Writing for this blog (and through it and our efforts with Puerto Rico Role Players) has allowed me to interact with the greater RPG community in ways I did not think possible. There have been many rewards, one of those is getting to talk with game creators I greatly admire, some of which I’ve been in awe since I began to play RPGs. Some time ago I interviewed one of my favorite writers Bruce Heard, and this time around it one of my favorite artist/writers Jeff Dee!
Let me give some context on how I got to know who Jeff Dee is. Not long after I began playing role-playing games a neighbor had a garage sale and sold many of his D&D books. I was away for the weekend so I missed a lot of the stuff he sold and when finally I made it home there were just a few things left, the AD&D 1st edition Monster Manual and Deities and Demigods (the original version with the Melnibonéan and Cthulhu mythos), picked both for $20 and devoured them.
I was a big fan of mythology before I was into gaming so Deities and Demigods enthralled me. As a fan of Egyptian and Norse mythology, the art for both these pantheons blew me away. I didn’t immediately know who the artist was, but eventually found out who Jeff Dee was. I had not read Stormbringer back then, so his illustration of Elric was my first introduction to the character. Last but not least, he drew my favorite creature in the Fiend Folio, the Aarakocra, how could I not love his art!
It was some time later, in my search for the perfect supers RPG that I discovered Villains & Vigilantes (V&V), a game Jeff had illustrated and co-created with Jack Herman. I was sold! I remember getting the game while in high school. Sadly I gave my copy away to a friend who was a BIG fan and no longer had his copy. Giving away MERP and V&V are two of my biggest regrets. Thankfully Michael, the Stargazer himself, gifted me a copy in PDF some time ago that I printed and bound so V&V is back in my collection. Villains & Vigilantes is how this interview came about.
I started following Jeff in Facebook some time ago and there learned of the ongoing legal battle he and Jack Herman are involved in over the copyright of the game they created. Jeff and Jack have set up a GoFunMe campaign to cover the legal cost of protecting their rights. Jeff is reaching out to anyone interested in learning more about their plight so we got on to talking about the case and as part of the conversation I asked Jeff some general questions about RPGs and how he got started, the game he co-created, and where the case stands right now. I’m incredibly grateful that he took the time to answer my questions; I hope you enjoy the interview as much as I enjoyed doing it. Without further ado…
Sunglar: How did you discover gaming in general and RPGs in particular?
Jeff De: My dad and my older brothers played Avalon Hill style boardgames when I was just a little kid, but those games never really caught my imagination. I still remember the day when I went with my mom to pick up my eldest brother Dave from his high school gaming club, and they were playing a new thing called ‘Dungeons and Dragons’. I loved the idea that you had one character who was your hero, and you went on adventures and it became a story. Somehow I talked Dave into taking me to his next club meeting, but when I got there they didn’t play D&D, they played a medieval fantasy tabletop miniatures game called Chainmail (which was related to D&D, but I had no idea). They let me control one little group of skirmishers led by a knight. I promptly got all the skirmishers killed, and spent the rest of the evening running my knight all over the board exploring and role-playing my little heart out.
Sunglar: What did you do first, draw for RPGs or design them?
Jeff Dee: Professionally, I was an artist before I ever got published as a designer. As a fan, though, that’s a trickier question. I probably started drawing stuff that happened in RPGs almost immediately, but then I started tinkering with game mechanics almost immediately too. The two things really aren’t all that different in my mind. When you draw a picture, you’re trying to put down an image that will give the viewer a certain kind of experience. When you design a game mechanic, you’re trying to craft a sequence of events that will give the player a certain kind of experience. They’re as different as painting and writing music, just two different entertainment media.
Sunglar: What was your first professional design work? What was your first art assignment?
Jeff Dee: My first professional art assignment was for the ‘Legions of the Petal Throne’ miniatures painting guide article in Dragon magazine #6. 1976 I think? Villains and Vigilantes was my first professional game design, in 1979.
Sunglar: How did you begin working for TSR?
Jeff Dee: The TSR guys all knew me from an early age, because I grew up only a ½ hour drive south of Lake Geneva and I used to go up to the original Dungeon hobby shop with my brother Dave every couple of weeks. I’d show off my latest drawings, which is what led to that first art assignment in the Dragon. When I came back from getting a bit of training at the Joe Kubert School in New Jersey, I interviewed with Dave Sutherland and they snapped me up.
Sunglar: When did you design Villains & Vigilantes?
Jeff Dee: Sometime around 1978. I’d become friends with Jack Herman in high school, and introduced him to RPGs. But Jack and I were also big comic book fans, so it just seemed obvious to ‘game it out’ when we got into an argument over whether Spider-Man or the Human Torch would win in a fight. My brother Dave had taken off for college with all of our gaming stuff except our copy of TSR’s Empire of the Petal Throne (1975), so we wound up taking EPT and writing additional rules for powers. I don’t remember who won. It soon became clear that EPT’s 1-100 scale for normal human attribute scores wasn’t going to work for superheroes, so we started replacing all the parts of the mechanics that didn’t work quite right for our purposes, and pretty soon we realized we had our own game.
Sunglar: What was your business relation with Fantasy Games Unlimited (FGU) when they became the publisher of Villains & Vigilantes?
Jeff Dee: Jack Herman and I went to a GenCon looking for a publisher who we thought would be open-minded enough to publish our crazy superhero rpg idea. FGU had a game out called Bunnies and Burrows, which was an RPG based on the novel Watership Down where you play an intelligent rabbit. And we thought, this is the place! No offense to FGU or B&B, which is an awesome game by the way, we were just young and insecure. As to our business relationship, well, at first I was just another outside designer and they were a publisher. I didn’t wind up working in their offices until a few years later.
Sunglar: I know that you and Jack are involved in a legal battle with Scott Bizar (FGU publisher) over the rights to V&V. Where does the case stand currently?
Jeff Dee: There are three parts to the case. Excuse me if my terminology is not quite right (I’m not a lawyer), but basically:
The first part is our copyright suit against him. We’d signed a publishing contract with Fantasy Games Unlimited Incorporated, which said that if they stopped doing business the publishing rights reverted to us. Well, FGU Inc. ceased to exist in 1991, but he never told us. He just got himself a DBA as “Fantasy Games Unlimited” and went right on selling our game (and others). When we found out (not until 2010!) we told him to stop, and he refused, so we sued him for violation of our copyright. We’ve won this part of the case, and we’re in the process of determining how much he owes us in damages.
The second part of the case was his defamation suit against us. He accused us of bad-mouthing him and making false statements about him. We lost this part of the case by default when, lacking any legal representation in Arizona where the case was being held, we missed a filing deadline and that was that. He was awarded about $50k in damages against us, the collection of which is on hold pending the determination of our damages against him.
The third part of the case is his trademark suit against us. He claims that since he’s been publishing books with the name Villains and Vigilantes on them, he’s earned the right to claim ownership of that name as a trademark. He lost this part of the case originally, but the appeals court has granted him a second chance to prove it back in the Arizona court. Similarly, we weren’t originally awarded the right to collect any damages from his copyright violation, but the appeals court overturned that and said that we could. So, these two ‘second chance’ issues – one on each side of the case – are what remains to be resolved.
Sunglar: Many of our readers may know about the legal over the rights to Villains & Vigilantes from the Fantasy Games Unlimited chapter in the book Designers & Dragons: The 70s by Shannon Appelcline. Do you wish to clarify or add to the details in the book?
Jeff Dee: The book of date regarding our legal case against Bizar. The appeals court ruling is in, and it expanded the original ruling to say that Bizar has absolutely no right to publish V&V in either book or electronic form (a bit further than the original ruling went). And the appeals court ruled that we could pursue damages against Bizar for copyright violation, which we are doing.
The appeals court also granted Bizar a chance to return to the Arizona court and attempt to prove his claim that he owns the trademark.
Our fundraising effort concerns both of those things: we need the help of a lawyer to pursue damages (which we’re only really interested in to offset any damages Bizar may be awarded against us), and we also need a lawyer’s help to combat Bizar’s second attempt to prove that he owns the V&V trademark.
Sunglar: Is his appeal still in court?
Jeff Dee: The appeals court handed down its ruling earlier this year. That’s why we’re headed back to court in Arizona.
Sunglar: How can the community help?
Jeff Dee: We’re confident that all of our rights will ultimately be upheld, as long as we have proper legal representation. But that’s the problem; we never had a lawyer in Arizona, and the only part of the case which went very badly for us (the defamation charge) was the result of that lack. So, we’ve launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to pay a lawyer to represent us in Arizona during this final phase. We raised enough in the first couple of days to get a lawyer started, but we need the donations to keep flowing in order to keep this lawyer working. So, the main way folks can help is by pitching in as generously as they can. Lawyers are not cheap, but they are extremely important!
Sunglar: Besides the GoFundMe campaign, is there anything else people can do?
Jeff Dee: Anyone who’d like to donate, but not through GoFundMe for whatever reason, can donate directly via PayPal to firstname.lastname@example.org
Anyone who can’t afford to donate, or who can but would like to do even more, can help out by spreading the word about our situation and our GoFundMe campaign to everyone they know who has enjoyed our work, or who simply cares about the issue of creators’ rights.
And of course, folks can also support us by purchasing our games. Visit our website monkeyhousegames.com for more information.
Sunglar: I imagine Monkey House Games priority is the legal battle, but do you have any future plans once this whole affair is behind you?
Jeff Dee: We’ve been working on a major update of Villains and Vigilantes for several years now. We don’t plan on releasing it until after the legal battle is resolved, of course, for obvious reasons. In the meanwhile, we’ve got several new adventures in the works by some of the authors who wrote the original V&V adventures back in the ‘80’s. We are ready to go!
Sunglar: And after all the heavy topics, a couple of lighter questions. What comics or other superhero themed media inspire you when you were creating the game?
Jeff Dee: We had the good fortune to be creating V&V during a wonderful era in comics. John Byrne was drawing X-Men, Frank Miller was doing Daredevil, and the Christopher Reeve Superman film had just come out. It was a great time to be a superhero fan. Not quite like today, which is also great with all of the superhero films and TV series going on, but great in its own right.
Sunglar: I was a fan of Byrne and Miller myself and read a lot of comics, albeit in Spanish, when the original Superman move came out. What comics or other superhero themed media do you currently enjoy?
Jeff Dee: All of the films and TV series. I don’t read many actual comics these days, simply because of how expensive they’ve become. Somebody ought to do something about that.
Sunglar: I agree on the price of comics. Myself I read some digitally, which sadly isn’t much cheaper, and buy a lot of TPB which is paradoxically often less expensive than buying individual issues when you get them with a discount. Lastly, since I follow you on Facebook, I know this is a topic you post about a lot: Tékumel. It is one of those things I constantly read about with regards to the history of the hobby and more, but I’ve never read anything about it, or gotten any product. As a novice, where should I start, and what does it mean to you?
Jeff Dee: Remember earlier when I mentioned that Jack Herman and I first attempted to role-play a superhero battle using a modified version of the Empire of the Petal Throne RPG? Tékumel is the world setting from that game, and EPT was the RPG my brother left behind when he went off to college. It’s the first RPG I ever really ran as a GM. In short: it’s a fantasy world build on the ruins of a fallen interstellar civilization. It also has the most amazing amount of source material available for it that you can possibly imagine. I *love* Tékumel, which is why my other RPG publishing company licensed the rights, and came out with my new game Béthorm: the Plane of Tékumel. The best place to start learning about this amazing setting is the official website, tekumel.com.
And on that note, that’s a wrap for the interview with Jeff Dee. I am very grateful for the opportunity to ask him these questions. Writing this post I once again felt like the teen that discovered his art for the first time. Here is wishing he and Jack come out on top on this legal case, put all these woes behind them, and can concentrate in creating new games and publishing that update to V&V. Don’t forget to support the Monkey House Games Legal Battle GoFundMe campaign.