Interview with Stephen W. Gurtowski

May 25, 2019

The Feast of the Dead by Stephen W. Gurtowksi

Forts & Frontiers is a new 5e compatible roleplaying game set in 17th & 18th North America. The Feast of the Dead is our first adventure module for the game. It tells the story of a Wendat sachem, his trading party, and a young Jesuit priest as they travel together from Trois-Rivieres to their remote village on the shores of Lake Karegnondi.

When we began the layout for The Feast of the Dead, we knew we wanted art that was informed by history but not necessarily “historical”. Being heavily influenced by OD&D and predecessors like Braunstein and Blackmoor, we also knew we wanted art that harkened back to the very early days of the hobby as opposed to the full-color, over-the-top style often found in today’s RPGs.

That’s where Stephen W. Gurtowksi comes into the picture. We were drawn to his strong pen and ink illustration style and his ongoing exploration of American Indian themes. We pointed Steve to work from our favorite early TSR illustrators including Erol Otus, David Sutherland, David Trampier, and Bill Willingham for reference. On Free RPG Day, you’ll be able to see the results for yourself in the eight original illustrations found in The Feast of the Dead—which we feel capture the essence of the time and place in a rough-edged, evocative style that hints at adventure and danger.

Steve grew up in Geddes, NY, just west of Syracuse in Central New York State. He attended college at the State University of New York at Buffalo where he received a BA in Political Science & History and worked as an editorial illustrator for the student-run newspaper, The Spectrum. For the past 20 years, he has lived in the Boston area with his wife and three children and works as a personal fitness trainer and coach. We got a few minutes with Steve to discuss what inspires his art and what he’s bringing to his work with Campaign Games.

Campaign Games (CG): Growing up in Central New York, how did the history of the region resonate with you?

Stephen W. Gurtowski (SG): The story of the Haudenosaunee, past and present, has always been the part of New York State history that holds my interest. I grew up a few miles from the NYS Fair, and as a child I watched the dancers in full regalia at the Iroquois village. That was the moment I got interested in the indigenous peoples of the Americas. My house was walking distance of Onondaga Lake. On the opposite side of the lake was Hiawatha Point, where tradition says the Haudenosaunee tribes created their confederacy. Also, on the lake is the site of Fort Ste. Marie Degannentaha, a 17th-century Jesuit mission in the heart of Onondaga nation. If you look for it, the history of the region is all around you. It makes you wonder what actually happened at these locations? What interesting thing happened right on the spot you're standing on?

CG: Are there any books that have particularly influenced your life and interest in Native American legends and spirituality?

SG: I read Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee for the first time in middle school. That was the first book. American Indian Myths and Legends, edited by Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz was also influential. One gets a better idea of the true wealth and depth of the American Indian worldview from these stories. Louise Erdrich, an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, is my favorite living author. Her novels speak to the experiences of native people past and present.

CG: What’s your process when you sit down to create an illustration?

SG: First, I read the copy and any other relevant materials. I try to get to the kernel of what the author is trying to convey as well as how it feels. Sometimes the image strikes like an epiphany. Those are often the best. Some require more development. I write down or start sketching any and all ideas. It's a brain dump. Usually something good pops out. Then it's a process of determining the essence of the image and how it conveys the author's message. I am always asking myself "What am I trying to say?" or "What makes this interesting?" I learned not to get married to any ideas. I am always ready to begin again.

Leading up to Free RPG Day, we'll be posting previews of Steve's work for The Feast of the Dead along with some outtakes on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Follow us on one or all to check it out.