Creative Colleagues: Crystal Frasier

Crystal Frasier

Crystal Frasier Photo by Lauren Tozer-Kilts

Every now and then, I pester my creative colleagues with five questions about their work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.

Crystal Frasier is one of those insufferably talented people who don’t limit themselves to one artistic pursuit. Her maps grace the interiors of Pathfinder Tales novels, her graphic design work has adorned many Pathfinder game products, she’s written several acclaimed adventures, and her illustrations are adorable enough to give you a toothache.

I would say that we’re friends, but she has never baked anything for me.

Her most recent publication is the high-level conclusion to the Iron Gods Adventure Path, The Divinity Drive. Anyone with fond memories of the classic D&D module Expedition to the Barrier Peaks should check it out.

1. While I tend to think of you first as an illustrator, you’re also a mapper, a game designer, a graphic designer, and—just tell us, what are your many other talents?

I don’t know if I’d call them “talents.” I’ve just lived an interesting life and try to pick up whatever useful knowledge I can every time I drop into a new situation. Learning how to draw, how to map, and how to design were all just skills I picked up because I either didn’t know or couldn’t afford other people with those skills—the same reason I can fix my own car, cook my own dinner, and possess a detailed knowledge of human anatomy.

I think the only really natural talent I have is a gift for baking and candy-making. My mother taught me to bake when I was still little, so it’s sort of a background life skill I always possessed. From there, candy-making is just wet baking; it uses the same chemistry and similar ingredients, just in different ways. My delicate sense of smell gives me a huge advantage and goes a long way to making baking intuitive; It’s easy to avoid a lot of cooking pitfalls when you can tell if a batter is too alkaline or acidic before popping it into the over.

2. As an outspoken feminist and proponent of transgender issues, you’ve considered the sexism and intolerance among gamers more deeply than most. Do you see things getting better? Worse? Is the vocal minority giving gamers a bad name, or is there something about our community that reinforces these attitudes? Are there things all gamers can do to speed the decline of harmful stereotypes and hateful behavior both in themselves and among their peers?

That’s a complicated question. I don’t think there’s anything inherent about gaming or gamers that makes us prone to intolerance or hate, but I think our brand of crusading anger comes from the hobby we love. The core problem I’ve seen is that most of gaming—and to a lesser extent media in general—pushes the idea of good versus bad, heroes versus villains, scrappy underdogs battling against looming powers. And until recently, “gamer” was synonymous with “outcast,” “nerd,” or “loser.” We were picked on or ignored or beaten up by the looming powers. We were the scrappy underdogs. We were the heroes. But now women and minorities are coming along and saying things like “games have a sexism problem” or “some games push racist attitudes.” These people are calling us the enemy. And we’re the heroes, so they must be the villains.

That’s obviously an oversimplification, but a lot of the defenses I’ve seen of online harassment—from Facebook arguments on up to Penny Arcade themselves—come around to the defense of “I can’t be racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic. I’m a nerd! I got picked on! These people are just making up accusations or being overly sensitive to hurt me because I’m a gamer.” Some people just hold onto this attitude and sulk, or just keep making the same sexist or racist jokes as a point of defiance, but a small minority build entire quests around attacking these perceived enemies. That’s when you see those horrific campaigns of doxing and harassment.

We are making a lot of progress, though, in terms of inclusion. I think most gamers realize and accept that we all have a little evil inside us that we need to be aware of. I see harassment online, but also genuine curiosity from people who want to learn. I remember a time when just being the girl in the gaming group meant sexual overtures from half the table every week, but now I sit down with new groups or organized play tables and see other women, a variety of races, and out queer people. That’s a lot of progress, and I think that rapid progress is why we’re seeing very vocal pushback recently, as a particular segment of gamers starts to feel uncomfortable or displaced.

If individual gamers want to help speed our community’s maturation, then celebrate diversity and try to avoid cheap jokes at the expense of others. Let your favorite publishers know that you like seeing variety in their products. Follow a few diversity-focus blogs like Sarah Darkmagic or Medieval People of Color—at least start you thinking about “facts” you always just assumed to be true. You shouldn’t read or follow uncritically, but it always helps to reference a perspective different from your own.

Cover by Wayne Reynolds

Cover by Wayne Reynolds

3. You’ve designed the concluding volume of the Iron Gods Adventure Path, which is about the scariest design challenge I can imagine. What challenges do you face with high-level scenarios? Or are you the opposite of me and prefer high-level design? If so, how come?

The Divinity Drive was the highest-level adventure I’ve ever written, and it was terrifying. Most of my home campaigns tend to wrap up around level 12 or 14, so writing an adventure for 15th and 16th level characters was a new challenge. In my home games, we take a lighter hand with the rules in high-level encounters, playing out a lot of combats narratively more than mechanically. Players work hard to get to that level of prestige after all, and want to feel like badasses who don’t wiff mooks on a natural 1. Obviously that approach doesn’t work with published adventures, which need to follow the rules as written.

My biggest challenge was just trying to anticipate what characters can or would do. PCs leap from 7th level spells to 8th-level spells in the gap, and gain access to game-changers like limited wish and antimagic field; planning for finds like that is hard, and challenging characters with that kind of power (without killing them outright) is daunting. So instead I tried to focus on making funny, interesting, or weird encounters, more so than truly deadly fights. Divinity Drive focuses on exploring a crashed alien spaceship, after all, so there were plenty of opportunities for “weird.” I basically threw a giant box of tools at the GM and just said “You deal with them!” Any GM who nurses their group along through 15 levels knows them far better than I ever could, so all I did was provide useful maps and stat blocks.

4. What are some ways in which your various creative outlets interact with each other? That is, are there ways in which your visual art influences or is influenced by your game design? Do you conceive of game scenarios in terms of location and the appearance of characters and monsters first before moving on to plot? Or does plot guide the visual aspects of design?

I’m a very visual person. I have trouble with a concept unless I see a graph or a portrait or a map, and that extends into my writing. I can’t write an adventure until I’ve built the maps for it, then naturally it makes sense that the bandit queen would put a trap here and keep her pet cockatrice there. I have a lot of trouble getting into a character’s head unless I sketch them first, or find at least find a portrait to reference; The Harrowing came so easily to me because Kyle Hunter’s beautiful artwork wrote most of the story for me, and most of my NPCs from Empty Graves were inspired by visuals in Miyazaki movies (especially Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, which I made my wife watch for the first time while writing it).

I see a lot of my encounters as “wouldn’t it be cool if…” first, and then try to reverse-engineer game mechanics from that, with a lot of help from my visual references.

5. You’ve been both a freelancer and a full-timer in the game industry. Freelancing would seem to be by far the more challenging, but does it come with its own rewards and liberations?

Freelancing has been wonderful! It’s a lot more work, but I only have to work on projects I’m genuinely excited about, and only work with people I like. Unfortunately, I like way too many amazing people, so I don’t get to work with everyone I’d like to.

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