Ego Check: Grant Gould, Freelance Illustrator

In Spring 1999, Pacey Witter was a season away from kissing Joey PotterPresident Bill Clinton was dealing with the Monica Lewinsky scandal and Star Wars fans around the globe were camping out to buy tickets to the long-anticipated Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Remember that feeling of anticipation? There’s going to be a new Star Wars movie! And we’re going to see it on the big screen soon! At the time, I was in the process of completing my first year of graduate school at University of Minnesota – where Jesse “The Body” Ventura was residing as Governor of Minnesota. Looking back, it was a strange time!

Being a huge fan of Star Wars and not wanting to miss out on getting a ticket to the first show, I searched online for the nearest organized line – a task that was not as easy as it sound because social media like Facebook and Twitter didn’t really exist yet. I found a nearby group through an online message board and not knowing what to expect, I left class and drove 20 minutes outside of Minneapolis to a suburban theater. I immediately connected with the other guys and girls in what became simply known as The Line. There was a shared language we all understood – we were all nerds, damn proud of it and the enthusiasm and camaraderie was contagious. During the following days when I wasn’t in class, at work or home sleeping – I was at The Line.

New roleplaying game in development from Grant Gould.

One of the great people I met in that movie theater parking lot was Grant Gould. Grant is currently a freelance illustrator and developing a new roleplaying game, Blade Raiders, but back in 1999 he was just another guy camping out in line for Star Wars tickets. We shared many of the same interests and he and his friends were hilarious. If you’d like to read some truly unfortunate quotes – including several from yours truly – from The Line regarding Star Wars fandom and the build-up to Episode I, then check out this issue of The Minnesota Daily – the student newspaper for University of Minnesota – which profiled the people waiting in line to buy tickets. None of us knew about the trainwreck that was thundering in our direction. How could we have known!?

Grant and I stayed in touch after the hoopla of Episode I died down and he invited me to a party the next year in June 2000. I had recently graduated with my Masters degree and was leaving Minneapolis for good, but I really wanted to see all the people from The Line one last time. I decided to stay an extra week in town for the party and leave the next morning. At the party, Grant introduced me to his cousin, Emily. Four years later, Emily and I got married and we celebrate our eighth anniversary tomorrow. Without Star Wars – I don’t meet the love of my life – and I owe the equivalent of a Wookie Life Debt to Grant Gould.

Below, I interview Grant Gould about his journey from standing in line for Episode I tickets to working officially as a freelance illustrator for Luscasfilm and other big-name franchises like The Lord of the Rings. He talks about his long history of playing roleplaying games and his motivations for designing his own game, Blade Raiders. I’m obviously biased, but Grant is good people – and if you feel so inclined, then please check out his Kickstarter page for Blade Raiders.

Who were the artists and biggest sources of inspiration when you first started to draw?

It’s tough to pinpoint where my earliest inspirations came from. I think the cartoons I watched as a child were my first influences, because I’d sit in front of the TV and try to draw the Smurfs, or Popeye, or Road Runner. As I got older, I started getting into comic books, and then I became influenced by artists such as Wendy Pini, Art Adams, and many others. In terms of gaming, I became hugely addicted to the Dungeons & Dragons artists of the ’80s. Guys like Elmore and Caldwell (and a handful of others) really captured my imagination and I surrounded myself by their D&D pieces all the time. I had DragonLance calendars on the wall and D&D books laying all over my bedroom. I was constantly looking at their imagery; they were a constant inspiration.

How did you go from drawing as a hobby to “getting discovered” and breaking into the freelance illustration scene?

In 2005, Topps was gearing up to do the “Revenge of the Sith” trading card set and they were looking for new artists to tackle some sketch cards. I was friends with Tom Hodges, who already had a foot in the door, and he’d seen some of my Star Wars fan art on So he recommended me to them. I gave some sample drawings, had to get approved by Lucasfilm, and that was that. From there, I just started networking and working my butt off to make a lasting impression, and I started getting more work. Shortly after, I quit my day job and took a chance on full-time freelance illustration. It was a scary gamble, but now, six years later, I’m still getting cool jobs and working with great companies like Lucasfilm.

How would you describe working for huge properties like Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings?

A dream come true. I know that sounds pretty corny, but it’s absolutely true. I grew up on things like Star Wars and D&D. If my childhood self could have looked into a crystal ball and seen that I’d someday be working on Star Wars books and comics and getting paid for it, and that someday I’d be creating my own fantasy roleplaying game, I think my childhood self would be pretty damn giddy. I’ve been so incredibly lucky in my career so far. It’s been amazing.

Video montage of Grant’s art below.

If you were able to travel back in time 15 years and report on your life to your younger self, what are the biggest moments from your dive into freelance illustration that your younger self would never believe?

Fifteen years ago, I was in party mode, working retail jobs. I didn’t even know that I’d have a career, much less a career in art. I mean, I was drawing a little bit at that time, but not much. I was more concerned with girls and bars and hanging out with friends. I didn’t have a lot of ambition quite yet at that period of my life. So I think Grant of 15 years ago would be pleasantly shocked by any of it, ya know? The fact that I’ve worked on several Star Wars Galaxy trading card sets would’ve blown my mind, because I loved the old Galaxy sets so much. Hell, I think the fact that I receive checks with the Lucasfilm logo on them alone would’ve sent me into roaring waves of nerdy, happy disbelief. My old self would be insanely proud of my current self, which is a cool feeling. He might be like – to steal a Kevin Smith joke – “How’d you get so fat?” but that’s a different story.

Looking ahead, what are your goals for your freelance career? Where would you like to be in five years time?

Grant at San Diego Comic Con in 2011.

Going into it, my goal was to work on properties that I loved, like Star Wars. Now that I’ve had the chance to work on great properties like that and make a tiny bit of a name for myself, my long-term goal is to develop my own properties. Currently, I’m focused on Blade Raiders, hoping that it’ll slowly but surely develop a following and become something that I can work on for years to come — and I’m focused on creating my own series of children’s books, but that’s something I’ll probably be tackling next year. I’d like to be more financially stable in five years, to be honest. The world of illustration and game design and all that can be very rewarding in terms of loving what you do, but all the long hours of work don’t always translate to the money you’d think it would. I mean, I recently got married and I’d like to start a family soon, so I’d like to reach a point with my career where I could relax a bit, work normal hours and be able to have a life outside of my various jobs, and not have to worry about paying bills quite so much. I’m hoping that starting to put those building blocks in place now for my own properties will eventually lead to that.

When did you first start playing roleplaying games and what attracted you to stay with the hobby?

My first exposure to tabletop RPGs was Dungeons & Dragons in the mid-’80s (before 2nd Edition appeared). I loved the concept of creating characters and playing a role in this made-up world where the story could be anything you made it. Over the years, my group of friends and I tried many different games. We’d play Palladium (TMNT, Heroes Unlimited), White Wolf, Twilight 2000, GURPS, the 007 RPG, and a ton of others. But we always came back to D&D. I think the thing that really kept me coming back for more is the creativity of it, and the fun social atmosphere it creates. I always enjoy that feeling of being at a table with friends, where everyone’s willing to flex their imagination and have some nerdy fun.

What have been your favorite RPGs over the years? What is it about those games that keep you coming back for more?

Hmm, that’s a tough question. D&D was always a favorite, because it was the original and best, in my mind, and I liked that they were always updating with new editions — it always felt somewhat new and fresh. I’m not a huge fan of 4th edition, but I really loved all of the versions that came before it. I really enjoy Pathfinder. When I was younger, I had a particular love for some of the Palladium games: Heroes Unlimited, TMNT, and Robotech. The game system was fairly simple, and ridiculous in how powerful you could get (which made it tough for the GM). But, yeah, those are ones that stand out in my memory as being some favorites. Like I said, though, it’s tough to choose, because I think every game I’ve played has been my favorite for at least a couple of months.

Do you see yourself more as a gamemaster or a player? What games are you playing currently?

I see myself more as a gamemaster, for sure. The first few years that I played RPGs, obviously, I was strictly a player. But, yeah, as I got older, I was always more attracted to the role of GM. It lets me create worlds and stories, and I have a lot of fun being that person who guides the game and sets the stage. As far as what I’ve been playing recently, my friends and I had been playing Pathfinder on a semi-regular basis, but that’s really fallen apart over the past year or two — it’s just so tough to get together, since a lot of us live far from each other, and everyone’s married and raising families, etc. But I think, in a strange way, this dry spell has helped fuel my desire to create Blade Raiders. When I play RPGs on a weekly basis, I spend so much time preparing each session, I don’t know if I ever would’ve found time to start my own thing. So I think everything’s playing out as it should be, and I’ll be excited to see where it all goes.

What are your thoughts on the current styles in art found in books like Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder?

These days, I’m pretty picky about artwork in RPG books. I mean, I’m not saying everybody sucks and I think I’m the bee’s knees (believe me, I’m my own worst critic), but it does take a lot to grab my attention when I’m strolling the aisle of a hobby store. I feel like I’ve seen so many games in my lifetime, and seen so many comics and books and whatnot, a lot of it slides into the “mediocre” category for me. Not bad, not great. Most of the artwork used in D&D 4th edition fits that description. Some of it’s nice, but I’d say about 80% of it does nothing for me. Pathfinder is a little more my style, I guess — I’m a huge fan of Wayne Reynolds, who does a lot of artwork for their books (or at least he did when Pathfinder first launched), so I enjoyed that. I guess for me, a lot of it has to do with the over all presentation, plus my tastes are always changing. And again, I’m not saying I think my art is better than any of these other guys. I just know what pleases my eyeballs, and I don’t see a lot of it out there on gaming shelves today.

In regard to the current art in RPGs, could you go into greater detail on what pleases your eyeballs? I could be wrong, but in looking through Wayne Reynold’s galleries, it seems his style is dark and gritty. What do you enjoy about his style? Why is the vast majority of the design you see mediocre, and what would you like to see more of in art for roleplaying games?

Well, I don’t know if I’d call Wayne Reynolds’ style dark and gritty — It’s more dynamic and cartoony, which is something I really enjoy and look for. In addition to a lot of the Pathfinder stuff, I know Wayne Reynolds has done a lot of the 4th Edition D&D covers (Player’s Handbook, Monster Manual, etc.), which is great and my favorite thing artistically that 4th Edition has done — I’m just really drawn to his stuff. It stands out to me and doesn’t look like a carbon copy of a bunch of other artists’ styles. When I see one of his covers from across a room, I instantly recognize his style.

I guess that’s the key — I’d just like to see a little more variety in art style when it comes to RPGs. I shouldn’t have said that I find a lot of the art in RPGs “mediocre,” because most of it is pretty well done on a technical level. I guess by “mediocre,” I just meant that there isn’t a lot that stands out to me as being different and unique. I’d like to see more cartoony, stylized stuff out there. And I will say again, don’t take this as me being in love with my own art. I look at my own illustrations and see nothing but flaws. I can appreciate and respect all art, but I fall in love with very little of it, if that makes sense.

You have worked with me to design monsters for the No Assembly Required series for the past year. We have tried to include male and female monsters in addition to non-humanoid creatures. One point we have discussed during the design process is I did not want the female characters in the series to be “unrealistic” or “over-the-top sexed up.” I believe we have avoided that, but it is a complicated topic that can be approached from many angles. I have asked gamers in the past their views about how women are presented in comics, sci-fi and fantasy art. As an artist who actually has to create these images for a living, what do you think about the topic of objectification of women in fantasy art?

Blade Raiders – Gloomwrik Ranger

I try not to side too heavily one way or the other, because the last thing I want to do is offend anybody. And in my line of work, you have to keep an open mind and be realistic about target audiences and such. But I can say this: I have never personally gamed with anyone who has a problem with “sexed up” females in their RPG books. And, yes, I’ve played with my fair share of women, and dated some nerdy women, and none of them have ever had a problem with “sexed up” females in their RPGs or comics or whatever. Most people understand that it’s not something worth going to battle over. Your tastes are your tastes, and you can buy or avoid whatever you choose. It’s just not a topic that I think about too much.

Do I think a warrior woman wearing little chunks of tape over her nipples and a G-string and nothing else looks stupid and cheesy? Yes, I totally do. I think, as with anything, there are tasteful and distasteful ways to go about it. But I think when you’re dealing with fantasy worlds, where literally the goal is to live out your wildest, greatest fantasies, I don’t see why having some extra doses of sexiness is an inappropriate thing. Of course, people are allowed to have their opinions, and I certainly would never tell anyone they’re wrong. Do I think the fantasy genre can objectify women? Sure, but no more so than any other form of entertainment. I think most artists and game creators are like me and they’re aware of the “sexy images,” but they don’t go overboard or try to exploit these things.

I recently read an Editorial by Wolfgang Baur in an issue of Kobold Quarterly, which featured a rather alluring Succubus on the cover. He wrote: 

“Humans are sexual beings, and I would argue it’s not wrong to be male and to have a sexual view of women; as long as it’s not the only way you view – or treat – half the human race. At the same time, as a publisher I know that the sight of bare flesh brings out all kind of reader reactions, ranging from “Oh my God, I want that magazine!” to “Oh my God, what pigs gamers are!” All those viewpoints should be part of the conversation, and magazine publishers have the freedom to print that view and to engage with others on the topic.”

As the artist, how much pressure have you received during your freelance career from either side of the spectrum. Have there been jobs when you’ve received feedback, “We need more skin?” or “We gotta have bigger boobs for her?” What – if any – trends have you noticed in your freelance career in regard to sexism in art?

I haven’t encountered too much of that. I think maybe there’s been one or times where Lucasfilm asked me to “tone down” the sexiness on a character. I’ve had employers say things like, “Okay, we need an attractive lady on this piece,” but never to the point where they’re telling me to show more skin or make her boobs bigger or anything.

I’m really eager to discuss the next topic! You recently launched a Kickstarter for a project titled Blade Raiders, which you describe as:

An epic fantasy tabletop roleplaying game. Swords and sorcery, high adventure, creatures and quests — All of the elements you crave, but presented with a unique spin you’ve never experienced before.

What prompted you to start designing your own game system? What is lacking from the multitude of games available now?

It’s just something that I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve always wanted to make my own game. I wouldn’t say it was necessarily a desire to design my own system — For me, the real fun is in the setting and the world and its people. But I knew that if I was going to create a game and try to sell it and develop it over years and years, I’d obviously have to come up with my own system. Granted, it’s still your standard roll-the-dice type of thing, like most other RPGs, but it’ll stand alone in terms of how I view character creation and progression, hopefully.

I also wanted to make it something that isn’t intimidating to new players. I think that’s what’s lacking in many of today’s games. A new player walks into a hobby store and sees a thousand D&D books. And when they finally figure out that they should start with the Player’s Handbook, they see this massive volume that looks like it’ll take a month to read. I know I’m exaggerating a little bit, but you get the idea. I wanted to make something that felt a little bit easier to digest for new people coming into the world of RPGs. And I think a lot of experienced gamers crave the opportunity to jump into a new game and a new world from the very beginning. Blade Raiders is that chance!

When thinking about how Blade Raider will be similar or different from existing products, what stands out to you as design components that are adapted from other games and those that are unique to your system?

The game mechanics are still a work in progress, so it’s hard for me to speak much to that at this point. I’m definitely not reinventing the wheel with this game — it’s very similar to other games where you roll dice, take damage, stuff like that. For me, the main things that set Blade Raiders apart from already-existing games are (a) the character progression system, where it’s more about developing your character as you go rather than starting with a class, etc., and (b) the game setting and the ideas and concepts that go with it. I think (and hope) the game will feel more inviting to new players, and attractive to both kids and adults, and that’ll set it apart as well.

You mentioned in another interview that magic works quite differently in Blade Raiders. Could you describe your decision to tie magic to specific “hot spots” in the gaming world?

I’ve always liked the idea of my fantasy settings being more heavy on the “swords” aspect, and a little lighter on the “sorcery” aspect. Things like “Conan the Barbarian” or “Song of Ice and Fire,” where magic exists and it’s real, but it’s not something you see all the time. When it happens, it’s a big deal. So when I was playing around with ideas for the Blade Raiders setting, I just really liked the concept of these runestones and these specific areas on the map where certain energies were stronger and clearer.

It’s something that felt kind of new and interesting to me. I like the idea that a person doesn’t “own” magic. They can’t carry it with them. It’s something that the natural forces around them make possible (or don’t make possible). Plus, it plays into a greater mystery and storyline that will unfold in future sourcebooks. I have a long-term concept regarding the magic and runestones of Blade Raiders, but that’ll be something to look forward to — I don’t want to say too much about it now.

What details can you provide at this point about the personality of the gaming world? For example, why are they carrying blades and just what are they raiding?

Blade Raiders Hardcover Art.

Hah! Strangely enough, you’re the first person who’s actually asked me what “Blade Raiders” means. The name of the game ties into the history of the game setting. The rulebook focuses on Stonemir and its neighboring regions, which is an area originally settled by warlords called blade raiders. They were these barbaric, blade-lovin’ guys who invaded the shores and went to war with the trollugs (a race of mountain-dwelling creatures that play a major role in the game). They’re mentioned in the book and there still exists a faction of blade raider descendants, so it’s stuff that I’ve purposely laid out for adventure hooks and possible future sourcebooks. I chose to call the game “Blade Raiders” because it’s a pretty vital part of the backstory, plus I thought it sounded catchy and gave a good feel for the game.

How do you see campaigns working in Blade Raiders? Do you envision a group of players staying with the same campaign for a year or more or foresee Blade Raiders catering to a more casual gaming crowd with shorter campaign arcs?

Honestly, I’m designing it to cater to both. I think the game will work fine for the more casual groups who just want to do a one-and-done. But it’ll definitely, in my opinion, be a more rewarding experience over all for those who continue using their characters and give them a chance to develop and grow over the course of months, or even years. That said, since a lot of the game is focused around the major city of Stonemir, I think maybe that will make it easier for people with unpredictable schedules.

For example, if you have a campaign going, but Joe Shmoe can’t make it to this week’s session, having a big city right there makes it a little easier to come up with reasons as to why his character is M.I.A. I didn’t want to kick the game off with this massive world — I wanted to start smaller and focus on one area, and then slowly spread outward with future supplements. I didn’t want gamers and storytellers to feel intimidated and have no idea where to start. So I think the game will work great for all sorts of gamers, whether they’re in it for the long haul or just a few hours of fun.

One topic of conversation that comes up from time to time is save-or-die effects and character death. How do you see the overall threat level to characters in Blade Raiders?

I’m not a big fan of “instant death” in games. I want players to have fun and I want them to get invested in their characters. Now, I’m not saying characters won’t be able to die — there will be plenty of threats out there, plenty of dangers for them to worry about. But I’m going to go out of my way to make sure that no one ever feels like they died unfairly. I don’t enjoy it when my players are overly powerful, and at the same time, I don’t think players enjoy it when their gamemaster abuses his power.

What are your hopes for Blade Raiders?

I hope people genuinely enjoy the game when it comes out, and I hope they crave more. I don’t want to get ahead of myself too much, but I definitely have big dreams for the game, including sourcebooks and spin-off stuff like comics and novels. But I’m trying to stay realistic. We’ll see how it goes. By this time next year, I’ll have a much better idea of where Blade Raiders is headed. My fingers are crossed!

You have until June 14, 2012 to reach you next Kickstarter goal for Blade Raiders. What would you like to say to those reading this interview to solicit their support?

I’d say, “This is your chance to be part of a new game from the very beginning. This is your chance to show an independent creator some support and get your name written in the rulebook in the special thanks section. This is your chance to get your friends and family into tabletop roleplaying games, no matter what their ages are. You’ll enjoy the game!”

Author: The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.

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