I WAS HAVING a groupfest dinner at IlluxCon a few months ago, and found myself in a peculiar but recurring situation. One of the fellows at the table only knew I did Magic cards. One kinda knew I had a history in old school tabletop games. None were really familiar with what I have done over the years.
Then just today, I found another slice of my history being described (mostly but not wholly accurately) at Jimmy Maher’s The Digital Antiquarian. It was actually nice to see what he had to say, because I sometimes feel a bit “disappeared” about projects I’ve been involved in, and places I’ve appeared. (So thank you again, Jimmy.)
It seems the universe is telling me to fill out some of my history. This post may not be a formal “Top Ten” list, but since you probably know some things and not others, I expect you’ll stumble on ten new things. Maybe more!
LOOKING BACK THROUGH TIME
Truth is, trying to explain (much less remember) all the things I’ve done in the last forty-odd years can be weird. First of all, I see all the things I’ve done as related, even if others do not. If you know about artwork in games, how could you not know about the artwork and maps in novels and anthologies? If you know something of my computer game work, why not the tabletop game design work? Mosaics, T-shirts, dog art, essays about gaming in national magazines? Aren’t they all of a kind?
Then it gets more complicated, because I tend to focus on what I’m doing now, or what I am planning to do next, and not looking back at what I’ve finished. (I’ll note that this accrues both benefits and disadvantages. I’m not sure which predominates, so I must say this is just how it is.)
Intellectually, I know people do not (can not) pay attention to All The Things others do. Even the fantastically famous have obscure movies or publications, things only their most ardent or obsessive fans remember. I make no claim to being one of the “fantastically famous” but I figured I’d try to put together a few things about me that you might have overlooked. And I hope you’ll find some entertaining or at least amusing.
For the tl,dr version, look at my somewhat incoherent and incomplete Bibliography here on the site. I’ll be doing formatting fixes and content updates when I can, but right now much of it reads like a disorderly pile of notes. For a more visual array (but even more incomplete at the time of this writing), I’ve started a Pinterest page of “Projects I’ve Worked On.”
That’s one of the phrases I use to describe myself because I haven’t found anything more accurate or less vague. In other posts on this site, I’ve laid claim to “being a Maker.” Back when my mother was alive, she would plaintively ask how she could explain to her friends what I did for a living, and I didn’t have a good answer then, either. “I do fun, interesting things, and people like the results enough to encourage me—even pay me!—to keep doing it.”
FINDING MY TRIBE
The earliest thing I remember getting commissioned and paid for was a poster for a friend’s run for high school Student Council. It was a big tempera-on-cardboard painting, very 1960’s psychedelica, and I got $5. More conventionally, I did art, stories, and poetry for my high school’s literary magazine and wrote articles in the school newspaper.
Before I left high school, I discovered science fiction fandom after attending a Ray Bradbury talk at the local university. Everything changed. Finding out other weirdos like me even existed? I felt like I’d come home.
I attended my first conventions, and realized I could draw well enough to hang (and sell) my work in the art shows. I joined up with a friend to co-edit of one of the earliest Star Trek fanzines, a thing we called Impulse. It’s so obscure, it hardly shows up on the lists of early Star Trek fanzines. I drew pictures, and wrote fanfic along with some laughably bad poetry. We even put together a Star Trek cookbook called “A Taste of Armageddon.” There were green Spock-ear cookies to nibble on [*ahem*] and my mother helped me invent an orange plomik soup. (Seriously. We were massive geeks.)
As I grew familiar with and to West Coast fandom, I got invitations to do artwork for Bjo Trimble’s original Star Trek Concordance (just a little drawing) and Bruce Pelz’s Fantasy Showcase Tarot. That commission was a huge freakin’ deal to me, and the deck is almost legendary for the array of artists who contributed to it.
Was I one of the great ones? No, I was barely out of my teens. Everybody has to start somewhere. I started here.
FINDING MY CLAN
If fandom was my tribe, gaming was my clan within that tribe.
Things really got off the ground at the end of my college years. I studied Anthro, minored in Zoology, and despite graduating cum laude, I never managed to put them to use for their intended purposes. Instead, I fell deeply into fannish activities, participating in a Robert E Howard APA and another for Arizonan fans, and I joined the Cosmic Circle, which was a weekly group of science fiction fans and nerds who gathered to talk shop, socialize, and some of us played games like Risk and Diplomacy over in the corner.
People like Ken St Andre, Ugly John (Daniel) Carver, Steve McAllister, and Bear Peters were among that crowd, as well as Teresa Neilsen (who went on to become an editor for Tor Books, and is Teresa Neilsen Hayden of the well-known Making Light website).
When Ken created Tunnels & Trolls, I played right along with the other proto-gamers. That led to my introduction to Rick Loomis of Flying Buffalo Inc, T&T’s publisher. I did freelance art for the early T&T supplements and solitaires, and eventually I was hired by the company as staff artist and art director, while also answering the phone to transcribe turns from the company’s play-by-mail customers calling in their orders for Starweb. Ken St Andre launched Flying Buffalo’s magazine Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and after the first couple of issues of I took over as editor. We were able to bring in names to conjure with, providing us both fiction and non-fiction, and every issue we tried to outdo our previous efforts.
Eventually the company grew enough that I became the productions director of the Blade imprint, overseeing more than a dozen wildly creative and ambitious lunatics, most of whom remain friends to this day. In addition to all the Tunnels & Trolls-related things we were still doing, we expanded into the non-system-specific Catalyst line—the award-winning Citybooks and Grimtooth’s Traps—and also brought out new editions and expansions for the card game Nuclear War, the pulp/contemporary RPG Mercenaries, Spies and Private Eyes, the licensed Berserker board game (honoring Fred Saberhagen’s wonderful book series; accept no substitutes) and lots more.
I did a lot of work on the side. Rick was a very understanding employer, and with hindsight I realize how far ahead of the curve he was at handling independently-minded creative sorts. As long as we did what he needed done, he did not interfere with us doing whatever else caught our eye. When Ken elected to publish Monsters! Monsters! at Howard Thompson’s company Metagaming, I did the artwork with Steve Jackson as my art director. When Steve created Melee (which eventually grew into The Fantasy Trip), he had me do the artwork for that too.
I attended many gaming conventions while working for Buffalo, and all the creative wonks and publishers tended to socialize in the afterhours. This led to a considerable amount of cross-pollination among companies. Sometimes people moved from one company to another, and some (like me) simply freelanced their skills around. After seven years, I left Buffalo amicably, and started working part time in the Phoenix main library and pretty much all the rest of my waking hours as a freelancer.
“FREE LANCE” IS ANOTHER TERM FOR “MERCENARY FOR HIRE”
I heard of projects through my network of friends, and jumped on anything that looked like fun, or seemed really promising, or things I could do with friendly compatriots, and that seemed apt to (hopefully) pay enough to keep me in beer and skittles.
I did a huge amount of artwork for Iron Crown’s Middle Earth game and later for their collectible card game. I worked on FASA’s Battletech, Earthdawn, and Shadowrun, and for the Battletech ccg. I crossed out of fantasy to do science fictional work—a lot of it—for GDW’s Traveller, MegaTraveller, and Twilight 2000. I illustrated for TSR’s Dragon magazine a time or two, and for Steve Jackson’s magazine as well as a lot of work for GDW’s Challenge magazine.
I was tapped to do a few illos for a Zahn/Stackpole team-up in the Star Wars Adventure Journal. I did drawings of miniatures for someone’s catalog (I want to say it was Alliance Miniatures? but I can’t remember. It started with an A….). I remember enjoying Ars Magica work, keeping the sense of wonder and magic alive in a world that still had to match ours in its particulars and historical frameworks. I got to make a page border and interior illos for Last Unicorn’s Aria: Canticle of the Monomyth, which has got to be one of the classiest but big-mouthful titles for a game ever seen.
Ken St Andre and Michael Stackpole got tapped to work on the first Wasteland computer game from Interplay, and I got pulled into the project. I was writing scenarios, and you can blame me for the rabid dog in Highpool, and and the wheelchair-bound woman defending the Stage Coach Inn. (I can’t remember what other bits I worked on, honestly.)
Brian Fargo did ask me to work on the reboot of Wasteland, Wasteland 2. I spent three months writing my fingers off, and all of it wound up on the cutting room floor. But the boy Bobbie was given my last name, and Commander Danforth appears as “a figure of note,” shall we say. What’s unintentionally funny about that? My older brother’s name is Robert, called Bobbie as a kid. I never intended there to be a linkage—“Bobbie” just seemed like a good name for a little kid in my first Wasteland map. Now Robert Danforth is immortalized in Wasteland 2. I hope he doesn’t hold it against me.
COMPUTERS AT LARGE
Virtually all my work in the computer game industry has been scenario writing, never art. After Wasteland, I went on to write for other Interplay titles: the Star Trek 20th Anniversary game (which made my teen-geek’s heart go pitterpat), and Judgment Rites. I worked a long time on MeanTime, which had some great concepts but was waaay bigger than we could write into shape before the technology changed and we had to pack it in.
I kept my hand in at Flying Buffalo, and when they made a deal with New World Computing (best known for Might and Magic) for a Tunnels & Trolls computer game to be programmed in Japan, I got tapped to do the writing and basic designwork. Crusaders of Khazan was a bit of a monster, but it shipped and (if you want to mind-control your computer to play old video games — IBM DOS) you can still buy a copy from Flying Buffalo. I’d have to caution you that it has issues, so let’s just say it had a lot of heart and good intentions. I wish they’d been better realized.
The only computer game artwork I ever did seems to have largely vanished from the face of the planet. I did a lot of concept art for EA, recommended for the team by Dave Arneson when he was launching a game I remember being (code-)named Dragon Wars. Joe Ybarra was leading the team, and already knew my work out of Interplay. Sadly, I don’t know what became of the game or the art I did.
I had the same problem when I was doing concept art for a late Bard’s Tale game. I was told my art did not get handed off to the final developers, and no one knows anything more. Video game developers do not consider “original art” as having intrinsic value the way tabletop publishers do. Nowadays pretty much everything is born digital anyway.
WRITING, MY FICKLE LOVE
If you asked me when I was young what I’d be known for when I got old and grey, I’d’ve said I would have written a lot of novels. Life had other ideas.
Still, over the years I got asked to write, now and again—fiction and editing, mostly. I did stories for FASA, including one called “Graverobbers” for the Shadowrun braided anthology Into the Shadows, and a super-short piece for (Battletech, I think) that I can’t recall right this moment. Mike Stackpole provided the prompt I needed, and he and I are credited as co-authors.
Mike and I teamed up to edit a T&T anthology, Mage’s Blood and Old Bones. The story in there is an earlier version of Imp Possible Situations you can read here for free. Some other works suffered failure to launch, but I had a good time with all I worked on.
I did a little game design and scenario writing. I don’t expect this is news to anyone who might read this blog, because it’s discussed here and elsewhere on the Net in greater and lesser detail. I wrote or revised most of the Tunnels & Trolls Fifth Edition rules, distilling and refining Ken’s game, making it respectable enough to earn a niche in the exploding FRPG world. Then I did it again more recently with the Deluxe Edition. But in addition, I contributed to most of the Citybooks and Grimtooth’s Traps: writing and art in Citybooks; crazy Rube Goldberg lunacies in the Traps books. (Grimtooth’s Traps have recently been assembled, expanded, and re-released by Goodman Games. The dread troll rises again!)
I was hired by TSR as a freelance editor off and on for many years. I worked on one of R.A. Salvatore’s earliest game books, The Bloodstone Lands, and will forever remember asking my TSR liaison, with bemusement, if English was his native language. (He clearly learned a lot since then! We’re still convivial associates, and I mean no disrespect for all he’s accomplished.) I edited and illustrated a Forgotten Realms trio of books, Marco Volo, and handled Elminster’s Ecologies, and some Dark Sun books too.
I was tapped to work on Ken Ralston’s Gazetteer titled Northern Reaches. Discussing some of the material, Ralston was sufficiently taken with what I was saying to ask me to write an additional section for inclusion in the book. I did, and had a grand time of it. I think this was the only writing I ever did for TSR directly.
Something similar happened when I critiqued a GDW article I was asked to illustrate for what I saw as inept zoological principles being abused. (Remember that Zoology minor? I finally put it to some use.) Since the article had been written in-house originally, the author let me take my ideas and run with them.
STRANGER THAN FICTION
Mostly I had so much artwork to do that I didn’t have to go looking for assignments, nor did I have a lot of time for things like writing, even if I had. But when the card games came along in the mid-90s, everything changed again.
That will have to be a post for next time. Cards for games, and cards to mail; novels and anthologies with interior art and maps. Odd bits of this and that like the Hymn to Tourach wristwatch WotC decided to have made.
Then there was the dog show artwork I created, featuring my favored Cardigan Welsh Corgis. This included T-shirts like the one below, etched glassworks, and ceramics when I decided working in two dimensions wasn’t good enough any more. (A lot of it was more like 2.5 dimensions—tiles and platters and bas relief work.) I got into mosaics and experimented with some weird paintings that were often surreal and sometimes non-figurative.
I had fun. My ex didn’t always grok what was going on. Once, he snarkily said I wasn’t a sculptor so why was I doing some of these things? I was being a Maker, although I didn’t have that term or concept at the time. In the end, he was fairly impressed with the final results. “I guess you’re some kind of sculptor after all.”
This mosaic below is pretty classic in design, but I made mosaics on mirrors, on gourds, on stepping stones, and on anything that held still long enough for me to play around on. That did not include the dogs, in part because they would rather I pulled my nose off the art table to go throw the Frisbee or the ball. I did a lot of that too.
So this will have to hold you until next time. Maybe I haven’t shared the most elegant paintings I’ve ever done, or the finest fine art, but I hope you’ve seen things I’ve done that are outside your expectations—art, writing, editing, and generally making things that didn’t exist until I reached into the Wherever These Things Arise From and made them real, or took something that existed in a nascent form and made it a little spiffier, a little better, a little more of whatever made it wonderful to start with.
Sometimes I suspect there’s a relationship there, as to why I play magicians and wizards in my games: the characters who imagine something and make it happen. I wish it were that easy, but the principle is there. I haven’t figured out the “lightning and fireballs from my fingertips” just yet, though. I’ll keep working on that. One thing at a time.