Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Interview: Jon Hodgson

I'm incredibly excited to welcome to Farsight Blogger Jon Hodgson, Creative Director at Cubicle 7 Entertainment and the man who forced me to buy Dragon Warriors. Well, he didn't force me as such; I just had to buy it because the artwork was just so damn gorgeous and suited a damn good game.

Perhaps you'd like to tell us a little bit about yourself?

My name is  Jon Hodgson, I’m the Creative Director at Cubicle 7 Entertainment. We make The One Ring RPG, Doctor Who RPG, Doctor Who Card Game, and tons of other supercool stuff.

I trained as a fine artist, and had a couple of gallery shows as an abstract painter in my misspent youth.  I’ve worked as a props maker, then a freelance illustrator. I’ve made art for DnD (3rd, 4th and 5th editions), Warcraft card game, Pathfinder, Warhammer Fantasy Role Play 1st and 2nd Editions, Glorantha, Legend of the Five Rings, Lone Wolf Adventure Game, Dragon Warriors, Warhammer Historical… tons of exciting things. I’ve been very lucky.

6 years ago I started art directing for Cubicle 7 part time, and got on really well with the team.  I went full time with them a year later, eventually getting promoted to Creative Director.  Basically anything we make now is largely my fault.

Tell us about your background and gaming - was it art that got you into tabletop, or tabletop that got you into art?

Hmm it’s tough to divide the two.  I played tabletop rpgs before I’d really decided what I wanted to do though, so perhaps they are to blame. When I was 10 I wanted to be a writer, an actor or an artist (precocious brat!). And at the time I was playing the Fighting Fantasy Tigerman RPG, and shortly thereafter Dragon Warriors. Then Red box DnD. I always loved gaming art though. Unsurprisingly I’m a very visual person, so the art was always really important to me.

I think probably it was art in books that got me into rpgs.  David Day’s Tolkien Bestiary with all the amazing Victor Ambrus, Ian Miller and John Blanche art blew my tiny mind as a kid.  As did the Chronicles of Prydain and The Hobbit.

What is it about the tabletop RPG hobby that attracts you? What do you enjoy most when playing a game?

The imagination.  The possibilities. The waiting to see what happens next. When I first started, like a lot of kids it was all about the problem solving, the resource management stuff.  Later I got a lot more into characters and settings and putting them together amazing adventures and stories.  There’s no game quite like a roleplaying game. Especially when you’re 14 and you have nothing else to do because Snapchat won’t be invented for another 25 years.

What's your favourite game? What games that are out there at the moment float your boat?

This will sound like a contractual obligation, but it’s definitely The One Ring, in terms of RPGs.  I played a ton of MERP as a kid, and while I have very fond memories of it (and the Angus MacBride plates, good grief!), and we certainly had some great times, but it never quite felt like Middle-earth when we were playing.  TOR delivers on that.

I did some work on Pugmire for Onyx Path, and I’m really looking forward to reading that. It all really works somehow as a setting. And I’d like to pick apart how.

Shout out to Morgan Davie’s recent “Holding On” short rpg.  It’s an amazing piece of work.  I really liked Meguey Baker’s A thousand and One Nights, too.  Clever games.

You might notice I’m rubbish at playing tribalism in my choices here. I like DnD, I like indie games.  Being able to enjoy two things seems to be a dying art, somehow.

Do you still get time to play? What are you playing at the moment?

I don’t get much time for rpgs - I don’t have a group locally, and they can be so time consuming. Once my kids are a bit older we’ll start a campaign in this house.

I do play a lot of boardgames at the weekends currently - Treasure Hunter, Takenoko, King of Tokyo, and Love Letter are probably my current favourites.  I had an awesome afternoon this weekend playing a card game we’ll be publishing later in the year with my son.  Can’t tell you anything about it though.

Sporadically I take part in our globe-trotting The One Ring staff campaign.  We’ve played sessions in Oxford, Las Vegas, Holborn Naish (on the south coast of England), so it’s a fun one.  We’re not all in the same place very often, and while we usually have our character sheets, events where we’re all there, like GenCon, on top of transatlantic flights are pretty exhausting.  Which is a shame as it’s a really good campaign, and I really want to know what happens next!

Dave Morris described you as 'The Dragon Warriors artist'. Your illustrations for the new edition of the game pretty much defined the feel and atmosphere of the entire game and setting. How did you approach that job, and what inspired/influenced your pieces?

Dave is very kind. Since I played DW as my first “proper” rpg, it’s amazingly gratifying that I didn't stuff it up.

I could give you the really long and painful version of this, but it boils down to painting what you believe, what you really truly feel, and believing in that process.

I tried really hard to think what I loved about the setting when I was a kid. I looked at the pieces of art and writing from the original books that fired me up.  I can almost taste how awesome that all felt when I was 11.

There are some simple things too - Dragon Warriors is very British in it’s feel.  So there’s a lot of rain and fog in the images.  There’s heathland, and moorland.  Specifically British landscapes that hopefully complement and reinforce the words.

I almost didn’t get the gig.  James Wallis had paid another artist to do a ton of work for the reboot, but that artist flaked, never delivering.  I was asked to fill in, and we got on really well.  I don’t flake.  And try to really believe in what I deliver.

Dragon Warriors and it’s setting Legend hold a very special place in my heart, which sounds sappy, but the fans will know what I mean.  It’s a very special game.  In some senses it’s all about just believing enough to let it out.

I used to shy away from words like “love” and “heart”, but I see a lot of my contemporaries churning out work to order that lacks any trace of real love.  And it’s why they’re treading water creatively.  You have to commit, and accept where this stuff comes from.  Make it like you mean it, you know?

Your work on Cubicle 7's Middle-Earth RPG, The One Ring Roleplaying Game, is also giving that setting a whole new look and feel. How do you prepare going into projects such as these, especially with the Middle-Earth setting which has already had such a huge variety of illustrators before? Do you find such things daunting, or another challenge to delve into? 

Oh goodness me, daunting, yes. I nearly turned down the Middle-earth gig.  It was too big, too scary.  But then what can you do? Just let an opportunity like that pass you by from fear that you’ll fail? When you adore Middle-earth?  You have to somehow find the courage to step up to it.  Just like with Dragon Warriors I was amazingly grateful that people in general seem to have liked the direction we took.

I’m also very glad I did take on the work, and tried my best, as it opened a lot of doors for me.

I had enjoyed the LOTR movies, but I felt there was a big gap left between the direction they went and Tolkien’s work. And understandably so for the movie-going audience. Tolkien to me is all about Beowulf, and William Morris, and Old English.  It’s about Saxons.  It’s not “cool”. It’s archaic, ancient, atmospheric, odd, a story from another place. Movies have to be cool. Happily, rpgs don’t.

Just like with Dragon Warriors it was about choosing a direction that your heart truly believes, putting your head down, and sprinting towards it while trying not to think too hard about what people will say.

In practical terms I read a vast amount of books prior to starting work.  Naturally LOTR and the Hobbit - there’s a lot in those books that still surprises me.  I also gathered a stupidly large collection of reference material about the Early Medieval period, and Tolkien’s own influences. I read the Kalevala for example.  And know more about the Staffordshire Hoard than is probably healthy.

You know, I honestly expected a lot more hate mail for what we did. We really took it back to basics, with everything being rooted in early medieval sources. We’ve had quite the opposite reaction.  You can never really tell though, when you’re working on something. And in some ways the reaction always feels a bit like luck.

There’s some really cool stuff hidden in the One Ring art.  I worked very closely with the game’s designer Francesco Nepitello, who is now a great friend.  He shares a keen interest in delving into things to an obsessive degree.  If you have the supplement Tales from Wilderland, there’s a painting of Beorn’s Hall.  The gate has a bee symbol on it.  That’s taken from a Frankish king’s burial shroud.

Beorn’s name, and his character, and his bee keeping, are all tied up in the language - across Europe, in what’s commonly called “the dark ages”, bees were associated with warriors, due to the antiseptic properties of honey.  And because bears like honey, and there are cross overs between the words for bear and warrior and honey-eater in various languages of the time.  That’s the level Tolkien, as a philologist, was working. We try to at least attempt to do something similar with the visuals.

We won a bunch of medals for the art on The One Ring, and I have some of them hung up near my desk. Especially the Golden Geek - you could kill a burglar with a swing of that medal! But in all honestly they don’t really… I dunno. They don’t compare to the fire that drove the direction we went in.

I’m proud that we stuck to our guns and found an audience for what seemed like an approach that wouldn’t necessarily be popular, after the movies stamped high fantasy all over Middle-earth.  But make no mistake, I see other artists working on Middle-earth imagery and simply feel completely unworthy.

The tabletop roleplaying hobby has been through a lot changes over the years and it seems that its death-knell is always sounded when newer hobbies come along, such as collectible card games and online computer games. It still seems to be able to hold it’s own, though – what do you see happening to the hobby in the future? What changes, if any, do you think will have to be made to ensure its survival?

RPGs have survived a lot of existential threats. I think at a very basic level people are tired of looking at screens all day.  The rise of boardgames really demonstrates that - people want to get together with friends and family in real life and play games together.

RPGs do have the challenge that they can be so involved to learn, and I think they can struggle to compete with activities that deliver more immediate fun right away.  But then I think there’ll always be people who want more.  We’re working on a few things that might help with that, building on the success of the Lone Wolf Adventure Game, which teaches you to play without help.  And I’m sure other companies are working on some similar things too. Stuff that’s uber accessible and starts delivering fun with friends right away.  I have a ton of ideas for our next thing along those lines.

I think there’s a lot to learn from Minecraft, and how people like building and sharing and exploring. We saw that with the OSR and indie/story games communities, and I hope the Dungeon Master’s Guild from Wizards captures some of that.  I honestly don’t know if a more commercial operation can harness that kind of energy.

Out of all your projects, what are you most proud of?

That’s a very tough question.  Is it really boring to say The One Ring?

There are some moments I’ve had in art directing that probably make me more proud than painting.  For me painting is something I’ve always done, and simultaneously it’s all busking and blagging and faking it, and not knowing whether what you’ve done is any good. (I should probably seek professional help…)

The Doctor Who Card Game was pretty awesome.  I made some ADing moves which felt very bold at the time, and we pulled it off.

Actually, getting some art in all 3 DnD corebooks recently was pretty rad.

What are you working on at the moment?

Right at this instant I’m ducking between painting a cover for a Glorantha supplement and pondering these answers.  At the Cubicle 7 day job, I spent the day getting some games into approvals and off to print. It was pretty satisfying.

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