that bridged and unified it all led to a whole lot of additional material as well. Some of it is now resurfacing as Ken works that into the Deluxe T&T rules — languages and the nomenclature of time, for example. I think Bear is working on a guide of magical potions and herbs based on the computer game material.
I was inducted into the Academy of Gaming Arts and Design Hall of Fame in 1996. At the ceremony, the MC and head of the Academy said he had never seen such unanimous support for a nominee, which was incredibly humbling and heartwarming for me.
What am I working on? Anything interesting that comes my way. I spent all of last summer writing for Wasteland 2, although I have no idea how much (if anything) will wind up in the final game. I haven’t heard a word from them about it since I turned in my scriptwork. I’m looking forward to the game, regardless! The end of last year and early part of this year, all my attention was on the Deluxe T&T Kickstarter. That project is a true team effort — no one of us could do everything that needs to be done, and our individual specialties dovetail extremely well. Steve Crompton and I did much of the development and marketing associated with planning and launching the Kickstarter, which turned out to be 1000% more hard work than I ever imagined — but as you know, it was all worthwhile! Another Kickstarter on my page is Full Steam Press’s art book of The Gathering, a roundup of the original few dozen artists who appeared Magic the Gathering at its inception. I just completed my painting (called Frost & Fire) for that project a month ago, and am incredibly proud of and excited by it. I honestly feel it represents a new level of quality that I have not been able to achieve heretofore. I also have many evil plans and schemes for another use of that painting when I can. This example is cropped to how it will appear in The Gathering, but the full-size picture I hope to make the cover of an anthology of some of my short fiction. (Commissioned assignments all have to come before I can tinker with my fiction, however.)
For the foreseeable and immediate future, all my attention will be on Deluxe T&T. I have artwork commissioned by backers on my plate, and I am even now doing editing/development on Bear’s game-master adventure that will be released for Free RPG Day here in the States.  Emails continue to fly among the Fellowship and I offer my input to Ken as he writes. I don’t want to do the kind of massive rewriting I did for 5e, so I’m trying hard to stay hands-off until Ken declares his part of the work pretty much complete. I have the sketch of the dT&T cover done and I’m very eager to get to it, but I have another private commission on my agenda to do first.

Sky Noble (Liz Danforth)

Sky Noble (Liz Danforth) How does your typical work day look like? How long do you need for a typical black and white character image. What is the difference to a full color image? You create your pictures on a computer or manually?
Liz DanforthLiz Danforth: About two and a half years ago, I began sharply defining my time management and goals. We all have exactly 168 hours in a week, and I felt I wasn’t accomplishing what I wanted to. I began tracking my time 24/7 and budgeting exactly how I wished to see the time used. It turned my life around and while I still struggle mightily with not accomplishing everything I think I ought to be able to — I can at least see the brutal facts of what and how I’m spending my time, and what I’m accomplishing (or not).
For all that, I lead a double life. I work half-time for the Pima County Public Library here in Tucson Arizona, and also as a freelancer, what I call being „a Maker“ to encompass all the various things I do creatively. I got my Masters degree in libraries some years ago, thinking it was time to grow up and get a real job, quit all this art and writing stuff. But I couldn’t bear to leave freelancing behind, and as much as I love libraries — and I do, most emphatically! — it is freelancing that truly feeds my soul and sense of purpose. Not to get into politics, but if I could have reliable comprehensive and affordable health insurance as a freelancer, I would have left my library work before now. I don’t and I can’t, so my 168 hours has about 23 productive hours a week skimmed right off the top. Doesn’t sound like that much, but I know what kind of impact that has on my ability to undertake all the freelance work I am offered and want to do.
My freelancer days fill the rest of the week, and I generally work seven days a week. A normally busy/productive day begins about 6am playing with my dogs (two Cardigan Welsh Corgis) and drinking enough coffee to become coherent. I’ve learned to be wary of getting into my email or, ghawdsforbid, Facebook, early in the day, because I can get sucked into the abyss and find myself having accomplished nothing when I finally look up a couple hours later.
I like to write first thing in the morning, though, and if I have a story bubbling in my brain, I do that for a bit. Since writing fiction is rarely on assignment (although my current piece is a commissioned story for Steve Crompton’s next City of the Gods anthology), I can only give it a little time if I have assignments waiting. By 10 or 11am, I am drilling into whatever my current project is, and I try to stick with it until 5 or 6 or 7pm, depending on what it is and how it is going. If I’m working especially hard on deadline, I skip other activities, and start my project-work as early as 7am and have sometimes worked to 10 or 11pm straight through. However, I can’t keep that kind of schedule for long; it burns me to a crisp and I become completely unproductive for days after the job is done… which I don’t consider a good tradeoff. I’d rather work consistently, steadily, and have downtime to relax, see friends, and play games in the evening. I’m more creative and productive overall when I can maintain that kind of balance.
To answer your question about my „process“ … computer or analog, and how long it takes to do an image… my best answer is „it depends.“ Overall, I do my artwork by hand, drawing with pencils, inking with Rapid-a-graph pens, painting with acrylics. However, I use Photoshop as a tool also. In decades past, I had to do multiple transparent overlays to get a complete „sketch“ for a painting whereas now PShop lets me do that in pixels. I can experiment with color, without committing it to the board. I can take old sketches, clean them up and print them out in non-repro blue, then ink that for a new piece. I can adjust sizes as needed as when, for example, a character’s head just seemed disproportionately large but the rest of the body was too good to erase. PShop let me experiment and then rework the whole. However, I am not skilled enough in Photoshop to do final art at all. The colored images like the „studious mage“ we’ve been using so much for Deluxe T&T are colored by Steve Crompton in collaboration with me. Often he’ll propose a color scheme, I make modifications (that picture he initially „sketched in“ with pinks and greens!), and he does the final work. Time and time again, he has blown me away bringing my B&W line art to life.
I can’t say there is a „typical“ time for how long a picture will take to do. Even a smallish B&W drawing will take an hour or two to sketch, and then I expect to spend twice that much time (whatever it is) doing the inkwork. That means I can do one or two a day. A full page piece can take several days.
Paintings vary all over the place. The original Magic paintings are relatively small — 15x20cm or thereabouts. Sometimes I could two in a week (and I wasn’t working as much for the library back then, so I had more hours to give to freelancing). A full size painting like the recent Frost & Fire painting… I’d have to look at my timelogs to say for certain, but I worked like a mad person throughout February, using every minute I could find. I had already put in a lot of work before that too, with sketches, value paintings, color comps, and reading other artsts‘ books talking about techniques and principles I wanted to incorporate into this piece. It took a long while. The hobby market is changing rapidly. Kickstarter/Crowfunding changes the whole market. There are more and more open source games. The weakness of Dungeons & Dragons and the competition with the Pathfinder RPG is some kind of accelerator for an even more fragmented community. More people starting to play traditional RPGs over the internet. In Germany most traditional roleplayers are over 30 or even 40. What is your perspective on the changing market and community?
Liz DanforthLiz Danforth: Evolution and change are the only constants. 8-D
As you say, everything is changing — not just in games or even in the bigger picture of publishing. The greatest thing I see is that creatives can connect with each other and with their fans very directly in projects like Kickstarter, proposing projects and seeing how much interest there is. Crowdfunding lets people who want something let the creative individuals know they want it, and pay for the time to have it made. Money buys time for creative people to do more of what they do best. We have been told that we have to figure out the new ways of the world, and I think this is one of the better solutions to date. Finally, some fun and quick questions. We start with: Role playing is …
Liz DanforthLiz Danforth: Creative engagement of one’s imagination for storytelling in a shared environment.
I could’ve given you a funny answer, as Ken did, but I don’t want to convince your audience that we’re all crazy over here. And this answer is pretty well correct, to my mind. Art is …?
Liz DanforthLiz Danforth: …bringing to life a vision only the artist can see and make real.

Wizard staff (Liz Danforth)

Wizard staff (Liz Danforth)
Artist, editor, game designer, librarian or writer?
Liz DanforthLiz Danforth: The immediate answer to this is simply “yes.” It’s not an affectation that I call myself “a Maker” — it’s that that list is too much of a mouthful!
A more complete answer is: I try to be sure I do something creative every single day, something that never existed before. It might be a simple sketch, or a few words of fiction, or a blog post, or a painted rock for my garden, or a head for a wizard’s staff for the Deluxe T&T photoshoot we did. I used to do more sculpture and mosaic and ceramics, but I lack the set-up space and the time for those these days.
Most of the time, of course, what I „make“ is a commission or assignment, but I try to give myself a little time each week or so to do something “just because.” It’s playful, it keeps my creativity fresh and helps stave off burnout. Last few years, it’s mostly writing fiction I do this way, because it’s rarely on assignment, but it can be anything that excites and inspires me. It doesn’t always happen when I’m busy, but I try. What are the key ingredients for a great game?
Liz DanforthLiz Danforth: If I knew, I would be billionaire. More to the point, what a „great game“ is to one person may not be „great“ for someone else. There are as many different tastes in gaming as there are in any hobby. What transcends genre or format is that the game ignites one’s imagination and engages one’s drive to play, to experience what it has to offer. A tip for someone who wants to work in the hobby industry?
Liz DanforthLiz Danforth: Don’t quit your day job (or don’t let your roommate/spouse/significant-other do so, if they’re willing to be your backup plan). Don’t imagine this isn’t a lot of work, long long hours, and carries an unforgiving need to be self-aware and self-disciplined. I wouldn’t trade this life for any other — I have tried — but it does come with a high price tag. You prefer Gamemaster or player?
Liz DanforthLiz Danforth: These days, I think I prefer to be the GM, but preferably among friends. I always feel like I am a performing pony in a circus ring when I have to do demos or play at a convention. It’s my problem, a sense of pressure that’s internal, but it makes things more stressful than enjoyable.

Dusk & Twilight (Liz Danforth)

Dusk & Twilight (Liz Danforth) Do you still have the time to play games? What do you play?
Liz DanforthLiz Danforth: I do not get to play tabletop and face-to-face very much any more. It’s very difficult to get friends together, even more so when many of the people I’d most wish to game with are in different cities. That said, I do play online almost daily. I’ve played World of Warcraft since 2006, with just a few breaks. I ran a guild for a number of years but finally stepped back to being „just a player“ as I began investing more of my attention in freelance again. I probably play the same number of hours per week, but I don’t have the emotional investment of taking care of dozens of friends and associates, many of whom I know in real life as well as in game. I play or have played Dragon Age (both Origins and DA2, and enjoyed both albeit differently), Skyrim, Diablo, a bit of Guild Wars 2 because friends were playing there, a little Mass Effect 2, and a variety of other things I’ve probably forgotten.
I value both electronic and tabletop gaming, and I’m disappointed in people who get elitist and snarky about those who prefer one to the exclusion of the other. „Different strokes for different folks“ is an idiom that I hope your readership knows — or, more anciently, de gustibus non est disputandum. Play the game you enjoy, and if it gives you the means to pursue a bit of happiness in your leisure hours, then that is what matters. Favorite roleplaying game of all time and in recent years?
Liz DanforthLiz Danforth: Too loaded a question! I have had awesome, amazing roleplaying EVENTS take place in a wide variety of games: Tunnels & Trolls (obviously), in Champions (the f2f version from Hero Games years ago), in WoW and DA2, so how could I choose just one?
That said, my „main“ in WoW (a human mage) has a special place in my heart because he gave me back my voice as a writer when I genuinely thought I’d lost that voice forever. I won’t go into why I came to believe it, which is a long complicated story, but a decade or more ago, I decided that despite early promise as a writer and some small successes getting published, I really wasn’t cut out to be a writer and I should just give up. This character came along and demanded stories, and I’ve written in the ballpark of 150,000 words (+/- 10K; I haven’t looked at the count recently) about him. And yes, I’m a straight female who plays a male main. My old school roleplaying skills don’t limit me to one gender or another any more than it limits me to humans vs elves, dwarves, hobbs, or any other race in the fantasy role playing genre. Favorite game (board, video game) of all time and in recent years?
Liz DanforthLiz Danforth: I’d have to say WoW. It certainly holds my interest year after year, despite ups and downs, despite all the changes the game has gone though (some improvements, many failures). It also is where my friends play and as I said, many are people I know IRL [in real life] either before the game came along or people I’ve met in person after first encountering them in the game. Favorite game designer and/or artist?
Liz DanforthLiz Danforth: I can’t answer that! There are too many of both, alive and dead, who have influenced my life. I also go off on jags as, for example, one artist or another has something in their work I need to learn. As an example: in my most recent painting, I pored over work by Maxfield Parrish and Tom Kidd, and experimented with light-path flow as described in one of Rob Alexander’s books. „Favorite“ is just too limiting. I get the best ideas for my games when … or I am most creative when … ?
Liz DanforthLiz Danforth: …in the transitional moments when I am still half-asleep while waking up. I keep a voice recorder beside my bed to capture the ideas, fragments of dialog, plot or concept-solutions and other snippets that seem to arrive full-blown and powerful in that twilight state. They’re not dreams, but are evidently the result of my brain having chewed on some project I’m working on overnight, and apply equally to writing and artwork. Are you open for hiring at the moment? What do you plan in the near future?
Liz DanforthLiz Danforth: It is said a freelancer should never say „No, I’m too busy“! I am, however, pretty heavily committed right now, predominantly with work related to Deluxe Tunnels & Trolls. We are hoping to get that done in time for Origins, but it must certainly be finished by August in time for GenCon (two big game conventions here in the States). I also am working on a private commission, a painting for which the customer has already been waiting almost two years. (He’s been a saint, so very kind and patient with me!) The French publisher of T&T has me on tap to do some art and editing along with Bear Peters and Steve Crompton. I have been asked to participate in two other Kickstarter projects coming up. I’d like to make time to edit and illustrate a themed anthology of my short fiction but I have to do projects that pay the bills first. I am finishing a story I was asked to contribute to someone else’s anthology in the mean time. So …. yeah, I’m rather busy right now. Thank you, Liz Danforth. Anything else you want to share with the fans?
Liz DanforthLiz Danforth: I have said, and will keep saying, how impressed and humbled I am that the fans are still out there, how much they still care about the things I’ve done over the years. I cannot say THANK YOU enough. I’ve done what I do — whether it’s T&T, Magic the Gathering, Middle Earth, Wasteland or whatever — because I love doing it, and thankfully I’ve (usually) gotten paid enough to keep doing it. Not everyone is lucky enough to make a living doing what they love. I’m incredibly fortunate, and for that I owe the fans whose support has made that possible. I owe them the very best work I can do and will keep doing until the day I start pushing up daisies.

If you want to know about her, go visit the website of Liz Danforth.

Images: Liz Danforth

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