The One Ring & Dust Devils: An interview with Cubicle 7 art director and artist Jon Hodgson

Dragon Warriors: Friends or Foes (©2012 Jon Hodgson)

Dragon Warriors: Friends or Foes (©2012 Jon Hodgson)

Cubicle 7. The absolutely stunning The One Ring roleplaying game by Sophisticated Games and the small but dedicated British publisher received a lot attention and deserved awards. Beside this hit they are publishing other popular titles such as Cthulhu Britannica, the Laundry (both based on the Basic Roleplaying System), the upcoming Victoriana 3rd edition and last but not least the Doctor Who RPG and card game. Among other titles some long awaited French translations like Qin: The Warring States, Yggdrasil and Kuro complement their fine portfolio. Now, they announced a collaboration with Joe Dever to launch a Lone Wolf game (line).

I think their presentation and art improvements in recent years paved the way for a much better market recognition. Especially the great The One Ring RPG is totally „eye candy“ – a reference product for the whole hobby scene.

The responsible Cubicle 7 art director and artist Jon Hodgson (on Facebook) took some time to answer my questions.
His artistic approach is different, he avoids the typical cheesy fantasy art with „chainmail bikini women“. I am no expert, but I usually describe his style as independent, believable, down to earth and often somewhat spooky.

Furthermore he seems to be roleplaying game connoisseur, because he likes Matt Snyder’s Dust Devils – a groundbreaking Wild West indie RPG.

I really hope you enjoy the following insights as much as I did and do. Hello Jon Hodgson, please introduce yourself and tell us about your gaming experiences.
Jon HodgsonJon Hodgson: My name is Jon Hodgson, I’m an illustrator and art director living in Scotland UK. My gaming experiences began aged about 10, when a neighbour introduced me to Talisman. The Gary Chalk art really lit a fire. I had feverishly consumed every Fighting Fantasy book I could lay hands on, and that quickly led to picking up Dragon Warriors, then onto Red Box DnD – you know the story, everyone has the same one! Through my teens we played everything pretty much.

Alongside that I was very keen on video games from the early days of Elite on the Spectrum 48k – what was that lenslok thing all about? Remember that? to Uridium on the c64, then on to Amiga, and then a bunch of consoles.

I always responded most strongly to the visual elements of games, so it’s no surprise that I wound up as a full time illustrator and art director.

Eel Witch (©2012 Jon Hodgson)

Eel Witch (©2012 Jon Hodgson) You work as the Art Director for Cubicle 7 and as a freelancer? What does a typical working day look like for you?
Jon HodgsonJon Hodgson: I get up early, since I have young kids – usually before 7. I’ll check emails in case there’s anything urgent or especially exciting, and then do the morning breakfast routine with the family. Once everyone is where they need to be I get into work for 9. It’s Cubicle 7 work until 5, then after dinner I head back into work for my non-c7 freelance work. If I’m busy I’ll work until midnight. Usually till about 9. Before I was “in house” at c7 I maintained a very strict 9 to 5 working schedule, which I think was very healthy and a wise thing to do. But I do enjoy being able to do some over time on other projects alongside all the very cool stuff we do at c7.

Great -Spider (©2011 Sophisticated Games and Cubicle 7 Entertainment Ltd.)

Great -Spider (©2011 Sophisticated Games and Cubicle 7 Entertainment Ltd.) Most of your images seem to be otherworldly and eerie in „earth tones“. How would you describe your style? Who or what does inspire you the most?
Jon HodgsonJon Hodgson: Yeah, earthy is about right. It’s all quite textural and gestural. I don’t know, it’s very hard to sum up what you do with any accuracy. Thats for other people to decide. it’s all too tempting to just knock what I produce, and that’s poor form. People pay their hard-earned money for it!

Inspiration comes from so many places that it’s always hard to give good answers to questions like this. I’m very much inspired by the scenery and light up here in Scotland. I have a marvellous view from my house that has just seeped into me every day for the last decade or so. Artwork-wise I’ve always been a big admirer of Angus McBride, and Victor Ambrus. Both hugely prolific illustrators who’s work always had a foot in reality, which I admire greatly. A lot of my contemporaries inspire me. At Cubicle 7 I work closely with Paul Bourne, who’s our graphic designer. He’s an incredibly creative person with enormous talents, That’s always inspiring. Likewise many of the artists I work with keep me full of energy. There’s nothing quite like opening up finals for the first time.

I’m very admiring of people who get things done, and who are versatile and prolific. Beside John Howe and Tomasz Jedrusek you illustrated The One Ring roleplaying game for Cubicle 7 and Sophisticated Games.
You gave J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth another bewitching appearance apart from the prominent artists Alan Lee and the already mentioned John Howe. For many years they have shaped how we visualize the world Bilbo, Frodo, Gandalf and the other companions. Which artistic goals did you and the team pursue?
Jon HodgsonJon Hodgson: There was a lot of discussion about this. We knew we weren’t going to follow the look of the movies. We decided to take Middle-earth back to it’s roots in early medieval (“dark age”) culture and literature. Which seemed very risky at the time. Would people warm to a different look than Peter Jackson’s vision? Luckily for us a great many people have. I think the text is strong enough to support multiple interpretations. It was also important to create that sense of place, that characters could meaningfully inhabit. Depicting the setting was almost more important than showing “cool” characters.

The Bride ©2011 (Sophisticated Games and Cubicle 7 Entertainment Ltd.)

The Bride ©2011 (Sophisticated Games and Cubicle 7 Entertainment Ltd.) The artwork of The One Ring RPG has some reappearing signature characters (The Bride etc.). Please tell us a bit more about them? Are they real player characters? Maybe you want to share your favourite anecdote about these heroes.
Jon HodgsonJon Hodgson: Yes, they are real player characters. I believe they were devised by Francesco (Nepitello, the game’s designer). The Bride gets mentioned a lot, and I think she’s one of my favourite images from the game. She has a grim background, and so it was a real pleasure to get to depict a female character with depth and grit. She’s not beautiful as such. I liked that. So much fantasy art is about eye candy for teenage boys, and it wears thin when there’s a lack of variety. You did some covers for the German roleplaying game Das Schwarze Auge (The Dark Eye). Do you know the the game? How did this collaboration begin and do you still work for them?
Jon HodgsonJon Hodgson: I did. I worked for a few years under Patric Goetz until his departure from the company. He’d seen my Dragon Warriors covers and wanted something like that for DSA. My association with the company pretty much ended with Patric’s departure. My style was described as too “British”, and I think understandably they wanted something softer and tighter.

London Boxed Set for Cthulhu Britannica (©2013 Cubicle 7 Entertainment Ltd.)

London Boxed Set for Cthulhu Britannica (©2013 Cubicle 7 Entertainment Ltd.) Beside some Doctor Who and Call of Cthulhu RPG covers I know no „real“ Sci-Fi or contemporary or horror art from you. Are there any special reasons for this?
Jon HodgsonJon Hodgson: No not especially. I think I do mythic fantasy better than I do anything else. Rocks and trees and gnarly old people in mail seem to fit my style better than sleek spaceships or motor cars. I generally just work on whatever comes down the pipe, so I have done some sci fi stuff. A few years back I did a ShadowRun cover. Actually it’s funny – for reading I really enjoy the work of Iain M Banks, which is all far future sci fi. I suppose it’s a change of gears. Escapism from the dank glens, gnarled trees and mossy rocks that fill up my head. Crowdfunding (Kickstarter) is by now the driving force of the hobby market. Many artists share their work over this marketing and sales channel. Electronic tools and application are coming to the gaming table. How do you perceive the changing hobby market and community?
Jon HodgsonJon Hodgson: Hmm I think the long term effect of Kickstarter remains to be seen. I’m naturally cautious of any new hotness. In the roleplaying games sphere lot of high profile projects are yet to be delivered, and huge sums of money are being exchanged for promises of a lot of product that doesn’t yet exist. I think it will be an interesting couple of years watching that settle down – is it a sustainable model, or a short term bubble? Some high profile successes have caused huge problems for the companies involved who simply got the sums wrong, or had unexpected costs. It will be fascinating to observe “best practice” evolve.

That said, I think it’s a truly fantastic tool for creators to connect with new markets, and for companies to gather marketing info, or go the extra mile with a boost of extra funding for those dream projects that don’t quite work on the balance sheet without a little help up front. I’m cool with that. People need to do their sums very carefully, as the costs fall to the customers when things go wrong. And that’s dangerous.

With regard to digital technology – It is constantly seeping into all areas of our lives, and it’s no bad thing. The ability to play via Google hangouts or Skype is a great thing, and we’re always learning from the newer markets that bring new ideas to the table in terms of play experiences and presentation. Be interesting to see when someone manages to really capitalise on those mediums. Finally, some fun and quick questions. We start with: Role playing is …
Jon HodgsonJon Hodgson: …waiting for a new form to reinvigorate it as the social, creative, shared activity it is. Doctor Who or Lord of the Rings?
Jon HodgsonJon Hodgson: No fair. But Lord of the Rings.
What do you think about „Life imitates art far more than art imitates Life.“(Oscar Wilde)?
Jon HodgsonJon Hodgson: I prefer „All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music“ by Walter Pater

 Mountains Boy ( ©2012 Jon Hodgson)

Mountains Boy ( ©2012 Jon Hodgson) What is your favorite piece of your own art?
Jon HodgsonJon Hodgson: Oh crumbs that’s a tough one. Probably Mountain Boy. It says something that I can get behind in it’s ambiguity. Self discovery and self destruction can be indistinguishable, but the painting says it, and other things, better than the words do. So it’s a good painting. You prefer Gamemaster or player?
Jon HodgsonJon Hodgson: Hmmm. I used to GM a lot. Now I prefer to play. I do enough management at work! What are the key ingredients for great game art?
Jon HodgsonJon Hodgson: It has to be relevant and meaningful not just cool. Cool is a factor, but it’s a surface factor. Art in games has a number of purposes. One of those is to make people pick up a book or box. One is to make the artifact recognizable. One is to communicate “What it is”. I often talk about the art building a bridge from the outside of the game to the inside. No one can look at a wall of text and say “this is for me” with the same speed that they can look at the cover and be intrigued. Another job art has to do is provide breaks in text and visual book marks to make the book navigable and memorable. Art in a game works for it’s living. It’s not decoration.

Great game art also describes the setting, the people in the setting, the things you do in the game. It inspires GMs to write, it inspires players to join in the creativity.

Something I’m keenly aware of at the moment is that art needs to be inclusive. We’re a small niche of a small niche, and driving people away with outdated ideas about how we depict people is a really bad idea. I will never, ever forget something I saw when I worked in a games store many years ago. A group of students came in, and started looking at the rpgs. One feller said “nah, these aren’t for me.” His friends asked why. “Where am I on the covers of these books? These books are for white people”. And whilst it’s really easy to argue against that one and dismiss it as just one anecdote, it hit home pretty hard. Likewise I think the default that rpgs need “sexy” art in order to sell is extremely wrongheaded, not to mention tiresome and old fashioned. At GAMA tradeshow this year I saw a couple of publishers still trading on “look at the sexy lady on our banner!” and it seemed so very tired, regardless of “moral” issues. Gamers are smarter than that. We all have work to do.

Merchants (©2012 Jon Hodgson)

Merchants (©2012 Jon Hodgson) A design tip for established or upcoming artist?
Jon HodgsonJon Hodgson: Try and depict a relationship between two characters in a well realised location which has an impact on their relationship, instead of drawing another floating elf or copying another film still. What is your favorite role playing game of all time and in recent years?
Jon HodgsonJon Hodgson: Hmmm. The game I have had the most fun with over the years has to be Dragon Warriors. It’s very easy, and as I’ve grown old it’s shifted in meaning to me. In recent times The One Ring has blown me away with it’s take on Middle-earth, in terms of the rules. Honourable mention to Matt Snyder’s Dust Devils that changed how I viewed rpgs. What is your favorite board and/or video game of all time and in recent years?
Jon HodgsonJon Hodgson: I’m enjoying Catan Junior with my kids. Video game-wise I play a fair amount of stuff – it’s so easy to pick up after a long day. My favourite of all time is probably GTA: Vice City for it’s strongly themed open world. Of recent times it’d be a tie between a bunch of games – Fallout 3, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, or perhaps Bioshock 2, which I played before 1, and it blew my mind that you could put that kind of setting in a video game. I’m yet to pick up Bioshock Infinite and I’m really looking forward to it. Favorite game designer and/or artist?
Jon HodgsonJon Hodgson: This is a tricky one because I know and work with so many people I really admire. There’s a bunch of folks who I have the privilege of speaking to regularly who blow my mind with how they think. Francesco Nepitello, Dom McDowall-Thomas, Gareth Ryder Hanrahan, Malcolm Craig, Gregor Hutton. Very clever people. I get the best ideas for my games when … or I am most creative when … ?
Jon HodgsonJon Hodgson: I’m at work. Ideas come from practising creativity. Really hard. For 8 hours at a time. Ha Ha. Thank you, Jon Hodgson. Anything else you want to share with the fans?
Jon HodgsonJon Hodgson: Just a huge thank you to everyone who’s enjoyed what we create at Cubicle 7. 2013 and 2014 are going see some very exciting developments in what we do.

You want to know more or engage Jon Hodgson? He told me that he updates his Facebook page more regularly than his website. Check them out.

PS: Did you see it? Yes, there is a Kickstarter planned for the Cthulhu Britannica: London Boxed Set. Visit the fine Geeknative for a little bit more information. I am looking forward to this one!

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  4. The Ladykillers: Free Playstest by Dust Devils Author Matt Snyder
  5. Divided & United: The Songs of the Civil War & Dust Devils

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