Richard Thomas, and the power of transformational art.

Richard Thomas is a Renaissance Man, and a titan of the roleplaying industry.

Thomas’ association with the White Wolf name goes back for over thirty years – indeed, for longer than the name has been associated with the World of Darkness. He was there at the beginning, and his influence continues to be vital into these modern nights. It was Thomas that created the iconography that the World of Darkness is so well known for – including the clan symbols and many others that countless fans would instantly recognise to this day. His stint as Art Director at White Wolf spanned all the way from the 1990s into the current decade, and he played a vital leadership role as White Wolf merged with CCP Games, taking the games into new frontiers as Creative Director.

In 2012, Thomas founded Onyx Path Publishing, and the company has gone from strength to strength over the past seven years. Their range of tabletop game lines is prodigious, to say the least. Onyx Path is the licenced publisher for Exalted and the Chronicles of Darkness, publishes creator-owned works such as Pugmire, Dystopia Rising: Evolution and Cavaliers of Mars, and owns and publishes They Came From Beneath The Sea!, Scarred Lands, Scion and Trinity Continuum. For fans of the ‘classic’ World of Darkness, Onyx Path are the publishers of the 20th Anniversary lines for Vampire: the Masquerade, Werewolf: the Apocalypse, Mage: the Ascension, Wraith: the Oblivion and Changeling: the Dreaming, and are publishing supplements for Vampire: the Masquerade Fifth Edition – beginning with the recently-Kickstarted ‘Chicago by Night’.

And with all that, Richard Thomas is also an accomplished artist. His artwork can be seen in scores of White Wolf and Onyx Path titles, as well as collectable card games including Magic: the Gathering, Rage, Doomtown, Shadowfist, Netrunner and, yes, Vampire: the Eternal Struggle.

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B: I’d love to get some background of how you started as a professional artist. Did you begin in the tabletop roleplaying industry, or was that something you came to later? I understand you were contributing to Lion Rampant as early as 1990 but wasn’t sure if that was your earliest work.

RT: I got my MFA in Visual Design from Tyler School of Art of Temple University in 1986, and within months was doing illustrations for Stewart Wieck’s White Wolf Magazine. Then I contributed art to the Talislanta game line, and then did somework for Lion Rampant. Meanwhile, I was doing magazine and editorial illustrating for companies in the “real world” and did ads and illustrations for one of the TV stations in Philly. I had a lot of fun creating the graphics that pop up next to the newscasters, and advertising “Married With Children” and the 17th run of “Rocky III”, but my heart was always with tabletop RPGs.

B: Your art has graced the World of Darkness since the first edition of Vampire: the Masquerade in 1991, and your visuals and iconography have continued to appear in WoD titles for more than two decades. What was it like to come in and set those foundations, for a company and line that quickly became both incredibly successful and visually distinctive?

RT: It was fantastic! Part of my deal with Stewart [Wieck], and his partner at the time, Mark Rein-Hagen, was that I had final say on all the art and visuals for White Wolf as I had had enough of TV ad execs coming in and asking for changes they weren’t qualified to ask for. That was a phenomenal degree of trust from the WW guys, and I’d like to think I repaid it by growing and advancing our overall level of visual quality, and with specific attention to finding ways of making each game line and edition of the lines visually unique while keeping connected and true to how that line was recognized. 

Of course, I didn’t do all of it myself. Josh Timbrook, Chris McDonough, and SamChupp were my original visual and graphic design crew, and they had already set things in motion before I arrived in Stone Mountain. We were lucky to have their talents, and those of many more artists – both freelance and in-house -during the years WW was growing from a puppy to a dire wolf, as well as now with my own company, Onyx Path Publishing.

B: As a White Wolf insider, what was it like seeing the World of Darkness take shape in the new format of a collectable card game? Was there any resistance to the concept of showing the IP in this new light, for example, or did people see this as opening up new horizons?

RT: Well, it was a license we had worked out with Wizards of the Coast, so we very much in favor of Jyhad,and it being a new Richard Garfield-designed game was a thrill for us. We were generally very happy to see our things in different media; from fiction novels,to Jyhad, to computer games, and even the ‘Kindred: the Embraced’ TV show. There were some false steps along the way, but Jyhad/VtES was not one of them.

And we did have pretty extensive approvals built into the license, so we didn’t just throw the world at them and say “do what you want”. Particularly on the visual side of the project, I flew out to WOTC’s offices multiple times to review design and art for the cards. Although they did bring in a bunch of our artists, they also hired some phenomenally talented illustrators we weren’t working with. But then, we’d borrow those artists to do work for our TTRPG books!

B: You were in at the ground floor of both Magic: the Gathering and Jyhad, being an early artist for both games – was there a lot of overlap between Wizards of the Coast and White Wolf artist pools?

RT: Yes there was, and we liked it that way, by cracky! At the time, we regularly touched base with art directors in other gaming companies and would trade artist contacts back and forth. I still count Jesper Myrfors from WOTC, the original art director of Magic: the Gathering, Maria Cabardo, art director at Mayfair Games and later WOTC, and Jeff Laubenstein, who AD’d at FASA, as friends.

B: Are there personal favourites you have from your work on Jyhad,and any particular challenges or opportunities that the format provided?

RT: If I remember right, and this is decades ago of course, the biggest challenge was finding the time to do the art during the explosive growth White Wolf was having. We had a lot of fun, but those were some long days, and it was hard to get home and then sit at the art table. Technically, I was used to the brighter colors that were part of my Magic: the Gathering art style, and making the switch to Vampire‘s aesthetic was often difficult. My favorites among the pieces I did tend to be the ones where the color was pulled back, de-saturated,which felt more in line with VtM. Although, I did like the female Gangrel character I did, sorry I can’t remember her name, as that was based on a friend of mine and she really liked the depiction on the card. [Editor’s note: that will be ‘Basilia’, from 1994’s Jyhad.]

B: Have you had the chance to play Jyhad/VtES over the years,and do you have any reflections on how it aligns or diverges from Vampire: the Masquerade?

RT: I played way back when it first was being developed and then right when it came out, but haven’t had a chance since then. I’ve always thought that it caught and enabled one aspect of VtM, the political/social maneuvering, incredibly well. Obviously, there are a lot of other ways to roleplay the game around your table – as many different styles of VtM as there are tables, really. When you port a game from one type of game to another, I think focusing on one kind of experience for the new version makes perfect sense. Better a very focused game whose focus is just perfect for the kind of game it is, like Jyhad/VtES, than attempting to include kinds of play ill-suited for that new type of game just because they were part of the original one.

In terms of the setting, I’ve always been of two minds. The canon purist in me who quibbles about the color of Dr Strange’s magic energy in the movies compared to the comics, or the contradictions in the Daleks’ backstory, wants a consistent setting across all media. The game and visual creator thinks that allowing each kind of media to do what’s best for that media makes for a better, more exciting and interesting experience. So I was okay with VtES continuing on without Gehenna, since that allowed folks to keep enjoying VtES and VtM. Now, of course, the Vampire 20th Anniversary edition brought back VtM, and we have a new 5th Edition that takes the story and brings it forward to our time period, so I’m curious to see how Vampire: the Eternal Struggle will adapt to that.

B: The World of Darkness books have always had a ‘special thanks’ section, and I recall one in the mid-1990s where the authors gave thanks to “Richard ‘Rage’ Thomas, for his pleasure at hearing what would be added to the schedule”. What was it like being involved in White Wolf’s own foray into the CCG scene – particularly at such a formative period for the industry?

RT:Most of the first WW folks were gamers, so naturally there was huge interest in playing and collecting Magic when it first came out. Being friends with the creators didn’t hurt either. I’m pretty sure we signed on for Jyhad/VtES before the CCG craze exploded, but we were already considering how to create our own collectable card game when the boom started. It was a huge undertaking, but looking at what was happening with other games popping up one after the other, and with Jyhad/VtES‘s production cycle being constrained by how long it took to thoroughly review and playtest anything new, Steve Wieck, WW’s prez at the time, wanted us to jump in.

We basically needed to create a card-dedicated part of the company and hire in the folks to run it, make the games, playtest them, and get the word out. We wanted these to be stunning in art and presentation, so we needed new printing relationships beyond the book manufacturers I had been working with for years. Folks who could do special foils and glosses on both the cards and packaging to make our new game stand out. And there was the art! So many pieces of artwork. Double-sided character cards meant double the artwork you’d normally need. It was an exhausting and explosive efforts with folks working around the clock to create everything we needed to launch Rage. I mean we scrambled! But Rage did hit like a thunderbolt, exceeding all of our plans with its success. (It didn’t maintain that explosive growth, ultimately, but that’s a different story).

B: The World of Darkness seems to have been around forever in modern gaming terms – and not just in tabletop, as there’s been a couple of licences that have seemed to really have staying power. The PC games, particularly Bloodlines, have influenced a generation of designers and gains new fans every year. VtES may have never achieved peaks in popularity but it’s lasted for decades longer than other CCGs. What do you think it is about the World of Darkness that generates such support (or am I too eager to mistake correlation and causation)?

RT:Maybe, but it’s clear that many of our games and their settings certainly compel a level of devotion you’d find for more mainstream properties with a lot wider reach. Part of that may be that Bloodlines and VtES, as examples, are trying to evoke the feel of the VtM setting and get as many of those details right as possible. That world is compelling and immersive and feels just real enough that our community doesn’t have to suspend much in the way of disbelief to get really deep into it. “Our world but darker” was a way we described it back in the day. We also wrote WoD in particular, but I think this applies to most of our worlds, both those from the first WW and from Onyx Path, in layers of secrets. So if you peel back this layer to get at “the truth” you find more layers of secrets beneath.

We all know that there is more that goes on in our real world than we can be totally aware of. Whether that’s the machinations of men or of supernaturals, WoD plays off that awareness and provides reasons and culprits for why your life and the whole world isn’t as good as it could be. When we were trying to do more books for our 20th Anniversary WoD books, we noticed that the real world had caught up to a lot of the awfulness we had described in the original WoD books. Not sure whether to be proud or appalled at that, really! Our games give you ways to uncover some of the conspiracies and enough power to act as you need to. That’s pretty compelling in and of itself.

B: In your time at White Wolf, you held a multitude of roles – VP in charge of production for several years, creative design, development… and of course decades of art direction and interior art (including, as I understand it, many of the icons and heraldic designs that have carried on through the years). What’s it been like to watch your work extend out to so many fans, and see your art and design make such a lasting impression?

RT: Well, it’s very gratifying really. We just didn’t know that folks were getting in that deeply while we were making these things originally. We didn’t have the massive feedback engine that is the internet; we had to rely on sales reports and anecdotes at conventions. The first time I thought one of the symbols I created had gone beyond a useful icon in the books was when I first met Phil Brucato before he came on as Mage developer, and he had sharpied all of the Werewolf: the Apocalypse tribe symbols down his pant legs! I had no idea why anybody would do that, but it was the start of an awareness that folks were taking these things to heart.

Maybe it has had to take this long to really see the long-term impact we’ve had on people’s lives. When we released V20 I heard so many stories about how we have changed peoples lives for the better; from a lot of people having met the loves of their lives while playing, to folks who found courage and acceptance for the first time while exploring a character, to a small group of fans from Mexico who became the ones in their village that older folks would come to for explanations about the world outside their borders –  because they knew more of the world from reading our books. That kind of impact is amazing and humbling. And one of the reasons I think that all roleplaying games, not just the ones I’ve been involved with, are an art – not just a commodity or only entertainment. Art transforms people, and I’ve heard again and again how our RPGs have done just that.

4 thoughts on “Richard Thomas, and the power of transformational art.

    1. Bindusara says:

      Hi Usagi, I love to add in pictures where high-quality scans of the art are available. Unfortunately many of Rich’s most recognised pieces were so early in the game’s history, many have been long since sold or lost. I considered pictures of the cards but I felt it didn’t make the art sing as much as I wanted.

      Like

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