This month Geek Native’s RPG Publisher Spotlight includes an interview with “the artist” from The One Ring.
That’s a joke, which will be explained in just a bit.
Update: Jan 16 2023 – It’s been hectic in the weeks after this piece went live and so Jon’s offered up an important addendum on the OGL and WotC.
Patreons voted for Handiwork Games and Jon Hodgson, the owner, but not the only employee kindly made time for us. The end of the year, the festive spirit, is frantic for any small business, so I’m incredibly thankful for Jon’s time.
We talk “The One Ring”, AI art, ethics, having a small games publisher and full-time employees and the future of Handiwork Games.
As you can see; Handiwork is far more than just “the artist”, or a memory of Lord of the Rings, and I suspect a candidate for one of your favourite indie RPG publishers.
Who are Handiwork Games?
Let’s start at the start. It’s not been an easy start for the publisher and tabletop game creators involved.
Who are Handiwork Games, and where did the name come from?
We’re a small band of creators based around the world, but mostly in Scotland, UK. We have team members in England, The US, and New Zealand.
We started at the beginning of 2019 – a portentous start date, and we really had no idea how the world was going to go – Brexit and then the global pandemic have certainly been exciting times in which to run a small games publisher!
The name came about because we really wanted to express how hands-on we are – any time you’re talking to someone at Handiwork, you’re talking to someone who made some part of the games. This emphasises that we’re small and “artisanal”. We’re makers first and foremost.
Which products do you think you’re best known for?
BEOWULF Age of Heroes is probably our best known title because it enjoys the huge audience of 5th Edition. But we spread our games across a bunch of audiences – a|state second edition is growing in notoriety in the indie/Forged in the Dark scene. And Maskwitches of Forgotten Doggerland is a weird minimalist story game with a weird name, so I think people remember that to some degree.
Which products would you like to be known for?
All of ’em! Because we’re small it’s always a battle to be seen. And I think everything we do is of a standard. Speaking purely selfishly, I’d love more folks to try out The Silver Road because I’ve had so much fun with it, and it’s sooooo minimal it amuses me greatly. It’s cheeky in its approach to how roleplaying games work, but we’ve enjoyed some really great games, and I’ve heard of other people really enjoying it.
I think there’s a common theme across everything we do that it’s at least a smart take on what we’re doing. We try to be as extra as possible.
Line developer, creative director and deputy CEO
Hands up. I’m sure that I’ve been guilty of the “crimes by understating” we discuss below. In my defence, Jon is such an impressive artist, it’s hard not to talk about it…
Jon, you’re known as a talented illustrator, but your exposure is broader than that. For readers who don’t know, can you bring us up to speed with your industry experience?
Sure. I was a full time freelance illustrator for a very long time – more than a decade, making art for things like Dungeons and Dragons (3e, 3.5e, 4e and 5e!), Warhammer Historical, Dragon Warriors, Legend of the Five Rings and loads more.
I freelanced for a company called Cubicle 7 on their various games, but most notably on the first edition The One Ring RPG. After a decade of independent freelance, I moved into art directing Cubicle 7 titles. My role gradually grew to Deputy CEO and Creative Director, meaning I was involved in all kinds of areas within that company, and oversaw all creative production. I was also running all the social media, and the day to day stuff on all their kickstarters. It was a busy old time and I wore a lot of hats! Eventually I left Cubicle 7 (I don’t really know if I was fired or quit – it was a messy period to say the least) and I started Handiwork Games.
Does it bug you that your personal brand seems so tightly coupled with art when you’ve done so much more?
With some caution I’ll confess that sometimes it does if I’m being truly honest. Alongside the art I’ve always designed and written, and I’ve managed and facilitated creative teams for a long time too. Sometimes when people refer to me as “the artist” from The One Ring it can be a little frustrating when I ran the whole line for a couple of years, writing for it, art directing it, managing what was released, and who worked on it. I wrote tons of material for Adventures in Middle-earth. And so on.
But that’s always balanced with the very important fact that it’s very nice that anyone recognises any of my work at all! I mean, what a position to be in!
Is Handiwork Games a good company?
Are we all becoming freelancers these days? The idea of a job for life seems to be a historical one, the gig economy persists, and even potential employers might seem like little more than short-term alliances of convenience.
There’s nothing wrong with one person running a business, building a brand and calling in freelancers when extra help is needed. However, that’s not the Handiwork approach. This Scottish creative hub has a older school set-up.
Handiwork Games is partly staff-owned. What does that mean, and does it make for a good company?
We are indeed – we have some paperwork to catch up on there, but if you’ve worked for Handiwork for a while you get shares in the company, so that everyone who works with us full time shares in the company’s success. I think that’s really important. I came to a stage in my career where I was looking at a back catalogue of thousands of pieces of art, and owning nothing. Nothing at all. It was all owned by other people, and this is a routine deal which creative folks in the tabletop gaming field often have no choice but to accept. But you realise that when you come to the end of your working life you might have built absolutely nothing at all, despite having worked for the biggest names, on the biggest properties. That’s a bit scary.
We have this super-simple, super flat structure at Handiwork. Someone has to steer and take the big decisions, at least for now, but ultimately everyone just talks about whatever we do, what we’re interested in doing, and how we’re feeling about projects. If someone has a good idea for a project, it’s a good idea. I think this is vital for building really good games.
Does having full-time staff rather than a bank of freelancers change the art and science of RPG design and production for you?
Yes! I’ve frequently been told I’m crazy because we began the company with a group of full time employees, for whom we pay holiday pay, taxes and health taxes in the UK. And hey, it’s a significant factor in our finances, undoubtedly. Handiwork Games is something of an experiment. Can we do this? Can we make better games by offering better working conditions? Only time will tell, but we’re 4 years in and I think we’re doing ok, and I certainly see the quality in our output.
I’d prefer it if there hadn’t been Brexit, a global pandemic, and a war in Ukraine, because it’s hard to get a clear assessment of just how well we’re doing. But tragically there’s always something dreadful happening, and it’s a trap to pretend otherwise.
We do make projects based around what our team can do well, which is always our starting point. What do we know about? What can we make well, given our various abilities?
Ethics, China and Machine Learning art
Company structure quickly took me onto company purpose, so I asked about ethics. It’s often a heated debate in gaming circles.
Sticking with the notion of good for a dangerous question or three, can you walk us through your journey and current point of view on AI art?
Gosh yes, this is a hot topic isn’t it? This will be a long answer because it’s a very complicated topic.
I first came into contact with the image generating machine Midjourney earlier this year (2022), through the experiments of Blizzard artist and old friend Mike Franchina. He was making these fantastically weird and atmospheric images that seemed a perfect fit for our story game The Silver Road. Mike kindly agreed to work with me on that game, and I think the results are beautiful.
I started experimenting with Midjourney myself, in the early beta, which you had to be invited to. It was a wonderfully strange, almost arcane “tool” at this point. It’s quirks and limitations were fascinating.
In conversation with the AI, the Maskwitches of Forgotten Doggerland project came to have a life of its own. I’d type in these really quite poetic prompts, curate the results, and ask more about things I thought were interesting. It felt strongly like an artistic process at this point. I’ve always loved asking Midjourney to “imagine” strongly abstracted or poetic concepts.
Over the year things have moved very fast indeed. Strands of practice with AI arose which I don’t have much respect for, and which I think are the wrong path for this technology to go: using artist names to imitate their style; trying to make more and more imitative images to replace human artists; using “artstation” as a prompt to deliberately draw on artists’ work. I have no need to do that, and I’ve never been interested in using an AI to copy anyone’s style, or take anyone’s job. For me, that was always entirely beside the point and nothing more than a curiosity. It now appears to be the main thrust of the use of Midjourney.
When Midjourney instituted a voting mechanism, where subscribers vote on which images are “good” and the AI learns from that? That’s when I started to lose interest. That isn’t a good creative process to my mind. I preferred how weird it was, and a public vote will destroy that.
Things have changed a lot since even the summer. Midjourney is much more of a subscription-based business now, rather than an experimental exploration. And I do think human artists are being hurt by the way these things are being run and used. There needs to be an urgent overhaul of the ethics of AI content generation, and especially the way the learning data is collected and used.
So I recently decided that the space is no longer somewhere I want us to be, for a lot of reasons. When it was more experimental and weird it was very exciting and I think we made something interesting with it. At Handiwork, we have a lot of choices as a bunch of creatives, and so I elected to pursue other avenues of image creation.
I could say so much more on this topic, and about what I think AI image generation could be used for, productively and creatively, but I fear I’ll bore your readers. I think it could have been additive – bringing a new kind of imagery to the world. But in contact with humans it’s become a detriment. I’m pretty sad about it, because I got a lot of joy from the exploration. The Maskwitches project remains a testament to the early, exciting days, and using what the AI could do without trying to rip anyone off, nor replace anyone.
Did you have to wrestle with art ethics with Beowulf? For example, avoid certain symbols, fonts, styles and so forth?
A little bit yes, but it’s mercifully very clear cut in this case. Early mediaeval cultures used the swastika, and certain runes and symbols which have gathered other, entirely negative meanings since. And “viking stuff” is much beloved of far right enthusiasts because they’re not very good at thinking.
So it was easy to decide that we won’t use those stolen symbols at all – the runic S and the swastika are lost symbols now. We remade a suitably “nordic” font to move the S away from Nazi stylings. And we don’t touch stuff like sunwheels.
Happily there’s just tons of other exciting and evocative imagery to dig into. And the general thrust of BEOWULF makes it clear (hopefully) that it’s not a friendly title for people with extremist views.
And you avoid China-based manufacture when you can? That’s a different decision process for different publishers, but can you address why you made that call for Handiwork Games?
To be 100% clear we do make a couple of things with partners who manufacture in China, where we have no practical alternative choices, so it’s not some super hot “crusade” on our part – that would be entirely hypocritical, and would impune some very good friends of Handiwork. I’m not “against” working with Chinese manufacturers.
But we do, wherever possible, try to source things locally, even when it costs us more. The reasons are both to do with sustainability in using less fuel to transport things, and with some human rights concerns. But as mentioned, we’re not 100% “pure” in this. We just do our best, and I certainly understand why a lot of companies do produce their games in China. Many times there’s little choice due to the financial pressures we all face. But currently we find that we do have some choices, so we try to make them wisely.
This all dates back to making my son’s card game: The Forest Dragon by Rory Age 9, and not wanting such a wholesome product to be made in less than sustainable and wholesome conditions.
The future of Handiwork Games
It’s hard not to talk about the future of any RPG publisher or creative talent without asking about One D&D. Jon, and I had this discussion just as the debate about what One D&D might do to the OGL and what that might mean for creators started.
I’m taking this chance to ask designers and publishers about One D&D. What are your hopes, if any, for the next evolution of Dungeons & Dragons? What should Wizards of the Coast do next?
I’m pleased to hear that it’s more of an iterative approach than a whole new edition. I think that sometimes generates change for change’s sake, and I suspect that might have been a misstep with the success of 5th Edition. I’m certainly invested in our 5th edition titles remaining usable, and I’m pleased to see those won’t be rendered instantly obsolete.
Can I be honest? Despite my huge respect for the OGL as a concept, and gratitude for the opportunities it affords us, I don’t pay a huge amount of attention to what Wizards do with D&D. All of our 5e stuff is based around messing with the basics of it to make it more thematic to whatever we’re doing.
Speaking in abstract terms, I think they should continue the work of making D&D more accessible to more people. I like that as an idea. I was heartened to see “race” removed as a concept. That’s been a long time coming.
It’d be interesting to maybe work on more “modes” for D&D, so that there’s a continuation of the trend towards less resource management and fear for your character’s life that seems to exemplify contemporary D&D, but also some choices if you want to play something tougher. There’s always been those kind of options but I think it’d be nice to see it expanded. Perhaps that something for OGL publishers to tackle?
With the recent release of information about the OGL 1.1, I’m satisfied it’s entirely reasonable. We’ll fall into the bracket of reporting our sales, but we won’t pay anything just yet. That’s ok with me – I appreciate what we gain from having an OGL.
What will Handiwork Games do next?
We have some super exciting stuff coming up.
We regularly release smaller chunks of material for BEOWULF and now a|state, and there’s loads of those coming down the pipe. Well worth signing up to our newsletter and following us on social media to get all the latest news on those things as they come out.
We have four new releases for Maskwitches about to drop (which will bring to a close our use of Midjourney) The Meatspoiler is an adventure which we’re releasing in print. To The Ice Caves is what we’re calling “a journey book” – it’s packed full of thematic and inspirational material detailing obstacles and consequences for a journey from the lowland fenlands of Forgotten Doggerland up to the massive ice walls in the far north. It’s a super useful book for any Maskwitches GM.
We also have 2 packs of a new style of token produced just up the road from our HQ. These are really cool. More on those as we draw closer to release!
We have what I hope will be a huge success made in partnership with another really well known artist – we very much enjoyed bringing Ralph Horsley’s art book to the world, and we have more in store in this vein.
In terms of major releases we have some new editions of some British indie favourites coming.
We have an as yet untitled print supplement for a|state, and a new book for BEOWULF: KING BEOWULF, written by Jacob Rodgers, which takes your wandering Hero and places them on a throne, stewarding a whole realm. It’s very cool. It’s all go!
Addendum Jan 16 2023
Jon: “Well that aged well.
It’s quite remarkable to think of how much goodwill there was towards wotc before the leaks of the 1.1 OGL. I, and many others were content to see it play out, relatively safe in the assumption that the remarkably effective marketing scheme for d&d that is the OGL would be recognised as just that.
My view on the OGL post-leaks is the complete opposite of my view expressed in December. It’s a shameful rights grab, and an attempt to destroy the very creators who helped make 5e the success it was. I’m not sure how and if wotc can come back from this monumental breach of trust. We’re certainly making other plans.”
- Handiwork Games’ website
- Handiwork Games on Mastodon
- Handiwork Games on Facebook
- Handiwork Games on Twitter
- Handiwork Games on Instagram
- Handiwork Games on YouTube
- Handiwork Games on Pinterest
- Handiwork Games on Discord
- Handiwork Games on DTRPG
Latest Handiwork Games Products
Handiwork can be found on DriveThruRPG, which means we can go through and see which titles have the refreshed dates.
- 20th December 2022 – Handimonsters Annual 2023
- 14th December 2022 – Jon Hodgson Miniatures Backdrops Set Two
- 12th December 2022 – Jon Hodgson Maps – Huts!
- 30th November 2022 – Jon Hodgson Miniatures Backdrops Set One
- 28th November 2022 – a|state Playbooks
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