TDoV Interview: Jennell Jaquays

Hi ConTessans! Today is Transgender Day of Visibility, so we took a moment to sit down with one of our favorite out and proud trans creators, Jennell Jaquays. She has been kicking ass in gaming for years and now she's kicking even more ass as an LGBT advocate in the industry. She's also going to be answering questions today in her AMA over on her Facebook page, so if you have anything you want to ask her, don't hesitate to hop over there. I'll post the link at the bottom.



1. You've been in gaming since before the days of Greyhawk! How did you first get into gaming?

Jennell: There was this radioactive spider bite … and … Oh, that origin story has already been used?

I would probably blame the whole getting into gaming thing on my younger brother Bruce and I dumping out the contents of all the Milton Bradley American Heritage war games from the 60s (Dogfight, Battlecry, Broadsides, and Hit the Beach) and mashing them together into a single huge play set (requiring hours of tedious sorting afterwards).

Not long after that, he and I used to glue pieces of (used) paper to make our own “board games.” The used paper was either copier paper from our dad’s office or ditto sheets from the school where my grandfather was a school principal … my grandparents were the source of a LOT of art supplies for us kids. I still have most of those games and the backsides likely share insights into the manufacturing of the mobile classrooms created to handle the overflow of Baby-Boomer students in the 60s and early 70s.

Then came making our own simple miniature combat rules to manage massive scale wars between varying nations of 1/72nd scale Airfix soldiers of all historical periods. That was also the end of my father having any sort of regular access to the pool table that he had made.

And then we moved onto the “hard stuff” as you do: Boxed Avalon Hill war games. My new friends in high school were playing Panzer Blitz. My brother fell in harder than I did. He subscribed to The General magazine from Avalon Hill. By then, I was off to college and other things.

And then one fall evening in 1975, my brother called me on the phone at work (I was an announcer at the college radio station) and read me two reviews of this new fantasy game out of issue #2 of the Space Gamer. It was called Dungeons & Dragons. Neither of us had heard of it before. I was hooked. That phone call was one of those pivotal points where one can almost see their life changing direction. It was huge to me, even without realizing that it would become my career.

For what it is worth, I feel obligated to note that my younger brother was the real gamer in our family and still is. He’s a much better player at all sorts of games than I am. Back in our Coleco days, he worked in QA and balance test. We sometimes set the most difficult skill levels on Colecovision games by what Bruce could beat, then making it just a little bit harder.

2. How did you make the move from playing into creating? What tips could you give for others that want to follow in your footsteps?

Jennell: After discovering D&D, I probably moved onto creator even before becoming a player (that first year of college, my other forms of gaming had faded into all the activities of college life). I submitted small pieces of filler art for publication in The Space Gamer magazine even before I had Greyhawk (or the other D&D rules) in my hands.

Within eight months of first reading about D&D, my friends and I were publishing a small gaming fanzine called “The Dungeoneer” (with the blessing of TSR, the publishers of the game), and writing game adventures, variant rules, monsters, and even fiction for the game. My hobby ‘zine was noticed, eventually sold to another publisher and then incorporated into the product line of a third publisher. With three years of first finding the game, my little magazine became both the foundation and gateway for me becoming a full-time game developer.

The path that I took was that of a fan, developing skills that could be used to make game product. I could draw printable art and game maps, and write adventures that people thought were fun (supposedly, still do).  What I did got me noticed by other gamers and game makers.  That allowed me to make contacts with people who would pay me for my work. And I kept building on that. Making more stuff, developing contacts, and leaving myself open to following life where it took me.

3. In your opinion, what's the best improvement you've seen in gaming over your career? What was the biggest change in gaming you had to get used to over the years?

Jennell: The best improvement in games of any kind has been the ability to play with other players remotely online, whether it be first person shooters like Quake, real time strategy games like Age of Empires or Starcraft, massively multi-player online games like Warcraft or EVE Online, or just playing a remote session of table top Dungeons & Dragons online with friends.

The biggest change may be the direct, unfiltered, and almost instantaneous access that fans have to game creators and their private lives because of the internet. Instead of it being a mostly positive relationship and experience, it has turned into one that is both quite negative and often dangerous to developers. This is especially true where women in games are concerned as players or developers.

4. You've worked in both video games and tabletop, and now you're doing a little of both. How do the industries differ in terms of culture and what they ask of you?

Jennell: Culture has changed over time. The RPG biz I started in was nearly 100% middle class white males when I entered it, hobbyists who turned their amusement into self-employment. Women participated, but mostly around the edges of the hobby and business, and often mostly as artists or in the “front office” so to speak. Video game culture as early as 1980 was also mostly white male engineers, but for a time, the video game design group was one of the most diverse teams that I would work with in for years.  Our group spanned ages, genders, races, and even sexual orientation (though this WAS pre-AIDS 80s and that was still pretty hush hush).

Over the years, I’ve seen the tabletop RPG industry become much more gender and orientation diverse and inclusive in both leadership and individual contributor roles, while seeming to make fewer gains racially. And the video game industry, like the rest of the tech industry continues to be male-dominated, especially in leadership roles, in fact more so than the early years of the biz.

The tabletop side of the biz never seemed to have quite the pressure cooker aspect that would plague the videogame industry from the very beginning. I would put in long hours working on RPG content, but I worked remotely (even though working on staff for Judges Guild) and set my own hours. Much of what I did was out of love and ownership (at least conceptually) of what I was creating. The same has been true at almost every other stage of working in RPGs for me. Even on staff at TSR in the mid-90s.

At Coleco that changed when ColecoVision came into being. Suddenly we were being forced to give up after hours activities (including taking classes to learn more job skills), required to come in on weekends, and on one project, the entire game design, art, and technical writing teams were called into test ADAM computer software at 3 AM because the department VP was cranky that the programmers were working through the night to fix problems, but that we weren’t there to give moral support (despite having our own work that we needed to stay on deadline with during daylight hours).

5. What are you working on now that we can make sure to look out for in the near future?

Jennell: I still keep my hand in the video game business through my involvement with Olde Sküül, Inc., a company I founded five years ago, with three other women who are multi-decade veterans of the game industry. But most of the call for our work is exclusively technical, and I’m exclusively content creation and development. So, I’ve begun focusing my attention on table top games.  

With that, I seem to have come back full circle to my career starting point. I’m doing art for tabletop RPGs again, creating concept art for and even sculpting game miniatures for several companies, and I’m writing game adventures for retro clones of the original Dungeons & Dragons rules (no, not 5th Edition). Notable are the licensed game miniatures from Otherworld for my first AD&D adventure Dark Tower (Judges Guild, 1979) and my own brand, 5th Wall miniatures and games published through Effincool Miniatures.

And I’ve gotten back into collecting and painting game miniatures again as a hobby (and am desperately trying to keep it a hobby).

Thanks so much Jennell! If you have any more questions for her, head on over to her Facebook page (or see below) and ask away!

Emily Danvers