Jennell Jaquays almost needs no introduction. She has been involved in the gaming world since almost the inception of gaming: an accomplished artist whose works were published in many D&D and other products; her adventures the Dark Tower and Caverns of Thracia are held up to this day as examples of the best in dungeon design, and after working in the tabletop industry moved over to computer gaming where she worked on the Quake franchise, among others. She was kind enough to answer some questions for me. As of the time of this interview the Dark Tower has recently finished up a successful Kickstarter to get the Original Adventurers Reincarnated treatment, and it was also recently announced that the Caverns of Thracia will soon be getting the same.
Question. You've achieved such success and recognition in a variety of fields -- from tabletop gaming, to illustration, to computer gaming -- and one of the things I've always admired about your work is you've always managed to evolve and stay relevant; I can probably count the number of people in the gaming industry who have managed to do the same on one hand, maybe two. Can you talk a little bit about your creative process? Where do you draw inspiration? I see you're doing a lot these days with 3-d printing, which I think is a fascinating evolution from tabletop to computers to actual 3d work.
Answer. My creative process begins, mostly with a need to make things. It’s been that way since I was a child. Back then, I used paper and crayons to make games, and tools and material in my dad’s workshop to make my own toys. I was into making a lot of different things, games, toys, comic books, stop motion animation, and model rocketry. A lot of that came from my dad who seemed to be a serial hobbyist while I was growing up. That need to make things never really went away. It’s what got me into games as an artist. It inspired the creation of my D&D fan zine back in ’76, and has kept me following new interests for the next 45+ years.
As far as inspiration goes, I’m not sure. I draw my ideas from my experiences, but they don’t particularly inspire or drive the creation of any given product or project. Although I can look back on past projects and point out specific influences or sources for ideas. Some of it is just looking at what others have done and telling myself I can either do it better, or do it in a way that suits my needs.
Making things for 3D printing grows out of my involvement in table top gaming, and draws on my experience as a game artist on 3D computer and console games like Age of Empires 3, and Halo Wars. I’ve designed my own printable 3D game tiles based on the open-lock system… though mine are scaled up to 1.25” per tile. And I make other things, mostly using Tinkercad online.
Q. More recently, the work you did for Judges Guild was caught up in the controversy regarding the deplorable actions and views of the Bledsaws. I'm so glad you were able to extricate your work from that mess and have it collected and reprinted via Goodman Games. What has been the reaction to these re-releases, and how was it for you revisiting those early works?
A. I will be the first to admit to being surprised that my work from the late 70s still has legs today. I know it’s a mix of nostalgia and discovery by new audiences. The credit for the “extricate” process goes to Joseph Goodman of Goodman Games. I had known for a while that Bob Bledsaw Jr. was conservative and religious, and perhaps a bit bitter about some things in his life. But he and I have had a fairly cordial relationship over the past 15 or so years. He kindly released my Dungeoneer material back to me several years ago (my content, not the magazine itself), and I know him to be a prickly protector of his father’s legacy in Judges Guild. So, I was just as surprised as many other people when that truly dark side showed up online in recent years, including demeaning statements about people like me. One of the things that has been shown to be true in recent years is that people holding views like his believe themselves to be in the mainstream and are surprised at the pushback they encounter from the rest of the world when they discover they are not. That reaction may have fueled his willingness to forgo royalties on the Judges Guild history book from Goodman Games and create the opportunity for Goodman to purchase rights to some of my former JG titles.
The reaction to re-releases and conversions of my older work has been entirely positive (at least what I have seen). I worked on the content for the history book and have done some side projects related to the Dark Tower conversion, but I’ve not been involved in the recreation of my adventures as D&D 5e or Dungeon Crawl Classics version except as an advisor.
Q. You are particularly well-known for your innovative dungeon design, which has come to be known as "Jaquaysing the Dungeon". This style of design features multiple entrances, exits, and means of traversing the unknown, creating a set of potential paths and not a linear railroad. Can you talk a bit about how this design ethos came into being? Is it something you consciously did, or did it evolve organically?
A. It was just something I did. My earliest dungeon designs nearly all had multiple paths through them and I tried to create situations that could be solved by cleverness as much as they could be combat. The process was both organic as I drew maps, and unconscious. I wasn’t deliberately trying to create non-linearity. In fact, I don’t think we really became aware of non-linearity in adventure design until published adventures began emphasizing linearity in design.
Some of that is an outgrowth of the way I designed my own play worlds with blocks and plastic animals, or on exploration board games drawn on sheets of paper glued together. It could be that it came out of attempting satisfy my own interests in exploration of the unknown… at least in fantasy and fiction settings. If everything is on the same path, you’re not really making exploration choices. Variable paths through a setting allow for meaningful exploration choices.
Q. Finally, can you talk about what you're currently working on related to gaming? If you've got anything you'd like to plug -- either your own stuff or work by others you think should get a mention -- this would be the place to do it. I know you're involved with the North Texas RPG convention to some extent, and that you've also got a Kickstarter in the works for Dark Tower.
A. The Dark Tower Original Adventures Reincarnated kickstarter just finished a couple days ago as the largest KS that Goodman Games had ever run, both in funds raised and number of backers. During the Kickstarter, Goodman Games announced that they also owned the rights to Caverns of Thracia as well and that it would be a future OAR adventure.
North Texas RPG con is always a good time and I get to see so many old friends and former colleagues there. I was stunned when I learned that the con had begun a Hall of Fame to honor people who had contributed to making the convention a success. The first “class” included the late founder of the convention, Doug Rhea; Dr. B. Dennis Sustare, creator of the druid class for D&D and the co-creator of Bunnies & Burrows, Tim Kask, the first editor of Dragon Magazine; Matt Finch, who created the original D&D retro-clone rules Swords & Wizardry; and me.
I always have multiple projects in queue, both for Fifth Wall Games & Miniatures, my own publishing company and for others. My major project is a ground up reboot of the first Central Casting character history creation book. The original was published over 30 years by Task Force Games. The rights to it contractually reverted to me a couple decades back when Task Force went out of business and the book went out of print. I sat on the project for a long time, because it really needed to be reworked. Above five years ago, I started that rework. The book is about 99% written, with nearly a 1000% new content. I’m on my second editing pass of the book right now, with work mostly complete on two of three volumes that make up the book. Like the original, it will be about rolling dice to develop a reasonably complicated character back story. Only now, there are a lot more choices to draw from. I expect to have both my editing pass and possibly a great deal of the page production done on the book before fall. My current plans are to self-publish it.
Other than that, I’m developing the icon art for a new “race” for the collectible dice game Dragon Dice from SFR. I did most of the icons for the game when I worked for TSR and the publisher enticed me to come back and design a new set of faces.
At some point, I’m going to finish my final editorial pass on a 5e adventure that I wrote and had extensively playtested a couple years ago. After that, more adventures for Swords & Wizardry.
I’m also working as the creative director for Olde Sküül, video game publishing company I helped start 10 years ago with my wife and two other women who were also multi-decade veterans of the video game industry. I mostly work on packaging, concept art, and some screen art components for our current projects.
And I paint a lot of table top game miniatures as the one game-related creative thing that I won’t ever monetize.