Friday, June 10, 2011

In the Pocket With Jeff Dee

Your (occasionally) humble reporter caught up with gaming artist and designer Jeff Dee  at the North Texas RPG shindig last weekend.  

Some blog readers will remember that I had as one of my convention goals bringing back a range of interviews with a number of the more interesting attendees, a goal despite the depths of my Con excess that I am pleased to make good on.

Drawn in by a Sunday morning bull session on Tékumel, it was interesting to hear Jeff say that he thought we were right on the cusp of a revival cycle with M.A.R. Barker's weird and wonderful setting--and to hear of his most recent projects you'd know he's doing more than just talking about such a revival. 

I plan on spreading across a couple weeks a series of interviews with four other of our hobby's leading lights (in between a few meatier pieces themed around the Domain Game). Stay tuned...

Hill Cantons: I would hazard a guess in the nerdified circles that read this blog that you need no real introduction for your stand-up work as an artist for TSR—and as a game designer for Villains and Vigilantes. Tell us more about what you have up to work and life-wise recently. What brought you to our neck of the woods, Texas?

Jeff Dee: I moved to Austin in 1990 to take a job as an artist at Origin–the company that made the Ultima series of computer RPGs. I’ve worked at several different companies around town since then, most recently Aspyr where I was the lead designer on The Sims: Castaway Stories. I’m currently “between jobs”, as they say.

HC: We had a chance to talk about UNIgame's Pocket Universe at NTRPG Con, a 16-page rule system in a microgame-like format that quite literally fits in your pocket. Can you tell our readers more about that?

JD: Pocket Universe is a d10-based system. There are two kinds of die rolls in the game. First, there’s a 2d10 roll against an attribute or skill score (stats for humans are all 10, on average), where rolling equal to or below the target number indicates success, and ‘doubles’ are critical. Doubles that succeed indicate a critical success, while doubles that fail indicate a fumble.

The other roll is 1d10, where you’re simply checking to see whether you rolled ‘low’ (1 or 2), ‘medium’ (3 to 8), or ‘high’ (9 or 10) to choose between three possible numeric outcomes. For example, a typical sword does 3/5/7 damage, so if you roll ‘high’ you inflict 7 damage.

Anyway, that’s the core of the game mechanics. In general, Pocket Universe is a very compact set of rules that does a lot of work without being very complicated. The core rules set is available at RPGNow.

HC: I have a special focus on one of my long loves Tékumel here on the HC and I was extremely excited to hear that you are working on Béthorm (there is a joke hidden in that title), a Tékumel supplement for PU. Why Tékumel? What did you use for the basis of that project and where is that at currently?

JD: I’ve been a Tékumel fan ever since Empire of the Petal Throne was first published by TSR. A few years ago I started converting Swords & Glory (and bits of Gardásiyal) to my Pocket Universe rules, purely for my own private use.

Shortly after the Tékumel Foundation was formed, after watching the ongoing struggle to get a Tékumel rules set back on store shelves, I contacted them and pitched Béthorm–which is the Tsolyáni term for a pocket dimension. They’ve been very supportive.

I have a playable manuscript that I’ve been using for quite a while with my own gaming group. The main thing that isn’t 100% finished yet is the spell list–about half of the Temple level spells still need to be converted. Then I’ll need to go back and polish the whole document. But it’s getting pretty close to completion.

HC: And you are also doing these great, evocative concept drawings for Howard Fielding's Tékumel Project an example of which we have up above. Anything interesting to add about your participation in that?
JD: Well... I apparently came along at the right time, and managed to land the gig with the project. I'm creating both illustrations for his Band of Joyous Heroes skirmish rules, and character drawings to guide the sculpting of new miniatures. It's all going pretty well so far, and frankly it's a dream job for me.

Did you know some of my artwork was used in a Tekumel miniatures painting guide article that appeared in The Dragon #6? in 1977? I really sucked back then.

HC: I rather like those illustrations, especially the priest of Vimuhla (pictured on the right). I thought you were the boy wonder on TSR staff back then. How old were you when you drew these for Dragon?

JD: I think I was about 16 at the time.

HC: What about V&V? One of my buddies, Brad/Skullcrusher, had the good fortune to sit in on a playtest of the third edition rules? Where's that at?

JD: Jack Herman and I reclaimed to V&V rights about a year ago. The current version of the game is substantially unchanged from the previous 1982 edition. If we want to have any hope of reaching new players, we realize that the game needs to be updated–the current "old school gaming" fad notwithstanding. So that’s the goal with V&V 3.0.

Basically we’re going back to update, streamline, and improve the rules. We haven’t announced any release date yet, and we won’t for quite some time, since the 2.1 edition is only now returning to store shelves.


  1. Man, did I love this guys work. Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, the Slave Lords, all that great stuff. Didn't know he was into your pet (or is that ept lol) obsession too.

  2. Jim Wampus,
    Puns are like masturbation and poetry, they should only be used in the privacy of one's home--preferably with the curtains closed.

  3. ckutalik: or on a paid webcam? ;P

    I do wish that Pocket Universe was available again in a printed format. I have a copy, but if I want to play with others, I'd like to have a couple more. But that's just another post in my ongoing windmill-tilt about print vs. electronic.

  4. Very cool interview ckutalik. I wish I'd gotten to talk to him more.

    - Ark

  5. @faoladh
    I am definitely, definitely in the print over electronics camp. I had the good fortune to get a hardcopy from Jeff at North Texas.

    Talking with Manda and Jeff at the end there, lessened the sting of having missed that morning session.

  6. Fortunately Chris I know you well enough to know you are joking. I also know you well enough to point you are not above a pun or two.

  7. Good news, faoladh! You can mail-order print copies of Pocket Universe (and the Teenage Demon Slayers campaign book)! Only $4.95 each, plus a wee bit of shipping.

    -Jeff Dee

  8. Would've been nice if I'd included the URL, eh? It's

    -Jeff Dee

  9. Gah! Printable order forms! Who even does that? ;)

    Alright, I'm kidding. Let me put that into the buying queue. I'm very pleased about it, to be sure!