Grognardia Interview with Liz Danforth in 2009

Grognardia Interview with Liz Danforth in 2009

Grognardia

Grognardia Interview in 2009 Reproduced by kind permission of James Maliszewski

I’ve mentioned many times before that I was a huge fan of Traveller back in the day and that I considered The Traveller Adventure one of the few near-perfect products ever made for any roleplaying game in the history of the hobby. Among the many things that made that product so special were its illustrations, many of them created by Liz Danforth. Of course, Liz’s illustrations aren’t limited to Traveller; she’s probably better known for her work on Tunnels & Trolls, with which she’s been associated since the game’s beginning, at the dawn of the hobby. Liz kindly agred to answer some questions for me.
– James Maliszewski

1. How did you initially become involved in roleplaying games?

I was part of the local science fiction club when I was in college, many decades ago. The group included a bunch of board gamers who played Risk, Regatta, and Diplomacy variants, and I enjoyed that. The gamer group included Ken St. Andre, who looked at the original early D&D and felt it was a cool idea but “way too complicated.” He created Tunnels & Trolls, and so that is what all of us played. I did illustrations for the early game and eventually worked for Flying Buffalo Inc, the publisher of T&T. Working for Buffalo, I attended many game cons, I met the rest of the industry and did a lot of freelance work for anyone who wanted the skills I had to offer — art, of course, but also writing, editing, game development and scenario design. I had the time of my life, honestly.

2. In the early days, the hobby was a lot more strongly male-dominated than it is now. Did that make working in it more difficult or were those early gamers a lot more open-minded than they’re given credit for nowadays?

My first Origins — which was about 1976, near as I can recall — it seemed like every guy on the hall was staring at my chest. I was damn near the only female in the place. No one was unkind or truly rude, though. They just couldn’t believe I knew games, played games, or worked for a game company. They all figured I was somebody’s girlfriend, I think.

That said, I never ever had problems working in the industry as a female. People could tell I knew what I was talking about after a short time, and were willing to give me exactly the same opportunities they’d give any other artist, writer, or editor. My work spoke for itself and the rare examples of misogyny were just that — very rare.

3. The earliest product I recall seeing your artwork in was Monsters! Monsters! from Metagaming. Did you enjoy working on that book and, if so, why?

That was another Ken St. Andre game and me and my gamer friends — Bear Peters, Steve McAllister, Ugly John Carver, and Ken mainly, with a smattering of others — were the ones playing it while he developed the design. We all participated. It was strongly based on T&T but Ken choose to go with Metagaming instead of Flying Buffalo at that particular time. I don’t recall if that was before or after the art I did for Steve Jackson’s early design for Melee (which eventually grew into GURPS), but M!M! was my first color cover for a game, if I remember right. It was a very long time ago!

As an aside, Rick Loomis of Flying Buffalo and I are talking about completing the rewrite and re-release of M!M! It seems to have a small but vocal following though it has been out of print for years. Bear Peters did a first draft rewrite (he was always the most wonderful of M!M! GMs, having overseen the burning of Khosht, which was our “home town” for both T&T and M!M! games) and that’s what I’d be working with. I have to put together the next Citybook for Buffalo before I get to M!M! though.

4. For a lot of gamers, your artwork will forever be associated with Flying Buffalo’s Tunnels & Trolls. Is T&T still near and dear to your heart?

Absolutely! I loved the game then and still do. I also wrote/edited the Fifth Edition which a lot of people tell me they still play. I don’t play face to face RPGs much any more, I admit. Blizzard’s World of Warcraft puts all the dice rolling and charts into the background, and that makes play immediate and seamless. I like that. That said, my old friend Bear refuses to get into the game because you have to kill the monsters instead of being clever and witty; he says he’ll only play an MMORPG when you can wheedle a dragon out of its gold. He’s right, but the old T&T gang has dispersed to different cities as our lives have unfolded — but I can still play with some of my old friends through WoW, regardless of where we now live. Who I play with has always been more important to me than what game I’m playing.

That said, I find World of Warcraft deeply engaging and interesting not only as my entertainment but also as a game design, an intellectual property, and a fingerpost to the way gaming will change in the future. I’m conducting some academic research, a byproduct of getting my masters degree, looking at what are called the 21st Century learning skills acquired in WoW that may transfer to real life. The core data isn’t coming together as strongly as I expected — it is excellent but not emphatic — but the anecdotal stories accompanying the survey put me in awe, frankly. People are getting a very great deal more out of the game than mindless entertainment, that’s for darn sure.

5. I also recall seeing your artwork in a couple of GDW’s Traveller products, most notably The Traveller Adventure, which remains a favorite of mine. Did you find illustrating a science fiction RPG more challenging than illustrating a fantasy one?

I did quite a lot for GDW, actually — they were one of my primary clients for many years. As a reader of the science fiction/fantasy genre as a kid, I preferred hard science fiction to fantasy. It wasn’t until I stumbled on Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser than I learned to love fantasy. So I was perfectly happy to illustrate in both genres.

That said, the answer to your question is Yes, SF is harder for me than fantasy. Why? Not because one is mushy in terms of research to create believable images but because I am someone who prefers organic shapes. This is a topic I’ve discussed with other artists, and I find most artists have a decided preference — either for mechanicals or for organics. We can learn to do either, but one takes more effort.

For me, mechanical things are hard. I just don’t “see” them. Moreover, because one of my early influences was Art Nouveau and the likes of Aubrey Beardsley, my work has a strong “graphic design” look. Shape and flow are often where I start a drawing’s idea, so perspective took some retroactive learning on my part — particularly because I was almost entirely self-educated in art. (My bachelor’s was Anthropology.) It is extraordinarily difficult to do convincing mechanicals until you know about perspective and vanishing points, and are willing to use a straightedge or other such tools.

6. You’ve continued to do gaming projects over the last 30 years. I take it that the hobby is still something you enjoy participating in?

I certainly do. The hobby has done much to shape my life and while I’ve rarely been a high profile “personality,” I have always considered myself a gamer and working professional in the field. The last half-dozen years I was as distant from the hobby as at any time in my life and career. Everything in my life was in transition and almost all of it was exceedingly unpleasant and problematic. Now things have re-stabilized after far too long, and I’m glad to say that working in the hobby again is one of the things I’m enjoying getting back to. It’s not the same as it was before, but I am as excited by what I’m doing now as I was when I started my career at 20-something. It’s not many people who get to do two wonderful things in their lives, and I am incredibly lucky in that respect.

7. My wife is a school librarian and was very excited when I told her about the project you’re doing with the American Library Association. Can you tell us a bit about that project?

That’s what is so amazing about where I am right now. This is a LONG story, so you’ll have to bear with me.

History:

Twenty, twenty-five years ago, libraries and schools met gamers at the gates with pitchforks and torches. D&D was castigated as the devil’s work, Magic cards made kids into thieves and muggers, and the nascent video games were destroying children’s minds and morals — if you believed all the bad press.

Flash forward to the present, and the gamer generation grew up to become good citizens, attentive parents, desirable employees and respected entrepreneurs. For the last ten years or more, academia has been studying gamers — the video game generation mostly, but the older gamer crowd has gotten some attention also. What they’re finding, with reports released in peer-reviewed journals and at major conferences, is that by and large gaming can be very good for you. It develops a variety of cognitive processing skills; the MMORPGs develop leadership skills without regard to age, gender, or social demographics; the FPS games improve spatial processing skills important to engineers and scientists of various types; many games including RPGs enhance understanding of math, economics, and teamwork; and so much more. Games are strongly social, not isolating, and most people play with friends and family preferentially, whether in the same room or across great distances. The stories I hear that make me smile most are about parents who play games with their sons and daughters. Not only is that smart parenting, it is just plain fun for everyone concerned.

Learning:

Gaming of all kinds encourages reading and literacy even if you consider only printed matter to be “literacy.” There are countless tie-in books, graphic novels, strategy guides and cheat code books about almost every game ever made. The Pokémon cards rely on multiple nested conditional sentences well above the average reading level for the youngest kids playing the game — their motivation to do well in the game raises their motivation to acquire the vocabulary and parse the sentence construction. Several of the New York Times bestselling authors of today learned their craft writing for games first; I edited work by both Michael Stackpole and RA Salvatore in their earliest gaming days, before they had a single novel out. Ray Feist, Margaret Weis, and Kevin Anderson would have had quite different careers but for gaming. Today, fanfiction.net has tens of thousands of stories inspired by games and game worlds (Final Fantasy alone appears to have about 40,000 stories), and that is just one website! The converse is also true; through games you can explore the worlds created by authors like HP Lovecraft, Robert E Howard, and of course JRR Tolkien, to name just a few. Further, if you look into the “21st Century learning skills” as outlined by the influential The Partnership for a 21st Century Skills, then gaming encourages most of the key technological literacies that tomorrow’s citizens and employees will need to succeed.

The 21st C learning skills are of particular interest to me. Right now I am completing a research survey on how some of these skills might be acquired in WoW and their transference to real life. Results are mixed about WoW in particular, in part because a number of respondents are telling me they learned the skills in other games, particularly the RPGs. The positive anecdotal evidence I’m hearing is astounding: people telling me some truly amazing stories about what a positive impact the game has had on their lives: medical techs who feel they keep a more level head under pressure during surgery because of their experience in PvP; how a guild’s best raid leader — the tactician and strategy communicator leading up to 40 players into difficult conditions — turned out to be an 11-year old boy; how many women find themselves guild leaders when they’ve never been “leaders” of anything before. Over and over again, people talk about what deep and abiding friendships they’ve made through the game, friends they have since gotten to know well who they have since met face to face in real life. WoW gets a lot of bad press because it is a highly engaging, immersive game that can eat your free time and all your attention if you don’t have time management skills and understand the need to balance it as part of your whole life — but those also are skills you’ll learn in WoW if you don’t enter the game having them!

Libraries:

What does all this have to do with the American Library Association?

In 2006 I attended the first ALA Techsource Symposium on games, learning and libraries. I only became aware that games were of interest to libraries the year before, when I started on the road to getting my MLS. My mentor encouraged me to combine the two parts of my life. I’d been working 16 years in libraries already, as a part time paraprofessional — paralibrarian, we’re now being called — while making most of my living doing freelance for the game industry. Freelancing has its financial ups and downs, and my library system in Phoenix was very flexible if I needed free time to devote to a major project (as when I took a 3-month leave of absence to write the T&T computer game for New World Computing.)

I only remembered the BADD old days and was frankly astonished how much had changed. The Techsource Symposium opened my eyes to how far libraries had come, and I got to meet some of those leading the change, visionaries like Jenny Levine and Eli Neiburger and Beth Gallaway. I told Jenny how very impressed I was, and to let me know if there was ever anything I could do for her or for ALA since I still had contacts in the game industry and a deep understanding of the profession.

To my surprise, she took me up on it. In March of 2008 she and Dale Lipschultz asked if I’d like to work with a dozen others as part of the “grant experts team” being formed to carry out a two-year, million dollar “Libraries, Literacy, and Gaming” grant funded by the Verizon Foundation. Our job was to look at what the best libraries were already doing with gaming in the library, and then fund 10 new libraries to do new or expanded gaming programs. We put together a “best practices” toolkit that libraries everywhere could use, and the 10 funded libraries would let us “playtest,” refine and expand the toolkit too.

The team received 390 eligible requests for grant monies when the Request For Proposal went out. It was overwhelming. We had every kind of library coming forward — public, academic, and school libraries, from small towns, large urban areas, tribal libraries, and everything in between. The best 10% were given to the grants team to review — I read 10 proposals myself — and it broke my heart to know that only 10 libraries out of that 390 could be funded. Some were just amazing. As I write this, the winning libraries have been selected and informed, but not yet publicly announced. I am eager to see what has been chosen. I hope that there are ways to acknowledge and perhaps adapt some of the ideas of gaming librarians whose requests didn’t get funded. The energy, drive, and innovation I read in just the 10 proposals I saw were enough to rock me back on my heels.

And coming full circle:

My eyes and hands are getting old, and doing art as much as I used to is growing ever more difficult. I’m a huge adopter of Web 2.0 but not for art, where I’ve found the learning curve just too steep. I still paint and draw largely by hand, although I’m passingly conversant with things like Photoshop and other graphic programs. The fact that I can bring my knowledge of the industry and my love of games and gaming to the service of libraries, which I also have loved for decades, makes an amazingly satisfying combination as I look to the future.

For the games industry itself, I’m looking to do more writing and editing, as well as what art jobs cross my path — I can’t give it up entirely and don’t want to! — and I’m also working assertively on fiction writing which I mostly had to abandon in past years, although I expected to be a novelist long before I ever achieved recognition for my artwork. Sometimes life takes you on unusual paths and I’ve always been one to follow my nose to the projects and places that interest me the most. I’ve been lucky enough to find people willing to pay me to do what I love. There could be no better life, I think.

Or, as Michael Stephens said (of TametheWeb.com): “Learn to Learn, Adapt to Change, Scan the Horizon, Be Curious, & Bring your Heart with You.“. Words to live by, whatever your profession.

James Maliszewski started roleplaying in the late Fall of 1979, when he opened up a copy of the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set edited by Dr. J. Eric Holmes originally purchased for his father. More than 30 years later, he’s still playing.
Visit James Maliszewski’s website:
Grognardia: An exploration of the history and traditions of the hobby.

Liz Danforth is an artist, writer, and game developer. Her fantastic art and editing skills are a prime shaper of Tunnels & Trolls.
Visit Liz Danforth’s website:
Oakheart at LizDanforth.com


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