When I saw I had a chance to speak with Liz Danforth through MetaArcade`s invitation to check out their new game, Tunnels & Trolls, I jumped at the chance. And then, you know, panic.
Liz Danforth is primarily known as an illustrator, due to much of her works being published in the Tunnels & Trolls gaming books, and is also a game developer and editor.
What the hell do I ask her that hasn`t already been asked a million times? Do I also treat this as a chance to speak with her casually? Do I share things about myself as an artist? Should I stay on point and ask about nothing but the game launch? Will I be shamed and dismissed as a fraud of an artist/blogger/woman/everything?!
During my chat with the MetaArcade media contact, David, I was able to focus on things other than my ridiculous fears and calm myself a little bit. And I mean a very little bit. As I sat with the tablet I was handed to play test the game, listening to the quaint music and sound effect of the story, I was able to breathe for a few minutes. But as soon as he tapped me on the shoulder and I removed the large headphones and heard him say “Liz is free for you now” my brain went ‘poof’.
I had spent $50 on games for myself during the entire con. That`s a lot of money for me. I was lugging that purchase bag with me the whole day leading up to this, worried the bag might tear without my noticing and I`d have wasted money with zero reward. And I got up, and freaking left it there in the public play testing area. Just completely forgot it existed. I didn`t even realize it until after my chat with Liz, and I freaked until I saw one of the guys at the booth was a total sweetheart and put it safely aside for me. (thank yoooouuuuuuu, whoever you are)
It`s not everyday that you get to meet someone you greatly admire, let alone sit and talk with them for half an hour.
Honestly, Liz was just so open, friendly and personable, and my word, talkative, my fears melted away and I got lost in the stories and experiences she shared with me.
And so, dear readers, I share them with you.
ME: “So you`ve had a very illustrious career…”
LIZ: “Well, a long one at least!”
ME: “Really though! Your name really rings out, it`s one of the things that really drew me to check out this game. It carries some weight, especially for other geeky artists like myself.” *insert nervous laugh*
LIZ: “Thank you.”
ME: “I`d like to know, for young women trying to make their way in the geek world, which is largely populated by men and even more so back then, how did you feel carving your path through that when you started?”
LIZ: “The truth is, it wasn`t a big deal when I got in.”
LIZ: “It really wasn`t. I came in through science fiction fandom, originally. There was certainly the pervasive background sexism that would have been in the 60s and 70s. But in the game industry, although it was largely men, it wasn`t male dominated in the sense of it not having the feel of domination that poisons the atmosphere in some cases and places now. What mattered was what you did. Not who you were, what you were packing, where or how, or any of the rest of it.
A few people were sort of going… I mean we didn`t even have the term ‘booth babe’ back then, yet still they kind of figured I was there as somebody`s wife or girlfriend. And I wasn`t. I was there because I played the damned games, I`d been playing games since I was old enough to stand up and roll dice to play Yahtzee with my family.”
ME: “Oh good, this was something I wanted to talk about, whether or not you also engaged and played the games as well?”
LIZ: “Yes! Hell yes. I grew up with this! I was playing Backgammon, Cribbage, Bridge and Game of Life, Oware and whatever. I`d play with my brother, even my dad liked games. He was the director of Public Works for the city. A civil engineer. He invented a kind of city planning game, if you will, that he tried to sell to Mattel, back in the 50s or 60s! This is where I probably got the genetics for what I do today. He died when I was in college, before I got into this stuff, so he never saw it. But it was part of my environment, growing up.
So when I went into science fiction fandom, because I was reading Moorcock, and Zelazni, and Lieber, I went to the local science fiction club in college, and over in the corner was a group of proto-gamers. I say it that was because at the time, they were playing Risk, Regatta and Diplomacy, war games before DnD was ever invented.
I just though, hey, this looks like family, so I just sat down and played with them, and no one had any issue with it. That circle included Bear Peters, who is here, and Ken St. Andre who invented Tunnels & Trolls. When he saw theis three book, white-back thing that someone had brought to a game night at Rick Loomis` house. He was like… “Huh, that`s got some cool ideas, but it`s so complicated, all this number crunching, I don`t understand it!”
So he went home and spent a week putting Tunnels & Trolls together for our circle of friends, the Friday night inevitables. The ‘Cosmic Circle’ as we called ourselves.”
ME: “Wow hahah that`s a hell of a name!”
LIZ: “You gotta understand it was like 1971 or something, hahaha! So he came back with this goofball game about 80 pages, mimeographed at the university and said ‘Here!’ We had fun, we thought it was great. Ken took the other 85 copies he had made and gave them to Rick Loomis who was headed to the Origins game convention and said ‘Meh, see if you can sell them’. Rick sold out.”
LIZ: “He came back home and said ‘Oh Ken? I want to be the publisher for you game. Let’s talk.’ And that`s where Tunnels & Trolls started.”
ME: “That`s beautiful, that just doesn`t happen anymore!”
LIZ: “Not anymore. And the thing is, we got a lot of shit for being ‘The Second Game’. People were saying ‘Oh you`re just a knock off, look at the name’, or ‘All the spell names are goofy’ Instead of Magic Missile, we had Take That You Fiend as our main combat spell. TTYF, as abbreviated now. Everything grew from there. Ken kept playing with the rules and calling them different editions. I started working for Flying Buffalo because I`d been doing drawings. I mean, my bachelor`s was anthropology. I had never been trained in art formally.”
ME: “That`s encouraging, neither have I.”
LIZ: “I eventually went back after I`d gotten my bachelor`s degree, I`d heard the community college had this incredible teacher, her name was Joan Yen. I had always avoided art class, because along with games, my whole family tinkered with art. My brother did lapidary work. My sister was in fashion design. My mom and dad both painted, my dad did little clay sculptures and stuff like that on the weekends. All this stuff passed through my awareness, since I was the youngest. But being the youngest, this also meant I thought I wasn`t any good. They were adults, they`d been doing it longer, of course I wasn`t any good! So I didn`t take my art very seriously at all, it was just something I did. Something in my environment, in the air I breathed growing up.
We`d be sitting and playing T&T, and I`d be there sketching while we played, and suddenly it was ‘Hey, would you draw my character?’ I`d say yeah sure. ‘You want me to pay you for it?’ and I`d go ‘Eh gimme five bucks, that`s fine.’ Or I`d go home and draw the scene of us fighting the sea monster while we were in this canoe, one guy grabbing hold of the hobbit who had launched himself off the edge of the boat. That`s what had happened in game the night before. I`d come back like ‘Look what I drew!’ And they`d say ‘Okay, let`s put that on the cover of the supplement’. Why not, I guess!
So I was working for Flying Buffalo and people were taking T&T sort of seriously as a game, but it looked terrible.” (fishes out a floppy looking printer paper booklet)
ME: “No way, you have the original here?”
LIZ: “We don`t have that, but it looked about like this. We do have a facsimile of the very first edition, but we`re sold out. I`d show it to you if we still had it. You can still get that. But the books were starting to go hard-backs and in colour. RuneQuest, Chivalry and Sorcery… they were still pretty cheesy, if you look at the early art on the earliest games, and it was like, the best anyone could do at the time. Colour art was incredibly expensive to print, there was no such thing as desktop publishing. Everything was being pasted up with wax boards.
We said ‘We need to step up to the plate’, so I wrote an edition of Tunnels & Trolls that could stand up in the stores if we wanted to continue thriving. Ken was not interested in doing a new edition. I had been in it from the beginning, I know the game. It is absolutely Ken`s game, he created it, and I would never take an ounce away from him for that. But I could translate ‘Ken-Speak’ into something other people could understand. He has a very stream-of-consciousness type of writing.”
ME: “Ah yes. That can be overwhelming.”
LIZ: “It`s not only overwhelming, it`s a little disorganized and it may contradict things occasionally here and there, so I took the rules I knew in the earlier editions he had and re-wrote them top to bottom into the 5th Edition. That was the edition that stood for years as the standard. for Tunnels and Trolls. When people say ‘Oh yeah I have the 1st Edition!’ They`re almost always talking of what`s actually 5th Edition. Ken has never hid… I mean I was listed as editor in there, people who bought the book assumed I mainly corrected the typos, but Ken was always absolutely upfront about it. Liz re-wrote it, made the game what it is today. But unless you were speaking to Ken or I directly, in the early forums and things, you wouldn`t have heard it. And that`s cool, I was cool with it, because I did not want to detract from what he brought, the novelty, and the possibilities of being able to see what he did. That`s not my skill-set. My skill-set is taking a diamond in the rough, and making it shine.
It continued to tumble along, you know, with Flying Buffalo. Because of the simple and straight forward game mechanics, they take to solitary play, that bought us a niche that never went away, so T&T stayed in print for decades. Our french translator wanted to do a new edition. I swear the man knows more about T&T than I do. Every article, every comment, every interview, if there was a scrap of information about the game, he knew it, he had collected it, just a total fan. He wanted to bring out a new edition in 2011 or so, had me do some new art for it, and it was so awesome when it came out, that the English side was like ‘We kind of really need a new edition too!’
This is when Kickstarter was starting to make waves, so we thought “Well, maybe a few people might remember us, let`s see if they`ll let us blow off the dust and maybe give it a new polish’.
We got 16,000 people and almost $130,000.
We just said ‘Well shit. We need to do more than just polish off the edges now.’ ”
ME: “Holy crap. That had to feel good.”
LIZ: “It was phenomenal. People saying they loved it when they were young, using photocopies of photocopies because they had no money. Now they are older and have kids and they have money now, and want to teach their kids! We felt so loved!
So Ken gave me a manuscript, and I translated it again. He wanted to completely change the game. I had to beat him around the head and shoulders and say ‘Excuse me, that`s not gonna fly. What they want is the Tunnels & Trolls they love.’ Rick Loomis factors into the story too. He didn`t want to make all his old games obsolete, he still had them in the warehouse.
So we formed what we called the Fellowship of the Troll. Rick Loomis as publisher, Ken St. Andre as creator of the game, me as co-developer and translator, Steve Crompton as the editorial and graphics guy, and Bear Peters who is our morale officer, if you will. He has the enthusiasm, he goes back as far as I do with the game, and is probably one of the few people that can mediate among the rest of us, because all of us have egos. Most of us can still get through a door, they aren`t that wide yet! But we would disagree with each other and fight like family. Which was good and bad, sometimes very rough, but mostly very much like trying to get to Mount Doom. To carry this game that was a heavier, and heavier ring, and get it published.
I came down with pneumonia in the middle of all this, I was flattened for six months. To say that we were a little late delivering… we were a little late hahaha! I also got a 3rd degree burn on my hand, that put a stop to things for a little while too. But in the end, the backers were insanely patient. 99% of them. This is the game that made them go ‘This is the time, I`m going indie’
And then MetaArcade said ‘This is the game we want’
Yeah, we are now re-translated into Spanish, German, Portuguese, the Japanese have gone bat-shit for us again I hear. We`ve got a lot of people paying attention to us, and the interesting thing about the reviews for T&T when it did come out was ‘You know, I din`t like this game when I was in middle school or high school” or “DnD was the only game I`d play’ or GURPS or whatever. ‘I`d heard about it, but also that it was silly and dumb, but actually you guys were ahead of the curve. You went rules light, roll the game your way, not my way or the highway’ which a lot of the other games did. ‘You have a piece of my heart, a piece of my history, I`m so glad you brought out this edition, it was worth waiting for.’
That was gratifying. That was almost more gratifying than the Kickstarter itself, getting those kinds of reviews. I was scared! I was fearing people being disappointed in getting the same old Take That You Fiend and goofy spell names.”
ME: “Well that`s excellent. This must mean a whole new world now, with the digitization of everything. I tend to find it overwhelming, but MetaArcade found a way to make it user friendly and easily accessible, as well as versatile without being overbearing as far as rules are concerned. Have you tried the mobile game yet?”
LIZ: “Oh hell yes! I`ve been involved with it since day one, not only making new art for them, but also consulting with David as they go back and forth. The rules that they are implementing as the engine for this are a combination of Deluxe and looking back at the 5th Edition. These guys are Fanboys originally! That`s why they came for T&T. I`m getting to see stuff I worked on 30 years ago come to life electronically. I`m a gamer! I play this shit! This is what I did for so many years, not only professionally, this is my hobby.
Part of my long hiatus between then and now was I got my master`s in library work. I`d been working part time in libraries for a long time. The games in libraries initiative was something I was deeply involved with. I was part of the American Libraries association, and the Verizon Foundation gave us a million dollar grant to bring games into libraries. Our purpose very much was to make gaming normal in a library. Creativity, development, writing, literacy… gaming supports all of those things.”
ME: “I remember reading about this and being so happy you were a part of this. That you were so involved.”
LIZ: “It was because I spoke both languages. Librarian and Gamer hahaha! Again I was translating! Of the eight people on the team, there were two of us that came out of the gaming industry into libraries. The others were librarians who also gamed. I had hoped, honestly, to bring more of the hobby to the library profession. But the constraints libraries are working under right now made it really hard to do more than having some pretty basic stuff going on. But at least there was that.”
ME: “It`s an introduction, at least.”
LIZ:” Yeah. There are libraries, depending on who the librarians are, I mean every library is different, every branch is different.”
ME: “I`m from Canada, I`m not sure if there is a big difference between ours and American libraries…”
LIZ: “There are some differences. I know Brittain and Australia`s systems better than I know yours, but I suspect in the Common Wealth there may be some similarities. But International Gaming At Your Library Day (it`s a week now!) is a thing that`s going on. Usually in mid to late November. There`s that kind of thing happening. The first year they did it, I looked at the poster and went, ohhh looks like some high school teachers tried to think this up. ‘Let me do the poster next year!’ so I gave them a real gamer poster. It had references to World of Warcraft, the Meeple, Catan, and at the time things like Rock Band and Dance Dance Revolution.”
LIZ: “So do I! But yeah. I wanted to do so much more for libraries than I could. For many reasons. I left libraries and went back to full time freelance. I`m glad I am, I`m much happier doing this, and it means that if someone like MetaArcade says ‘Hi, we want a new painting’ I can concentrate on doing that non-stop for two weeks. (she shows me this stunning new piece of art she made)
ME: “Those colours, by the way, are just stunning. They really stand out.”
LIZ: “Thank you. I am so proud of this. I finished it just barely three weeks ago. But yeah, before, I could work for a day, and that`s how it was during two years to bring out Tunnels & Trolls since I was still working at the library. Stopping and starting all the time between work days, it`s hard to get momentum. So doing that enabled me to stay with it, and God, I`m happy doing this.”
That`s it folks. Wasn`t so much an interview as much as me holding on to every word she said, but I have zero regrets hahaha! I loved meeting Liz, she was so sweet and engaging.
Thank you again David Lee (and MetaArcade) for allowing this chat to go on as long as it did, and omg thank you for giving me a print of Liz`s new art piece! I guess I didn`t hide my fangirl face as well as I had hoped hahaha!
Here is Liz`s website/blog if you wish to keep up with her works: