What is it?
Hagglethorn Hollow by Tabletop Troubador Games is an exciting new set of modular tabletop terrain for RPG enthusiasts created by a sculptor at WETA, who helped design the worlds of Lord of the Rings, and produced by One of New Zealand’s top stuntmen. The Kickstarter Begins September 26th!
I was lucky enough to be able to ask some questions of the two men responsible for Tabletop Troubador Games and Hagglethorn Hollow, Ike Hamon and Johnny Fraser-Allen. Here is our conversation:
Geek Dad: Could you tell us about your history in the film industry; especially the fantasy genre?
I started At Weta Workshop straight out of high school. I had spent a year working on my portfolio, which consisted of the reimagining and redesign of 16 characters from The Wizard of Oz. This was to showcase my skills as a conceptual designer. My hope was to land a position on Weta Workshop’s conceptual design team. It was my life goal to design The Hobbit.
Richard Taylor, Weta’s Co-founder and Creative Director, was impressed with my work, however, as I was only 19 at the time, he thought that I needed a bit more experience before joining their design team. Richard instead started me off in the Miniatures Department which was working on King Kong. It was a small team but we built all 60+ large-scale miniature environments for Skull Island. We built everything from the great wall of the natives, the ruined temples of the raptor attack and even Kong’s lair. I learned so much about crafting realistic scenery which helpfully fed directly into my hobby of tabletop gaming. This was about two years of work, during which time I spent my evenings building up skills as a conceptual designer.
When the production of Kong wrapped up Richard allowed me to hang around the sculpting room for some months where I taught myself sculpting. I did this by replicating my 3 favorite creatures (Hoggle, Alpf and Ralph,) from my favorite film, Labyrinth.
This experience also gave me an opportunity to learn the intricacies of costume and leather work. As I completed my sculptures, Richard took note of how far I had come in developing my design skills. He felt confident that my evolution as an artist and passion for the craft had given me enough design strengths that he offered me my first conceptual design job on The Chronicles of Narnia – Prince Caspian. That project role carried over onto Stephen Spielberg’s TinTin, where I designed several characters in the film as well as a few environments.
Now that I was being paid to grow as a designer during my work days, during my evenings and weekends, I was able to focus on further developing my skills as a sculptor. I did this by creating an ambitious project for myself called ‘The Gloaming’. This challenge included creating over 40 life-sized creatures and many miniature environments. I would then photograph the finished pieces and use them to illustrate a series of books I had begun writing of the same name.
I worked on The Gloaming until the day Guillermo Del Toro arrived at Weta Workshop ready to begin pre-production on The Hobbit (which he was originally going to direct). This took me back into the conceptual design department where I would stay for the next two years. Working closely with Del Toro was a hugely influential time for me creatively which only heightened my desire to follow the call of ‘the Gloaming’. I continued to work in the department after Del Toro left and Peter Jackson took over as the director but eventually I decided to refocus on my personal enterprise and the building my own fantasy worlds.
Mind you, I had to divert my attention for a time when the opportunity to design Stephen Spielberg’s BFG and the beastly Fleshlumpeater was presented to me. It’s hard to say no to Spielberg!
Geek Dad: Could you offer your background and history regarding role-playing games?
For as long as I can remember I’ve loved board games.
As a kid, it was the games with tactile 3D components that really got my attention. A couple of the games that really stick out in my memory are Crossbows and Catapults and Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs’ The adventures that came with being an active participant in rich, absorbing fantasy settings was something that would consume me and cater to my imagination. Being a child of the 80s meant that there was never a day when I wasn’t holding a beautifully sculpted creature in my hands. With character figures from He-Man, Thundercats, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Dino-riders, Star Wars, Battle Beasts, etc. I would visualize, create and play out interactive scenarios where these different worlds would collide.
On my 15th birthday, a girlfriend gifted me with the iconic role-playing board game Hero Quest. That was when I was truly and utterly lost to tabletop gaming.
To this day I marvel at the excitement and accessibility of that game and the world that unfolds as you play. It’s so aesthetically refined. It was around this time that I also started painting miniatures. Approximately a year later, Games Workshop began their release of their Lord of the Rings battle strategy game line. I devoured every release and over time got better at painting while also getting more into the actual gameplay aspect. It was this LOTR game set that moved me into wanting to create terrain for myself. My parents gave me the entire garage to turn into a massive working medieval village. This was before my Weta Workshop days and long before YouTube tutorials so my efforts in dry-brushing grey over black foam card buildings were a long way from Hagglethorn Hollow.
Fast forward to when I was given access to the incredible art rock molds and miniature tree dressing materials from Weta Workshop; I was ecstatic with the possibilities that were opened up to me that would help me to create my own terrain. My weekends were consumed with making terrain for my Lord of the Rings gaming.
In fact, the hillsides seen in the Tested video for Hagglethorn Hollow are actually terrain pieces from this period 14 years ago!
As the quality of miniatures grew, so too did the quality of board games. I found myself drawn back to where I started, opening boxes to reveal tight little worlds and games with room for more than 2 players. I began collecting more than I could play let alone paint and every hour in the evening was spent coloring minis while watching YouTube reviews and playthroughs of any game that I could find.
One day I discovered that a company called Riverhorse had secured the rights to develop Jim Henson’s Labyrinth into a board game. If there was one thing I loved more than gaming, it was the Labyrinth! I looked into the company and saw that Alessio Cavatore ran it and I knew, thanks to my White Dwarf magazine subscription, that he was the same guy who created my beloved Lord of the Rings game system.
I had to work on that project!
As fortune would have it, I had recently become friends with renowned miniature makers the Perry Twins as they were constantly at Weta Workshop working on Peter Jackson’s personal miniature collection and I knew that they were connected to Alessio. I asked them to forward my letter of intent as well as my portfolio to Alessio which they kindly did. I got the job! I was to sculpt the miniatures and illustrate the Labyrinth game which is exactly what I wanted. I did have one issue, however – I had never sculpted a miniature in my life! (don’t tell them). I asked if I could sculpt them as three-ups and to then use the resources I had at Weta Workshop to scan and print them at the required size. They agreed and my work on the Labyrinth board game began.
The Henson Company loved the sculpts and Ludo, my second ever miniature sculpt, was nominated for the ‘Beasts of War’ 2016 Gaming Awards for “Best Sculpt”. This was a huge honor. Working on Labyrinth led me to work on the Dark Crystal board game where I would again sculpt the miniatures and illustrate the game.
It was in this pivotal moment that I came to fully realize that I was getting much greater joy working on game construction than I was in the film industry.
I also began to understand the tremendous opportunities for me in game production that would allow me to be the architect of my own future, particularly in this unique world. Soon after, I started my company ‘Tabletop Troubadour’ with my good friend Ike Hamon. After two years of development, we are now days away from launching the massive multi-component world building cityscape of ‘Hagglethorn Hollow’.
This is the first of many projects to come from Tabletop Troubadour and we are excited for what the future will bring.
Geek Dad: Could you speak about the initial spark that inspired you to start creating a large-scale miniature model of the Labyrinth from Labyrinth and what other inspirations did you have for your design?
I was five years old when I was first shown the Labyrinth and Dark Crystal in the same night by an older cousin. It awoke in me a passion for fantasy that never died and from that day, I really was lost to it. Those films directed my whole life path. They initiated and guided my interest in art, (particularly practical art,) and they led me to the film industry roles that I have played for 15 years now (as a creature designer and world builder).
In regards to the Labyrinth board game, I was somewhat disappointed that they only wanted five characters. I believed that the Labyrinth, with its ever-changing landscape, race against time and the army of unique adversaries would make the greatest board game of all time so I ended up sculpting about 30 characters!
I just couldn’t stop myself and now these creations are a part of my personal collection. I then made a small square of the Labyrinth to mold and recast with plans to eventually create a table sized Labyrinth. I never intended it to become 18 foot long, but it just seemed right to keep making it to the scale of the film.
It’s still a work in progress and primarily a labor of love but I realized a while ago while watching the film for the “1000th” time that if you took the characters out of Labyrinth, you basically had the perfect environments for any role-playing campaign you can dream of! The ruins, dungeon, mazes, courtyards, castles, villages, swamps, forests… it has everything! I realized that if I sculpted these as individual tables, I’d be set for life in regards to my role-playing groups and tabletop gaming. I always had the bonus option of putting it all together to exhibit a big fun Labyrinth showcase.
GeekDad: At what point did it transition into a possible Kickstarter that fans could support?
When I started work on sculpting my personal Goblin Town, I realized that it was going to take a huge investment of time and money from my part to pull this off. I was only doing it for myself and I had no interest in pursuing a license from Henson’s to sell what I completed.
It mostly it came down to the fact that Goblin Town as a whole is utterly breathtaking, but when each building is looked at closely as a single unit, they are actually very straightforward simple designs. I love the potential that sculpting in the quality that chavant plasticine affords to capture characters and realism. I saw a great opportunity to finally create the fantasy world that I’ve dreamed of playing in since I was a child.
I also illustrate all of my own books and I use sculpture as part of the illustration process. Having a town of my own design to set my stories would be incredibly beneficial, so I put Labyrinth aside and began working on what became Hagglethorn Hollow.
My business partner saw this and suggested we sell the three houses that I had nearly completed as a gaming terrain product. I thought it wasn’t a bad idea but just wanted to flesh out the range a bit. Six months later and I had a city that I could barely fit between my studio and the game room at home, so we began trying to figure out how the hell we could sell it.
Hagglethorn Hollow was primarily made to be the best gaming world that I as a gamer, could come up with. Every piece is unique – no repeats, no texture stamps, no copy/paste 3D models, no brick, tile or board is the same. I’m very happy with how its come out and Ike and I have worked really hard for many months to break it down into the most accessible and affordable campaign.
Being a part of the Kickstarter community ourselves and knowing that it is essentially made up of like-minded people who are dedicated to helping bring visions and hard-work to life, we felt that campaigning through this avenue was our best approach.
I can’t wait to see people’s reaction to the Kickstarter and to know that it’s made its way onto tabletops around the world!
Geek Dad: One of the things that attracted me to your project is that it is more stylized than other modular fantasy systems I have seen. Were you frustrated with what was available on the market and did that help guide your choice?
That’s exactly right.
When I made the decision to stop sculpting my personal Labyrinth and explore my own fantasy cityscape, I saw it as a real chance to address some of the issues that had stopped me investing in other available products. Primarily these issues were (and are,) lack of asymmetry and character.
While there are some amazing products out there, I think that when you have a lot of stuff that you have to clip together, you end up with more grid seams and gaps that break up the intended effect, which is to lose yourself visually in a miniature world. There’s also the issue of higher modularity, which basically means everything has to be very thin and very straight. It’s not bad, it’s just not for me personally.
Hagglethorn was a way for me to come up with a terrain system that was ‘place and play’ while still maintaining versatility and replayability.
Another huge thing for me that I found I could never find on the market was towering cityscapes. I wanted to capture that ‘Kirby-esque’ illustrated feel and what I imagine Terry Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork to look like. I wanted a straggling ancient cityscape that can no longer grow out, so must grow up. I wanted a Mos Eisley spaceport set in medieval times. I wanted Blade Runner streets made out of tiles and stone.
It also seems to me that nearly every product available has Tudor beams on it. As a Lord of the Rings player, I always imagined Middle Earth as a prelude to the Norman conquest and the lost history of Britton sort of a thing, more than a reimagining of 16th century England.
In other words, I wanted to take inspiration from what works in many of the fantasy games that I play, capture what are to me the most visually stimulating aspects of fantasy settings, including the reality of historical settings, and then bring these powerful elements together. If a person can be utterly absorbed by simply looking upon the sculptured settings, imagine the thrill of actually interacting with it!
Geek Dad: What materials did you use when sculpting? What materials will the mass-produced product in the Kickstarter be made of?
I have hand sculpted every single piece in chavant plasticine.
This gives the whole range a visual cohesiveness that transforms your games into living illustrations. We decided to go with resin for all of our products in the Hagglethorn Hollow range. It’s a product I’m very familiar with having worked with it for over 15 years; it has a far more organic feel than other options. This is is very important to me as the products themselves are represented as a combination of natural elements such as stone, wood, straw etc. A resin piece resonates that original hand sculpted feel and retains so much of the detail of the original work. It’s also a fantastic canvas to paint.
Geek Dad: The Kickstarter is for completed pieces. Will there be painted and unpainted options?
Yes, each tier/pledge level will be available as both fully painted and unpainted. We are very aware that there is a large community of gamers that love to just open the box, pull out the pieces, place and play while others love to paint – me being one of those people.
I’m excited to see what paints schemes people apply to these components.
GeekDad: In the Tested video, you mentioned 3D printed pieces. Will the 3D models eventually be made available to hobbyists?
Yes, they will be. We have decided to release the range first as physical products and then to release 3D STL files in the future. To do this, we have partnered with 3D industry veterans, Printable Scenery. With their wealth of 3D printing and design knowledge plus the level of customer/technical support they can offer, we are very confident in being able to deliver a very high-quality product to the market.
Geek Dad: What are your hopes for future endeavors in the world of miniatures and terrain?
Oh, so many! The Hagglethorn Hollow campaign is merely the first in a very well planned series of equally dynamic campaigns that offer a fuller unique and immersive setting for players to game. Although every piece of scenery we create is perfect to simply compliment any existing game and gaming setup you might already have, we are creating a world of its own to role play in as well, with plans for modules, characters, sprawling narratives etc.
I can’t give away too much at this point, but all customers of Hagglethorn Hollow should know that it’s a world that we will keep adding to and that the game’s variety, and consequently, play value, will increase with each new installment.
Thoughts and Info:
I want to thank Ike Hamon and Johnny Fraser-Allen for there time and giving up a wonderful look at the future of Tabletop Troubador Games and the Hagglethorn Hollow Kickstarter which begins September 26th.
This product looks amazing. As someone who loves the tabletop scenery, I can’t wait to have some pieces live and in the flesh. Looking at Johnny Fraser-Allen’s work the future of the company is boundless.
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