Let’s Catch Up With Stephen Gibson: Creator Of Grimslingers!

We’re continuing our Inspirational Creator Series of interviews this week, checking in with Stephen Gibson – artist, writer, game designer, and creator of the Grimslingers line of tabletop games. He’s had some exciting personal developments since we last spoke in 2020, and remains one of the most popular interviews we’ve hosted here on Grailrunner. Click here to read that original interview.

He had been Art Director at Arcane Wonders at the time, designing a supporting app for Grimslingers and trying to find time to catch some sleep. His art has popped up recently on book covers, and he’s even been featured in the art magazine, ImagineFX. In 2022, he made a big switch to Sumo Digital in Newcastle in England and added another member to his growing family!

Fascinating dude, great guy, and incredibly talented. What else could a Grailrunner ask for in finding inspiration?!

Stephen, apart from the occasional “wassup”, we last chatted in October of 2020, before zombie movies came to life with a global pandemic. You were one of the first interviews in a series we did on inspirational creators, and yours in particular remains the most popular of all that we did. Apparently, Henrietta the magic hen is quite the ambassador for you!

It has been a lifetime! I’m flattered at the reception and find it hilarious (but not all that surprising) that Henrietta has stolen the hearts of your readers. She’s also one of the illustrations I spent the least amount of time on. I’m sure there’s a lesson in there somewhere…

At the time, you were deep in playtesting on Grimslingers 2, and had featured a detailed map and some app screenshots in various places on social media. Then I suspect life happened and you needed to focus on your work as Art Director at Arcane Wonders among other things. Were you or your family impacted seriously by COVID? I hope everyone is well.

Life indeed happened, as it does to us all. I had my third child, among other big life changes and yeah, COVID!!! I spent most of Covid gaining weight and wishing I had the energy to work on Grimslingers 2.

To prepare for this chat, I dug back through your (sparse) posts, and you seemed super passionate about an Arcane Wonders release called Freedom Five. It sounded like a tremendous amount of work – how was that experience?

Art wise, Freedom Five was a lot of fun because I was able to work with some extraordinarily talented artists. I’m particularly proud of the comic book panel style card art we had for ability cards. Each ability card really sold the story of the ability on it.
The campaign was a whirlwind that seemed doomed a little ways in but we were able to turn it around and I’m immensely proud of my hand in that (which meant a few sleepless nights re-working the entire campaign page).

It was a tremendous amount of work (and still is, it still hasn’t shipped to backers). We were very ambitious, but the project also got hit hard by the pandemic. We funded right before poop hit the fan and the world plummeted into chaos, and that meant all of our numbers, estimates and expectations for producing this game got thrown out the window.

I was incredibly jealous of the cover image you did for Cold As Hell, the book by Rhett Bruno and Jaime Castle. I saw your mysterious post about it around May of 2021, then stumbled randomly across it on the Barnes & Noble shelf this past summer. Looks amazing. (Offer stands for you to do a piece for Grailrunner’s Salt Mystic setting any time you like.)

“Shot dead in a gunfight many years ago, now he’s stuck in purgatory, serving the whims of the White Throne to avoid falling to Hell. Not quite undead, though not alive either, the best he can hope for is to work off his penance and fade away.”  – that’s from the Amazon description. I see why you were attracted to the project.

The author approached me to see if he could use some of my Grimslinger art for his cover (Pocket Watch Will to be exact). That was a first for me, haha. Instead we worked out producing a new piece of art and I think that was for the best! I’m quite fond of that cover, it certainly evokes a mood!

You’ve described your workflow as being heavy on photobashing and digital painting in Photoshop. Describe your desk setup – an old post showed a Wacom tablet among other things. How do you set up for work?

My “Grimslingers” style is photobashing, but I’m just as comfortable doing cartoons or comic-esque stuff. Right now I actually don’t have a desk or even a computer, I sold it on to move to the UK and start a new job! HOWEVER, I used to have a Wacom Cintiq 24HD Pro, an ultra-wide primary monitor and a beefy PC to boot. I also use a Logi Ergo M575 trackball mouse. It allows me to use the mouse without needing a ton of space to move it around, that way I can switch between pen, keyboard and mouse without too much movement (why do much movement when little movement good?).

You mentioned on Artstation you’d used Unreal Engine 5 for the first time in kitbashing some Victorian environmental pieces for TacticStudios. What did you think?

I think every artist should had some 3D software in their repertoire. Unreal is fantastic for kitbashing and I wish I had more time to spend with it! It’s one of my main goals as an artist, to develop my 3D bashing and sculpting skills more. For me, that’s the next step in my evolution.

Congratulations on being featured in the December 2022 issue of ImagineFX. Best quote ever, regarding your approach to art: “…splicing in new images to fill out the character until I can’t stand to look at it anymore.”

You also said something near and dear to the mission of Grailrunner Publishing: “The world needs more passion projects and less corporate-controlled products.” Tell me what you mean by that and why it’s important. 

Getting featured along other incredibly talented artists in ImagineFX was a big moment for me as an artist! Certainly a highlight of my journey thus far! My quote partly had to do with my frustration with truly unique and visionary ideas being disregarded because their considered more of a gamble – which they are! I totally get why business entities take the approach that they do in train to “paint by numbers” games and play things safe. But playing it safe doesn’t move our industry forward. It’s the risk takers that got us where we are now, and it’s the risk takers that will push us forward.

In my opinion, a game like Grimslingers wouldn’t have ever happened if I had to pitch it to publishers, it’s just far too wild and to weird a mix of genres and styles. There are some visionary and forward thinking publishers out there (more in the board game world compared to the video game world) and I truly do appreciate them. Cheers to the risk-takers! It’s a difficult and dangerous task, but the soul of our industry lives with them

One more question before we get to Grimslingers – you’ve settled in now at Sumo Digital in Newcastle. Tell us why this move, what’s exciting about it, and what sorts of things you’ll be working on.

Covid shook my confidence in the board game industry, and life rocked my personal finances (to the extent that I wasn’t able to keep up with my bills). As a father of three, I’m not at a point in my life anymore where I’m willing to ride out risky situations for too long. After college I had signed up for a job alert service to which I never unsubscribed. One day, I got a job alert for a position at Digital Extremes (a studio in my town that happens to make the ultra-successful looter shooter, Warframe!) The job description fit me perfectly and was the push I needed to help me feel like I could exist in the video game industry. I updated my resume, my portfolio, I started learning new software (like UE5). I interviewed with several studios (and yes, I did get the interview with Digital Extremes!).

I lacked experience in the video games industry so I knew (or I thought I knew) that I’d never find a job as an Art Director, so I was applying to concept artist positions. I interviewed with Ubisoft for the Splinter Cell remake, TacticStudios for an unannounced project, Digital Extremes for Warframe and Atomhawk for Character Concept Artist. They were all very promising and I had a few interviews with each, but Atomhawk seemed the most exciting to me, and they seemed the most excited about me. Unfortunately the job fell through because of some changes to their projects. What I didn’t know at the time was that Atomhawk is part of a larger group, Sumo Digital, and one of their recruiters reached out to me, apologized the opportunity fell through but if I was interested in relocating to the UK, there might be something for me. I thought it was a joke but turns out it wasn’t! Not only that, it was for an Art Director role – a job listing I had seen but didn’t apply to because it was asking for far more experience than I had (let that be a lesson to you all!).

There’s more to the story but the heart of it is this: Changing your life is difficult and scary, but it can be done. Work hard, play nice with others, put yourself out there, it’ll work out. Good things are waiting for those who put in the effort to achieve them.

Speaking of Grimslingers, what can you tell us about what’s coming up (and generally when we can expect to see it)?

Unfortunately, I don’t have any Grimslingers news at this time…but one day, echoing through the winds, you’ll begin to hear the faint whispers of news from far away lands, tickling your ear tubes with the promise of more Grimslingers!

What is it about the stories of the Forgotten West, magic-toting grimslingers, Icarus and his mysterious missions, that inspires you? Why so much passion into this setting?

The answer is simple I think: it’s me. It’s all just an expression and wild re-interpretation of my personality and life experiences. A collection of things I love and adore and a world in which I make no compromises and have no limits.

And if you could launch some grimslingers out into the world on your own missions, what would you have them do exactly?

Definitely go get me some pizza, this covid weight isn’t going to maintain itself!!!

Stephen, anything else you’d care to let us know or places you’d like folks to keep an eye on for your doings?

In a few years’ time, games I’ll have art directed at Sumo Digital hitting the market. I hope you all love what you see and will be able to spot my unique flare to approaching art!

Special request – if there’s an illustration of Red, the salty panda pirate out there, I think we need to see that.

Thanks very much, Stephen. And best of luck in the new company and new continent!

Thank YOU for the opportunity 🙂 and kind words!

Till next time, guys.

Let’s Talk To A Fantasy Cartographer! Meet Francesca Baerald.

Welcome back to Grailrunner’s Inspirational Creator Series where we dig in with some of the most fascinating creators around and ask what sorts of things inspire them, hear about their creative process, and generally just admire people who have very, very cool jobs.

Previous interviews have included a mind-blowing artist and game designer who created the Grimslingers tabletop series of games, a science fiction writer who’s also a professional futurist, a martial arts video game designer who’s studied his craft for over 3 decades but is also a Diagnostic Pathologist, and the influential and intriguing writer who created D&D’s Spelljammer.

This week, we’ll meet a fantasy cartographer, painter and illustrator who’s produced mesmerizing works for clients like Wizards Of The Coast, Games Workshop, publishers Random House and Simon & Schuster, and game producers Blizzard and Square Enix! Her name is Francesca Baerald, and you need to hear from her not just because she’s kind and inspiring and incredibly responsive to her many fans, but because she makes imaginary lands come to glorious, color-filled life with her bare hands.

We’ll be featuring some of her work throughout the interview, so take a look as we chat.

Francesca, welcome!

The breadth of your experience is incredible, representing some of the biggest and most exciting names in gaming and speculative fiction right now. Congratulations on that, and thanks for making time to give us a glimpse into what you do and what inspires you!

Thank you so much! Games were the first thing that started my passion for the job I do today, so as you can imagine it’s incredible for me to have the chance to contribute with my art to games such as D&D, Warcraft, Diablo and books like Game of Thrones.

A year or so ago, I saw a job posting for “Vice President Of Dungeons & Dragons” and thought that was the coolest job title possible. That was obviously before I gave thought to a “Fantasy Cartographer”. As an artist and mapper of imaginary worlds, tell us what you do and why you do it.

Vice President of D&D, that would be so cool (no pressure!). I love my job as a fantasy cartographer. My mother always said that I have too much creativity and this job gives me the opportunity to be creative at my fullest. It’s fantastic to contribute to developing worlds, inventing places and stories. I believe that the role of the cartographer is fundamental in making a fictional setting look real and plausible. I really enjoy immersing myself in new unexpected worlds and do my best to make them real.

You graduated from the International School Of Comics (I believe in Florence), which sounds like a blast. I’m imagining a bunch of wide-eyed artists sketching on iPads at the bases of gorgeous fountains). Sheesh…I had to study calculus and field equations. Tell us about that.  

I graduated in Reggio Emilia, which is not Florence, but nevertheless is a very nice city. Here in Italy you can find inspiration in every corner. Ancient history is on each building and statue. But we also have lovely landscapes to get inspiration from. And the beauty of it is that everything is a stone throw away.

Attending an illustration course was the best choice I’ve ever made. At the time I was working at a warehouse, I knew nothing about drawing. But learning how to draw has always been a dream of mine, so I quit my job and went on this adventure. During the three years of study I encountered many challenges but also a lot of eye-opening experiences.

So, a thrilled, exhausted Francesca graduated from illustration school and headed off to seek her fortune – I believe your first paying art gig was for an Italian RPG. How did you approach that job and what was that experience like?

When I started the illustration course, transforming my passion for drawing into my daily job never crossed my mind. I was just dying to learn how to draw and express myself. At the end of the course I understood that perhaps I could try to make my way as an artist. So I started to attend Italian conventions, trying to get some commissions (I didn’t even think about international clients at the time). I showed my portfolio to so many publishers! But they were quite skeptical in hiring an artist that used traditional media and with little work experience. I then began submitting my work to online job requests and contests. It took time, but little by little I began to work with more companies.

I started my career as a fantasy illustrator, not a cartographer. I always loved drawing maps in my spare time and once I decided to share one of my maps online. One of my connections noticed it and introduced me to an Italian publisher that was looking for a cartographer. That was my first map commissioned for a published project.

I believe you prefer traditional materials for your artwork versus strictly digital: watercolors, ink, acrylics, and oil. What do you like about that?

As I mentioned, at first publishers here in Italy were very cautious in hiring a traditional artist. But I’m a passionate person that has a strong physical bond with art and creativity. Believe me, when I was looking for work at the beginning and with no job on the horizon, I started to learn digital painting. But I really couldn’t do it, because I wasn’t happy while drawing on a PC monitor. Digital and traditional tools are both great. Digital simply doesn’t work for me. I knew that if I had to make this my daily job, it would have to be with traditional media. The feeling of shaping something with my hands, touching it and loving it even with its faults and mistakes is unique.

Pick just one of your absolute favorite art pieces you’ve done (apart from maps, we’ll get to that), and tell us what makes you pick that one?

I think that I have a special connection with my painting “The Butterfly Effect”. It’s a self-portrait in some way and it’s the first time that I believe I “exposed” myself with one of my works. I often try to remind what my father taught me: life is special, even in difficult times. And that even a little change can have an effect on life in the long term.

And so we come to fantasy and science fiction maps! What a marvelous job you have. It’s unique and very much in demand. What attracted you to mapmaking?

Playing games while growing up really intensified my love for drawing little maps, dungeons and labyrinths. Diablo in particular and its dungeons were of great inspiration. How I loved exploring! I ventured through every corner of almost all the many games I’ve played… and I know level designers have fun hiding easter-eggs in secret places! After the course I didn’t know that cartography could be a daily job for me. My hope was to find commissions as a fantasy artist and illustrator for games. The opportunity of making a map came by chance and then everything changed. I love painting illustrations and creating maps at the same level. I’m grateful that I can do both today.

Can you describe your process for making fantasy maps?

Essentially I “live” my maps. When I start a new map the goal for me is to make those places real in my mind. So I begin by carefully reading the art brief I receive and finding out as much info as possible on the setting. Depending on the kind of map, I take inspiration from publications and nature (inspiration can come from anything) and do my best to mix everything with my personal vision and experience. I start with a first sketch to nail down my ideas. Then I move on with a more detailed drawing and submit it to the client. Once all the feedback changes are done, I start inking and in the end coloring the map.

Anything you’re working on now is super-secret, but what can you tell us about any projects coming out soon?

Because of NDAs, what artists show you today is probably from a couple of years back! However I’m happy to tell you about a map I’m particularly excited about. And that’s the map I made for the Collector’s Edition of Diablo IV. There are many other exciting new works of mine that will be published later this year, but I can’t talk about them yet. It will be an amazing 2023!

Diablo IV: Collector’s Edition featuring cloth map of Sanctuary by Francesca Baerald

Where can we find more about what you’re up to?

I share all the news about my work on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. If you’d like to keep updated and see some of my work in progress, you can find me there. I’ve also just finished updating my Artstation page.

Anything else you’d like to let us know?

I’ve seen the world of fantasy cartography expanding a lot in the last few years. This makes me really happy. I’d like to take the opportunity to say to new cartographers to thrive to become the better expression of themselves, to be unique! Because in an increasingly automated world we need to be reminded of our faulty humanity (in a positive way!).

Francesca, it’s been amazing! Thanks so much for making time for us and for the inspiration to get out and make something new. Best of luck to you in the new year!

Till next time, guys.

Highlight From A Storybook Puzzle Box

There is a book called Kyot: The Storybook Puzzle Box.

It contains 140 pieces of short fiction, each less than a page in length. These are presented in 14 chapters, each of which ends with a continuing narrative that frames, discusses, and eventually resolves a single over-arching riddle that is tied to and fulfills the stories told.

And it’s very much a crazy, psychedelic flower.

You can blast through at your leisure with no regard for the arc or riddle and just appreciate stories “inspired by the mind-bending fantasy of Jorge Luis Borges and the wide-eyed awe of Arthur Clarke”. Planet-sized DNA machines, cities made of code, daring battles with intelligent bacteria, mysterious space ships, undersea empires, and a singularity in a bubble all await you. By chapter 8, you’ll have met the key players in the big arc the stories are tying together, though the bigger picture really starts unfolding from chapter 10 on. (That’s the flower analogy)

Or you can capture notes about the three mysterious ladies in the chapter epilogues along the way and try your hand at solving the riddle. Things they say, and the shocking interactions between them tell you all you need to know to figure out who they are. That’s the riddle – who are they? (Don’t peek at the Epilogue!)

I thought I’d highlight one of the pivotal introductions for you today and add a little art to flesh it out. Enjoy:

Kyot: The Storybook Puzzle Box Story Chapter 8, Story 7:

“We Need A Prophecy”

“It’s a shame”, Solis said as he watched the last space ship decompress in a cloud of ice crystals and wreckage outside the view port. “I knew the supply corps guy on that ship. We could have had more booze.”

Lieutenant Yama was too fat to squeeze in beside him and watch, but probably wouldn’t have tried anyway. There were two bottles left here, and quite likely only two people left alive in a fleet battle of over a million souls. All the ships were dark now, peppering the neon blue and lime green of the living planet below them. The tiny life-launch they crouched inside was good for only another few hours at best. The battle was over, sure, but who would tell anybody about it?

So he farted.

“Hey!” Solis shouted and punched his arm.

“We need a prophecy.” Yama mumbled, slurring his words. His eyes were pink, but not just from the liquor.

Solis took a sip and squatted uncomfortably, “Yeah?”

He nodded, pursing his lips, “A real cryptic thingie, with a chosen one and some random fancy words in it. Hard to understand, you get me?”

“And why’s that? Who’d read it?”

“All sorts of people. We won’t say it’s from us, man. Will be the last words of…say…a mysterious kid possessed by the umm…ascended collective intelligence of the umm…previous universe. Before the big bang. How’s that?”

Solis stared back, unimpressed, “Why?”

Yama frowned and jammed his hand into a satchel for a pen, “So somebody someday will think they’re the chosen one…and people will follow them and do good things.”

“You think somebody will do that? Because we write something curious and leave it out here floating in the wrecks?”

Yama stuck his tongue out to the side as he thought through his alcohol stupor and tore off a piece of his uniform for a parchment, “Good things, Solis. Big…good…things. We need people who will do good things. And never this here, what we did.”

Solis nodded and glanced back to the debris outside.

“Never this again.”