I was recently incredibly fortunate, and got to sit down and chat a bit with Jez Gordon. He’s the cartographer for Broodmother Skyfortress and has a big stack of other projects under his belt which have shaped a lot of the modern OSR, artistically, as it evolves from being pure retroclones and becomes so much more than the sum of its parts. This interview is a part of my ongoing campaign to collect interviews from the team behind Broodmother Skyfortress (which, in more ways than one, is a reason I decided to try my hand at RPG blogging in the first place, even if I was a little late to the game). The work Jez has put in on numerous beloved books of the last several years cannot be underestimated – almost all of them are award winners and nominees – and he has some wonderful insights into the process of book design that I feel lucky to have gotten down on paper, err, uh, html?
Without further ado, I present an interview with Jez Gordon!
1. If you don’t mind, let’s start out a little general: You’re an illustrator who does cartography and you’ve been hired to do a book. You’ve got the manuscript, you’ve read the module – what’s the first step from there for you, personally? What’s your mapmaking process like?
Usually you’ll get a rough map from the author which can be quite detailed right down to super sketchy or non-existent. There’s a discussion with the author about what’s important to them, as well as with the publisher to work out what are the physical and monetary limitations on what you can do. You examine options such as where the map’s going to be in the product, whether the map’s going to lose its middle section in the spine of the book if it goes across two pages, should it be a poster map, is it color/bw. Those sorts of production issue details.
Then it’s a process of creating a rough but accurate version. Sometimes there’s a request for an isometric style or top-down, and sometimes that’s not going to work.
With Broodmother Skyfortress, which had two isometric maps in the endpaopers, the map guides I was given were very lose and the adventure is more of a point crawl instead of a gridgrind. So I was able to adjust the position of the locations so that they filled out the available pagespace better.
Whereas with the Underground map for Operation Unfathomable, that was supplied quite well mapped out on a double page grid but with a request to do an isometric map. When I worked out what that rectangular shape would look like, it was just too small overall to be usable, and when I explained this to Jason Sholtis and the Hydra Cooperative they were totally happy to go with a top-down map that’d be most useable for the DM.
Sometimes you don’t get a full brief either, just a “we need a map here and it needs to show the relationship between these things” which was the case with the isometric Interior Map I drew for Red and Pleasant Land. I saw the black and red isometric patterns in some of the illustrations Zak Smith had drawn for some of the early pages in the book and used that as inspiration, and everyone was happy with how it came out.
And then it’s just bums in seats, drawing for a few days. There’s usually a bit of back and forth between the client as small issues arise or clarification is needed. Sometimes I’ll color with pens, sometimes using Photoshop. Either way it’s all got to be scanned, and then comes the lengthy process of labelling the map. Bonus points if you make it interactive so that in the PDF file, if you click on the location in the map it will take you to the page detailing the page (something I did for the Operation Unfathomable underground map).
2. I’ve heard that your eye for detail and the unique perspective of a cartographer caught some layout issues on Broodmother Skyfortress that Alex Mayo was able to tweak for the better, making for a more natural flow by the time we got our hands on it. Could you talk a bit on that?
Sure. Ultimately all decisions come down to “what is going to serve the user of this book the best?” and while I was labelling the locations on the BMSF maps, I noticed that the order of the rooms in the text jumped around a bit. So adjacent locations on the map weren’t adjacent in the text which would have been less user-friendly. I pointed this out, and the rest of the team agreed that changing the text so it would flow better was the best way to solve it.
Similar thing happened with a couple of locations in the Operational Unfathomable map. Easily solved.
3. The artwork of mapping contributes an immense amount to both the cohesiveness of a book’s design and the reader’s immersion in the book – how does your approach change from book to book to reflect the material?
You want a consistent style throughout if possible. You look at what the rest of the book is like and try to find a way to match it without compromising the usability of the map. So the iso-map in Red and Pleasant Land had to match Zak’s style. The Underworld Map in Operation Unfathomable had to match the shading techniques used by Jason in his illustrations. BMSF was different. The evocative nature of the setting inspired me to try something more painterly. I actually think the BMSF maps could have been closer in style to the comic bookishness of the rest of the illustrations, but due to the nature of the production timeline I was working on the map before I saw the majority of the art. Simple things like having the fonts on the map match the fonts in the layout help tie them be cohesive.
4. You’ve shown a great flexibility in style on projects like Red and Pleasant Land and Death Frost Doom, both of which earned you heaps of awards. You switched it up again on Broodmother Skyfortress. What are some of the challenges these varied books and styles presented to you?
Well for the nearly 20 years prior to making the jump to RPG design and cartography I was doing graphic design for various companies and corporations, and that involved a lot of working with existing styles. You learn to mimic. You also learn to grow a thick hide and not get too attached to your ideas. The biggest challenge aside from actually doing the work (most of which is covered in the previous answer) is working with the different personalities to deliver what they’re after. Some are very direct, very explicit in their requirements, some are so hands off you don’t know whether you’re doing the right thing.
5. In addition to maps, you’ve also done design and full illustration, such as on Porphyry and Scenic Dunnsmouth – what are your thoughts on doing dedicated cartography work versus layout or illustration? Do you feel more at home doing one or the other?
Doing the illustration or cartography or layout for a rpg book is a big task. Combining them makes them huge. I’ve found the hard way that when books require that much work they get daunting. I have a personal preference for quick turn-around jobs, so that I can get that sense of completion and achievement faster. So Death Frost Doom, for which I did the layout, illustrations and maps for, was one month turn around for all of it. That is my personal best and the project that went smoothest, and what I aspire to be working on in the future. The Cursed Chateau was three months, but it was complicated by the inclusion of the gold ink throughout the layout and illustration, and by having thumbnail maps on every page.
The biggest jobs – Red and Pleasant Land and Veins of the Earth – each took more than a year to layout and design. I did do other smaller projects while working on the big ones, but their sheer size is pretty full on. I doubt I would work solo on books that big again, at least for other clients. I think the best approach for books like that is to get a lead designer to work out the page templates, but work with a team of graphic designers to do it together. Share the load, reduce the turnaround time.
6. Your site mentions a lifetime of role-playing games and monster doodling, so I have to ask, if only for my own interests, what it is in gaming that has captivated you for so long? How did you get your start as a gamer in Australia, and what drove you to create professionally in this space?
Why does one guy like rpgs and another guy like breaking down and rebuilding hotrods? I really dunno. Passion’s weird and you should just run with it. I wasn’t surrounded by gaming when I was growing up in the late-70s and 80s, but I was really into the same creative space that gaming occupies. Fantasy, sci-fi, superheroes, cartoons, movie, myths and monsters… Loved all that. I think that I was playing pretend heaps as a kid, and telling stories with action-figures, and was reading and imagining lots of made-up worlds already, and then my cousins came back to Sydney from a two year stay in Indonesia, where my cousins were going to an International School with some American kids. 1983 I think? My aunt gave me the Moldvay Red Box for Christmas. I couldn’t make sense of it at all. But then I stayed on a friend’s farm, and her nephew came to visit and said hey do you wanna play this game? Half an hour later my fighter was decapitated by a pendulum blade trap and I was hooked. I had some slightly older and smarter neighbours who helped figure out how to play and I was toast. I think the creative opportunities it presented, drawing character illustrations, maps, etc, as well as the social opportunities and shared imagination all really captivated me. Still do.
As for why I started professionally? Well I would have been doing it since I left design school if I could have found a way, but living in Australia really killed off most opportunities to do so. Very very rare to find someone from here doing it. That’s changed dramatically with the rise of the internet and the advent of social platforms. I was living in NZ, was between jobs, and G+ had just started out, so I was just getting to know people and players around the world, and Zak Smith was talking about someone volunteering to handle the first Secret Santicore, and I saw an opportunity to organise it and present all the entries using my design chops, map skills and illustrations. I knew it was going to be widely read (cause there were quite a lot of entries) and figured what-the-hey, do a month of hard work for free, and people will find out about you. In the end it was too big just for me, and a bunch of people came together, other illustrators, cartographers, writers and editors, many of whom I’ve been friends with ever since, and it went out the day after Christmas. Several thousand people downloaded it in the first month or so, and that’s how my name got out there. I’ve been working in RPG-land ever since.
7. You have an extensive blog presence of your own (with a very clean look!) where you share a lot of personal RPG creations and also discuss things in abstract, such as lazy criticism, awards, and reviews. What do you think your future holds with regards to interaction with fans, fellow contributors, and the subject matter of the industry at large – at least socially?
Well I’m a chatty fucker and love talking with people about things I love, and the evergrowing ease of connection between people from around the world is going to make it easier for me to find ears to chew off and eyeballs to bleed. The future of that is good. 20 years ago when I came out of college, there wasn’t this opportunity to connect with RPG creatives so easily, there wasn’t this opportunity to connect with fans so easily. It makes a HUGE difference, particularly when you’re outside of the US or the UK, to be able to build a global awareness of what you’re creating. It makes a HUGE difference in finding work. I could not being doing what I’m doing now without the online community, especially on G+ which has been fantastic. Being able to run games online with such ease is great, and in theory should only get better.
8. I have to admit, finding out what projects you’re working on or have in the pipeline has been a difficult task indeed! What can we hope to see from you soon? Anything with your name on it coming out still in the latter half of 2018, or any projects near and dear to your heart that you’d like to draw awareness to?
I should probably fix that up! I’m most active on G+: https://plus.google.com/+JezGordon
The biggest thing I’m working on is a long-gestating pet project of mine: Feral RPG: the Action Adventure Game of Mutant Mayhem and Pure Pandemonium
It’s a love letter to all the amazing creative cartoons, films and concepts that came out of the 1980s, combined with 5th Edition D&D game mechanics, so the rules are familiar to most people, and the setting should be a ton of fun.
I’m concentrating more and more on it, and pulling back on work for other clients at the moment. I’m still booked to do a couple of big jobs over the next few months though.
James Raggi of Lamentations of the Flame Princess has me working on a really challenging book layout for a new adventure (it’s nuts) and on layout for the long-coming Referee Book.
I’m also due to start on the companion book to Operation Unfathomble by Jason Sholtis for Hydra Co-operative, called Odious Uplands, which is about the regions aboveground. I absolutely adore Jason’s art and writing and love working on it. Just waiting for the completed manuscript and art from Jason and will be kicking off soon.
I also have a layout booked in for Orcs! a Hubris RPG adventure for my buddy Mike Evans. Again just waiting on the finished manuscript.
Apart from those it’s all Feral for me! Anyone who’s interested should visit the website, download the free playtest and character PDFs and check out the game: www.feralrpg.com
Jez blew me away with his responses here. I was super pleased to get such amazing insights into the process of book design and to follow up on some points raised by Jeff Rients in my interview with him regarding Jez saving the day, but every answer was really intriguing for me. It’s also always cool to see what creators are working on, if only because it acts as an early warning system for my bank account. I cannot wait to see the follow-on to Operation Unfathomable (which is in my to-do list as a review project, don’t even worry – I just want a physical copy in hand first, and I have a few items ahead of that in my endless shopping list) because that is amongst the finest books I’ve ever put eyes on.
Jez, thanks so much for agreeing to spend awhile working on this Q&A for me and being so friendly and welcoming! I’ll do my best to harangue you into wasting an afternoon on questions again when one or more of those projects drop. Clear a schedule block now!
For all of the readers out there, please avail yourself of two additional facts about Mr. Gordon: 1. You can reach him on Twitter as well, @gibletblizzard, and 2. Every single time you see the abbreviation “BMSF” above, for Broodmother Skyfortress, I want you to know that Jez typed “BDSM” in the email – and it was not autocorrect.
Jez, you’re awesome. Thank you again!