Saturday, April 25, 2009

An Interview with Liz Danforth (Part I)

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, the first part of them being posted here today. Part II will be posted tomorrow.

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.

16 comments:

  1. That is a very interesting (and unexpected) twist there with World of Warcraft at the end. The concept of things like RP servers always baffled me until some time ago, when I read things like "you can roleplay with anything, even Chess" on certain RPG blogs. Now I figure, why not?

    Top notch interview.

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  2. First Erol Otus and now Liz Danforth--are you going to talk to all of my favorite artists from the early era of gaming, James? Thanks!

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  3. This is wonderful. Metagaming and TFT were my first true tabletop favorites, and I credit her covers in large part with making TFT feel "different" than D&D.

    As a strange coincidence and an aside, I was at the annual game auction at Endgame in Oakland, CA all day. One of the first things that went up for auction was a set of cards for some "Origins CCG", IIRC, featuring profiles of gaming designers, artists and so on. Liz's was the card that Aaron pulled out before the bidding started!

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  4. Some of Liz's art will be in Knockspell #2, by the way.

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  5. T&T was the first game I played and Liz Danforth is still my favourite RPG artist.

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  6. @Rob's comment--did I miss something? Was there an Otus interview I didn't catch?

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  7. Thank you for giving me this opportunity to be heard, James.

    For those interested, the WoW survey is still live until the end of the month at http://tinyurl.com/SkillsSurvey! If you play WoW (or ever have) please take it, and pass word around to other players.

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  8. Excellent interview, and Liz, you are always are a witty and informative raconteur. Those were the good old days, were they not? Good to see your hand's still in the game, or gaming, and I look forward to more.

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  9. Shall I "out" you, Vanwall? You could as well be here as me, Mister "Missed All My Vital Spots."

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  10. Horrors! My light hides quite well under my little bushel. It's about you, Liz, and how well you've done - I'm proud to know you!

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  11. Some of Liz's art will be in Knockspell #2, by the way.

    Awesome.

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  12. The sketch is on my art table even as I type this... :)

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  13. I've always been a huge fan of Liz Danforth's work, and was always thrilled to see it in any product I picked up. I was unaware of her additional contributions to the industry. Thanks for the interview! Now, if I could only get a copy of Khosht! (Crazy obsession of mine.)

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  14. @Baron, you'd have to talk to Bear Peters about Khosht -- that was always his baby. :) James, perhaps you could interview him next! You'd have to chase him out of his bear cave, though...

    I'll give folks a heads up about this November's Gaming @ Your Library initiative -- November 14th, see if your library is involved. (If not, get them to!) More to the point, related to this interview? I'm in the process of finishing my first new painting in awhile, which is the poster for this program. And I'm havin' a ball doing it!

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  15. Liz,

    If Bear's willing to be interviewed, I'd love to ask him a few questions.

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